Pushcart XL: Ann Beattie, “The Cloud” from Salmagundi #184

Back in the town where she’d graduated from the university five years before, Candace waited at the inn to be picked up by Uncle Sterling. This was a business trip, paid for by her company in D.C., and they were amenable to putting her somewhere other than the DoubleTree out on the highway. Sterling was able to drive his car again, after finishing the last round of chemo three weeks earlier. The prognosis was good, but Candace’s mother Claire still wept about it on the phone, and Candace was worried, herself. Sterling was her favorite relative, even if he did maintain contact with her father. For sure he understood that Hank was an untrustworthy liar, but the two former brothers-in-law still occasionally golfed together, belonged to the same gym – not that Sterling had been seeing much of that place lately.

The last Ann Beattie story I read was “The Indian Uprising” in BASS 2014. I had to make a chart of characters so I could keep track of who was who and the general significance of the interactions.

This story seems more than anything like a rewrite of that one. No, not a rewrite; a transplant. Most of the major elements are very similar: the young woman visiting a terminally ill older man who’s been something of a role model, lots of ancillary characters, a trip for a meal that gets a little weird, and… footwear. In this case, $500 boots. Though a quick look at Neiman Marcus tells me $500 is actually pretty low-end for designer boots, I’m so far removed from things like this I can’t even get my mind around it. I agonized for weeks before deciding to invest $90 in my LLBeans a few years ago, figuring it would be the last pair of boots I’d ever have to buy. But $500? And they’re not even the kind of boots that help you navigate snowbanks or slush puddles.

In fact, Candace spends so much energy she could be spending on her favorite uncle worrying about whether something on her boot is a scratch or mere dirt, I wonder why we let ourselves get enslaved to things like boots that require such concern. I suspect it’s better than contemplating the impending death of a favorite uncle. While it’s not up to me to judge fictional characters for how to spend their fictional money, it is up to me to notice, and wonder what it means.

Another similarity to the older story is the use of a title that comes from the story. I was much more on board with the technique this time around, possibly because the tableau was so familiar in so many ways: a writer losing work due to computer failure, and the always-amusing conversation between the tech-savvy and the not.

“Uncle Sterling, she didn’t have it backed up in any way she could retrieve it? Do you mean the hard drive crashed, or – ”
“The one thing ‘I know, I convinced her to keep the machine, to print the story every time she had a new part. She didn’t have a printer before. Anyway, this guy was teaching the course told us that for very little money, she could have everything backed up and it could go to heaven.”
“What?”
“A service you pay for, where everything you write – ”
“Automatic backup?” It goes to the cloud?”
“That’s it! I told you, up in the sky, like a moonbeam bouncing back! Goes to the clouds.”
“Cloud,” she corrected. “It’s an absraction, but – ”
“Buckets of moonbeams, buckets of tears!”
She looked at him, confused. It was like having a conversation with a crazy person.

I happen to span the period between Bob Dylan and the cloud. For some reason, that makes me feel smug, even though just a few years ago I had to ask someone exactly what “the cloud” was. I was quite disappointed to find out it was just an exotic name for modernized off-site storage. I’d expected something far more mystical – as does Uncle Sterling, when he responds to Candace’s request to go somewhere quiet for a beer: “A perfect place, complete salvation…. A cloud.” Now you’re talkin’. Even his whimsy is death-focused, while hers is boot-focused. Head in the clouds vs feet on the ground.

I didn’t put anywhere near as much effort into this as I did last time, maybe because I’m cranky with the heat, maybe because I just didn’t find it that interesting a story. Maybe because I’d read it before.

Belgian Breathing MOOC

Course: Respiration in the Human Body
Length: 7 weeks (self-paced)
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium)/edX
Instructors:
Quote:

How do we breathe? What is the purpose of our lungs? What is the link between oxygen and life ? These questions open a vast field of discovery to help us understand respiration. This course is for anyone who wants to understand human respiratory physiology, the operation of respiration and the lungs.
…During the course experts will discuss specific and practical topics such as how to comprehend oxygenation of a patient, why and when to administer oxygen, and what hyperventilation means.
This course will also discuss in depth human anatomy, physical volumes and pressures of gasses, blood, oxygen, CO₂, lungs, tissues, smoking and chronic bronchitis.

No, the Belgians don’t breathe any differently than the rest of the world. But they sometimes do make MOOCs partly in French, like this one.

There is an all-French version of this course. I’m not sure why they decided to rework it for speakers of English – the videos are in French, but the captions, transcripts, and all text materials (including very helpful formatted handouts with embedded images) are in English – but I’m very glad they did, since I just love medical stuff. There were a few weird translation moments, and it did take a slight extra effort to coordinate words and images, but it worked fine.

Respiration is, alas, about half math and physics. It was kept very simple in this class, with basic explanations of pressure, diffusion, and maybe four basic formulas, none of which involved anything more complicated than multiplication and addition. Things still got kind of complicated, because there’s a difference between the pressure of oxygen in the blood, and the content, and then there’s always figuring out which of several values is altered when altitude is increased, when submersion is involved, or when simultaneous conditions, like asthma or anemia, are present. Then there’s some extra challenge when occasional European conventions, like using commas instead of decimal points, show up.

The course is self-paced, so all five modules were released at the start. The first two cover the basics of plain vanilla respiration, while later modules add in things like altitude shifts, effects of pulmonary diseases, pregnancy and fetal respiration, and pollution. Each section of a module (usually four sections) include a single video, which is mostly lecture with a few health-worker interviews sprinkled in. The lectures were clear and very well-presented; the interviews, not so much. Several of us took exception with the first lecture which proclaims life is not possible without oxygen; there is a sense in which that’s true (human life as we know it, say), but there’s also a sense in which it’s nonsense, since life existed on earth before there was oxygen. In fact, life created oxygen. But that’s a quibble.

Each section also contains several graded “homework” questions. Most are multiple choice, but there’s usually at least one “post your answer” question per section: pick a location at altitude and show what it does to arterial oxygen content, or describe some pollutant and its effects on the body. These are honor-graded, as in, did you do it, check yes or no. The midterm and final, each worth 20% of the final “grade”, are peer-assessed and in similar vein (oops, Freudian pun) to the “post your answer” questions. Passing is set at 50%, “excellent” at 70%. I’m not sure why they have such low expectations. My final hasn’t been assessed yet (I’m not optimistic, since I misunderstood a couple of the questions) but I’m already over the “excellent” mark.

Staff coverage of the discussion boards was very limited. In the first week, a technical issue was quickly resolved, but content questions were largely unanswered or involved long delays (two weeks). This may be due to summer vacations, or to the general trend of moocs as standalone and unsupported (a trend that dismays me greatly). It felt to me that there was generally less student participation than I’ve seen in other medically-oriented courses. Typically, a couple of students will have advanced training in technical areas and will be able to offer help, but that didn’t seem to happen here. It could be the time of year, or it could be the language issue. It could be the constant stream of forced posting that always dilutes actual communication, though someone in moocland thinks it’s a great component.

I wouldn’t say it’s an easy course, particularly for those of us who are permanently mathematically confused. But it’s very do-able. It’s also not the slickest mooc on the block, but I’ve seen some very slick moocs that were crap. It works; with a little bit of accommodation it gets the job done. While it might be too much trouble for someone with casual interest in respiration, I’d recommend it for someone who wants a basic understanding of what actually happens when we breathe.

Pushcart XL: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Hell” (non-fiction) from The Point #9

A couple of years ago, a Chicago-based corporate-identity consultant named Chris Herron gave himself the ultimate challenge: rebrand hell. It was half gag, half self-promotion, but Herron took the project seriously, considering what it would take in the travel market for a place like hell to become a premier destination. … The joke was posted as a “case study” on Herron’s personal website and quickly went viral in the marketing blogosphere—a testament to the power of effective branding.

~~ Complete essay available online at The Point

I’ll admit it: I was initially disappointed the entire piece wasn’t about Herron’s prank. At first it seemed to me like a cute, barely relevant anecdote a public speaker might use to introduce a talk, something to get the audience on his side before stating her case. About two-thirds of the way through the essay, however, it becomes evident that the anecdote is not trivial, nor is it irrelevant; in fact, it’s pretty much the point.

O’Gieblyn takes us on a personal tour of hell as she understood it during different phases of her life, from age 5 to college. Many of her recollections of childhood were familiar to me. I spent fewer years in fundamentalism, but we went through much the same childhood processes of uncertainty and fear, unanswered questions we end up feeling ashamed for asking.

We follow her to a strict Bible college, and this would probably be a routine religious biography except for a visit to a megachurch which brings Herron’s advertising plan for hell back into focus.

Hybels keeps a poster in his office that reads: “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” Rick Warren’s Saddleback motto is “Let the target audience determine the approach.”

Late last year, I had quite a reaction (the online equivalent of a hissy fit) when Coursera started referring to its courses as “products” and making changes aimed at “increasing revenue.” That’s nothing compared to my visceral reaction to reading O’Gieblyn’s description of churches using words like “business”, “customer”, and “value”. Add that to images like the Catholic Church protecting pedophiles, the Westboro Baptist Church preaching their message of hate, and it seems to me that church has become the problem. It’s no wonder I felt accused when a bag lady at the bus stop noticed my long blue skirt (my version of jeans, so much more comfortable at my age and size) and asked if I were “one of those Christians”

Like so many formerly oppositional institutions, the church is now becoming a symptom of the culture rather than an antidote to it, giving us one less place to turn for a sober counter-narrative to the simplistic story of moral progress that stretches from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue. Hell may be an elastic concept, as varied as the thousands of malevolencies it has described throughout history, but it remains our most resilient metaphor for the evil both around and within us. determine the approach.”

O’Gieblyn drifted away from fundamentalist religion, but still feels a kind of nostalgia for old-style hell and wonders if we need more discussion of the nature of evil in our lives right now. I’m not sure about that approach, either. First, I don’t see a need to equate hell, or the devil, with evil. People can get themselves mighty twisted without any supernatural intervention.

But even granted the need for a Lucifer to explain how evil came into the world: Most Christian religion holds that God created Adam and Eve with free will, and put the forbidden fruit in the Garden, so they would choose to obey him, rather than obey because there was no option to disobey. Doesn’t selling salvation by fear mean people are running away from something? Some of the most appealing people I know are religious, but I didn’t know that for quite some time. They aren’t running around screaming, “I’m a Christian so I … [don’t drink, vote pro-life, tithe, whatever]”. They simply lead lives that have at their core a generosity, a gentle solidity, that’s irresistible. Isn’t it more in line with the original Plan if the church creates something people run towards?

Pushcart XL: Kevin Prufer, “Immigration” (poem) from Southern Review, Summer 2014

When the wheels came down over Miami,
the stowaway in the landing gear,
half-frozen and unconscious,
slipped from the wheel wells into blue air.

Modern life is amazing. Wikipedia has an entire page listing the 103 wheel-well stowaways since 1947: names (if known), to-from locations, and, in the case of the 75% who die, a guess at the cause of death. Typically, that’s freezing, hypoxia, or falling from altitude, but sometimes, it’s hard to tell which occurred first. Most (though not all) are travelling from poorer or more repressive places to large cities like London, Paris, New York, though there was a 16-year-old who ran away from home the hard way, stowing from North Carolina to Baltimore. His body, damaged beyond recognition, was found in a nearby woods the next day.

You’d have to assume someone’s pretty desperate, for one reason or another, to do such a thing. I’m not sure most of us, sitting at our computers and reading poetry, can begin to understand that level of desperation, but I think the world right now would be a little better off if we at least tried.

Whether this poem is based on an actual specific incidence of stowaway immigration or is merely representative, I don’t know. I can’t find a report of a stowaway falling on a car roof, but I didn’t look that hard, since I don’t think it matters to the poem. Or to the stowaway.

In two stanzas, eight lines each, starting with syntactically end-stopped lines that get progressively more enjambed as we proceed through the poem, Prufer manages to capture three (or four, depending on how you count) points of view.

We start off with the stowaway himself, or, more precisely, the speaker’s vision of the unconscious stowaway. Speculation about his frame of mind on the way down follows, before we shift, in the second stanza, to the occupants of the car on which his body fell. We then focus on the young son who was with his family in the car, and his reaction, before broadening out to the speaker’s embodiment of the stowaway again in the final line. I’m fond of such circular structures, and it seems morally right, somehow, to begin and end with the stowaway, as seen through the eyes of the poet.

Pushcart XL: E. A. Durden, “The Orange Parka” from Glimmer Train #91

"Future 86" by Jane Fine

“Future 86” by Jane Fine

Ten minutes before closing time, Rakesh sees his daughter enter the store. He is not in his own section, Kitchen Appliances, but in the neighboring section, Surveillance, where he has been fiddling with a pair of binoculars. He happens to be looking through the instrument’s wrong end and gets a miniature view: glossy black hair falls to the waist of a well-rounded figure; a piece of clothing throbs the color of tangerine. As he removed the lenses from his eyes, he finds it hard to breathe.
The jacket of tangerine is the same, but the girl is not.
… It has been fifteen hours since he knew where his daughter was.

I spent the first two-thirds of this story with a distracting voice in my head screaming, “Why don’t you call the police?” I even wondered if that was the point of the story, to show the culture clash between white America and immigrant New York. This wasn’t something I pulled out of thin air; the text gives evidence of his natural reticence: “He is not used to the sort of confessions his adopted countrymen are comfortable with, and apparently comforted by”. Add to that, knowing what can happen to people of color when the police are brought in, I wondered if Rakesh may have had more sociological reasons for not reporting Prithi missing. I still come back to that screaming voice in my head: do NYC police not even bother to look for missing teenagers these days? Does even asking the question mean I have crossed some threshold of super-cynicism?

But it seems none of this is what Durden had in mind when she wrote the story. She writes about it at length in a Glimmer Train essay (which contains what I would consider spoilers; I think the reader’s agony and confusion is part of the aesthetic experience here) and focuses on the problem of “good” characters. I’m not sure I need more than a widower father’s pain to make a story interesting, but apparently a moment of rudeness – a moment I barely even registered – is central to the story. I’m a very bad reader, running off in my own direction, asking questions about police.

Those questions are indeed muted two-thirds of the way through the story by events that turn this into what happens next and finally substitutes blue in for orange in a last scene so cinematic I can practically hear the closing music –plaintive strings, I think – as I watch the snow fall between the lines on the page.

I may not fully understand Rakesh, but I can feel the pain and confusion radiating from him. The conflict between a job he hates yet can’t afford to lose, and the search for his daughter. I understand him best when he describes, with apparent recognition and approval, a moment from his wife’s life, the life they had before moving to America:

After her father died from a heart attack in the midst of chores on the family farm, Rakesh had found his wife crying into a washcloth at the kitchen sink. Yet she had the presence to know when her own emotions were beside the point. She did not insist on cherishing a point of view.
He had no such distance. He could not point to a tree and say, simply, “That is a tree.” Whatever he was feeling engulfed whatever he came upon. The name of the thing was merely a kind of buoy, colorful but forlorn, a marker indulged by an immensity.

He reaches out for help in his own way. At a long-scheduled teacher’s conference at Prithi’s charter school, he’s surprised to discover they know her less than he does. When the conference ended after a few sentences, I found myself annoyed until Rakesh wondered why it only lasted three minutes (“Were he a parent of the leggy, fleece-wearing set, would he have pushed for more of the teacher’s time? Would he have gotten it?”); I’d thought the pacing of the scene was off, but it was painfully, shamefully accurate, and to great effect.

Like Rakesh, the story hesitated to reveal itself, but as I looked at it over and over, pulling quotes, re-reading passages, I discovered hints and signposts I’d missed at first. I want to call Rakesh and comfort him, but I fear that would only make him uncomfortable.

Medieval Islamic MOOC

Course: The Legacy of Islamic Civilization
Length of course: 4 weeks
School/platform: Biblioteca Alexandria / edX
Instructors: Shereen El Kabbani, Sarah Nagaty
Quote:

How would you like to know about the Muslim civilization, its valuable contributions, and its role in the revival of the Greek Classics?
This is not a course about Islam or the Islamic civilization, it is a course that is intended to give a brief overview and a basic introduction to the achievements of Muslim civilization in the fields of physics, biology, mathematics and astronomy in a concise manner. Although it starts by giving a brief introduction to the emergence of Islam, its main focus is on the contributions of Muslim scientists and philosophers to world history and culture.
The course is a foundational step for those who wish to further read about, or study, the contributions of Muslims in the diverse areas of knowledge.

When I took Duke’s neuroscience course The Brain and Space, I was introduced to Ibn al-Haytham (aka Alhazen) via his reversal of Plato’s extramission theory of vision to intromission. In several math courses, I’ve heard about Al-Khwarizmi and his mathematical system of “restoration” (al-jabr) that became algebra. The palace of Alhambra in Spain makes regular appearances on Jeopardy!, and if you’ve redecorated your kitchen in the past couple of decades, you might have used Spanish tilework without realizing the glazing techniques and artistic styles were developed and perfected during the Islamic rule of Spain. We’ve all heard of Marco Polo, but Ibn Battuta travelled from Morocco to the Middle East to India and China and also wrote about his journeys.

Considering the breadth of these accomplishments, I was very happy to see a course that covered the medieval contributions of the Islamic empire to us all. Unfortunately, there’s only so much a four-week course can cover, and this turned out to be more surface-level than the materials I’d already encountered. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad course; it means it’s a survey course.

I got quite a lot out of the first week, which described the growth of the medieval Islamic empire in a more structured way than I’d previously seen. This was quite helpful, seeing it in “chunks” instead of by this ruler or that country. But I’m afraid the rest of it turned into a list: this guy wrote that book, that guy did astronomy and math, here’s where they set up a translation institute and over there’s the library. The section that worked best for me was the one I knew the least about: architecture.

I think the take-home there is: if you need a survey-level course, this could work quite nicely, but if you’re looking for something more in-depth to add to a basic understanding of the contributions of Islamic scholars of the medieval period, either prepare to use the course as a scaffold for your own explorations, or pursue another avenue.

Pushcart XL: Jane Hirshfield, “A Cottony Fate” (poem) from The Paris Review, #209

Art by Julia Bereciartu

Art by Julia Bereciartu

 

Long ago, someone
told me: avoid or.
 
It troubles the mind
as a held-out piece of meat disturbs a dog.

~~ Complete poem available online at Harpers

In her Rumpus interview with Rebecca Olson, Hirshfield reveals that the advice to “avoid or“, offered by Ted Weiss, referred to poetic construction. This poem, as she notes, transplants the poetic advice to life as lived.

I’ve always had the sense that the word avoid was less emphatic than don’t. We might avoid things we find unpleasant (for me, raw onions or Westerns) but make occasional exceptions if the reward is high enough (I’m very hungry and that chicken salad with Vidalias looks amazing) or simply to see if our tastes have changed (nope, not even Star Trek could make a Western I could sit through for 47 minutes). But if I’m highly allergic to shellfish, you can bet I’m not going anywhere near them, and boxing is a big don’t for me.

My sense of the word appears to be idiosyncratic, however; most people think of it as a prohibition. In that case, I have very mixed feelings about the dictum in both spheres. I’m not sure if Weiss was referring to the use of a word in the final draft, or to an attitude during composition, but I’ve been thinking about that for days now: while I can’t come up with an example, a line something like “it’s a metaphor-1 or a metaphor-2” seems very familiar, either with contrasting metaphors to show multiple senses of an event, or with a progression to deepen a single sense. I don’t see why either should be prohibited.

In the broader sense, we are our choices. To have an open field, with the option of going left or right or up or down, is the foundation of freedom; without choice, we’re hamsters on a treadmill. And yet, choices can paralyze us. Psychologists are convinced that when we face too many good outcomes, we freeze and end up with nothing. I’ve mentioned the Bell Jar scene of Esther Greenwood’s fig tree dream before; it’s a good example. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t, have choices.

But Hirshfield is right: as of now, “there was no other life.” I did what I did. Some of it, I’m not proud of. Some of those decisions were life-saving; others were highly destructive. I don’t have those decisions to make any more, and it’s time to live with the consequences. And by the way, tomorrow I will have to live with the consequences for today’s decisions.

I’m uncertain about the title. Is the cottony fate the present uncertainty of how we will look back on our decisions, years hence? Or is it the comfort of swaddling that abandonment of the path of “what might have been” for acceptance brings?

My decision-making technique, as I’ve grown older, has evolved from benefits and risks to what I call the Morley Safer test (no one under 60 will understand that reference, but so what). A year, five, ten years from now, when Morley Safer interviews me on 60 Minutes, how will I feel about the decision? Can I honestly say I did what seemed to be the right thing? That’s what I get in the last line of the poem.

Pushcart XL: Josh Weil, “Long Bright Line” from VQR #90.3

VQR Art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

VQR Art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

The Society for Aeronautical Enthusiasm. Sometimes, when she was sad, or scared, or simply felt the inexplicable weight of herself, she would intone the strange words like an incantation: Aeronautical enthusiasm, aeronautical enthusiasm, aeronautical … She said it now … enthusiasm … starting up the station steps … aeronautical … shoe-clacking through the empty lobby … enthusiasm … to the shut door … aeronautical enthusiasm. She knocked.
Inside it was all smoke and suit backs, elbows at her head level, her father bending down, face flush as drunk, but eyes clear, grin pure, whoop a straight shot of glee. He scooped her up.
“Fifty-nine seconds!”
How long had it been since her father had held her like that?
“Eight hundred and fifty feet!”
Lifted her so high? With each hoist and drop she felt her years shake off, seven, six, five, her brother’s age, Larry in the corner watching, this is what it’s like to be him.
Before her face: a piece of paper, some smiling stranger lifting and lowering it for her to read. At the top, the stationmaster’s name. At the bottom, that of the man her father called their father: Bishop M. Wright.
“The Flyer!” Her father raised her high again. Near the ceiling the air made her eyes water. “The Flyer!” He lifted her into the pipe-smoke clouds.
But she wasn’t, wouldn’t be. The balloon ride he’d won—best guess at time and distance of the first flight—was a prize he unwrapped on the cold walk home: how they would scale the sunset, skim beneath the stars, a Christmas present more miracle than gift. Just not for her. Why? The basket size, the limits on weight. Besides, he said, ascending so high would surely swell that head of yours. He tugged her braid. No doubt big as the balloon itself. Laughed. While around them little Larry ran in circles, whooping.

~~ Complete story available online at VQR.

We live in a time when we believe you can have anything you want, if you work hard enough. It’s a lie, of course, but we repeat it over and over until we believe it, bolstered by those rare tales of those who have persevered through the impossible, the Rudy Ruettigers who played football at Notre Dame, the Jamaican bobsled team, the Forrest Gumps who changed the course of history … oh, wait, that one was fiction. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them apart.

It’s true, Clara probably could have become a flyer. But after her mother died, her family needed her, and though her love for flight never subsided, she made her peace with her place on the ground:

When summer came she stole away to Asbury Park. Walked to the train station, bought a seat east, saw the ocean for the first time, the boardwalk, the beach, slept on sand, discovered the affect her shoulders had on men, her smile, snapped up a ride, attained a ticket, was there on the field when Brookins crashed into the crowd, when Prince plummeted 6,000 feet, held her breath with everyone else, praying for his parachute to open (open! open!), felt the spectators’ communal shudder, would sometimes feel it again, back home, alone in the kitchen cracking the back of a bird, or serving a spatchcocked half to her brother, or sewing a split in her father’s yellowed longjohns, or stepping off the train onto the platform of her small Ohio town the day that she returned. But for one August night, at the edge of the Atlantic, looking up, she had been struck by a sudden sureness that it would be all right. The moon. The Milky Way. The Stardust Twins swooping through. That was what the papers called them after that first night flight, Johnstone and Hoxsey circling each other in the lunar glow, their pale-winged biplanes soaring smooth as owls. And her, beneath them, swept by the peace of certainty. Neck stretched back, face flat to the sky, she knew it: She was not meant to be up there; she was meant to be down here, here like a cairn seen from above, a landmark, her.

Then she worked the hell out of her cairndom, accidentally becoming a world-famous artist by using her own point of view and creating designs only fully visible from 1000, 5000, 10000 feet.

The art Clara creates sounds wonderful in concept (it’s very hard for me to visualize most of it): shadows of planes, as they would appear had an actual plane been flying overhead, reaching across the ground; mirrors creating the long bright line of the title by reflection of the sun, only visible from an altitude until the FAA forces its dismantling; a Japanese haiku in the snow, obliterated by the Army for fear it might be some kind of signal to the enemy. She marries a man “for his location”; the reason that location is desirable to her is one of the many tiny and delightful surprises sprinkled through the story; there’s often a delicious, desire-multiplying delay between the raising of a question in the reader’s mind, and the understanding of the answer. Her journey as an artist changes over time, as does aviation, and the story follows her through the decades.

I’ll be honest: I missed a lot of the details, and thus a lot of the impact, simply because, like my difficulty visualizing the art, I found the prose style very hard to read. Fortunately, it’s available online (link above) so while I regret what I’ve missed, it’s lost only to me. And perhaps only temporarily; I can always try again.

Five years ago, I read a story by Josh Weil in One Story, a tale that completely charmed me. It was in some ways similar to this one: set a century back in a rural place, the plot revolving around a piece of technology (an electric light) that captured a woman’s imagination. Because I enjoyed that story so much, I tried to read his The New Valley, a trio of novellas, but they didn’t work for me. Sometimes it’s like that: I’m captivated by a story, but it’s idiosyncratic. It’s why I have yet to find a “favorite author”. But so what, I’ll approach the fictional world one work at a time. Accepting where you’re meant to be doesn’t have to be a defeat. It can also be freedom.

Big History MOOC

Course: Big History: Connecting Knowledge
School/platform: Macquarie University (Coursera)
Instructors: David Christian, David Baker
Quote:

We currently face unprecedented challenges on a global scale. These problems do not neatly fall into disciplines. They are complicated, complex, and connected. Join us on this epic journey of 13.8 billion years starting at the Big Bang and travelling through time all the way to the future. Discover the connections in our world, the power of collective learning, how our universe and our world has evolved from incredible simplicity to ever-increasing complexity.

Thirteen billion years in six weeks. Now that’s what I call a survey course.

I suspect this course is intended for high schoolers, maybe college freshmen, since the University offers a unique scholarship opportunity for those who complete the Verified version of this MOOC. I’m not too sure of the details – if they’re talking about one course, about a specific program, or how many students they accept this way – but it’s an interesting approach.

bh cosmoThe course is built around their “Big History” concept of using both scientific and historical research methods to create a modern cross-cultural origin story for all humans (which is a hard sell to those who are perfectly happy with their own cultural origin stories, thank you very much) via the use of nine Thresholds such as the beginning of the universe, the formation of stars, the appearance of life on earth, the evolution of humans, and the modern era. The course defines these thresholds by four criteria: increase in complexity, the “Goldilocks” conditions that were necessary for them to happen, the changes in energy flows, and the emergence of something new, be it a universe, life on earth, or the use of fossil fuels.

The first week was a detailed explanation of this process, including a little epistemology via the introduction of a four-pronged “claim tester” – intuition, evidence, logic, and authority – to evaluate how we decide what to believe. Lots of rubrics in use here, which may be why it took all of the first week to explain them all. The rest of the course proceeded chronologically. Weeks 2 and 3 were primarily science: (cosmology, evolution), the fourth and fifth week began with archaeology and turned into history, and the last week speculated about the future. The idea wasn’t to understand any of these individual topics in detail, but to look at the transitions between the thresholds and the overall path.

As a supplement to the course videos, lead professor David Baker wrote up a set of scripts for the Green brothers’ Crash Course series on Youtube; this is available to anyone. Each week also included a timeline and glossary, and in most cases, optional articles on relevant topics. A multiple-choice quiz ends every week (unlimited attempts are allowed, though only three tries can occur in any 8-hour period) and a peer-assessment essay, graded almost entirely by completion rather than content, is required at the end of the course.

I signed up for this course because one of my mooc buddies (hi, Richard) mentioned he was taking it. To be fair, he also warned me he’d dropped it once before because it contained insufficient detail, but he’s got more science knowledge than I do so I figured I’d give it a shot. I was disappointed by the absence of detail on any individual topic, and there wasn’t any real investigation of how history and science often interact, with one sometimes impeding, sometimes enhancing, the other. I did, however, very much like an article on critical thinking from Week 1, and during the cosmology section, I did some poking around to find more detailed information and discovered something called Planck’s length which I’m quite taken with. You can get something out of anything if you put some effort into it.

I think the course is probably of far more interest to someone with limited academic experience beyond high school, or perhaps someone who wants a gentle return to academics after a hiatus. The overview approach might also make a good prelude to some of the more detailed courses like Origins, Cal Tech’s Solar System Astronomy, or UVA’s The Modern World (now available in two parts), or for that matter, any of the earth science, astronomy, or history courses floating around on various mooc platforms.

Pushcart XL: Dan Albergotti, “Holy Night” (poem) from Crab Orchard Review, 19.1

My father said he wished the child were dead.
He didn’t say it in so many words,
but he said it. And it was Christmas Eve.
I breathed in silent tension next to him.
 
The news anchor said that of the seven
born to a black couple three nights before
the weakest child had gathered strength and would,
the doctors said, most likely now survive.
 
I’m sorry to hear that, my father hissed.
 

~~Complete poem available online at Crab Orchard Review

Timing’s a bitch sometimes.

I originally wrote an incoherent, rage-filled post on this poem last week, even scheduled it, but decided to unschedule it and let it sit a while.

Reading poetry, really reading it, requires a kind of willingness to enter into the text and become part of it for a while. Given the events of last week – the video images of Alton Sterling being pinned down and executed (there’s no other word for it) because there are police who believe shouting “Stop resisting” after the body cams have, oops, “fallen off” is some kind of olly-olly-oxen-free; then watching Philando Castile die in the front seat of his car and wondered what it was like for the four-year-old child in the back to watch, first her father shot, then her mother forced to her knees at gunpoint by people in uniforms; then watching Twitter explode with the murders of police officers at a peaceful protest in Dallas and, by the way, the wrong man identified online as a suspect for fuck’s sake – I wasn’t in the mood to listen to someone whining about how sad he is that his asshole racist father ruined another family Christmas so he drove away to look at the moon.

And that’s too bad, because I think the poet’s probably a very good guy. It’s a gentle, lyric poem with a biting edge, and yeah, he feels rotten and it’s Christmas and he doesn’t understand how these people who are, through no fault of his own, his family can claim to be Christians and go to the Candlelight service and sing hymns of divine love and then spit out hate. At another time, maybe even a couple of weeks ago, maybe a couple of months from now, I would’ve come up with a couple of observations about the poetic structure, told a few stories of my own racist family. But that seemed inadequate last week. Still does. Probably always has, and I guess I should wonder why I don’t always notice it. Maybe I already know why.

Over the weekend, while I thought I was letting this post sit, the hashtag #WhitePrivilege started trending. That’s what this poem is about. I don’t think that’s what Albergotti intended it to be about – I think he intended it as showing his own sadness and helplessness in the face of the insanity of racism – but the ability to escape racism – to not have to talk about it with your kids, to turn off the news feeds, to relax secure that you don’t automatically arouse suspicion just by being – has to be one of the top signs of white privilege. I should know, I do it often enough.

So I hope the poet will understand if his work is less the conduit for aesthetic or emotional connection, and more the receptacle for my anger, an anger directed at myself as much as at anyone else. Timing’s a bitch sometimes, and he deserves better. But, so did Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and Oscar Grant and John Crawford and Freddy Gray and Tamar Rice and Eric Gardner and and and.

Pushcart XL: Sarah Vallance, “Constance Bailey in the year of Monica Lewinsky” (non-fiction) from Gettysburg Review, Winter 2014

Constance Bailey is the poorest person on their list, the woman from Little Brothers tells me when I turn up at their office in Roxbury and offer to volunteer. At eighty-eight, she has no friends or family.
“She hasn’t thought much of the volunteers we’ve sent her in the past,” the woman says, scrunching up her forehead. “She’s picky. I’m not going to lie. The last few visitors didn’t work out. She didn’t take to them at all.” The woman puts on a pair of reading glasses and looks down at a notebook in front of her. “There’s a scribble here that says she doesn’t want any more visitors. Never mind, let’s try and see what happens.”

Vallance is white, comfortably middle-class, Australian, young, educated, visiting Harvard for a year to research her dissertation on access to health care for the elderly poor of the African American community. Ms. Bailey, old, poor, black, alone, and very, very crochety, provides her with supplemental insight into the human side of that project. Vallance’s essay about her year visiting Ms. Bailey goes about how you’d expect: two women from opposite sides of the earth, from opposite strata of the most obvious criteria, who develop a very close and caring relationship.

The essay is not without its humorous points. Monica Lewinsky isn’t one of them; in fact, she’s barely mentioned. There is, however, an attack cat. And there’s this:

I look up at a poster behind her of the Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly logo with its single long-stemmed rose. A red rose seems like an odd symbol for a charity that matches volunteers with old people, but that thought leaves my mind almost as soon as it enters.… I spent more time than I should pondering the name Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. Are they little in stature or little in age? It is a slightly creepy name for a charity.

For some reason, this strikes me as hilarious, but I don’t think the name seems creepy at all. There’s an organization of Catholic nuns called Little Sisters of the Poor, so why not little brothers of the elderly? Little Brothers is not an overtly religious organization like the nuns, however. It was founded right after WWII in France, came to the US in the 50s, and now has a sprinkling of chapters in major cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Boston. It’s motto is “Flowers Before Bread.” While I don’t dispute the importance of either, I’m not sure a hungry person would agree with the priorities. But in the richest country on earth, as we keep hearing, we should have both in abundance.

Connie and I share an odd worldview. Neither of us likes people very much, but we care deeply for their welfare. We talk about the contradiction and decide we are parked misanthrope, part humanitarian. I tell her that my father, a geologist, preferred rocks to people. “A rock will never disappoint you,” he you say. “And they don’t speak.” Connie laughs and tells me she wishes she had met him. “He would have loved you,” I say, and she smiles.
Connie has always preferred animals to people. We were both like this since we were little. “Animals are a lot easier to love,” Connie says, and she is right. She would rather be alone with her cat and an old persons in need of visitors. I am pretty certain I will be the same. We talk about the paradox of loneliness: that we are more likely to be lonely with others than without.

As a confirmed hermit, I agree with that last line.

Vallance’s story has its parallels with Ms. Bailey’s. A riding accident left her with serious traumatic brain injury, so she had to re-learn language, writing, and walking before doing PhD research was on the docket. Something of a miracle, really, though I suppose the determination to get up and walk was a major factor. But isn’t the possession of such determination a miracle in itself? Having that tool in our personality doesn’t mean one is a better person; it’s an unearned gift some are granted. Taking credit for the grace bestowed upon you is poor form.

So why put Lewinsky in the title? A time marker? The print form of click bait? I don’t think so. I see a thematic relationship about assumptions drawn from surface features, assumptions that we sometimes cling to in order to retain our paradigm of the world, assumptions we sometimes have to struggle against in order to see reality. Assumptions can be tested and, when necessary, released, but only if we’re willing to tolerate some cognitive dissonance and be more flexible about who’s part of us, and who isn’t.

Ordinary, nice old people must exist in the world, but no one writes essays about them. The cranky curmudgeons are a lot more interesting, especially when they have attack cats. Though, from what I’ve learned about current practices in non-fiction, I’m wondering if the cat is added in for reader interest. See, people who make things up in their essays: you taint the pool.

Talmudic MOOC

Course: The Talmud: A Methodological Introduction
School/platform: Northwestern (Coursera)
Instructors: Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, Sarah Wolf
Quote:

The Talmud is one of the richest and most complicated works of literature the world has ever known. Since being composed around 1500 years ago it has inspired not only religious reverence but significant intellectual engagement. In this course learners will be introduced to the unique characteristics of this text and the challenges that inhere in studying it while studying a chapter of the Talmud.

We’ve all read one of those books or seen one of those movies – Yentl, if nothing else – that feature a yeshiva scene where two boys argue over some obscure point of law involving the Sabbath or ox goring. Because of my long-standing interest in philosophies and religions, I’ve made some weak attempts to understand these things better, but never got very far. So I was very happy to hear about this course. It’s only six weeks, so it’s just an overview rather than in-depth study, but it gave me a very good idea of the landscape and even a few details.

It started with no expectations of prior knowledge, beyond vague familiarity with the Bible and Judaism, and went from there, explaining different works of Jewish literature, how they all fit together, and how the Talmud fits in. Beyond the general overview of historical and cultural origins of the Talmud, the focus was on the opening of one chapter of one tractate concerning edim zomemim, or false witnesses, a chapter often called “Lashes”. Just this one topic covered dozens of concepts, both legal (what is the standard of punishment? What are the exceptions? How were these arrived at?), religious (what is the difference between punishment and atonement?), and logical (how do centuries of rabbinical opinions get dovetailed in an organized, streamlined manner?). It gets a little weird at times, since we’re talking about false accusations of ox gorings or priests who’ve married divorcees – or the story of Susanna being raped and all anybody cares about is the heroic Daniel identifying false witness who named the wrong guys – but the details were absolutely fascinating.

Techniques of logical argument took center stage at one point. Now, I’ve taken four (or five, depending on how you count) courses in propositional and/or symbolic logic, but we weren’t talking modus ponens or syllogisms here, it was about logical structures like Kal Va-Homer, which turned out to be an argumentum a fortiori: extrapolation from a weaker example to a stronger example (logic is logic in all times and places: I just found out this week that Confucius, not really a logician, used modus ponens). There’s the well-known argument between rabbis from different eras, each proposing slightly different ways to approach the legal issues involved, drawing different conclusions. Again, I was fascinated, though I sometimes got lost between rabbis.

The material was presented in lecture form, with videos alternating between two instructors (and included a sprinkle of humor in the illustrations). Although the material was often challenging, explanations were clear and often went over important concepts several times in slightly different ways. The Talmud was often referenced in translation (presumably, many students who take this class would read Hebrew, but I did fine without it) and online sources. Each week included a quiz which included some information-retrieval questions and some that required more reasoning. Two peer assessed essays were required, graded more for completion than content; I found the first topic highly useful as a way of organizing my thoughts. The second essay topic seemed less relevant, but I could see what they were getting at.

Towards the middle of the course, the instructors held a live video hang-out to answer questions and provide additional commentary. It was great to see them in more natural circumstances. I’ve always wondered why so many professors use a solo lecture-to-camera approach when a more conversational setting, perhaps with a small group of students whether on or off camera, could be so much more engaging. But maybe that’s just my preference.

The big surprise was on the forums, where a couple of robust discussions broke out (these are sadly rare on the new Coursera). I’d originally signed up for the course because my MOOC buddy Richard (hi, Richard!) mentioned it to me, so we tossed a few things around and were joined by a few highly knowledgable fellow students. That’s the special thing about MOOCs: there’s an expert in every class, and here there were several who provided guidance to those of us with no background. Most particularly was Yael Shahar, who carefully explained various facets of atonement and forgiveness (a particular interest of mine; remember my months with Dante?). Turns out she is the co-author of A Damaged Mirror, a biographical narrative of a former Sonderkommando’s consultation with a rabbi, decades after Auschwitz, to see if forgiveness is possible.

Anyone who’s curious and interested in knowing a little about the Talmud would enjoy this and be able to gain something from it. If it’s completely new territory, it might be a bit challenging in places, but that’s part of the fun.

Pushcart XL: Keetje Kuipers, “Migration Instinct” (poem) from Codex Journal, Spring 2014

Today the wife of the last man who made me lonely
is having a baby. Oh, October: we all want
to get up and leave, crawl out of our flesh sacks and fly
like mad.

~~Complete poem available online at Codex Journal

For quite a while, this one was a real head-scratcher. What does migration have to do with a long-ago love, with what used to be, other than the obvious: we move on. And thankfully so, or we’d all be acting out like jilted teenagers all over the place. But the poem, what is the poem doing, and how is it doing it? I see a turn: is it a sonnet? I don’t have the confidence to declare a 17-line poem to be a sonnet; can I do that?

I’m not sure why it suddenly dawned on me, but it did: Stop tying it to a chair with rope, as Billy Collins puts it – this is hilarious! Stop getting psychological (no one makes you lonely, we do that to ourselves by where we focus) and for pete’s sake, stop counting syllables (yes, there is an accumulation effect in the phrases of the first sentence, a kind of expand-and-contract in the first two lines, that makes it read so nicely, but so what) and look at what’s going on: all this drama over an old boyfriend becoming a father? A day of green eyeshadow – really, green? – and running stop signs? And then back to washing diapers and everything’s ok?

Sonnet, maybe; the turn in the last four lines is unmistakeable. But parody, definitely. And possibly, just possibly, elegy: a couple of lines of mourning, complete with interjection, then some praise for what she was back in the green eyeshadow days, before the forward looking conclusion of baby care. Which, frankly, is my idea of hell, but I understand some people like it.

Then I see there’s a dedication: To Becky. Is Becky the daughter? Will she someday read this poem, and think, wow, Mom was a hellraiser? Or is Becky someone else, a friend who hasn’t yet migrated? Come to think of it, I still don’t quite see the connection with migration, other than the obvious already stated. I’m not invested enough in the poem to care. Bad sign. But sometimes, they go by me. Maybe I’m just too removed from days of passion’s rage, and too uninterested in motherhood, to find a way in.

Am I being disrespectful? Insightful? Stupid? All at once? Probably. But I giggled through Madame Bovary, and this strikes me as tapping into the same hyperdramatics.

Pushcart XL: Dan Chaon, “What Happened to Us?” from Ploughshares, Spring 2014

Rusty Bickers went walking through the fields at dusk, Rusty Bickers with a sadness and nobility that only Joseph could see. Joseph dreamed of Rusty Bickers at the kitchen table, eating Cap’n Crunch cereal before bedtime, his head low, lost in thought; Rusty Bickers, silent but awake beneath the blankets on his cot, his hands moving in slow circles over his own body, whispering “Shh…shhhh… hush now”; Rusty Bickers standing in the morning doorway of the kitchen, watching Joseph’s family as they ate their breakfast, his shaggy hair hanging lank about his face, his long arms dangling from slumped shoulders, his eyes like someone who had been marched along way to a place where they were going to shoot him.
Joseph heard his mother’s bright voice rang out: “It’s about time you got up, Rusty!”

For the second time this week, I find myself wondering more about my reaction to a story, than to the story itself.

Dan Chaon wrote a favorite story of mine (“To Psychic Underworld”, originally published in Tin House #46, now available online via that “From the Vault” feature of the TH blog). I was drawn to the oddball Critter and his searching for connection. This current story also features an oddball in the character of Rusty, and he too is desperately searching for a connection following the death of his parents in a house fire (which he is under suspicion of starting); but I was too creeped out by the ominous threat looming over Joseph to care much about Rusty. That’s one. I was also disappointed by the resolution; it didn’t live up to the impending doom. That’s two.

One? Two? One, two what? One, two weird reactions I wish I hadn’t had. But I did, so I need to examine them and see what’s going on.

Siding with Joseph was natural; he was presented as vulnerable. Rusty, I need to realize, was just as vulnerable, though he turned his vulnerability into unappealing and frightening behaviors. Still, his need was there. Joseph sees it: that line in the opening paragraph, the haunted eyes of someone surviving a death march and just waiting for the end. But my compassion for that pain got lost when I got scared. That’s the malignant effect of fear.

As for my second reaction, I suppose I could chalk it up to ever-escalating violence of real life. After all, a single-victim shooting doesn’t even make the news any more. Or, the plethora of violence in pop culture. Those explanations would be accurate, but incomplete. I think it’s that I don’t recognize the final tragedy as… all that tragic, beyond the ho-hum what-a-shame. In fact, it was more of a relief, and that is indeed tragic. At a minimum, we’re left with “gentle, helpless unknowing” of the last sentence, and the lonely, alienated future that implies. But the loss is much greater than that.

The title asks, What happened to us? I ask, What happened to me?

I’ve been taking a couple of moocs dealing with ancient Chinese philosophies recently. We’ve been discussing the Confucian concept of ren 仁, which Confucius never explicitly defined but considered crucial. It’s often translated as “benevolence” or “humanity”, that which makes us human, which makes us see others as parts of the whole of humanity. I toyed with the idea of “empathy” for a while, but it seems more expansive than any single word. This story has shown me how far I have to go to discover ren.

Pushcart XL: Edward Hirsch, “Variations on a Psalm” (poem) from Five Points #16.2

When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and I would not be comforted. (Psalm 77:2)

And I would not be comforted
        When I was in distress
            I sought the Lord
I did not know why I did not believe
 
While I stretched out untiring hands
          And I would not be
            Comforted in my distress
I sought the Lord

~~ Poet’s reading (audio only) of complete poem available online

The 77th Psalm is about repentence. It’s one of the later psalms (the “Asaph” psalms, which may be by Asaph or just transcribed or collated by him) so it’s probably not about David’s major sin of murder and covetousness. But all of these get applied to a more general audience anyway, a nation of Israel that has forsaken the ways of their God.

A verse from the psalm is repeated in slightly different order, and every once in a while, a new phrase is introduced, generally about not believing or not praying. It’s kind of interesting to think of praying and not believing in the same phrase, to pray to find out why there is no belief, but I don’t think the belief is one of believing in the Lord, but of believing in the eventual deliverance from suffering: impatience with forgiveness. Who hasn’t felt that. “Hey, I’ve said I’m sorry, now where’s my forgiveness?” The variations become very personal, however. Tormented. Confused. Pushing away, pulling towards.

The sound of the poem when read aloud is hypnotic, like a chant. At one point the grammar is inverted “Comforted I would not be”) leading me to wonder if this can all be read in many different ways. There’s no punctuation; which phrase goes with which? Are the stanza breaks, the line breaks, guidelines or rules or just for visual regularity? Hirsch’s reading (link to audio provided above) becomes less regulated by visual cues as he goes on; it’s an intriguing effect, changing the sense at some points. If the poem were much longer, it would turn into word salad – but not quite.

Here’s where my lack of technical poetics training really hampers me: I have no idea what’s happening here. Hirsch is a literary giant; I regret I can’t follow where he leads. Perhaps I should read his “Poet’s Choice” column, or his 2000 book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. But instead, here I am with untiring hands, impatient for the deliverance in which I have no belief.

Pushcart XL: Daniel Lusk, “Bomb” (essay) from New Letters #80.3/4

Keiji Nakazawa's autobiographical manga on Hiroshima

Keiji Nakazawa’s autobiographical manga on Hiroshima

The night the atom bomb nicknamed “Fat Man” fell from a plane over Nagasaki in faraway Japan, Kay DeWitt got her first period. I know because I was outside her house, kneeling on a concrete block beneath the downstairs bathroom window, when she burst in.

~~ Complete essay available online at the author’s Facebook page

A couple of years ago, I took a dogmatic hard-ass stand over a non-fiction piece titled “Corn Maze”. It was more or less an admission that non-fiction isn’t necessarily truth, but an arrangement of reader-hooking elements around a core of truth, and who cares that the people quoted in the article on adventure vacations didn’t exist and the quotes were made up, the people who did exist gave boring quotes and it’s all about what makes a better narrative. I got pretty self-righteous about it, tried to figure out what I was missing.

Just about a week ago, one of the non-fiction pieces I wrote about opened with a little girl getting very sick and sitting on dirty towels usually used to clean up the dog’s muddy paws. The article was full of details about deaths and illnesses caused by work conditions around the world, then the piece ended with the sentence, “The only part of this essay I have invented is the dog Lynx.”

I was again perplexed: why include that detail, then? What was the truth: were the towels clean? Do Were they muddy for another reason? Do towels muddied by a dog’s paws make the story so much better than, say, just taking used towels with that hamper smell, or ruining perfectly clean towels? Were there towels at all? I wondered if I should address any of this in my post, but I decided no, the essay was available online, the dog was a small detail (so why inclulde it?) and the ending sentence made a pretty cool ending, answering the question of why it was included, and it truly had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the piece (which was important and serious) and I really wanted to discuss the subject, not rant about non-fiction should be non-fiction again, and anyway, if you admit something is invented, is it still cheating? And it was a pretty cool ending, a kind of pulling-the-rug-out thing.

And now I run into it again, except this time, it isn’t one detail in this short (less than a page) piece that’s changed and the rest are true, it’s one true thing and the rest is invented, with the mea culpa again tacked on at the end:

You can believe that this is true. So even if I admit that I’ve lied about everything but the bomb and not having sisters, the bomb is so big it would make you believe any small, human story I told you. Even if there was a Kay DeWitt having her first period, saying I was outside her window on that August evening in 1945 is still a lie. But hearing that the bomb killed more than 75,000 people, as it reportedly did, that would be unforgettable for anyone, even if they weren’t alive yet when it happened. That part, the bomb part, is the truth.

I’m so confused. At least the bomb is the truth. Wait, what am I saying??!?

I have to admit, I’m not even 100% sure this is categorized by Pushcart as non-fiction. It’s not fiction (they label fiction, but not poetry or non-fiction, as part of the byline for each piece). It’s listed as an essay in the back material. But Daniel Lusk is primarily a poet, and I’ve been fooled before by prose poems. But it doesn’t read as a prose poem. It reads as an essay, and maybe it’s ok to make things up in an essay (which isn’t journalism, after all, it’s point of view, and isn’t this the same as including dreams and wishes, which aren’t true but are appropriate when labeled such?), especially a self-referential essay about it being itself a lie.

I have to say, this is the only piece, fiction or non-fiction, I’ve ever read about the US dropping the bomb on Hiroshima that had me thinking about something other than the US dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. I’m not even trying to figure out whether it’s grotesque or ironic or some other artsy thing to compare Lusk’a view – or, non-view – of a girl bleeding from her vagina to the view experienced by six-year-old Keiji Nakazawa as his world burned and melted before his eyes, later shared with the world in the mangas I Saw It and Barefoot Gen.

What is the purpose of an essay, any essay? To persuade, evoke, inform, amuse, invite, confound? What was the purpose of this essay? I have no idea. Is it “good”, whatever that means?
I’m undecided: It’s brilliant. Or a deception. Or a brilliant play on deception. The only thing I’m sure of: I think I want to read more by Daniel Lusk. And, just as the ultimate goal of a biological organism is to reproduce, that may be the ultimate goal of all writing. Or at least of all writers.

True, or false?

Mitochondriacal MOOC

Course: Cell Biology: Mitochondria
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: Robert A. Lue
Quote:

We will focus, in particular, on the mitochondrion, the organelle that powers the cell. In this context, we will look at the processes of cell metabolism. Finally, we will examine the F1F0 ATP synthase, the molecular machine that is responsible for the synthesis of most of the ATP that your cells require to do work. To underscore the importance of cell biology to our lives, we will address questions of development and disease and implications of science in society.

How much you get from this course probably depends on where you’re starting from, but for me, with one basic bio course and a couple of introductory chems, it was at just the right level. And beautiful: take a look at the teaser video for the course. The animations are terrific, and while it’s possible to learn the material from simple pencil drawings, I always appreciate creativity and style. But it goes beyond aesthetics; it’s memorable, which makes it understandable beyond memorizing words. I can recall NADH reducing Complex II which is then oxidized by Coenzyme Q, while using the energy from the internal redox reactions to pump protons against the concentration gradient, because I can “see” the process happening in my head. Beyond the visual component, the lectures were clear; the quiz and exam questions required thought and combinations of concepts and thus tested understanding rather than the ability to look up factual information. As the icing on the cake, the forum was active with both students and staff providing helpful clarifications.

The first couple of weeks were for me mostly review material on overall cellular biology topics I’d seen in the archived (inactive) MIT Intro to Biology course (the chem courses I’ve taken were helpful as well in understanding bonds and redox reactions). But since I’m still very new to all of this, I like going through it from a slightly different angle which emphasizes different points. Material on endosymbiosis included a wonderful video by paper-cut artist Andrew Benincasa (it’s available at his website if you’re curious why I’m so impressed; his other vids are well worth watching too). There was a fair amount of material on mitochondrial disease, something I’d never heard of before (three-way IVF? Who knew?). In addition to the biology, the human element was part of the presentation through one woman’s very personal story.

In weeks 3 and 4, mitochondria got real. We went into glycolysis, the citric acid cycle, ECT, and the grand finale, ATP synthesis, in significant detail. The idea was not to delve into the atomic level of chemical reactions, but to understand how interrupting the process at any given stage would affect various parameters like oxygen consumption or ATP production, and how those parameters might be measured. It was complicated, with a need to see not just the step-by-step but the overall process. I can’t say I’m an expert, but I could reason my way through the final so the educational methodology worked and I have enough of a foundation to keep going.

I hope I do get to keep going. I hope this is the first in a series of cell biology courses. In addition to being a molecular/cellular biologist and a very good teacher, Prof. Lue is director of HarvardX, which includes the mooc division, so I’m hoping he has more up his sleeve.

Pushcart XL: Christian Kiefer, “Hollywood and Toadvine” from Santa Monica Review, Spring 2014

Salvador Dali: Phantom Cart (1933)

Salvador Dali: Phantom Cart (1933)

The notion that there is something wrong with the new ruler of the Evil Empire does not take very long to sink in.… Then this new man with the disturbing birthmark that was like a cloud, seeming to take on the shape of whatever might be on the viewer’s mind. A map of Japan. A rubber duck. Your wife’s intimate parts. Try having a discussion where the future of the world teeters on the knife-edge of nuclear destruction with a man who has your wife’s vagina emblazoned on his forehead. It is a difficult discussion to have.

Oh, this is good. But be forewarned: fans of Ronald Reagan might not think so.

I would imagine that constructing a fictional story around a well-known real-life personage must be tricky, and the more well-known the personage, the trickier. It’s true that you get most of the character for free, and in this case, setting comes along with it, at least for those of us whose memories go back to the 80s (and we can all be depressed for a moment when we realize not everyone’s does). But those are also constraints on the writer; the story has to fit public perception, while offering something unexpected. Kiefer pulls it off, via books:

It is this birthmarked man, Mikhail Gorbachev, apparently a big reader, who suggests you might enjoy reading something other than Louis l’Amour and that there are several American authors he himself reads with regularity, one of whom has penned a new Western.
“I will send you this book,” Gorbachev tells you over the phone.
“That sounds fine and I’ll look forward to reading it,” you answer in return.
“I must tell you, Ron, that this book is unlike your Louis l’Amour.”
“Well, as long as it’s not Danielle Steele, that’s fine.”
He laughs. “Okay, no Danielle Steele then.”
“That’s women’s reading,” you say. “My wife reads that kind of thing. Not for men.”
He pauses long enough that you begin to wonder if the line has been disconnected when he says, “Maybe I sent her new book too. For Nancy.”
Weird, you think, but you think him anyway. Why he has access to stores of Danielle Steele novels at the Kremlin is not a question you feel comfortable asking, so you turned other topics. Nuclear war. SDI. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Foreign policy. That kind of thing.

Leave it to a writer to chart a path through a reader’s tastes. And leave it to a slightly wacky writer to force a choice between Blood Meridian and Danielle Steele.

Much of the story is a romp (and great fun at that), but it gradually takes on somber overtones (then again, I can find somber overtones in anything; it’s kind of my specialty). As I read, Reagan turned into a sympathetic character, a man with a problem just like every other character, a man struggling with self-image vs id. Steve Almond wrote a flash about Nixon (“Nixon Swims” from his teeny tiny collection This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey) that chokes me up; after that, getting me to feel gently towards Reagan is a piece of cake, especially when I struggle with self-image every time I see my Sidney Sheldon novels and police procedural series buried in the most obscure regions of my bookshelves.

That’s still all in good fun, but then the direction went from inward to outward, and raised questions. That question in the film “The American President” cropped up: how much of being President is about character? Forget campaign promises: what story will run through the President’s head when making crucial decisions in an unanticipated situation?

Kiefer did a wonderful interview with Beth Ruyak on Capital Public Radio out of Sacramento, partly about this story and his Pushcart win (he didn’t know he’d won, or was even nominated, until another writer congratulated him) and partly about his novel The Animals. This story grew out of his dissertation topic, the use of literary narrative forms, particularly Westerns (“the American mythological form”), in the writing of history.

Narrative in everyday life is interesting enough – the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about others, the stories we tell others about ourselves – but when it comes to politics, the effect can be much broader. For a different angle on how narrative affects our politics, check out this panel Chris Hayes led with four fiction writers (including George Saunders) in January 2013 focusing on the narrative used by President Obama during the 2012 election cycle (grateful shoutout to Chris Hayes, who responded to my tweet “Would videos from the 1/13 show with writers about political narrative be available online anywhere” with a link within 5 minutes. Pretty classy, considering I’m a total stranger and an absolute nobody).

In a court of law, it isn’t about truth, it’s about who has the better lawyer; in history, it isn’t about what happened, but about how people remember what happened. And in politics, it’s about who has the best story. God bless America. Kiefer’s story asks: just how does that story guide the decisions of the winner?

Pushcart XL: Bob Hicok, “Every Machine Has its Parts” (poem) from Georgia Review, Winter 2013

Art by Andy Marlette

Art by Andy Marlette

 
 
My father can talk to him but that’s about it –
a guy you could sit beside in a bar and never know
he’s picturing the knife in his boot
in your throat because you remind him
people exist and make noise – he is what war does
to some, a twitch covered in skin – ….
 

I’m beginning to see a pattern in some of these poems. They start out with a very intimate focus – a father, a mother, a child – make us feel at home, then introduce subject matter that isn’t home at all – the child is sick, the father is talking to someone desperately ill – before broadening to show how these tragedies are embedded in a larger context, and how we so often take that context for granted without realizing the damage below our line of sight. Then the poems come in again, close enough to break our hearts by the last line.

It’s a very short poem, no mystery, no obscure rhetoric to hide its truth: some people, like the speaker’s uncle, are ruined by war in a way that can’t be fixed. I suspect it’s always been like that; maybe we’re just more aware of it now. People in suits in air-conditioned clean rooms surrounded by security guards advocating send people – some of whom only a few months or years ago were children too young to drink or sign contracts – to a strange country where their lives will be in danger for months or years.

The poem poses a solution:

certainly for presidents and senators a foxhole
should be required – some bleeding – a bit
of brain in their coffee – but I’m a poet,
you can excuse anything I say as antithetical
to reason – ….

I’m not sure that’s so antithetical to reason. Then again, I think the universal draft is the best anti-war mechanism we have, so I’m a bit antithetical to reason myself.

When I saw Hicok’s name, I had the impression of a somewhat lighthearted poet. I looked up those poems of his I’ve read. His Pushcart winner from last year, I described as “whimsical.” From two years ago, “sad but hilarious”. There’s no whimsy here. It’s straight-out indictment, a song of anger and mourning.

Pushcart XL: Wendy Rawlings, “Food and Worker Safety Across the Globe: A Nervous and Incomplete Case Study” (non-fiction) from Creative Nonfiction

So the situation was: our niece Amy up at 4:20 a.m. with vomit out one end and diarrhea out the other, except diarrhea not so much diarrhea-y but rather small particles of waste in bloody slurry. Amy’s parents and three sisters sleeping the profound sleep of the post-Christmas holiday-exhausted, so Amy, age 11, procured old towels used to wipe off Lynx (Irish Setter) when he came in from yard with dirty paws, set them up as nest in bathroom, and just sort of bled and vomited until light of day. Not really so bad (it would, after all, get so much worse) other than nastiness of forced evacuation of Stouffer’s lasagna consumed at dinner with large glass of orange juice and then the long stretch of dry heaving afterward. Amy grateful for one thing: had iPad for company.

~~ Complete essay available online at Places Journal

Hey, if you think the opening sentence is disgusting, wait until you read about the Chinese factory workers who killed themselves rather than work another day. Too far away? Then how about some of the lowest paid workers in America doing one of those jobs we keep hearing about: the jobs Americans don’t want: picking spinach in Salinas Valley all day long with no access to toilet facilities. Because they are what this story is really about. Amy is just collateral damage. But she’s someone who matters to us, so she draws us in so maybe we can look at the true cost of an iPad or cheap lettuce.

Calling this essay far-ranging would be like calling the moon a big rock. It meanders from Amy to iPad factories in China to produce farms everywhere to Lilly Pulitzer clothing (really?) to the etymology of “karaoke” to a Facebook friend named Quonnie to the medical details of hemolitic uremic syndrome to those fragrant plastic boxes of Fresh Spring Mix that I often buy when I get tired of Red Leaf or Romaine (I’m not stupid, I’m always nervous about that “triple-washed” reassurance, but I pretty much cross my fingers and hope I won’t be a statistic). Rawlings even admits at one point, ” I think I’m losing control of this story.”

I don’t think she lost control of it at all. I think the frenetic pace, the rapid-fire changes of topic, the intermixing of humor and tragedy, is the story. Lai Xiaodong, burned to death in an explosion caused by the aluminum dust he used to polish iPad logos in Foxconn’s factory in Chengdu, China, is the story. Bai Bing and Wu Mei, poisoned by the n-hexane used to clean iPads in a Suzhou factory, is the story. Paco, the spinach picker, is the story. Ma Xiang-qian and Zhu Chen-ming, two of the eighteen Foxconn employees who committed suicide by jumping from the Foxconn building, are the story (a problem remedied by safety nets because working conditions, well, do you want to pay more for your iPad?). Brianne Kiner, one nine-year-old who was hospitalized with E.coli toxicity in Seattle after eating a contaminated Jack in the Box burger, is the story (and if I may interject my own factoid, it’s ok now, the danger of E.coli contamination of meat has been reduced by washing meat, not to mention lots of other foodstuffs, with ammonia).

If it’s a wide-ranging story, it’s because it’s a wide-ranging subject. And by the way, I don’t mean to pick on Apple, and I don’t think Rawlings does, either. It’s just that Amy had an iPad, and the details of Microsoft’s sins – or Lilly Pulitzers (“From South America to the Far East, our product is made all over” their Facebook page proclaims, hoping people will think of the exotic and not the child labor or low wages) – are less well-publicized. But I don’t think this essay is intended to be investigational journalism, but a personal reaction using existing investigational journalism as a resource.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my “friends” on Facebook (I put friends in quotation marks because she’s not really my friend, just someone I knew in college, from which we graduated almost 25 years ago) posted a photo of “Minimum Wage Barbie.” The doll’s wearing a McDonald’s uniform and carrying a tray with a Happy Meal on it. Across the top of the doll’s box are the words GIRLS! This will be you if you don’t study. My “friend” added to her post, “I’ve been laughing about this all morning.” Now, you will probably accuse me of being overly sensitive and politically correct, but I walked around for the rest of the day thinking about Bai Bing and Wu Mei, Ma Xiang-qian and Zhu Chen-ming and their shitty jobs and their shitty useless dumbass deaths. They didn’t work in dangerous, low-wage jobs because they hadn’t studied hard at college. And in fact, I remembered that my Facebook “friend” hadn’t done much studying at the second-tier liberal arts school in the Northeast that the two of us attended.

As we become more and more globalized, we have to realize that our choice affect other people. It’s easy to say, “Family first,” and nearly impossible to see Paco or Bai Bing as family. That’s the value of this kind of essay. Maybe the locally grown produce or the shirt made in the New Jersey factory is more expensive, and we know there are no guarantees nor is every American factory a model of worker safety and fair labor practices. But maybe the cost of reducing prices is getting a little too rich for us. Maybe, as in the previous poem “Waiting for Rain” we need to think of humanity as a family, as one body, one organism, if for no other reason, than in self-interest. How long will it be before the 1% regards us all as disposable as Bai Bing, or Wu Mei – if they don’t already.

By the way, Amy survived her bout of economically-induced illness. Which is more than you can say for Bai Bing et al.