Pushcart XLII: Jane Wong, “When You Died” (poem) from Foundry #1

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: Father/Mother (brown envelope cover)

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: Father/Mother (brown envelope cover)

Five years of fireflies in oil; five years of ants gnawing
through red flags; five years of pockmarked suns, your face:
each ray, each sweltering August; five years of unraveling,
hair loosening from your crown like a rotten tooth;
five years of how easy it is to split a frog in two; five
years of pollen in your mouth, that bitter buzzing;

Complete story available online at Foundry Journal

And again, I come to a poem that makes little sense until I read some context. Yet it’s quite beautiful, the kind of beautiful that makes me want to understand. A kind of pain only beautiful now that it’s recollected in tranquility.

Wong has considered what she calls “The poetics of haunting” for a long time. Her dissertation was about precisely that: “how social, historical, and political contexts “haunt” the work of Asian American poets.” She made it into a website , a collection of the works examined in the academic document, and discussed the origins of her interest in this aspect of poetry – “it’s not a matter of the repressed coming back to haunt you, but is a productive and intentional act to go toward the ghost and rewrite forgotten histories – in her TEDx talk.

Which brings us to this poem, part of a “project” addressing her own personal history, the recollection of stories from an unknown, unnamed family who died long ago:

With my missing family members who starved during the Great Leap Forward, I can not visit their graves, their physical bodies. They exist as ghosts for me—a kind of presence that it always there, across distances and spaces of time….
In my forthcoming project, I am writing a series addressing my missing family members during the Great Leap Forward (poems entitled “When You Died“). I do not know their names; I wish I new their names. I wish my family could talk about what happened during that time, but they do not. Silence itself is a ghost.

~ ~ Poet interview at lithub

Given the current situation here, I can’t help but wonder if thousands of Central American kids will be growing up not knowing their stories, how their parents, in a desperate attempt to get them to safety, were torn from them. I wonder if some Guatemalan poet, some years down the line, will also try to remember a forgotten history. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Sometimes, even if the poem doesn’t land, the backstory does, and I end up in a puddle of tears just the same.

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Pushcart XLII: Lo Kwa Mei-En, “Aubade for Non-Citizens” (poem) from New Orleans Review #41

Alien status, a blue bourgeois dress, the hustle of Rome. A waltz—
zoom out—the citizen ingenue’s cool, cool crinoline and persona
buckling in the silhouette the ahistorical hourglass. I have no story,
your shout into this century’s solar wind, a yellow ribbon on a bomb
compromised by compromise, a citizen’s birthright, a little box
xeroxed white, the alien body folded like a french flap in the epic
determination to predetermine the alien body in the here / now.

Complete poem available online at Poetry Society

As with several poems in this volume, I was completely confused as to what is going on here. It starts out with clear references to aliens – that is, the political designation of someone residing in one country with citizenship from another – but that quickly morphs into a more science fiction notion of aliens (the poem originally appeared in the Science Fiction issue of the New Orleans Review) with references to gravity and ships and “Here on Earth” and colonists. Adding to my confusion is the element of entertainment: karaoke, webcams.

….The future, the TV
vectoring the colonists’ self-portrait, thumbs up for this handmade
family, zoom in—Citizen 2 karaokes in low gravity (Zou Bisou Bisou),
unlikable kiss shot to Earth besmirched. The camera winking, stiff
grafts in the ship’s greenhouse untrembling at the speed of light,
turmeric tumescing quietly, and the brilliant soldier of a pear sapling.

Huh?

So, I did what I do: I went looking, and I found an author statement explaining the genesis of the poem. This was extremely helpful in understanding how the pieces fit, because the pieces are, indeed, 1) her own immigration experience, 2) a project to colonize Mars, and 3) reality TV. And once I knew the background, it all made sense.

This comes from the mission statement of Mars One, a non-profit foundation that aims to establish the first human colony on Mars by the mid-2020’s…. Reading about the standards of physical, social, and psychological desirability potential colonists needed to fulfill in order to be deemed eligible reminded me of the questions asked of immigrants attempting to obtain American citizenship—Have you ever been a sex worker? Are you willing to go to war for the United States of America?—and the message of undesirability that underlies such questioning. When I learned that Mars One planned to narrow down their applicant pool to four final colonists via a reality television audience vote, I was reminded of how popular culture, deformalized media, and social narratives can serve as powers that can enforce (or denounce) the structures of phobic policy.

That’s kind of impressive, to weave all those things together, even if it was done in a fashion that was, for me, less than coherent. I wonder if a more expository approach would have blunted the impact of the combination of events, if disorientation is part of the intended aesthetic experience. The poem is included in a linked collection, The Bees Make Money in the Lion, which continues to explore the idea of this Mars colony. That title, by the way, evokes the Biblical Samson’s riddle pointing to a beehive within a lion’s carcass, itself a story with a wealth of interpretations, and juxtaposes it to the economics of worker bees. Like Oulipo, the concept interests me greatly and I admire the semantic crossconnections, even if I am a bit dubious about the poem itself.

And of course, as I’ve been saying all along, context is king. The cries of children in cages still ring in my ears, the sound of Republican heavyweight Corey Lewandowski’s abhorrent “womp womp” when told of a child with Down syndrome who was taken from her parents (call them asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, they are trying to negotiate a bizarre system with a built-in Catch-22 aimed at keeping them out for the express purpose of keeping their families safe) and put into what amounts to a confused, uncontrolled system so ad hoc and run with so little disregard for children and human rights that no one can explain just how the children will be reunited with their families, where they are all being kept (New York, Michigan, tents on the Texas border where temperatures consistently exceed 100 degrees), and, most troubling, just where the girls are. But corporations are making money, so what are these concerns. This is what colors everything now: disgust for the country that is my home, rage that it is done in my name as a citizen, and absolute impotence to stop it in the face of shameless greed, bigotry, and egotism that propels it. Protests, petitions, phone calls, donations may help us feel better, but I don’t see anything that can stop the boulder rolling down the hill, crushing what is left of America.

Pushcart XLII: David Meischen, “How to Shoot at Someone Who Outdrew You” (nonfiction) from Gettysburg Review 29:3

Krista Whitson: “Dance Halls of Central Texas”

Krista Whitson: “Dance Halls of Central Texas”

The morning I learned of Hank Locklin’s death, I disappeared right out of my life, jolted elsewhere by a single fragment of the deluge spilling from my web browser. March 9, 2009, was an ordinary Monday morning. A breeze drifted through my central Austin neighborhood. I was sixty years old. I’d long since quit listening to stations that call themselves country—that wasteland of loud pop ballads cowboyed up with twang, with steel guitar and fiddle. A name, then, a simple Internet death notice. A voice, singular as the whorl tipping my ring finger. Opening words to a song. And five decades dropped away beneath me.

Please help me I’m falling . . . in love with you.
Close the door to temptation, don’t let me walk through.

Complete story available online at Gettysburg Review

Music, for many of us, forms the backdrop of our lives. So many times a song, written by a complete stranger, crystallizes our state of mind in a way our own thoughts have resisted. I still remember how “Both Sides Now” summed up one summer. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” still breaks my heart, even though I’m a decade too young to remember WWII and the separations it was written to honor. And once it a while, God help us, even Madison Avenue captures the essence of a moment, as so many of us recalled when “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” played on the final Mad Men episode.

Meischen’s memoir traces his evolving understanding of love through song. As a child, then a teenager, growing up in Texas, a boy on a farm raised by parents who’d known hard knocks and tragedy, the weekly outings to the dances at Rifle Club Hall were a way of connecting life with living through the polka and the jitterbug. And at the same time, he began to realize that his father’s life was not a perfect fit for him.

It would be years before Meischen discovered words like gay or found a way to forge a life that felt comfortable. But music – country songs at first, then the piercing “Unchained Melody” – knew how he felt, though it took him a long time to work his way towards what he needed.

This is not a story about confrontation; it’s about cherishing one’s roots while discovering one’s wings.

I am my father’s son. I didn’t see it at the time. I’m not sure he did either…. My father was a talker—storyteller, jokester, clown. He loved entertaining people, loved all eyes on him, all ears. I’m told I started talking at eighteen months. I can attest I haven’t stopped since. I’ve been turning my life into stories for as long as I can remember. I can play the clown with the best of them.
A confession: When I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, I saw my father as impossibly moody, impossibly judgmental, his moods and judgments tinged by anger. I promised myself—promised—that I would not be a moody, angry father. Thirty years went by, and then one day in my early forties, I woke to a stunning fact. I was a moody, angry father.
Flip sides of a coin. I share both sides with the man who fathered me.

The memoir is a chapter from Meischner’s memoir-in-progress; other chapters appear here and there in literary magazines. In an interview with Kelcey Parker Ervick, he describes himself as a literary late-bloomer. I respect those who take their time before taking flight.

Pushcart XLII: Nick Norwood, “Latchkey” (poem) from The Greensboro Review, Fall 2016

Photo by Alexander Harding

Photo by Alexander Harding

Remember the first time
you let yourself in—
stunned by the sheer
silence of it all,
 
the sunlight blooming
on mute, blank-faced
walls….

We don’t know why this kid is now coming home to an empty house; maybe we don’t need to know. We can’t be sure whether he’s excited or scared; probably both, as he runs with a burst of energy, yelling at the sun to go away so he can be alone. Does he see it as a threat? An intrusion on his privacy? It’s probably something he never noticed before, just as, when we’re trying to fall asleep at night, we hear quiet sounds that never made it to our consciousness during the noisy day.

But even a kid’s energy can’t continue forever, so…

…eventually
you dropped
into your mother’s chair
and watched
 
that same sunlight creep
silently across floors,
up walls,
and let itself out.

His mother’s chair: an important detail. Almost like a hug, sitting in that chair, I’d imagine, comfort and safety surrounding him. That gives him breathing room, enough to observe, to watch, and to learn that, if you have a safe place, even the scariest things might turn out to be kind of interesting, kind of beautiful, and you just might miss them when they go away.

I love the image of the sun moving around the room. Many years ago, there was a TV commercial for something, windows or shades maybe, that showed a sped-up beam of sunlight moving across a room as the day progressed and the light angles changed. At the time, I wished I could do something to capture that in my living room. I never thought I’d find it, captured for me, in a poem.

Pushcart XLII: Rebecca Hazelton, “Gunpowder” (poem) from Southern Indiana Review, Fall 2016

What if I did request that incendiary
                                                  touch, the slow-burn
                    of all too much, the bleaching kiss of a man
who twisted my mouth
                    into the words he wanted to hear?
                                                                                If it’s written, it’s written,
but what’s read differs.

When I saw this poem was nominated by Alan Michael Parker, I expected a twist of wry humor. Maybe that’s the case, and I’ve just had all the humor drained out of me over the past 18 months. The poem is, however, clever, and maybe that’s a better way to think of humor anyway.

The first few lines work with rhyme and rhythm. Some of that carries through – the wordplay of friction and fiction – but I’m left torn between the violence of love and the violence of violence, and why am I so obsessed with violence? I suppose gunpowder comes with its implication of violence, no matter how you arrange the words.

A section in the middle references alchemy, and feels right, even if I’m still not sure where the fire is or what’s being burned. Although alchemy has a rep for being all about turning stuff into gold, it’s really about finding ways to adjust substances by adding and subtracting fire, water, earth, air, and who knows what into the perfect ratio, the expected result being that perfect metal which (in the ancient/medieval mind) is incorruptible. And if metal can be perfected, why not the body? We all remember the factoid that Chinese invented gunpowder, and, by the way, the discovery was made by alchemists looking for the elixir of life, the substance that would purify the body, make it incorruptible. And if the body, why not the soul? Is that what love is, the purification of the soul, and our speaker is purging fire?

So after groping fruitlessly for a while, I turned to Google, and found an interview with exactly what I needed: “…[T]he inspiration for this poem came from Francis Bacon who said the printing, gunpowder and the compass altered ‘the face and state of the world.’ This poem uses composition of gunpowder as a metaphor for a challenging relationship.” As usual, I was trying too hard; it’s really right there on the page.

I said love, and that is a match.
                    I said believe me, and that was powder.

What an interesting change of tense: the saying of love was in the past, but the equating it with a match is in the present; the believing is all in the past. It’s the recognition, perhaps, that love is a match, that is present, a post-game analysis of what went wrong. Believe what? The love? Followed by… the flight of fear, of too much? Or a betrayal that proved the love false?

“I fell into a burning ring of fire” sang Johnny Cash. June Carter wrote the song, about Cash, when he was still married to his first wife. Nothing to do with the poem, really, except.

Pushcart XLII: Kaveh Akbar, “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy” (poem) from zyzzyva #107

BevShots: Liquor under a Microscope

BevShots: Liquor under a Microscope

You’re in a car and crying and amazed
at how bad it feels to do bad things….

Complete poem available online at Zyzzyva

If there’s one thing addicts love to do, besides their addiction, it’s talk about their addiction. Or, in this case, fantasize about it. It does feel bad to do bad things, but somehow, like multiplying two negatives equals a positive, it feels good, too. So we take a little tour of bits and pieces from a nightmare, without having to live the nightmare.

I have a very low tolerance for addiction literature. Sure, it’s powerful since it taps into all the energy zones – self-destruction, acting against self-interest, danger, pain, death – but I just find it all boring. But it does, in this case, make a nice little poem, neatly wrapped up by the last couple of lines:

It’s so lucky,
this living forever all at once. When you turn
 
on the lights, you’re inconsolably
glad. You could stop this whenever, but why?

Why indeed? The glad is worth it all.

Yet when I read a review of Akbar’s chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic, dedicated “for drunks”, and from which I assume this poem comes, I wonder if I’m putting too much emphasis on the “relapse” of the title, which to me signals recovery. Maybe not so much. Though it isn’t evident in this poem, the collection, the collection includes several references to Akhbar’s Muslim background. Per Seth Copeland’s review, “drunkenness in the Islamic literary tradition is a long and time-honored metaphor. For what? Abandonment to God, a cessation of the self—but not so here; no. Here it’s real, it’s coarse, it’s dangerous.” Just like the real thing.

Demons and angels and gods, oh my! mooc

Course: Oriental Beliefs: Between Reason and Traditions
Length: self-paced; 8 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium)/edX
Instructor: ~24 instructors
Quote:

This course takes a journey through the world of beliefs as they have developed in a great variety of cultures, ranging from Ancient Egypt, the Near East to Central Asia, India, China, and the Far East. We will discuss where these beliefs, theories and practices originated from, how they were passed on over the ages and why some are still so central to large communities of believers across the world today, whether it be amongst Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or Shintoists.
We’ll be dealing with everything from gods and spirits, to angels and demons, to afterlife and the netherworld, as well as the great cycles of the universe and the tremendous power of lunar and solar eclipses. The interpretation of dreams and all sorts of magic and miraculous deeds will also be covered during this course.

Short version: Enjoyable survey course, covering a broad range of interesting topics with a couple of deeper dives towards the end.

I’ve said several times in the past that I tend to have trouble with survey courses, that I prefer depth to breadth. Still, while there were a few “catalog lectures” early on (this god does that, this demon does the other thing), I found many of the units quite interesting – and last three weeks were great.

It’s self-paced, with all material available at the outset. I completed it in about four weeks. The course twitter account sent messages once a week about the course and some of the material covered.

The first week opened with the usual introduction, including geographic and thematic scope and a word about interdisciplinary methods used. I was relieved to find the elephant in the room – the word “Oriental” in the title, which to me felt like fingernails scratching on a blackboard – was addressed in these introductory lessons, with an acknowledgement of the critique leveled in the Edward Said book which tarnished that word for some of us.

However it should be clear that where universities still have “Oriental Studies” as an administrative department of teaching and/or research, such as the Université catholique de Louvain, it has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of sensitivity with regard to the problem just alluded to, and even less to do with a neo-colonial attitude towards the languages and cultures under scrutiny. Instead, the survival of such departments should be understood almost entirely in terms of institutional politics, numbers of students, and budgetary considerations.
While acknowledging the historical fact that Oriental Studies as a discipline originated in these universities in times when an ethnocentric approach was a norm unchallenged by anyone, the “Oriental Beliefs” team is fully aware of the global nature of its audience and we have done our utmost to avoid any kind of “Eurocentrism”, bias or prejudice.

The material was arranged, not by culture or region as might be expected, but by topic: a week on gods, another on angels and demons, then the afterlife, astrology, and magic. I would guess the idea is to get a cross-cultural perspective on these themes. Astrology and alchemy, where so much material was passed via translations and adaptations, was particularly rich in this. I was a bit surprised gods, angels, and demons weren’t explicitly connected across cultures (the nature theme, for example), since it seemed to me there were obvious similarities and differences. I probably should have been more active on the forums to discuss these.

The roster of 24 different lecturers allowed for a great deal of diversity in what was covered and how it was presented. This approach comes with advantages and disadvantages: there’s a loss of connection, since there’s no one instructor (some of us have attachment issues, y’know?), but it also allows different approaches. I had several favorites; whether it was the material, or the presentation, I can’t be sure (that would be a cool research project for mooc learning, by the way). I found the lectures on Buddhism to be nearly incomprehensible (I stuck with my interpretation – Buddha was an agnostic who incorporated Hindu gods as a marketing tool – and moved on), but 23 out of 24 is still excellent any way you cut it.

The graded material consisted of brief quizzes (“training exercises”) at the end of some units, about five per week. Most of the questions were multiple choice; a few were matching or short-answer, one was a self-graded short-answer essay. The final exam counted for 60% of the grade; it covered all seven weeks of material, so I was very glad I used Cerego as a study aid for this course, as I was refreshing my memory on earlier material all along. The material isn’t hard, it’s just that there are a lot of different parts that interrelate, and it’s easy to get them confused.

I greatly enjoyed, somewhat to my surprise, the material on astrology and astronomy, magic, and alchemy, and, even more surprisingly, sorting out the Egyptian gods and theogony (I’ve always been distinctly uninterested in ancient Egypt, but it seems there was a way to intrigue even me). I also found the centuries-long ever-evolving story of the acheiropoieton, the miraculous portrait of Jesus “not painted by human hands”, to be of great interest. I also loved the last week, a more in-depth case study of another continuing saga of a miracle, this one from Coptic Egypt involving the moving of a mountain. Manuscripts got into the act, and, well, manuscripts, what else can I say. I feel like I finally have some understanding of Copts beyond “Egyptian Christians.” That, to me, is the real value of these types of courses: we feel more connected to places we’ll probably never go, places like the Muqattam area of Cairo, Ise in Japan, Armenia, and Georgia. These days, we need all the connection we can get.

It’s a class well worth taking for a broad overview, and a brief glimpse into what more in-depth work might involve, hinted at in the introductory remarks: “Most of the time, in fact, you will be implicitly exposed to methodologies deriving from a variety of fields, including archaeology, history in general, the history of ideas, the history of religions, the history of literature, and the branch of philology called textual criticism or (in a larger sense), textual scholarship.” Oooh, now there’s a mooc I want to take! We got a glimpse of this during the last two weeks, in the tracing of the miraculous portrait and the moving of the mountain. I hope to discover more along those lines in future moocs.

Pushcart XLII: Tarfia Faizullah, “I Told the Water” (poem) from Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2016

Joerael Je: A Cup holds Water so do We 2016

Joerael Je: A Cup holds Water so do We 2016

I told the water             You’re right
     The poor are
                             broken sidewalks
     we try to avoid

Audio recording available online on Soundcloud

This is the third Faizullah poem I’ve encountered now, and each one has a haunting mood, a voice I find compelling even though I’m not entirely sure what the subject is. It’s that voice that keeps me hooked, rather than impatient, the sound of the words somehow conveying there’s something here worth hearing, if I can only find out how to listen.

The poem starts with poverty and moves on to lying “facedown in dirt”, the speaker becoming “hieroglyph a wet braid caught in your throat”. War and the urge to defy gravity. A “graveyard of windows”. And in the end, defiance:

Last night I walked out onto your ice
                                                    wearing only my skin
           Because you couldn’t tell me            not to.

I thought of hurricanes. I suppose that’s because the chaos in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria is still very much with us. And I still vividly remember Katrina, since a couple of friends of mine lived in Metarie and were incommunicado for quite some time (they were fine, they left, if far later than they should have). It’s always the poor these disasters strike worst: people with houses built on flood plains, people living in trailer parks or in substandard homes, people who can’t afford to evacuate or rebuild or invest in insurance policies. On a grander scale, it’s the world’s poor who suffer the most from climate change, which boils down to changes in water distribution and access.

But, as well as that fit, I left something out.

Faizullah lives in Michigan, an hour away from Flint, where residents were poisoned for two years by lead in their drinking water after the state government saved a few thousand by using unsafe pipes, while installing bottled water coolers in government offices so those making the decisions would not share in the consequences. As Faizullah says in a PBS interview, ““I was thinking about things like helplessness and poverty and allocation of resources…” And even those of us on the road of good intentions might forget Flint, in the wake of newer crises.

The poem is included in her recently released book Registers of Illuminated Villages, a collection of all the places undone by the imbalance of poverty and power.

Whether Flint, or Puerto Rico, or New Orleans or Bangladesh, water is both survival and danger. I see now how the poem captures that, the speaker admiring, and fighting, the water, and the invisible power behind it, giving voice to those who have none.

Pushcart XLII: Louisa Ermelino, “The Ménage” from Sarabande Books

I didn’t know Rosie then, when she lived on the beach in Calangute with her old man and the English couple. I could see her from my house when she would come out in the mornings to sweep. They were all four of them tall and beautiful, I remember, both the English girl and Rosie with wild red hair. They kept to themselves and I wasn’t interested in new friends. I was too busy licking my wounds.

Think of this as Eat, Pray, Love for the dysfunctional.

It starts out the same way: our narrator travels the world to heal her broken heart. In India, she notices the intriguing group, but never meets them. After a while she tires of sex and drugs – “I was done with the East” – and moves on to Australia, where she crosses paths again with Rosie. At this point she becomes an observer-narrator, someone Rosie can tell her stories to.

And Rosie has lots of stories.

I didn’t know the Ians and Rosies and Cynthias of the world, with their fearlessness, their disregard for consequences. They both attracted and repelled me.

I kind of feel bad for our narrator; given Rosie’s steadfast self-interest and lack of conscience, I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen after the story ends. But I suppose that’s another story, isn’t it. I like a story that ends with me imagining what happens next, not in an unfinished sense, but in a further-adventures way. And, as Rosie herself says, “Oh darling, have you not learned anything?”

The story is from Ermelino’s 2016 collection Malafemmena, “Cruel Woman”, which is also the title of a popular Neapolitan song from the 50s (thanks for the consult, Silvia!). For those of us intrigued by bad girls, or bad boys, stories are a far safer option.

Pushcart XLII: Andrew Solomon, “On Gay Parenting” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review

People often ask me when I came out, generalizing from the experience of many young people who announce themselves to the world on a particular afternoon. But I did not divorce my reticence in a single sharp break. Rather, I seeped out like a spreading wine stain. I told someone; I told a few more people; I denied what I’d said; I said it again, to someone else; I wished it away; I told my family; I denied it to the people I was sleeping with; I admitted it to those people; I denied it to my family; and so on. I had been completely closeted for two decades and I took another decade to declare myself even to myself….
Since then, coming out has been an almost daily exercise.

Complete story available online.

Those of us who have never had to explain or defend our sexuality might not understand the impact of coming out, but Solomon does a great job of comparing it to a separate issue: revealing his depressive illness. I think it’s a good analogy; those of us who struggle with mental illness are never sure how the person we’re revealing to will react. Maybe they’ll start to treat us like we’re about to flip out at the least provocation; maybe they’ll publicize it beyond our comfort zone; maybe they’ll deride it (my favorite reaction is always, Gee, I get depressed/anxious sometimes too, but I don’t call it an illness). Or maybe they’ll just say, Oh, ok, ask a few questions, and return to whatever the original topic was.

The article isn’t really about how gay couples parent their kids. Of course not; that would be silly, since gay couples parent the way any couples do: teaching, sometimes scolding, comforting, nurturing, disciplining. It’s more about how it feels to live in a world where the three-letter adjective matters so much to those outside the family.

New family structures are different from mainstream ones. We are not lesser but we are not the same, and to deny the nuance of that asymmetry is to keep us almost as ensnared as we were when our marriages and families were impossible. Acquiescence to historical standards is still commonly recognized as the essence of good parenting, but I would emphasize the equal power of imaginative breaks with tradition.

I came back to Miss Manners, oddly enough. Even in the 80s, the queen of propriety held to the belief that family events like weddings should be tailored around the family and participants, rather than tailoring family to fit some rigid template of What a Family Should Look Like (she was far more dogmatic on wearing black to weddings, or simplifying place settings).

Maybe we’re so determined to have everyone lined up in cookie-cutter fashion because it’s easier. Not on the parents, and not on the kids, certainly, but on the rest of the world, to have everyone fit a mold, so we can react to everyone the same way. It’s the same thing with accents, languages, religious customs: I think a lot of the push towards conformity comes from those who simply don’t want to have to work so hard to learn to pronounce names or can’t bear to see a guest eat salad at a barbecue. Maybe we need support groups for such folks, so the rest of us can just live our lives.

Pushcart XLII: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Dispatch from Flyover Country” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review, Summer 2016

The Midwest is a somewhat slippery notion. It is a region whose existence—whose very name—has always been contingent upon the more fixed and concrete notion of the West. Historically, these interior states were less a destination than a corridor, a gateway that funneled travelers from the east into the vast expanse of the frontier. The great industrial cities of this region—Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis—were built as “hubs,” places where the rivers and the railroads met, where all the goods of the prairie accumulated before being shipped to the exterior states. Today, coastal residents stop here only to change planes, a fact that has solidified our identity as a place to be passed over. To be fair, people who live here seem to prefer it this way. Gift shops along the shores of the Great Lakes sell T-shirts bearing the logo Flyover Living. For a long time, the unofficial nickname for the state of Indiana was “Crossroads of America.” Each time my family passed the state line, my sisters and I would mock its odd, anti-touristic logic (“Nothing to see here, folks!”).

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

I have a lot of trouble with the notion of “flyover states”. It seems to me most of the US is a big flyover zone to New York and Washington. So let’s stick with “midwestern” since that seems more appropriate to the article anyway.

O’Gieblyn tells not just of her relatively recent life in Michigan, but compares it with her previous residence of Madison, Wisconsin, “the Berkeley of the midwest”, one of the “cities that lie within the coordinates of the region but do not technically belong there”. Then she mixes in some religion, courtesy of the remnants of a Bible camp that draws in believers every Summer.

I can understand the “anti-touristic logic” she mentions above. There’s a lot of that where I live, an area that gets a significant influx of tourists, hence income, in summer. Yet there’s a definite attitude of who’s local and who isn’t that goes deeper than “winter people”. I’ve lived here over 20 years, but will never be a Mainer because I wasn’t born here. By the way, notice on the map above: most of Maine doesn’t even get flown over.

Whether we call ourselves midwesterners or Californians or North Carolinians or whatever, it’s a matter of identity.

On Saturday nights, the camp hosts a concert, and my husband and I occasionally walk down to the Tabernacle to listen to whatever band has been bused in from Nashville. Neither of us is a believer, but we enjoy the music. The bands favor gospel standards, a blend of highlands ballads and Gaither-style revivalism. The older generation here includes a contingent of retired missionaries. Many of them are widows, women who spent their youth carrying the gospel to the Philippines or the interior of Ecuador, and after the service they smile faintly at me as they pass by our pew, perhaps sensing a family resemblance. Occasionally, one of them will grip my forearm and say, “Tell me who you are.” The response to this question is “I’m Colleen’s daughter.” Or, if that fails to register: “I’m Paul and Marilyn’s granddaughter.” It is unnerving to identify oneself in this way. My husband once noted that it harkens back to the origins of surnames, to the clans of feudal times who identified villagers by patronymic epithets. John’s son became Johnson, etcetera. To do so now is to see all the things that constitute a modern identity—all your quirks and accomplishments—rendered obsolete.

I have to shake my head when I hear for calls of ending “identity politics”. People are all about identity. Maybe the key to the Midwest is this idea of family identity, of stability. To some of us this feels like security; for others, it feels like a life sentence. For those of us whose families have scattered, other forms of identity fill in. We find new ways of creating social bonds. Just because we don’t share bloodlines doesn’t mean we can’t feel loyalty, trust, and reciprocity with others who share our identity. And those who enjoy one form of identity fear those who don’t share it, along with a natural resentment of those who would disparage it.

O’Gieblyn uses a fascinating conceit to structure the piece: smoke from the California wildfires moved across the midwest, changing the sunsets, including those in Michigan. She likens this to the winds of change that bubble up in places that don’t seem to have a lot to do with the neighborhood, be it new technology or ideas. It’s something from elsewhere. From away, as we say in Maine (or, as real cradle-to-grave Mainers, do). It seems ominous, unpleasant. And it generally clears out after a while. Real change happens slowly in flyover zones.

And this may be the point of the article published in 2016, the Year of the Flyover Voter. While some of us feel like we’re being yanked back to a past we thought we left behind, maybe, for some, it just seems like the sunsets are back to normal. That’s a divide far harder to overcome than geography. We could do it – we could heal, see each other not as threats but as interlocking parts of a whole, each valuable in our own right – but it seems there’s more profit, more power, in exploiting it.

Fat Chance: Counting & Probability mooc

Course: Fat Chance: Probability from the Ground Up
Length: 7 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk (self paced; this session open until October 2018)
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Benedict Gross, Joseph Harris, Emily Riehl
Quote:

Increase your quantitative reasoning skills through a deeper understanding of probability and statistics.
Created specifically for those who are new to the study of probability, or for those who are seeking an approachable review of core concepts prior to enrolling in a college-level statistics course, Fat Chance prioritizes the development of a mathematical mode of thought over rote memorization of terms and formulae. Through highly visual lessons and guided practice, this course explores the quantitative reasoning behind probability and the cumulative nature of mathematics by tracing probability and statistics back to a foundation in the principles of counting.

My experience with math moocs (I’ve taken about a dozen) has been: it all depends on where you’re starting from, and what kind of instruction/exercises work best for you. This course was perfect for me: it went over some basics I needed to review, and went just a little beyond my comfort zone. Both the “how it works” and the “how to do it” were covered clearly. There was enough repetition to build a kind of security, in both explanation and exercises. An occasional hint of goofiness made it fun. I got lost a couple of times, but plenty of signposts helped me find my way back. Perfect.

The seven units that comprised the course were released two at a time. I see now that each unit was expected to take two weeks (I really MUST start paying attention to introductory material and instructions) but I had no problem completing it all in four weeks. Each lesson, usually three or four per unit, featured a lecture video that gave the basics of the concepts to be covered, showed how important formulas were derived, and ran through an example or two. Each of these lessons was followed by a short set of 2 to 4 practice exercises, complete with an “office hours” step-by-step video, usually showing a slightly different way of working the problem than was presented in the lecture (I could have used a couple more of these in some units, but it was sufficient as is). Each unit ended with an evaluation problem set covering all the lessons of the week. The instructors were all personable and relatable; diagrams helped concretize abstract ideas, and little drawings brought in a little fun.

The practice exercises made up 20% of the grade – and, since they were mostly multiple choice and allowed unlimited attempts, were more or less “gimme” points. The weekly evaluations, also multiple choice but allowing 2 attempts, counted for 80%.

The first two units covered counting. Now, when I was in school back in the Dark Ages, counting meant… well, counting. 1, 2, 3, etc. You were done with it by 2nd grade. But it means more than that now (it probably always did, but way back in the days of yore, nobody thought it mattered). It’s all about permutations and combinations (in this class, referred to as sequences and collections, which is more familiar to programmers) with or without replacement, binomial and multinomial coefficients, x choose y. But it’s all put in very understandable terms: pulling marbles of different colors out of a bag, making anagrams, assigning dorm rooms of different sizes to a group of students.

The third unit covered the basics of probability, which boils down to: success over possibility, with slightly different twists depending on whether you’re dealing with coins, dice, or cards. Then we got into expected value in the fourth unit – why slot machines are a losing game – a topic I’ve seen several times in various contexts. Conditional probability in unit 5 – the Monty Hall problem, election probability – got a little scary but made sense. The sixth unit on Bernoulli Trials was one place I got lost – it was where I completely dropped the ball in a prior class – but eventually I caught on. Normal distribution, likewise, was tricky, but thanks to the Office Hours videos, I was able to work my way through it.

I found this course extremely helpful in my continuing struggle to learn math, any math. I’m still concerned, because my grasp of all this is very context-dependent. For instance, I don’t really see the connection between Bernoulli trials, random walks, and distributions as covered in earlier classes, and as covered here. Maybe that means I just need to get a wider view.

And in that vein, the best part is: there’s more! In July, yet another HarvardX course, Intro to Probability, will begin, and the teaser video looks like a lot of fun (I’m a sucker for any math course that includes good animation). It doesn’t look like it was intended to be a Part II to this course, so I’m not sure how much is overlap and how much is new material, but I’m betting it’s going to be worth it either way.

Pushcart XLII: Kathleen Lynch, “Abracadabra” (poem) from Tule Review

Cover art (modified) from Ann Morgan's novel Beside Myself

Cover art (modified) from Ann Morgan’s novel Beside Myself

When mom wrung her hands over her many
& various worries, whispering I’m simply beside myself,
I tried to picture that diaphanous other version
 
of our mother – not a ghost, but not all there like
a real body – a mystery vapor-vision that mimicked
her hand-wringing, pacing – always beside her.

Idioms and slang can be confusing to kids. I can remember, when I was a sheltered kid old enough to know better, really, being away at Bible camp and hearing our cabin counselor tell us about some interpretation of scripture: “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but this means…” I looked at all our ten-year-old toes pointing to the center of a rounded rectangle, and moved my own feet back under my bunk to protect them. On another occasion around the same time, I had an earache, and the aunt I was staying with for the summer told my uncle she had to call my father for money, because “a doctor visit can cost $10 a shot.” (Yes, it was that long ago). I started to cry, because I didn’t like shots, not at all.

Lynch takes these innocent misunderstandings and uses them as a storytelling device, taking us through her life from the innocence of childhood to the reality of the adult who knows exactly what it is to lose one’s head, to be beside oneself (which, by the way, is related to ecstasy from the Greek ekstasis, “out of place”). We flip forward to see how the speaker, as an adult, experiences being outside herself, with the metaphorical bleeding into the literal in a bit of fancy.

More often than not, we turn into our moms. Drives us crazy, but there it is.

Pushcart XLII: Anne Ray, “Weekend Trip” from Gettysburg Review, Summer 2016

On our way to the yearly party Yahlie’s friends throw, we encounter a woman and her baby. The drive is one day from Santa Fe to Amarillo, one to Austin. Maybe Yahlie and I will do it in less, with our feet up on the dash and Styrofoam cups of soda in the cup holders. She and I felt the need to get out of town. In our house, the stereo is broken, and we can’t find the cable to hook up the VCR we found. Texas feels like a step down from where we’ve come from, devilish and mean. Her friend Kirsten, who Yahlie says is belligerent and doesn’t listen, said we could stay for a while, which we might. We have $220 between us.

Complete story available online at Gettysburg Review

So many stories and poems live and breathe in tone, something conveyed not by nailing down timelines or plot points, but something far more subtle: a kind of unease, a sense that something’s happening just out of sight. I’m still not sure exactly how it’s conveyed – and it requires reader participation, to be sure – but as I read this story, both times, I could feel a dry heat, yellow dust settling on my skin, until the very end.

It’s a road trip within a road trip: Kate and Yahlie, a couple of college-dropouts-turned-catering-waiters head to a party, and along the way find themselves on a side trip, courtesy of the woman running the antique store they happen to explore. But on a deeper level, it’s about recovering from great loss, with the help of a friend.

I’m not sure if I’m overreading, but it seems to me lots of things take on great significance through reference. “Out here it’s more yellow than gold, and nothing at all is green” – am I still too attached to Ponyboy or is this right out of Frost, adding in yellow as a cheap imitation of gold? The woman in the vintage store has a baby named Pearl, which always brings me back to the Pearl of great price from the Bible via The Scarlet Letter. The story lingers on the name, as the woman dismisses her own: Beverly, which she says has no meaning. But it does: one who lives near the beaver stream. She’s wearing yellow. But in her store is a green wooden chair that Kate falls in love with. Which brings us to chairs: the wheelchair, and the brocade couch at the “installation” at the Austin party – an installation that seems, with its brocade and shelves, to mimic the cheap vintage store that couldn’t find space in Austin. The baby in the antique store: there’s something there about past and future, while the present isn’t going very well.

And doors. Lots of doors. A metaphorical door Kate slams shut on Yahlie over a simple question, a reaction that seems inexplicable until a few pages later. Real doors, like the shop door that keeps the green chair safe – or holds it hostage until it’s redeemed. A door that won’t open until Kate, who understands doors (and roofs, and windows, and chimneys, and soffit, rake, and slope from her architecture studies, abandoned at the last minute) puts her boot to it. “I knew where to kick.”

There’s a wonderful moment where Kate characterizes their conversation as “a little like Franz Liszt playing the piano, a little like prison inmates” only to illustrate this when Yahlie comes out with “We’ll go right after this. You’re not comfortable with other people’s discourses.” I do that sometimes. I used the phrase “ethos of violence” at a party once, and the woman I was talking to looked aside and smiled. I think she was laughing at me.

It’s not until the end of the story that we finally get what we’ve been feeling, but not understanding, all this time. And Kate asks Yahlie a crucial question, and gets the reassurance she has been desperately needing, all this time:

“It just might not be in the cards for me,” I say.
What I don’t say is, Because if I ever sat still I might die. Because I don’t believe I’ll ever be lucky, because I think I’m a slum. Because right here, it’s enough.
“Yes, it is,” she says, softly, her eyes ringed in gold.
The certainty of it! It felt like a gift. I wondered if this was the moment when a door might open, when this feeling would become something I could just pass through the window, or sell to someone for a high price, or just abandon on a wooden sidewalk.

And the doors, the chairs, the gold and green and pearl, all come together and brush away the yellow dust, and I can breathe freely again.

I noticed the nomination notation at the end of the story: Robert Long Foreman, who I “met” a few years ago when his story was in Pushcart 2014. I’ve had a few brief Twitter conversations with him, and at one point he graciously agreed to my request to answer questions about his work to an online writing workshop. So, as I’ve done with a couple of writers in the past, I asked why he nominated the story. I learned something interesting about Pushcart: authors can be nominated. He had nominated Ray; he didn’t read this particular story until it appeared in the anthology:

I remember thinking the story was one that accomplished a lot given its limited space–that it did what a certain kind of good short story does, which is to tell a story that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. The meaning that the story creates somehow exceeds the number of words in the story. I’m always bowled over by that, when it happens.

That seems to be one of the secrets of art: something beyond technique, a kind of cramming a thousand clowns into a tiny car so the reader can watch them spill out, and marvel at how it was all done. I keep reading, trying to find out, but maybe no one really knows.

Human Rights Philosophy and Theory mooc

Course: Human Rights Theory and Philosophy
Length: 12 weeks, 8-10 hrs/wk
School/platform: Curtin University (Australia)/edX
Instructor: Dr. Caroline Fleay et al
Quote:

The course commences through exploring the development of the conventional understanding of universal human rights and then moves to critiquing this concept from cultural relativist, postmodern, postcolonial and feminist perspectives. It also examines understandings of human rights from a range of cultural and religious perspectives as well as other contemporary rights issues.

Last year, after completing two of the Louvain international law courses, I started their Human Rights mooc; I dropped it quickly because I was exhausted from all the legal reading I’d been doing. So I was very glad this course came along, a more philosophy-based approach to human rights. While the legalese was greatly reduced, it was a course that took itself seriously, possibly because it’s part of a MicroMasters program Curtin offers in Human Rights. When taken as a Verified (i.e., paying) student, can be used to apply for admission to the degree program (as well as, I believe, earning credit in that Masters program, but check the details for yourself).

Each of the 13 weekly lessons consisted of two or three academic papers, and about 45 minutes of lecture divided into two videos. The videos were mostly voice-overs covering prepared slides (available as a separate download). You could read the transcripts, download the slides, and read the articles without watching the videos at all. The lectures were well-organized and followed the slides very closely.

Grading material took two forms: discussion board posts, which counted for 20%, and two peer assessed essays, which were 30% and 50% each. Verified students had their essays graded by the ad hoc mooc professor who also covered the discussion board. The assignments were very general – basically, sum up some part of the lectures for the period covered – yet the criteria were very specific. Sample essays were provided.

As I said, this course takes itself seriously, and the assignments reflected that: I flunked both essays. That’s not a complaint; because I was taking the course for my own purposes, I wrote about what interested me rather than worrying about criteria. In a less serious course, that sometimes works, but here, not a chance. Be forewarned if you want to take it for credit or as a path to admission: take the sample essays seriously. By the way, though I fell below the 70% pass mark on both essays, the discussion points brought me just barely up to snuff in the end. Be mindful, though, that to use the course as admissions criteria, a higher score is required (80%, I believe).

Week 1 started with a general look at human rights. Week 2 got into Locke, Hobbes, Marx, and all of the usual suspects (I’ve taken several political philosophy OCWs and the same crew always shows up), negative and positive rights. Mary Wollstonecraft was included, which was nice, since all lectures included the caveat that rights, as declared by the “classic liberals”, were for white property-owning men only (Jeet Heer would approve). In Week 3 the process of drafting and approving the UN Declaration on Human Rights was covered, along with its major provisions.

Then we moved into some critiques of the UDHR: particularly from the postmodern, postcolonial, and non-Western views. This was an eye-opening part of the course for me, and while I loved the review of early philosophy, I found weeks 4, 5, and 6 most valuable in terms of ideas new to me. Weeks 7 plus looked at critiques of the Western HR narrative from various points of view: indigenous populations, feminists, LGBTQ activists, the disabled, asylum seekers, and environmental activists.

All of these held interesting material. For example, the indigenous section was taught by Carol Dowling, a professor of aboriginal descent whose twin sister Julie is an artist painting pieces that the experience of the Australian aboriginal peoples and their family specifically. The section on rights for the Disabled included a TED talk by journalist/teacher/comedian Stella Young, who I’ve seen before in several venues; she passed away in 2014. The week on asylum seekers and refugees was heart-wrenching, given the frustration level I and so many Americans feel about our current administration’s refusal to provide more assistance.

I found it a valuable course; the ideas are very much worth understanding. It was, however, a lot more academic and less companionable than some moocs, and may not be the best starting point for some. I’ve often mentioned moocs that boiled down to “Youtube and a quiz”; this was more like “a podcast and two hours of reading you sum up for academic credit.” I wonder if that’s because it has to take itself seriously, in order to be taken seriously by academia; and I wonder if that’s a paradigm that can be changed to broaden the field.

Pushcart XLII: Pui Ying Wong, “Language Lesson for One” (poem) from Constellations #6

If I knew French
I would speak its music,
its melancholy.
 
If I knew French
I would ask questions
like how much, where is,
 
be comfortable with words
like money, lost.

I’ve been trying to figure out what gives this poem its tone. From the very first stanza, I had a particular flavor of sad; melancholy, ok, but more specific than that. Is it just that word, melancholy, in there? I don’t think so. I tried substituting other words – tonality, lyricism, variety, joy – and arrived at the same place. Of course, it’s impossible to unring the bell, so maybe once I had it in my head, that was it.

But I think it’s more than the suggestion of that one word. It’s also the bareness of the poem, the short lines, simple words. I don’t doubt the power of subtle associations – words like comfortable and lost coming up, the solitariness implied by the title itself – but I think there’s something about the sounds of the words. I’m reminnded of the “absolute rhythm” that came up a few poems ago, of Pound’s insistence on “an absolute rhythm, a rhythm . . . in poetry that corresponds exactly with the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” This poem just might have such a rhythm. I can’t define it, but I can feel it.

And then I had another association: the French composer Erik Satie, whose minimalist anthem Gymnopaedia #1 shows up on soundtracks all over. As a teenaged piano student of absolutely no talent but much determination, I dismissed Satie as being baby music. What’s this, four or five notes per measure? No accidentals, no key or time signature changes? Let’s go back to Mozart or Chopin, real music! It wasn’t until I matured that I came to appreciate how evocative a simple melody line can be. This poem was meant to be read over Satie, while holding the Pound dissertation.

I wonder if the stanza structure is significant. As I see it, the poem has two halves, with a solo stanza in the middle. The first half, 3 lines times two, then two lines times three describing the acquisition of French, and the verb book the speaker has found, “4000 of them pressed together”. The single two-line stanza, “This afternoon / no one needs it more than I” allows a kind of turn inward, a plan of sorts to find the needed word. In this half, again we have two 3-line stanzas, but only two 2-line stanzas. It’s as if a stanza is missing, making the poem non-symmetrical. A poem about what is absent?

And then at the very end, we find out what emotion the absolute rhythm has been telling us all along:

Like the word for loneliness,
not the one that means
without friends or love
 
but the kind you find
between horizon and the sea,
 
or homesickness,
the kind you feel when you are home.

Melancholy. Loss. Rescue. Needs. The Satie-esque absolute rhythm. It all adds up now, to a feeling, a particular kind of missing, for which there is no name.

Pushcart XLII: Philip Connors, “Burn Scars” (nonfiction) from N+1 #25

I thought I heard a shout from far below….
The shout came twice more before I recognized the voice and hollered back. It belonged to Teresa, fiancée of my friend John, whom we had both been mourning for three weeks…. During a dozen summers of lookout duty I had mostly spent my nights in a cabin at ground level, in another mountain range entirely, but there was no cabin on John’s peak, only the tower — a spacious live-in model. I invited Teresa up the stairs, feeling almost embarrassed at having to proffer an invitation. She had spent far more time there than I had, hanging out with John; I was merely an emergency fill-in, on loan from a different ranger district twenty miles east. A fire there the previous summer had left my home tower surrounded by a 214-square-mile burn scar: a bird’s nest marooned in a charscape. There wasn’t a whole lot left to catch fire in that country, so my boss figured he could spare me for a few weeks while I covered John’s shifts on Signal Peak, and my relief lookout worked extra to cover mine.

I remember having read a short story featuring a fire lookout. It’s an interesting setting for a story, full of associations – wilderness, caution, protection, vigilance, risk. But this is not fiction. Connors worked as a fire lookout, wrote a book about it, and now tells another episode in this piece.

It’s an elegy of sorts, a kind of mourning song for both John, whose death came not by fire but by a trail accident, and the wilderness as it burns and tries to grow back. But fire isn’t the only danger, as the wilderness itself is encroached on by people – and, as he points out in the essay, fires started by people tend to do more damage than those started by lightning.

This is beautiful writing, lyrically weaving all those themes together as Connors and Teresa prepare to return John’s ashes to the wilderness he spent so much time protecting. I’ve said many times I’m not a nature person, but even I can be alarmed by the loss of woodlands at the hands of both fire, and development. What’s particularly interesting is the implied respect for fire. This isn’t an enemy to be conquered or feared; it’s a force with which we share the earth. It’s a tone I’ve heard in accounts of city firefighters as well.

In 1947, forest fires destroyed huge swaths of Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island, up the coast from where I live. I’ve driven through some of those areas. They still have the acrid smell of burning pine, seventy years later.

Although it’s a long piece, it reads quite easily. Nevertheless I found my mind wandering. I’m just not made for nature. But I recognize, and admire, love when I see it, be it love for a friend, or a forest.

Anatomy, the Yale way (mooc)

Course: Anatomy of the Chest, Abdomen, and Pelvis
Length: 4 weeks, 5 – 10 hrs/wk
School/platform: Yale/Coursera
Instructor: various
Quote:

This course has two main aims. The first aim is to teach you the language of medicine, and the second aim is to teach you to learn how to reason in three dimensions. Put in a more simple way, we’re asking you to learn how to see and feel what you cannot see.

Short version: These folks aren’t fooling around: if you want a detailed anatomy course without any frills, this is it. For me, it worked fine, but I think there are better options for anatomical novices.

I’d just completed the 16-week Anatomy series from Michigan when I signed up for this. I was hoping for more detail, and boy, did I get it. But there was a downside. This is not so much a mooc – that is, a cohesive course – as it is a collection of videos. Because I spend a lot of time thinking about literature, I started thinking about narrative. This is what happens when a course lacks narrative. It isn’t necessarily deal-breaker – the information is there and, drawing upon experience and using other techniques to stay oriented and motivated, it’s workable – but it certainly is a less pleasant, less engaging experience.

The course consisted of four weeks, each with one or two units: introduction/chest and lungs; mediastinum/heart; abdomen; pelvis and perineum male and female. In general, basic anatomical detail with stylized diagrams was presented first in each unit, followed by detailed cadaveric dissections, often with live clinical or testing procedures interspersed. However, there was little connective tissue, so to speak; no effort to tie anything together, or provide any kind of pathway; the result was some material felt incomplete until much later, and some felt duplicated several times. I can’t say I “enjoyed” the course, but I can say I improved my understanding of anatomy.

I suspect the time estimate for the course – 4 weeks at five to ten hours per week – would be a bit tight for anyone trying to learn the material. It would be possible to pass the course in that time frame; it’s possible to pass most Coursera courses these days without even taking the courses, because you have unlimited tries at the exams. But learning the material? Getting a good picture in your head of what’s posterior to what and how nerves and arteries branch off? Recognizing structures on dissections? I suspect, for most of us who aren’t in medical school, that takes longer. I entered a lot of material into Cerego, so that took a great deal of time, but it also helped with retention (and will continue to remind me for months to come), and I consider it time well spent.

The first unit was a review of various anatomical planes and, with the participation of a live model decorated with markings, identification of external landmarks of various organs. Since this was new to me, I spent a great deal of time on it (I started the course early so took more like six weeks than the official four, but these courses are all self-paced anyway and roll over into the next session without penalty if they aren’t completed by the end date). Several videos covered imaging techniques – x-ray, CT, MRI, and ultrasound – from a light overview of technical foundations to a guide to reading images. It’s kind of a kick to see an MRI on Grey’s Anatomy and know, “Oh, that’s with IV contrast, supine.” And it’s really fun to hear Dr. Bailey refer to the SMA or the IVC and know what that is.

Then came the actual anatomy. While I still have a lot of trouble telling a nerve from a vein from an artery from a tendon on cadaver dissections, in this case the dissection was videotaped rather than photographed, and often proceeded from skin to deepest structures. Several warnings were provided, advising us that “some people find these images disturbing” and requiring an acknowledgement to continue. The chest would be incised, the skin peeled back, the muscles examined, explained, and reflected one by one, the bones sawed through and removed, and the deeper structures pointed out. This was a lot more helpful than an isolated labeled photograph of a dissection. Material also included endoscopic videos from bronchoscopy, upper and lower GI screening endoscopies, cystoscopy, and a laparoscopic gallbladder removal. And if you stick with it to the very end, you can see a penis dissected. Longitudinally, then transversely. I may never eat kielbasa again.

“Digital practical exams” followed each section (don’t worry, it’s not a prostate exam, it’s a kind of “click on the [phrenic nerve/ureter/psoas muscle]” thing off stills from the dissection or procedure videos). I found these quite difficult. First, there’s my difficulty telling a preserved nerve from a vein from an artery from a tendon, and second, the clickable areas were sometimes oddly construed. There was a kind of logic to it once I figured out any given structure; I could relate everything else to it. These tests weren’t graded other than for completion.

Ungraded multiple choice questions ended several of the videos; these tended to show up on the graded unit exams later, along with additional questions. The questions were often difficult, as they involved putting visual concepts into words: what structure is medial to the carotid artery, what’s posterior to the hilum of the lung, how does the piriformis muscle relate to the superior gluteal nerve? This requires having a good mental image of the anatomy, in order to translate it into verbal description. In general, I’d say the testing material was effective at reinforcing learning.

It was a cold class; the only people who appeared were in the first section on physical exam and external landmarks. Everything else was voice over image. I’m not sure if that was deliberate, or just convenient. One of the post-course survey questions was on course engagement, and I gave it a 0. Anatomy engages me; the course did not. I’ve read textbooks that were more communicative. But I’m not complaining; I was here for anatomy, after all. However, I’ve taken Duke’s neuroscience course, which was every bit as detailed and intense, and they managed to maintain a high degree of engagement and even community, so it can be done; it just requires attention to narrative.

Pushcart XLII: Erica Dawson, “Condition” (poem) from Bennington Review #2

If it don’t mean a thing without the swing
of a gavel, if a trace of doubt can trump
a circumstance, oh beautiful for skies
too small.
 
Today, the paper boasted this—
Five local policemen tied to the KKK—
italicized as if to shout, I’m new
 
here….

Complete poem available online at Bennington Review

The thematic elements start with police brutality and go from there. The poetic elements are set out in these opening lines: swing, trump, skies, the letter K. These are repeated throughout, but morph along the way: the swing becomes Frost’s “Birches” becomes wood used in an A-frame. It’s the kind of poem that just leaves you in a pool of images related by gossamer, and then it closes down with “If even this.” Which is pretty much how I’ve been the past week, hence the paucity of posts. I’m determined to break out of this, so I’m trying, but “if even this” is killing me.

So I apologize for not giving some of these recent entries their due. It isn’t that they don’t reach me, not at all. In this case, it reaches me all over, reaches me too much, reaches me to the point of tearing my hair, my heart, out.

Pushcart XLII: Thomas R. Moore, “How We Built Our House” (poem) from Moon Pie Press

We built our house of wind and salt,
of seeing and touching. Our shovels
 
bit in, our wooden-handled hammers
beat rhythms.

Complete poem available online

This has nothing to do with building a real house, of course, although it may have been inspired by a real house somewhere along the way: Moore lives Downeast (meaning midcoast Maine), has pretty much traveled the world, and seems to be the sort of person who might build his own house. But clearly, this house is the metaphorical variety.

The tone is set by that first line, the “wind and salt” image, things common to coastal Maine, things mundane and omnipresent yet taking great importance when needed. The routine work follows, with ordinary tools. Learning is necessary, of course, since no one is born knowing how to build a house, but the motivated can find ways to learn. Awe and mystery come into play, because don’t they always.

And finally, when all is done, the house is enjoyed to the fullest. Makes me want to sit on the porch, too, listening to the owl and watching the flowering fruit tree.