Pushcart XLI: Kendra Fortmeyer, “Things I Know to be True” from One Story #209

“Troubled Mind” by Chris-Archetypes on DeviantArt

“Troubled Mind” by Chris-Archetypes on DeviantArt

I am leaving the library when Miss Fowler stops me, peering through her glasses like they are windows in a house where she lives alone. She says, “Charlie, a patron saw you ripping up books.”
“I didn’t,” I say. These words sound true, but Miss Fowler holds up The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Bits of paper flutter from its edges like snow.
I know a man in that book. He was trapped underground, dying in the dark and the antiquated language. He coughed then. He rustles in the pocket of my windbreaker now.
From elsewhere, Miss Fowler says, “Give me the pages.”
“I am going to take him outside,” I announce. I declare. Declare which is like clarion call which is of trumpets. “I am going to take him into the light.”
“Look,” Miss Fowler says. Her lips blow bubbles of words into the air: crisp, faceted ones like replacement and thin-filmed ones like expensive. She speaks to me like I am a child. Like operations can smooth these cracked, dark hands, like damages can topple the twenty-seven precarious years stacked in my name.

Oh, this one’s a heartbreaker – perhaps because Charlie is so familiar.

In her One Story introduction, editor Hannah Tinti talks about her mother’s assertion, as a librarian, that a library is a “lifeline to the community”. I spend a fair amount of time in my local public library, and I’m amazed at how patient and helpful the staff always is, no matter what my problem: a book isn’t where it should be, the photocopy machine is out of paper, can I get a copy of this article from a 1955 journal out of print for 40 years (a PDF was in my inbox the next day). But they also are very good at ignoring people who are a bit off-kilter. People like Charlie. There’s a Charlie in every library, I think; sometimes, it’s me.

Charlie is a 27-year-old Vietnam vet (the story is set in the 70s, the Carter administration per the newspaper headlines Charlie reads) with wounds both visible and unseen. PTSD wasn’t much of a thing back then; unfortunately, it’s still often overlooked, or misdiagnosed, or ignored, even today. I’m not sure if that’s Charlie’s problem, if he has brain damage or some kind of other issue (this isn’t a diagnostic story), but his reality is made of words. Words become real. Fortunato is trapped in the pages of Poe, begging for release. Without words, Charlie collapses on the floor.

I go to the library because it is full of words, and I trust words. They make things real.

These are the things that I know to be true:
1. The past and future exist through stories
2. The stories are made of words
3. Words make the future and past exist

This means: if I went to the VA clinic yesterday I can say, “I went to the clinic yesterday.” Then there it is, in your head, like a real thing: a little image that is me at the clinic. I could also say, “I went to the zoo yesterday,” and then that would be real in your head instead. You would not know the difference. I might not know the difference. I couldn’t believe the words I went to the zoo or I could believe the words I went to the clinic. Maybe both are true.

The conflict ratchets up when a librarian confronts him about tearing Fortunato from the book; things escalate, and he ends up in jail for a day and a half, but worse, he’s banned from the library. He has no more words. Charlie’s pain is very real to me.

I found the resolution to be beautiful: he is reunited, by the grace of another librarian in another library, with the original book, Catch-22, all that was left of his friend from combat:

The pages flutter like crazed butterflies. I look down and see through the high whine in my ears that my hands are cracked and through the cracks I see names. Jimmy Metcalf. Lucas Johnson. I see the way the light reflects on the water where they found that little bathing. I see the song Joe Crispin played on his guitar in Quang Tri, and how it got stuck in everyone’s head for days…. And I see the way the air gleamed pink after Jimmy stepped onto the mine – the tiny click and then the sky blown apart and the whole world set singing, flashing white in the sun, pieces of flesh against the green like cherry blossoms in the first light of spring: so pink and bright that your heart ripped in half at the beauty.
One half says, the trees on fire
The other half says, the trees are not on fire.
Maybe both are true.
I see this book inside Jimmy’s hat and then me taking it and writing down these words, a story hidden inside another story. I see the pages fill while the doctors patched up my leg and the skin scabbed over my arm.… And I see the book on the plane, carried all the way home until I landed on American soil, and the chapter ended and I closed it.
But then, here it is. On the table. In the library. And here I am.
“This book is gone,” I say again.
“No,” the librarian says, slowly. “It was just misplaced.”

If only the rest of what has been misplaced can be so easily remedied. The implication, I believe, is that it can be. But it may take time for the pieces to be found.

The notion of words becoming reality is something akin to the philosophical school of idealism, where reality consists, not of things, but of our perception of things, our ideas about things. I just happen to have completed a mooc that included a bit of work on idealism, so it was fresh in my mind. Carried to the extreme, as in Borges, it can lead to absurdities (yet I see a great deal happening recently that reminds me strongly of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”; absurd, no?). At one point, Charlie demonstrates this for us:

I fling my notebook into my bag and dash for the door. I catch a blush of autumn in my periphery, and my steps to not falter. I vanished into the late afternoon light.
You believed me, didn’t you? You saw me in your brain, vanishing. Which means that for one minute it was true, and now it exists, and will be true forever.
But what also happened is this:

I believe the now-discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis might also come into play here, a theory that one’s language determines the concepts one has available; that is, one’s reality. This was also the underlying premise of the recent movie Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life”. I’m also unable to forget the “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” adage when I think of Charlie; he knows a great deal about sticks and stones, but he also knows about the power of words. As in, the first librarian’s ability to say “You can’t come back to the library” (in linguistic terms, a speech act).

But none of that academic stuff has anything to do with Charlie; he’s connected to words, to a particular book, as a way of coping with horrific trauma, as a memorial to his friend. And while all the language and philosophy is more than interesting, it’s still the emotional punch that makes this story work so well for me.

My blogging buddy Jake Weber looked at the story from the viewpoint of a litmag editor in his Would I Have Published This Story? series (WIHPTS) on his blog “Workshop Heretic”. His comments are very much worth reading for good insight into Charlie’s struggles and growth, and how the story incorporates them.

Pushcart XLI: Cecily Parks, “Hurricane Song” (poem) from O’Nights

"After the Hurricane" by Wayne Rogers (detail)

“After the Hurricane” by Wayne Rogers (detail)

The pines dizzying for a hurricane, the wind
so hotly twirls their skirts and underskirts,
unnerves their pinecones, ratchets up and up
their branches into needle-spangled, needle-spraying
plumes. The white running sunlight falls and tumbles
through the meadow, rattling the grass. The meadow
sweeps me up in its arms so that I lose track of east
and feel that little kidnapped thrill that comes with drastic
Complete poem available online at Kenyon Review

Imagine a forest as a community filled with the sentience of nature: trees, grass, deer, birds. Now imagine that community dancing in the storm, not fearing it but playing with it. That’s the kind of personification I see in this poem. Pine trees as skirts particularly strikes me as particularly nice imagery; that is how the branches move in a stiff wind. I hear a lot of sibilance – grasses, guess, yes – in several parts of the poem, imitating the sound of wind.

Hannah Fries of Southern Humanities Review points out, in her review that O’Nights, the title of the collection containing the poem, comes from an entry in Thoreau’s journal reporting a friend’s comment: “He thought that Emerson was a very young-looking man for his age, ‘But,’ said he, ‘he has not been out o’ nights as much as you have.'” Being out o’nights has its costs, perhaps, but also its benefits in experience.

The forest has loved itself long enough to do this.
Is now when I should love myself into a safer place,
or is this the place where love makes me safe? I guess yes
and yes.

The idea of being safe from the storm in the forest seem odd, doesn’t it? I’ve experienced hurricanes in Florida and New England, and I’m not trusting enough of the forest to keep me safe. I wonder if Thoreau ever did.

Pushcart XLI: Jenn Shapland, “Finders Keepers” (nonfiction) from Tin House #65

Tin House Art by Martin Wittfooth

Tin House Art by Martin Wittfooth

A library is not a list. A library is dirty, has smells. I know this because I interned in a special collections library. It’s a special collections library that happens to house, along with its First Folios and signed copies of The Waste Land, a larger assortment of socks than you might guess.
Personal effects generally arrive at the Harry Ransom Center’s loading dock on the University of Texas campus via happenstance. They get stuck into boxes of manuscripts and books for reasons unknown. They’re stowaways. That is why I’m so fond of them….
It was in 7B, before my long afternoons itemizing and categorizing the socks of the dead and famous, that I began to collect certain stories. Stories about wanting and having, giving and taking, even stealing…. Yet as I poked and prodded into what began to seem like the dusty broom closet or unexamined under-the-bed of culture, it was my own relationship to objects that began to feel illicit.

What does it mean to own something? Not the legalities – those are easily determined by consulting a list of conditions that must exist. But what does it mean to us, psychologically? Is it purely for the practical reasons of economic advantage or control over disposition that we want to own a house or a plot of land or a business – or a letter written by Einstein, or the socks worn by someone powerful or famous – or is there something more, a kind of closeness? If it turned out the socks were mislabeled and were just thrown in the box by a packer with sore feet, what would that mean – that it is knowledge that determines value? Would we even want to know? Does that make the determining factor something more like faith?

Shapland’s essay about her internship at the Harry Ransom Center focuses on her work with a molecular model kit owned by Einstein (I was just looking at a similar kit the other day, available on Amazon for less than $20), but branches out to consider motivations behind thefts from the archives, and the human relationship to property in general, a relationship that is, in some crucial ways, fundamental to the spectrum of capitalism and communism but remains fundamentally illusory, as her last paragraph makes clear:

Maybe this desire for communion, for identity – the longing in belongings – is what Walter Benjamin means when he says that collection is a renewal, acquisition a form of rebirth. And isn’t it funny, the big lie at the heart of the enterpriser. All of this stuff is ultimately just that. No apparatus, no matter how meticulous or expensive or careful, can protect a collection from the inevitable slippages, losses, thefts, whether the perpetrators be people, bugs, mold, disintegration, or time. Acquire it, collect it, steal it, forward it, conserve it, preserve it, store it, house it, box it, hold it, wear it, but there’s just no keeping it.

The essay triggered a great many thoughts I’ve had floating around for a long time. So this post will be even more self-indulgent than usual: less about the essay, more about me and my reactions, which float around the fringes of ownership, since Shapland does such a good job with the center portion.

I live near the Maine Historical Society, which includes “the boyhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”, a phrase I’ve heard so often it’s implanted in my brain. Why is this home so special, why is the Rainy Day Room a place people visit in hushed awe, why is it so special to look out the same window where “it is thought” he wrote, “Be still, sad heart! and cease repining; / Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; / Thy fate is the common fate of all, / Into each life some rain must fall, / Some days must be dark and dreary” in response to a rainy day? Do they hope to be graced with the same inspiration? Is it an homage? An attempt to own something? I wonder if someone has tried to buy the property, simply to own it. And I wonder: if some document were discovered that proves he wrote the poem elsewhere, how would the room change?

Transference. That’s the psychological function at work here. It’s a combination of projection, ascribing some aspect of yourself – fantasies, desires, imagination – to the object, and introjection, taking some part of it unto/into yourself. For William James, this is the way objects (which, importantly, can also be whole people) become extensions of the self.

I wonder if that’s what’s behind my occasional obsession with songs: I’ve been known to play a song over and over, then I suddenly stop. I’ve called it ownership, though it has nothing to do with purchasing anything. It’s more than the point of memorization, but less than understanding (I never feel like I fully understand anything), so that’s not it. I don’t know what it is that happens, but it’s like an orgasm without the burst of pleasure: a sudden sense that I’m done, and I don’t want any more. The song is mine, in a way I can’t define, a way that has nothing to do with legalities.

The thefts Shapland describes (the essay appears in the issue of Tin House named “Theft”) are again puzzles on the fringes of ownership. A page of an original Einstein manuscript was stolen, and carefully protected – locked away, self-archived – by the thief (who was eventually found). Was it just the illicit thrill? Again, was it a hope to be inspired, a wish that genius could be transmissible through century-old paper? Or again, are we back to homage, communion? Or is it just a way for a poor schlub to feel special?

Shapland tells of processing a set of papers for the David Foster Wallace collection, and of being unable to part with some of the clips she was authorized to discard. Other paper clips, labeled and sorted, are kept in a locked archive box. “Once we decide objects are worth collecting for reason apart from monetary value, where do we draw the line?” I don’t fully understand the need to archive paper clips – or socks, or Andy Warhol’s gas bills – yet someone does, as these activities are funded somehow. Why are Warhol’s bills items of importance, whereas mine, hell, even my best creations, have no value at all to anyone but me? What makes someone’s paperclips a big deal?

It’s interesting, as I wander around these fringes, that in current gaming and internet vernacular, to own someone is to defeat them or make them look ridiculous in some way. This particular usage has technical roots (I understand the term originated with hackers successfully breaking into a system, thus owning it), but ownership of people has a long and horrible past (and I use the term “past” with some caution, since that past extends to the current moment) in America. I wonder if that past adds to the sense of humiliation a mocking own conveys.

Is there something wrong with me, that I am missing this urge? Given how common collecting is, perhaps it’s a normal part of human behavior – so what’s wrong with me, that things hold so little interest? I do crave owning books, but only for practical purposes, so that I can write in them and crack the spines and dog-ear the pages and love them in my own way. I’ve become fiercely interested in old books and manuscripts, but again, not to own, but to learn about, to understand who made them. Am I missing the ownership gene? Is this why I’ve always been an apartment dweller, and view major ownership – a house, a car, a business – as a burden? It feels like a major failing, almost feels unAmerican, to lack this ownership urge.

I started to write letters to the personal effects I itemized in 7B. I wrote them on the HRC’s yellow paper, on which I was supposed to be recording details about the collection for the finding aid. That’s one reason I’m not a librarian. And one reason the librarians started to give me some side-eye. You’re not supposed to have all these feelings when you’re working behind the scenes. Or if you do, I guess you’re not supposed to write about them. You’re not supposed to commune with the objects. That gradually became clear. It now occurs to me, at the distance of several years, what I brought to this job as a twenty-five-year-old graduate intern, and what gets me in trouble at most of my jobs: unlicensed perspective.

I don’t have the same unlicensed perspective (I love that phrase) as Shapland, but I have my own. I can commune with a 15th century manuscript from my living room via a cable connection. I own songs via memory. I own books of wisdom and unique ideas through cheap used paperbacks. I have my own unlicensed perspective.

International Humanitarian Law MOOC

Course: International Humanitarian Law
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain
Instructors: Raphaël Van Steenberghe, Jerôme de Hemptinne

Starting with the sources and subjects of IHL, as well as its scope of application, the course will address the main substantive norms of IHL governing: the conduct of hostilities; the protection afforded to persons in the hands of the enemy; occupation; and implementation of IHL.
We will discuss questions such as:
    • who and what can be targeted by the enemy.
    • which weapons can be used.
    • which method of warfare is authorized.
    • who enjoys protection and what type of protection.
    • which norms apply in non international armed conflicts.
We will also deal with the different ways through which IHL can be implemented and how belligerents may be held accountable for violations of its rules when committing war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Short version: Fascinating course, highly relevant to current events, but be prepared to do some serious work. I took the preliminary International Law mooc (listed as a prerequisite, for good reason) last fall, so I had some idea what to expect. Don’t be discouraged by a poor showing on the first exam: it’s the hardest of the course, and it’s possible to recover from a horrible score and finish with a reasonably decent grade. Trust me. 😉

The course was divided into three sections. The first, two weeks long, outlined the distinctions between IHL and Human Rights law. IHL pertains to rights and responsibilities in times of armed conflict: the Geneva Convention quoted in ever war movie since the late 40s (it’s actually a suite of four, plus a couple of Additional Protocols and various Advisory Opinions, but you get the general idea). In contrast, Human Rights law is more about overarching basics and has nothing to do with war. The two are related, and that relationship took up a significant portion of the first week: how to interpret one in light of the other, and which way that works in various situations and by what principle according to whose pronouncement. It sounds simple now, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to know which was which. This first section also looked at sources of IHL, and the history of its development.

The details of IHL – types of armed conflicts (international, non-international, occupation) and forces (state forces, armed groups, terrorists) – started the second section (3 weeks) and was likewise tricky, but essential to understanding so many contemporary conflicts. Then the focus was on the Geneva Convention relating to protection of POWs and civilians, and the very complicated question of the civilian soldier. Rules of weaponry, tactics, and targeting finished up the section; much of this material was intense, particularly since things were happening in the real world at the same time: the illegal use of chemical weapons in Syria, the US bombing in response, the superbomb in Afghanistan.

The final section in weeks 6 and 7 covered the legal framework of IHL – the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Criminal Court, the UN, individual international Tribunals and hybrid ad hoc courts – and the legal methods of sanctioning violations of IHL and prosecuting war crimes. This was a welcome relief, in terms of both workload and topic.

Each week featured several videos and readings outlining individual situations and cases. The course lists a time allowance of 6 to 8 hours a week; I estimate I spent about 12 to 14 hours a week in the middle section, a bit less elsewhere. Some of that is because of my process of obsessive note-taking, but it’s not the sort of material where I can listen to a video, read a page, and be on my way; it takes multiple plays/readings, and time to understand, incorporate, and relate to prior material. I have no legal or international background other than the one prior course; others may find it much easier. Each week also featured an extended (about a half hour) discussion with practicing IHL professionals: professors at various institutions, as well as organizational, military, and diplomatic specialists, fleshing out the academic discussion with practical considerations and the realities of the real world.

Addendum: I realized, after publishing, that I’d left out a paragraph, sorry! I did have one disappointment with this course, and that was in the reliance on lectures laden with textbook language. Given the unusual relevance of the topics covered, I wonder if it would be possible to present a more engaging class, one with opening questions and more of a conversational feel. I suspect that’s not the way they do things in law schools, but maybe a mooc should try to be a bit different. Then again, given that this is something of an extension of a bricks-and-mortar degree, it might be wise to prioritize academic tone and intent rather than try to become more accessible to less targeted interests.

Grading was divided among three sources. One or two multiple choice questions followed most videos or readings, which together counted for about roughly a third of the final grade. Each section, as outlined above, ended with an assignment: two were multiple choice, one was a peer-assessed essay (for Verified students, this was staff-graded). These also counted for about a third. The final multiple choice exam (for Verified students, another essay was added on) comprised the final third.

I was taking the “WWI and Philosophy” course concurrent with this one, which had some interesting congruences: the Clauswitz philosophy against the development of IHL, the German idealists and the Just War principle. The recent ISIS destruction of Palmyra and other cultural treasures came up in both. For the record, it was a violation of international law, but good luck enforcing that, particularly when dealing with an armed group rather than a state. And that, right there, is the main problem with IHL: while there’s no doubt the rules have helped to some degree to contain the suffering that comes with war, enforcement is inadequate at best. Once in a while justice can be done – we looked at tribunals regarding the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – but mostly it’s a matter of permitting third-party attacks upon military targets in response to violations as a means of deterrence. This wasn’t glossed over in the course, by the way.

Another interesting real-life crossover – or sort of real-life: for several months I’ve been listening to a podcast covering individual episodes of the 2000-2006 TV show The West Wing. Yes, we’re weird, but some of us need some liberal porn in these times. During this course, one of the episodes discussed involved war crimes, and the podcast featured a rather extensive (for an entertainment podcast) discussion with the US former ambassador to the UN, David Pressman covering various aspects of war crimes. I was pleased to recognize so many concepts. I wish I’d been able to ask some questions about the specific incident depicted in the show (I don’t think Leo, as jet pilot, was obligated to verify his target was, in fact, military; that was his superior’s responsibility; and then there’s the retroactivity issue), but alas, the podcast upfront is one way.

This is, as I’ve said, the second of the Louvain international law courses I’ve taken. I’m still enrolled in the Human Rights Law segment, but it seems less approachable so I’ve left it for “someday”. The fourth segment is on investment law, a topic that carries no interest for me whatsoever. These four courses comprise the Louvain MicroMasters, which, if passed (as a Verified student, $150 fee) complete about a third of the credits necessary for a Master’s degree from Louvain (I’m not sure of the subject of the degree, I haven’t looked that closely).

Verified students had a slightly different exam path in this course: the essay for the third assignment is staff-graded rather than peer-assessed, and the final includes another staff-graded essay instead of an additional set of multiple choice questions.. I’ve been highly critical of courses that offer different assessment practices for audit and verified students (that is, those who pay and those who don’t) but here, where academic accreditation is an option, I think it’s a valid approach. The purpose is not to get people to pay for a certificate that’s of dubious value, but to more accurately assess students who might be using the credits earned in the degree program. It’s also a creative approach to using moocs as a supplement, rather than a replacement, to higher education, making credentials more accessible to a wider field. At least, that’s my view from well outside academia.

Even though I have no practical reason to take these courses, they’ve been helpful in seeing a larger picture and interpreting events in different ways. I probably could’ve done the same thing without quite so much work, but I like a challenge.

Pushcart XLI: Taije Silverman, “Spiritual Evaluation” (poem) from Massachusetts Review #56.2

If You Think You Have Been the Victim of Witchcraft,
Envy, the Evil Eye, or Bad Luck, Come Inside
and Get a Spiritual Evaluation.

—sign on the Church of Jesus Christ in the Lord, Philadelphia


Did you want this baby?
There are a certain number of questions you may pass over
without forfeiting your score on the test.
Do you understand that metaphors involving hummingbirds
are not useful? Do you understand
that you are in no way related to hummingbirds?
If this baby is the size of an a) eraser or b) apricot
or c) memory, will you be able to determine
whether on the day after the hurricane,
the river was as full as a river can be
without flooding the ramp to the bypass?
Complete poem available online at Massachusetts Review

That first line is possibly the most meaning-per-word sentence since Hemingway. Yet, because it places the baby in past tense, it’s difficult to reconcile with the rest of the poem, which consistently looks forward in time from the present. I briefly wondered if it could be a backwards poem, but it’s not structured to make backwards-reading seem tenable.

At first, concrete symbols unify the poem and provide a certain momentum: the hummingbird, apricot, eraser, water. Then then there’s a relatively static moon section – interesting choice, since the moon is itself a symbol of change, of fluctuation, not to mention the original fertility symbol with its connection to the female menstrual cycle – followed by the concluding lines including symbols looping back to the beginning to reestablish the unity.

When you picture the moon,
do you see its surface or a not inhospitable orb
that alternates in size according to proximity with rooftops?
This problem is commonly referred to as moon illusion.
This theory is generally known as shape constancy.
With the shape of your body please prove
that the moon does not generate its own light. Do you like
charades? If this baby is a girl, what.
If this baby is a boy. Do you think
you have been the victim of bad luck?
Describe in five words what this baby will fear
if this baby is an apricot. List everyone it will love
if it is an eraser.

I’m trying to get some picture of this scene. My first thought was a woman who’s recently miscarried, seeing a “spiritual healer” to work out her grief. The metaphors seem to indicate someone with a more eclectic approach: shape constancy and the moon illusion, both recognized phenomena, along with apricots and hummingbirds .

But then I thought: what if that first line stands out because it is spoken by someone else, a nurse or doctor, or perhaps a friend trying to offer what she thinks is comfort? What if the rest of the poem is the woman’s response? That doesn’t really fit, however. Too many “you”s. What if it’s a woman talking to herself, conducting some version of a searching and fearless moral inventory while deciding what to do about an unexpected pregnancy? The last lines intrigue me as well: it must be important, this notion of loving someone more than the baby. It invites totally different scenarios, some a bit obscure, involving the father or other children.

So I ended up back where I started. I’m strongly reminded of Mary Ruefle’s “During a Break from Feeling” which I also found beautifully obscure. I’m not sure what the story is, but I love the imagery, and maybe that’s where I should stay on this one. Maybe the confusion, like the inconstant moon, is intrinsic to the poem. Or am I just making excuses, being lazy?

Confusion is my genre.

Pushcart XLI: Chris Drangle, “A Local’s Guide to Dating in Slocomb County” from The Oxford American #89

At half past ten the guy from the corner mart came into the shelter. Naomi had only seen him a few times, but he had a distinctive look, to say the least. He was young but rugged, with short-cropped hair and broad shoulders. It figured that the most attractive man in town her age was also a triple amputee. It was so hot out that even he was wearing shorts—red mesh ones with a faded Cola High School crest, below which were hi-tech black metal prosthetics inserted in grubby tennis shoes. He walked up to her and rested his elbows on the counter, and from that position looked normal, except for the one hand that was a carbon fiber hook.
“Morning, ma’am,” he said.
“Hi,” she said. “What can I help you with?”
“I’m here to pick up my dog. I talked to Dennis yesterday?”
Complete story available online at Oxford American

As bad as it sucks to be a twenty-two year old triple amputee veteran home from Iraq, it sucks worse when the guy’s war dog, wounded in the same IED explosion that took the vet’s hand and legs and brought home from Iraq as a best friend, gets accidentally put down at the shelter. The only thing that might suck worse is being the shelter employee who didn’t check the roster before putting the dog down. Especially when she’s lonely and the veteran is the only eligible guy in town.

If I sound flip about such serious matters, well, it’s because the dark humor flows thick and full here. These aren’t cynics, they’re realists. That’s how Fisher ended up in Iraq in the first place:

His senior year, Fisher attended the Slocomb County High School career fair. He talked to a bait shop owner, a welder, a newspaper ad salesman, a pig farmer, a rice farmer, and a soybean farmer. The rice farmer in particular radiated disappointment, and Fisher, looking at the man’s gnarled hands and hangdog face, felt the future closing around him like a fist. Then, in the corner of the convention hall, he was waylaid in his attempt to get a free keychain and ended up talking to an Army staff sergeant for half an hour. The sergeant had perfect teeth, a maroon beret, and a fine white scar on his temple, which he said he got rappelling. He was only six years older than Fisher, but from some other world where people wore polished shoes and knew how to break necks. He had been to thirteen countries. They looked over some forms, just to get an idea. Fisher agreed to take the ASVAB, to see what he might qualify for.

Before he was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a Cornell writing professor, literary magazine editor, and Pushcart Prize winner, Drangle was a kid in Arkansas and New Orleans. I have the sense he knows the territory of job fairs featuring bait shop owners and soybean farmers. He knows how to write heat, and the absence of heat, as he shows us during a sweaty sex scene. Yes, Naomi and Fisher end up in bed. There’s something disturbing about all the parallels: soldiers wearing dog tags, dogs without tags getting dead, Naomi replacing the dog, the persistent sense that both of these people feel like they’re settling for what they can get because they don’t have a lot of choices, and they figure that’s just the way it is; they’re drawn together by the intersection of their hard-luck lives. While I feel an overall sense of resignation in both of them, they both show initiative:Naomi in inviting Fisher for a drink, and in debating which top to wear, and Fisher in clearly stating, “I don’t want a pity date. I want to get pity laid.”

The final line really puts a button on the tone of the story: she heads for his kitchen to get some water, sees the dog’s water bowl, and for some reason decides to fill it:

The water came out in a smooth stream that sparkled in the light, splashed off the lip, and spilled onto the floor.

That’s the sense I get about the future of this romance, too. There’s gonna be a lot of spilled water, but they’ll mop it up and carry on. And probably throw the dish away, since it’s not doing much good any more.

Summer MOOCs 2017

It’s that time again: vacations, sunbathing, lemonade, and chaining myself to my computer 14 hours a day for no practical purpose whatsoever other than I just love this stuff.

By the luck of the draw, late June – most of the summer, really – is ridiculously overly scheduled. I’m going to have to make some tough choices at some point: just continuing microbiology and retaking calculus would be pretty intense. But I can’t resist at least taking a look at the rest; reach, grasp, all that. And there’s usually a disappointment in the list, something that looked good but just didn’t sit right with me for whatever silly reason. I’m actually hoping that’ll be the case, so I won’t have to drop something I’d really like to complete.

Not listed below is the suite of Anatomy courses from the University of Michigan, listed in my January post. They were delayed and rescheduled, and start in late June, late August, October and December, and are all self-paced so offer flexibility. Unfortunately, that often means they’re crowded out by scheduled things, but I hope I can work them in.

I noticed that many of the courses I took in the first five months of this year were drop-ins, things I’d heard about after posting my January list. I can’t possibly fit another thing in this summer. Can I?

Principles of Biochemistry
Start June 5, 2017
15 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
Instructor: Alain Viel, Rachelle Gaudet
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Official blurb:

This course explores the molecules of life, starting with building blocks and culminating in complex metabolism and associated diseases.

It’s been a long time since I took a full-length mooc; most are 4 to 8 weeks now. I very much liked Harvard’s Mitochondria course, so I’m hoping this will be in the same vein. The problem is: I’ll be taking it at the same time as Calculus and Molecular Bio, and I don’t know how that’s going to work. I hope I can manage it, but it may not be possible.

Calculus 1A: Differentiation
Start June 7, 2017
13 weeks, 6-10 hrs/wk
Instructor: Various
School/platform: MIT/edX
Official blurb:

Discover the derivative—what it is, how to compute it, and when to apply it in solving real world problems. Part 1 of 3.

I tried this once before – it’s a great class – but was garroted by a zipline and never recovered. Will I get the elusive pass this time? I have my doubts, but I may as well give it a shot. I’ve been going through 3Blue1Brown’s Essence of Calculus playlist (which is spectacular, just from an artistic point of view; I never knew π could be so expressive) for inspiration, and Khan for a brush-up on nuts and bolts.
The course opened for its “Week 0” (a terrific idea, gives people not that familiar with edX a chance to figure out where the buttons are and how the answer entry works, which can be tricky in math courses). And I’m having second thoughts already. Given that I’ve already been here, and given how many great courses are upcoming this summer, do I really want this time sink? I’ll have to see how I feel as the summer progresses.


Human Origins
Start June 12, 2017
8 weeks, ? hrs/wk
Instructor: Dr. Donald C. Johanson
School/platform: ASU/edX
Official blurb:

Explore the scientific evidence for human evolution, our fossil relatives, and the place of humankind in the natural world in this credit-eligible course.

I haven’t been wildly impressed with the ASU courses I’ve taken so far, but I know people who rave about one of their astronomy courses, and the comments left by former students on this one are extremely positive so I’ll see what happens. The “credit-eligible” seems to only apply to ASU and costs $600, so I’ll pass on that. They have a habit of indicating “18 hours/week” for all their courses, so I have no idea how time-consuming it will be. It’s probably first on the chopping block if I’m overwhelmed by the two killer courses I very much want to take in June.

Molecular Biology, Part 2, Transcription and Transposition
Molecular Biology, Part 3, RNA Processing and Translation
Start June 13, 2017 (Part 2); August 15, 2017 (Part 3)
7/8 weeks, 4-8 hrs/wk
Instructor: Stephen P. Bell
School/platform: MIT/edX
Official blurb:

Strengthen your scientific thinking and experimental design skills in this adventure through transcription and transposition/ An in-depth adventure through RNA Processing and Translation.

Status: Well, I knew something would have to give, and it turned out to be this (at least the first round of cuts; probably more to come). First, my computer broke, then I was sick for a couple of days, and as a result I never really got it together for the first week. This course is too hard to approach with anything less than full concentration. After much consideration, it was the focus on lab assays that decided it; I’d rather know more about biochemistry (which has the added benefit of being self-paced and thus I have until December), rather than trying to keep the assays straight. I regret that this was necessary – I still admire the series and recommend it – but sometimes choices must be made.

I just completed Part 1; it’s a great course, so I’m looking forward to the rest. I don’t know who does these in 4 to 8 hours a week; I’d guess it’s more like 10 to 12 for me, so it’s going to be a major time investment – but one that’s worthwhile.


Start June 15, 2017
12 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
Instructor: Michael J. Sandel
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Official blurb:

Justice explores critical analysis of classical and contemporary theories of justice, including discussion of present-day applications. Topics include affirmative action, income distribution, same-sex marriage, the role of markets, debates about rights (human rights and property rights), arguments for and against equality, dilemmas of loyalty in public and private life. The course invites learners to subject their own views on these controversies to critical examination.
The principal readings for the course are texts by Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls. Other assigned readings include writings by contemporary philosophers, court cases, and articles about political controversies that raise philosophical questions.
Subtitles are available in Chinese, German, Portuguese, and Spanish.

I can’t imagine that time estimate of 2-4 hours will be anywhere close to accurate, but this looks very interesting, so I’ve got to see if I can squeeze it in somewhere. Sleep is overrated anyway, right? And if it turns out it’s not, the lectures seem to be available online, which might work better.

Proteins: Alignment, Analysis and Structure
Start August 2, 2017
8 weeks, 8-10 hrs/wk
Instructor: Dr. James Coker
School/platform: University of Maryland/edX
Official blurb:

Learn about proteins and the important role structure plays in their function as you learn how to analyze and align protein sequences

Seems like a flood of biology courses starting in June. I’ve never taken anything from Maryland, so I’d like to see what they’re up to. However, this is a MicroMasters course, and “undergrad bio” is listed as a prereq, so it might be way out of my league. Worth a look.


Life and Death: Mysteries and Meanings
Start August 2, 2017
4 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
Instructor: Many
School/platform: Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute
Official blurb:

If you are interested in questions about life-and-death and keen to seek ultimate answers, this inter-disciplinary and inter-cultural course will amaze you with the diverse perspectives and answers proposed to the perennial questions….
Different from conventional applied ethics, this course highlights the importance of the interdisciplinary (scientific, religious and philosophical) perspectives and their interplay, which demonstrates tensions, conflicts and above all, this being the arch-goal of this course, the possibility of coordination and corroboration, forming various ultimately coherent outlooks on life and death.

I was hoping to find some humanities courses to break up the science this summer, so when a mooc buddy mentioned this, I enrolled. The teaser video is intense. I’ve been enjoying these multi-disciplinary courses, so I’m looking forward to it.

Quantum Mechanics for Everyone
Open now, self-paced
4 weeks, 7-10 hrs/wk
Instructor: James Freericks
School/platform: Georgetown/edX
Official blurb:

Learn the fundamental notions of quantum mechanics at a level that is accessible to everyone.
What you’ll learn:
• Understand what a quantum particle is in the world of the ultrasmall
• Learn the basics of probability theory
• Discover what spin is and how it is manipulated by magnets
• Explain what the quantum mystery is
• Apply quantum ideas to understand partial reflection of light, interaction-free measurements, and particle indistinguishability

James Freericks has a mission: to free the world from physics phobia. I’m not sure quantum mechanics is the best place to start to do that, but I’m neither a physicist nor a teacher, so what do I know. I so wish they’d used “For Dummies” in the title, but I suppose that’s some kind of copyright violation. I’ve heard several “for everyone” explanations prior to this, and I still seem to miss the big picture (not to mention a lot of details) but sure, I’ll try it. In any case it’s probably fun. Since it’s self-paced (take any time in the next year) I can schedule at will.

Stephen Greenblatt: The Swerve (WWNorton, 2011)

To all but a handful of people in Germany, this quest, had Poggio tried to articulate it, would have seemed weird. And it would have seemed weirder still if Poggio had gone on to explain that he was not in fact at all interested in what was written four or five hundred years ago. He despised that time and regarded it as a sink of superstition and ignorance. What he really hoped to find were words that had nothing to do with the moment in which they were written down on the old parchment, words that were in the best possible case uncontaminated by the mental universe of the lowly scribe who copied them. That scribe, Poggio hoped, was dutifully and accurately copying a still older parchment, one made by yet another scribe whose humble life was equally of no particular consequence to the book hunter except insofar as it left behind this trace. If the nearly miraculous run of good fortune held, the earlier manuscript, long vanished into dust, was in turn a faithful copy of a more ancient manuscript, and that manuscript a copy of yet another. Now at last for Poggio the quarry became exciting, and the hunter’s heart in his breast beat faster. The trail was leading him back to Rome, not the contemporary Rome of the corrupt papal court, intrigues, political debility, and periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague, but the Rome of the Forum and the Senate House and a Latin language whose crystalline beauty filled him with wonder and the longing for a lost world.

This book was mentioned in Dartmouth’s science/philosophy mooc Questioning Reality, a course exploring the limits of knowledge: can we know everything, or are some things beyond science no matter how far we advance? The first week of the mooc looks at ancient Greek and Roman concepts of natural philosophy, what today we’d call physics, concerned with the question “What is the world made of?” Lucretius, a follower of the Epicurean tradition (which has nothing to do with feasting and partying) believed the universe was made of atoms, and the void, and while atoms typically fell in a straight line through the void, once in a while they would, out of random chance, swerve, collide, and create matter. This random chance was eventually theorized by 20th century physics as the Uncertainty Principle, and becomes handy as the escape clause from determinism.

The book starts with Poggio, 15th century manuscript hunter, on his travels through Europe in search of works from classical Rome. He stumbles on to Lucretius’ magnum opus, De Rerum Natura, a work only hinted at by extant documents of his age.

This book didn’t sit well with a lot of people, people like religion reviewer Jim Hinch (LARB), literature professor Colin Burrow (The Guardian), and historian and professor John Monfasani of SUNY (IHR/London). None of them feel Greenblatt’s conclusions are strongly supported in the text. But they all agree that it’s a thoroughly engaging, eminently readable book. While I might lean towards agreeing with them on the first point – hesitantly, since I am not qualified to judge historical writing – I’ll agree wholeheartedly with the second: I loved reading this book.

Not only is Poggio’s story wonderfully told, particularly when the text branches off into interesting digressions about manuscripts, philosophy, history, archaeology, and ecclesiastical intrigue. Each branch works together so smoothly, there was no sense of disruption; I was immersed in a scriptorium, in Pompeii, in ancient Rome or Greece, and heartbroken as Poggio witnessed the execution of his humanist friend for heresy. I’ve come to admire how, in some pieces, digressions create a sense of confusion and disruption, while other writers, as Greenblatt does here, blend things together seamlessly and allow the reader to expand whole networks of knowledge.

So what of the complaints about the thesis of the book?

I’ll admit I was wondering if I missed the part where the world became modern because of Poggio’s find, even before I read a word of commentary. It always seemed to me that the Renaissance had a lot more to do with the printing press than with any single work. The book ends with the oh-so-casual mention of De Rerum Natura in Thomas Jefferson’s library. I have to admit, it’s a goosebumpy moment, reading that and all it implies, but that’s part of the spell of a great book; it needs to be evaluated, much as Wordsworth wanted poetry written, not in intense emotion but in tranquillity.

It’s a bit hypocritical to love a book, yet doubt its primary claim. And yet here I am, contradicting myself, containing multitudes. Would Whitman be proud, or disappointed?

Greenblatt’s specialty has been the Renaissance and Shakespearean era; he was, in the 80s, perhaps the primary founder of The New Historicism; I suppose a lot of folks weren’t quite done with the old historicism yet. I vaguely remember reading an essay of his while in college, but that was a long time ago and I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have; I’d like to try that again, based purely on his writing style.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the controversy, I’m very glad I know a little more about the middle ages, about Epicurianism, and about manuscripts. And about a guy named Poggio, who had a passion for understanding where things came from.

Pushcart XLI: Patricia Spears Jones, “Etta James at the Audubon Ballroom” (poem) from A Lucent Fire

Someone knocks over a chair (drunk one)
Fight ready, but this vivid sound stops
fists—who let them big black birds
In? Again. This night. What
Flight. Fight. Let’s try dancing the blues


Audio of the poem available online at PennSound

Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes, a poem just happens to be part of the PennSound archive from the Kelly Writers House at Penn. Then you can not only listen to the poet read her work, but hear her discuss the poem, and her poetry in general, with poet and professor Charles Bernstein.

Maybe you would’ve guessed that the Etta James performance is imagined rather than factual. And maybe, given the historic significance of the location, and the break in the poem, from chaos to order, from abandon to attention at the line “There he stands”:

Your skin beams sweetness while your voice screams
Where’s the fucking fun house?
Your chest blossoms possibilities/ hips thick enough to swing
Which way and oh my
There he stands
In suit sharp as steel and shoes patent leather,
squarish frames/that wiseguy demeanor, the tipped chapeau

that it’s Malcolm X who has the tipped chapeau, whose appearance changes the tone of the Ballroom from chaos to order. But probably not. And in any case, it’s nice to know, not guess. And then you’re ready for that last poignant line.

Jones resists being categorized as a blues poet; she thinks it’s broader than that, encompassing more music, more of the culture of her home and travels, a kind of testimony to her life, heard through a filter and written through a musicality of her own. Imagination is her finest poetic tool, and she uses it well.

The Great War: Philosophy MOOC

Course: The Great War and Modern Philosophy
Length: 8 weeks
School/platform: KULeuven/edX
Instructor: Nicolas de Warren

In the celebrated words of the American diplomat George Kennan, the First World War was the ‘original catastrophe of the 20th century’, a catastrophe that, arguably, left no aspect of European civilization unchanged. But in what sense was the First World War the original catastrophe of modern philosophy, of philosophy in the twentieth century?
One of the most remarkable aspects of the war is the way in which philosophers in various belligerent nations felt the need to speak about the war, to address the war in philosophical terms. There was a sense in which something was philosophically at stake in the war which required philosophers to mobilize their concepts and arguments towards this understanding.
In this course, we’re interested in pursuing different ways in which philosophers during the First World War responded and thought about the war.

On April 2, 1917, the United States entered WWI with a declaration of war against Germany. My local historical society is just wrapping up an exhibit on the impact of the war in Maine, so I’ve been seeing posters and documents displayed in the windows nearly every day as I walk down Congress Street. The timing of this course coincides with the anniversary, but this was its second run; the first was almost two years ago.

I have mixed feelings about the course. On the plus side, I encountered a huge swath of philosophy from thinkers I hadn’t read before. On the down side, the swath was too huge – most weeks required 50 pages of dense reading – and I was only able to get a very general sense of the major points through lectures far to brief to cover the material in any depth. Other names were more familiar. I noticed this was an adjunct to an in-person course, so maybe that’s why it had the feel of an introduction to a “real” class. It’s the kind of material that, for me at least, would require far more time to absorb.

It was, I will say, an outstandingly produced introduction. The lecture videos were nearly cinematic, with carefully chosen locations and introductory music that began as a low, ominous hum under the spoken words, then crescendoed at a well-chosen break point to develop into a lovely melancholic theme overlaid by old-style film cuts complete with blotches, pops and crackles. I was astonished at the work that must’ve gone into the timing and graphics of these intros. Some videos were “conversations” with a verité feel, filmed in a coffee shop – again, with a nicely composed introduction of umbrella’d arrival and cappuccino artistry. The production values were extraordinarily high; I just wish the lectures had been twice as long, at least.

Much of the material was quite depressing, partly because it’s a bit alarming to study the breakup of Old Europe when the breakup of new Europe may be in progress. Reading the German idealist and nationalist materials brought to mind American exceptionalism and MAGA, both of which feel catastrophic to me at the moment. The poetry was heartbreaking, the art devastating. But I think it’s important that we not lose touch, in this era of drones and air assaults launched from hundreds of miles away from the targets, in a time when most American families do not have anyone in the military, of the real pain that war entails, of the real sight, sound, and feel of death and destruction, so maybe we won’t be so eager to chant war slogans from the safety of our living rooms and offices when our pride is the only thing wounded.

Hey, I warned you it was depressing.

Grading was based primarily on self-evaluation of discussion board contributions. I had a pretty good conversation with one student about German idealism, and made a few other substantial posts. A few multiple choice quizzes, and one peer-assessment assignment, rounded out the graded material.

Somehow I felt like I just missed the boat somewhere along the line, in spite of the artistry and the emotionality. Maybe it’s because I was overwhelmed with too many courses for the first six weeks; maybe it’s a side effect of the current moment, or maybe I was just missing out on some historical subtext. I wish there had been more, but I don’t know exactly what. Still, I’m glad to have some idea of the flow of ideas through the period, and I hope I can expand upon it more in the future.

Pushcart XLI: Jenny Hendrix, “The Physics of Turtles” (non-fiction) from Orion #34.3

For all the talk about this city’s action and energy – “So much to do!” people say, “The best place in the world!” – I’ve had the feeling, this spring, that there’s really very little going on.
Oh, there is, I suppose, a form of energy that’s traded around, expended as stress, frustration, rage, or, for the more sensitive, used as shields against these things. But nothing of significance, I find, truly happens here most days.
… True, there are in between these moments frights and irritations, careless jostlings and accidents and forthright ugly acts – the resplendent oddities and solipsisms so common to city life. Yet I seem to find myself in a state of constant ground-standing against their effects, resisting the impulse to be porous to them. And so I proceed instead under a hard shell, the days passing in a kind of inertia.

“The editorial impulse of Orion lies at the nexus of ecology and the human experience”, says the submissions page, and this short essay fits the bill precisely. Hendrix shows us a slice of nature in the city, and uses it to break free from what city living has become. No, “uses it” isn’t correct; it’s more something that happens to her, unasked: a stack of map turtles falls over.

It’s hard to explain why this had the sensation of an event, of something’s having happened indeed that day, for perhaps the first time. Yet it did. Somehow, the sound of falling turtles and the seven wary heads that regarded me from the brown water broke through the day’s sense of sameness.

Something I noticed: too many exclamation points. At least, that was my first reaction. A lot of writing teachers and workshop participants would squawk over four exclamation points in such a short (2 pages) piece. But forget the rule book and pay attention to what the writer is doing: the exclamation points are entirely functional and signal a shift in enthusiasm: from others, in the beginning, who rave about the wonderful city to our emotionally blunted narrator, to the narrator herself, who by the end of the piece, has found her own enthusiasm thanks to the collapsing turtle stack.

And again I’m reminded of the Joyce Cary quote, first brought to my attention by Charles May: “Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’” Hendrix didn’t include the exclamation points out of carelessness or poor technique; she did it because they serve the story.

I’m quite fond of turtles, at least in the abstract: I’ve never had a turtle as a pet, nor do I wish to, but my online twitter avatar and quote last year was turtle-based. I’m not exactly sure what Hendrix means by sameness, or the sense of something happening, but I believe that she experienced something positive, and that’s good enough.

Molecular Bio MOOC, part I: DNA copied while you wait

Course: Molecular Biology – Part 1: DNA Replication and Repair
Length: 8 weeks 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Stephen Bell, Tania Baker

Do you feel like studying biology is just memorizing hundreds of protein names and functions? Wake up, and take a different approach with MIT Biology’s 7.28x. You’ll experience an approach to learning infused in experimental research with animations that make complex details come to life….
What you’ll learn:
• How to compare and contrast the mechanisms of DNA replication in prokaryotes and eukaryotes
• How to describe several enzymatic mechanisms that the cell uses to repair or tolerate DNA damage
• How to analyze protein structures to infer functional information
• How to design methods for the best experiment to test a hypothesis related to DNA replication or repair proteins
• How to interpret data from DNA replication and repair experiments

I have to smile when I see, on the sign-up page for this course, the estimation that it will take 4 to 6 hours per week. This is repeated in the introductory material: about two hours of video lecture, another hour of ungraded comprehension questions, and one to three hours for the weekly graded quiz. That might work for some people, particularly those familiar with the design and interpretation of lab assays. I probably spent more like 10 to 12 hours a week.

And every minute was worth it.

This is the first third of the MIT microbiology series, focusing, as the title says,on DNA replication and repair. Part 2 will cover transcription (starts in a couple of weeks), and part 3 will get into RNA translation. They all build on the 7.00x “Biology: Secret of Life” course I took earlier, and list it as a recommended prerequisite.

Most moocs include some kind of “goals and objectives” for each week; most are pretty abstract and not terribly useful. But the ones for these courses are different: they’re extremely helpful. The objectives serve as a blueprint for the quizzes. If it says “Predict the effect a disruption of telomerase function would have”, you can bet you’ll have to pick an assay result that shows the effect in a given situation. If an objective is “Analyze protein structure to infer functional information”, chances are good you’ll have to find a binding site that’ll work with a particular molecule. That objectives list is the study guide to the course. If you can handle that list, you’ve learned the material.

The lecture videos, diagrams, and short animations all serve to lay out a clear picture of exactly what happens at each stage of DNA replication and repair – including proteins involved, energy requirements, and what happens in the event of failure – but that’s only the beginning. What these courses do incredibly well is simulate lab conditions that illustrate these processes, which, by the way, are the means by which the picture of what’s happening is discovered and confirmed in the first place. This isn’t makework, it’s what biologists do. Obviously, mooc students aren’t going to be able to culture e. coli or obtain fluorescently labeled dNTPs or run gel electrophoresis, and to their credit they don’t try to substitute videos of people doing those things and call it a virtual lab. Instead, they write up a little multi-act play in the form of the weekly quiz:

You study Okazaki fragment DNA maturation and nucleosome assembly. Your advisor wants to understand how the lagging strand DNA polymerase decides to stop extending an Okazaki fragment. He asks you to test the hypothesis that Okazaki fragment length relates to nucleosome positioning in the budding yeast, S. cerevisiae. Your advisor’s hypotheses mainly focus on the lagging strand DNA polymerase.

The questions then go through a series of steps: your labmate Zoe asks a question about why you’re doing something one way and not another, and you have to pick the right rationale; you run this assay and get this result, what do you conclude; you decide to try a different angle, what assay do you want, what reagents do you need, and what result do you expect? When your labmate Brian (oh, dear Brian, poor never-quite-right Brian, beloved by all but trusted by none) runs the assay and gets a weird result, what’s the most likely thing he did wrong? When you get stuck, the more experienced Alice will be able to glance at your results and suggest a course of action, at which point you need to figure out what she’s correcting. It’s pretty ingenious to design a quiz like this, and even more so to design it so that no subsequent questions give away the answers to prior questions (trust me, I looked).

You can’t fake this course. Too many moocs are eminently fakeable; some day I’m going to see if I can get a good grade in a course without ever watching a lecture or reading anything, just by searching for answers in lecture transcripts or other online sources. But not here: you either know what you’re doing, and can put six different threads of information together into a picture of what’s going on in that particular DNA, or you can’t. Sometimes you can narrow it down a little, but that’s about it. What really freaked me out regularly is that, buried among seriously complex scenarios are some laughably simple questions. I kept thinking, This one must be a trick. No tricks, though. Just damn good test design. I don’t always feel like I’ve earned my grade in a mooc, but I sure did here.

For those who are more advanced, the course includes a “journal club” featuring current articles relating to the topics of each week. I wasn’t in any shape to participate, but it’s a great way to design in multiple levels. Maybe next time, I’ll be able to make use of it. Forums were active and helpful; I wish I’d been able to offer as much as I asked, but, again, maybe next time.

Every time I take a biology or anatomy course, I come away with a sense of awe. Awe, in the classic sense, is wonder mixed with dread or fear, a sense of being dwarfed by something so immense as to be nearly incomprehensible. It’s often applied to the beauties of nature: the Grand Canyon, the recent images of Jupiter brought to us by an exploratory vehicle launched six years ago. As amazing as those things are, they’re nothing compared to the billions – I don’t know, billions, trillions? – of separate, interrelated events happening in our bodies every second, events that we really have no control over, but that must take place in order for us to be here. The molecules keeping us alive make the Grand Canyon seem kinda small, if you ask me.

Jupiter’s still really cool, though. Maybe transcription or translation will dwarf that, too.

Pushcart XLI: Ye Chun, “The Luoyang Poem” (poem) from Lantern Puzzle

Gray streets and dim staircases.
We slid down the banister:
often one of us,
in dream or in memory, fell.

I couldn’t find much about this poem, or the collection whence it comes, so I was worried. Turns out, I found a great deal in it, not in a “this is what the poem means” sort of way (and I wonder if any poem that can be summed up as such is a poem at all) but in a “oh, I see what happened here (I think)” way.

One of the approaches I use when I’m not sure what to do is comparison of the beginning and ending of a poem. That doesn’t always help, but here it was marvelous. Whereas the first stanza above gives a glimpse into a hazily remembered childhood and is painted in gray and dim, the last stanza shows a new direction:

That winter, a boy
came riding beside me,
my big coat a dark corner.
We rode past the sweet potato vendor and his stove;
they stood in every winter
like a small lighthouse.
We rode past Chairman Mao
in front of the Mining Machine Factory
his marble arm waving at us.
Black flags of smoke blew above our heads.
We rode toward the huge
suddenly blooming setting sun.

The dimness is still there, but there is also the promise of blooming, a setting sun ending one phase of life, the speaker beginning another, of adolescence and youth in spite of what hangs over them. And I’m charmed by the imagery of the sweet potato vendor’s stove as a small lighthouse: a light so that the ship won’t founder on an unexpected shore.

Throughout the poem, I particularly noticed the transitions between the numbered sections. Section 1 above ends with an isolated “fell”, and section 2 starts with “I fell ill”, a completely different sense of the word. That double use prompted me to check for similar transitions, and I found them. Section 2 ends with smoke from the factories, and section 3 begins with the history of burning in this town, from the tragic to the trivial:

New dynasty burned houses of the old.
Red Guards burned 55,884 rolls of sutras at the White Horse Temple.
Twenty factories burned the sky blind.
Families of the dead burned paper horses.
Crematoria burned the dead.
My father burned another fall’s leaves.
I burned my diary.

There’s such a layering of history in this stanza in particular, from the speaker’s lifetime back to old Dynasties. I found a few references to the practice of making a paper horse and carriage for a funeral, then burning them in an echo of ancient custom of burying items with the dead. I can’t find a historical reference to burning of Buddhist scripture at the White Horse Temple; 55,884 is such a specific number, I’d love to have more information.

Section 3 ends with a reference to burning ourselves, and the next one observes Luoyang’s cross made by a factory smokestack, a somewhat attenuated transition on the notion of sacrifice. Four ends with distance, and five begins with parents being sent to the city “to build a new nation”, presumably in the era of the Red Guards. Sacrifice underpins every parent’s life, some more than others. Section 5 ends with spit and 6 begins with a dry river. The transition from 6 to 7 is possibly all self-constructed: from peach flowers to a new friendship, a new adolescence, and the literal riding off into the sunset.

So I ended up with a memoir of a place since left, with time whistling around my ears throughout the poem. Quite lovely. I’m almost glad I couldn’t find any other analysis, because it gave me the freedom to create my own.

Pushcart XLI: Daniel Mason, “The Line Agent Pascal” from Zoetrope #19.4

Every morning, Hippolyte Pascal, Agent of the Line at Urupá, woke to the sun and the sound of parrots, rose from his hammock, dressed, set a battered kettle on the fire, and crossed his tiny station to check the signal.
At 0800, if the Line was in order, he would receive the first transmission from the Depot, followed shortly by the second from the agent at Várzea Nova, eighty–two kilometers into the interior, and the third, from Juá. Then he would reply, “Pascal, Urupá,” and the hour, and the others would answer in turn: Fernandes, fifty–eight kilometers forward at Itiraca, Bonplan at Macunarímbare, Wilson–Jones at Canaã, the Jesuit Perez at the Mines. The report would come next, minor variations on the previous morning: a band of Nambikwara sighted near Bonplan’s station, a rotted telegraph pole at Itiraca, a call for fresh provisions, a request for gunpowder. And then he would rise and pour himself his coffee and set about his day.

The story is set in the 19th century Brazilian jungle and features agents on the telegraph lines linking the mines to civilization. But that’s just the surface. I’m not sure if Mason intended it to be a metaphor for the social media age, but it is:

Because it was impossible to see beyond one or two paces into the forest that surrounded the station clearing, it mattered little whether civilization was one kilometer away or a thousand. What mattered was the Line. Sometimes he thought: It is as if they are next door, for when I speak, they listen, and they need only to call out for me to respond. There were few men, he told himself, in such immediate contact with other people. Other times he thought, with an exhilaration that was almost dizzying: I am the loneliest man in the world.

Tell me that isn’t about 21st century anomie, about being connected to the entire world 24/7 through a gadget in our pocket but being alone. The story conflates technology and nature, loneliness and connection. The connections formed over the telegraph line are as ephemeral, and as real, and as prone to interpretation and projection, as any internet crush:

… The act stayed with him for a very long time. Indeed, years later, alone in his hut, or walking out in the right-of-way, staring at the ever-encroaching forest, at the high-wire slung in great loops from the tall poles like beggar’s crutches, Agent Pascal found himself marveling at this realization that he could live in the thoughts of another person, a realization that appeared to him no less a miracle than if he had somehow been twinned.

It’s a wonderful thing, to know you live in the thoughts of another person.

In a recent post I commented that nothing really happened in a story, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Nothing happens in this story either, but I love the way nothing happens, the sense of what it’s like for these people to be connected by a telegraph wire, to be in each others’ thoughts. It’s quite remarkable that the very climax of the story is, literally, nothing happens, when something was expected to happen; the implications of nothing happening at that moment create a moment of exquisite tension which leads to a moment of immense sorrow, then stoicism, resignation, and, maybe, a touch of horror. The horror is rather voluntary, I think;the reader may pick it up and run with it, or not, as she chooses.

Mason’s an interesting guy. He can’t decide if he wants to be a doctor or a writer, so he’s both: he’s published two novels and several short stories, including this one, and is an attending psychiatrist at Stanford; he’s taught both as a Stegner fellow in the Creative Writing department, and as medical school faculty with such anthro-medical courses as “Psychosis in Literature” and “Culture and Madness”. And now he’s connected me most effectively, through the story, with the line agent Pascal.

Pushcart XLI: Mathias Svalina, from “Thank You Terror” (poem) from The Volta

Samad Ghorbanzadeh: "Fictional Reality/Daily Dream" series

Samad Ghorbanzadeh: “Fictional Reality/Daily Dream” series

I was dead
but they kept killing me
by the seaside,
the Super Target,
on a plane,
in a beetle’s husk.
Complete poem available online at The Volta

Allow me to once again admit that I have no idea what I’m doing here. However, I was able to find some information that helped me at least understand the neighborhood we’re in with this poem: dreams and nightmares. Along the way, I became intrigued by the poet as well.

In a Harriet article, I found a video where Svalina explains his approach: “a dream logic.” Ah, that gave me a touchstone. A few years back I did some work on Ishiguro’s “The Village After Dark” and The Unconsoled, and discovered, thanks to an interview in The Paris Review, that the story was a warm-up in the use of the grammar of dreams for the novel. I’m not sure Svalina uses precisely the same approach, but it’s similar enough to serve as some kind of footing for reading this poem.

It’s more of a nightmare, really, the kind induced by constant reminders of terrorism in everyday life. Images shift without warning, and these shifts are accepted as they are in a dream state: personal death in the beauty of the seaside, or the banality of Target, or the more rational setting of a plane, to the surreal beetle’s husk to keep us from feeling too comfortable. The request of Artaud, poet and dramatist, creator of the theatre of cruelty, for sonnets. Flaying that brings joy. And the last stanza, a stabilizing summary, a reminder that the dream, the nightmare, takes us where it will, and while shaped by images and events from the world around you, it is your own mind that is the sculptor of the nightmare.

None of that nightmarishness is alleviated by knowing, thanks to a comment the poet made at a Brooklyn reading, that the title is following Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U”. Maybe he was being ironic.

For those who didn’t bother to check out the Harriet post linked above, it includes an explanation of Svalina’s Dream Delivery Service: for a subscription of about $60 a month, he will write and mail – or deliver, if you happen to live in a city he’s visiting – a dream; nightmares cost a little more. It’s his way of forcing himself to write at least half the day. While a bit flaky, he has a PhD in creative writing, teaches at various places and has published several books so he’s not a total crackpot. Just the right amount of crackpot, I’d say. Is his poetry any good? How would I know? I don’t even have a yardstick. I can only say I’m intrigued.

Pushcart XLI: Chris Offutt, “Trash Food” (nonfiction) from Oxford American #88

OA Art: "Fruit Loops Landscape,” by Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman

OA Art: “Fruit Loops Landscape,” by Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman

During lunch John T. asked me to give a presentation at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium over which he presided every fall.
I reminded him that I lacked the necessary qualifications. At the time I’d only published a few humorous essays that dealt with food. Other writers were more knowledgeable and wrote with a historical context, from a scholarly perspective. All I did was write personal essays inspired by old community cookbooks I found in secondhand stores. Strictly speaking, my food writing wasn’t technically about food.
John T. said that didn’t matter. He wanted me to explore “trash food,” because, as he put it, “you write about class.”
I sat without speaking, my food getting cold on my plate. Three thoughts ran through my mind fast as flipping an egg. First, I couldn’t see the connection between social class and garbage. Second, I didn’t like having my thirty-year career reduced to a single subject matter. Third, I’d never heard of anything called “trash food.”

Complete article available online at Oxford American

I’d never heard of trash food, either. Junk food, sure. Then there’s dumpster diving, but I didn’t think “trash” was being used that literally. I was further confused when John Edge (the John T. of the story) of the Southern Foodways Alliance gave possum and mullet as examples of trash food. I have an older edition of The Joy of Cooking that includes entries for possum, squirrel, porcupine, raccoon, and a host of other things I wouldn’t consider dinner, complete with skinning and dressing procedures, but I assumed that went along with hunting or something. I’m pretty nonadventurous, culinarily speaking: you’d have to force me to eat sweetbreads (not to mention avocado toast, so please, don’t mention it around me). But still, I didn’t associate it with class.

However, Offutt did, and he wrote up his reaction to Edge’s request and presented it at the SFA’s Fall Symposium. Turns out Offutt grew up in Appalachia, and has found himself subjected to some stereotypes.

I write about my friends, my family, and my experiences, but never with a socio-political agenda such as class. My goal was always art first, combined with an attempt at rigorous self-examination. Facing John T., I found myself in a professional and social pickle, not unusual for a country boy who’s clawed his way out of the hills of eastern Kentucky, one of the steepest social climbs in America. I’ve never mastered the high-born art of concealing my emotions. My feelings are always readily apparent.

He gives some examples of foods he might consider trash food: Cheetos, pork rinds, Vienna sausages, Jell-O with marshmallows, fried baloney, corndogs, RC cola, Slim Jims, Fritos, Twinkies, and cottage cheese with jelly. Now I’m really confused: half the homes in America have some of those foods, and many suburban 60s households served marshmallowed gelatin and Vienna sausages at casual afternoon functions. I didn’t know you could fry baloney, but it makes sense, and corndogs are a summer fair staple.

I’ve watched a lot of culinary competitions, from Bocuse d’Or to America’s Worst Cook. I still remember when Top Chef’s Hung Huynn, classically trained in French technique and holding a résumé listing Per Se and Guy Savoy, was scolded for not making Asian dishes. A Latina on Next Food Network Star was told to change her “culinary point of view” (the shtick required of all FN shows) from European brunch to TexMex. Food snobbery abounds, and abides in everyday life as well: are those veggies organic? How did that chicken spend its days (yes, the Portlandia episode)? Is there meat/gluten/sugar in this? And yet, blue-box macaroni binds together several generations across class lines.

But food aside, stereotypes are stereotypes, and it’s hard to have to keep fighting them, so I’m not surprised Offutt bristled a bit at the assignment. I’m not sure what Southern Foodways Alliance expected from him, but I’m hoping this turned into a learning experience all around.

Pushcart XLI: Tarfia Faizullah, “100 Bells” (poem) from Poetry, January 2015

Artwork by Caitlin Abbott, from original photo by Naib Uddin Ahmed

Artwork by Caitlin Abbott, from original photo by Naib Uddin Ahmed

With thanks to Vievee Francis


My sister died. He raped me. They beat me. I fell
to the floor. I didn’t. I knew children,
their smallness. Her corpse. My fingernails.
The softness of my belly, how it could
double over. It was puckered, like children,
ugly when they cry. My sister died
and was revived. Her brain burst
into blood. Father was driving. He fell
asleep. They beat me. I didn’t flinch. I did.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

First, let me point any reader to Faizullah’s post titled “Against Explanation” on the Poetry website Harriet. I’m tempted to just stop here, with an excerpt in which she explains why she can not, will not, explain the poem, except to give a context: she wrote it after reading Vievee Francis’s poem “Say It, Say It Any Way You Can”.

Almost every time I read “100 Bells” in front of an audience, someone asks me to explain it. I’m baffled, because, to me, it’s one of my most transparent poems. I’ve been asked if it’s The Truth. I don’t think that’s what I’m being asked, though. It’s really something else: Did you make it up? Did it happen to you?
…. “I’m saying it,” says the speaker in Vievee’s poem. What’s so masterful about this phrase is how it deflects from the question “Did this happen to you?”

I read this poem three ways; I don’t know if any of them are true (whatever that means), but they feel very real to me, and they coexist at this point, though they were separate at first. I know a lot of very educated people put a lot of stock in the poem standing on its own, but I found meaning expanding with each new piece of ancillary information, and finding meaning is what I’m doing here.

My first reading focused on the Birangona, the Brave Women of War in Bangladesh who, during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, were kidnapped, raped, and tortured. After were ignored, lived in shame and silence, until playwright Leesa Gazi spoke with a group of the women and created a play to tell their story and honor the courage it took for them to survive.

Now, I didn’t pick this out of thin air; I was alerted to it via the contributor note that goes with the published version of the poem. Faizulla’s 2014 poetry collection, Seam, featured interviews with the Birangona. I saw this poem as a composite of the experiences of those women, a layering of voice on voice, story on story, a hundred bells speaking through poetry.

Then I found a very different way of reading, through a blog that seems to be a series of school assignments (and again I wish the internet had been around when I was in 9th grade). This reader saw it as a narrative of personal experience. This makes a different kind of sense to me: the repetitions and contradictions reflect the confusion and denial experienced during and after a traumatic event. Again, the layering, but this time, the voices are from one person. The sister and Texas were more dominant in this reading; I was already slightly familiar with Faizullah’s work from having read another of her poems in the Pushcart two years ago, also appearing in Seam as one of a series of elegies written for her sister.

Then I came across the Harriet post. I’d noticed, of course, that there was a dedication line, but I hadn’t known the significance. And now I wonder if it’s a sort of retelling of Francis’ poem, with a different subject.

I wrote the first draft of “100 Bells” after reading Vievee’s poem. I needed to write the breath I didn’t know I had been holding until after I was done reading it, after I was done writing mine.

What a great use of breath, – anima, from the Greek άνεμος the force of life, the medium of the voice as a bridge between two poets and now between them and the readers of this poem. And now the three readings, each involving multiple voices, layer together in one burst of communication. When I read the poem, I don’t “hear” it as written, but as voices talking over each other, all trying to be heard.

I slithered. Glass beneath my feet. I
locked the door. I did not
die. I shaved my head. Until the horns
I knew were there were visible.
Until the doorknob went silent.

It’s awkward that I should run into a poetic discussion of truth after railing about truthiness in nonfiction. But poetry is not nonfiction. It is the artist’s conception of truth. I have no need to ask, Did it happen to you? It happened to someone, and thus it happened to all of us.

Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth Tallent, “Narrator” from Threepenny Review, Winter 2015

All I had to go on were the narrators of his books, rueful first-person failers at romance whose perceptiveness was the great pleasure of reading him, but I felt betrayed. Savagely I compared the ungenerosity I witnessed with the radiance I’d hoped for. How could the voices in his novels applied in the brain of that withholder? The women had not trespassed in approaching, the party was meant for such encounters.… From his work I had pieced together scraps I believed were really him. At some point I had forsaken disinterested absorption and begun reading to construct him I could love.… He had never meant to tell me who he was.

When Aristotle literally wrote the book on classical drama, he used the word hamartia to describe the tragic flaw in the protagonist’s otherwise honorable character. This flaw becomes the weak spot through which events lead to a tragic end. I wonder if there’s a corresponding romantic flaw for contemporary fiction. So much of it is about romantic relationships doomed by some quirk of personality in one of the participants: while harmless in most areas of life, in the context of a romantic relationship this flaw – lack of trust, or poor judgment about who is trustworthy, neediness, a refusal to show vulnerability – turns destructive. If so, I’d say the romantic flaw for the unnamed narrator of this story might be a tendency to see what she wants to see. In keeping with the title: she likes to narrate reality so that it meets her needs, or at least her desires.

Besides fitting the bill as a story about romantic tragedy, it’s also a story about writing. I’ve read that editors shy away from such settings, but I tend to like them. Maybe it’s like second person stories: because editors don’t want to feature too many, they tend to reject all but the best, so what gets to me is cream of the crop. This isn’t just a story about writers, though it is that, and it isn’t just a story about what the work of writing is, though it is that, too. It uses the process of writing, of narration, to allow a character’s self-reflection. She may have little insight as a person living life, but as a writer, she knows how to observe a character. Unfortunately, sometimes her observations are colored by what she wants to see.

The story begins with our unnamed narrator, a fledgling writer attending a workshop, finding herself swept off her feet and out of her marriage by an accomplished author whose work she’s admired. She first sees him at a party welcoming the workshop participants. Two women are speaking to him, but he is silent to them, which she sees as deliberate withholding; later, we find out this impression was wrong, but the point is that she was drawn to him anyway. Once in his life, she finds the withholding she’d thought she’d seen in the first place.

… the only book in this house full of his books that belonged to me, and when he admitted to not liking Eliot much I was relieved to have a book which by not mattering to him could talk privately and confidentially to what was left of me as a writer, the little that was left after I was, as I believed I wanted to be, stripped down to bare life, to skin and heart beat and sex, never enough sex, impatient sex, adoring sex, fear of boredom sex. The immense sanity of Middlemarch made it a safe haven for the little insanity of the stolen photograph.

I’m tempted to think of this as her tit-for-tat revenge for his withholding, but it’s narrated as survival, keeping something about herself private. I can’t imagine a writer who doesn’t have any books of her own, her existence pared down to nothing other than the subject whose job it is to observe the object.

A single moment finally snaps her out of it. It’s a lovely scene, the two of them tossing a football around, unaware of the lightning that is about to strike, a bolt created by a single word.

One bright evening as I cocked my arm back he cried Throw it, piggy! Shocked into grace I sent a real beauty his way, and with long-legged strides he covered the grass and leapt, the show-offy catch tendered as apology before I could call down the field What?, but I was standing there understanding: piggy was the thing he called me to himself, that had slipped out.

We’ve all had a moment like that (at least, I have), when we suddenly realized someone else didn’t see us the way we thought he did. Reality shifts; we realize we’re in the wrong story. It’s worse than a slap. A slap allows anger in response; all the epithet allows from her is shame, not the least of which is because she permitted this all along. We then see her, weak and sick, sitting on the floor begging her love for a bowl of rice: bland, soft, comforting. But she will get no rice.

After she leaves, he writes another book, and she sees herself in the pages. Is it really her? It’s amazing how we embroider reality with our own thoughts and needs: winged horses in the stars, Jesus on a tortilla, someone we love creating art out of the memory of us. She recovers from the affair, and her life becomes successful: she finds the academic post she always wanted, publishes her work, and finds a more fulfilling romantic relationship.

Until she quite unexpectedly sees the author in a bookstore one day.

This coda is marvelous. She makes her way back to her husband and his friend, who are discussing a man who didn’t want to have surgery for fear he would be left impotent. It was not himself he was worried about, the patient insisted, but his wife. The three present their own narrations of this: the guys don’t believe him; I immediately thought it was pretty arrogant, in the same way some men are convinced they can convert any lesbian with their prowess; but our narrator has an interesting take:

“You idiots, he adored her,” I said. “That’s what he was telling David. Not,’ My God, this woman, it’s unimaginable that I’ll never make love to her again.’ But ‘How can she bear the loss.'”
Josh took off his tie, rolled it up, tucked it in his jacket pocket, and then handed his glasses forward to me, saying, “Can you take custody?” I cradled them as cautiously as if they were his eyes. Once he was asleep, David said, “That was him, wasn’t it?”
I told him what happened. “After I’d gone he must have stood there thinking, but I know her, I know her from somewhere. Then he gets it – who I am, and that I walked away without a word. Which has to have hurt.”
“It’s generally that way when you save your own skin – somebody gets hurt.”

Somebody certainly does. Why not narrate it so that it’s somebody else?

When I mention reading as one of my favorite activities, I’m always asked, “Who’s your favorite writer?” I seem to be alone in that I don’t really have one. I have some tendencies, but I can’t seem to find the writer whose every word I adore. For example, this is the third Tallent story I’ve read, all of them in prize anthologies. One I didn’t care for at all, one I liked, and this one I liked most of all. I prefer to like individual works rather than writers or genres. I sometimes say I prefer “weird” fiction to romantic realism (I did just say that, in fact, one or two stories ago) but a story like this one works great for me. I do wish I could find a favorite author, though. It would give me an easy answer to the common question, and fit in better with others’ narration of who I am.

Pushcart XLI: David Kirby, “More Than This” (poem) from Rattle #50

When you tell me that a woman is visiting the grave
of her college friend and she’s trying not to get irritated
at the man in the red truck who keeps walking back and forth
and dropping tools as he listens to a pro football
game on the truck radio, which is much too loud, I start
to feel as though I know where this story is going,
so I say Stop, you’re going to make me cry.
Complete poem available online at Rattle

Yes, it’s going exactly where you know it’s going, and yes, it made me cry, but does that have to automatically be a bad way to use forty-five lines?

In his Contributor Note at Rattle, Kirby said “A lot of my poems are braids I make of found materials; my contribution is to figure out what the different parts have in common and then unite them tonally.” I’m surprised he’d only heard the cowboy story through his barber; I’ve seen it all over the place, sometimes with just a dog, sometimes with just a horse, once with a kid and a frog.

The threads he braids together are about ways of connecting in grief, and the comfort it might bring. I don’t have much to say about this one, it’s pretty much laid out in front of the reader on a plate. And, of course, there’s an even chance I missed something that drives it further: the title, for instance. It makes an interesting follow-up to “Voltaire Night” with the idea that we’re all grieving, and we can either be alone with it or not, but sharing might make us feel better.

Pushcart XLI: Deb Olin Unferth, “Voltaire Night” from Paris Review

Leonid Afremov: “Misty Café”

I didn’t usually go for drinks with my students. I knew teachers who did, and I found it unprofessional and revolting, though that would not have stopped me. Neither would have the fact that I had sworn to quit drinking. But the school had put in place a policy, which applied even to the dubious adult ed. I’d had to sign a statement. Still, an end-of-term drink seemed like a nice idea.
We walked four blocks through the freezing cold to an upscale, unpopular joint in the nighttime-deadtime downtown. We sat in giant, stuffed chairs in a dark room, empty of anyone but us and the bartender. They all looked over at me, waiting. At last I said, “Has anyone read Candide?”
“Yes, yes,” they murmured. “Voltaire. Of course.” As I said, this was an educated crowd. They’d read it in college, they said. Or they’d read it when they were twelve and had found it confusing. Or they’d liked it and had read his other works since and found them less fun.
“Let’s play a game,” I said. “Let’s each tell the story of the worst thing that’s happened to us.”

Many writers, reviewers, and teachers talk a great deal about narrative drive. I’ve seen it described, in terms of craft, as one sentence introducing the next by raising a question, one paragraph as call and the next as both response and call, one action completing A yet starting B, a cascade effect through the entire text. As manifested in the reader, it’s often a sense of urgency, a desperate need to read the next sentence, to find out what happens, a “getting lost” in the work. Carefully constructed plot, good characterization, technical elements like structure, syntax, language, are all in the service of creating urgency. “It’s beautiful writing” isn’t narrative drive, though you might memorize entire passages. Narrative drive is more like: “I couldn’t put it down.”

This story has narrative drive on three levels: the story of the narrator, the story-within-the-story of the adult ed writing class over time, and the story-within-the-story-within-the story, a real-life adventure told by one of the students at a social event ending the term. It’s awash in urgency, yet each time it flips between them, the urgency of the paragraph before me overtook the lingering “But wait, what about…” from the paragraph before. I’d call that great writing, great structure, in the service of creating urgency.

The narrator is a successful writer and professor, recalling a time in her career when she taught an adult education course. She was struggling with the end of a romantic relationship, so suggested Voltaire Night: a light-hearted contest, after Chapter 19 in Candide, where participants tell of the worst thing that’s happened to them recently, and the worst worst wins. This becomes a regular event over several terms, with returning students looking forward to it and new students eager to join in. And of course, the last story is a doozie.

There was the Voltaire night that Max accidentally smashed several glasses onto the floor and Stuart threw up on the sidewalk. There was the Voltaire night I somehow found myself separated from them all at two in the morning, smoking pot with strangers at a faraway club. How had I gotten there?
There were other things going on with me. Voltaire night was just a handful of nights out of that year, but the other nights weren’t so very different.
I had to change. In many ways I had to change.

From time to time, the narrator will switch gears and return to the present to include something she’s recognized since about that time, or just to expand upon her feelings at the time. It’s how we learn more about her. It’s also an interesting way to keep the three timelines active at once, as opposed to an envelope technique where all the insight comes at the beginning and the end. It could get confusing. And as I’ve said, for me it had the paradoxical effect of heightening the urgency, since I found it easy to switch timelines. It was frustrating for a second – to be speeding along that final story, breathless, eager to find out what this twist meant, only to find myself back in the present – but somehow it worked for me. I can imagine it might not work for every reader.

So is this quality of narrative drive universal? It’s taught as if it is, but might I find something compelling that someone else finds boring? Some people prefer romance novels, other like spy thrillers, and I love any story where I learn something, but I’m typically bored with stories focusing on the emotional ravages of love’s failures. Yet this one, which begins with that foundation, captivated me. Is there a story that captivates everyone? In other words, is narrative drive a function of content, of form, or both, and in any case, is it intrinsic to the process of reading, or is it a matter of preference?

I had several possibilities in mind for the end of the each level of story. As it happens, two out of three turned out a bit different from any of my expectations in delightful ways. And yes, while I smiled all the way through the story – seriously, a rectal thermometer implanted for twelve weeks? – I teared up during the last couple of paragraphs. But of course I cry over all kinds of things.

Pushcart labels its fiction with the title, and doesn’t label poetry or nonfiction, so without a fiction label, I’d assumed this was a memoir. It’s a story about a writer and writing teacher, after all. However, on doing further checking, I see it’s in the Paris Review as fiction, and it’s in Unferth’s latest short fiction collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press, March 2017).

Now, that brings up two side issues. For one: There’s no hard and fast line for what does and doesn’t sound real, but the story the student tells was way over the top. Not only would a medical study as described require a residential stay, but the cascading difficulties stretched credibility. But while I was in the universe of the story, everything was real. That’s really good storytelling. It’s also an interesting quirk of human psychology which might bear some reflection at the current moment.

I’m not sure I have the details right. I want to be clear about that. I’m not sure if it was fifteen thousand or ten or eleven, or if she was five months along or four. I’m pretty sure it was twelve weeks. What one hears at Voltaire night, stays at Voltaire night, and it is only now that I am violating this contract.

The other issue is one I’ve brought up before, the issue of how true does non-fiction have to be. I’ve ranted before – over Pam Houston’s “Corn Maze” most emphatically – about nonfiction that takes liberties with what really happened, padding truth with more interesting details to make a better story, and the defense that “nobody knows what really happened anyway, what difference does it make”. So here, where the narrator is relating the story after the fact, she admits she doesn’t remember the details – how many dollars, how many weeks. That’s how you handle the uncertainty of memory. It fit into the story so smoothly, so readably, so perfectly believably that it reinforced my reading of memoir. If fiction can turn itself into nonfiction with a disclaimer, nonfiction has no excuse to avoid similar techniques. Then again, I’m more sensitive than ever about lies masquerading as truth these days.

This was a story I couldn’t put down. I wish I could tell a clever anecdote about missing an important appointment or some such thing, because it felt that way. But that would be truthiness, not truth, and this post is nonfiction.