Pushcart 2015: Michael Dickman, “John Clare” (poem) from Brick, #92

Now I remember
I wanted to talk to you
between your Selected Poems
and the punk rock music
playing on the radio
 
Between the blue irises and the Mexican lawn service
 
The skaters and the dragonflies
 
Do you know what it’s like here
 
Scared beneath trees
the light on the one rose
is the one light
 
The sun keeps going

At first, I thought this poem (available online, thank you, Brick) was the voice of a parent speaking to a beloved child, lost. That’s because I’d never heard of 19th century English romantic poet John Clare (poetry is like math: the more things I find out about that I never heard of, the more I find there is to find out beyond that). In his interview with Andy Kuhn for the Katonah Poetry Festival, Dickman says: “….[M]y most recent influence is John Clare. A Mud-Man Punk Rocker from the 1800’s. All I want to do these days is write a poem about a bird’s nest, all because of him.” So it’s perhaps more of an homage, a child speaking to a beloved long-lost parent.

I went looking for John Clare. I found some interesting biographical material – poor boy makes good, but ends up in an asylum anyway – and a couple of poems that made a special impact on me. Heartbreaking poems, considering the context: “I Am”, written during his second stint in the asylum: “I am – yet what I am none cares or knows;…I am the self-consumer of my woes….I long for scenes where man has never trod / a place where woman never smiled or wept / and there to abide with my Creator God / and sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept.…” Now there’s a poem about a beloved child, lost.

The other Clare poem that stood out to me, particularly in reference to Dickman’s poem, is “The Nightingale’s Nest.” It was written earlier in Clare’s career, and is more of a narrative about his adventures as a boy hunting for birds’ nests – and then leaving them undisturbed to flourish in nature as they were meant to do: “Deep adown, / The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell…./ So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong, / As the old woodland’s legacy of song.”

This, then, is the overriding Clare theme that Dickman has chosen to illustrate: the collision, illustrated so clearly in the opening lines, of the rural and the urban, the natural and manmade, the idyllic past and the unknown, complex future. That intensifies the poignant, mournful quality I’d misinterpreted:

Flowers call you on the telephone
and the rain passes you notes
none of us will ever read
now I remember every line
a pine needle
falling at your feet

Nature itself connects the living to the dead, the past to the present. Whitman’s shared atoms, our concerns and joys still the same after millenia of kingdoms rising and falling: beyond inspiration, there’s a direct communication here that I find very beautiful.

In the end, it’s a love poem:

Here
 
I wanted to show you

What could be more loving?

Pushcart 2015: Amaud Jamaul Johnson, “Pigmeat” (poem) from Darktown Follies

Come: these hands, this beat, the broad
 
Hiccup, a smile. Here, when all the heat
Has been washed & wrung clean from the body
 
When the men begin to open their leather cases
& hold their monocles a little closer to my heart
 
& the parable of the homegrown &
The parable of the artificial Negro
 
Will be told.

And here’s another poem that benefits greatly from a little context. Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham started out in black vaudeville shows and by the middle of the twentieth century, started performing in burlesque with the likes of Milton Berle and Eddie Cantor – in blackface. A complicated story, a complicated history, a complicated man.

These complications show up in the poem. The “Artificial Negro” plays on the Flannery O’Connor story with a blunter name there’s no need to spell out here. O’Connor’s artificial Negro is a Christ figure in the form of a lawn jockey who offers reconnection and salvation to a grandfather and his grandson, two lost souls accidentally touring hell. But Johnson’s Pigmeat as the Artificial Negro is more of the Creator Created by the Creation: a black man in blackface? What to make of that? What to make, in the first place, of the minstrel shows that appropriated black culture in order to mock it? Johnson’s collection, Darktown Follies, is patterned after these minstrel shows, as he explains in an excellent Next Big Thing entry, where he writes: “I wrote this book because I wanted to create a framework for those hesitations regarding race and power…. I hope my readers feel a little off-balance.” This one did.

And what to make of a poem that uses Markham’s linguistic patterning, a fluency that has become the hallmark of rap and hip hop…

Here, come Hell or high-water; Hell
 
Or some falter. All the ease in legalese,
Here comes my tautology –
 
A blackness of a blackness of a blackness.
My monochromatic rainbow,…

…to mock back?

Pigmeat Markham performed what could be considered the first rap song. His “Here Comes the Judge,” initially a comedy routine in his act, became a standard bit on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In which led to the release of a single (as well as an imitation), and to a gig for Markham on the series (if you’ve never heard of Laugh-In, well, that’s what Google is for). Who created whom?

What’s amazing is how that goofy phrase, so familiar to those of us who grew up with it as a joke, turns ominous at the end of the poem. The Artificial Negro, like Christ, is a figure of salvation, but also of a day of judgment and reckoning. Poetry, at its best, finds all the nuances in words and phrases we thought we knew, stands them on their heads, and knocks us flat with implications. Here comes the judge. I sure hope so, because the list of those whose blood cries out for justice gets longer every day.

Pushcart 2015: Yannick Murphy, “By the Time You Read This” from Conjunctions, #60

“Dear Paul, by the time you read this, I will be dead If you don’t stop seeing that other woman, I will come back to haunt you. I will be the face in the mirror when you shave. I will be the wind you hear at night I will be the creak in the stairs and the loud shudder of the settling roof beams that wakes us up from our sleep. “

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about this story. It’s pretty much all contained in that opening paragraph: a suicide note by a woman enraged that her husband is cheating on her. It’s funny. It’s very funny in places, as the woman writes to her family, the UPS man, her high school English teacher (giving rise to occasional questions about grammar and diction throughout the piece – lie/lay becomes a recurrent theme). In places, it’s wonderfully poignant and revealing of the trapped, helpless feeling that can lead to suicidal thoughts:

“Dear Chloe: I hope you never understand why your mother did this. If you ever find yourself close to understanding I want you to call and get help right away. Please promise me that. There are plenty of numbers to call in case of emergency on the fridge. (You might even consider calling Irving Propane; their staff has always been helpful and ready to come out to the house at a moment’s notice if we think we hear even the slightest hissing sound of gas leaking from our lines.)”

But in places, I’d call it… overshooting poignant and landing on silly. I kept wondering when I’d hit the “aha” moment, when I’d see something beyond Sheila Levine (yes, Sheila hasn’t aged well, since the desperation to get married is almost incomprehensible now, but it was my first suicide-note-as-narrative reading) but I never found it. I hope other readers are more astute. There must be a reason this piece, as opposed to dozens of humor pieces that must’ve landed in the Pushcart inbox, was chosen. Or, for that matter, in Conjunctions – now the most Pushcart-awarded literary magazine around – in the first place.

Maybe, some time from now, I’ll run into something – a comment on a blog, another story that brings me back to this one – that will turn this into something special. In the meantime, it was a pleasant diversion. I do like humor.

Pushcart 2015: Jamaal May, “The Hum of Zug Island” (poem) from Kenyon Review, #35.3

In Windsor they blame it on machines
across the Detroit River. Residents can’t ignore
the low frequency hum taking the shape of a sea-
serpent on oscilloscopes. Beyond gray snow,
plastic bags, and crushed hypodermic needles,
I know Zug Island is humming—waiting
 
the way the organs in me are waiting….

And again, I had to find a way in to a poem. I could sense something there, waiting for me, but I didn’t know how to get to it. In this case, I used form, which led to the structure of the collection from which it came, which all brought me to the heart, where I was so overwhelmed and astonished, I didn’t know if I could ever organize my thoughts enough to write about it. I still don’t know if I can, but I’m going to try, by retracing my steps.

On first read (it’s available online for those who’d like to follow along, thank you, Kenyon Review) I just got machines – messy, dirty, unpleasant, scary – and some kind of pressure. Time. Waiting. Ignoring.

I didn’t realize I had it all, until I went looking for more. I started with form.

In his Conversation with KR, May described the poem as a sestina. I had no idea what that was (I’ve already admitted I’m poorly educated in poetics, which is what I’m doing here: learning from the best). Turns out, a sestina is a poem in six six-line stanzas with a three-line envoi, a sort of summary, at the end. But that isn’t all. Instead of rhyme, the poem is given unity by repetition: the same six words are used to end every line in a specific pattern, changing order with every stanza, until in the envoi, two words are used per line. It’s insane. How does anyone write like this? It’s so rigid and intricate – kind of like… a machine…

And yet, I can see for myself how effective it is. Three of the six words that form the structure of this poem are: machine, waiting, ignore: three of the words I “got” from reading, when I thought I didn’t get much. “Needle” is the fourth word, which may have contributed to the scary unpleasantness. “Snow” and “sea,” the final two structure words, are broad enough to go in any direction. They can be beautiful and freeing – or dirty, unpleasant, and scary.

Through reading another of May’s conversations, this one with Stacey Balkun of The Normal School, I learned of the generation of this poem, linked to the structure of the collection, Hum, in which it appears. Six of the other poems are about phobias: fear of needles, being ignored, machines, etc. May took those six words and, over time and with some rewrites, ended up with two sestinas that “act as a pair of subtle bookends that tie the phobia thread together and, by extension, the core tropes of the collection.” I love the way these poems use form: he includes a form I particularly love, the contrapuntal, titled “I Do Have a Seam” – three poems in one, a left side, a right side, and both sides together, making it the perfect form for that content (there’s a really nice digital short on his Youtube channel)

I needed to understand one more thing before I could make my way to the poem: what is Zug Island? Is it even a real thing? It certainly sounds like it in the poem, but where, what, is it, and why does he say it hums? Turns out, not only is Zug Island very real (it’s in Detroit), its hum is also very real, and a source of considerable irritation to those living nearby, particularly to those in the pleasant suburb of Windsor, Ontario, just across the river in Canada. The hum is probably coming from the US Steel plant.

We all want what our technology can produce: the steel, oil, minerals, electricity, paper. And we want the financial stability of industry. We want our machines. But not the pollution, the smells, the traffic. Or the hum. We even have an acronym for it: NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard. Give us the benefits, but hide the dirty, unpleasant, scary parts. Or put them in someone else’s back yard.

My jittery friends, I know waiting
is a hand closing slowly around needle
points, but we need the patience of a frozen sea.
Sometimes that quiets my machines,
 
the hum gets easier to ignore….

The hum I hear through this poem goes way beyond Zug Island, way beyond the scars we put on our landscape. This hum is the imbalance of wealth in America, which is nothing compared to the global imbalance of wealth. This hum is who’s doing those jobs you keep hearing about in political speeches, the jobs Americans don’t want, because they’re dangerous, poorly paid, unpleasant, physically exhausting, and how little they’re getting paid so we can eat the fruits of their labors. This hum is WalMart workers on food stamps. This hum is whose apartment gets turned into a condo and where they go then. This hum is whose kids get clean, well-maintained schools with highly trained and experienced teachers, and whose kids get nothing after some politician gets elected by cutting taxes. This hum is who’s protected by the police, and who’s abused and killed by them. This hum is the sound of the dream deferred from under the rug where we’ve swept it. This hum is about who decides to go to war, and who is sent onto the battlefield. This hum is which lives matter. This hum is reminding us: we will reap what we have sown, and it will be dirty, unpleasant, scary.

Then again, maybe that’s my hum, not the hum in the poem, and I’m forcing my hum onto the poem, because I can’t think of much else these days.

In the KR conversation I quoted earlier, May talks about his approach, which also incorporates the mechanistic aspects of the poem and the collection:

These poems are in greater danger of mono-dimensionality, which in a poem with sociopolitical concerns leads swiftly to didacticism. I find that an idea can be so good or important or jarring or socially relevant the poet can be less naturally inclined to find the other spokes that make the wheel turn. My mentor Vievee Francis always said a poem needs torque. I take this to mean a poem always needs a thing moving against another thing around a fulcrum, because without torque nothing moves. I’m kind of old-fashioned in that I want poems to move people.

I love that a 12th century form I’ve never heard of led me here. I took a circuitous path; that could be considered torque, no? A bit of patience and thought and research brought me beyond the surface and let me hear the hum, which may be the first step to figuring out what to do about it.

Pushcart 2015: Matthew Vollmer, “For Beds” (non-fiction) from New Orleans Review

Sea bed sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

Sea bed sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

Merciful God, we humbly thank Thee for setting the earth on its rotation around the sun, thus providing humanity with periods of light that permit us, as we go about our daily business, to recognize with relative clarity the things of the earth, and for the atmospheric changes and angles of the sun that allow us to sense the progression of time and thus acknowledge all manner of climatological differences. So too do we thank Thee for creating a period of darkness during which our eyes might find respite and our minds repose, and where we might also experience a reprieve from sense-making, most palpably experiencing, in our dream-states, the joys and terrors of embarking upon adventures much greater in scope than we would ever hope to undergo during our comparatively prudent daytime excursions. But most of all, oh LORD, we thank Thee for the beds upon which we sleep, and for which we too often take for granted, failing to remember the hay-or-leaf-stuffed animal skin mattresses of yore, or the goat-skin waterbeds of Persia, or the heaped palm-boughs of Egypt.

The last few pieces I’ve read have been pretty intense. I like intense, but even so, it was nice to read something a little lighter. And it is available online (thank you, New Orleans Review.

Just because it’s not as gut-wrenching as Alzheimer’s disease or disabled children, that doesn’t mean it’s not crafted. For those familiar with formal prayers there’s a recognizable progression: A universal opening acknowledging That From Which All Has Come, the focus on a specific item in that creation for which these particular thanks are offered and some elaboration of its value to the earthbound, a request for a blessing upon this cherished object, and a reminder to be vigilant in thankfulness.

We therefore ask a blessing upon these our beds, that they may not do us harm but fulfill their promise in providing us a place to safely slumber, that they might be rafts upon which we lie to escape the storms of life, and that furthermore, they may remain a place where children are forbidden to jump—if only so that children may discover the joys of benign transgressions…

And just because a piece isn’t gut-wrenching doesn’t mean it can’t provide a vehicle for contemplation. A bed is a wonderful thing, isn’t it. Just ask someone who sleeps on a sidewalk.

It’s a selection from A Book of Uncommon Prayer, an anthology, edited by Vollmer, updating the traditional prayer book with more modern concerns: “Post-Game-Day Blessing”, “For People Who Are Seeing Their New Rental For the First Time,” “For the Moth, But Also for the Spider.” I’m deeply fond of a quote from the trailer: “let us not forget what is shallow & what is deep eventually meet,” from Sasha Steensen’s “Poems for Lent”. It’s wonderfully autological: true, even profound, on a shallow level, at least if you squint, but if you think of it beyond the time we give our Hallmark Card profunditites, it’s of course ridiculous, since where shallow and deep meet, either a) shallow is no longer shallow, or b) deep is no longer deep, or c) both, so shallow and deep never meet… and all that still leaves the whole T-or-F of the mandatory coexistence of shallowness or depth (as well as Łukasiewicz’s many-valued logic needed to determine where shallow is no longer shallow etc etc), and it’s true again, since shallow and deep have met in those very lines.

… where was I? Oh, yeah, yammering about intense. Boy, I’m gonna hate this post in the morning…

Pushcart 2015: Oliver de la Paz, “Boy. Child Without Legs. Getting Off a Chair” (Poem) from American Poetry Review, #42.3

Photographed 1887, Eadweard Muybridge
 
The boy raises himself up by his arms
and follows a sequence of intentions.
 
Thrusts his hips out. In this action,
he is no longer a boy but a bell. The clapper,
 
the weight of his leg stumps. He rocks himself
and sets his body down on his haunches.
 
Then draws his arms slightly up and forward
again. Palms against the wooden studio floor. Perhaps
 
he feels the grit of sand between his fingers
or the lacquer blackening his nails. Regardless,
 
the intent to move is paramount because the line
between frames demands consecutive action.

In 1872, Leland Stanford – railroad tycoon, former Governor of California, racehorse rancher, and educational benefactor (yes, that Stanford) – had a pressing question: does a horse in full gallop lift all four feet off the ground at once? This notion of “unsupported transit” seems to have been something like the extraterrestrial life question of its time. Stanford asked photographer Eadweard Muybridge to photograph such a stride. In 1872, this wasn’t technically possible, but Muybridge persevered, and in 1877, he produced the photographic proof. He might have managed it sooner, had he not spent some time murdering his wife’s lover and standing trial for the crime (he was found not guilty, ostensibly due to the unpredictable behavioral and emotional effects of a serious head injury sustained many years before). The project had widespread effects in the scientific and artistic communities.

In 1884, Muybridge began a similar photographic study, titled “Animal Locomotion,” for the University of Pennsylvania. Using similar photographic techniques, he captured motions of various animals, including people, doing everything from descending a staircase (yes, that’s where Duchamp got his inspiration; I told you, wide-ranging effects) to pitching a baseball and fencing. From the local almshouse, Muybridge recruited some disabled people – like the boy with no legs.

The poem in Pushcart is structured in couplets, although the online version shows a single block. I’m not sure if that’s an upload artifact or if one or the other source was edited, with or without the poet’s request. When I see couplets, I think of a relationship between two people, but I have to wonder here if here instead the two lines are about two legs, legs the boy doesn’t seem to miss all that much since he’s pretty good at getting on and off that chair. Maybe the poet doesn’t mind the missing couplets just as much. Intent is part of the poem as well, and I realize I’ve been wondering about intent as regards formatting, just by coincidence of having found the poem on an online feeder site.

Intent is front and center throughout. The chair is the only thing that has no intent in the poem. The boy, the camera, the photographer, all are present, active. The chair is merely there, the thing to mount and dismount. I wonder if there’s some connection to poetry here, but I can’t see a poet referring to a poem as such a passive thing, merely providing a scaffold for the subject, the writer, the pen to act upon.

The motion Muybridge sought to study is front and center in the language of the poem: the boy raises, thrusts, rocks, demands, shears, peals, sails, wheels, contorts. And, in the glorious finale:

                  .The reel
clicks its repetitions. While the breath of the man
 
behind the camera syncopates with the boy’s own
swaying legs. In this frame, he is sitting still.
 
In this frame he flies.

And then I get it: intent, and motion. In college, I spent a semester comparing action/intent indices of portions of Beowulf to dissect motivation and emotion, authority and passivity. Motion without intent is coincidence, accident; intent without motion is impotence. Put them both together, and you get power: legs or not, you can fly.

But the chair, passive and still: the chair still has to be there.

CSI: MOOC

Course: Introduction to Forensic Science (8 weeks)
School: Nanyang Technological University, Singapore via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Roderick Bates, Associate Professor of Chemistry
Quote:

This course aims to help everyone understand more on how basic scientific principles underpin Forensic Science and can contribute to solving criminal cases.
Some questions which we will attempt to address include:
• How did forensics come about? What is the role of forensics in police work? Can these methods be used in non-criminal areas?
• Blood. What is it? How can traces of blood be found and used in evidence?
• Is DNA chemistry really so powerful?
• What happens (biologically and chemically) if someone tries to poison me? What happens if I try to poison myself?
• How can we tell how long someone has been dead? What if they have been dead for a really long time?
• Can a little piece of a carpet fluff, or a single hair, convict someone?
• Was Emperor Napoleon murdered by the perfidious British, or killed by his wallpaper?

Have you read the collected works of Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell? Know every episode of CSI, L&O, and Quincy by heart? (Ok, I’m really dating myself with that last one) Do you have Halpern’s 1979 primer on the New York City OCME, or a complete set of Baden’s publishings? If so, you might find yourself overprepared for most of this class, but the analytical chemistry in the second week might make it worth your while anyway.

A look at the topics might give you some idea of just how superficially they were covered: fingerprinting, fibers, and firearms appeared in a single week (a little more than an hour in lectures, plus some short case overviews), as did time of death calculations and everything you wanted to know about blood, from typing to spatter patterns. It is of course an introductory course of only eight weeks duration, so only so much depth and detail can be expected.

Lectures on weekly topics were punctuated with several abbreviated descriptions of actual cases of forensic science at work: the unearthing of King Richard III, the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, Wayne Williams’ capture, and Alexander Litvinenko’s bizarre assassination, as well as a host of lesser-known victims and assailants. Again, I found these quite superficial, but I’m weird.

Assignments that counted towards the final grade had a varied format. Most weeks included a one-question “opinion poll” intended to be completed before viewing the lectures, as a way of priming the material. Three multiple-choice quizzes appeared at intervals, about 20 questions in length with two tries allowed. And then there was the dreaded Peer Assessment: two case analysis. I was impressed that the first of these was more of a practice run, as it counted very little towards the final grade but gave us a chance to see what was expected. A weightier case analysis served as a sort of final exam, though some technical issues raised concerns (as usual, I’m writing this before I have any idea what my grade is; I expect to “pass” but who knows with peer assessment).

Considering the drama of the video graphics – imagine that bloody handprint punctuated by pounding bass and drums – it was a remarkably bland class. There were some attempts at humor, but most of them fell rather flat. As always, I criticize reluctantly, since it’s a course offered for free, and I’m sure there are students for whom it’s the perfect class. I just can’t work up a lot of enthusiasm. Yet, I completed the course, and considering I drop courses pretty easily these days, that says something.

Pushcart 2015: Nancy Geyer, “Black Plank” (non-fiction) from Georgia Review, #67.1

John McCracken: "Black Plank"

John McCracken: “Black Plank”

Every few minutes, my father pushes out of his armchair to take a tour of his house….
I appreciate my father’s inquiries, because while I was growing up his career—which took him around the world—came first. The interest he’s showing me now feels like a novelty. It’s utterly free of preoccupation. The thought crosses my mind that maybe this is how I’ll remember him: a single weekend will erase years of inattention. In any event, work is not what I’m doing. I’ve given up on trying to write in my father’s home, which is just outside of Washington, DC, where I live, and am tackling my e-mail instead. Among the recent acquisitions at the National Gallery of Art, I learn from the museum’s newsletter, is a 1967 piece titled Black Plank by John McCracken, a Minimalist artist with whom I’m only vaguely familiar. I mumble something to my father and he shuffles back to his cluttered study.

A story, be it fictional or true, can be told many ways. One of the reasons I love these “prize” anthologies is that they display different ways of telling stories. I don’t always like, or understand, how some authors choose to tell their story, but I love the kind of brilliance that goes into figuring out how to tell a particular story. And once in a while, I’m fascinated with how a story is told, AND I understand it, AND I enjoy it. Like this one. And for the icing on the cake – it’s available online (thank you, Georgia Review).

As with the fiction story “Trim Palace,” the heart of Geyer’s non-fiction piece is only revealed by a few casual sentences sprinkled from the first paragraph on. These hints combine perfectly with the surface story, an essay about art, to create a whole that is, I believe far more powerful than a direct telling would be.

If AIDS was the horror of youth, and breast cancer the phobia of female middle age, Alzheimer’s disease is the terror of the golden years. Every forgotten name, every misplacement of keys, leads to the consideration, “Is this it?” Though it’s almost a certainty heart disease will get me before my brain has time to form the enough plaques and tangles to matter, it’s still a constant fear: losing one’s memory, one’s life as lived, a little at a time, irrevocably.

Part of the reason for the additional power of the story is the removal of all sentiment and overt emotion. Instead, we look at art and other metaphors, leaving the emotional energy in the reader’s lap:

Black Plank. I come to a halt at these words as if I’ve been driving, not scrolling, and they are an obstacle in the road. Together they are inelegant, “unworkable in the literature of wonder or beauty,” in G. K. Chesterton’s formulation. They sound like the name of a disease—a mold that attacks the trunks of trees. They also evoke a human affliction: mind matter that’s thick and dark, or—because the words are a bit of a tongue twister—blank.

When I read the title of this piece, I did, indeed, misread it as “Blank Plank.” I had no idea what it meant. But set in the story here, for me the primary association was: walking the plank. A line from old cartoons, from pirate adventure stories, not from literature. Low culture, not fine art. Yet here it is: Geyer is watching her father walk the blank plank, and she is unable to do anything about it other than watch. And write.

This is poetry. Oh, it’s prose piece. But in the same way a plank of wood can be art if it’s handled correctly, so too can prose become poetry. I’ve quoted Wordsworth’s definition of poetry several times in these pages: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” In his lectures on Dante’s Commedia, particularly the “Paradiso” canto, Georgetown philosophy professor Frank D’Ambrosio takes it farther, sees a comparison between poetry and the Eucharist: “The force of Dante’s warning is, if up to this point you really haven’t committed yourself to the transformative miracle of poetry, then don’t bother with the rest.” This is the power of poetry: to change the meanings of words, to create something more than the single thought of a declarative sentence, to add subtext and overtones merely by using the right word, a word that, when viewed in another context, might not suggest all the things suggested in the poem. ” I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose ” wrote my friend Emily Dickinson; poetry allows for more than is on the page.

That’s what this essay is. Not that it’s written as a prose poem; some portions are beautifully lyrical, but that isn’t the point. The point is that everything mentioned has multiple layers, such as her description of the meaning of the edifices of buildings and the steps of the Supreme Court, the implications of reality (prose) intruding on symbolism (poetry). It’s too long to quote here, but it’s worth reading (and did I mention the piece is available online?).

This is the closest Geyer gets to sentiment, yet she observes sentiment rather than writes it:

Hanging from a bookshelf in my father’s study is a whiteboard on which is written
B—in Congo
Nancy here till Friday noon

To the immediate left of the board is my college photo, and although it’s possible I’ve been in that position for years, I suspect that my father’s wife, just before she left for Africa on business, moved it there to reinforce the connection between my name and my face. To the right of the board is a medium-size mirror. The third part of this book-blocking triptych, the mirror haunts me, though I can’t figure out why. Eventually I decide that its placement serves a purpose as well: to reacquaint the inner and the outer selves.
Getting to any of the books on the shelves is difficult. Pictures hang from every edge. Framed newspaper articles that feature my dad. Photographs of him shaking hands with well-known people. Diplomas and letters and certificates of appreciation. This display looks for all the world like that of a man with an enormous ego. But there is no ego. My father had always hung a few mementos in his study, but the extravagance now is so that he might be reminded of what he had made of himself.

Another quality of poetry, particular modern poetry as I learned in my beloved Modpo, is the tendency for form to enhance meaning. As I read the words of the National Gallery of Art’s description of the “There is Nothing to See Here” exhibit in which Black Plank appeared – “Verging on invisibility or immateriality, these works can provoke, mystify, or even go unnoticed. The very difficulty of seeing them demands an extraordinary patience in viewing them” – words Geyer quotes in her essay, words that apply to the artwork, to the story, and to the subject, I’m convinced this story was told exactly the right way.

As for the “Black Plank” itself, the art work, I’ve always been ambivalent about highly conceptual art. It’s as if it’s a trick: is the object art, or is it something left there by mistake, perhaps by a worker who had too much to carry and will be returning for it later? That’s a standard cartoon of modern art, going with the trope, “But is it art?” Personally, I’ve never understood what’s so wonderful about the Mona Lisa, but I admit I have no artistic sense at all.

But the “Black Plank” will stay with me, whether it’s art or not. And that means “Black Plank” surely is.

Pushcart 2015: Kamilah Aisha Moon, “Watching a Woman on the M101 Express” (Poem) from She Has A Name

Picasso, "Weeping Woman"

Picasso, “Weeping Woman”

You sit in a hard blue seat, one
of the ones reserved for the elderly
or infirm, a statue of need. Your mouth
 
open as if waiting for water or medicine, as if
mugged mid-sentence, or some ice age hit
right after terrible news.

I once read something about “Meryl Streep tears”: crying so that makeup is undisturbed, eyes and skin of the face don’t redden or swell, and tears find their way delicately down a smooth cheek in a single trickle without getting sucked into the divots of the nostrils, which, of course, never themselves drip. Movie crying. The writer confessed she’d never mastered the art of pretty crying. Neither have I; nor have most people. The woman observed by this poem certainly hasn’t.

I have been both the subject and object of this poem (available online). I’ve seen people on busses – on sidewalks, in stores and offices and front porches – displaying the kind of sorrow described here, openly crying, and not movie-star tears, but sloppy drippy raw-faced emotion that’s real and scary and, yes, ugly.

I know the uncomfortable feeling, a mix of curiosity but also empathy, the uncertainty of the line between helping and making it worse. No one wants to be callous, yet no one wants to be incautious. There’s a desire to reach out, but not to get involved; to get credit for concern without paying the cost of connecting to such pain:

I want to ask—
 
just so you know someone
is paying attention, but not enough
to know what ravages. It’s rude
 
to stare.

And I’ve also been the public weeper – no, not reading-weeping, which I’ve mentioned often enough, but that’s close to Meryl Streep tears, deeply felt but still controlled and circumscribed by the pages of a book, understandable to bystanders as a temporary aberration, nothing to worry about. I mean the other kind of public weeping, where it just isn’t possible to hold it until behind the privacy of a door. I always have this association of crying with peeing in public, even more unthinkable, but also a release of water that simply can’t be controlled in a socially acceptable manner.

What’s notable about this poem is the detail. The speaker doesn’t look away, but notices: “Tears navigate moles, veteran / swimmers of your creek-bed face,” rather than the more romantic movie-star single-tear-traces-down-a-pink-cheek. The metaphor of “eyes that never quite close, / even in deepest sleep, lids // an undersized t-shirt that leaves belly / exposed” connotes a certain slovenliness of emotion rather than delicacy. This is no genteel sorrow; this is real. And there is concern here: ” I study the pink // of your jaw, and wonder if you’ll come back / before your stop comes.” Or is that mere curiosity?

The detail goes beyond what can be seen, to the tactile of “the hard blue seat” and “the metro’s bump and buck”. The subject is placed in scenery of other passengers as supporting players. Very thorough, for such a short poem. The reader is invited into that bus, invited to experience the poem along with the speaker. We’re allowed to add our own questions: Where is the woman going? Will the speaker share this with someone at home later, think about this woman later tonight, or next week some time?

The poem is part of Moon’s collection She Has a Name:

The opening pages of She Has a Name identify the collection as a “biomythography,” a term created by Audre Lorde to describe a narrative based on myth and history, fact and fiction. Kamilah Aisha Moon’s biomythography tells the story of a young woman with autism from multiple points of view… Whether protector or questioner, each voice strives to understand what autism means to his or her own life.

And then I go Aha! as if I understand: the crying woman on the bus is the subject of the collection, described in Moon’s Rumpus interview as the primary speaker’s sister. Or maybe it’s merely an overwrought bus rider, and the speaker, intimately familiar with outbursts of strong emotion, observes it through a lens that blends stranger with family, that allows some objectivity but also draws her closer.

Psychological First Aid MOOC

Course: Psychological First Aid
School: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Instructors: George Everly, Jr., PhD
Quote:

Utilizing the RAPID model (Reflective listening, Assessment of needs, Prioritization, Intervention, and Disposition), this specialized course provides perspectives on injuries and trauma that are beyond those physical in nature. The RAPID model is readily applicable to public health settings, the workplace, the military, faith-based organizations, mass disaster venues, and even the demands of more commonplace critical events, e.g., dealing with the psychological aftermath of accidents, robberies, suicide, homicide, or community violence. In addition, the RAPID model has been found effective in promoting personal and community resilience.

This course isn’t about providing support to friends and family dealing with the everyday problems we’re all familiar with: financial stress, family conflicts, difficult decisions. Nope, this was about catastrophe. That is, providing temporary, stabilizing support for people who’ve lost their homes, who’ve been amidst danger, death, and destruction. Nevertheless, it was surprisingly… un-intense. I was more moved by the descriptions of the Japanese tsunami given in an earlier Earth Science course.

It wasn’t so much a MOOC as an in-service practicum for first responders: a review of easily-remembered steps to take when dealing with people affected by disaster, following the RAPID model: Rapport, Assessment, Prioritization, Intervention, Disposition, with each step broken down into individual considerations. Each week covered a different part of the RAPID process, with a sample vignette showing “do” and “don’t” approaches accompanied each week. The “don’t” segments were unintentionally hilarious to me since they were so outrageously wrong (ranging from “oh, cheer up, you’re alive, so what if you lost your house” to the alternate extreme of “if you’re depressed now that you’ve lost everything, you should be on medication” – the woman who played the “victim” of the storm is a terrific actress), but, sadly, I could see well-meaning people thinking the approaches were correct, so I understand how necessary it is to teach the more reasonable path advocated by the RAPID method, rather than set those well-meaning people loose with no guidelines.

Although each week’s lecture material was followed by a multiple choice quiz, this wasn’t as much an academic course as a how-to with a minimum of theory and a maximum of application. As that, it was interesting, and I can see it being valuable for a variety of organizations who have people who need training, but strained budgets. An additional hands-on “simulation” component, allowing students to practice the skills, would be essential in that setting, but that would be easy enough to arrange. I could see the whole thing fitting into a couple of days of in-service training.

And given the likelihood that weather-related catastrophes will continue to occur more frequently as oil money perpetuates itself, it seems like a good way to provide the basics.

BrainSpace MOOC

Course: The Brain and Space
School: Duke via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Jennifer M. Groh
Quote:

Knowing where things are is effortless. But “under the hood,” your brain must figure out even the simplest of details about the world around you and your position in it. Recognizing your mother, finding your phone, going to the grocery store, playing the banjo – these require careful sleuthing and coordination across different sensory and motor domains. This course traces the brain’s detective work to create this sense of space and argues that the brain’s spatial focus permeates our cognitive abilities, affecting the way we think and remember.

How do we know where we are? How do we know where to look when we hear a sound? How do we scratch the right place when we have an itch? I took this course to find out; I had no idea it was so complicated. In fact, the more I learn about how the brain works, the more surprised I am that we’re able to feed ourselves without stabbing our eyes out.

There’s a great deal of material here: everything from neuron potentials to how we determine where sounds come from, memory, and navigation. I found several lectures to be of special interest to me: the historical development of our understanding of sight, for instance, though that was more introduction material. Leave it to me to fixate on the most humanities-oriented part of a science class. Likewise, I was fascinated to find out that reading a word like “cat” might cause neurons to fire that indicate we connect the word with petting a cat, hearing the cat purr, or seeing a cat. As a (former) cat person, I know I can almost feel myself petting one of my departed girls when talk turns to cats; I had no idea it was a real neurological thing. I thought I was just… weird. I also found the lectures on meters vs maps to be of special interest, as it gets into how we have to translate one kind of system to another. The more I learn about how the brain works, the more surprised I am that we manage to get anything done at all.

Lots of examples and demonstration of concepts were included: a bean-bag toss showed how we learn our physical relationship to space (“limb by limb”), and we listened to a cat’s neuron – a single neuron – fire as various visual stimuli were placed in its visual field (and, no, I don’t want to think about how that was done… shame on me, my dear departed kitties are probably very disappointed in me right now). As a nice little bow on this package, as I was finishing up the last week, Numberphile released a video about the various paths we use to store the words for numbers in our brains. Given my difficulty with math, I keep hoping I’ll find a way to leapfrog over whatever my problem is; I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but it’s an interesting notion anyway, and tied in nicely with this course.

The material was all released at once, in another of those scheduled/self-paced hybrids (it’s still running as I type this, in fact). I completed the six weeks of lectures in less than a month, though I wasn’t in any particular hurry; I just kept coming back to it. In standard MOOC fashion, each week’s lectures were followed by a multiple choice quiz with two attempts.

I didn’t have high expectations for this course – I’d found the first one less than enthralling – but it snuck up on me, and I quite enjoyed it. In addition to interesting material, I kept running into little touches I truly enjoyed. Silly things, not that relevant to the subject matter – like the “eye movement hat”, a sort of jester’s cap with eyeballs instead of bells, that was not only worn during discussions of eye movements, but kept showing up on different walls in the office. Music that was part of the acoustic processing material, and it turns out Dr. Groh plays the banjo, which might account for the instrumentals closing out some of the videos. But on one memorable occasion, a video ended with Dan Reeder (a rather crazy singer/songwriter who comes up with some… pretty odd lyrics sometimes) singing “The Brain is Not The Mind.” Three day earworm, that. Uh oh, there it goes again. Come to think of it, that would be a fun unit for a brain MOOC: the mechanism of earworms.

This is one of three courses, plus a capstone project, that are part of the specialization program called Neuroscience: Perception, Action, and The Brain. I’d already taken one of the courses (Visual Perception and the Brain). I have no interest in specialization programs – they cost money, for one thing, and I have no need of credentials in any case – but I’m generally interested in the brain, and I’d already taken one of the other courses, so I thought I’d take a look. Turned out to be a good thing.

Pushcart 2015: Stephanie Strickland, “CAPTCHA” (Poem) from Boston Review

cranium chambered cairn and passage grave
bulging Neolithic earth mound enclosing the vault
 
calibrated stone to this standard surpasses us
lost too inner touch on bone pale solstice beam
 
dervish Snow Queen covens of raven rim her platinum
cloak downed traces of her sledge paused print a fine grid…

So again, I confess: I don’t get it. But this time, at least I think I get why I don’t get it. Fortunately, the poem is available online via the Boston Review tumblr for those better equipped.

I believe it’s set in a gaming environment, which is why I don’t get it. There is a game “Snow Queen”, but this becomes more apparent in the second group of stanzas, where the Emerald Viewer and avatars come into it. But without more of an understanding of the game, I’m afraid I’m left grasping at pixels for most of the poem.

I typically associate stanzas in couplets with some kind of relationship between two people. Could it in this case be between a player and the game? Or, more generally, between people and technology? That’s where the final stanza, powerful even though I wasn’t sure what had preceded it, drew me:

                                                  …you install
                                                 
an IM app in your dream equip folding but unfading
tutelary mesmerie with chat while falling as a peregrine
 
tinsel buttercup foil painted roof ruined roof of the Plaza
verdigris mansard copper slate rushing toward her she could tell
 
by a tension in the air wire-fine overhead—one rustling
shift—time to be swept back to sea so typed in mistakenly
 
( no peregrine eye ) randomly assigned CAPTCHA squiggle
Turing test box of twisted-letter text to tag her

personhood denied

There’s a real finality to that close, a slamming of a door. But beyond that, it took a poem to get me to consider the strangeness of a machine deciding who is human and who isn’t, the strangeness of the necessity of creating a machine to arbitrate humanity. And, considering how many times I’ve failed the Captcha tests, to reflect on that. Just who’s in charge here? There are lots of Frankenstein-regrets—building-the-monster stories out there about computers, but this one carves it down to a singular moment, and a familiar, personal level.

But wait – there’s more! Isn’t there an alternative reading, perhaps the intended one, I don’t know. It’s the character in a game, or the computer itself, speaking. It sees the IM app installed, the “she”, became intrigued, and tried itself to tag her – only to be kept out by the automated gatekeeper, its personhood denied. Again, this harsh slamming of a door, no less poignant because it slams on circuits and code.

Interesting, where a poem I don’t understand can take me.
I also discovered something interesting about Captcha: reCaptcha. As I understand it (which isn’t that well, keep in mind), only one of the two words in a Captcha box is a test; the other is a word Googlebooks has failed to scan properly, and it’s a way of sort of crowdsourcing the corrections:

Beyond its obvious use for foiling bot attacks and would-be spammers, the reCAPTCHA Project has another, more altruistic purpose. Several years after introducing the world to CAPTCHA technology, von Ahn realized that, despite taking just a few seconds to type a CAPTCHA, humans were spending hundreds of thousands of hours each day typing in more than 100 million CAPTCHAs. reCAPTCHA technology was developed not merely with an eye toward improving cyber security, but also as a way to harness and reuse the collective human time and mental energy spent solving and typing CAPTCHAs—a concept von Ahn has dubbed “human computation.” By constructing CAPTCHAs using words tagged as unreadable in the digitizing of books and other printed material, millions and millions of cyber users play a part every day in the digitization and preservation of human knowledge by transcribing words. Tests have shown that reCAPTCHA textual images are deciphered and transcribed with 99.1% accuracy, a rate comparable to the best human professional transcription services. In just the first year after launching reCAPTCHA, humans correctly deciphered and transcribed more than 440 million words, roughly the equivalent of 17,600 books.

~~ Carnegie Mellon University CyLab

I’m still not sure how this works with single-word boxes, but it’s pretty interesting how first, the machine plays gatekeeper, and then, the person fixes what the computer can’t do. That’s a pretty interesting metaphor right there, worthy of another poem.

Pushcart 2015: Alexander Maksik, “Trim Palace” from Tin House, #58

When I ran into Joshua for the first time in nine years, I was working at the Delta terminal and had just cleaned the men’s room next to Malibu Al’s. I can’t remember why I looked up, but whatever the reason, there he was coming out of 58A.
It wasn’t allowed, but I was taking my twenty minutes in the terminal rather than the break room – a windowless box I hated many times more than the job itself. Joshua was at the head of the line walking off the jet bridge wearing a black suit and the loosened tie the color of a good lime. At first I thought he was alone, but then a woman, mesmerized by her phone, glided to him as if guided by radar and gave him a little hip check. I was frozen and my adrenaline was going like I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t have been. Which, from a certain perspective, was exactly right.
I sat there waiting until he turned his head and looked right at me. Our eyes met for a second. He made no move and I thought, Thank God, he doesn’t recognize me. And then I thought, The fucker is pretending he doesn’t recognize me. And I started to feel all righteous, but I realized he was doing exactly what I was doing, and it made me sad to think we’d just let it go, that he’d just keep on walking, I’d keep on sitting there, he’d keep on wearing suits and getting off airplanes with his pretty wife or whoever she was and I’d go on racking elephant rolls of toilet paper and scrubbing shit from white tile.
But he stopped…

I wish this story were available online. First, because it should be read, and felt. Second, because I’m going to quote several long passages, necessarily, because that’s the story it is: gold nuggets in luxurious paragraphs that aren’t padded in the slightest, where everything matters, where the style is embodied in the story itself. And third, because I’m going to get spoilery. So see if you can dig up a copy of Tin House Winter 2014. It’s stories like this that renew my regret at being unable to renew my subscription.

The effectiveness of the story lies in what is barely hinted at. Peter, our narrator and protagonist, mentions some murky past event involving cinder block walls. Prison? A mental institution? Rehab? All of the above? It’s never spelled out. But whatever it was, it was enough to turn him from the optimistic college grad who moved to LA with best buddy Joshua to seek his fortune, into… something else. Someone who would rather clean airport toilets than take his lunch break in a windowless room. Someone who’s ambivalent about seeing Joshua nine years later, the friend who’s fulfilled all those dreams from that earlier time, because it’s so clear that Peter… hasn’t. And while that particular situation is probably not something he has to worry about most of the time, here in this story, it’s the personal hell the writer shoves him up against.

Hemingway spelled out his iceberg principle of fiction writing in a 1959 Paris Review interview with George Plimpton: “There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know, you can eliminate, and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it, then there is a hole in the story.” Maksik took it to heart when he wrote Peter’s story, as he explains on the Tin House blog: “In earlier drafts, I included a great deal more of Pete’s life – past and present. As is often the case at the beginning, I found that I was writing those scenes more as a way to discover Pete’s character than in direct service to the story. I find it’s the best way for me to start – don’t think, include everything. The problem is that I fall in love with sections (or sentences) that serve me, but not the reader. That was the case with “Trim Palace” and it took me years to excise what needed to be excised.”

I could see the result in the story. The visible part is carefully sculpted, just enough to make sense: it’s just a story about a guy taking care of an old friend’s old dog. But that’s just the plot; the story, the invisible part, broke my heart as I read, unawares, until the tears blurred my vision.

I was thinking about Joshua at the bar, sitting on a stool all the way at the end, leaning his shoulder against the window, the window giving onto the street. Joshua watching me work in the early days, drinking for free. Those nights when he was always there, coming in early after whatever job he was doing – working in mailrooms, working as someone said assistant, someone’s gofer. Those early days before our impatience set in, before our fear.
I was thinking about the flickering fluorescent light, my palm against the cool white cinderblock. My cheek. Sometimes my lips, my tongue. The constant noise. The screaming at night.
I opened my eyes. A jet drew a neat white line across the sky.
Juliette watched me, head bobbing in rhythm with her easy panting. I reached for her. She flicked my hand.

Juliette is the old dog. Following their brief airport meeting, Joshua offered Peter $2000 to dog- and house-sit for a week while he and the perfect wife fly off somewhere stylish and exciting. This could be a simple plot twist, but the details and nuance here are important. Look at the new relationship that’s developed. In that first accidental reunion, Joshua is shocked at what’s become of his friend. He does follow up, which is a plus. And in that call, because he was, at least once, a close friend: “I got to ask. Short version, okay, but, what the fuck happened?”

Short version. Just the tip of the iceberg is all he has time for. But there’s no short version for Peter, so he changes the subject. It’s a mark of generosity that Joshua is entrusting his elegant house, and beloved dog, to someone who obviously isn’t the same person he used to know. But it has to hurt, to know you’re only worth the short version.

I’m guessing Peter’s had a lot of experience dealing with humiliation. It’s revealed beautifully in the scenes with Juliette, the old Great Dane. She has trouble walking. Can’t poop when and where she should. Needs help to get up. But she’s still the same dog who was once a playful puppy, and she’s still beloved enough to hire a dog-sitter rather than send her to a kennel during vacation week. Peter observes her every humiliation, gives her the assistance she needs, cleans up after her. Takes care of her, because it’s his job.

He calls his parents.

Again, both of us waited. I listened and I imagined him doing the same, as if some sound in the background might answer a question neither of us knew how to ask.
“I was thinking, dad. I was thinking I’d like to come home for a while. Come to see you.”
“Oh, I’d like that, Peter. I’d like that so much.”
“Me too,” I said beginning to speak more quickly, walking out to the trees. “I was thinking I’d come home next week and just, I don’t know. I’d see you and Mom and, really, I don’t know exactly. Just be home and get things together and figure out what’s next. It would be nice to be home with you both.”
“Peter,” he said. “You know I’d love that.”
Juliet was still watching me.
“I’d like that. You know I would. I’d love it, love it more than anything, but you also know I’m going to have to ask your mother. I’ll have to ask her. I’ll have to find the right time to ask her. See what she says, see what she thinks about it.” He paused and then said, “About you coming home,” as if I’d forgotten what we were talking about.
I was walking back across the lawn to the house.

I can hear the voice of Edna in Carver’s “Chef’s House” in the cadence of the father’s speech. I can hear his heart break as he hesitates to welcome his son home. And yes, this is where the iceberg started carving into me.

The final scene (which I won’t reveal; I have to leave something as a teaser) consolidates it all in a decision point. I made the mistake of reading this on the bus. I’ve never been able to hold back tears. It’s one of the risks of reading on the bus.In my mind I could hear Adam Crossley’s “Prisoner” playing as I read – “Take me home….” I could see the face of Kalief Browder, whose suicide still haunts us all.

To be clear, this isn’t Kalief’s (why is there so often a sense of intimacy when it’s too late to matter? If we’d had this intimacy sooner, could things have gone differently?) story , not at all. It’s Peter’s story, and I get the clear sense, if from nothing else than his mother’s persistent anger, that his sorrows are more the product of his own deeds. But they’re sorrows nonetheless, and I don’t buy into this obsession we have with rationing our compassion, as though we might run out.

The art of the iceberg story lies in how little is told, and, maybe, in how we can adapt it to what’s in our lives. I heard and saw what I did because of my own experience, and timing, but we’ve all had those moments when we run into someone from the past, and our failure to live up to our potential hangs heavy on us. Sometimes, we just think it does. And sometimes, as with Peter, it really does. It’s everyone’s story. It’s just that, sometimes, it cuts a little deeper.

Ten Premodern Poems by Women MOOC

Course: Ten Premodern Poems by Women
School: Stanford (via Lagunita)
Instructors: Prof. Eavan Boland
Quote:

In this course, we will read ten significant pre-modern poems by women. We have chosen each poem to give you a sense of its structure as a poem and its importance as a form in its time. But the course also seeks to reveal the roots each poem has in history, in slavery, in conventional thought and unorthodox opinion. Through the introductions to the poems, forum discussions with your fellow students, and conversations between Professor Boland and practicing poets and scholars, we will learn about how poet’s have fashioned life experience into verse, how to discuss poetry, and what poetry means for each of us today.

Anne Bradstreet, Katherine Philips, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Phillis Wheatley, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Julia Ward Howe, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Women from 17th century Puritan New England and nineteenth century London. A slave girl, a neoclassicist scholar, a hermit, a woman disowned for marrying the wrong man. Some familiar friends, some new acquaintances. Poems about loss, love, laundry, beauty, and righteous battle. One poet, one poem, per week, presented and discussed by working poet/scholars.

I approached it as another recreational MOOC, treating it as more of a series of podcasts, fitting it into odd spaces of time, rather than focusing on it as a class per se. Each week, Prof. Boland outlined the life of the poet under discussion and examined the circumstances under which the poem under consideration was written. A poet drawn from the lecturers and fellows of the Stanford creative writing faculty offered a comparison to contemporary poetic themes and structures, often to their own poetry. At the end of the week, Prof. Boland and the contemporary poet of the week would discuss popular questions from the discussion forums in a casual conversation. The assignments consisted of forum posts and responses; I didn’t participate, but I feel like I got quite a bit out of it nonetheless.

Even though it can seem as though I don’t take these “recreational MOOCs” seriously, I do find them beneficial and enjoyable. In this case, I found my understanding of “modernism” bolstered by the comparison with pre-moderns, though that wasn’t the purpose of the course.

In the introductory lecture, Prof. Boland explained: “…one thing binds all of those poems together. And that is that these are the women finding their voice against the odds, finding their creativity, often in a time that offers powerful resistance to that creativity.” I think many of us are finding our voices aren’t heard, aren’t valued, in this time. I think it’s something of a paradox that this should be the case when, with social media, crowdfunding, and self-publishing, more avenues for self-expression exist than ever. Yet that may be the reason it’s so hard to be heard: there’s also more noise than ever, and impossibly many choices, so it’s the shocking voice, or the entertaining voice, that is heard and amplified, not necessarily the thoughtful one.

In this course I listened to, not only poet/professor Boland, but to the voices of ten thoughtful women scattered through time, and, equally enjoyable, I heard ten contemporary poets respond. It was a lovely way to spend a spare half hour a few times a week during a period that was particularly busy and, at times, stressful, and I’m very glad it was available.

Pushcart 2015: Ottessa Moshfegh, “The Weirdos” from Paris Review, #206

Dali: Self Portrait Sundial

Dali: Self Portrait Sundial

On our first date, he bought me a taco, talked at length about the ancients’ theories of light, how it streams at angles to align events in space and time, that it is the source of all information, determines every outcome, how we can reflect it to summon aliens using mirrored bowls of water. I asked what the point of it all was, but he didn’t seem to hear me. Lying on the grass outside a tennis arena, he held my face toward the sun, stared sideways at my eyeballs, and began to cry. He told me I was the sign he’d been waiting for and, like looking into a crystal ball, he’d just read a private message from God in the silvery vortex of my left pupil. I disregarded this and was impressed instead by the ease with which he rolled on top of me and slid his hands down the back of my jeans, gripping my buttocks in both palms and squeezing, all in front of a Mexican family picnicking on the lawn.

I’ve been staring at this story for about a week now, hoping I’d either gain some insight, or it’d go away. Not that it’s a bad story, it’s just a story that I don’t “get.” Moshfegh has been on a roll with prize after prize rolling in, but I just don’t seem to be on the right wavelength for this story. Fortunately, this one is available online (thank you, Paris Review) so I’m not in the way of those who can get on the right wavelength.

It is indeed a story about weirdos. And there’s a moment I recognize. But beyond that, I got nothin’.

A quick google proved that others saw more than I did. In Bustle, Joanna Novak praised how ” the first line introduces the narrator’s droll sense of humor”. Maybe that’s the problem; I don’t seem to have the right sense of humor for the 21st century, a failing that began with the Seinfeld years. One blogger felt “[t]his character’s emptiness and aimlessness really got to me.” Being pretty aimless myself, I seem to have problems with stories that highlight aimlessness. But I’m not sure the characters are all that aimless, I just think they’re aimed at things I don’t understand.

The story is indeed about weirdos. The boyfriend is weird, obviously, but the narrator is just as weird because she seems to understand that he’s weird – she even despises him – but she’s still there.

I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood. It was a shadowy, crumbling collection of bungalows and auto-body shops. The apartment complex rose a few stories above it all, and from our bedroom window I could look out and down into the valley, which was always covered in orange haze. I liked how ugly it all was, how trashy. Everyone in the neighborhood walked around with their heads down on account of all the birds. Something in the trees attracted a strange breed of pigeon—black ones, with bright red legs and sharp, gold-tipped talons. My boyfriend said they were Egyptian crows. He felt they’d been sent to watch him, and so he behaved even more carefully than ever.

Part of my disorientation is that I don’t believe anything the boyfriend says. Is he really an actor, or is he just pretending/imagining a telemarketer is his agent calling and he’s going on auditions the way he imagines the plastic skull on his night table is sending him messages? Is the girlfriend (neither of them have names in the story) playing along? Why?

The new tenants show up, bearing lots of cash and bad teeth, a combination I associate with meth. At the end of the story, the boyfriend is doing meth, so maybe they’re all methheads all along, though the boyfriend’s muscles don’t fit with that, do they? I don’t know enough about them. Maybe that’s what I’m missing.

I went back to the basics: what’s the movement in the story, the narrative? The new tenants. The classic “new kid comes to town” story. Nothing changes, but in giving advice to the narrator, one of the new tenants forces a moment of clarity I found quite powerful:

“I’ve got something for you,” she said. She disappeared into the bedroom, where we’d piled all the garbage bags full of stuff. She came out with a black feather.
“Is that from the crows?” I asked.
“Sleep with this under your pillow,” she said, rubbing her third eye. “And as you drift off think of everyone you know. Start off easy, like with your parents, your brothers and sisters, your best friends, and picture each person in your mind. Really try to picture them. Try to think of all your classmates, your neighbors, people you met on the street, on the bus, the girl from the coffee shop, your dentist, everybody from over the years. And then I want you to imagine your boyfriend. When you imagine him, imagine he’s on one side and everybody else is on the other side.”
“Then what?” I asked her.
“Then see which side you like better.”

Maybe this is why it’s so hard to leave. It’s not even a matter of not having somewhere better to go; it’s more about not having anything better to compare to “now”. Maybe this is how life is for everyone. Maybe there’s nothing better out there for her. Maybe it’s her fault, it’s all she gets, all she deserves. So she stays.

I hope I can catch on to Moshfegh’s style. She seems to be quite a powerhouse, and I expect to be seeing more from her.

Perfectly Logical MOOC

Course: Logic: Language and Information I and 2
School: University of Melbourne via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Prof. Greg Restall, Dr Jen Davoren
Quote:
 
(Part 1) This is an introduction to formal logic and how it is applied in computer science, electronic engineering, linguistics and philosophy. You will learn propositional logic—its language, interpretations and proofs, and apply it to solve problems in a wide range of disciplines…..you will learn how to use the core tools in logic: the idea of a formal language, which gives us a way to talk about logical structure; and we’ll introduce and explain the central logical concepts such as consistency and validity; models; and proofs.
 
(Part 2) This subject follows from Logic: Language and Information 1, to cover core techniques in first order predicate logic: the idea of formal languages with quantifiers, which gives us a way to talk about more logical structure than in propositional logic; and we will cover the central logical concepts such as consistency and validity; models; and proofs in predicate logic….We will also explore how these techniques connect with issues in linguistics, computer science, electronic engineering, mathematics, and philosophy.

I loved this course; along with the Solar System course, it became a focus of my winter/spring MOOC schedule.

I’ve taken a couple of other logic MOOCs: Mathematical Thinking, and the Stanford logic course intended for computer programmers. But this was the first logic course that included modules on linguistics and philosophy. I was very happy. Not that it was easy – in fact, the Peer Assessment assignments made me wonder if I had any idea at all of what was going on, and there were some moments when I was ready to hang myself from the nearest Proof Tree – but I loved every head-banging moment.

Part 1 included introduction to the basics of propositional logic and proof trees in two core modules, then offered a choice of four additional application areas, at least two of which were required. Of course, I headed for the more humanities-aimed subjects, and fell in love with implicatures and the maxims of Grice’s Cooperation Principle – and recognized how politicians and other liars depend on them – as well as the “fuzzy logic” and infinitely-valued logic covered in the Philosophy module. I did take a quick stab at the Programming module, but it became clear that it required more time than I was able to devote. I hope someday I can go back and pick up that and the Digital Systems module (I have fond memories of logic gates from my days of hanging out with… oh, never mind).

Part 2 expanded to first-order predicate logic, with some indication of what’s involved in higher-order logics. Here three core modules were required, along with three of five application areas: mathematics was added. I was very happy to see that. It gave me a chance to do more work on the concepts from Mathematical Thinking – bounds, convergence, that sort of thing. Then in Philosophy, I had a great time figuring out how to negate “The present King of France is bald”, and the Linguistics module turned pronouns into fine art.

Each lecture set in both core and applications was followed by a set of ungraded practice homework which in most cases included a variety of problems; unlimited attempts were allowed, so plenty of practice was available. Detailed notes in PDF form were provided for all the material. Each core and application module also included a final exam and/or a peer assessment assignment. I found some of the the Part 1 peer assessment assignments to be extremely difficult; in fact, I was pretty discouraged at the close of the class, since I’d felt I’d had a pretty good grasp on things and then came face-to-face with the realization that maybe I understood a portion and need to broaden my conceptual grasp. I received extremely generously scores from my peers on the Part 1 assignments, by the way, as well as some great feedback. It’s important to know what you don’t know, so it was a worthwhile, if humbling, experience. The peer assessment assignment for the second course turned out to be too far over my head to even make a credible attempt, but at least it was optional, as it went beyond the material covered in class. The material for Part 2 was pretty humbling to begin with, particularly the philosophy module covering vagueness. Loving the material may be necessary, but is definitely not sufficient, for understanding.

The core material was covered by both instructors, but in the applications, they each took over what were presumably their personal specialties: Greg did Philosophy and Linguistics, and Jen handled computer applications and mathematics. I came to be extremely fond of both of them along the way. Now, I rarely mention instructors’ personal styles in these comments on MOOCs – first, it’s a good way to get myself into hot water, and second, it’s generally irrelevant to the educational experience. But in this case, although the courses were strictly business, each instructor brought a certain aura that added greatly to my enjoyment of the course – Greg with his vest and tie, a slightly Eleventh Doctor air about him, and his tendency to talk with his eyes shut, giving him an air of… bookish shyness? – the one exception being when he discovered in the middle of a proof tree that he’d actually worked out the example differently from what he’d started to explain. His laughter and slight fluster was completely charming; he should make little flubs more often. Then there’s his penchant for fitting wombats into examples.

Jen Davoren brought a completely different, but equally appealing, personna. I came to adore her constantly changing hair colors (seriously, check out her faculty page), and her ever-interesting kaliedoscope of logic t-shirts. Not to mention her asides about Alan Turing – I’d just seen The Imitation Game – and Angela Merkel (did you know Merkel has a doctorate in quantum chemistry and was an active research scientist before she was Chancellor of Germany? I didn’t, because we Americans learn as little as possible about world leaders other than our own, unless scandal is involved, in which case they’re all over the supermarket tabloids). Since I didn’t take the Digital Systems or Prolog modules she taught, I was delighted to find her teaching the Mathematics module, which began with the comment: “Admittedly, it is one of the most abstract branches of mathematics. This abstractness, together with a foundational role of logic, may at least partially explain why logicians tend to be the eccentrics within mathematics departments.” The most interesting mathematicians I’ve met through MOOCs have all been a little eccentric in one way or another – including Jen.

I’m not sure if my fondness for the instructors, limited as their involvement beyond the videos was, followed from my fondness for the material, or vice-versa (or maybe I just loved the font used for slide headers – I believe it’s one of the Barbedors. Yes, I gathered enough samples to Identifont it, what, there’s something wrong with that?), but in any case, I loved this course and highly recommend it – for anyone who wants to understand the basics of formal logic.

Now, that’s an important caveat. You have to want it. Because every logic course I’ve ever taken at the introductory level (that’s three now) eventually turns into ten minutes of:

And ‘Ga’ is true, so that’s why ‘Fa or Ga’ is true. Not everything has property ‘G’ is true. Why not? Because of the ‘b’ instance ‘not Gb’. So, not everything has property ‘G’. Not everything has property ‘F’. Not because of the ‘b’ instance, but because of the ‘a’ instance. And indeed, not everything does have property ‘F’. because ‘a’ doesn’t. Finally ‘not everything is F or everything is G’ is true, because both of the disjuncts here are false. ‘everything is F’ is false, ‘everything is G’ is false, so ‘not everything is F or everything is G’, indeed that formula is true.

~~ Transcript for Part 2, Lecture 3.4, “Trees for Predicate Logic”, which is why I didn’t use the transcripts at all for this course

And that sort of thing can drive you crazy. Unless you really want it. But if you want it, this is a great place to get it.

Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Hazelton, “Book of Forget” (Poem) from Agni, #75

I made a stage out of an abandoned house, small
enough for me to look bigger, and I walked from end
to end in spangles, shaking what my momma
gave me in a symphony jiggling out over the dry
desert night.

There’s something very poignant about the strippers who appear in poems.

Some time ago I read a piece about an exotic dancer in which the speaker focused attention, not on her body or her situation, but on the collaboration of the audience in the act she performed: if a dancer takes her clothes off in the forest and no one sees, is she still naked?

There’s nothing more phallic than a stripper pole.

This poem takes a different view, however, focusing not on the audience (though the audience does appear in the poem) but the stripper herself, the motivations, memories and reactions she has separate from what the audience is doing. It’s the speaker’s poem, the stripper’s poem, and, if we allow it, our poem.

I’m interested in the contrast between the earlier dancer and this one. Whereas the prior piece had a confident, defiant woman holding a mirror to the audience, daring them to see themselves, here we have a more typical presentation: a woman who is damaged. We don’t get any detail about that damage, only that it results in a woman who feels halved, who expects the world will hurt her. Someone who doesn’t feel unique. Someone who is trying to forget – forget what? What would you dance to forget? Have you learned a better way to forget whatever it is you need to forget?

I wanted to be a contortionist,
to stand on my own neck before anyone else could,
but the world is full of women who can halve themselves.
My talent is in looking like someone you want
when the lights are on and like anyone who’ll do when they’re off.
There are other ways to dance but I never learned.
There are other ways to forget. This one barely works.

I found the poem online at I Read This Poem, a poetry blog that seems to have lasted through only three months last year – too bad, I hope Ms. Arthur starts blogging poetry again, because I discovered a lot about this poem, how it works, by reading her post: the long first sentence, the facelessness, the way sex is hidden though it is displayed. I’d missed all that, focusing on content. My observation was that it’s a sort of elongated sonnet, with a turn from outward to inward and a concluding anaphoric couplet, but that’s a lot of squishing something that doesn’t fit into the wrong space. I did love how “from end / to end” put the “ends” at the ends.

I go back to poignant. One of the tenets of modernism was freedom to use any subject matter. The modern poem finds humanity in a train station, conformity in a wheelbarrow, and here, poignancy in a stripper. Aren’t we all – on social media, in our careers – putting on a show. Aren’t we all trying to forget.

Heart Stats? I Hardly Even Know Them MOOC

Course: I Heart Stats
School: Notre Dame (via edX, free)
Instructors: Dan Myers
Quote:

Statistics can be confusing and opaque. Symbols, Greek letters, very large and very small numbers, and how to interpret all of this can leave to feeling cold and disengaged—even fearful and resentful.
But in the modern information age, having a healthy relationship with statistics can make life a whole lot easier…. The purpose of this course, then is to help you develop a functional, satisfying, and useful life-long relationship with statistics….
What you’ll learn:
• Select appropriate statistical tests for data according to the levels of measurement
• Perform basic calculations to determine statistical significance
• Use standard methods of representation to summarize data
• Interpret and assess the credibility of basic statistics

I began to realize, midway through Genetics & Evolution, that I needed a much better understanding of statistics. Think of all the jokes you’ve heard: there’s no better way to obfuscate an issue than to come up with a statistic that sounds impressive, even though, when examined more closely, it doesn’t hold up, because few people know how to examine stats more closely.

So I took this course. Two MOOC-friends of mine took this course at the same time I did; they both loved it. For that matter, it seems a thousand people Liked the Facebook page. Me, not so much, but I say it every time I do one of these: every course I hate, someone else loves. In this case, a lot of people.

So what was my problem? Mostly, I just really, really hate stats.

In addition to arachnophobia (which actually contributed to my dropping the Animal Behavior course this week, believe it or not), I’ve discovered I have sigmaphobia: a fear of summation signs. Those are the Greek capital-Sigmas, the things that Greek restaurants use as capital E’s even though they’re really S’s. There’s a great line in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar about protagonist Esther Greenwood’s visceral reaction to reading German: “…each time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam.” That’s how I am with summation signs. It’s just a personal quirk, and it’s necessary that I keep calm and carry on, but it makes things like stats extra-special difficult.

I hated all the calculating – and this course was about 85% calculating. Sure, adding a column of numbers, calculating an average, squaring each number in the column, summing the squares, etc etc, isn’t that hard – that’s what Excel is made for. It’s just incredibly tedious and I hate it. But… I do need to understand stats better, and I had to start somewhere.

I did learn a few things beyond calculating. I even recognized a few things I’d seen in other courses: “Oh, so that’s what he was talking about when he said he was using a stricter standard of significance testing… oh, that thing we did back then, that must’ve been a chi square.…” Just yesterday, I was watching someone talk about his research and he mentioned within and between factors, ANOVA and t-tests; I was so excited – I know what that is! I’d have to listen way more carefully to it to say I understood his research design, but at least I recognize the tests he’s using on his data, and that’s more than I could’ve said a month ago.

As for more comprehensive understanding, Dan made reference several times to more advanced courses for theory, and I’m going to need that. There was some attention to concepts in this class: discussion of data types and the requirements of the various stats, and a very good “Hypotheses Testing Q&A” with Dan and Sara early on (my favorite thing in the course), and the first half of the final was relatively conceptual: Here’s the situation, what stat should you use. But one eight-week intro course isn’t anywhere near enough, at least for a mathematical idiot like me.

Despite my antipathy towards the subject itself, the course did a lot of things very right. The calculations for each of the statistical methods – Standard Deviation, Chi Square, T-test, ANOVA, Regression, Correlation – were demonstrated three times by three different people in different formats, with PDFs of detailed Notes available as well, so if one route of explanation didn’t appeal, there were alternatives (my personal preference was for Sara’s runthroughs). Plenty of practice problems were available, both as practice and in graded form. The course even offers “I Heart Stats” t-shirts for sale, just like the one Sara wears in the videos. How many courses offer that? I’ve said before MOOCs should offer swag. I would’ve bought a bunch of course-specific t-shirts or coffee mugs or tote bags. Just… well, not for this course.

They did their job. And I did mine, even when it hurt. I’m kind of proud of that, that I kept going with a course I hated, since I’ve been dropping courses all over the place at the first sign of “This isn’t anywhere near as interesting as I thought it would be.” I finished. Granted, I kept an eye on the progress meter, and I stopped as soon as I’d done enough of the final for a pass (ok, not all that proud of myself), because I really didn’t want to calculate another σβ.

One of the minor quibbles I had was partly of my own doing, I think. I seem to recall being asked if I’d be willing to participate in a research study during the course. I love MOOCs so I always agree to this stuff – it’s possible it was another course, in fact, not this one at all. But throughout, little questionnaires kept coming up. “Checking In”: “Which emotions best describe how you’re feeling about the course?” with a list of maybe a dozen emotion words (anger, contentment, hope, isolation, shame). Then there was SAM, the Self-Assessment Manikin. It seemed like overkill to have two kinds of mood-assessment, but maybe one was the study I’d signed up for, or maybe they were thinking of people who weren’t fluent in English, or maybe they wanted to compare results between the two different representations (which is an interesting idea, by the way). Thing is, these things cropped up so often early on, I started to get really pissed off whenever I saw them… so I kept entering things like “angry” and “anxious” and “confused” because that’s how I was feeling, even though I was doing fine with the course material. Which is also kind of an interesting result. The instructors are sociologists, after all.

I also took great exception to one of the examples used, with self-described fake data showing differences between IQ scores for different races, with a reference to Murray’s book The Bell Curve, which to me was very controversial back in the day. I was pretty upset about this. It seemed, at best, insensitive to start flinging around fake data showing white people have higher IQ scores than black or Hispanic people. I was relieved when we went back to things like evaluation of popcorn brands, and relating hair products to gender or exercise to work productivity. I had some discomfort with how some results were phrased as well; I wish someone had said, at some point, “Correlation is not causation.” Because that’s where the fun starts. Maybe I just don’t understand the concept.

But overall, this was a detailed and effective basic introduction to a topic that befuddles a lot of us; if you want to know how to calculate ANOVA or standard deviations, strap on your calculator, crank up your spreadsheet, and go for it. Who knows – you might end up hearting stats.

Pushcart 2015: Rachel Zucker, “Mindful” (Poem) from Kenyon Review, #35:3

Frederic Pissarro: "Multitasking"

Frederic Pissarro: “Multitasking”

jammed my airspace w/ an audible.com podcast
& to-do list Deborah lent me this pen better
make use of turn off it filled up inside dear friends
[swipe again] invite me to Brooklyn [swipe
again] I briefly [GO] hate them am rush rush &
rushing headphones never let me airways
I run & the running [GPS: average time]
[activity started] [GPS: per mile] then a snowstorm
no school I cried & said Mayor Bloomberg
should be scalded with hot cocoa when someone said
yay for snow I’m cutting it too close, Erin, if
a blizzard makes me [too slow swipe again]
cry…

 
I took one look at this poem and thought, no way. I’m not going to do this. I’m just going to skip it, who’s to know (I skipped one story, could you tell?)? But I tried again. And, as happens sometimes, it worked. I mean, it really worked.

I stopped trying to read a poem, and started imagining a poet, a situation, a mind. Mindful, in the new-agey sense, means in-the-moment, paying attention, focused. Here we have a different kind of mindful: a mind, full. Really full – of the immediate (swipe cards to get through turnstiles), the semi-immediate decisions involved in getting from point A to point B by any conveyance, telephone conversations or perhaps im’s or tweets or something else. A million ways to stay connected means a million ways to be bound and strangled.

I know people who cry over a snow day (especially this past winter in New England). Not all of them are mothers. Some of them are bosses of mothers, or clients of mothers or coworkers of mothers, and they know it’s not nice to get angry because a mother has to be late or absent if we as a society have valued child-rearing and wish to be inclusive enough to allow women to have children and have jobs, and for pete’s sake the women who are poor are told they’re lazy if they don’t work while the women with skills and education are told they’re selfish to work so why don’t we give this lady a break when she has to make childcare arrangements on a snow day, but I had an appointment… and I understand the poem completely.

[all service on the local track] fall asleep fast I pray
to whom? [1 X-fer OK] is this what I was
waiting for: the one nap moment of silence?
IF that’s what I wanted should have made other
don’t you think choices? What do you mean by
‘dark’? asks Erin. What do you mean by
‘unhinged’? airways [GO] I give one son
a quarter for two or fewer complaints a day
& none for more the pediatrician confirms
they each have two testicles then shoots
the smallest boy in the arm that was the easiest
part of my day [X-fer OK][OK][OK][GO] stroller…

Zucker’s conversation with Martha Silano of American Poetry Review includes a wonderful exchange about what it means, or doesn’t mean, for a female poet to include a baby in a poem. Silano references an earlier APR essay by Joy Katz about the “Oh, no” moment when a baby turns up in a poem she’s writing, and how she fears it might cause a loss of credibility. Zucker rather demolishes that as a concern: “I would really have to take a deep breath and figure out why having a baby in a poem is a problem…. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that. What the fuck was I supposed to write about? My whole life was just in this pukey, poopy thing.” I wanted to cheer for her. No doubt it’s a man who valorizes his potency or considers its decline who thinks a woman who includes a baby in her poetry isn’t quite serious. Then again, such men tend to find ways to not take women seriously no matter what they write about. And I say this as someone who has no real interest in babies or poems about babies, but who has a great deal of interest in all poets writing about what is central to them, what inspires them, what they feel a need to write about.

…Rebecca wanted us to do something
radical at this reading I don’t have time did
wash my hair lifestyle choice I know time
isn’t ‘a thing you have’ I meant to ask isn’t there
some way, Erin, to get more not time but joy?
she’s not home maybe running or at the grocery
or school [X-fer] can you anyone hear me?…

I’ll admit I have no real grasp of what’s going on in this poem, who Rebecca and Erin are, but I do get the sense of frenetic multitasking, juggling a great many responsibilities while creating Art. Writing may be a lot easier for a poet who can isolate from the world for a time, but maybe there’s another kind of art, another route of inspiration in the scattered attention that some lives require. I love how this poem embodies real-time stream-of-consciousness in a way Kerouac only guessed at, the activity in our minds as we switch roles on a second-to-second bases and the reaction to the activity, with the profound tucked in there with the mundane. How at once alive and aware and lonely and overwhelmed this sounds. Some sections are desperately interrupted, some more conversational. I don’t have the skill in poetic analysis to find all the patterns, but I’m sure they’re in there.

This is a real mind at work, running soul-deep while swiping transit cards and negotiating the world. This is what inner life sounds like for a lot of people. Cubism reversed; instead of an object having simultaneous multiple perspectives, the subject simultaneously inhabits multiple vantage points. I can’t live this way; I disintegrate. I’m not even sure I like it. Every once in a while someone will knock on my door, so intent on their phone they don’t realize they’ve got the wrong apartment. I’ve had people literally run into me while engrossed in some conversation. I don’t care at all about someone on the bus or in a waiting room talking on their phone, to me it’s no different than an in-person conversation, but I’m beginning to resent the requirement being forced upon the unphoned to compensate for the phoned. Then again, is it any different from someone engrossed in thought?

meat in the freezer or oven on so what? don’t
make dinner – ha ha who will? the military? –
don’t rush multi-stop stop checking the tiny
devices brain sucking the joy out here’s the
[too fast][swipe again] express

This is super-contemporary, in terms of the technology and the immediacy and the concerns. And we have to wonder: where is the tipping point, where the benefits begin to outweigh the liabilities, where the frantic excludes the joy? Will we even have time to notice?

The-One-Where-I-Take-A-Caltech-Astronomy-Course-From-@plutokiller MOOC

Course: The Science of the Solar System
School: Caltech (Coursera)
Instructors: Mike Brown
Quote:
 
This course is a scientific exploration of our solar system. You will learn both what we know about the solar system around us but also how we have been using the tools of science to learn the things that we know. You will get to use some of the tools yourself.… we will focus our examination of the solar system on four main topics: (1) Where is there water on Mars? (2) What is inside of a giant planet? (3) How can we use the smallest bodies in the solar system to answer the biggest questions? (4) Where might we look for life?
To answer these questions we will learn about details of atmospheric chemistry and dynamics, planetary interiors and magnetism, the geological history of planets, spacecraft exploration, telescopic observations of planets around other stars, spectroscopic determinations of composition, biochemistry of water- and non-water based life, and many more. In short, we’ll learn about the whole solar system and about planets in other systems besides ours.

Some courses, I just take. Some courses, I love. Like this one.

Mike Brown killed Pluto, and he’s proud of it, and he explains why towards the end of this course, just before he explains how to look for signs of life in the universe.

But we started out a lot closer – right next door, with Mars. And we heard stories, going back to Galileo and Percival Lowell and how our view of Mars has changed from the time of ancient Greece, and with plenty of droll, understated humor (like – and this is a direct quote from world-class astronomer with the chops to get Pluto kicked out of the planet club: “And as far as I can tell, they were looking at the region with the sea monster and the porpoise, oh, and the stingray. And yet, we think Mars has no oceans”). So by the time the math and physics came in, I was already hooked. Then we went to Mars, and it was too late to turn back.

You see, this ran concurrently with the real-life CalTech course, and while those kids, and some of the MOOC students, didn’t need any coddling, the rest of us needed all we could get. Because, of course, this is a science class. One of my favorite moments came in the middle of Week 1, when Mike said those immortal words: “As you might remember from orbital mechanics….” Other favorite lines:

What does it take for something to be really old? Nothing. Nothing can have happened in something like 4 billion years.

Usually when we think about quantum mechanical states – if you ever think about quantum mechanical states – …

This is a differential equation, but its about the simplest differential equation in the world.

It’s a very strange thing. Why you might ask? Why: because quantum mechanics.

 
It’s tough to design a MOOC that will appeal to both scientists (and there were lots of past, present, and future scientists in the course) and the rest of us, but this managed with a multi-leveled approach. The MOOC quizzes were more conceptual than quantitative (hey, you’d be surprised how hard conceptual can be), but if you felt that was not rigorous enough, the CalTech homework was available (right over there, see?), complete with designated discussion forums (which, I see, when unused after W2… I mean, CalTech kids took orbital mechanics and differential equations in kindergarten, they aren’t fooling around). Also available was the CalTech students’ public blog. I took a look at these things early on, but then I went back to my “explain it to me like I’m six” questions. Still, it’s great the more detailed material is available for those who dare.

One of the best features was this mix of Those Who Understand and Those Who Go “Huh?” There were lots of people able to help the rest of us who were welcomed to ask basic questions. When there’s a balance of people with questions and people with answers, it’s a synergystic thing that really cooks, and it’s one of the magical things that MOOCs can do. It’s a tough balance to draw: you have to attract people who have answers (marquee-value names like Mike Brown and CalTech help with that) without scaring away those who not only don’t remember orbital mechanics, they aren’t really sure what it is. The teaser video might help with that, though I think he’d be better off to run Lecture 3:10: “I love holding this little piece of iron meteorite in my hand, and showing it to people, and explaining to them that this, this is the core of a tiny mini planet that was forming back at the very beginning of the solar system, that sadly had an impact which catastrophically shattered it into pieces, but then let parts of it fall onto the earth.” How could anyone resist?

I can’t say I did well; I started out pretty strong, but there was just too much stuff for me to keep straight. But I did come away with a basic understanding of about half of it, and glimpses of the rest. And some wonderful extras that weren’t in the syllabus, but were wonderful nonetheless:

Google Mars. As much as I hate Google Earth, that’s how much I love Google Mars. Except, ok, I don’t love Google Mars so much as I love the idea of Google Mars. We used jmars a lot more during the course, because it offers different types of maps, but it’s still cool that there is such a thing as Google Mars.

Blackbody radiation and emission spectroscopy sort of makes sense to me now. It’s probably the most useful thing for me to understand at my (very low) level, since it comes up over and over again, and I’ve always found it confusing. Ok, this was in the syllabus.

Have you ever looked up the etymology of “adiabat” (coined in 1838 by Scottish engineer/physicist John Rankine from Greek adiabatos “not to be passed through,” from “α-” “not” + διὰ [“through”] + βαῖνειν [“passable”] = not +passable + through)? If I can’t handle the physics, at least I can play with words. I can’t say I’m able to connect my feeble understanding of the adiabat as it applies to what’s going on inside Jupiter, and the more frequently given example of clouds smacking into mountains and raining on one side, but maybe another MOOC.

And speaking of Jupiter’s interior: degenerate matter. Cool.

The Cavendish experiment was first performed in 1797, and here I am just finding out about it now. But it’s awesome; I still can’t believe gravity works in a way you can see, with stuff you put together in your basement. It seems to be one of those things every high school student does for extra credit, so there are lots of examples on Youtube.

5678. That is: 56 = 7 * 8. WHY DID NO ONE EVER TELL ME THIS BEFORE??!?!

Hematitic Concretions would be a great band name.

One of the nice touches was guest lecturers, including Mike’s fellow CalTech professors Bethany Ehlmann, John Grotzinger (who talked about these pictures of Mars sent back by Curiosity Rover), and Heather Knutson, rising-star (pun intended) gradTAs Danielle Piskorz and Mike Wong, and JPL Deputy Chief Scientist Kevin Hand. We took a virtual trip to Hawaii to check out the Subaru telescope. While that was taped a while ago, by chance Mike was scheduled for time on the Keck telescope on the same Hawaiian mountain during the course’s run, so he answered on-the-spot questions, even as he recovered from a bout of food poisoning.

If you have the slightest interest in solar system astronomy, or any science really, I highly recommend this. I found it to be difficult, but not impossible; I think I even “passed”, much to my surprise. Lots of work, and I put in a great deal of time, far more than the 4-6 hours/week estimated in the introductory blurb. I was lucky I’d just taken two chem courses and three earth science courses, so the only piece I was really missing was physics. If you don’t have any science background, try it anyway – MOOCs don’t have to be about grades, you know. The lectures are great, you’ll probably pick up more than you expect, and you might find yourself wanting to know more. That’s how they rope us in, you see, the scientists, dangling these bright shiny things in front of us…

In fact, that’s become for me the sign of a great course: does it leave me wanting more? This one does. I really, really need to take some very basic physics. Unfortunately, that involves calculus, which I’ve been thwacking away at for a couple of years now, but maybe a more concrete approach would help. I’d love to do this course again, when I have more of the background, and pick up all the things I missed. And enjoy the lectures again. Just for the fun of it.