Pushcart 2015: Michael Kardos, “Animals” from Crazyhorse, #83

It’s nearly lunchtime and the woman on the phone is getting snippy, so I intentionally flub a word. “I know this must be fistering for you.”
“I beg your pardon?” she says.
“Fistering. Fisterating?”
“Do you mean ‘frustrating’?”
“Yes—I mean that. I use the wrong word sometimes,” I tell her, just as I’ve been taught to say. My confession will cause her temper to subside.
“But your English is really quite good,” she says.
“Thank you,” I tell her. “You are kind.”
“It’s the truth, Raj. Have you ever been to America?” She calls me Raj because she believes it’s my name. Because I told her it is.
“No, Josephine,” I tell her. That’s her name— Josephine Sanders. “Though one of my cousin attends U.C.L.A. He likes America very much.”
I know nothing about this woman other than her name, phone number, and computer model, but I sense she isn’t a bad person. Certainly, her frustration is warranted. The CD-ROM drive on her new computer shouldn’t already be failing.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of reading: the collaboration of writer and reader to produce meaning, aesthetic effect. Is the responsibility all on the writer? Does not the reader need to bring something as well? Do some authors, some works, expect a little more? Do some readers, some reads, fall short? When a story doesn’t work, is it due to empathic failure on at least one side – the failure of the writer to give the reader sufficient understanding of the conflict, or the inability of the reader to identify (or identify with) that conflict – that the story does not elicit an emotional response, or elicits a response that is not aesthetically satisfying?

This story is available online (thank you, Crazyhorse) so beware of spoilers ahead: as always, I urge anyone reading here to read the story before proceeding. I am not a literary critic or reviewer; I only report my own experience with what I read, and I wouldn’t want to prematurely contaminate another’s experience. And I’d enjoy hearing the experience others have had with this story.

As I read it for the first time, I noticed the “morphing” quality so many good stories seem to have. With the first paragraph I thought, “Oh, I see, it’s a story about a boy in India who connects with an American via a technical support call and it changes one of their lives in some way.” That frame didn’t last long, of course; tiny, well-placed clues kept undermining it, until I realized something else was going on. A few pages in, it suddenly became a story about an elaborate corporate con, though not the one I expected. Then it became two strangers-in-the-night, a lost dog, an underachiever, a confessional, and I got lost in too many subplots.

Whereas in “Blue” I saw it as metaphor, and thus I could roll with the objectively odd events that transpired, here the coincidences seemed trite and forced (a veterinary school dropout finds a sick lost puppy? Oh please) and I didn’t understand any of the whys: Why does the woman confess? Why does she turn a technical support call into phone sex? (I maybe figured that one out, actually: it was a desperate attempt to be recognized as human) Why does Raj/Charlie shut down when his efforts to help fail? And most of all, why on earth did Kardos write that end scene? There’s inevitable surprise, and there’s ridiculously overblown.

This is a failure of empathy, I thought; the author has failed to uphold his end of the bargain.

Half of that evaluation was accurate.

I’m still not sure whose fault it was. It might have been the dog’s. Just because they’re animals doesn’t mean they’re blameless. But I do know this: There are certain people in the world who have a knack for keeping the peace. And those people have a responsibility. I’m one of those people. I’ve always been one of those people.

I found the story online in PDF form; to make quoting easier (and typos in quoted text less likely), I copy/pasted it to my notes. As happens sometimes with PDFs, that didn’t go terribly well. All “fi” and “fl” combinations resolved to added spaces, which is easy to fix with a global replace. All paragraphing was lost, which is… not. Even though it’s a somewhat longish story, I decided to go through and restore one paragraph break at a time using the book text as a guide. Happily, this would do for a second read as well; I hadn’t been looking forward to that.

Something funny happened while I was finding paragraph breaks: I found the story. Hey, whatever works. And, as rooted in the mundane details of ordinary life as it is, the story is definitely metaphor.

It’s metaphor of how we don’t really care about each other, and what that leads to. It’s metaphor of exploitation: a business exploits those desperate for work, turning them into sub-exploiters who cooperate in the mission: to cheat those desperate for help, at which point those targets exploit whatever means they have to get what they need, and, when that fails, to lash out. Metaphor of a certain lack of persistence: we give up so easily, sometimes we give up on dreams, sometimes on rescue, sometimes on ourselves. We give up on empathy, because it’s too damn hard. That’s the kind of people we are, some of us. I was reminded again of Aesop’s Fable about the Scorpion and the Frog. It’s our nature.

But at one point I turn around and see that more and more people have gathered where we stood—new hires, upper management, the girl from the mailroom—and they’re all waiting their turn to hug my dog, who doesn’t squirm or protest at all as she’s passed around from person to person. She lets herself be folded into each set of arms, remaining completely calm, either because she’s sick or because of the cold or the strange surroundings, or, more likely, because that’s the kind of animal she is.

I do still think the ending is overblown and a bit trite. And the puppy, yeah, that’s a little much on the other end. And maybe that’s the clue: it’s metaphor. If we can all get our collective heads out of our collective asses – and let’s face it, some of us have had our heads up our asses so long, we’ve hung pictures on the walls and called it home – maybe we wouldn’t need helicopters and lost puppies. Maybe there won’t be so much empathic failure. But maybe that’s our nature.

There’s some nice rhythm in here, as well. Phone conversations that play musically. A sudden switch to passive voice that underlines the shift to empathic failure. And, oh, yes: there was empathic failure. The story is about empathic failure.

Funny, how a half-assed rereading turned this into an experience. That’s why I blog stories. Sometimes I have to be forced to overcome my nature.

Pushcart 2015: Susan Stewart, “Pine” (Poetry) from Paris Review, #207

"Ogham Tree Grove"  by Yuri Leitch

“Ogham Tree Grove” by Yuri Leitch

a homely word:
a plosive, a long cry, a quiet stop, a silent letter
           like a storm and the end of a storm,
the kind brewing
           at the top of a pine,
                       (torn hair, bowed spirits, and,
                               later, straightened shoulders)
who’s who of the stirred and stirred up:
          musicians, revolutionaries, pines.

I never realized “pine” had so many possibilities. If you’d like, read the poem online (thank you, Paris Review), and walk through the pines with me:

My first thought was that a phonetic dissection of the word “pine” was an odd way to start. In linguistics, “p” is indeed an unvoiced plosive consonant. “Aye”, yes, a long cry, aye, cry, changing shape along the way. Since my first connection with the word “pine” on reading this was “pine box” – that is, coffin – a long cry would be an appropriate association. But we don’t run into a pine box until later; there’s much more interesting stuff before then. Where was I – yes, the cry. Then, “a quiet stop”; now, the IPA charts I originally learned from had “n” as a nasal, but then I’ve also read about it as an alveolar fricative; and yes, there are those who define it as a stop. Susan Stewart’s a Princeton professor who won a MacArthur “Genius Grant”; I’m not going to argue with her if she wants to call it a stop. And the silent letter; who doesn’t read that and hear “the rest is silence” ?

But wait: we don’t really start with that at all, do we. We start with “a homely word.” “Homely” on face value means “ugly”, but it has meanings shading towards “simple” or “rustic” as well. Pine is an undistinguished wood. I happen to be very fond of it, as it’s hardy, plentiful, thus cheap, and can be very beautiful, or very plain. What I like most about it is that its knots, its flaws, are what make individual boards interesting and unique. It is, however, very soft, unless treated. I’m wondering if there’s some metaphor here, and for what. For people? For poetry? For life?

Or is pine just pine? In Pine-Sol and in pine: “…one means of knowing the real thing is the fake you find in school.” And we have humor, wordplay: “The air had a nip: pine / was traveling in the opposite direction.” Is this a turn signal? Have we have now begun the descent portion of our flight? I don’t think so; it’s way too early, isn’t it? School has just let out… does it start that early, the travelling in the other direction?

Now out of school, I learned a lot from this poem. I didn’t know the White Pine, aka Japanese Pine, often used for bonsai, grows its needles in telltale groups of five. But that’s just the beginning of what I learned:

An alphabet made of trees.
In the clearing vanished hunters
        left their arrowheads
        and deep cuts in the boulder wall:
                 petroglyphs, repeating triangles.

There is an alphabet made of trees, shown in the header art above: Ogham, where the pine tree is the ailm, something like an “a”: a single horizontal line. This alphabet is found in texts, and is carved on stones in Ireland. And of course, there is an online transliterator, though I have no idea who created it, or how accurate it is.

I also immediately thought of John Ashbery’s “Some Trees”, that poem I discovered through ModPo that creates a sense of interconnectedness even on a passing mention. So much interconnectedness, yet I struggle to find the overall structure of this poem.

The final stanza:

No undergrowth, though, in a pine forest.
Unlike the noisy wash
of dry deciduous leaves,
the needles blanket the earth
pliant beneath a bare foot,
a walk through the pines.
Silence in the forest comes from books.

If you’ve ever walked in a pine forest, you know the spongy feel referenced here. I remember being terrorized by that feeling when I was younger, fearing the ground would absorb me at some point, frozen in place until I had to be carried out. And that last sentence leaves me breathless – an appropriate response, I think.

I see so much in those closing lines: “pliant” is so similar to “plant”; the indent on “floating” gives the word itself a floating sense; is the walk in the pines, and thus the poem, perhaps a life, now come to an end? Is the walk through the pines the reading of a poem on paper? Is there some strangeness to reading it via illuminated pixels instead? Or is it just about pines? I wish I could interpret intelligently.

But maybe interpretation is the wrong approach to this poem, to any poem. Maybe a poem is more than a balance sheet of symbols and sounds; maybe it’s the wind on which we fly, and there’s no need to quantify or characterize. I’m having this very argument, about another poem, with someone right now; the way always presents itself, doesn’t it; it’s up to us to see it, and, if possible, take it. And, by the way, if I see something different in this poem tomorrow, or next year, or in ten years, is it not inherent in poetry that it grow with me, adapt itself to every “me” that reads it, however separated in time and thought they might be?

So what is the poem as a whole, how does it flow, how does it mean? I see the words, but does it make a sentence, a paragraph, a unified idea with a beginning, middle, end? Is it a lifespan: birth in a word, the individuation of sounds and letters, gathering meaning as it goes along, learning to communicate and have useful function, culminating in a pine box, ending in silence of discarded needles, while the tree itself goes on to make more needles? Is the linguistic beginning a layout of the poem: stanzas in turn plosive, cry, stop – the rest is silence –

Or is it just a meditation on the word “pine” and the images it brings the poet?

I’ll admit, I’ve lost the forest for the trees here. But you’ll have to admit, too: they’re pretty awesome trees.

Pushcart 2015: Edward Hoagland, “Hippies and Beats” (non-fiction) from New Letters, #80.1

Being a little younger than the Beat generation writers (although my first book was published in the same year, 1956, as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems) and yet older than the mainstream Hippie movement later on, I observed both the certain skeptical affinity.

I was uncertain through much of this essay. A reminiscence? I don’t sense much affection, or even much connection to the people and things that went before. There’s some compare/contrast, but it’s a short essay, just over four pages, so how informational can it be? For such an august literary personage with such an interesting past (he literally ran off to join the circus as a kid, served in the army, graduated from Harvard, travelled the world writing about peoples and places; how many people can claim those disparate things?) this seems an odd approach.

The two movements – the Beats of the 50s and the Hippies of the 60s – sometimes get conflated by virtue of the shared flouting of convention, but Hoagland points out some fundamental differences: how women are viewed (“The Beats were patriarchal, for the most part”) and the anti-intellectual intellectualism (“The Beats didn’t read very much that wasn’t Buddhist or Beat, but they weren’t anti-literate, like many Hippies, who seemed to regard reading as an Establishment activity”).

And, by the way – did any of it make a difference? How’s the Establishment doing today? Does anyone get the sense that protest itself has been co-opted? Then again, maybe it always has been that way – per deliciously telling phrases like “mainstream Hippie movement”.

But towards the end, music plays in the language, and my heart was indeed captured:

Freedom and ambivalence were what the Hippies sought. The winters were character-building and they learned carpentry, chainsawing, latrine-digging if they stuck around, while their main stoner drug edged toward being decriminalized. But that was less romantic than hitting the road and spilling the beans in compulsive cadences, banging around, depending on the kindness of strangers. My rocking-chair friend and my girlfriend both also died too young, perhaps from a shared distrust of doctors, or from smoking fungicide marijuana. Ginsberg intoned famously at the beginning of “Howl” that “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed…” Dubious, but certainly people he loved.

From the rhythm of that third sentence – a rhythm of rocking chairs and cadences – to the aching nostalgia of the last: Is anything as glorious, as significant, in the retelling as in the experience?

Pushcart 2015: Afaa Michael Weaver, “Visit #1″ (Poetry) from Ploughshares, #38.4

Your grandfather and I walk alike,
each of us counting the brittle spaces
in getting older. At the desk I explain
I want to see my son, and I see you
are now digits on a sheet….

A poem reveals itself many ways, sometimes recreating itself as it does so. With each sentence, these words move us to a different place, and we come to see, in some faint sense, what the speaker is feeling.

At first, it’s a poem about generations. It remains that throughout, but the implication of the passing of generations is different as we read on: the desk? Digits on a sheet? At first I thought, a hospital. Because that’s what I understand. But if I better understood the world from other points of view, I might have caught on earlier: a father and grandfather are visiting the son in jail.

Each line reveals another aspect of the experience, as the father recalls trips to school, and compares them to this visit. In last year’s Pushcart, I encountered Weaver for the first time through his poem “Blues in Five/Four, The Violence in Chicago”. It, too, had this sense of looking back from the present. But that was more of something lost, whereas here, it’s more of something continued. But this visit is also seen as different.

                   … It is the Detention Center,
not school, not the principal, but men
with violence as hope. My father
and I have come to see you, and we
so much want you to outlive us.
To bury you would pull us down
into the spiked pit of grief that kills.

And yet this is the reality so many must face. It becomes an issue of social justice for many of us, but for this father, and this grandfather, it’s something much more personal, much more painful. “I pray for you. It is my only secret,” says the speaker. I wonder: why a secret? From whom? From the son, who would scorn such sentiment?

Although the poem is not available online, Weaver includes a brief author’s note in the issue of Ploughshares in which this appears. It may be as important as the poem itself. Our children – how can we do this to them? How can we allow it?

Pushcart 2015: Russell Banks, “Blue” from The Barcelona Review, #82

Art by sqbr (modified)

Art by sqbr (modified)

Ventana steps off the number 33 bus at 103rd Street and North-west Seventh Avenue in Miami Shores. It’s almost 6:00 P.M., and at this time of year the city stays hot and sticky thick till the sun finally sets at 8:00. She walks quickly back along Seventh, nervous about carrying so much cash, thirty-five one-hundred-dollar bills. She doesn’t want to pay for the car with a check and then have to wait till the check clears before she can drive it home—no way a used-car dealer who doesn’t know her personally will accept a check from a black woman and let her take the goods home before the check clears. She wants the car now, today, so she can drive to work at Aventura tomorrow and for the first time park in the employees’ lot and on Sunday after church drive her own damn car, drive her own damn car, to the beach at Virginia Key with Gloria and the grandkids.

Since this story is available online (thank you, Barcelona Review ) I’m not going to worry about spoilers; this makes it easier to talk about. However, I urge any reader here who hasn’t yet read the story to do so before proceeding. Like any horror story, the effect is in cumulative construction and the intensification of suspense, and is always best enjoyed first-hand and unspoiled.

Horror story? Some, including the author, might be surprised to hear it described that way. But that’s how I was thinking of it, from the first paragraph. I suppose “suspense” might be another word. “A metaphoric description of daily life for a significant portion of the American population” would work, too. I was a nervous wreck, reading it.

What is she going on about now, you wonder.

Ventana is a decent, reasonable woman moving into middle age, her kids grown, her husband now an ex. She’s been saving $100 a month for nearly 10 years, and has decided on this day to buy a car with the $3500. And I knew, as soon as I read the first paragraph, that something awful was going to happen to this woman. Because why create such a likeable, sympathetic character, and put her in such a banal situation, if not to put her through hell – my favorite writing advice from Steve Almond.

The suspense as I read was in what kind of disaster Ventana would encounter. A random mugging on her way to the car dealership? The more sophisticated robbery of hucksterism by a couple of greedy salespeople who know a pigeon when they see one and have the plucking down to a science? The snarling guard dog she’s locked in the lot with? The random teenager ambling by in the night? The absurd callousness of the fire department rescue squad? The news crew in full vulture mode? The life-or-death roulette every black person plays in every encounter with the police?

A horror story of everyday life.

It’s quieter than usual out there in the world beyond the fence. Traffic is light, and no one is on the street—she can see Seventh Avenue all the way north to the bus stop at 103rd and in the opposite direction down to Ninety-fifth Street, where her pink shotgun bungalow is located three doors off Seventh, the windows dark, no one home. The narrow wooden garage she emptied out a week ago and where she planned to shelter her car tonight is shut and still emptied out, unused, waiting. Along Seventh the streetlights suddenly flare to life. The number 33 bus, nearly empty, rumbles past. A police cruiser speeds by in the opposite direction, lights flashing like the Fourth of July.

The story is included in Banks’ 2014 collection, A Permanent Member of the Family. In a generally positive review of that book for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Malcolm Forbes criticizes this one story as “so pock-marked with plot holes the reader is forced to suspend disbelief to make it work.” If you look at it as your typical realism, that’s a fair point – Would even the most stereotypically bloodsucking leech of a car salesperson forget a customer is on the lot and lock up for the night? Is the Miami-Dade public service sector really so incompetent as to tell a 911 caller a rescue isn’t a rescue, but a break-in, and the local police precinct should be called instead? Is any news crew really so worried about makeup and lighting and camera angles as to walk away from a woman trapped behind a spiked fence with a snarling guard dog because the story just isn’t interesting enough? For that matter, is a 47-year-old woman going to climb on top of a Ford Escape (in this case, not so much of an escape) to evade attack, and go to sleep, when she has a cell phone in her purse?

That cell phone brings in an interesting line of inquiry: why doesn’t she call someone? Is the fear of looking ridiculous so strong, as to be life-threatening? Has human trust eroded to the point where we can’t depend on others in emergencies? Is it vanity, foolishness – or fear of the connection, the indebtedness, the possibility of refusal? I know times when I’ve asked for help, and times when I’ve paid for services I could ill afford because I was too afraid to ask for help. But if my life were in danger? Why did Banks include the cell phone in the story? What element of character was he revealing? Was he giving us a way to blame the victim? Is this yet another catastrophe Ventana faces – being blamed for her own doom?

I don’t see plot holes at all, because I don’t see the story as realism. I’d rather see the entire story as a metaphor for the kinds of dangers someone like Ventana – a middle-aged black woman with no particular status or power, but a strong sense of pride and decency – faces every day of her life. If the random thieves don’t get you, the greed just might. If the cops don’t shoot you, there’s still the guard dog. Life as suspense, moving through one peril at a time. And sure, there’s a cell phone in her purse, but that means exposing herself in a position of weakness, and seeing that weakness in the other’s eyes with every meeting from then on. And there’s the usual places to call for help, but help never comes, because a black woman in mortal danger just doesn’t play as well on the 11 o’clock news as a cat stuck in a tree. And it’s all her own fault, anyway.

Now, if I read it that way, I see the point of view of the story as: in the end, it’s nature that’s gonna get us. But not nature in its natural state: Nature, refashioned into a form needed by human possessiveness, to fit a need created by human failings. Maybe that’s what we feel gripping our leg, right now.

I don’t think this requires suspension of disbelief at all. I think it may be the most realistic story I’ve read in a long time. And that is pretty horrifying.

Pushcart XXXIX / BASS 2014: Molly McNett, “La Pulchra Nota” from Image #78

15th century illustration from Bartholomew Anglicus, 'On the Properties of Things'

15th c. illustration of a leper rattle from Bartholomew Anglicus,’On the Properties of Things’

My name is John Fuller. I am nine and twenty years of age, born in the year of our Lord 1370, the son of the learned musician and the youngest of twelve children – though the Lord in his wisdom was pleased to take five brothers and two sisters back to the fold. After a grave accident, I no longer possess the use of my hands. Any inaccuracies in this document are not the fault of the scribe, who enjoys a high reputation, but of my own mind. My pain is not inconsiderable. However, I will continue frankly, in as orderly a fashion as I am able, so that these words may accompany my confession to the honorable Vicar of Saint Stephen’s.
My story begins as God knitted me in the womb.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time over the past few months immersed in medieval theology courtesy of Dante Alighieri. Maybe it’s because I can put myself in the story in all three key roles. Maybe it’s because there’s so much crammed in these fourteen pages – sorrow, love, joy, longing, heartbreak, loneliness, alienation, sacrifice, guilt, stoicism bordering on learned helplessness, a harsh and compassionless justice. Whatever the reason: I absolutely loved this story.

Because all the elements of the story fit so well together, it’s impossible to discuss in detail without spoilers; the first paragraph itself is a kind of spoiler, in fact. I haven’t found it online, so I’ll just make some general observations and encourage everyone to find a copy of BASS 2014 (or back issue #78 of Image, a literary journal with a “commitment to artistic excellence and religious truth… poised to make a lasting impact on the future of our national culture”) to see for yourself how McNett weaves together a music teacher, his wife, his student, and the often inscrutable Will of God.

I also admire the process she went through to get here. In an interview with Dan Klefstad of NPR affiliate WNIJ, she explains how she went from a story that felt too “Glee” to the 14th century via research on the history of vocal instruction. That writer’s decision to move the story from a contemporary choir to the 14th century was genius, and allowed so much else to be brought in: socially moderated rules of conduct which, although passé today, are based on aspects of human relationships, emotions, and desires that have not changed in six hundred years, and the overwhelming pressure of religion.

To get the setting and diction right, she read several period texts:

One was a diary written by a man who had a large family; within a month they all died except him.
“I don’t know if it was to the Plague or what happened,” McNett says. “But with every death he gave thanks to God or `Divine Providence’ and so forth. There was no bitterness and almost no sorrow, just complete acceptance.” McNett says she’s not a religious person, but was deeply moved by these accounts. “So I wanted to include at least one person in the story who had that faith.”

~~Molly McNett

John Fuller has more faith on his worst day than most of us do all our lives. Except for one bad moment; yet as for many of us, it’s one bad moment on which everything turns. And it’s the skill of the story that makes me wonder if all that faith is really such a good idea: doesn’t it prevent change? Doesn’t it leave him mired in the past, in rage buried underneath every “Praise be”?

Ken Nichols at Great Writers Steal (one of my favorite craft-oriented writer’s blogs) points out how carefully the story is focused. I’ve always found historical fiction to be problematic, but as Ken points out, “McNett doesn’t focus too closely on the clothing, language, food, science or customs of her specific time and place. Instead, she keeps our attention on what we share with John Fuller, Katherine and Olivia.” He’s absolutely right: what’s important about the setting is the belief system and the emotional lives of the characters, not what anyone’s wearing. The story does a great job of drawing us into those elements.

And those elements are why the story must be set in the 14th century; a contemporary setting wouldn’t make sense. John wouldn’t accept his wife’s vow of celibacy, and/or he’d hop right into bed with his student; in either case, the story would have to be very different. It’d be the story I’ve read a hundred times. This one’s a lot more interesting. Though the mechanisms are less familiar, the story is generated by fundamental motivations I understand. It’s a kind of defamiliarization.

Some stories are highly visual; this one is highly aural. John remembers two sounds from his childhood, one ugly and one beautiful: the leper’s rattle, and the song of the nightingale, his first encounter with what Jerome of Moravia called “la pulchra nota,” the beautiful note. When his wife labors with their children, she makes such a racket the midwife resorts to stuffing her ears with cotton. And there is another encounter with la pulchra nota, as one of his singing students, and a sweet young thing at that, achieves the perfect note:

I would like to end my story at this moment. I would like to linger here at the very crux of joy, where the note, and these words, were as one to me.
But I cannot. I then understood something about music that I had not learned from my father, or Jerome of Moravia, or Isidore of Seville. La pulchra nota the is the moment of beauty absolute, but what follows – a pause, however small – is the realization of its passing. Perhaps no perfection is without this silent realization.

After ecstasy, there’s nowhere to go but down (remember that next time a blushing bride declares her wedding day “the happiest day of my life” – because she might just be, cursedly, right) so it’s no surprise when Olivia’s voice sounds less sweet on future notes.

Steve Almond gives writing advice along the lines of “it’s your job as a writer to put your characters through hell” and McNett certainly does give John a full range of emotional experiences: contentment, grief, sexual frustration, desire, joy, disappointment, rage, guilt, and finally, a kind of passive acceptance that seems saintly – or insane. Perhaps a touch of both. Each twist felt very authentic to me; it wasn’t something written to create a plot, but a pitch-perfect (sorry) recording of an emotional life.

Through the story, I was pulling for John, and that’s part of the writer’s job, too (“give the reader someone to care about”). But I was always aware: John’s wife has her own story as well, as does his student. It’s easy to create a hero among villains – that’s soap opera – but to blend together three characters with elements of each – three flawed noble souls who can’t quite get outside themselves to see another’s needs – is where a real story happens.

[Post originally written in Fall 2014 as part of the BASS 2014 read]

I see this story was also selected for a Pushcart 2015 Prize. I couldn’t agree more.

A Tale of Two Chem MOOCs

Course: Chemistry
School: University of Kentucky via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Allison Soult, Dr. Kim Woodrum
Allison Soult and Kim Woodrum bring their experience to the course covering atomic structure, periodic trends, compounds, reactions, stoichiometry, and thermochemistry. Instruction consists of concepts, calculations, and video demonstrations of the principles being discussed. Practice problems and end of unit assessments will help students gauge their understanding of the material.
Course: Introduction to Chemistry: Reactions and Ratios
School: Duke University via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Prof. Dorian A. Canelas
Topics include introductions to atoms, molecules, ions, the periodic table, stoichiometry, and chemical reactions. The pattern of the use of ratios in chemical problem solving will be emphasized….Each week the course will contain a series of short video lectures with interactive questions embedded in the lectures. Students will have opportunities to practice each week via exercises at two levels of depth: one set of foundational problems directly related to lecture videos and another set of problems requiring more synthesis of ideas and application of pre-existing algebra skills.

Why did I take two chemistry courses more or less consecutively? I really, really wanted to learn some chemistry.

Actually, it was a fluke of scheduling. And, by the way, I was scared to death of both of them, thanks to being traumatized by chemistry in high school. My recollection was that chemistry is a lot of algebra, and no matter how much math I’ve been doing, it’s still a struggle. I’d heard Duke’s course was hard, but really good, and very conceptual, so I hoped the Kentucky course, which ran first, would give me enough of an introduction to at least make a dent in the “real” course.

Thing didn’t quite turn out that way.

The Kentucky course relied heavily on calculations and extensive practice. Each week included a set of ungraded homework, with answers immediately available. The weekly tests were more or less standard “take it over and over until you get them all right” but doing the work was a sure way to get the material down. The first unit was particularly brutal for algebraphobes, covering everything from quantum energy states to orbitals and electron configurations. I finally got over my fear of scientific notation by just buckling down and figuring a way to understand it (if the coefficient gets larger, the exponent has to get smaller) instead of trying to remember left and right and when to count zeroes and when to count places. Yes, I really am that stupid about math. Chemistry? I shouldn’t have been allowed out of sixth grade.

I found the initial materials were well-presented and explained clearly; the middle section seemed a lot less clear, but that could’ve been merely my reaction. The lectures were fairly dry; a couple of demonstrations were included, for “interest” I suppose, but I didn’t find them particularly illuminating. I do wish more of a conceptual overview had been included, but in terms of learning specific calculations, it worked well, and I probably needed that more than anything else.

There were, of course, drawbacks to the skill-drill approach. First, the practice problems, while great for learning the material, had a significant number of errors throughout the course, particularly towards the middle and end. A couple of more advanced students helped verify the correct answers, but, Second, there was no staff, and, even worse, no CTAs to help out (as it happens, one of those helpful advanced students turned up as a CTA in the Duke course, but he had no official status here). I find the number of errors kind of inexcusable, since this is not the first run of the course; lack of response showed a distinct lack of interest on the part of the university – and on the part of Coursera, for that matter. But I suppose they figure, it’s better than nothing, and since I did learn quite a few calculative procedures and techniques, I suppose it is. It’s just that I’m very protective of MOOCs, and when a course opens itself up to criticism by this kind of carelessness (literally, care-lessness), it’s hard to advocate for their value against legitimate criticism.

The material was released all at once, with a suggested schedule. Because I wanted to finish before the Duke course started, I sped it up a little; I didn’t really complete the last unit, and I didn’t take the final exam. Because of the way the course was graded, it’s possible I “passed” anyway, which seems rather silly to me.

The Duke course was a lot more, well, I don’t know what it was. A lot of my classmates kept writing posts about what a wonderful course it was, but I found it garbled, disorganized, and unpleasant. If I hadn’t already taken the Kentucky course, I would’ve had no idea what was going on; in fact, during the week we covered material new to me, I was lost, combing YouTube looking for explanations, since the ones given in the lectures made little sense to me. On the plus side, I conquered my fear of significant digits, thanks to a couple of very patient and helpful CTAs.

The course followed the exact same framework as Duke’s Genetics & Evolution, which I adored; that goes to show you, it isn’t the template, it’s how you embody it. No one else seemed to have any problems, however, so maybe it’s me. I did see significant effort go into providing more of a context for the material covered, but I didn’t get a lot out of that; it seemed random and not particularly interesting. Then again, I’m not trying to be a chemist. But I wasn’t trying to be a geneticist, either, and that course had me glued to my seat.

A weekly test and final exam made up most of the basic evaluation materials, with an option to take “advanced problem sets” and write a peer-assessed paper. The advanced problem sets followed a pattern I recognize from looking over the shoulder of a lot of creative math teachers: questions about the problem. Do you understand the words? What values and equations do you need? Sketch your approach to the problem in words. Can you change the values to create a problem that uses different values? Is the new problem easier or harder? This sort of thing no doubt works wonderfully in a classroom, but here, I’m pretty sure any answer was accepted, and obviously there could be no feedback in a machine-graded system; because these were graded, we couldn’t discuss them. So while I can appreciate the concept behind that kind of question structure, I wonder if there’s a better way to implement this kind of feature – such as in homework which can be discussed.

The peer-assessed paper seemed to me a total waste of time, since I didn’t know enough chemistry to write about a chemical problem, but it didn’t seem to matter, since a grade was not part of the peer assessment; mere submission gave full credit. The most educational part of the process would’ve been reading the best papers (which were posted on the discussion boards as they were assessed). I confess, I didn’t bother, and that’s on me.

All in all, I far preferred the Kentucky course, though I found the lack of concern over errors, and the lack of CTA support, to be something of a problem. Of course, with Coursera moving inexorably to self-paced courses, this is the way of the future. At least I feel like I came away with some skills. I’m not sure what I came away from the Duke course with. I might even take the Kentucky course again; no way I’m taking the second of the Duke courses.

I’ve frequently said that no MOOC works for everyone, and that every course I’ve loved, someone else has hated, and vice versa. Some combination of the best parts of these – the increased detail, clarity, practice of Kentucky with the context and CTAs of Duke – would, of course, be ideal. But unlikely. In the meantime, it’s a matter of personal preference.

Pushcart 2015: Hillary Gravendyk, “Your Ghost” (Poetry) from Sugar House Review, #9

Glatzmaier-Roberts model of magnetic field reversal

Glatzmaier-Roberts model of magnetic field reversal

Parted from the scene of old disasters
a magnet pulling one memory in two directions

Sometimes I get stuck when reading Pushcart. I can sense power in a work, but I don’t know what it “means” or how to talk about it. Sometimes I’m just intimidated by a famous name. And sometimes I feel as though I’m treading on sacred ground, and I’m unsure of the appropriate attitude. This is most pronounced when, as in this case, I read the work of a recently deceased poet.

Here is again where I wish I better understood how to “really” read poetry. But all I can do is record my own observations and reactions, and hope that I accumulate some wisdom from the overall experience.

The first thing I noticed with this poem was how the punctuation isn’t visible, but is still there via line breaks. I see very little enjambment (if any) in this poem; each line is a clause unto itself. The ghost of punctuation, unseen, still directs the reading of the poem.

The sense of point-of-view is explicit in the poem, right from the beginning – a magnet pulled in two directions. What a great image: north and south; yet north and south attract each other, so the two poles also unite (I don’t think actual magnets work that way; I have a few physics courses to take before I can understand just how inappropriate that interpretation may be). I wonder if the lines of the couplets are the two directions: hand/mind, puddle/stone; we/you; the braiding of hair “into a soft basket”, a wonderfully intimate image, coupled with holding “nature’s charms at arms length”. And why is the apostrophe missing in “arms”? Not possessive, but plural?

The phrase that jumps off the page at me is “every angled enmity” both because of the initial vowels, and because of the tongue-twisting nature of it. And then, the brow leads to slope leads to axis leads to lines: from concrete body to abstract figures, through serial associations that circle back to a lined brow. The magnet: two poles at opposite ends that pull together.

I know these roads by heart and all the ways back in
An arrow strung up like a party favor points the way

There’s no capitalization for quite some time, either, other than the first word, and “I”. So when I came to a capital, it seemed like it must be a very significant placement, perhaps a section break – but it occurs in the second line of a couplet, then is followed by three repetitions of “I want”. How does that work? In a poem about a lost loved one, does a capital signal a “break” in the couple, as well as the couplet? It comes after finding “all the ways back in”, a phrase that I use quite a bit. The magnet again: the opposite fields leap from the poles, but find their way back to each other.

To read this particular poem, knowing that the poet passed away not long ago at the age of 35: sacred territory. Poem about memory, ghost, magnet, as memory, ghost, magnet pulling in two directions – the sorrow of loss and the joy of art – then finding its way back to unity. Here is where I wish I knew how to really read poetry.

Pushcart 2015: Inara Verzemnieks, “The Last Days of the Baldock” (non-fiction) from Tin House, #57

Given the chance, the more sentimental among them would probably return in summer. Summer was when it seemed as if all the residents of the Baldock threw open the doors of their homes to the bronchial, hawking churnings of the passing semis and wheeled coolers out to the picnic tables that had not yet surrendered to rot. There they would sit, cans clutched in cracked hands, as their dogs whipped smaller and smaller circles around the trunks of the Douglas firs to which they were chained. In those moments, it was possible for them to imagine that they had merely stopped there briefly on a long road trip, that they were no different from the men and women with sunglasses perched on the tops of their heads who trooped in and out of the nearby restrooms, mussed and squinting.

We think we know people, based on very little information about them. Say “librarian”, “football player”, “mother”, “homeless”, and you fill in a lot of blanks to come up with a general idea of what this person is like – quiet or outgoing, smart or stupid, pleasant or scary. Good or bad. Worth knowing, or not.

We think we know people. But we don’t.

Journalist Inara Verzemnieks stumbled upon a community of people who were clinging to the last rung of society’s ladder, trying desperately not to slip further – because they know, as we all do, how hard it is to climb back up even one rung, let alone the whole stretch. It’s a community that was about to be involuntarily dispersed. Perhaps that was the best thing for it; perhaps not. But what struck me was how it challenged every assumption we might make about the people who bear the labels we stick on them, and how uncertain it left me as to right and wrong, good and bad, should and shouldn’t.

The community was that of a group of people who lived at the Baldock rest stop on an Oregon interstate. Homeless, you might say. Or, you might not.

The access they gave me didn’t seem to depend on my being a reporter… Instead, I suspect, they were judging me by a more subtle rubric, reading me for clues that would help them gauge my capacity to understand.

Verzemnieks discovers the Baldock in the course of researching a story of a meal-delivery service. She discovers people like Joleen, who’d lived in a van with her boyfriend for three years on top of some intermittent stays when the weather was too cold for a campground. Joleen’s kids visit her at the Baldock on Mother’s Day. She meets The Mayor, who served as a sort of intake worker: “I don’t have money, booze, or cigarettes to give you, and don’t give me any shit. But I always have food to share. Ain’t no one out here gonna starve.”

We meet Ray (Joleen calls him “Dad” as they’ve forged a particularly strong supportive bond), who feeds his dog Sweetpea and gasses up his old motor home with his Social Security check. He may have lived at the Baldock for twelve, thirteen, seventeen years, no one’s sure. And people like Jack, the newbie, caught first in the housing market collapse, then in trucking industry cutbacks.

It’s easy to sit in judgment on the homeless. Why don’t they get a job? Why don’t they make better decisions? It’s harder to look close, and realize each story is unique. Yes, mental illness and general foolishness come into play, but so does bad luck. And don’t forget: it’s not as easy as you think to get back into society, once you’ve fallen out of it. Yes, some people do it. Then again, some people are Yo-Yo Ma and Einstein and Gandhi. Some people are indeed talented, and that includes a talent for navigating modern life. And some people are not so talented at that particular skill, or perhaps they just lack a support structure – family, friends with extra rooms and generosity. That doesn’t mean they aren’t people.

“You know what I love most about Thanksgiving?” Jack said. “Football. It’s been months since I’ve actually seen a game on TV, not just listen to it on the radio.” Everyone nodded and they talked about how luxurious it would be to sit on a sofa again, stupid with turkey, tasked with no other concerns than whether to flick between the college or pro games. It struck them all as the height of decadence, of insanely good fortune.

The Last Days started with a maintenance worker informing the residents the rest stop would now be the responsibility of the Oregon Travel Experience. The handwriting was on the wall:

Others, like members of any neighborhood group upon hearing rumors of possible planning changes, turned to the public computer at the community center for reconnaissance.…And though none of what they could find was written in what one would call plain, unadorned speech, one phrase in particular, about helping the rest stops achieve their “full economic development potential,” seems to them to translate as having something to do with money – be that making money or saving it. Either way, it was not a concept that they suspected would live comfortably alongside homelessness. Intuition told him that much.

Their intuition is straight-on: “the Baldock Restoration Project” was underway. Notice, it was the rest area, not the people, being restored. A solar energy installation was planned. The State of Oregon has published an official report citing the US Department of Transportation’s “environmental justice Order 5610.2″ and outlining the planning and execution of the relocation of the Baldockians.

To their credit, they didn’t just send in State Troopers; they did make efforts to understand the community, to meet different needs with different solutions. Yet I wonder why, if they were to select one image of one Baldock resident, they chose the one they did.

It’s hard to find fault with a solar energy project; it’s not easy to be against finding stable living situations for people living in their cars. If I’d just read the Oregon report, I might think they’d done a good thing. But now, having met these people on a more intimate level, I’m not sure. The local news story actually offends me with its high-and-mighty, “Ain’t it Awful” hysterics.

This is what point-of-view can do. And it occurs to me, maybe the “forward/back” “good/bad” theme I’ve been so determined to force on everything, is really a matter of point of view. The Oregon report, while including details of the Baldockians’ varied stories and attempting to take a sociological view, to evince concern and “environmental justice”, is clearly from the observer’s side. Verzemnieks tells the story from the residents’ side. She doesn’t skim over the ugly stuff, but she presents these people as people first. It’s a lot easier to feel compassion for people, when you see them as people, as one of us, instead of one of them.

“Some people would say they wouldn’t be caught dead living like this, in this nasty old RV,” [Ray] said. “But you know what, I consider myself so fortunate to have this. Because when you’ve had nothing – and I’ve been there – living like a no good dirty bum, low as you can go, in the streets, and people won’t even look you in the face, like you’re an animal or something and you don’t have shit, you’re thankful for whatever you can get. Let me tell you, I’ve never been so thankful.”
He jabbed his face with his fists, trying to hide the tears.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I lose this. I can’t live like that again.”
No one spoke.

The piece ends with an intense emotional punch as we see that even success has its price.

Oregon seems to feel it solved the problem. Verzemnieks doesn’t seem so sure. I wonder if there is a solution. I wonder about Joleen, and Jack. I wonder about Ray and Sweetpea. I wonder.

I’m-Running-Out-Of-Titles-For-Earth-Science MOOC

Course: Planet Earth… And You!
School: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Stephen Marshak, Dr. Eileen Herrstrom
Earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain building, ice ages, landslides, floods, life evolution, plate motions—all of these phenomena have interacted over the vast expanses of deep time to sculpt the dynamic planet that we live on today. Planet Earth presents an overview of several aspects of our home, from a geological perspective. We begin with earthquakes—what they are, what causes them, what effects they have, and what we can do about them. We will emphasize that plate tectonics—the grand unifying theory of geology—explains how the map of our planet’s surface has changed radically over geologic time, and why present-day geologic activity—including a variety of devastating natural disasters such as earthquakes—occur where they do. We consider volcanoes, types of eruptions, and typical rocks found there. Finally, we will delve into the processes that produce the energy and mineral resources that modern society depends on, to help understand the context of the environment and sustainability challenges that we will face in the future.

It was the best of MOOCs, it was the worst of MOOCs…

First, the good news: the lectures were superb. Information was well-organized and presented clearly, with plenty of visuals in a variety of formats: hand-drawn sketches, photographs, professionally printed diagrams. Not to mention visual aids: I finally understand the many kinds of earthquake waves, thanks to … a slinky! Other pictorials were included, but it was the slinky that showed me how a wave could travel both parallel to, and perpendicular to, a slip.

Dr. Marshak’s lecture style was a pleasant surprise; I found it extremely effective. He speaks very calmly and quietly, like he’s talking to one person instead of a class or even a camera. I don’t put a lot of importance on style, since substance is so much more important, but considering how many times I rewind and replay videos, it’s always nice when listening is a pleasure. Another interesting touch was his inclusion of emotionally intense information at the end of the earthquake and volcano lectures. In the case of the former, I was nearly in tears as he described the extent of the damage done by the Japanese earthquake of 2011; likewise, I was deeply moved by his explanation of the casts of Pompeii. These segments weren’t just about earth science; they were about people affected by the scientific processes we’d been learning about, connecting us in a more human way to what we’d studied. It was a great way to finish off the material for those weeks.

Likewise, Dr. Herrstrom’s explanation of the science needed for the first two labs was clear and complete. She made a nice summary of the more expansive lectures, focusing on the information necessary to execute tasks.

I also applaud the effort to create a multi-modal learning experience. The lectures and the weekly quizzes were only the beginning of the coursework: each week we had a lab, an assignment, and a discussion topic, with two peer reviews of those discussion topics during the five-week span. People learn in different ways, and this course tried to provide multiple avenues. The execution left a lot to be desired, but the theory was excellent.

The CTAs (students chosen for their ability to deal with other students patiently and helpfully, who usually have some background in the subject) were wonderful. When things went south (and they did), they – all volunteers, not paid staff – were caught in the middle, yet they maintained a superhuman level of grace under pressure. At one point I said they deserved combat pay. At the very least, they deserve medals.

And it’s a good thing they were there, because actual staff – people employed by the University, people connected with producing the course, presumably people who had some interest in how the course was received – were few and far between. In fact, other than one staff person identified only as Univ. of Illinois Support #6 who showed up quoting legalese (a whole other kettle of fish, I’m not gonna go there), the course was without staff. This is the vision for the future, I realize, and there are courses where this works, particularly when good CTAs are involved. But here, where so many problems cropped up, it was as if this were an orphan class, and whomever was responsible for it – someone at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, presumably – just didn’t give a damn.

The main problem was in the labs.

The first lab – using seismographs to locate an earthquake – was pretty good, if slightly miscalibrated. The visuals of the seismographs and graphs were much too small to allow detailed measurements necessary to obtain the kind of precision the answers required. I spent a lot of time on the lectures, so I didn’t get to the labs until fairly late in the week by which time the autograder had been “adjusted”. How adjusted, I don’t know – and I still don’t know if I really did the measurements correctly, or if anything was accepted as a valid answer at that point.

The labs went downhill from there. If the point was for us to learn to use Google Earth, well, I still don’t really know how, I just know how to click on this folder and watch the world go by. I’ll admit, I have an attitude towards Google Earth. But, unlike the first lab, where the purpose seemed clear and I understood the connection to the lecture, the rest of them seemed like busywork culminating in looking at things I wasn’t able to interpret or understand. How many valleys are in this view? I don’t know – which of that stuff is a valley? Are there several towns, or many nearby towns, in the ashfall zone of Vesuvius? Tell me what “nearby” means, and the cutoff between “several” and “many”, and I’ll tell you. In the plate tectonics lab – a topic in which I’m very interested, by the way – I gave up on Google Earth and just looked for map images of the pertinent plate boundaries.

In one case, a student documented 14 problems with a single lab, including one question that seemed to include all wrong multiple-choice answers. Either that, or I was measuring the wrong thing, or measuring the wrong way, since the answer I selected was marked as correct. I’m not sure what I was supposed to learn from that.

I had it better than some, however; there were lots of people who couldn’t get Google Earth to load at all. A couple of us posted still shots to fill the void in Week 4, but I think most people just gave up.

The “assignments” seemed to be low-level quizzes in disguise; I’m not sure why they were separated out. I don’t even remember them, in fact, other than I had to enter my hometown latitude and longitude every week. I suppose I should take the 20 points and be merrily on my way, but I wonder if these were supposed to be something else, and it just never happened.

The one assignment I loved – an extra credit assignment – was mineral identification. That module was off-site, part of Black Hawk College’s website rather than Illinois or Coursera. But it was fun. I like rocks.

The discussion assignments weren’t my particular cup of tea, but there’s plenty of room for disagreement on that; some students seemed to like them. We’d have to write a letter advocating for or against a town’s earthquake preparedness expenditures, a mine, or convince residents to evacuate before a potential volcanic eruption. A great deal of information could get packed into things like that – but we were limited to 150 – 200 words. Later, staff backpedaled and claimed that was a “suggestion” but since that “suggestion” was on the grading rubric, it felt more like a requirement. Again, there was some kind of disconnect between what was intended and the material itself. Follow that with a “grading rubric” 20 options for one type of post and 12 for another… and it was overcomplicated to the point of absurdity. Again, a good concept, run into the ground by poor execution.

But sometimes, adversity creates opportunity. I again fell in with this loose consort of ironic MOOCers who made the five weeks delightful with the creation of a “Whine Corner.” As in Origins, it wasn’t so much about complaining as it was about camaraderie and horseplay. It’s a flexible little sub-community, already moved on in ever-changing form to other courses, where new students add their humor.

I can’t help but wonder what went wrong with this course, leaving it like cloven into good and bad like Calvino’s Viscount. It’s a shame, because this could’ve been terrific; if they fix the problems, it still can be. And I do finally understand earthquake waves.

Pushcart 2015: Kathleen Ossip, “Elegies” (Poetry) from Poetry Magazine, December 2013

de Kooning: "Elegy", 1939

de Kooning: “Elegy”, 1939

All song is formal, and you
Maybe felt this and decided
You’d be formal too. (The eyeliner, the beehive: formal.)
When a desire to escape becomes formal,
It’s dangerous….

The formal definition of “elegy” fits right in to this theme I insist on imposing upon the works in this volume: looking forward, looking back, either /or: the first half of a classic elegy expresses loss, the second half, hope as what was great about the lost one is incorporated into the lives of the living. I’m not sure these elegies fit that exact description. I’m not sure they need to; they do other things.

These five elegies (available online, thank you, Poetry Magazine) come from Ossip’s most recent poetry collection, The Do-Over which is, she said in a Bookslut interview before the book was completed, centered on her own loss of a family member dear to her.

In this section she elegizes a series of public figures: Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs, Troy Davis, Lucian Freud, and Donna Summer. That’s a wide variety of death there; just the names generate a series of feelings ranging from pity over a life lost too soon to anger over injustice to admiration of talent or accomplishment to a sort of embarrassed nostalgia (come on, you loved disco and you know it). Maybe we feel all those things at once, and much more, with the death of anyone close to us.

The clock is obdurate,
Random, and definite.
Obdurate the calendar.
You thump on the cot: another signature.
Did it didn’t do it would do it again.
And if a deferred dream dies? Please sign the petition.

In most, there’s an italicized word or phrase: “Understood by music”; “deferred”; “All”. Do these relate to the elegized, to the elegist, to the society that saw the passing of these figures? Words are also repeated, and unexpected words: “Obdurate” and “signature” in Troy Davis’ elegy. Who was it that was obdurate? Davis was, as he maintained his innocence even as sat in the execution chamber. So was the State, who didn’t care about conflicting eyewitness stories and possible coercions. Signatures on petitions to stay the execution were more numerous but less powerful than the signatures that authorized the State to kill him. The italicized “deferred” in this poem breaks my heart; so much is deferred in Davis’ life/death story, not the least of which is our own humanity when we – and it is we, since we allow it – push the plunger on the fatal syringe.

I also see a lot of wordplay in these pieces: “Effects worth undertaking” in Lucien Freud wouldn’t have the same connotation if not in an elegy; “Vengeance is mind says the body” fits Steve Jobs perfectly, as does the repetition of “silver” in multiple forms throughout. Does “silver” have some innate connection to him? Does “silverish” bring to mind imitation, or “silverfish” – book-destroying bugs (bugs!). I’m not sure if it’s seemly to feel such delight as I felt in these elegies, but I admire the thought that went into them, each word, each phrase.

But let’s not leave out the most obvious, wordplay of all: each poem is an acrostic with the subject’s name as the spine word. For some reason, that feels like overkill to me, though I do love a crostic (to which my own obsession with mesostics will attest), and the use of restriction seems both appropriate, and counterappropriate, to an elegy. Death is the ultimate stricture on all of us – or maybe life is. Perhaps death is also the most freeing moment of human existence. Looking back, or looking forward? Is looking the operative word?

There is a sort of elegiac turn in the poems, though not necessarily from grief to hope. It’s more a turn from the departed, to the bereaved. Ossip’s Bookslut interview, done before the book was completed, shows this is a possibility, as she talks with Joseph Harrington about who’s voice dominates an elegy:

Ossip:…the peril of writing an elegy is that you’re going to insert yourself into it and make it not about the other person but about your own grief…. — your grief is part of the story, too. So that’s maybe an honest way — or another honest way — of approaching an elegy, because you know your own grief in a way that you can never know another person….
Harrington: I think that’s true about elegy; it’s about surviving the other person.
Ossip: And it’s about the voice of the bereaved.

All of these high-profile deaths occurred between July 2011 and May 2012; the collection was published this year, but apparently was completed in 2013. I wonder if that was the period during which Ossip was dealing with the death of someone dear to her, or if they were chosen in retrospect. That feels significant to me as well. Inward, outward; forward, back; which way was she looking? Which way do we look as we read them?

Pushcart 2015: Ada Limón, “How to Triumph Like a Girl” (Poetry) from Gulf Coast, #27.

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!

Look what we do to girls. We paint them with their horses, but only if they’re wearing frilly dresses and a happy smile and carrying a soft, feminine rose.

We might even put a girl on a racehorse, but only if her hair is long and flowing and the horse is dancing and everything is beautiful and graceful and gentle.

I didn’t realize this until I went looking for images of a strong woman with a horse. Go see for yourself: the woman wears a flowy dress (or if she’s a cartoon or game figure, a metal bikini), or wears jeans – action clothes – but merely stands, actionless, next to a horse. We fear the power of girls. And when we grow up, we fear the power of women.

Ada Limón ain’t having none of that.

She starts, perhaps, with a sonnet form, that most romantic, genteel of structures. But not a sonnet (it’s available online, thank you Gulf Coast) – her form has 18 lines, two breaks, three sections. She turns the form into what she needs it to be – and that is the definition of power.

“Ears up, girl” – a slight sexual connotation, perhaps, but I hear “Chin up” in this day when women are stripped of rights worldwide, in a day when the US seems determined to force women back into kitchens and bedrooms (except for poor women, of course, who are forced into low-wage jobs because how else can Wall Street and Washington survive except on the backs of uneducated single mothers).

What do ears do? They listen. They allow girls to listen to their racehorse heart.

The same power that turned a sonnet into a paean to female strength can turn little girls, who long ago were transformed from curious engines of creativity into insecure waifs waiting for permission, back again into what they was meant to be, whether that be a quiet poet with flowing hair, or an Olympic medalist. Put her in touch with her racehorse heart, and a girl will find the form that suits her.

Don’t you want to believe it?

I do. But it gets harder all the time.

Pushcart 2015: Frederic Tuten, “The Tower” from Conjunctions, #60

The Library in Michel de Montaigne's Tower

The Library in Michel de Montaigne’s Tower

Sometimes his urine was cloudy. Sometimes gritty with what he called “gravel.” Sometimes his piss flowed bloody and frightening. No matter how disturbing, Montaigne recorded his condition in his travel journal as coolly as he did the daily weather. He was always in various degrees of pain, and he noted that too, but dispassionately, like a scientist in a white lab coat.
Even before he suffered from kidney stones and the burning pain that came with them, Montaigne had long thought about death, and not only his own. He had thought about how to meet it and if doing so gracefully would change the encounter. His closest friend, the man he had loved more than anyone in the world, was to love more than anyone in the world, had died with calm dignity. In his last minutes, in his last words, his dear friends did not begrudge life or beg for more time or express regrets over what was left undone or make apologies to those he might have or had offended or injured. Montaigne thought that when death approached, he would neither wave him away nor welcome him, but say to death’s shadow on the wall, “Finally, no more pain.”
I put my book aside when she walked in.
“I’m leaving you,” she said. She had a red handbag on her arm.

I don’t know enough about Michel de Montaigne, or about Blaise Pascal, for that matter, to do full justice to this story. In fact, one of the ways I can tell how much I like this story, even though I don’t fully understand the nuances, is that it interests me greatly in finding out more about these two philosophers. However, for the moment, I will have to approach this at my current level. As it happens, it works there, too.

The observation of the red handbag, made after hearing his wife is leaving him, tells us a great deal about the narrator. But maybe too much: I can’t decide if he is someone so afraid of the prospect of losing his wife – in the context of Montaigne’s loss of his best friend – that he escapes to a kind of detached observation, or if he truly is the detached thinker, observer, analyst, who does not bother to immerse himself in the everyday experience to feel anything about her departure. Or, for that matter, if she’s a flake who pulls this every other week. Maybe it’s what she routinely says when she goes out for an afternoon.

The conversation that continues after the above opening doesn’t shed any light on the matter:

“For how long?”
“And what about Pascal, will you take him?”
“He’s always favored you.” I was very glad. I could see Pascal sitting in the dining-room doorway, pretending not to listen.
“Yes, that’s true.”
“Don’t you care to know why I’m leaving?” she asked, petulantly, I thought.
“I suppose you’ll tell me.”
“I will, but maybe another time.” She stared at me as if wondering who I was. Then she started to speak but was interrupted by a car-horn blast. I’ve looked out the window and saw a taxi with the man behind the wheel.
“May I help you with your bags?” I asked.
“I’ll send for them later, if you don’t mind.”
“Who will you send?”
“The person who comes.” She stared at me another moment and then left.

Now, this is clearly a literary conversation. It’s much too sly and studied to be the sort of thing people actually say to each other; it couldn’t be used in a movie script unless it was a high-concept piece. But I still loved it. Realism is great, but it’s also nice to sometimes read a more stylized discourse, one that is more of a fencing match than an exchange of information.

Montaigne went to his Tower for ten years to study and write, after his best friend died. Our narrator goes to his study, after his wife leaves.

It welcomed me as never before. My desk with its teetering piles of books and loose sheets of notes and a printer and computer at the Chinese lamp, little pots full of outdated stamps and rubber bands, and instant-coffee jar crammed with red pencils, green paperclips heaped in a chipped, blue teacup, a stapler, an old rotary phone, framed prints of Goya’s Puppet and Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus, Cézanne’s Bathers, and van Gogh’s Wheat Field in Rain greeted and accepted me without any conditions. I could sit at my desk all day and night and never again be presented with the obligation to clear or clean an inch of the disorder. Now, if I wished, I could even sweep away every single thing on the desk and leave it there and hungry. Or I could chop up and burn the desk in the fireplace. I would wait for a cold night. There was plenty of time now to make decisions.

I love this passage; I think we all know that feeling of returning “home” whether it be a family, a house, or a room. Our narrator expresses far more emotion, even sexuality – entering the room that welcomed him, feeling greeted and accepted – than when he’s talking about his wife. Again, I can’t decide if he really is this locked out from feeling, or if he is stanching the flow of blood from an inner wound, if he truly hates his wife (there are hints that she is awful, but I didn’t see enough of her to be sure; and perhaps she has her reasons for being awful at this point) – or if he know his wife will return shortly.

Which brings me back to the overarching question: what is up with this guy?

To answer that fully, I think I would need to study Montaigne a lot more. An hour of looking through the Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which never fails, no matter what the article or how familiar I think I am with the topic, to go over my head by the third sentence) isn’t nearly enough. But apparently Montaigne had some contradictions going on as well: he believed in immersing oneself in everyday experience to learn, yet isolated himself, etching Latin and Greek quotes on the beams of his tower library, including the one shown here: “I am human; nothing human is strange to me.” I wonder if the irony is as applicable to Montaigne as it is to our narrator, who appears to be more attuned to his study, and his cat, Pascal, better than his wife.

Pascal – the cat – also serves as a point of introspection. He disappears, presumably run out of a window. There’s a connection between Pascal the cat and the philosopher Pascal’s observation, “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it,” since at the very end of the story, our narrator says, “You should have stayed home.” It’s not clear to whom he’s speaking, his wife, or the cat – or himself, longing for the study, or even Montaigne, who should’ve never entered the tower – or perhaps never should have left, since that was his intellectual and spiritual home. Which is the abyss, in the story – real life, or his study?

In my research, such as it is, on Montaigne, I discovered a book review in The Guardian, written by Colin Burrow, Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher by Anne Hartle, that seemed particularly appropriate to this story:

Consciousness for tower people is being partly a body, partly a pen, partly a voice, partly a half-memory of someone else’s voice, partly the thing that enables you to realise that you are all those things at once (although this bit of consciousness doesn’t always function very well and needs a lot of encouragement), and partly a set of uneasy attitudes, ranging from shame to self-satisfaction, towards what in yourself is received and what seems immediate. Thinking is done not by starting from the beginning, but by thinking onwards and backwards and hoping that some clarification will emerge.
~~Colin Burrow

I see a lot of the narrator in that. He has no idea what he’s doing, but he keeps doing it. Does he hope to figure it out some day? Does he care? Or is he so self-satisfied, he needs no confirmation from anyone other than himself?

I wonder if I’m just dense, or if this is how the story is written, to leave so much open, to have us watch this man and wonder about him. Forward/back, good/bad, partly this/partly that. Maybe all at once. Intriguing.

This is the second Tuten story I’ve read thanks to Pushcart; the first was more focused on art (particularly Cézanne’s Bathers, which also appears here in the study) but was likewise over my head, yet had the same mysterious, inescapable appeal.

Genetic MOOC

Course: Introduction to Genetics and Evolution
School: Duke via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Mohamed Noor
Introduction to Genetics and Evolution is a college-level class being offered simultaneously to new students at Duke University. The course gives interested people a very basic overview of some principles behind these very fundamental areas of biology. We often hear about new “genome sequences,” commercial kits that can tell you about your ancestry (including pre-human) from your DNA or disease predispositions, debates about the truth of evolution, why animals behave the way they do, and how people found “genetic evidence for natural selection.” This course provides the basic biology you need to understand all of these issues better, tries to clarify some misconceptions, and tries to prepare students for future, more advanced coursework in Biology.
…The genetics lectures are limited to basic transmission genetics, recombination, genetic mapping, and basic quantitative genetics….The evolution topics covered in the present course are largely confined to “microevolution”…

How good is this course, you wanna know? It’s so good, that although I had no particular interest in genetics or evolution, although I only signed up because some friends of mine from another course were enthusiastic about it, and I happened to have no classes running during the week it started, although I planned to drop it in W2 or W3 when other courses, courses I was definitely interested in, started – in spite of all that, it became the centerpiece of my MOOCing for the past eleven weeks, and by far my favorite course of the Winter session.

That’s what a great MOOC can do.

It starts with a great professor, in this case, Mohamed Noor. He’s the kind of guy who can use “bee-bop around” and “stochastic forces” in the same sentence and it sounds perfectly natural. He’s the kind of guy who seems so relaxed and personable, it’s hard to believe he’s a science professor at a prestigious university, while at the same time he evinces such command over a wide swathe of complex theory and practice, including the current state of research, that it’s hard to believe he’s bothering to talk to mere students. He’s the kind of guy who uses the three major releases of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” as an analogy for relative reproductive fitness, and pulls it off. He’s the kind of guy who lectures in t-shirts with a bobble-head Darwin and a painting of a drosophila (fruit fly, the geneticist’s go-to critter) on the whiteboard behind him, without giving the sense that he’s trying too hard (his faculty profile shows him in a suit and tie, and that’s the shot that looks forced to me). For a sample, here’s a pastiche of “catch phrases” from the course, brilliantly cobbled together by a student from the 2013 run of the course.

While the course was fun, it wasn’t easy. In the live Hangout just before the final exam, a student told Dr. Noor, “You really made us work, man.” Yep: the official estimate is 5 -6 hours, but it took me more like 10 – 12 hours (I’m slow). And I loved every minute. If you’re not up to investing that kind of work, there is another option: some of the lecture videos are labeled as “General”; they give an overview of the topics, but don’t go into details of calculation or the many variations possible. GenEv Light, as it were. OF course, there’s always the risk you’ll get sucked in…

Each week started with a set of lecture videos, but that was only the beginning. I’d take careful notes, felt like I understood everything, and then… a series of practice problems left me going, “Huh?” Working through the problems gave me a much better sense of what population genetics could show, or how epistasis works, beyond the definition. A variety of other supplementary materials (software, definitions, articles, etc.) was included, and collaboration was not only welcomed, it was planned for on the message boards with weekly “Most Confusing?” and “Practice Problems” threads organized by the CTAs.

Student discussion of graded problem sets was also encouraged in an entire subforum organized by the Staff TA. This may seem like it would make the problems a piece of cake, but most of them required interpretation and analysis of the material, not just regurgitation of facts or calculation via formulas, meaning often there was a kind of debate between Team Answer A and team Answer C with Team Answer E raising a few good points as well. These boards were closely monitored, not for “cheating” but for excessive confusion; though the need was rare, on occasion a question would be clarified – ju- u- u – ust a little tiny bit – and in a way that wouldn’t help unless you understood the issue thoroughly in the first place.

By the way – it’s not easy to design questions like that. It’s a lot simpler to pick a key sentence from the lecture, rephrase it, and frame it as sentence completion, but asking something like, “What type of selection might you imagine operates on running speed in cheetahs?” or “Earlier in the semester, we discussed overdominance and the example of sickle-cell anemia. If you were to look at such a case, what might you expect in terms of the McDonald-Kreitman test’s predictions?” (both actual practice questions) takes more effort. Answering them requires a lot more than a complete set of notes.

Another nice detail was the structure and pacing of the course. An optional introductory set of lectures dealt with the evolution vs religion question pretty thoroughly. The midterm was scheduled for a week when no new material was released, meaning time could be spent on review and preparation. But it showed in subtler ways as well: I found weeks 2 and 7 to be particularly difficult, and weeks 3 and 8 were particularly “fun”; week 8, by the way, included sexual selection, including some amusing behaviors of various species. Though we were cautioned against anthropomorphizing any of that, it was easy to draw a parallel between the “song” of the water mite and the kind of conversational cues that might facilitate or discourage a human couple’s romantic connection. With my penchant for similarities in opposites, I drew a connection between what Peter Struck called the “cute puppy syndrome” used by Virgil in The Aeneid to make Dido more naturally attracted to Aeneas, and the egg-carrying behavior of the male waterbug that tends to increase its mating possibilities. A fun week, after having torn my hair out over the molecular clock.

The discussion forums were as rich and valuable as the rest of the material. The CTAs were terrific (I knew some of them from other courses, primarily Origins), both in directing discussions of the material (“check the last two minutes of lecture 3; do you see how that relates to your question?”) and in offering auxiliary discussions (“DNA in the News” was a popular thread, as was “Humor,” of course). The course TA mostly operated behind the scenes, except for the Hangouts, but a course like this doesn’t just happen; the day-to-day technical running, the release of materials, link posting, etc., all takes attention and work, and he did a great job. Fellow students were helpful and encouraging as well. And, as in any course dealing with this material, occasionally discussions got heated; this was kept under control by CTAs and staff refocusing on the course material and forbidding anything approaching disrespect. Again, that takes a lot of work, both to monitor, and to ameliorate without getting heavy-handed.

Most of the “grade” for the course depended on a timed midterm and a timed final; discussion of these was firmly forbidden, so even if you could bluff your way through the problem sets, you were on your own for these – which used similar question structures as the problem sets, but tweaked the situations just a little.

Timed tests can be problematic for some, for technical reasons; this is the first time I’ve encountered the brilliant idea to break the timed tests up into two separate sessions. Students, particularly those from countries with less-than-dependable internet connectivity or, for that matter, electricity, sometimes find they end up with scores of 0 due to technical issues (or, simply from not following instructions and going over the time limit); this two-tests process assures that at least half the score can be salvaged. Problems still happen – but it’s a simple way to make them less likely, and to make non-academic technical issues, or simple user errors (clicking “Submit” by accident seems popular) less costly.

I was very worried about these timed exams. I tend to work very slowly; and, I get confused after relatively short periods and need a break. These were fair exams, though, modeled on the problem sets, but not copying them. I did a lot of review for both exams – re-watched the videos (at 1.5 speed, it was pretty funny), re-did the problem sets. To my surprise, I aced the midterm (I don’t know my “grade” on the final yet, though I doubt I did that well; I’ll admit, I didn’t put as much effort into it, so I didn’t deserve to do as well). I don’t usually brag about scores in these posts, since they don’t usually mean much, but this score meant something. That 100% required some degree of understanding. I earned it. The test was designed to make me earn it – and the course was designed to make me want to earn it.

That’s what a MOOC can be. That’s what a teacher can do.

Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Gayle Howell , “My Mother Told Us Not to Have Children” (Poetry) from Rattle, #42

Tom French: from the "Duality" series

Tom French: from the “Duality” series

She’d say, Never have a child you don’t want.
Then she’d say, Of course, I wanted you
once you were here. She’s not cruel. Just practical.
Like a kitchen knife. Still, the blade. And care.

The duality I’ve been noticing in this volume so far is at its most explicit here, embedded in some of our most emotional language. Tough love. Smother love. I love you to pieces. In this poem (available online as both text and audio, thank you, Rattle), we see both sides. A kitchen knife is an essential tool; it’s also a weapon. Just like mother love. The interplay of blade and care plays throughout the piece. A bath in dirty water, tenderness that feels like drowning. Drowning that feels like air: the freedom to say what something is.

The line breaks contribute to the duality with enjambments that could go either way, or change on continuation after the break: “Of course, I wanted you” sounds like the end of a sentence, but it isn’t; that clause offers comfort, the next takes it away. I’m befuddled, however, by the transition from brothers and sisters to crickets eating the back forty; is this a simile? Or a juxtaposition of two images? I’m not sure. Could it be either/or?

But I found something else that commanded most of my attention: “Instead, our estate was honesty…” I found my anger intensely triggered by that line. I’m damn sick of people who proudly boast, “At least I’m honest,” which seems to mean, “I don’t care about your feelings enough to do the work to deliver the truth in a way that won’t hurt you. My need to say whatever I think be it useful/appropriate or not, is more important than you and your petty feelings.” I think this kind of honesty is thinly-veiled aggression, not a virtue. Go away and don’t come back until you learn how to behave.

I’m not sure if it’s the poem, or me, or the combination of the two (sometimes we find something at the moment we need it; we call it coincidence), but it’s something that demands I listen.

Illusory MOOC

Course: Visual Perception and the Brain
School: Duke via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Dale Purves
The purpose of the course is to consider how what we see is generated by the visual system.

Thus the objectives of the course are:
– To introduce you to some fascinating perceptual phenomenology
– To make you think about how this phenomenology can be explained
– To make you consider what possible explanations imply about brain function.

A course about the science behind optical illusions? What could be more fun?

By coincidence, we were in the Color unit on the day #TheDress went Twittercrazy (The Guardian‘s article used the same illustration chosen as the header of the course). Except… since this is one of those “release all the material on day 1 and take as you will” courses, I’d long completed that unit. Nevertheless, I joined in, commenting on the discussion board that Coursera was missing out on a marketing opportunity by not tweeting about the course while the hashtag was trending; they did, a bit later, but forgot the hashtag, and, unforgivably, misspelled the professor’s name. As I understand it, the whole issue was nonsense anyway: several different copies of the photo were circulating, and a lot of it had to do with color balancing in processing as well as lighting during the photography itself. But it was fun anyway.

Prof. Purves was emphatic during the first week of class, however: what we call optical illusions are not “illusions.” They are, in fact, the way our visual system has evolved to give us a perception of reality that is survival-based. We see optical illusions, the dress, and everything else, that way – even when we don’t realize it – because our visual pathways can’t handle anything beyond a photon stimulating a cell in the fovea, so at least three factors – illumination, reflectance, transmittance – are conflated and lost forever to our perception. It’s the genius of evolution that we’ve been able to “see” well enough to survive this long, so that we’re here to fight about whether the dress is white and gold or blue and black .

The things you come across in MOOCs. By the way, you can take a look at the prof’s website to see many of the concepts covered in this course – and then some. I, for instance, still don’t believe these two tables have the same dimensions, merely rotated 90°. A quick screen clip, some playing around with Word shapes, and… yeah, they really are.

The first week introduced the foundational concept of the course, the “inverse problem” – the difficulty of recreating reality from that conflation that gets transmitted as a single stimulus – then, after a couple of weeks on the structure of the primary visual system and various ways of conceptualizing our ability to see, repeatedly went back to that inverse problem as we looked at our perception of lightness and brightness, color, depth, geometry, and motion. They all came back to that inverse problem, and a similar way of getting around it as an adaptive trait. It’s an idea I came to wonder a great deal about – can we perceive anything the way it is?

A fascinating idea – lots of the ideas in this course were thought-provoking – yetI found it to be one of the drier courses I’ve taken, complicated by twisted syntax and some of the most “academic” discourse I’ve encountered in any MOOC. Take this description of the Bayes Theorem: “And it’s a statement of conditional probabilities, the left hand side of this equation being equivalent to the right and the left hand side of the equation expresses the probability of A given B, where A is in vision, an image or a stimulus, and B, would be the underlying state of the world. This is called the posterior probability, this left hand side of the equation. And it is given by the probability of B given A, that is what’s the probability of the state of the world given the image, were multiplied by the probability of, of the image in the first place, and that’s generally normalized by the probability of underlying states of the world.” I’m glad I’d run into this before in a more comprehensible form, or I would’ve wept.

Staff presence was limited to operational issues. In fact, a “warning” greeted us at the start of class – it wasn’t called a warning, but I’m not sure what else it could be called: “The TAs will also attempt to directly respond to some posts in order to facilitate discussion or address certain problems. Please be aware that the TAs are neither professional experts in computer science, biology or life science.” I suppose it’s just as well they didn’t actually attempt to facilitate discussion, although logistical issues were addressed – questions on written assignment requirements, problems with exam submissions, etc.

Some of us (including classmates from the concurrent Plato course – more good timing) used the message boards to bandy about more philosophical approaches to the material, dipping into epistemology. At one point, that disintegrated into a pissing match so I backed off. That happens sometimes. It happens more often when a course isn’t well-monitored. As I keep saying, every MOOC is different. Some MOOCs show ownership; others, don’t. It’s kind of a shame, because Dr. Purves obviously had great depth of knowledge about, and passion for, his field. Some of that came across, but it could’ve been a knock-your-socks off experience, and it wasn’t.

Grading was based on quizzes – they were timed, but generously so, and multiple attempts were permitted – and a final peer assessed paper that could be viewed as optional, depending on one’s goals; some students are quite fond of Certificates of Achievement, with or without Distinction, and as there was no Distinction here, and a Certificate could be earned by acing the quizzes, it was possible to skip the paper. However, I found it beneficial; I could pull my thoughts together in an organized way and put the Inverse Problem and the concept of survival-based perception into my own words and tell a story. I’ll also get to see other papers, which is a huge benefit of doing any Peer Assessment (only a tiny fraction of students show up on the message boards, and it’s always fun to see what others are thinking).

I signed up for this course because of the Philosophy and the Sciences course I took last Fall; it was a natural continuation of the science portion. It’s material worth learning, and I find the point of view fascinating (I’ve used it in other courses already), even if the packaging was a little disappointing.

Pushcart XXXIX: Michelle Seaton: “The Prospects” from One Story #180, 6/22/13

Via Deadspin

Via Deadspin

But for now the prospects still live at home, in football-fervent cities and towns, among the hollowed-out factories, the vacated office parks, under the care of their parents, the unemployed and the over-mortgaged, the downgraded part-timers, the patriotic, the doggedly informed, the God-fearing and peace-loving, the green-thinking and Internet-surfing, but most of all, the hopeful…. And in these homes, each prospect is still a boy who seems to ingest his body weight in food five or six times a day, whose use a pizza or roast chicken as an appetizer, a boy who can down a quart of milk while standing at the open refrigerator door, a child who cannot look both ways before crossing the road, who cannot be trusted with the car or the television remote because he has no impulse control, no sense that others also exist. Yet, this child seems tailor-made for the triple-XL world which he will inhabit, a world of super portions, mega-churches, and 56-inch plasma screens…

[post originally written summer 2013]
I’m not usually big on sports-recruiting stories: the exploitation, the lying, the haves having more while the broken bodies of ruined young men (and women; I read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes) pile up. I feel like if you’ve seen one “prospect” story, you’ve seen ’em all. I suppose I’m a bit jaded about it all. It’s a system beloved by exploiters and exploitees alike, even by those chewed up and left by the wayside in many cases, so who am I to sputter.

That unanimity may be changing, though, and that’s why this story has a certain relevance: a former student athlete is suing the NCAA, and cutting players in on a piece of the pie is a minor cause célèbre for the Left (sandwiched between analyzing mass shootings, single shootings of unarmed teenagers, and voter suppression, not to mention the occasional Royal Baby vs Poor Baby comparison; I don’t think anyone at MSNBC has slept for the past six months).

Michelle Seaton, a former sports reporter, understands the ubiquity of the issue; in fact, she credits her selection of POV to that very ubiquity in her One Story Q&A: “A third-person plural narrator is in a position to emphasize how many of these conversations go on every season and how interchangeable they are.” But she wants to show me I am wrong, that there is another way to write about it. And she does a great job.

This piece (it’s closer to creative non-fiction than a short story) hangs out with the kids and their parents at first, as in the quote above. But it earns its keep when it then shifts its focus to the recruiters – not the guys raking in the big bucks, but the front-liners doing the hard work, just trying to survive on the fringes of a sport that’s left them unable to do much else – and suddenly becomes a narrative with a past, present, and grim future:

A recruiter in a small program is a man who stocks shelves and collects tip money for each delivered pizza and sells athletic shoes in a sporting goods store.… He is a man who once dreamed of greatness as a coach, but whose dreams have shrunk to one goal, that of a paid position at any program.
On rainy days these recruiters limp with little reminders of injuries…. Each man can narrate the whole scenario of his injury, can tell it with a smile that hides some other, more complicated feeling, that hides the vivid remembrance of lighting out on the grass, on the turf, gulping for air and try not to puke from the throbbing, the stinging, the skin tightening around the swelling, the others crowding around as the pain comes in waves, sharp and then tall and thin in a long, shrill shout when the trainer palpates the hot skin, squeezing the accumulating blood and marrow, crunching the dislocated bits of tendon or cartilage between thumb and forefinger, then waiting for the trainer to glance up at the sad and knowing expression, before giving a quick handshake that hurts everyone that this bone, this joint, this ligament, this tendon, this body, this tool so carefully tended will never again be what it was just a few minutes ago.

I have to admit this isn’t my favorite One Story offering (but there’s pretty stiff competition, since they’ve been hitting it out of the park lately; I’ve found the past six stories, going all the way back to February, extraordinary). Still, I can appreciate the structural composition, and I give Seaton a 10 for style: long sentences that peak at just the right moment. If I weren’t so tired of the institutionalization of sport next to the marginalization of teaching, health and child care (as per the map above, the highest paid state employee in 40 states is a university sports coach), I might be more enthusiastic about content.

[Addendum: This story made the Pushcart XXXIX volume; couldn’t have been a more timely appearance. And that infographic still depresses me – though I continue to be amused that Nevada’s highest-paid state employee is, not a football coach, but a plastic surgeon. For Conservatives wondering where our values have gone, I think this map shows that pretty clearly.]

Pushcart 2015: Philip Levine, “Albion” (Poetry) from Threepenny Review, #132

Map of the Lower Mississippi's evolving floodplains, from cartographer Harold Fisk's 1944 report, Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River.

Map of the Lower Mississippi’s evolving floodplains, from cartographer Harold Fisk’s 1944 report, Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River.

On narrow roads twisting
between the farms, if farms
these were and not fallow
fields set off by stone walls
too low to keep anything
in or out.

What business do I have posting about poetry, any poetry, let alone the work of a former US Poet Laureate? That my feeds were flooded with sorrows and tributes last February upon his death intimidates me further: Can I do him justice? No, I can’t, but I’ve admitted all along I have no idea what I’m doing. This is my classroom; this is how I’m learning. So I hope Mr. Levine will understand, and his many admirers will not take offense, should I get it wrong. But while my expertise and knowledge may be insufficient, I had some very strong impressions as I read this poem (available online, thank you, Threepenny Review).

The first was what seemed like multiple references to Robert Frost. A stone wall, birch trees, the word “undergrowth”. Granted, none of those things are so unusual. But the wall is “too low to keep anything in or out”; the undergrowth “separated us”; and the birch tree, paired with sycamores, calling to mind not a Frost poem, but a quotation from an included in one of his early collections: “Zaccheus he did climb the tree our lord to see”.

That was forty years ago
or more. We were still
young or young enough,
and new to the adventure,
so of course we kept going,…

All of these appear in the first half of the poem, which, by the way, is the second thing I noticed: what seems to me like a clear division into the first 30 lines, recounting a memory, and the second 30 lines, reconsidering that memory in light of greater experience gained since then. I’m probably overreaching, but I wonder if there’s a looking back at a poetic life itself, a muse – an escape, an elevated perspective, via birches and the sycamore – a lifelong companion.

I also notice some microrhythms and line breaks. It’s interesting I’ve been noticing these details so much this year; maybe I’m just stuck on the concrete, it’s a phase I’m going through as a result of too many poetry classes and not enough poetry. Pretty much any text can be seen in a pattern – I did quite a con job in college on the fig tree dream segment of The Bell Jar to get through an assignment on rhythm – and I don’t have the experience to tell the difference between coincidence, sophistry, and authentic nuance. Still, the phrase “stone walls” does have a spondaic meter that sounds like a stone wall, and adding “too low” to that just emphasizes it over four beats. I also like that the undergrowth that separated us is hyphenated via line break.

I can’t recall how long we
stood there nailed to the spot,
hand in hand, expectant,
as though anything
could tell us where we were.

Then there’s the multiple reading of those lines. “As though anything could tell us” has both a negative sense – a sarcastic, “sure, like anything could do that” sense – and a more positive sense: hold your breath, pay attention, because it could be anything, the slightest little detail, that could have meaning. I can’t help but assume the phrasing was chosen deliberately to show how easy it is to turn things around, to see ourselves as lost when we’re just waiting. And to mark the different perspectives: forty years ago, youth saw the expectant meaning; now age, burdened with the futility of many lost expectations, nevertheless admires and perhaps envies the naïveté it once possessed.

And again, that theme I wondered about with the first story: looking forward and back at the same time (we look forward in youth, back in old age, but can we do a bit more of both at all times?) and the human capacity to interpret reality in different ways, depending on one’s inclination. Can anything tell us where we are? Because right now (always, really, but now is where we are always most likely to get lost), I think we really need to know.

Pushcart 2015: Maribeth Fischer, “The Fiction Writer” (non-fiction) from Yale Review, #101

"The Storyteller" :  Zimbabwean art

“The Storyteller” : Zimbabwean art

Even now, I see her hands and forearms covered with ink – phone numbers, dates, reminders about meetings, words she wanted to remember. And once, sitting at the bar at Smitty McGee’s, she swung around on her stool, lifted the hem of her skirt and showed us her leg, covered to mid-thigh with writing: notes about the novel she was working on; a song lyric she’d heard while driving. Another time, over coffee in the morning, I saw words from the day before imprinted on the side of her face. I knew how she slept then, hands tucked under her cheek. I didn’t mention that the words were there and later, after she saw herself in the mirror, she said, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me? Geez, would you let me run around with my dress stuck in the back of my underwear too?”
       “It was hardly noticeable,” I laughed. The ink had been smudged, like faint bruises.
       I’m still not sure why I didn’t tell her she had writing on her face – it is the kind of thing you’d want your friend to let you know. It seems fitting that I didn’t, though, for this is how I’ll always remember her: words literally pushed into the pores of her skin.
       Writing a story on her body so that her body had a story.
       In the end, this was all she was – a story we would tell repeatedly. Each time, we would embellish it more, highlighting certain moments, habits, things she used to say or do.
       Like stripping an old car for salvageable parts: that’s what we would do to her life.
       It’s what she had done to ours.

Stories. A writer’s life revolves around stories, of course, but so do many aspects of our lives, as illustrated by many of the works I’ve already encountered in this volume: the woman who tells her son a story, and the son who lives the story she tells, in “The Mother”; the story a young writer-to-be, misplaced in military service, told himself about his adequacy in the face of absurdity, while the perpetrators of that absurdity told themselves it was a necessary security precaution, in “My White House Days”; the story the perpetually down-on-his-luck loser of “Say” told to get a song from the only person who mattered; the stories we tell to get through blackouts, lonely evenings, jobs that grate down our ethical sense, or to comfort us in a world that seems at odds with everything important to us. Stories that tell us what we want to hear, when we can’t hear it anywhere else. Stories let us make sense of the world.

Maribeth Fischer tells us a horror story in which the monster is a story.

She was bamboozled by a twinned pair of diabolical flim-flam artists: one, a new friend, and the other, her own tendency, the one we all have, to see what she wanted to see, to fulfill some subconscious need. When Natalie, a fellow writer came to town and showed interest in her, Fischer was swept away with the feeling of being noticed, of being chosen by someone who seemed greater than herself. She threw herself into the friendship, as she had in other relationships, urgently trying “to make myself indispensable; if I’m not , no one will need me. And if no one needs me, no one will want me.” It’s not as flattering as being selfless and compassionate, but, as examined in “Annie Radcliffe, You Are Loved”, it probably underlies a great deal of do-gooderness in the world. Fischer is astute enough, and honest enough (what admirable honesty!), to recognize it later as she writes this memoir.

But not at the time.

Natalie affected more than just Fischer. The heretofore lackluster writing group blossomed and expanded, developed energy and enthusiasm. She was, after all, a Success, having landed a lucrative two-book contract with Random House, which led to requests for an article series by The New Yorker, then a second article series. The town was so overwhelmed by their good fortune to have this amazing resource available to them, no one really noticed there wasn’t a single word in actual print…

Because for the nine months that Natalie was in our lives, she was a big-time author whose life was about to change in wonderful, dramatic ways. She was a wonderful teacher and Kent was in love with her and she was, as Randy Lee said, happy. And I was a woman who was fun and spontaneous. Fun. A word that had been gone from my life until Natalie brought it back to me…. The members of the writers’ guild began to see themselves as writers, began to believe that their stories mattered. And so they did. And I can’t help it: I find something beautiful in this capacity to believe so fervently in the stories we fabricate that we become what we dream.

If Fischer had written this as fiction, it would’ve been too unbelievable. How gullible are these people, we’d wonder. But I’ve been there.

There are people who not only can project the image of What They Are so strongly it overshadows the reality of what they are, but they know exactly who will be susceptible and who will not. I’ve had “friends” like this. They are Batmans who know when they see a Robin. These friendships can work, for a time. It’s only when Robin thinks maybe Batman should do something a little different in this case, or when Robin gets a little limelight, that Batman gets upset. As Fischer says in a turning point in her relationship with Natalie: “…I had unknowingly betrayed her, broken an unspoken pact.” Two things happen then: the relationship falls apart, which feels like catastrophe to Robin; but that’s followed by a gradual regaining of sight, the ability to see the story one has been acting out. Someone else’s story. Not a story of rescue and redemption, but a story of dominance, and, surprisingly, mutual need.

There’s an Armenian motto I came across several years ago, via a sculpture by John Ventimiglia featured in my local public library: “Three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for the world.” That’s pretty astute writing advice right there: a story requires, not just a teller, but a listener, who has a pre-existing milieu of beliefs and needs into which the story falls; from there, it moves outward. Fischer tells us how that interaction might play out when the listener is herself a storyteller.

Stories, the only thing that allowed Scheherazade to survive for a thousand and one nights.
Stories, the only thing that allows anyone to survive loving someone she will one day lose.

Even though she eventually recognized how she’d been fooled – her friend Kent had been bilked out of a considerable sum, in fact – Fischer still felt a loss, the loss of the story, the belief. This is what turns the essay from a “This happened to me” story into a story that, as Roxane Gay tweeted a couple of years ago, “look[s] outward as much as it looks inward.” The writer, whose job it is to make the reader believe, is by nature a believer of the story that surprises, that takes unexpected twists and turns. The writer is vulnerable to the perils of belief, the price of her art.

Pushcart 2015: Louise Glück, “Approach of the Horizon” (Poetry) from Threepenny Review, #133

One morning I awoke unable to move my right arm.
I had, periodically, suffered from considerable
pain on that side, in my painting arm,
but in this instance there was no pain.
Indeed, there was no feeling.

As someone who frequently talks, and thinks, in metaphors, I love the images and wordplay that run through this poem (available online, thank you, Threepenny Review). Life as an airplane ride really perks up “please return your tray tables and seats to their original upright position,” doesn’t it?

That central metaphor is surrounded by other more unusual images. In particular, I was struck by the monitor that beeps and chirps with the heartbeat, something we’re all familiar with even if we’ve never been ill; either we’ve been at someone else’s bedside, or maybe we’ve just seen it in a movie. Then there’s the moment when the beep lengthens into a long tone – or, as in the poem, when the line that bounces with each beat of the heart becomes ” a straight line, / like a minus sign.” A new way of seeing flatlining: person, minus life. Or: life, minus one person.

My rather superficial observations were greatly deepened by a couple of other resources I stumbled across in my travels. One of them, from Boston Review, is Craig Morgan Teicher’s review of Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night – the collection in which this poem appears (and recent winner of the National Book Award). I wasn’t aware that the book was a portrait of a dying painter; that adds to the poem. Teicher also points out the opposites and reversals: the character is a painter rather than a poet (bringing to mind O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” perhaps?) and male rather than female, and is based on a similar reversal of a character Glück used previously. All these inversions – do they mean something? Of course they do.

And here’s where PMF Johnson’s comments got me to recognize what was happening with the last stanza, the last word. If I may draw on another source (I need all the help I can get), a post by Ken Nichols of Great Writers Steal explained how James L. Dickey teaches the reader how to read his poem “Falling” so that by the time we get to the climactic moment, we know how the punctuation works. I think Glück is doing something like that here. By calling attention to double meanings of words like “left” – the left arm, or the arm that is left, that is, not paralyzed – as well as the many common uses of “departed”, we’ve been trained in what to look for, so we’re ready for the final lines:

I will be brief. This concludes,
as the stewardess says,
our short flight.
And all the persons one will never know
crowd into the aisle, and all are funneled
into the terminal.

The word “terminal”, of course, means ending, and is often used in relation to death; we’ve been primed to see the parallel meanings. But because of the airplane flight imagery throughout, there’s another sense: we finish our flight at a terminal, but we also go to the terminal to take a new flight, to travel somewhere else.

A long time ago, my father gave me a book of poetry for Christmas. It wasn’t a particularly “good” book – a typical anthology, thematically organized, a sort of “Poetry’s Greatest hits” but because I was 13 and had only read the few poems from English class, these seemed quite special. I still have the book (he wrote on the frontispiece, “From Dad, Christmas 1969″) and one of the entries was an unattributed poem sometimes referred to as “The Ship” or “On the Shore” or, since it’s of uncertain origin, by any of a dozen other titles. The speaker is at that moment when one shore loses sight of the ship – but the other shore just now sees it approaching. Glück’s work is far more subtle, of course, and includes many other nuances, but I was 13 again, and remembering this book from so long ago.

In the past few years, I’ve become very aware of my own mortality in a personal and imminent way. My family is long dead. As I read history, it’s a parade of rulers, artists, and often, ordinary people, who are now not of this earth. As celebrity after celebrity dies, watching tv becomes a recitation of “He’s dead now.” Even Spock eventually dies – but doesn’t necessarily end.

That’s the human adventure: is death an end, or a beginning? Can it be both? And again, we’re back to the “is it good or bad, light or dark, forward or back” sense I’ve been encountering as I’ve read this volume.