Pushcart XLI: Tatiana Forero Puerta, “Cleaning the Ghost Room” (poem) from Hawaii Pacific Review 2/25/15

Mami made me dust
the ghost room as she swept
the kitchen downstairs, washed the fruit-
shaped porcelain dishes.
I objected, tearing up and shaken, clutching
to the dust rag, heart pounding. She said,
it builds character of high caliber, camaraderie
with the spirits. You want the dead on your side.

Complete story available online at Hawaii Pacific Review

Most of us have deeply ingrained attitudes towards the dead, and fear probably ranks highest. To a young girl, the idea of dusting in a room where someone died – we never know who Mr. Traynor was, a tenant, a patient? – must’ve been terrifying. She imagines him in the rocking chair where he spent most of his time. But Mom saw it differently.

While the first four stanzas express the child’s discomfort and resentment, the last three acknowledge the lesson that was taught and the gratitude felt towards a mother who made her “wipe / the mirror clean to reflect my / fear up close”, to “see myself in its pupils.” And as mother prepares child for an inevitable eventuality, so the poem prepares us for the last lines.


Pushcart XLI: Steve Almond, “Dritter Klasse Ohne Fensterscheiben” from Ecotone #19

"Different Trains" by Steve Reich (composer) and Bill Morrison (filmmaker)

“Different Trains” by Steve Reich (composer) and Bill Morrison (filmmaker)

In the spring of 1889, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Constantinople for the first time. He was enchanted—by the Topkapi Palace, the promontories of the Golden Horn, and in particular (as the rumor went) the exotic gyrations of the Sultan’s harem. The German Emperor, then at the height of his power, became convinced that the destiny of his kingdom resided in the expansion of its frontier into what he whimsically called “the Sultan’s forlorn flank.”
The discovery of vast oil reserves beneath Iraq ratified this notion and led to the conception of the so-called Bagdadbahn, a railway intended to connect Berlin to the Persian Gulf. Using the Ottoman Empire as a fueling station and trade depot, Germany would challenge the imperial dominance of Britain and Russia.
Historians may debate to what extent these ambitions contributed to the First World War. This much is known: in 1912, the Deutsche Bank transferred Wilhelm Geist, a Jew of modest birth and steadfast manner, from Berlin to Constantinople to oversee the project.

If you think that story opening is so dry you have to blow the dust off it to read it, well, I won’t disagree with you. It’s kind of odd to encounter in the “knock their socks off with an exciting first paragraph” age. I suspect the story would be savaged in a workshop setting, and without Almond’s name, would never get out of the slush pile (a few months ago, my blogging buddy Jake Weber had similar comments about another Pushcart-winning story that would never have seen the light of day without a “name” attached to it. But I promise, here the detachment adds to the story, since it’s indicative of character. And, by the way, there’s plenty of action. A visit from the Kaiser. The tension of a project failing in the setting of a losing (literally) battle. A terrifying train ride. There’s also a great deal of emotional depth as the focus shifts from Wilhelm to his wife to their daughter over the years covered in 16 pages. And it all comes down to this: you can never outrun the past that made you who you are.

The Bagdadbahn was a real project in the early 20th century, and in fact still exists although its use is limited to certain stretches and purposes. Herr Geist, however, appears to be a fictional character, or at least his contribution is too obscure for Google. We start with his obsession to complete the railway, an obsession he never realized; it was abandoned at the end of WWI, and only completed in 1940, just in time for another war. But that’s not part of our story.

As it becomes evident that Germany is losing the war and Constantinople is in danger, Frau Geist (we never learn her first name) and child Leah board a train for Berlin; they will never see their husband and father again, only hearing of his death months later.

They make a larger journey than planned on that train ride, however. From a privileged life of respectful servants and social status, Frau Geist is now merely a homely defenseless Jew. While it will be a few decades before Germany adopts genocide as policy, their lives are changed. The train they ride is commandeered for military transport of wounded soldiers, and they are evicted from their comfortable compartment. It’s only by the grace of Frau Geist’s small stash of gold coins that they are not thrown off the train and abandoned in Hungary or Romania.

Frau Geist pulled Leah under her mink and whispered, “You see? We’ve found a cozy place to sleep!” Thick bodies resettled themselves against her, seeking warmth. She smelled the putrefaction of their wounds. The stars whistled and zoomed.
As dawn filtered into the car, Frau Geist surveyed the pine benches, the filthy water closet. Daggers of ice dripped from the window slots. Her shoulders jerked silently. Leah heard her mother murmur a single phrase with such bitterness it was as if the words were a poison released onto her tongue: “Dritter Klasse Ohne Fensterscheiben.”
Third class without windows.

With Geist’s train building obsession, and Frau Geist’s traumatic journey, and the general aura of Germany and war, albeit WWI, in mind, I couldn’t help but flash on Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”, a musical statement about the Holocaust. Sometimes we’re lucky we’re on the train we’re on; sometimes not. Sometimes we don’t know for years which it will turn out to be.

We see mother and daughter make it to Berlin, and out of Berlin just in time. We watch as their lives unfold in perhaps predictable ways. And then we see them come together again, since they are perhaps they are the only ones who can understand each other.

Leah picked up one of the anise biscuits her mother had set out with tea. It crumbled on her tongue. All women are hostages, she though suddenly. They believe themselves protected by beauty or wealth or powerful men. But in the end the world takes hold of them and they are left to protect themselves.

Like I said: it’s not a dry story at all. The initial tone sets it up like a relationship: the story only lets us come closer as we get to know these women better.

As I noted a few posts ago, Ecotone publishes fiction that shows a special connection to place, particularly transition between places: “a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.” Our characters move from Berlin to Constantinople to Eastern European railroad beds to Munich to New Jersey and Chicago, but nothing is ever left behind.

Whenever I read a story by Steve Almond, I think of his teeny-tiny book of writing advice/microflashes, This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey. One of those flashes got me to cry over Richard Nixon. Reeling me in to the Geist saga wasn’t ever in doubt. Love your characters, he advises. Push them up against their deepest fears. Turns out, all our deepest fears – failure, loss, loneliness – are pretty much the same, though they happen in many different settings.

The Twelve Weeks of Differentiation MOOC

Course: Calculus 1A: Differentiation
Length: 13 weeks,6-10 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: David Jerison, Jen French, Stephen Wang

How does the final velocity on a zip line change when the starting point is raised or lowered by a matter of centimeters? What is the accuracy of a GPS position measurement? How fast should an airplane travel to minimize fuel consumption? The answers to all of these questions involve the derivative.

I’ve taken three different calculus moocs in the past few years, and they’re all terrific in their own way. This was my second time through this one; I didn’t pass last time so I wanted to try again.

What I particularly like about the MIT courses is how they set up each topic with a series of lead-in questions. By the time you get to the actual instruction video, you’ve already seen a lot of what goes into the process, so it’s a natural extension of what they keep calling “intuition”. I’m not sure I’d call it that; I don’t think I have that much intuition about math, certainly not about calculus. There’s probably a sophisticated pedagogical term for this. Whatever it is, it helps. And yes, I managed a solid passing score this time.

It also helps that the two most frequently heard (if rarely seen) instructors, Jen and Steve, have a speaking style I like: calm, just the right speed, and with enough personality to forestall the “audio textbook” aura so many moocs have. I got to know Jen a little on the forums last time, and was very impressed with her patience and willingness to help us through questions. This time, the forums were primarily handled by a different instructor, Hanson, who was equally great to work with. Good people + good material = great class (some math is easy).

Though it’s 12 weeks long, this is only the first part of a series of three moocs designed to prep high schoolers for the AP Calculus exam. Integration starts in November, and Series/Sequences in the Spring.

The course starts with Week 0, a sort of optional orientation/prep week. No grades are recorded. There’s a set of prereq exams to gauge readiness, and a unit on limits for anyone who wants to get back into gear, as well as the opportunity for new users to get used to the platform.

The four content units are released every three weeks, a nice compromise between self-paced and scheduled; a missed week isn’t a catastrophe (and every deadline ended up extended anyway). Lots of questions and practice exercises are scattered in with the videos, and each unit has a final quiz with a part A – “nuts and bolts”, they call it – and part B, more application oriented. The timed final exam had a 48 hour window, which is a lot less stressful than requiring it all be done in one sitting. Each of these elements has a different impact on the ultimate grade.

The material consists of introductory intuition questions, videos by Jen and Steve, and occasional in-class lectures by Dr. Jerison. He’s a lot less warm and fuzzy about it all, but I’ve come to appreciate his style. After he goes through a step, he’ll pause, move to the side, and look around the room at the in-class students. I’m not sure if he’s checking for blank WTF faces, or just to see if most of them are done writing things down (or, for that matter, just catching his breath and finding his place in his notes), but it makes a nice rhythm that helps me to keep up. In terms of filming, I greatly appreciate that he gets out of the way of the board, allowing the live camera holder to adjust angles and zoom to incorporate everything. These are silly little logistical details that have nothing to do with math, but make it so much easier to follow.

I found the course far easier this second time around. I really don’t know if that’s because it was modified, or if something sank in over the past two years. I haven’t been working on calculus at all (though I do some math every day and have taken several math moocs and science moocs involving significant math, including just a whiff of calculus) , so I’m not sure what that would’ve been. One thing I’m pretty sure they added this time are “Recitation videos” explaining individual problems in great detail. These are part of the older OCW series; I found them extremely helpful, particularly those by Christine Breiner. They’re all available on Youtube or through the OCW site.

Though I’m feeling pretty good about doing so well, I realize that by this time I should be able to do this stuff in my sleep. The next course on integration will be a real challenge, since I’ve never been that comfortable with it and it was extremely difficult last time. IIRC, It’s also a lot less hand-holdy, with a lot more reliance on the in-class lectures by Dr. Jerison. But’s what’s next, so I’d best get to it. I did some review before this section, using Khan to refresh my memory on certain points; that’s probably more important for the integration course, so I should get started. I should. I should.

Pushcart XLI: Douglas Milliken, “Blue of the World” from Glimmer Train #94

May 24th, 1965
Walked the orchard line with the boy today after the service, from the house to the north end of the property. All the blooms had blown off the limbs, so just a foamy wash of white or dried-up yellow petals were left here and there on the ground. Very many small green apples have started, few much bigger than the head of a nail. The trees looked good. I do not much fear a late frost ruining everything that’s begun. But in this, I’ve been wrong before.

A mysterious start: who is “the boy”, why is he with the rancher, what was the service, why is there so much tension in these opening paragraphs? We don’t know for several pages that the boy isn’t a neighbor’s kid or some distant relative comet to visit but the rancher’s own son, and the service was the wife’s, the boy’s mother’s, funeral. The central mystery: how does a family recover from great loss?

We might think Dad is cold and hard, but then we see the colors. It’s a story told with color, the blue of the world in the title referring to, at one level, the pre-dawn night that brightens into dawn, though of course the meaning expands as the story proceeds. The sky, the flowers, horses, crops, all have colors, and this man we thought might be cold and hard records them in his diary, along with comments like “It’s hard to enjoy a thing when your memory of it is sweeter.” This is a man who is so engrossed in watching a black beetle on a brown stump pick at a dead bird that he misses the blue disappearing from the world. This is a man who takes weeks to refer to his son as our boy, a man who occasionally sees and talks to his dead wife. This is a deeply feeling, painfully wounded man slowly healing from fresh grief.

His son knows this too, doesn’t seem to need much comforting for his own grief. I wonder how much that costs him, how much anger will show up eventually when he’s able to express it. The roles are somewhat reversed, the son now the wiser parent, willing to let Dad mourn. But not indefinitely. He reminds Dad that, though he was taken out of school early, he will be returning in September. He tells his father the neighbor’s good will has a time limit. He even explains a common-sense version of the social-norms vs market-norms theory Prof. Dan Ariely researched: introducing money into a social relationship decreases, rather than increases, cooperation:

He said I was getting it all backward. Said we ought to have lent the mule to the Haskells for free as a favor, and only charged him if the beast got hurt or took ill. He insisted that favors are worth more than dollars, as the price of gold goes up and down but a favor is always a favor. At the very least, we should have traded services….
Then he did something that surprised me. He was squatting down in the potato mounds, but he’d stopped picking weeds. He was looking at his hands in the cool, dark earth. Then he said that people’s sympathy for me was wearing thin. He said I was eating up our neighbors’ goodwill by being a greedy fly. I told him sympathy was another name for cancer. I’d be happier when it was gone.

The story moves slowly, its rhythm one of diary entries that recount the realities of ranching amidst plain spoken lyricism. It’s one of the longer stories in the anthology, but I was buried in it throughout. Somehow I never thought in terms of resolution, and it’s just as well. The epiphany (yes, of course there’s an epiphany) was more implied than realized. Things could go either way for this family. But it was a remarkable read.

I discovered Milliken is another Maine writer, making that two in one Pushcart. I haven’t encountered him before, so I’m happy to make his acquaintance.

Pushcart XLI: Sara Batkie, “Laika” from New Orleans Review #41

Andrew Wyeth: "Christina's World"

Andrew Wyeth: “Christina’s World”

Babette came to the home the same week we got a television. They arrived three days apart, both dropped unceremoniously at the front door. Madame Durance never bothered much with the girls but was very put out by the lack of paperwork for the strange machine. “We need to keep track of these things,” she said, nudging the box with her sensible shoe. “What if it makes us all sick?” Hollis the orderly had it hooked up within an hour. It was 1957, the year Khrushchev looked up to a stardrunk sky and found a new world to conquer. We were all hankering for the unknown, though that could be hard to find in Nebraska.

I’m reminded yet again of my writer-friend Marko Fong describing a particular use of first person past as “memoir voice.” Transposed to fiction, it mimics nonfictional memoir, as it “assumes that the narrator and the ‘character/survivor’ are effectively two different first person ‘I’s.” This story makes great use of that: The distance of those 50 years gives the writer the ability to write the events in 1957 in a more mature voice, to imbue the ordering and details of the narration with insight atypical for a teenager, but readily available to the older survivor who is the narrator.

It was an unspoken rule that the girls not ask each other what brought them to Durance Home. It was simple enough to guess some of their troubles, the ones with space pod bellies already in orbit. They’d grow big, disappear for a day or two then return with bodies evacuated of their heroes. Nothing left but tears. The rest were dragged in by their mothers. I was brought by my brother, the only family I had, my slippery fingers having found their way into one pocket too many. He bought me a chocolate malted on the drive, the last ice cream I would taste until adulthood.

I loved reading this story; it’s full of small moments and observations that create an atmosphere for the subtle plot. Like the boys running alongside the bus the girls took on occasional field trips, waving and pressing their palms against the windows: “This was the only touch of a boy I’d ever known: partitioned, ghostly, and quick to fade. I liked it that way.”

I saw twin themes of isolation and hope weaving throughout the story. Not only are the three main characters isolated in their own ways, but the two prominent symbols of the story are as well. First, there’s Laika, the Russian space-dog who captures the narrator’s attention:

I thought about Laika, looked up at the sky above us, the impossible cradle that carried her. I imagined her passing through the stars, being accepted as one of their own, each small bright ball leading her gently along her path. I thought of her smile flashing across the television screen, all the hope she held in her, and I wished her safely home.

Another powerful scene introduces the narrator to Christina, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World”.

Her name was Christina, so the plaque said. Though suffering from polio, she refused the use of a wheelchair. The artist was inspired to paint her after watching her crawl across a field from a window in his house.
It must have taken her hours. What sort of person could just stand by and observe something like that? But it was a hopelessness there’s no helping. Like Laika. Like all of us, I suppose. Perhaps capturing it was all that could be done, was, in its way, the only chance of honoring it.

Wyeth’s comment on Christina: “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” At 14, the narrator knew both sides of hope, the -ful and the -less. Hopelessness is its own isolation, isn’t it. After this passage, I started thinking of the unnamed narrator as Christina: hobbled, but going forward in the way she knows best over a great expanse towards an isolated house. I’m grateful for the painter-writer, the survivor-narrator, with the patience to wait.

The plot hinges on the source of Babette’s pregnancy. She claims it’s another divine intervention; whether that’s from naiveté or shame isn’t entirely clear for some time,but eventually shows us another kind of hopelessness: the help that is not forthcoming. This becomes tied to the hopelessness of our narrator, who recalls Babette, Christina, Laika by name but doesn’t get a name herself (just as we never see Christina’s face, but only her weakened legs and her longing). Just as Madame Durance only gets part of a name, and then I know: she was the first generation of isolation by hopelessness.

Laika died in orbit. Our narrator reveals the details in a tribute to that “memoir voice” and the power of time to change perspective, to change reality itself. The plan was humane by standards of the time: she was poisoned by her last meal to prevent extended suffering as the craft was not designed to survive re-entry. This was November, 1957. It was not publicly known until 2002 that she actually died much sooner than was planned by failure of the heat control system; she cooked, alone in the capsule. Laika was, by the way, a stray, plucked from the streets of Moscow. And when we read here that the scientist in charge of preparing her for the mission took her home the night before launch to play with his kids – “I wanted to do something nice for her…. She had so little time left to live” – we can’t help but think of a 14-year-old taken for her last malted on the way to Durnace Home. I can’t help but think of our narrator, fifty years later, still there, finally, patiently, telling us the truth about Babette.

I found an extra delight waiting for me after the last line, the last period of the story, where Pushcart lists those who nominated the piece for the anthology. Typically it’s the original publisher, often accompanied by one or two writers, former Pushcart winners who recommended it. This story was nominated by Seth Fried, whose terrific work has been reflected several times over the years in these pages. I thought I recognized some elements from his writing, particularly a story titled “Those of Us in Plaid”. Seth has a sense of humor (I sent him a goofy fan email once, and he responded in kind) so I asked him if he’d be willing to share his reasons for nominating the story. And, bless his heart, he responded kindly:

Aside from Batkie’s great writing in general, I was struck by the moral complexity in Laika. You compared the story to “Those of Us in Plaid” and I think it is circling a similar idea. We’re seeing someone powerless struggling with feelings of being complicit in the face of ugliness and abuse. That’s something I explored with morbid comedy in “Plaid” and that Batkie takes on with a stark lyricism that I found affecting.

Seth Fried (nominator)

We never find out what happens to Babette, beyond that she leaves after her space pod belly empties. Our narrator’s complicity is an angle I’d like to consider more. Is this story her plea for absolution? Time becomes a character as it allows consideration, but also delays revelation. I wonder how Babette would tally up the net effect.

Pushcart XLI: Jericho Brown, “The Tradition” (poem) from Poem-a-day

Jacob Lawrence: Harriet Tubman series, panel 4, 1940

Jacob Lawrence: Harriet Tubman series, panel 4, 1940

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

The final line – go ahead, read it, it’s only 14 lines – is a knife to the heart. I wasn’t expecting it, though I see now the ground was prepared – it was our dirt, philosophical advice, father, brothers, even the blossoms fast-forwarded to see them in time. It’s all there, I just wasn’t really reading, I saw flowers and thought, oh, flowers. Yes, flowers, blooming so beautifully until that turn in the last line and then they aren’t.

I thought about just putting the poem here to speak, which it does more eloquently than any commentary could. That felt like cheating somehow. I thought about doing more with sonnet structure. About looking more closely at the flowers mentioned: don’t flowers have individual meanings or something? I waited a couple of days for some inspiration, for something I could write that would be the right setting. I think I should’ve gone with my first instinct.

The poem serves as an epigraph for The Fire This Time, the 2016 anthology of essays, poems, and written work edited by Jesmyn Ward dealing with race in America. And now it’s 2017. Damn it.

Biochem MOOC

Course: Principles of Biochemistry
Length: 15 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Alain Viel, Rachelle Gaudet

Principles of Biochemistry integrates an introduction to the structure of macromolecules and a biochemical approach to cellular function. Topics addressing protein function will include enzyme kinetics, the characterization of major metabolic pathways and their interconnection into tightly regulated networks, and the manipulation of enzymes and pathways with mutations or drugs. An exploration of simple cells (red blood cells) to more complex tissues (muscle and liver) will be used as a framework to discuss the progression in metabolic complexity. Learners will also develop problem solving and analytical skills that are more generally applicable to the life sciences.

If I seem to have been quiet lately, it’s partly because I’ve been taking this course. It’s massive. Not just the amount of content, but the detail involved. While it wasn’t particularly creative or engaging (with a couple of notable exceptions), it was exactly the material I wanted (and needed) to cover, so I’m delighted I enrolled.

It’s listed as an intermediate course, and recommends college-level biology and chemistry, including organic chemistry. So here I go setting the record for courses taken requiring orgo without ever having taken it other than what’s on YouTube (and let me say again, Leah4Sci and The Organic Chemistry Tutor have some great vids that have been very helpful in filling in some gaps; but would someone please do a full-on OC mooc?). But while there wasn’t anything I’d never heard of before, I suspect someone with a stronger chemistry background might have an easier time of it. After all, I still have to stop and think every time someone says “carboxyl group.” And don’t even talk to me about nitrogen.

Much of the content is in the form of metabolic pathways: glycolysis, for example, or the synthesis of fatty acid chains, along with regulatory mechanism and interrelations. It’s like one giant Butterfly Effect: one thing gets a little out of whack, and all kinds of things happen as the body tries to maintain homeostasis. Molecular energetics, protein structure, enzymatic mechanisms, it’s a broad spectrum of topics alongside the metabolic pathways. Clinical applications look at diabetes, gout, and a few other metabolic diseases, as well as a unit on the use of PET scans in tracking in vivo pathways.

It was a pretty grueling course, partly because so much of it went like this:

One of the subunit of the activated small G protein will in turn activate a membrane-bound enzyme called an adenylyl cyclase, which catalyzes the conversion of ATP into cyclic AMP. The concentration of cyclic AMP rises and cyclic AMP interact with the protein Kinase called protein Kinase-A, or PKA. This Kinase will become activated and then will phosphorylate PFK-2 on the Kinase domain.
The phosphorylation of PFK-2 will result in the inhibition of the Kinase domain and the activation of the Phosphatase domain. Therefore, PFK-2 will catalyze the conversion of Fructose 2,6-bisphosphate back into Fructose-6-phosphate. The concentration of Fructose 2,6-bisphosphate in the cell decreases, and PFK-1 activity will decrease as well.

While all that actually makes sense when you break it down (if you can remember what PFK and AMP are, since you’ve encountered a dozen new enzymes in two days), it’s kind of insane on the first six or twelve takes.

The lectures tend to have a question-and-answer structure, although the answers are so extensive, it’s often hard to remember there was a question, let alone what it was. “Why does HSP70 production increase with heat stress?” “How does the potential cell membrane bend to form a sphere?” Sometimes these questions are asked by the lecturer, sometimes by an off-camera TA. One of those TAs did a very kinetic presentation on glycolysis, sliding bits of paper around to describe the various steps. A couple of brief video clips from other providers added to the presentation on diabetes. And the PET scan section was presented by a different professor entirely. So there was some variety in the presentation.

The course wasn’t all multisyllabic strings of chemicals. For instance, fun fact: in the 40s when biochemists were first trying to figure out protein folding, one of the proteins they used was RNAse A, also known as bovine pancreatic ribonuclease. The Armour meat packing company – maker of Hot Dogs, Armour Hot Dogs, What Kind of Kids Love Armour Hot Dogs – just happened to have purified a kilogram of this stuff, so gave it out to scientists to study, which helped a great deal. Don’t think to hard about why a hot dog company was purifying bovine enzymes in the 40s. You don’t want to go there.

Graded material included a few questions after each video, plus a unit quiz at the end of one to three sections. Most of the questions were information-retrieval multiple choice, with two or three chances at each, meaning my grade far exceeds my grasp. But that’s ok, I’m not relying on this as a true measure of understanding. That’s why I’m going through it all again, just to get it to sink in a little better.

One of the great ancillary benefits that had nothing to do with the course itself was my dive into Cerego. I’ve been a fan of the spaced-repetition flashcard site (for lack of a better term) for a while now, finding all kinds of interesting things in their Public Library, both pertaining to moocs I’m taking, and just other stuff like countries and capitals and brain anatomy. But they suddenly discontinued access to the Public Library; if I wanted to use a memory set for glycolysis, was going to have to make one myself. I’ve tried to do this before, but was never happy with the results and was fine with what someone else had to say about chemical groups or DNA replication. But now I have my own set for biochemistry! I’m like a kindergartener who just brought home her first finger painting.

Optional ungraded assignments using PyMol were also included. Because this required downloading software, and I’d just replaced my old computer (it kept threatening to set itself on fire), I didn’t want to fool around with extra stuff. The assignments look interesting; now that I feel more relaxed about both my computer, and my time, I think I’ll take a crack at it as I go through the material again (adding more Cerego modules every day…).

I was very pleased with this course. I suspect its value depends on the background and motivations of the student: it might not be the best place to start for someone with only mild curiosity about biochemistry and metabolism (another Harvard mooc, “Cell Biology: Mitochondria” is a lot gentler, and far more visually appealing), but even those with a weaker background, like me, can find this beneficial if enough effort and outside remedial work is mixed in.

Pushcart XLI: Ron Currie, “Cross Your Fingers God Bless” from Wigleaf

The Flammarion engraving, 1888

The Flammarion engraving, 1888

Because she was not a superstitious person, in the days leading up to her solo hike in the thickly wooded ridges Annie ignored several warnings proffered by the universe regarding what was about to happen.

Complete story available online at Wigleaf

It’s less than 600 words long, but boy does this story use structure and rhythm to its advantage.

The four opening single-sentences paragraphs just keep layering it on. The rational impulse to ignore coincidence. Increasing coincidence, increasing rationality. We know something’s coming, and it’s going to have to do with a bear. But the event itself is never spelled out, just foreshadowed and then reflected from a later point of view. I love this, because the story isn’t about a bear attack or even about whether the signs meant anything or were reconstructed out of late-arriving confirmation bias: the story is in the human struggle to understand reality, and particularly in the conflict existing relationships undergo when Annie’s view shifts.

Like Annie, we’re in an environment of determined binarism. But what if reality isn’t so neatly arranged? What if there are elements of physics and metaphysic, of the natural and supernatural, everywhere? What if they’re the same thing seen from different viewpoints, or times, or dimensions? I spend a lot of time taking moocs about such blended views of reality, like investigations of whether physics leads back to some creative divinity leads back to physics, or if there’s cognitive science to support Daoism. I wonder if we’re not headed for our own bear attack if we don’t start listening to what we’re screening out.

But I think the point is more in the realm of, what happens to friends and family when we change our beliefs? We tend to congregate with people who have belief systems reasonably compatible with our own; what happens to friendships and family ties when that changes? What does that say about the strength of those beliefs? If it’s uncomfortable to be around a Christian-turned-atheist or liberal-now-conservative, does that reflect on one’s confidence in one’s beliefs in the first place? World-views are messy; they involve paradoxes and conundrums. How many of us have examined our beliefs beyond the surface? How many of us really want to?

Two metacomments about this piece: First is that Ron Currie Jr. is a Maine writer, so shout-out for that. I read his second novel, Everything Matters, a kind of weird but, in the end, truly touching book about second chances; Second is that I’m so glad that the tiny (free) online flash journal Wigleaf gets some Pushcart love these days. Bill Henderson has been an outspoken critic of online fiction for as long as there has been online fiction, but he seems to have made a reluctant peace with electrons. See, the stuff you’re screening out can be fun.

Maybe MOOCs: Autumn 2017

Elana Herzog: from the 2003 “Civilization and its Discontents” exhibition (modified)

Elana Herzog: from the 2003 “Civilization and its Discontents” exhibition (modified)

With each of these “coming attractions” lists, I include a disclaimer: I may not take all the courses listed, and may add in some that I come across later. That goes quadruple for now. I’m in terrible shape emotionally and cognitively, with mood swings from here to Jupiter, an attention span that can’t make it through 140 characters, and a lack of interest in pretty much anything. It’s either mooc, or eat sheet cake. Moocs are cheaper. And less fattening.

But don’t be surprised if a lot of these have little “Status: dropped” notes next to them in the coming weeks. I do have good intentions. And we all know where that gets you.

Sprinkled in amongst these are the remaining three month-long segments of Michigan’s Anatomy series as listed all the way back in January (the series was delayed for six months) and the “Life and Death” philosophy course listed in the Summer plan but rescheduled from August to November. Plus a couple of things I’m finishing up at the moment, summary posts to follow.



Philosophy, Science and Religion: Philosophy and Religion
Start: August 28, 2017
6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
Instructor: Various
School/platform: University of Edinburgh/Coursera

Official blurb:

This course, entitled ‘Philosophy and Religion’, is the second of three related courses in our Philosophy, Science and Religion Online series, and in this course we will ask important questions about the age-old debate between science and religion.

Status: Completed; I zipped through it as a recreational mooc pretty quickly so I’m not going to do a full write-up. I found the discussions of social epistemology, and epistemic virtues and vices, to be very interesting; the rest was either not of particular interest to me (like scientism or the hiddenness argument) or was a very superficial gloss of topics I’ve encountered in more depth elsewhere (cognitive science of religion, which I’d love to investigate in real depth some day).

Though this goes beyond cognitive science (into the same old same old about using different bases of information), I’m interested to see if it covers any of the same territory as the Science of Religion course I so enjoyed last Spring.


The Ancient Greek Hero
Start August 19, 2017
17 weeks, 6-8 hrs/wk
Instructor: Gregory Nagy et al
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

In this introduction to ancient Greek culture and literature, learners will experience, in English translation, some of the most beautiful works of ancient Greek literature and song-making spanning over a thousand years from the 8th century BCE through the 3rd century CE: the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; songs of Sappho and Pindar; dialogues of Plato, and On Heroes by Philostratus. All of the resources are free and designed to be equally accessible and transformative for a wide audience.

The introductory “Week 0” just started; seems very interesting. I’ve already read and done coursework on most of the material, so I’m looking forward to an enjoyable recreational mooc. The length of the course is daunting, however.


Introduction to Solid State Chemistry
Start: September 6, 2017
15 weeks, 12 hrs/wk
Instructor: Michael Cima
School/platform: MIT/edX

Official blurb:

This first-year University chemistry course explores the basic principles of the chemical bond by studying the properties of solids. Properties such as stiffness, electrical conductivity, thermal expansion, strength, and optical properties are the vehicle by which you can learn a great deal of practical chemistry.

Status: I made it halfway through Week 2 before I decided this was not worth the time required. I hate to criticize material that’s offered for free, but this is not an introductory course, and it’s nowhere near the quality of other MIT courses; it’s basically OCW vids strung together with some here’s-the-derivation-of-the equation vids interspersed, but there’s little real explanation, poor visual quality (much of the crucial material is illegible), and a lot of it’s out of order to boot, referencing ideas that haven’t been covered. Very disappointing.

What was I thinking? It claims to be introductory, requiring only high school calculus, which I should be able to handle (with a little help as needed from my math buddy Purgy). I’ve had some very good experiences with MIT’s introductory courses. I keep bemoaning my weak understanding of basic chemistry, so it’s on point, but, sheesh, now?


Words Spun Out of Images: Visual and Literary Culture in Nineteenth Century Japan
Start: September 18, 2017
4 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
Instructor: x
School/platform: The University of Tokyo, Coursera

Official blurb:

In their ambition to capture “real life,” Japanese painters, poets, novelists and photographers of the nineteenth century collaborated in ways seldom explored by their European contemporaries. This course offers learners the chance to encounter and appreciate behavior, moral standards and some of the material conditions surrounding Japanese artists in the nineteenth century, in order to renew our assumptions about what artistic “realism” is and what it meant.

I know very little about Japanese art and literature, other than a few basic concepts from the World Literature course I took last year.

China’s Ancient Ritual Civilization
Start: September 20, 2017
10 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
Instructor: Lin Peng
School/platform: Tsinghua University/edX

Official blurb:

This course will tell you the reason why ritual is the core of Chinese culture, in contrast with western culture. You will be introduced to relevant ritual classical books, which will help you to understand how people behaved in ancient China. You will also learn about the rituals behind ancient Chinese adult rites, wedding ceremonies, sacrifice ceremonies, and more.

I’ve taken four courses on China, and they’ve all been taught by Westerners – including the two based in Chinese schools. So I hope to get a different point of view.


A Global History of Architecture
Start: September 12, 2017
12 weeks, 8 hrs/wk
Instructor: Mark Jarzombek
School/platform: MIT/edX

Official blurb:

How do we understand architecture? One way of answering this question is by looking through the lens of history, beginning with First Societies and extending to the 16th century. This course in architectural history is not intended as a linear narrative, but rather aims to provide a more global view, by focusing on different architectural “moments.”

I never knew I was interested in architecture until I took the Harvard course earlier this year. I’m still not sure I understand exactly what all these people mean when they enthuse about architecture shaping societies, but that’s a pretty good reason to take another course.


Causal Diagrams: Draw Your Assumptions Before Your Conclusions
Start: September 26, 2017
9 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
Instructor: Miguel Hernán
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

Causal diagrams have revolutionized the way in which researchers ask: Does X have a causal effect on Y? They have become a key tool for researchers who study the effects of treatments, exposures, and policies. By summarizing and communicating assumptions about the causal structure of a problem, causal diagrams have helped clarify apparent paradoxes, describe common biases, and identify adjustment variables. As a result, a sound understanding of causal diagrams is becoming increasingly important in many scientific disciplines.

This is one of those WTF courses: I don’t even know what it is. I never heard of causal diagrams. It’s taught by a biostatistician and epidemiologist, but… is it art? Data science? I don’t think I’ve ever completed a course that involved graphics. But it’s got a cute title and an interesting teaser vid so it’s worth a look, at least to find out what it is.


Shakespeare Matters
Start: December 14, 2017
5 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
Instructor: Various
School/platform: University of Adelaide

Official blurb:

In this introductory course, you will learn how Shakespeare uses emotion in his plays, how his characters experience and manipulate emotions, and how the emotional resonance of the plays makes them powerfully relevant to the modern world.

A nice low-key humanities course covering familiar material. This could work.

Pushcart XLI: Melissa Pritchard, “The Carnation Milk Palace” from Ecotone #19

Was she beautiful, or was she only someone apart?
—Edith Wharton, “New Year’s Day”
Fourteen-year-old Charlotte fished the invitation from between unpaid bills—PG&E electric, her dermatologist, Dr. Gass—and a lapsed subscription to Ladies Home Journal. On the engraved card, cartoon bubbles fizzed from a champagne glass, bumped around the words: Join Glen and Stibsy! Ring in 1964!
The Haldens were the richest people her parents knew.

Complete story available online at Ecotone

I haven’t read the Wharton story quoted in the epigraph, but a few moments of Googling tells me it’s about an encounter at a New Year’s Eve party that, while quite innocent, fuels devastating rumors about one of the participants who prefers to keep the details private. In plot and tone, the two stories are quite different, but I can see the relevance of the quote to this coming-of-age story. Most of the characters keep things private: Charlotte’s mother goes to her grave preserving an open secret, and still regrets that she didn’t marry the rich boy; Dad is a great dancer, but spends his days doing probate law; Charlotte is put in private Catholic school, but the family is strongly atheistic.

On a metafictional note, the venue in which the story appears has great relevance as well. The mission statement for the journal Ecotone:

Ecotone’s mission is to publish and promote the best place-based work being written today….writing and art that reimagine place, and our authors interpret this charge expansively. An ecotone is a transition zone between two adjacent ecological communities, containing the characteristic species of each. It is therefore a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.

This story involves three biomes: the rich Haldens in their Carnation Milk Palace, the socially and economically disadvantaged Duffys, and Charlotte’s family right in the middle. Sort of a cross-section of America’s supposedly permeable class system. And Charlotte, traversing the ecotone on either side of her as needed. While she’s enchanted by Moira, her only visit to her home was uncomfortable. The transition up is much easier for her. What she may not realize is that the Haldens would regard her with the same suspicion and distaste as her parents have for the Duffys, but for the class-driven power they have to keep her from bothering them beyond an obligatory appearance at the annual party.

Charlotte’s relationship with Moira interest me far more than her brief aborted fumbling with the rich college boy on the coats in the Carnation Milk Palace, just above the ballroom where her parents were willing to humiliate her in their effort to feel beautiful for one evening.

Although she was outwardly docile, Charlotte’s inner life teemed….By contrast, Moira Duffy’s inner and outer lives were interchangeable. A willful bloom flashing up from the parched, rocky soil of her family, she intended to be a famous dancer in Paris or New York. Not ballet, deformity disguised as grace, but free, natural movement, modern dance. Her heroines were Isadora Duncan and Joan of Arc. Both, she told Charlotte, suffered unforgettable deaths, both stood for something.

Is Charlotte’s fascination with Moira because she is beautiful, or because she is someone apart? Whichever, Moira’s apparent openness (which, of course, might be the artifice of someone afraid of rejection) echoes the public/private self theme I hear mentioned in connection with the Wharton story. Charlotte’s mom went to her deathbed never knowing the secret she kept was long known. Moira is who she is no matter who likes it or doesn’t; she has nothing to hide. Charlotte has nothing to hide, either, and she’s trying very hard to hide that.

I find it interesting that the story gives us a glimpse of the future Charlotte, as well as her mom and dad and a school friend who doesn’t appear in the present of the story at all. Yet we don’t hear anything about Moira’s future, not even that they lost touch. That’s what stuck with me: what happens to Moira?

When she was sure he had gone, Charlotte stood, pulled up her torn tights, straightened her dress. Sitting back on edge of the bed, the room still whirling a little, she reached with her fingertips, among the richly textured coats, mink, camel’s hair, velvet, until she felt the cool, tight coils of black Persian lamb.

But at heart it’s Charlotte’s coming of age story. She encounters her first sexual moment, abbreviated as it is, with trembling. Is the trembling fear? Eagerness? Awe? I love the moment after, the burrowing for what I read as the tactile reassurance of her mother’s coat. The curly fur speaks to her impending adulthood; the rooting for mother, to the childhood she still has not fully left.

Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth McCracken, “Mistress Mickle All at Sea” from Zoetrope  19.4

New Year’s Eve in a Rotterdam garret, the whole block blacked out, bottle rockets rattling the casements: Mistress Maggle, villainess of the children’s game show Barnaby Grudge, off duty and far from home, ate a cold canned hot dog in the dark and pronounced it delicious. These were the last minutes of the old year. She’d come from Surrey to visit her half brother, Jonas, whom she’d last seen in Boston just before their father had retired to Minorca. Expatriation was the family disease, hereditary: thanks to an immigrant ancestor, they all had Irish passports. The world was their oyster. An oyster was not enough to sustain anyone.

The question that most perplexed me about this story was answered when I found a short excerpt of the first paragraphs in an online teaser by Zoetrope. In my copy of Pushcart, the title remains “Mistress Mickle”, but throughout the story the name used is Mistress Maggle. I spent far too much time wondering why that was so, hunting for a hint. Turns out it’s one of those weird copyediting changes that sometimes happens with reprints, I guess. But it did rather distance me from the story. Then again, my concentration has been pretty compromised lately.

So, Mistress Mickle, or Maggle, whose real name is Jenny Early (“though 49 seemed too old to be Jenny and too late to be early”) is definitely at sea, literally as well as figuratively, going way beyond her discomfort with her own name. She starts out visiting her half-brother in Rotterdam, then takes a boat home to England – or, rather, back to England where she lives, since she’s from Boston, or Ireland, or I’m not sure, really, and I don’t think she’s sure, either. Along the way she seems to feel more lost by the minute. The encounter with her brother, complete with the news that his girlfriend is expecting, sends her down memory lane revisiting an old romance that didn’t work out. On shipboard, she encounters another children’s entertainer who genuinely enjoys entertaining children, and plays a much friendlier character rather than the scolding shrew she portrays; a mirror image of sorts. I get the sense that she’s desperately unhappy, yet unable to figure out just what to do about it.

The narration is a slightly odd voice, extremely close 3rd person, so close it almost reads like she’s the one narrating herself in 3rd person. The ending makes that narration crucial, since, well, she dies. Maybe. She is a bit of a hypochondriac, after all. But in that last paragraph the narration turns into direct address, zooms out, and interpret however you like.

In any case, it’s a sharp and very witty story, lots of clever jibes and twists of phrase that make it fun to read. I’d like to read it again when (if?) my focus returns.

Marcelo Gleiser: The Island of Knowledge (Basic, 2014)

Consider, then, the sum total of our accumulated knowledge as constituting an island, which I call the “Island of Knowledge”….The Island’s growth has a surprising but essential consequence. Naively, we would expect that the more we know of the world, the closer we would be to some sort of final destination, which some call a Theory of Everything and others the ultimate nature of reality. However, holding on to our metaphor, we see that as the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance – the boundary between the known and the unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination – whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyway – but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.

This past Spring, I took Prof. Gleiser’s science/philosophy mooc that focused on the question, Can we ever know the very essence of reality, or is there some knowledge that can never be within our grasp? Is it all a matter of developing technologies and learning how the universe works, or are there some things that simply can’t be discovered by reason, observation, and scientific method? This book was the basis for that course.

Prof. Gleiser has an eclectic approach to science. He’s a theoretical physicist, but the book is far more. I noticed a brief comment about his training towards the end: “I was twenty-seven and in search of ways of connecting the rational scientific approach that I was learning in school with a strong sense of spirituality I had nurtured since an early age.” That willingness to look beyond science, to philosophy, to human emotion and interaction, shows up clearly throughout this work. “If reason is the tool we use in science, it is not its motivation,” says Gleiser. While it’s mostly science, there is a strong thread of philosophy as well; this is a scientist comfortable with ideas of divinity. This was the course that inspired me to read Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, a historical/philosophical work I enjoyed tremendously (and blogged about here).

Gleiser’s opinion is that we can’t know certain things, not because we don’t have good enough instruments or don’t have string theory nailed down yet, but because some things are simply unknowable. The “brain in vats” question is the classic example – how could we know? – but there’s also the limitation of the time horizon of the universe, and it seems there are most likely distance limitations at the small end of the scale as well. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

The book starts off with the pre-Socratics and the first inklinks of atomism. I discovered Ernst Mach, of Mach-1 fame, never accepted the existence of atoms, though their existence was theoretically proven during his lifetime; as I understand it (take this with a large shaker of salt), he didn’t say they didn’t exist, simply that he didn’t accept the existence of something that couldn’t be seen (he’d have changed his mind if he’d lived long enough to watch “A Boy and his Atom” on Youtube, a movie made with atoms). The first chapters move very quickly to Einstein, and the early 20th century forms a large part of the book as more and more questions arose for every answer. Once the quantum door was kicked in, everything was up for grabs, and we moved right along to the present.

While I’m sure I didn’t fully understand all the material on even an introductory academic level, it’s a very readable book, with good explanations and analogies that made most of the technical material at least partly understandable. For example:

[Q]uantum theory implies that there is a natural fuzziness to matter, a finite “smallness” to all things…. If we apply this notion to space, it is natural to expect that the same will be true: that there is a smallest distance of space beyond which nothing can be smaller. According to this view, space is not really a continuum but fuzzy, so that motion cannot proceed smoothly from point to point…. A competing view is to consider that it is not space that needs to be “quiltized” but the notion of point particles that needs to go.

When I was young and even more foolish than I am today, my then-boyfriend and I used to argue about whether the universe was fundamentally analog or digital (oh, come on, who hasn’t had those arguments). And when I read Euclid’s Elements, I was almost disappointed to find a proof that a plane must be continuous, thus analog. But maybe I was mistaken about that interpretation, since it appears scientists are still arguing about it.

I also enjoyed reading “But we do not know what electric charge or mass is…. Mass and charge do not exist per se; they only exist as part of the narrative we humans construct to describe the natural world.” I asked once in some course just what “charge” meant, since I can’t describe it without referring to electric charge, which of course is circular reasoning. So I’m always happy to find out that no one actually knows what “charge” is, beyond that it’s a quality some particles have that causes certain behaviors. This seems like the opposite of Ernst Mach’s problem with atoms: we can see it, feel it, but don’t know what it is. Mass seems to be in the same category.

How much can we know of the world? Can we know everything? Or are there fundamental limits to how much science can explain?…. From our past successes we are confident that, in time, part of what is currently hidden will be incorporated into the scientific narrative, unknowns that will become knowns. But as I will argue in this book, other parts will remain hidden, unknowables that are unavoidable, even if what is unknowable in one age may not be in the next one. We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.
This view is neither antiscientific nor defeatist. … Quite the contrary, it is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.

It was this attitude that made this book so enjoyable for me. Back in the days when I argued about the nature of the universe for fun, I read a lot of general-readership science books, particularly Asimov. I somehow got away from that. Gleiser has written several other books on various aspects of physics and cosmology, and of course there are many other scientists writing for non-scientists these days. Maybe it’s time to get back into it again.

Pushcart XLI: Jean Valentine, “Hospice” from Shirt in Heaven

I wore his hat
as if it was the rumpled coat
of his body, like I could put it on.

At first I was worried: it’s a poem about death, obviously heartfelt and personal, by a highly distinguished poet, and I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I wondered again if I should be doing this, blogging every poem like I have any idea what I’m doing. But that’s the deal, because otherwise it’s too easy to turn the page and do something easier, and what way is that to do anything worth doing. And as sometimes happens (which is why I’ve stuck by the deal), while no doubt there are subtleties beyond my reach, I found more was accessible than I’d expected.

First is the repetition of words: hat, hand, water, life, rumple. Rumple, of all things. The others are grand words, but rumple? It’s the rumpling that makes the hat, the hand, the water, the life, all beautiful and meaningful. The repetition unites the poem, keeps reminding us why we are there in the hospice room with the dying… dying who? Friend, lover, spouse, child, rival; the details of gender, age, and relationship are omitted so the figure is vague. All we can see is the speaker.

Embodiment again: that familiar recent theme, the body as the medium of experience. Here it’s the medium of goodbye, not grief exactly but more like the presence at a ship’s launching; more like anticipation. I’ve been encountering embodiment in many diverse areas while reading these pieces, in physics and philosophy (which again twine together as they did in ancient Greece). The observer is part of the observed. To measure is to affect what is measured. That must be just as true of watching someone – someone beloved – die as it is of measuring the velocity and position of electrons. Truer, no doubt.

And embodiment, in poetry, turns to typography as form becomes function:

I remembered
like an islander           my island


like a calving iceberg, air

The island, the I- land, as he-land slips away from sight: isolation. Just yesterday I learned, courtesy of lexicographer @JesseSheidlower, that island and isle are linguistically unrelated, one from Latin, one from Anglo-Saxon. And now I’m self-conscious about every I that I type, which maybe isn’t a bad thing.

And at the end, after an asterisk (A star? A sound? Or just typographic direction?) there’s a turn. Poems frequently feature turns as part of the semantic structure; sonnets and elegies depend on them. This poem doesn’t have the surface structure of either sonnet or elegy, but maybe it’s an elegy in a deeper way. The turn is one of the most dramatic I’ve read recently; I actually see the speaker physically turning after the death has occurred:

I thought I’d have to listen, hard,
I didn’t even swallow.
But nothing from you stopped.

In prior lines, the speaker used third person to refer to the he; now she promotes he to second person, to you. I can’t help but see this as a step closer to first person, to the I of the island. I see it in my mind, this scene, a companion/comforter/witness at the bedside facing the dying, then rising and turning outward back to the world with that you. Or maybe it’s a different turn, an embodiment not of the hat but of the spirit, a more conceptual turn. And suddenly I wonder if I have it all wrong, if the speaker is the dying, the he/you is the friend/comforter/visitor/witness, the turning not from losing to loss but from embodiment to release.

Of course, it’s entirely likely I’ve missed a larger point about relationships or grief or death while I looked at typography and grammatical persons. But I’m glad I stuck with the poem, that I didn’t let it scare me away, because if nothing else, I know other ways of turning.

Pushcart XLI: Barry Lopez, “The Invitation” from Granta #133

Granta art by Nick Clements

Granta art by Nick Clements

When I was young, and just beginning to travel with them, I imagined that indigenous people saw more and heard more, that they were overall simply more aware than I was. They were more aware, and did see and hear more than I did. The absence of spoken conversation whenever I was traveling with them, however, should have provided me with a clue about why this might be true; but it didn’t, not for a while. It’s this: when an observer doesn’t immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language, into the vocabulary and syntactical framework we all employ when trying to define our experiences, there’s a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen the meaning of an experience.

Complete essay available online at Granta

As I read this essay, I kept thinking, “I’ve read about something like this, recently.” It took me a while to pull it out of my overloaded and sometimes unreliable memory. The Chinese Thought mooc, of course! Confucians see language – including the behavioral language of ritual – as the means of perfecting the individual to full humanity, whereas Daoists feel it’s a distraction from what is essential. “The Way that can be spoken of is not the enduring Way,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Dao de Jing in the 4th century BCE. “He who speaks does not know.” Yes, Prof. Slingerland pointed out the irony of a book dissing language, but that’s how Dao rolls.

Most importantly, he didn’t stop with examining ancient texts, but related the concepts to contemporary neurological, social, and behavioral science. In this case, that meant a guest lecture from UCSB psychology professor Jonathan Schooler on his theory of verbal overshadowing: attempts to describe nonverbal experiences tend to make the experiential memory less accurate on subsequent recall. In its simplest form: if you show someone a face, and ask them to describe it in words, they will be less likely to recognize the face a few moments later than if they did not need to put language to the impression.

Lopez goes beyond this in a paean to the primacy of experience Lao Tzu would appreciate: a broadening of pertinence from the immediate event to what was seen a half hour, or three days, before (tracks of a caribou, for instance), and to later events. The event of seeing a bear isn’t over when the bear is no longer seen; it might never, technically, be over, in much the same vein as the Butterfly Effect.

He also advocates grounding experience in a place. It’s too bad Orion didn’t get to publish this article; it’s exactly their “Nature, culture place” brand (and may the Universe forgive me for using the word “brand” in that sense, it just happens to be appropriate to syntax and semantics).

A grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket is more than a bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket. It is a point of entry into a world most of us have turned our backs on in an effort to go somewhere else, believing we’ll be better off just thinking about a grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket.
The moment is an invitation, and the bear’s invitation to participate is offered, without prejudice, to anyone passing by.

I’m not sure I want to participate in such an event, apologies to Lao Tzu and Lopez; I’m not much of a nature person to begin with, and the bear’s a dealbreaker. But I understand the point, the distancing of us from not only nature, but from reality. And again, we have this triad of will, nature, and body that’s been humming around for the past several pieces: the will to experience nature without culture’s safety nets around the body. The willingness to experience.

Pushcart XLI: Kate Levin, “Resting Place” from River Teeth, Sept. 2015

When we arrive at daycare, I step out of the car and close my door gently, hoping not to startle my son awake. As I open the back door to retrieve him from his car seat, I see the bird.
I gasp, but only its stillness is gruesome.

Complete piece available online at River Teeth Journal

The first year, maybe two, that I blogged Pushcart, I only did the fiction. Then I added the nonfiction, and a year later, one post for all the poetry, reading it separately. I think I missed a lot skipping around that way. Case in point: we have a second piece about a child, and a bird. A very different piece in tone, theme, and genre – I’m not sure if this is poetry or nonfiction (I would call it poetry), but I’m sure it doesn’t matter – to show us the wide-ranging possibilities of a single combination.

Again, we have a frightening intrusion into an everyday moment, nowhere near as tragic as in “The Raptor” but alarming nonetheless: Life and death, protection and destruction, innocence and guilt, side by side. But mostly there’s the sense of fragility: not just of the sleeping child or the trapped bird, but of the possibility of tragedy under the most pacific scene. Maybe it is the same theme, or at least a similar one: danger lurking everywhere, revealed at the most innocuous, routine moment, and the effect that has on a parent. “There is my sleeping son, and there is the dead bird,” says mom.

But that’s just the first act of this one-page play; the scene doesn’t end there.

But then I would look at him, breath muscle bones, humming in motion; a system insisting on itself. Who was I to doubt it?…. Through the windshield I can see my son, eyes still closed. Beneath a buckled harness, his chest rises and falls, rises and falls, rises and falls.

And we come to the question of will, also raised in “The Raptor”. Both involve the will of a very young child. But here, the will is more the will of the body: the will of “a system insisting on itself.” The rise and fall of the chest (echoing the open and close of the car door?), even in sleep, even next to death.

I’m taking yet another biology mooc, and I continue to be in awe of this bundle of atoms we call our bodies, of the billions of things that happen every second to keep our chests rising and falling, to keep us working and playing and loving and laughing and writing blog posts. Is the will to live the will of the body? Maybe it’s the will of nature: like charges repel and opposite charges attract, ions pump, cardiac muscles contract, nerve cells signal the diaphragm to take another breath, even in sleep. “A system insisting on itself,” and mom sees her world isn’t quite as fragile as she thought.

The juxtaposition of these two pieces is marvelous. Either one alone has power, but together, they hold a conversation.

Pushcart XLI: Charles Holdefer, “The Raptor” from Chicago Quarterly Review #21

Photo by Christine Dibble

Photo by Christine Dibble

Cody was the only one to see the raptor descend. What to believe. On the second day of their vacation, Lisa had put Ronny – barely three weeks old! – on the picnic table in his baby seat while she paused to apply sun cream to his soft, wrinkly knees…. “Happy Ronaldus!” Lisa straightened for a moment to apply some of Ronny’s protective cream to her own face. Up here in the mountains you had to be careful, the ultraviolet rays were more powerful.
Cody sat on a nearby rock, looking up at the pines, the fleecy clouds, and a black dot that was growing bigger.

I see so many threads running through this story: faith, religion, sex, danger, loss, family, human frailty. Yet I can’t get a firm hold on it, or organize it in a way that makes sense to me.

First, the word “raptor”. It’s not an uncommon word – technically, it’s any bird of prey, such as a hawk, vulture, eagle, falcon – but if a bird swooped in and flew off with a baby, I’m not sure I’d describe it as a raptor. I’d be more along the lines of “some big bird”. Given the religious twist of events, and the similarity of “raptor” to “rapture”, I have to wonder if it’s a symbol for divine plans. Or maybe it’s about finding rapture in various ways: in sexuality, booze, or intense religiosity. Maybe the word is just to link it all together linguistically. Even the playful family nickname “Ronaldus Magnus” reminded me both of medieval kings and popes, and of Seinfeld’s Festivus, at least until I discovered it’s an occasional right-wing nickname for Ronald Regan.

Then there’s the second sentence: “What to believe.” There’s some trick of narration there. Though five-year-old Cody was the only one to see the actual abduction, the parents saw the raptor flying away with Ronny, so they would believe the child. This is an outside narrator commenting with the view of those outside the family. And suddenly we’re in “The dingo took my baby” territory: ornithologists offering opinions about raptors’ capacities to carry off tiny babies, interviews for Cody and the parents. Although much of the story appears to be close third person from within the family, this more distant narrator introduces several crucial transitions, including a series of “Even if not for the raptor” examples of the changes that befell the family afterwards. But that early sentence left me a bit off balance.

Ronny found himself in a nest on a cliff ledge with two baby birds. Still looking up at the blue sky, inhaling the thinner, colder air, his cries competed with the screeks of his companions. Oh, he was hungry! As the blue air turned purple and then black and stars pricked the blackness and constellations whirled in the firmament above, he welcomed the warmth of the bodies next to him, and it was a comfort when the big, heavy body sat on him, with its stronger heat, its thicker feathers.
Ronny tired himself with crying and then fell into a doze, feeling the beats of hearts next to his. They beat very fast.

I felt a lot of distance between me and the characters. There’s a great deal of detail about their downward spirals. There’s also a great deal of caring going on: from the start when Lisa is careful to protect Ronny from sunburn with sunscreen, speaking to him playfully, to much later when Dan calls her in the middle of the night to ask if she ever thinks about him, even to Cory’s concern over his mother’s drinking. Yet it all felt so removed. No one ever become more than a fictional character. I wonder if I’m callous, or if that’s deliberate, a distant narrator’s analytical eye, seeing but not feeling, or at least not conveying feeling. I have to wonder, too, if this is dark humor, something I often miss completely.

When he fell, rolling into the open air, he felt surprised and, at the same time, affronted. What was happening to him?
Ronny bellowed headlong into a vast and hideous deep. There was no time to think of who could hear him. His heels moved eagerly for traction against the retreating sky. This missing sensation seemed precious, but it was also like an insult to him and to the place from which he fell.
Darkness in a hurtling tract, the rub of cold. His voice split the air, refusing to submit or yield. This much felt right. His will was still untouched, his own.

The story deals with two time lines, one in the period immediately following the raptor’s theft sandwiched in between longer segments about the fourteen years that followed. I get the distinct sense that the timelines converge. Cody, having had his personal conversion experience and on a camping trip with the girl who brought him to Jesus, masturbates on the spot, perhaps, where Ronny fell out of the nest so long ago. The text is ambiguous. The end is ambiguous as well, though the idea of sudden danger – whether from his girlfriend discovering his nocturnal activities, or from a raptor, a feral Ronny, or a wild animal – striking without any warning, might be an obvious conclusion.

It’s that mention of will that really feels like I missed something along the line. Again, I end up back at religion. A major part of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic triad is that God has a purpose and we need to make our wills subordinate to his. Many Eastern religions advocate a release of desire to achieve happiness, or following a path set by the universe rather than taking matters into our own hands. But then, there are many people who are just aimless. Again, I’m not sure how any of this fits in, but I heard the note.

That’s really my overall experience with the story: I heard a lot of notes, but I can’t figure out what key we’re in.

Pushcart XLI: Leslie Johnson, “Midterm” from Colorado Review, Spring 2015

Art by Annemeike Mein: “Whirlpool Frog”

Art by Annemeike Mein: “Whirlpool Frog”

Midmorning in mid-October, in the middle of the campus, Chandra stopped in the center of the crisscrossing sidewalks. She pulled the phone from her handbag and pretended to be texting someone; she smiled down at the screen as if someone had texted her back. She felt other students brushing past her on the walkway, but didn’t look up at their faces.

Complete story available online at Colorado Review

I kept thinking of story classifications as I mulled this one over. Some stories are love stories, or war stories or sexual abuse stories or coming-of-age stories; this one seems obviously classifiable as an anorexia story, but I think that’s just the specific vehicle; the motivation is broader. The editor’s introduction to the Spring 2015 issue of Colorado Review nails it:

“Emerging from the grip of winter, when we’ve retreated from the cold, holing up in the warmth of our homes and for a time losing touch with the earth, with one another, sometimes even with ourselves, we long to reestablish ties once the green reveals itself again. The fiction and essays gathered here, in this spring issue, bring us stories of people seeking connection in its various forms.”

The voice, though somewhat off-putting to me, is perfect for the story: it reads like an emotionally unaware college student wrote it, little hints slipping out right and left almost deliberately in that passive-aggressive way of screaming “Why are you always looking at me please pay attention to me just leave me alone”. The anorexia angle, for instance: it’s so evident, from the professor’s remarks about “not another anorexia essay” to the obsession with Pop-Tarts and hip bones, yet that’s just the surface symptomology of the deeper intimacy issues that play out. Like pretending she’s texting someone, which is the new version of 1975’s “inventing lovers on the phone” – or the “I have plans that night” from the 50s. After all, if someone is texting you, that means you’re normal, right? But a cell phone is all the intimacy she can handle.

The story has strong bone structure underneath that deliberately ravaged skin. It’s fascinating to watch as Chandra reveals a tiny bit, gauges the response, and moves a bit closer to Eli (and, literally, farther from her phone and into hot water). She starts off making up lies just to agree with him: she sees the single red leaf he sees, about to fall (now there’s a genuinely good pickup line if ever I heard one), and things go downhill from there. She’s new at this, so it’s natural she doesn’t interpret the signals well: he’s dismissive of nearly everything she says. The final revelation is inadvertent. In the context of an actual nascent relationship rather than pretense, it would be possible to get back on track. But it’s just too much for Chandra.

Approach-avoidance: that tug of war between the guy in real life or the phone in the tree, the fear vs pull of relationship, the anorexic woman who enrolls in a gender studies class than won’t show up. All the usual coming-of-age crap here in Body Week XLI, dialed up to a pathological 11 and covered over with an Everything’s Fine, Fine veneer. The resolution almost doesn’t matter. Almost.

Pushcart XLI: Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, “I Dream of Horses Eating Cops” from Nepantla #2

Art by Ulrike “Ricky” Martin

Art by Ulrike “Ricky” Martin

i name my body girl of my dreams
i name my body proximity
i name my body full of hope despite everything
i name my body dead girl who hasn’t died yet
i hope i come back as an elephant
i hope we all come back as animals
and eat our fill
i hope everyone gets everything they deserve

Complete poem available online from LitHub

The ordering of Pushcart pieces, unlike BASS, is up to the editors. This year we opened with a cluster of art-themed stories, a theme that’s echoed from time to time throughout. I sense a distinct pocket of body-themed works, going back to Charlie, or even to Slocomb County, though now the theme takes precedence over other threads. The body as male or female, brown or white, me or not me, human or animal, cop or civilian.

I read a poem that starts out with elements of bitterness, but turns towards hope. I’m enchanted by the idea of wanting to come back as an elephant; I keep wondering what it is about the elephant that is so appealing. Its size? Its reputation for memory? Its thick skin?

I also spent some time wondering about all of us getting what we deserve. I think nearly everyone wishes that, yet I suspect most of us will be disappointed with our deserts, a kind of moral Ikea effect.

Justice MOOC

Course: Justice
Length: 12 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk (self-paced, open 6 months)
School/platform: Harvard via edX
Instructor: Michael J. Sandel

Justice explores critical analysis of classical and contemporary theories of justice, including discussion of present-day applications.…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.
What you’ll learn
• The fundamentals of political philosophy
• An understanding of social justice and criminal justice, and the roles they play in the modern justice system
• A deeper sense of the philosophy that underlies modern issues such as affirmative action, same sex marriage, and equality
• The ability to better articulate and evaluate philosophical arguments and ask philosophical questions

Back in the late 80s, PBS ran a series called “Ethics in America” (available online, because Youtube) led by a Harvard law school professor. He’d present a fairly straightforward situation to a panel made up of a variety of professionals – former government officials, educators, lawyers, doctors, journalists, it varied depending on the theme of the week – and ask, “What would you do, and why?” Then he’d complicate the situation, and complicate it again in a different way.

Michael Sandel has been teaching the Justice course at Harvard, the basis for this mooc, for thirty years, and it operates along the same lines as the PBS series. There may well be some organic connection, given the timing and similarity.

I remember watching the series as ethical principles were edited, sometimes abandoned. Sometimes it was because, they’d admit, they simply weren’t up to what their ethical belief required of them. But my take-away was that no one system of ethics works 100% of the time, that we mostly operate in a kind of ethical relativism (oh, that dirty word), evaluating each situation and determining priorities of principles. Funny thing is, just within the past few years I’ve been learning a lot about Jonathan Haidt and system 1/system 2 decision making: the theory is, we make decisions, including ethical decisions, almost instantaneously by gut instinct, then search for a logical reason to defend those decisions. I kept that in mind as I worked through the course.

Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do is an optional companion volume to the mooc; several chapters are included in the online readings. I’ve ordered it, just to have everything in one place.

I took a different approach to this course: because it was evident it was a back-and-forth discussion live-taped with a (very large) in-person class, I decided to forego my usual saving of video transcripts and readings. I just winged it. I’ve taken just about every philosophy course offered by both Coursera and edX, as well as a couple of Yale OCWs on political philosophy, so the material presented was familiar. A hypothetical case served as a starting point for discovering the limits of utilitarianism, libertarianism, and all the other -isms.

I heard a new context for Locke’s property rights in relation to the appropriation of native American land by colonial, and later, American, forces; I got a better understanding of Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and even though I will forever mis-refer to John Rawls as Lou Rawls (I just will; yes, I know the difference between the philosopher and the musician, so shut up) I’m glad I got more opportunity to look at his ideas beyond the veil of ignorance.

Each of the mooc’s 24 modules began with a Moral Dilemma poll (with a few exceptions), followed by a half-hour live-taped class session with 1000 students in the beautiful Sanders Hall. But don’t let the number put you off: the sessions have a remarkably intimate feel, as individual students answer “What would you do” questions and defend their choices, sometimes using philosophical language, sometimes just speaking off the cuff and allowing Sandel to guide them to a more formal statement of guiding principle. He asks the name of every student, and seems to remember it later on. Differences are viewed less as arguments than as multiple ways of approaching an issue. It’s really quite something to watch.

In terms of grades, the multiple-choice final exam is extra-weighted (70%). Unit quizzes and the Moral Dilemma polls make up the rest. The polls are graded on participation only; a situation is presented, and a choice between two or three options is allowed, along with a chance to write as much or as little as you like to defend your choice, and a chance to change your mind upon reading other opinions. I’d be very curious to know how many people changed their position; I suspect more than a few changed their rationale (I did several times, since others worded it more clearly) but I don’t think I changed sides at all. This in itself led to some self-reflection: am I closed to other ideas, or have I simply thought things through carefully?

For me, grades had little to do with this. I considered it a highly successful class, albeit one I zipped through, partly because it was so enjoyable, and partly because I was comfortable with the territory. I’m going to enjoy revisiting it all when I read the book.

Pushcart XLI: David J. Unger, “Fail Again” from The Point #10

FAILURE FESTIVAL is an invitation. An invitation for you to help us engage failure in a public setting. We need you because we don’t know how to do it on our own. We don’t know whether to barrel towards it, argue with it, or sit on its lap. We don’t know if we should give it keys to our apartment, or ask it to apologize. Sometimes we cower in the corner. Sometimes we lie down and try to convince it that we are asleep… or dead.
We want to know what failure reveals about our world that success masks. We do not expect easy answers. We may find none at all. This is a celebration and acknowledgement of the fact that when things inevitably don’t go as we plan, somehow, we must adapt. Please help.

Complete essay available online at The Point

I’ve learned, in the past three years, to embrace failure, mostly through the influence of a bunch of math teachers who are convinced if you aren’t getting things wrong, you aren’t learning anything, and that learning to tolerate frustration and persevere is more important than memorizing trig identities. One thing I can always succeed at is failing at math, so I’ve finally found a way to, um, succeed?

This isn’t a unique approach. Every writer, every dreamer who ever poured out her heart on paper knows at least one line from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, a line celebrated in 2014 by Trinity College in Dublin with “a free exhibition of beautiful, heroic and instructive failures” in its Science Gallery. And just last month, MIT’s Technology Review published a story on Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman – and PhD candidate in math – John Urschel, who says “In math, you have to be comfortable with failure.” And the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm 500 Startups is all about failure: “The alternate name we came up with for 500 Startups was ‘fail factory,’ says [founding partner Dave] McClure. ‘We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn.’”

Before we were all about “winning”, failure was a recognized route to success.

So I was really eager to read this piece, a journalistic look at the Failure Festival presented in Boulder, CO back in 2014.

I got a bit lost in the description of the festival itself. Apparently it was a three day audience-participation dance-and-performance-art thing. Garbage bags served as ponchos, tomatoes were provided for throwing and carrots for carving. It was probably much better in person than it was to read about. But I must admit, sadly, the piece didn’t work for me. But if an article about a failure festival fails, does that make it a success?