Pushcart XLIII: Justin St. Germain, “Murder Tourism in Middle America” (nonfiction) from Tin House, Fall 2017

A week earlier, Bonnie—my copilot and de facto girlfriend—had asked if I wanted to drive with her to Minnesota…. Google Maps suggested a route that ran fifty miles from Holcomb. I said yes, as long as we could make a detour. She agreed to accompany me to a murder scene much more readily than I’d expected. Bonnie was up for anything, a trait that had attracted me to her, and that now made me keep her at arm’s length, unable to imagine a relationship.
Going to Holcomb was a pilgrimage of sorts. I’d been writing a book about my mother’s murder for the last five years, and to write about murder is to live in the long shadow of In Cold Blood. Capote’s seminal book had become an obsession of mine. I’d wanted to write a response, a counterargument, a true murder story that made a gesture his didn’t: to present the victim as a person, not a narrative prop, and to treat their death itself as tragic, not as an occasion for a larger tragedy. A printed copy of the manuscript sat on the passenger’s floorboard of our car; the final edits were due in a week, and I’d been reading it out loud to Bonnie on the trip, listening for false notes. It was scheduled for release in a year—from Random House, Capote’s publisher—and, save for my editor and agent and a few friends who’d read an early draft, Bonnie was its first audience.
Somehow the contents of Capote’s book, and what I’d read about the writing of it, failed to warn me how drastically plans can change on trips to Kansas.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This Faulkner line has been on my mind a lot lately, and maybe it was on Justin St. Germain’s mind, too, as he drove into Holcomb. His mother’s murder was still very much alive for him – of course, it would be, even had it not been riding with him in the car in the form of the manuscript about the event – but the 1959 murder of the Clutter family, the subject of Capote’s In Cold Blood was also in the car with him.

This memoir is an account of his visit to Holcomb, where the Clutters are still remembered in diverse ways. One of the more chilling echoes of the past is the house itself, home to a suicide by the owner after the murders, then sold at auction for $1 to a family unable to resell it; they now have to deal with trespassers, murder tourists less polite and respectful of private property than St. Germain. The Tyson Foods slaughterhouse later built outside town lends another bizarre touch.

From the beginning, Capote conceived of the book as a tragedy: hence the silos rising like Greek temples from the plains, the minor Holcombites who act as chorus, its classical story arc and emphasis on fate. Hickock is the second actor, the cops and justice system the antagonists, the Clutters vehicles for the hero’s hamartia. The hero is Perry Smith.

I haven’t read In Cold Blood. I saw the 2005 movie Capote, but only vaguely recall it for the mesmerizing portrait of the writer tortured between two poles of love and exploitation. But St. Germain’s particular take-away, as he wrote about his mother’s murder, was the emphasis on the killers and the rather superficial gloss of the victims, a gloss that has been challenged by those who knew them. Capote had his motivation; St. Germain’s was, of course, very different. But he recognizes the challenge involved: while true-crime books are always popular, “nobody wants to read about a victim”, he says; it causes anxiety, whereas reading about killers gives a vicarious thrill of a kind of power otherwise never experienced. I’m not so sure; isn’t it possible readers want to know what makes the killer different from them, assure themselves that evil is something that lives in other people?

It’s something of a creepy coincidence that St. Germain’s girlfriend, who unwittingly instigated the trip and then accompanied him, was named Bonnie, as was the murdered Mrs. Clutter. Bonnie forms a secondary focus in the essay:

Some rare moments feel significant even as they happen: you see the future stretch ahead, flat and forbidding, like a highway across the plains. Capote had one in Garden City, on the courthouse steps. Smith had one on the Clutters’ lawn before he killed them. I had one leaving the cemetery, watching the wheat bend in the wind just like Capote writes and realizing that whatever was happening between Bonnie and me was beyond our control. That night, in the last hotel room left in Salina, we threw our bags down and fucked like we were about to die, and in the aftermath I told her nobody had ever wanted her as much as I did, and she took that to mean I always would, although I didn’t mean that at all. We made it to Minnesota the next day. Two years later, we did that drive again, to start a new life there, and six months later Bonnie passed through Kansas while leaving me, and six months after that I drove through yet again, in a panic, with a ring in my pocket. Capote got one thing right: there are only two kinds of endings, death and the ones we invent.

A little googling tells me that, at least as of 2017, the couple is still together. In 2013, St. Germain’s book about his mother’s murder – by her husband, rather than in a random spree killing by a stranger – was published. And Holcomb, Kansas still sits on the plains, in past-present tense.

Pushcart XLIII: Kristin Chang, “Yilan” (poem) from The Shade Journal: Seed

Angie Wang: cover art for <em>Past Lives, Future Bodies</em>

Angie Wang: cover art for Past Lives, Future Bodies

In Taiwan the rain spits on my skin.
         I lose the way to my grandmother’s
house, eat a papaya by the side of the road,
 
         papaya in Taiyu meaning wood
melon. My grandmother’s house is wood
         & always wet, as if absence
 
holds water. As if drowning
         itself. My stomach oversweetens
on fruit, wears a belt of rot.

Complete poem available online at Shade Journal

Taiwan is one of those complicated places: originally settled thousands of years ago by seafaring islanders, who were pushed out of the way by subsequent arrivals (sound familiar?), an island that’s been a blend of religions and languages, and an unwilling pawn in power plays for centuries and today is a potential keg of dynamite as it finds itself the reluctant tentpole of the One China policy. Into this comes Kirsten Chang, an American-born descendent who initially rejected, then embraced, the culture of her mother.

The poem is from her recently published collection Past Lives, Future Bodies and, as she explains in her Queen Mob’s Teahouse interview, draws on “the rhythms and migrations of stories, but also about the grief between the women in my family, those severances and losses that are birthed from movement”.

That movement may be why the poem is formatted in three-line stanzas, indented in a way that, even in the absence of rhyme or consistent meter, suggests a similarity to terza rima’s walking quality. The content as well has a kind of semantic and linguistic momentum: the papaya leads to wood melon leads to wood house leads to wetness and water.

There’s a kind of looseness in the identity of the speaker. Chang is quite young – her Twitter profile gives her age as 20 – so it can’t be her mother mentioned in the stanzas about the Japanese coming during the war. This may be where ideas of reincarnation and transmission across cultural connection comes in.

The speaker watches a typhoon from her Taipei hotel, and muses on the words that connect Taiwan and typhoon, her family’s past, and the history that has flowed through her to bring her to this spot:

In Chinese,
         typhoon is tai feng, sharing a word
 
with tai wan. A nation named
         after its greatest disaster. My body
named for what it bears, what
 
         it bares: this nation,
where nothing is still
         waiting to be saved
 
& the dead are still
                   dying.

Those last lines emphasize the motion by almost denying it: the enjambment momentarily changes the meaning of “still” twice, from being still – lacking motion – to still as in even now, a perpetuation. And the last step, the dying, is the big one, almost a leap.

Pushcart XLIII: Myron Taube, “Lupinski” from New Letters #83:2/3

“Your wife told the nurse she doesn’t want any heroic measures.”
Heroic Measures. I remember those words from when we first took Miriam to the hospital, some nurse give us papers to sign: if you’re dying, do you want Heroic Measures? To tell the truth, I don’t know what they mean when they say Heroic Measures. To me, Heroic Measures is when Superman jumps in front of the girl and the bullet bounces off his chest and he saves the girl’s life. But I know what “if you’re dying” means.

Sol Epstein’s a little confused. Who can blame him: his wife’s seriously ill in the hospital, and the doctor’s asking him if he wants the priest to come now, which is pretty weird considering he and his wife are Jewish. Turns out the doctor thought Sol was Mr. Lupinski visiting his wife next door. Sol’s relieved there’s been a mistake. But it’s not enough of a mistake to matter, as it turns out.

It’s a very sweet, sad story, told with a distinct Jewish American flavor I haven’t seen in a long time, that ends up exactly where you think it’s going to end up, though it takes a route through the neighborhoods of confusion (with a stop for some meat loaf and a recipe I might just try myself, it sounds so good, even though I don’t like meat loaf very much). Because when you’re losing your wife of 64 years, confusion might just be the easiest way to go. Sixty-four years. That right there is a Heroic Measure.

And as always, Jake Weber’s done a terrific job of discussing the story in his blog post, focusing on when background information collides with the “Each Story Must Stand On Its Own” ethos of contemporary literary theory. I’ve always been more of a Gestalt reader; to me, context, including the circumstances under which a story was written, is part of the story’s genesis, just as my life experience, including the tearful goodbyes I’ve said, is part of my reading. It’s interesting to see how Jake balances the two in this case, since the story is very close to memoir.

Critical thinking mooc

Course: Critical Thinking: Fundamentals of Good Reasoning
Length: 9 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Jonathan Berg
Quote:

This course is an introduction to critical thinking—thinking about arguments, about reasons that might be given in support of a conclusion. The objective of the course is to improve the student’s ability in the basic skills of critical thinking….
Of course, we all know, to some extent or another, how to think critically—how to think about reasons for or against some claim. The course is built on the assumption that learning more about what exactly is involved in thinking about reasons leads us to do it better. Thus, in each topic covered, our natural logical instincts serve as a starting point, from which we develop a rigorous, theoretical understanding, which then boosts our critical thinking skills.

I’ve taken, what, four or five introductory logic courses now; each one is a little different. Some are more comprehensive, some focus on different things. This one kept things at the simplest level and featured lots of very clear explanations and examples, plus three different modes of grading. As a first course in logic, I think it might work quite well. And then, it included my favorite: truth trees! Some of the other topics included Venn and Euler diagrams, types of deductive argument structures and fallacies, and inductive arguments. Most of the emphasis is on recognizing these elements in actual, if simple, arguments.

Each week consisted of two or three individual lessons, generally about 10 – 15 minutes of video each. Graded material came in three flavors:

  • A short set of questions with unlimited attempts at each question followed each video (25%);
  • Three overall quizzes, one every three weeks (and I found these surprisingly difficult, since I frequently misinterpreted statements), with one attempt per question (these are timed, but the two-hour time limit was more than ample)(45%);
  • Three submission exercises in finding an argument “in the wild” pertaining to the covered topics were required (30%). This wasn’t really peer-assessed, since full credit was given merely for submission and evaluation of other students’ work, with student evaluations not factored into the grade. The hardest part was finding an argument that could be fairly easily broken down into premises and conclusions; except for the last week, where I’d seen something on Twitter that immediately screamed “Argument by analogy with faulty property inference”.

Since two of these elements can be aced with minimal effort, a passing grade is almost a given.

The last week was devoted to production of an argument, with steps for design. The structure was useful, but there’s no way to practice. This is the Achilles’ heel of many humanities moocs: once they gave up on real peer-assessment, there’s really no way to create an assignment for this. The discussion forums would be an option, but, somewhat surprisingly, there was little activity, beyond the initial meet-and-greet, even though the instructor provided feedback for questions.

I thought it was a very good, if very basic, introductory course. The Duke reasoning course on Coursera gets into some of the more complicated and hard-to-parse examples so might make a good follow-up. Microsoft’s logic and computational thinking course covers much the same ground, then gets a bit more into scientific applications. I still miss the now-disappeared Australian course, my personal favorite logic course which included wonderful topic areas I’ve never seen anywhere else: language, mathematics, and computational logic. The Stanford course on Coursera is tailored to computer science; better minds than mine have hated it as much as I did. But for anyone looking for a place to start, this introductory mooc would fit the bill. And trust me: the more you go over it, the easier it gets.

Pushcart XLIII: J. M. Holmes, “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” from Paris Review #221

Toyin Odutola, "Uncertain, yet Reserved," 2012

Toyin Odutola, “Uncertain, yet Reserved,” 2012

“How many white women you been with?”
The room was filled with good smoke and we drifted off behind it.
“What’s your number?” Dub looked at Rye real serious like he was asking about his mom’s health.
I leaned forward from the couch and took the burning nub of joint from his outstretched hand. We called him Dub because his name was Lazarus Livingston—Double L. His parents named him to be a football star. He could play once upon a time, but not like Rye.
Rolls, who was too high, chimed in: “Stop it, bruh, that shit’s not important.”
“Of course it is. I’m finna touch every continent,” Dub said.
“White’s not a continent,” Rolls said.
“You know what I mean.”

I’ve never claimed these posts are “reviews”; their only my reactions to a given story, book, poem or course. I have no training in writing actual reviews. I assume there are certain guidelines: some things that should be included and some things that should be left out, a predominance of objective rather than subjective reactions, criteria that should be considered. That’s fine, but it’s not what I do. I read a story, and react to it.

In this case, my reaction was: I have no idea what this story was about.

That isn’t quite true. I knew it was about a group of young black guys talking about sleeping with white women, and one of the men had a disturbing experience he didn’t want to reveal. But a story is a lot more than plot points, and in this case the essence, the nuance, was lost on me. I wasn’t all that sure exactly what it was that was so upsetting to him about the encounter, though it clearly had to do with race, and his reactions.

Jake Weber to the rescue. His post about the story laid out the four guys, the differences between them, the basic action, and a great analysis of what was on Rye’s mind. He even brought in something I hadn’t grasped at all, the reaction of the narrator to Rye’s disclosure.

I also found Holmes’ Paris Review interview very helpful. He sums up the heart of the story:

With this story, what’s more important to me than pointing out that black people are fetishized—though all of that is in the background or the foreground, or however you want to put it—is the question of how someone maintains a genuine, truthful, intimate relationship with someone else if they’re afraid that that’s in the back of their mind, the back of their throat, you know? Can someone maintain that relationship?

It was one of those cases where I liked reading about the story far more than I liked reading the story. That happens to me sometimes. I guess it’s a sign of my lack of literary gravitas. Once I understood what it was really about, I liked this story a lot. Or, at least, I liked reading about it. I think a lot of us wonder if the person in our bed has some motivation that has nothing to do with our charm or attractiveness, but social attitudes towards race raise the stakes, and complicate the resolution, infinitely more.

This is the opening story from Holmes’ debut collection, How Are You Going to Save Yourself, published last summer. The linked stories follow the four young men we meet here.

One of the benefits of reading stories on the edge of my understanding is the expansion of my grasp. Maybe next time, I’ll be able to enjoy reading the story as much as reading about it.

Pushcart XLIII: Mary Ruefle, “Singular Dream” (poem) from Poetry, January 2017

I was born in Speckled Eggs Garden.
I will die on Broken Egg Farm.
I’m hopping between them now,
I consider everything
to be friendly
and nothing dubbed.
I am a chick with legs
and yellow hair.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

What am I supposed to do with a poem about a chicken? Seriously, Henderson, you have me immersed in guns and death and then spring chickens on me?

Thing is, I have a stubborn fondness for Mary Ruefle, born of my 2014 Pushcart encounter with her poem “During a Break in Feeling”, tackled with the help of some Modpo friends, and her erasure poetry. So I had at least some understanding of what she might be up to here.

Her words might change meaning retroactively; or, non-words or obscure words might suggest more common meanings through close spellings. What does it mean, “to be friendly / with nothing dubbed”? Dubbing is a film technique to translate a film from one language to another; it’s also a process of naming and entitling, as with dubbing a knight, with an old and obscure meaning of “to dress or adorn”. A “chick with legs and yellow hair” could describe a teenager walking by, rather than a literal chicken, giving a slang and somewhat casual sense.

Oh Lord Almighty, creator of
all things beautiful and sick,
who prefers another life on top of this,
who are you to judge?
When Adam and Eve vanished
solemnly into the dark,
shrouding themselves in the forest,
I was timid and nibbling and
stayed behind, betrayed only
by the plucking of my beak
upon the ground you so graciously
provided (thanks).

That’s a good point; it was only the humans that were kicked out of Paradise. Orthodoxy does not consider that animals have free will to obey God or not; this might seem reasonable until you’ve tried to get a cat to eat the special food you bought for her. In any case, it’s a nice little scene.

I spent a fair amount of time looking for some interpretation of “noth” (hampered by the ubiquity of Chris Noth), but in the end decided nothing was a good an inference as anything. As for “margent”, that applies to the flowery borders, the margins if you will, of a document, giving yet another sense of the chick being outside the margins, but still under the care of the Lord of the Margent, and who’s to say it’s worse off, or not as valuable, as we humans are.

In the end I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing here – this Pushcart isn’t going so well for me so far – but I still have a fondness for Ruefle, whether I understand her or not.

Pushcart XLIII: Robert Hass, “Dancing” (poem) from American Poetry Review 46:06

Daniel Baxter: Sketch of Vigil Honoring Victims of Gun Violence

Daniel Baxter: Sketch of Vigil Honoring Victims of Gun Violence

The radio clicks on—it’s poor swollen America,
Up already and busy selling the exhausting obligation
Of happiness while intermittently debating whether or not
A man who kills fifty people in five minutes
With an automatic weapon he has bought for the purpose
Is mentally ill. Or a terrorist. Or if terrorists
Are mentally ill. Because if killing large numbers of people
With sophisticated weapons is a sign of sickness—
You might want to begin with fire, our early ancestors
Drawn to the warmth of it—

Complete poem available online at American Poetry Review

In December 2017, Beacon Press published Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, an anthology of poems – including this one by a former US Poet Laureate – and citizen responses touching on the subject of guns in America.

The poem takes a sweeping historical view of our fascination with guns, starting with the first time someone in prehistory discovered “some sands that, / Tossed into the fire, burned blue or flared green”, to the myth of Prometheus, to Rome and medieval Europe and the Age of Exploration – “How did guns come to North America?” – and the Civil War and all the wars since then, right up to June 2016 when:

They were dancing in Orlando, in a club. Spring night.
Gay Pride. The relation of the total casualties to the history
Of the weapon that sent exploded metal into their bodies—
30 rounds a minute, or 40, is a beautifully made instrument,
And in America you can buy it anywhere—and into the history
Of the shaming culture that produced the idea of Gay Pride—
They were mostly young men, they were dancing in a club,
A spring night. The radio clicks on. Green fire. Blue fire.
The immense flocks of terrified birds still rising
In wave after wave above the waters in the dream time.
Crying out sharply. As the French ship breasted the vast interior
Of the new land. America. A radio clicks on. The Arabs,
A commentator is saying, require a heavy hand. Dancing.

It’s a longish poem, three pages of free verse in uniform lines (one of those poems that makes me wonder why it’s a poem instead of prose), that maintains a momentum by repetition of tropes like the sands thrown into the fire, the blue and green sparks, looking back at the beginning while moving to the present. There’s a video of Hass doing an informal reading of the poem in the office of a Miami Dade professor; he repeats the line “they threw powder in the fire” at the end although that isn’t included in the APR published version. It’s this simple act, this fascination with the sparks unleashed by burning certain minerals, that connects us with those imagined paleolithic wonderers, traces the fires of Prometheus, whose liver was eaten every day by birds but grew back each night to allow another day of torment. There are days in contemporary America when it doesn’t seem like punishment enough.

As I read this poem, I realized how tired I am of the tributes and memorials – or rather, tired of the need for them – and how I wish some day they will be part of history instead of everyday life.

Pushcart XLIII: Steve Stern, “Carolyn” (non-fiction) from Bat City Review #13

I don’t want to write this. I’d always counted on C. D. Wright – she was always Carolyn to me – outliving me long enough to say inappropriate things at my funeral. It gives me vertigo to find myself hanging about on earth in her absence. Forgive me if I tend to view her as somewhat larger than life – problem is, she was.
I knew her best back in our scruffy Arkansas days.… This was 1973.

In November 2016, Brown University hosted “Come Shining: A Tribute to C.D. Wright”, a two-day event in honor of the recently deceased poet who had taught there for over 30 years. Steve Stern delivered a version of this memoir as his contribution. I’m at a disadvantage, since I’m hopelessly ignorant of poets; although she was awarded both Guggenheim and Macarthur fellowships (and won several top-level book prizes) she appeared in Pushcart only once, just prior to my use of the anthology as an annual project.

I am, however, familiar with Steve Stern. He wrote the wonderful story “The Plate Spinner” that so charmed me last year. His forte is building on the Jewish folk tale. I guess I’d imagined him as having studied at a yeshiva somewhere before turning to writing, but that’s what happens when you’re stuck in stereotypes: he’s from Memphis and was an honest-to-god hippie on an Arkansas commune back in the 70s. And so I learned something from this elegy. The University of Arkansas back then was a kind of fountain of young people who would, like Wright, become great poets, not to mention an incubator for a young couple named Bill and Hillary Clinton. Stern traces her life through various turning points, but still sees her through the eyes of youth.

My ignorance is not disrespect. I wonder what budding greatness I’m overlooking right now. Not that it matters; I most likely won’t be around when it bears fruit. But you might be. Pay attention.

Pushcart XLIII: Olufunke Ogundimu, “The Armed Letter Writers” from New Orleans Review #43

It all started with a letter, slapped smack in the middle of our street sign. It was Uncle Ermu who saw it, and he was livid.
“Ermu…an affront on the ermu…hard-working residents of Abati Close ermu,” he stuttered.
It wasn’t a formal letter; it was a letter from one dear neighbor to another. It was a spidery cursive scrawled on A4 paper, in black ink.
 
Hello Everybody,
We are coming for a visit soon. We will convey to you the days we will be visiting Abati Close by and by. We will appreciate your maximum cooperation. Do not aid the police in any way. Please be warned that all trouble makers shall be dealt with, severely.

 
Mr. God-Servant kindly appended his signature on behalf of our local chapter of the Armed Robbers Association (ARA).

Complete story available online at New Orleans Review

Ever hear a joke, and kind of get it, but feel like there’s something you’re not quite catching, some subtext or unfamiliar trope that would really send it home? That’s what happened with me here. I’m a little surprised and also a bit disappointed with myself, since I’ve read collections and novels by several Nigerian writers over the past few years; I should have done better. Then again, maybe I’m overthinking it.

Start with what I’m sure of: first person plural, the “we” voice. I’m quite fond of this point of view; it tends to emphasize group conflicts over individual differences, often creating an us-vs.-them atmosphere. That’s part of what the story does, though it’s more like us-vs.-them-vs.-them. Many individuals appear, but we’re clearly looking from the townspeople’s viewpoint at the robbers, who are the stated opponent, and at the police, who are not much better. It’s interesting that, while the police and the robbers have an internal unity, the town is a lot more chaotic; their semblance of unity is more of a forced reaction to the other two groups rather than any intrinsic commonality beyond address.

It’s a kind of Bizarro world, where the robbers are organized and efficient, and the police are in that weird place where their corruption is hampered only by their incompetence, with the hapless Abati Close community caught in the middle. For a while I toyed with the idea that the police were the Armed Robbers Association, but, no, they’re at best passive accomplices by omission. And if this doesn’t remind you of current day American politics and government, you haven’t been paying attention.

The police officers turned to the other witness they had: the street pole. It became the center of their investigation—only God knows how many times they went round the grey pole, staring at the green sign board attached to it.
“If it wasn’t made and installed by the state government, we would have asked how much it cost,” Sergeant Wale said.
“With proof of receipts of its fabrication, of course,” Corporal Juba said, and noted this in his notebook.
“Or of the name of the welder that made it? Where he bought the metal from or the paint he used?” said Sergeant Wale.
“But of course,” said Corporal Juba.
They fondled it, hit it with their scarred batons, talked to it, whispered to it, growled at it, and finally left it alone when it couldn’t tell them who pasted the letter.

As usual, Jake Weber’s post showed some real insight into the story: he recognizes that the robbers are the only group who does “exactly what they say they will.” It’s not that they’re good guys; they are thieves, after all, and they do use a machete when they don’t get cooperation. But the police could learn something from their focus and discipline. For that matter, so could the townspeople. Yet there are moments when both the police and the neighbors are treated with great sympathy.

Jake brings up another good point: “How do Nigerians view the story?” I think he’s referring to authenticity, but I wonder if they would recognize little tropes that aren’t clear to me. Is this supposed to be a comedic, but relatively realistic, portrayal of how things work in Nigeria? Or are the three groups symbols of certain centers of power – say, the government, the people, and the foreign interests robbing them both blind (as I’ve surmised is the case from other stories set in Nigeria)? I don’t know. The story was on the short list for the 2018 Caine Prize; I don’t fully understand how such things work, so whether that means a Nigerian, or at least African, seal of approval, I don’t know.

The last paragraph leaves me with almost a mystical sense of the story:

Our story takes on several layers of untruths—depending on who is telling the story and where the telling is taking place—but the essence is the same. There were two letters and a visit; on that we, the residents of Abati, all agree.

This happens with all major events, of course. One person expands her role; another minimizes or erases a step he regrets. Exaggeration leads to eventual fabrication which becomes almost calcified as memory. And again, we’re reminded of the lack of unity among the townspeople. But there’s something about this paragraph – it almost sounds like a benediction – that makes me again feel like I’m missing something important. Then again, maybe it’s just the Nigerian version of the Keystone Kops.

Pushcart XLIII: Anthony Marra, “The Tell-Tale Heart” from McSweeney’s #49

To begin with, I had nothing against Richard. No, just the opposite. He was my roommate and friend, the cultural and civic leader of our two-bedroom apartment ….
His only shortcoming, if you can call it that, was his iPhone. Every experience he dutifully engraved via tweet, post, or status in the marble memory of the cloud. Reality was only visible to Richard at 326 ppi. He had thousands of friends on Facebook, most of whom he’d never met, and when I saw the whole of his sturdy frame hunched over that glossy four-inch screen, tapping seriously, there seemed something pitiable about such a tall man submitting to something so small. It was clear he yearned for connection – he was no different than you or I, Your Honor.

You probably remember the original Poe story; if not, it’s available in various places online. Marra’s version, part of McSweeney’s “Cover Stories” edition, preserves a great deal, but makes a few interesting changes.

Poe’s protagonist finds himself obsessed with a neighbor, specifically, his eye: “He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it.” It takes him a week, but he finally offs the guy in his bed, cuts him up, and buries him under the floorboards. When the police come around to inquire about a scream heard on the night the old man disappeared, our narrator answers their questions, then becomes flustered as he hears, increasing in volume, the beating of the old man’s heart. At last he breaks down, thinking the police are toying with him and unaware that only he can hear the sound; he tears up the floorboards, revealing the corpse, and confesses.

The irritant for Marra’s narrator is his roommate’s iPhone; specifically, Richard’s habit, over the course of a week, of ducking into the bathroom to pose for selfies to post to Tinder. And, after our narrator dispatches Richard and buries him under the floorboards, it’s not the police but a Tinder date who arrives; it’s the buzzing of the phone, not the beating of a heart, that embodies the murderer’s guilt and leads to his confession.

I’m reading Marra’s point as the replacement of the human parts of us – our eyes, our hearts – by technology. Instead of an eye with a film over it, Richard is shown indirectly: in a mirror, watching himself on his phone. Instead of the narrator feeling a beam from the eye that finally provokes his attack, it’s the sense of the camera being pointed at him as he watches Richard through the slightly opened door. And, of course, instead of the heart beating at the climax, we have the phone – used for romantic adventures – ringing.

The final paragraph locks in this kind of cyber-human perspective, bringing the theme around from madness and guilt to one of connection:

I thrust it into the woman’s hands, and she stared at me, first dumbfounded, then horrified, and before she accepted the phone, before she snatched it and charged outside to call the police, she looked from Richard to me, from Richard’s empty eyes to my own, and the three of us shared a moment of genuine connection.

It’s clever; it transliterates the theme of the story from guilt to connection, as it translates the elements from body to technology. I was left a little disoriented, though; it somehow seemed humorous, like Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter”, but the tone remains dark and gloomy, hard to reconcile with Richard trying for a week to get a suitable profile pic. This may be the dark, twisted kind of irony I have such trouble handling: an effort to connect leads to murder which leads to a grotesque kind of connection.

Jake Weber’s analysis took a slightly different approach, but we ended up in much the same place. Marra appeared in a previous Pushcart with a story of great depth; I know what he’s capable of. Maybe he just wanted to have a little fun. Or maybe I missed the point. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Pushcart XLIII: Tony Hoagland, “Into the Mystery” (poem) from The Sun #500

Of course there is a time of afternoon, out there in the yard,
an hour that has never been described.
 
There is the way the warm air feels
among the flagstones and the tropical plants
                                                                                with their dark, leathery green leaves.
 
There is a gap you never noticed,
dug out between the gravel and the rock, where something lives.
 
There is a bird that can only be heard by someone
who has come to be alone.
 
Now you are getting used to things that will not be happening again.

Complete poem available online at The Sun

I always approach the poetry in this volume with a touch of anxiety, since I have little background in poetics. This poem was doubly intimidating, since I was aware that Tony Hoagland died a few months ago. He has appeared on these pages before, and I wanted to do him justice. I also wondered if the poem was prescient, or, for that matter, if all the poems in his last volume from which this comes, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, were likely written with an awareness of time. Maybe, maybe not. He’s known for including humor in his poetry; Meryl Natchez describes his work as having “a wry tone, a genius for the appropriate detail, and an underlying sadness about the state of the world” in her review for ZYZZYVA. There is a sense of living in the moment in the content of the poem, a relaxation of the compulsion to analyze.

Ironic, then, that I should, by listening to the audio of Hoagland reading his work, that I should be lead to analyze, and in so doing, increase my appreciation of the poem (which is, of course, the only purpose of poetic analysis, or should be, right?).

I more clearly noticed anaphora in the opening lines: the four lines beginning with “there is a [x]”, followed by the line about getting used to things that will not be happening again. The poetic structure strengthens the poignancy of the moment as he lists what will not be happening again, and I wonder anew if this was written with foreknowledge that it would be the last poem of his last volume on this earth.

But the biggest revelation came with the last lines of the poem:

Now you sit on the brick wall in the cloudy afternoon and swing your legs,
happy because there never has been a word for this,
as you continue moving through these days and years
 
where more and more the message is
                                                                                not to measure anything.

The poem has, until these last two lines (and let’s call them two, at least for the moment) been fairly unmetered, or mixed-metered, as far as I can tell. But in the poet’s reading, I suddenly heard a very strong /x/ pattern over and over in those last few lines. Warning: I’m venturing onto shaky ground, please be merciful in your judgments. But one way to think of it is like this:

The first line is strict iambic hexameter, the meter of Homeric epic, of the Iliad and Odyssey, stories of long battles and longer journeys home, for a line about moving through the days and years.

Then comes a combined line that begs to be the same, except… there’s a missing unstressed syllable between “is” and “not”, where, coincidentally, the line break occurs; the line break can be seen as replacing the unstressed syllable. The meter, literally the measurement of poetry, breaks down, just as we’re advised not to measure anything, a lovely example of form matching content.

I also played around with the cretic foot, a three-syllable pattern of strong-weak-strong, since that was the rhythm I heard most clearly in Hoagland’s reading. But that gets complicated, since it requires dropping some leading unstressed syllables. But it was tempting reading, since the cretic foot is most often seen in Greek paeans; this poem could be seen as a song in praise of the unnamed, a celebration of the unmeasured. It doesn’t hurt that the Annie Hall “la-di-da” is given as an example of the cretic foot. But in the end, Occam’s razor would favor the prior reading.

It’s also interesting – and this is something I would never have noticed, had I not needed to figure it out for formatting in this blog – that both indents are 80 spaces, not related to the lines that precede the indents. I don’t see any content relationship between the two lines, but it’s a whimsical touch that the line “not to measure anything” is, indeed, measured on the page.

In spite of my initial anxiety, I had a great deal of fun looking at this poem. As someone rather obsessed with measuring, getting things right, never being wrong, I think maybe I should listen to the words more, relax a little, and live in the moment. Sometimes the moment gives you a much better sense of things than any measurement.

Pushcart XLIII: Karen Russell, “The Tornado Auction” from Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2017

The auction is a quarterly event, and until my retirement I attended every one. You’ll read in the papers that ours is a “graying community,” a defunct way of life. But on auction day, it never feels so. Scattered around the parking lot, over a hundred twitching, immature storms dimple the roofs of their trailers, like pipping chicks testing their shells. Their wailing surrounds and fills the barn, harmonizing with the hum of machinery. The viper pit of hoses, the blue convection modules stuck to every wall like big, square dewdrops—the various modern wet nurses that keep a developing storm alive. “Back in the Dark Ages, all we had to work with was liquid propane and the real wind,” my old man liked to remind me.
On my way in, I’d passed a quintet of freshly weaned storms, all sired by the same cumuliform supercell out of Dalhart. Beautiful orphans, thriving independently. I’d known this line of clouds my whole life; that Dalhart stud cell was famous when I was a kid. Its signature thunder went rolling through many a turbulent generation, and I smiled to hear it once more. In the refracted glow of such a shimmering lineage, you get the child-joy, the child-fever. I’ll turn seventy-four this March, and it doesn’t matter: that joy regresses you.

It’s a story that may lose some readers along the way. It kind of lost me, though I kept reading. And when, eventually, it turned, it hit me with the force of, yes, a tornado. I may have even gasped. I certainly ended up in tears when I realized what was really going on.

But back to the beginning: Bob Wurman, retired tornado farmer, goes to the storm auction and, spending his life savings, buys himself a baby tornado. Karen Russell has a talent for painting fantasy scenarios in real colors, and this is no exception. The auction, the purchase, Bob’s demeanor is very much like you’d expect from a farmer buying a colt or a calf or even a puppy to raise to champion status in some domain. The reaction of friends and family – they think he’s lost his mind – is likewise well-tuned to the aging-crackpot-goes-rogue trope.

Many literary science fiction stories gloss over the technical details, painting in broad strokes so as to avoid going afoul of real science. But Russell plows right into the thick of things. I was pretty skeptical; but I’ve been fooled before, so I googled around, and sure enough, artificial tornadoes do exist. The biggest one lives in a chamber in the Mercedes Benz Museum in Germany; the technology was developed to quickly eliminate smoke. Science nerds can even make their own tornado-in-a-box.

Russell takes this into fictional territory: in her world, storms somehow can be released from their containers, and have, in the past, been used for demolition work (aiming them is precision art) and for something called tornado rides. Both uses are now outlawed, so most of Bob’s fellow tornado ranchers have downgraded to wind farming – literally generating wind, not building windmills in areas that are naturally windy – with a few dirt devils sold to rodeos and the like. Bob misses the big stuff.

It’s interesting for those who might enjoy a glimpse of science, or the creation of alternate reality, but it goes on for a very long time before we get the first hint there’s something else at work here.

Raising a tornado, you are always dreaming of its dying day. That’s the breeders ultimate vision – to build a storm until its can unwind spectacularly, releasing all of its cultivated fury, evanescing before your eyes. Whereas with my daughters, I have to pretend they’ll live forever. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate. If there is a life after this one, I’ll be dead myself and still pretending.
….
My oldest daughter was four pounds at birth, and her appearance flooded the earth with an infinite number of horrors and perils, a demonic surge of catastrophic possibilities out of all proportion to the tiny mass in my arms. Love unlids a Pandora’s box. …. They were born at the same moment, twins: our baby daughter and the dangers.

That’s the line that did me in – “love unlids a Pandora’s box.” This is the story’s point of connection with the Pam Houston essay that preceded it – to love is to risk, to know that it’s likely one’s heart will one day be broken. Yet we love anyway. And in this case, although it may be loving that breaks Bob Wurman, it is also, ultimately, loving that saves him.

I seem to have regained the spoiler-shyness I lost during the last BASS; the story is not available online, but I think the impact is much greater the less you know. The problem is that I fear too many readers will give up, will think it’s just a fancy sci-fi story about an old man getting his last chance at glory, and they won’t bother to wade through the weather talk to get to the heart of the matter. So I’ve tried to compromise with a strong hint.

For those who want a more writerly look at the story, I recommend Jake Weber’s analysis at Workshop Heretic. He goes into more detail about plot, the symbolism of the storms, and, most importantly, points out where the story itself teaches the reader how to read it. Because it isn’t about tornadoes, after all.

Pushcart XLIII: Pam Houston, “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately” (non-fiction) from About Place IV:IV

Attributed to Banksy

Attributed to Banksy

Back in 2000, to help pay for the ranch, I took a teaching job at UC Davis, requiring me to be there for two ten-week quarters each year. I chose spring and fall, because summers are glorious in the high country and miserable in Davis, and because farm animals die most often in winter. I hired a series of house-sitters to tend the ranch while I was gone, often former students who needed a place to finish a book. Twice yearly I’d trade my down, fleece and Xtra Tuffs for corduroy and linen. ….
To the people in Creede I am intelligent, suspiciously sophisticated, and elitist to the point of being absurd. To the people at UC Davis I am quaint, a little slow on the uptake, and far too earnest to even believe.

Complete story available online at About Place

I’ve noticed that Pushcart, free of the alphabetical-order dictum that forces the order of BASS stories, tends to put a piece out front that resonates through the entire volume, as well as carrying forward into a smaller subset of material that will follow until a new theme emerges. We have several themes to choose from with this piece: appreciation of nature, environmental damage, ironic distance vs engagement. And, given that Mr. Henderson just lost his canine companion of eleven years, it’s fitting that the first story should begin with the author in a similar scenario.

My first reaction was to simply trace the essay’s path from a heartrending scene encompassing the last days of her dog, to a passionate outcry about the ongoing destruction of the biosphere that sustains our civilizations and lives with a side-slam on academia for being academic, and back to encountering the grim side of nature with the sweet story of a baby elk orphaned by illegal hunting, all on the premise of favoring hope and genuine emotional engagement over the quicksand of irony and cynicism. But it started to get complicated: while I basically agree with the overall theme – caring is better than not-caring, and we can’t afford to be sealing ourselves behind a wall of cynicism and irony – I somehow have a lot of issues with the how she gets there.

Just as I was putting this post together, I saw a tweet from Michael Schaub: ‘Logically I know that people don’t come up with new words just to piss me off, but I don’t know how else to explain “hopepunk.”’ I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded related to what Houston is saying, so I went hunting and found an article by Aja Romano in Vox explaining hopepunk as the opposite of grimdark and in contrast to noblebright. Caution: I’m about to venture into unknown waters, and I may be getting this wrong.

It seems that, particularly in the genres of speculative fiction and fantasy, as well as in gaming, the approaches of grimdark and noblebright have been jousting since 9/11. Grimdark is exactly what it sounds like: abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Apocalyptic despair. Resignation. Helplessness. Noblebright is an opposing approach that, as Romano explains it, “social systems are good because the leaders we choose are inherently good.” This sounds so ridiculous at this moment in history, I feel like my keyboard is going to explode with laughter. Other sources define it more as a heroic character who embodies good qualities and battles evil, particularly in fantasy and game settings.

So where does that leave hopepunk?

“The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk,” declared Alexandra Rowland, a Massachusetts writer, in a two-sentence Tumblr post in July 2017. “Pass it on.”
With this simple dictum, the literary movement known as hopepunk was born.
Depending on who you ask, hopepunk is as much a mood and a spirit as a definable literary movement, a narrative message of “keep fighting, no matter what.” If that seems too broad — after all, aren’t all fictional characters fighting for something? — then consider the concept of hope itself, with all the implications of love, kindness, and faith in humanity it encompasses.
Now, picture that swath of comfy ideas, not as a brightly optimistic state of being, but as an active political choice, made with full self-awareness that things might be bleak or even frankly hopeless, but you’re going to keep hoping, loving, being kind nonetheless.
Through this framing, the idea of choosing hope becomes both an existential act that affirms your humanity, and a form of resistance against cynical worldviews that dismiss hope as a powerful force for change.

“Hopepunk, the latest storytelling trend, is all about weaponized optimism”, Vox, 12/27/18

Romano gives examples. Game of Thrones (which I have never seen/read so don’t @ me) is grimdark, in spite of the noblebright character Jon Snow. Parks and Rec (which I just watched in its entirety for the second time since it went off the air, solely because The West Wing Weekly podcast featured a special episode showing how it was a comedy version of TWW) and The Good Place (which I lost track of in Season 3 but was a big fan of the first two, given its enthusiasm for philosophy) are hopepunk.

No, I don’t quite get it, but I’m all for positive action and a current of hope and optimism underlying even the worst times. I never got Seinfeld either; they were all nasty, judgmental people who couldn’t stand anyone with man-hands or soft voices, and unlike Archie Bunker, the racist with a heart of gold (a troubling image in itself), there was no redeeming quality among any of them. Yet they were icons of the 90s. Which may be how we ended up with hipsters and twenty-something salesclerks who sneer at you for buying products that pay their minimum wages. Everything’s complicated, isn’t it?

What does all this have to do with Houston’s essay, with dying dogs and orphaned elks and impending environmental catastrophe and distant reading?

Oh yes, distant reading.

Last winter, a colleague taught a class in something called “distant reading.” Because I have spent half my life teaching close reading, when the grad students first told me about it, I thought it was a joke. But distant reading, according to the New York Times is “understanding literature not by studying particular texts but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.”
“It’s not actually done by people,” my student Becca told me. “You take a body of literature, say, all the books set in Paris from 1490 to 1940, plug them into a computer, and the computer can tell you how many mentions of the Pont Neuf there were.” It was, I understood, an attempt to repurpose literature. As if all beings are best understood only in terms of their aggregate, as if by making things less particular, one made them more powerful or clear.

Now wait a minute. As I understand it (I’ve have had some vague exposure, at a very low level, to this sort of thing via digital humanities and corpus linguistics moocs), distant reading is not a replacement for close reading; it’s a way to look at an author’s oeuvre, or at a genre or period, to find overall trends and patterns, which can then be aligned with history and/or compared to individual works to see what conforms to those patterns and what resists them. Sneering at distant reading is something like complaining about research into brain tumors because it doesn’t treat heart attacks or immunize children against measles. Then again, it’s Houston who’s a professor at UCDavis, so maybe I should just shut up. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d misunderstood, or missed the point.

I seem to be jumping all over the place here. That isn’t a bad thing, to me; an essay that connects to other ideas, that reminds me of something else, is a good thing, a great thing. Or maybe I’m just making excuses for using Houston’s essay to get sloppy about organization, to spout off on my own stuff.

Back to the beginning of the essay. We open with the last days of Fenton, Houston’s 11-year-old Irish Wolfhound. It’s exactly as you’d expect: heartbreaking, poignant, and beautiful, as love and loss flow across the page. I don’t particularly want to know anyone who could read this and not be moved. I myself was sobbing by the end.

Then we move into a broader focus on the natural world, and the impending and ongoing ecological disaster that Houston sees as analogous to the loss of Fenton:

If we pretend not to see the tenuous beauty that is still all around us, will it keep our hearts from breaking as we watch another mountain be clear cut, as we watch North Dakota, as beautiful a state as there ever was, be poisoned for all time by fracturing? If we abandon all hope right now, does that in some way protect us from some bigger pain later? If we never go for a walk in the beetle-killed forest, if we don’t take a swim the algae-choked ocean, if we lock grandmother in a room for the last ten years of her life so we can practice and somehow accomplish the survival of her loss in advance, in what ways does it make our lives easier? In what ways does it impoverish us?
We are all dying, and because of us, so is the Earth. That’s the most terrible, the most painful in my entire repertoire of self-torturing thoughts. But it isn’t dead yet and neither are we. Are we going to drop the earth off at the vet, say goodbye at the door, and leave her to die in the hands of strangers? We can decide, even now, not to turn our backs on her in her illness, we can still decide not to let her die alone.
…. There are times when I understand all too well what my colleagues in Davis are trying to protect themselves from…. If I hadn’t slept those three nights on the porch with Fenton, it would have been three fewer nights of my life spent with an actively breaking heart. But a broken heart—God knows, I have found—doesn’t actually kill you. And irony and disinterest are false protections, ones that won’t serve us, or the earth, in the end.
For now, I want to sit vigil with the Earth the same way I did with Fenton. I want to write unironic odes to her beauty, which is still potent, if not completely intact.

Here’s where I get confused. I don’t know anyone who isn’t concerned, to at least some degree, about our precarious biosphere. There are the deniers, but they have other agendas, and who knows what they feel; I don’t think they are who Houston is talking about, anyway. Is there some pact at UCDavis to ignore the problems of the planet? Does one have to live in close touch with nature to recognize the damage that is being done, and to do one’s best – through daily stewardship, voting, and contributions – to reduce it? Isn’t holding the earth’s head in our laps and weeping as we watch her die a little defeatist? It seems to me a great many people are working very hard to keep it alive; should they now sit upon the ground and tell sad stories?

And by the way, I do want people to write what they want, including unironic odes to the beauty of the earth. But isn’t there a place for ironic humor? Doesn’t it expand the reach of the message? Doesn’t the sign above leave a visceral message of the consequences of denial?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m missing the point. Or being overly rigid in my metaphoric reading. Or I’m just feeling miffed, and striking back. I’m a city dweller; I always have been. I don’t think that renders me immune to feeling the horror as regulations are rolled back (radiation isn’t that bad for you; carbon dioxide is a good thing, just look at Venus; mmmm, mercury, they put it in thermometers, how bad could it be?) and acknowledging a tragic loss as the Amazon rain forests continue to shrink in the name of commerce (and just wait, the upcoming years are bound to be worse).

I’ve said before that the awe and majesty some see in the Grand Canyon or Lake Louise for me takes place when I get a glimpse of how a living body breaks down glucose to generate energy, or how a cell divides, over and over, for the most part correcting its errors along the way, how just by the tiniest forces of positive-attracts-negative we breathe and sing and love and write. And I have held three cats in my arms as, in their mid-to-late-teens, they died (one was put down while in surgery) and have mourned each one. I know the terrible process by which we decide the suffering is greater than the living, and surrender them to whatever is next.

How will we sing when Miami goes underwater, when the raft of garbage in the ocean gets as big as Texas, when the only remaining Polar Bear draws his last breath, when fracking, when Keystone, when Inhofe…? I don’t know. And I imagine sometimes, often, we will get it wrong. But I’m not celebrating the Earth because I am an optimist—though I am an optimist. I am celebrating because this magnificent rock we live on demands celebration. I am celebrating because how in the face of this earth could I not?

I was in high school on the first Earth Day. I lug my groceries in cloth bags. And, by the way, I haven’t owned or driven a car (or lived in a household with a car) for twenty years. I live in a city because there are busses that get me where I need to go. I did not, I should say, make this choice for ecological reasons; I simply hate driving, and prefer to spend money on things other than insurance and gasoline and repairs. But I’ll match my carbon footprint against anyone’s. I’m not cynical about nature; I just am more comfortable where I am. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care.

There’s one more thing that comes into play here. This isn’t my first encounter with Houston. Her article “Corn Maze” appeared in the 2014 Pushcart. I had a pretty strong reaction to that, too, when she defended 82% truth as a reasonable benchmark for non-fiction. Of course, now that we live in a land where truth barely exists, 82% sounds pretty good, but at the time I pretty much threw a hissy fit. And in the here and now, I kept wondering as I read this essay: which 18% is made up?

I may sound like I’m picking on Houston. I’m not (and if I were, wouldn’t that be like a black fly – one of the best reasons in Maine to avoid nature – picking on a moose?). I’m just reacting to what I’ve read, which is what I do here all the time. It’s just that she tends to come up with things that get strong reactions out of me. That’s not a bad thing. If I were being ironic, I’d just write up the structure and content and turn the page.

But I can’t do that. Because I’m engaged with the issues, and I care.

Pushcart XLIII: Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends

Installation art by Jan Reymond; photo by Thomas Guignard

Installation art by Jan Reymond; photo by Thomas Guignard


 
…. I find it impossible to pretend that all of the “best” (however you define what “best” can mean) is only to be found in our few hundred pages. Over the decades, the quality of independent writing has surpassed any attempt by a mere anthology to capture all, or even most, of that “best.”
So I think it is fair to consider the following pages to be a sample of the excellence out there in the worldwide universe of literary endeavor. Please particular attention to the Special Mention section. All these writers have won a Pushcart Prize to my mind.

~ Introduction

 

That’s an argument I have whenever I mention these volumes to someone who wasn’t aware of them: “But who gets to decide what’s best?” they always ask, as though the question has never come up. I suppose the series could be re-subtitled “A representative sample of the small presses” but that doesn’t really sing, does it?

These introductory posts are where I transition, refocusing my efforts from whatever I’ve been doing to a six- to nine-month stint going through material that is often over my head: it’s time to feel stupid again. Not that I don’t always feel stupid, since I’m perpetually locked in a battle of wills with math, where I feel stupid every day. But feeling stupid with words hurts more. Still, feeling stupid is the only way I know to learn. And mixed in with the stupid is great beauty, even when – maybe especially when – I don’t know what it’s called. I’m delighted that my blogging buddy Jake Weber will be posting about the fiction in the volume; in fact, he’s already started, so feel free to head on over and get started.

This is where I typically bounce off whatever material is in the Introduction. That’s difficult this time, since the intro is a bit of a mishmash, beginning with the joyous welcome of twin grandsons (Congratulations!) and moving through a mixture of paragraphs about the history of Pushcart, swipes at the current situation in the US, and a heartfelt farewell to a beloved canine companion (Condolences). Maybe that’s the approach to try.

This past year, in addition to the seemingly accelerating loss of artists due to the ravages of time, those of us who pay attention to literary magazines have seen Glimmer Train and Tin House announce their goodbyes (Tin House will continue online and book publications).

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star,” said Nietzsche’s Zarathustra; “Out of Chaos, Brilliant Stars are Born” claims a rendering of the I Ching. I hope so. I don’t know if I’ll be around to see it, but it seems like it’s gonna be a helluva star.

(Bouncing and transitioning isn’t going so well for me, is it.)

Today I was re-reading Andrew Kaufman’s story “The Tiny Wife” (I have a Madras Press edition I keep in my rucksack for bus rides, waiting rooms, etc.) It starts with an unusual bank robbery; as the robber departs, he announces, “When I leave here, I will be taking 51% of your souls with me…. learn how to grow them back, or you will die.”

Time to see what knowledge, wisdom, and comfort – soul-growing stuff – I can find in the pages of this volume. It’s never let me down.

Jordan Ellenberg: The Grasshopper King (Coffee House Press, 2003)

I think it’s best that I begin with a legend – a mostly true one.
It goes like this: in 1871, a luckless prospector and aesthete named Tip Chandler, lost in the desert, his mules weakening and his canteen two days empty, came to the edge of a tremendous mesa. Seeing that he Could travel no farther, and knowing that no salvation lay behind him, he fell to his knees and resigned himself to death. But at that moment, a spring of fresh water gushed out from the desiccated ground. Chandler threw himself down, pressed his lips to the earth, and drank; and when, at last, bloated and drenched, he allowed himself to lift his head and breathe, he was overtaken by a vision. He saw, he wrote later, “a splendid City , replete with and dedicated to the sundry pursuits of Knowledge, Art, and Faith; a truly second Athens through whose avenues progressed Architects, Mathematicians, Clergyman, Poets, and Scientists of all sorts; and having in it a great College, which stood up on the Cliffside, a Testament to the Power of Reason whose Beacon shined forth unto the savage and uncomprehending Plain!”

We all have those magnificent visions; maybe not of splendid Cities, but of achievement, love, success, having it all. Ellenberg’s book is here to remind us, in a hilarious way, that we often follow the wrong track in our pursuit of happiness. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to realize it in time to start over. And sometimes not.

The first 50 pages or so are – well, I keep wanting to use the word “rollicking”, though that isn’t really my kind of word. It fits, though. Fast-paced, funny, a little weird without being absurd, Part 1 of the three-part novel takes us from the genesis of Chandler University, a place that never rose to anywhere near the heights envisioned by founder Tip Chandler, through the career of Stanley Higgs, founder of the study of Gravinics. If you’ve never heard of Gravinics, don’t worry; it’s a fictional Eastern European culture (presumably based on the very real Gravettian culture that produced so many ancient Venus figures, carvings of women with enormously enlarged breasts and buttocks) that survived from paleolithic times remarkably unsullied by outside influences.

Higg’s career began when, as a Columbia grad student in comparative literature, he discovered a book in a trash bin. Wiping off the mayonnaise, Higgs uncovers the heretofore unknown poetry collection Poems Against the Enemies Both Surrounding and Pervading Us by Henderson (who must have a first name, but I don’t remember and can’t find it) proclaiming sentiments like “the hectoring of the vendors of spoiled fish/is equal in offensiveness to/the/hideous coughing of my mother. /Berlin is dying/of syphilis and I/ am its rotting nose.” More blog entry than Pound’s “old bitch gone in the teeth.” But it’s the very lack of poetic value that seems to attract Higgs.

Henderson, in his hatred for the reader, for the female sex, for his adopted Germany – really, for everyone – had arrived at a sort of perfection of which ordinary and good poets could not be capable. His work was cleansed entirely of affect, wit, and sense. And so, as he read, was Higgs. He had to lean on a wall; he was shell-shocked; he could smell the evenings fog coming in, and the fish. It was like a glimpse of a world where all laws were suspended: not just human laws but natural selection, the relation of energy to mass, gravity.

His academic career soars when he comes to Chandler to found the Gravinics department, marries the Dean’s daughter, and proves to be an eloquent lecturer. The basketball team becomes infatuated with Gravinics for some reason, and, for a possibly unrelated reason, they start winning games. The school sees this scholar of terrible poetry as a cash cow, attracting better quality students, grant money, the Henderson Society now funded by a Japanese electronics giant, basketball championships, and all those things school truly value when knowledge doesn’t pay the bills. But after a brief Golden Age, things start to sour, until Higgs retreats into his home, refusing to speak.

Enter Sam Grapearbor, our first-person narrator who has until now merely recounted history. And, by the way, we’re only on page 47; this rollicking thing keeps us moving along. In fact, on first read, my impression was that the middle of the book sagged, but after a second read I realize that’s more a matter of comparison; it’s more like it settles down into more of a usual reading pace.

It’s kind of an interesting structure for a novel: start with 50 pages of backstory (take that, in media res) and finishes off with 40 pages of denouement, sandwiching ~150 pages of plot progression, ending in a Marx-Brothers-meet-Mel-Brooks climax, in between. The closing scene, a flashback, ends as we began, with gushing water. Having just done some minor research for a BASS story into Moses striking the rock – on two occasions, with very different outcomes – to bring forth water, I have to steer myself away from overinterpretation. By the way, this whole novel would make a really fun movie, between cinematic scenes, awkward romance, and generous helpings of goofiness; someone slip a copy to a movie producer, ok?

My source text was the sentence, “I kicked the dog.” McTaggert’s idea was that I would acquaint myself with the mechanics of Gravinic by producing a complete list of possible translations.. The tally would run into the tens of thousands. One had to know, first of all, what sort of kick was involved – was it a field-goal swing, a sidewise foot-shove, a horizontal sweep involving the entire leg? All these, and more, called for different verbs. Was the kicking of the dog habitual, or a one-time action? Does the speaker mean to imply that the kick is apt to be repeated? And whose dog is it?
My initial interest in the language had by now transmuted itself into something like awe. Gravinic was a perfected vehicle for meaning – exact meaning.

It’s a tightly woven story, all the parts fitting together. In his “Twenty Questions” interview with Rain Taxi, Ellenberg – a child math prodigy who, at the time of publication in 2003, was teaching math at Princeton, and is now a math professor at UW-Madison – said he didn’t originally think the novel was mathematical, then he saw a causal unity driving the characters. I, a mathphobe who’s been taking and retaking high school math for, oh, 40 years now, trying to get the jokes, see it as highly mathematical in the same way Bach is described as mathematical: each element, each detail is part of a network and ties to other elements and details to create a strong but flexible cloth, with no excess or loose threads. Oh, and there are a couple of geometric terms – parallelepiped and frustum, for instance – that I have a feeling Sam never encountered, unless they happen to be hot topics in Gravinic poetry. But it’s the language as a vehicle for “exact meaning” that really tips it off.

Some of the more interesting threads connect Sam and other characters. Henderson’s parents were British ex-pats who settled in Gravine before moving on to Berlin; Sam’s parents ran a restaurant in NYC before moving to Chandler City, partly because they felt the counterculture movement they loved was selling out, and partly because his mother read an article about Tip Chandler: “I think she had some idea that, born in the West, I would grow up steely, level-voiced, inclined to swift action. My mother is a woman of passionate opinion, and has been wrong about many things; but never, I believe, more wrong than in this.” Both Higgs and Sam find the documents that begin their academic careers in trash bins, covered with mayonnaise (a particularly amusing leitmotif loaded with significance). And both meet women who moved from more prestigious institutions of higher learning to Chandler, though for different reasons.

In my travels I ran across a 2015 blog post by one Holden Lee, a PhD student in mathematics at Princeton on his way to an academic career; his post is a great synopsis and analysis. He felt the novel captured the journey through academia perfectly. I never got beyond a BA at a third-rate state school, so I’ll have to take his word for it. But he highlighted a particular passage of the novel that struck me in light of another article I’d read recently.

Behind each rectangle of light there was a chemist, a dramatist, a creative writer, an anthropologist, or something else. Our Babel, this welter of disciplines, our own bituminous tower. Something had gone wrong; the confounding of the tongues had proceeded on schedule but the victims had failed to scatter, as intended, across the span of the earth.

A few weeks before, I’d read an article by Kamil Ahsan mourning the kind of super-specialization his PhD in biology had required. He’d been initially inspired by what today would be called science communicators: scientists who write for the general audience in a way that catches on, in Ahsan’s case, Stephen J. Gould (I myself bought Eight Little Piggies by mistake and was similarly, though not so practically, captivated, so I get this). But his academic career didn’t do the science communicators justice:

…until one day you will realize that every single ambitious colleague with whom you entered graduate school who wanted to be a tenured professor in biology actually swore off academia quite some time ago, and is now unsure about what to do next, and embarrassed about it, because what do you do next when there is nothing you have been trained to do well enough except inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years, and then you will finally realize the dark humor in your conundrum, that it wasn’t just this awful, exploitative system of apprenticeship, but also a false reading on your part, a sense of certainty you developed somewhere along the line, and that you do—as a matter of fact—bear some responsibility for this crisis.

We didn’t quite know then that the average length of an apprenticeship in academia—ostensibly to develop the mere ability to study something—has gotten bigger and bigger, just as the prospects become dimmer and dimmer. But we only seem to find out once it’s too late.

I get that, too, though it cost me a lot less in time and money. I spent twelve weeks taking a fantastic MIT mooc on molecular biology which focused on DNA replication and repair, yet declined to take parts II and III on transcription and RNA processing because, not being headed towards true academic study of biology, I had other things I wanted to study over the remainder of the year, and the intensity of the biomoocs would have limited my ability to do that.

But, even at my level, I get what he’s saying about how academia narrows your focus, and does create a kind of Babel with biologists over here, mathematicians over there, and Gravinics in another wing. It’s necessary, to some degree, at this point; the low-hanging fruit has been picked, it’s not a matter of growing peas in your back yard any more. So as Higgs – and Sam, and pretty much everyone else in universities – focus more and more on less and less, there’s great value added to knowledge, yes, but there’s also a loss of cross-pollination. That’s why I appreciate mathematicians who can write really good novels (and, by the way, this wasn’t a casual undertaking; Ellenberg studied fiction with people like Robert Stone and Stephen Dixon at Johns Hopkins). And doctor/poets and engineer/artists and all the other marvellous combinations that are possible.

The other theme that shines through the book is that of relationships. This was mentioned in Ellenberg’s aforementioned Rain Taxi interview, as he alludes to the Great American Nerd Novel in response to a question about the trouble the men in the book have with women. Remembering that this book was published in 2003, I was brought up short by a small scene in which Julia, attending a department function with Sam, sees all these socially awkward men trying to have normal conversations and asks, “Where are the wives?” The question today would be, “Where are the female professors?” but that’s beyond the pale for this time and place; that there are no wives speaks to the woman-blindness pretty dramatically.

Sam’s relationship with Julia is another network thread, mirroring Higg’s relationship with his wife, Ellen. I would imagine Julia sees this as her possible future, and she’s not going to let it go there. Sam is less astute.

She must never have imagined we would stay together so long. I think her idea, conscious or not, was to do something about my awfulness; and that, by now, she had accomplished. But something made her stay. I do not want to exaggerate my charms. It may be that I was still more awful than I thought.
Thinking back now, it seems to me that those dog-kicking weeks were the happiest time I have known.

I do have one criticism (hey, it keeps me honest, the more I like a read, the harder I look for a reason to complain about it): Charlie Hascomb. He’s a minor character who plays a crucial role in the climax based on two qualities. Those qualities seem rather shoehorned in, revealed by bald narration with little context explaining their revelation, rather than by character development. I think this is a product of the book’s streamlined economy; it’s the only place it bothers me.

So how did I come to read a fifteen-year-old, relatively obscure title – by which I mean it’s not likely to be showing up on the Millions’ Year in Reading list (to their detriment)? It started with Ben Orlin’s recent fun-math book, Math with Bad Drawings, which I posted about a few weeks ago. When I ordered it last fall, it occurred to me I could to a little cluster of fun-math books, so I added in Ellenberg’s How Not To be Wrong; I follow him on Twitter as part of my mathphobia-recovery program. Sadly, it was not to be; I lost the thread fairly early on, which is what usually happens with me and fun-math books (I still have hope for Eugenia Cheng’s How to Bake Pi, but it’s going to have to wait ‘til after Pushcart season). I felt so bad at my failure, I checked to see if he’d written anything else, and discovered this novel. A novel about academia, no less, one of my favorite subjects. I was, as I’ve said, hooked by the middle of page 1, and I felt a lot better.

See? Sometimes a wrong start can steer you into the place you were meant to be, all along.

Erik Kwakkel: Books Before Print (2018, ARC Humanities Press)

As a scholar of medieval book culture I handle manuscripts (handwritten books made before the invention of print) several times per week period I cannot help but speed up as I make my way to the Special Collections Library. What will the object I called up from the vault look like? what might it let me discover about its past? as soon as I touch the menu script it attacks the senses: its pages are “velvety” to the touch, they sound crackly and tired when I turn them, and they present a musky scent that is unbeatable if you like old books. As the manuscript starts acclimatizing to the warmer and moisture air outside the vault, the tips of the pages begin to curl – although not usually as much as the ninth century manuscript on the cover of this book – as if to encourage me to keep going. I find the whole experience simply magical, each and every time.
It is this feeling of magic and excitement that I am trying to convey in the book you are holding. This volume is intended for those who want to learn about medieval manuscripts and are new to the topic, or perhaps have some prior knowledge.

Preface

The first thing I noticed when I got this book was the totally different aesthetic experience of seeing a manuscript page in print, in my hand, as compared to on a computer screen. That difference surprised me; I still wonder if there’s a neurophysical reason, or if it’s just psychological, a slight change that feels exaggerated. I’m not knocking the many wonderful digitalizations available to all of us; without these, I would never have encountered medieval books at all. It’s just that, as my entire (meagre) experience of looking at manuscripts has been online, through moocs or twitter feeds or blogs, I was quite stunned when I opened this book to a full-page image from the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the first manuscripts I came to recognize with some regularity.

The book is, as Kwakkel tells us in his Preface, intended both for academic use, and for “non-experts outside academia” – hey, that’s me! As I said when I took my first manuscript mooc back in 2015, had I known fields like book history and medieval studies existed when I was at the age of making decisions about my future, I very well might have ended up there. This book is yet another way I can get in on the good stuff, even now.

And, in fact, this book would make a lovely companion volume to any of the introductory manuscript moocs I’ve taken. It covers similar areas – the historical development of books primarily through the medieval period, a very brief overview of bookmaking procedures, and, most importantly, explanations of why books were made they way they were. It’s loaded with full-color images, as well as references for further study.

I’m nowhere near “done” with it; I’ve just done a quick read to facilitate this post. I will keep it near my computer, where I’ll continue to go through it at a leisurely pace, pursuing all the leads it provides

The last page of the book is equally telling of the manuscript’s history as its first page. due to its location, however, the end of the book contains very different information than that found on the opening page. The last page represents the closure of a book project, and sometimes the scribe wanted to provide some information about himself or the circumstances under which the book was produced. Given that medieval books left a title page, such explicit information is very welcome: it makes the last page an important location for historians of the book.

Ch. 6

We get to see how book historians take what to me is incomprehensible and discover clues to a manuscript’s origins, sometimes with remarkable precision. Kwakkel explains how scripts changed over time and in different regions, allowing the very writing of the text to narrow down the place and time it was written. He uses a specific example of overlapping letters – biting and kissing, as he puts it – with images that help with understanding. While scripts are not the focus of the book, there’s enough to give a good idea of what specialists look for, and how they view the text of a manuscript.

This is the area of my nascent investigation of manuscripts where I am weakest: paleography. I have a smattering of Latin, French, and Spanish, not anywhere near enough for communicative competence but enough to recognize words at least; yet I still can’t figure out any texts. So many letters, and letter combinations, look alike to me! I did some amateur calligraphy when I was younger (hey, didn’t we all?) so I understand the pen strokes, but that doesn’t help in reading. And then there are the abbreviations, which complicate it all the more – even if I figure out the letters, they may not spell a word, certainly not one I can google for a translation. One of the moocs I took featured some extended practice with reading Spanish documents, but I found it more frustrating than enlightening. It could be that, like math, this is something that will remain beyond my reach given my age and circumstances.

While readers of printed books had little choice as to the physical appearance of the object they read, owners of manuscripts handled a book that was made especially for them. Consequently, they would normally specify what it should look like, as explained in the General Introduction. You might think that medieval readers would go overboard and abuse this freedom of choice, ordering polka-dotted books with pink letters written upside down on triangle-shaped pages. The opposite turns out to be true. Book owners before print are predictable in that they mostly opted for regular features: their choices are typical, almost conforming to some unwritten rules. It is probable that scribes, who knew the rules, attempted to keep deviations from the norm at bay.
This striking act of confirmation results from what is a driving force behind the chosen physical features : the anticipated use of the book.

Ch. 20

One predominant theme of this book is the principle of form follows function. A Book of Hours, intended for personal devotions, might be small so as to be easy to carry, and highly decorated to encourage meditation on the material within. Speakers and performers might prefer a narrow book that can be held in one hand. A copy of some work of Aristotle, intended for academic work, might have very wide margins for notes, clarifications, and outside references (and, by the way, I was happy to learn that medieval students wrote extensively in margins, a habit that sometimes earns me a scolding by someone who insists I should take better care of my books; I do take care of them, by using them).

I found the section on hornbooks particularly interesting. These are almost-books in that they aren’t quires bound together (the technical definition of a book) but a single sheet mounted on something like a wooden paddle, and covered with a layer of animal horn shaved so thin it’s nearly transparent: medieval plastic, if you will. They were used as primers to teach children to read. The written portion might only be an alphabet and a passage that would be memorized by any child of the time: certain prayers, for instance. Their form emphasized durability, given the primary users were children. And, by the way, hornbooks used in U.S. law schools – a small book offering a quick review of a single concept – are said to borrow the term, as they, too, serve as primers of a sort.

Here we examine books with remarkable tools and instruments physically attached to them, a genre that is both rare and versatile – and comma frankly, a bit weird as well. Mounted onto the page or bookbinding, these added instruments extend the book’s primary function as an object that one reads into a utilitarian piece of hardware. Some of these add-ons Functioned as a calculator, others – astonishingly – even allowed the reader to tell time. As unusual as this enhanced functionality was in the Middle Ages, to a modern person it seems very familiar. Apps on our smartphones, after all, do precisely the same: they extend the function of the phone far beyond its original parameters. Let’s examine how medieval books were sometimes more than books.

Ch. 26

This is another theme of the book: nothing new under the sun, and everything old is new again. Page numbers, running titles, footnotes, bookmarks, marginal notes, speech bubbles: these were part and parcels of book, and by the late Middle Ages are remarkably similar to the contemporary versions. The examples provided here are wonderful and varied, and, like Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” connect us to the past in a powerful way.

And then there’s the unexpected. Scraps of parchment and, later, paper, are nearly always left over after sheets used for books are cut. Because of their irregular sizes and shapes, they’re used for temporary writings – notes, letters – that aren’t meant to be preserved. But one special use stands out: a Dutch orphanage preserved name tags from the fifteenth century, name tags that were pinned to the infants that came into their care. Some included a background story for the child; others just a name. These scraps of paper still bear the pin holes from their attachment to the child’s clothing. I wouldn’t have expected an emotional experience from an academic book on manuscripts, but human artefacts reflect our humanity, even after five hundred years of storage.

I first became aware of Erik Kwakkel through, guess what, a mooc. One of the assignments was to create a Pinterest board with five examples of the weekly topic – writing supports, inks, bindings, etc. I discovered Kwakkel’s blog (which, by the way, contains versions of some of the material in this book) which proved particularly helpful with examples of creative parchment repairs and discoveries of manuscript fragments. I started following him on Twitter, along with several other academic medievalists and book specialists. I knew I’d be buying this book. Academic books are ridiculously expensive (a topic academics love to discuss). So I was delighted that, while the hardcover edition was indeed out of my range, the paperback fit nicely in my budget, and was my 2018 Christmas present to myself.

Hope through Existentialism mooc

Course: HOPE: Human Odyssey to Political Existentialism
Length: 10 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Princeton/edX
Instructor: Uriel Abulof
Quote:

Human Odyssey to Political Existentialism (HOPE) is a journey into the human condition and its politics, turning to existentialism for guidance. The course explores, on both individual and political levels, the following themes: Human / nature, identity & authenticity, freedom, reflection, happiness, death & dread, meaning, morality & ethics, truth & trust, God & religion, alienation & love, and finally – hope.”

HOPE is a richly interdisciplinary course: anchored in political science and philosophy, it also draws on history, sociology, psychology, and economy – synthesizing theoretical insights with empirical findings; both vintage and novel. HOPE shows that science and art can create a wonderful synergy when studying – indeed foregrounding – our humanity.

When I signed up for this course, I figured it would be one of the “light” philosophy moocs: less about reading Sartre, and more about “how do you feel about X”. That’s ok, that can be useful. Then, a few weeks before the start date, Princeton sent out a unique preview video that made me – can I say it? – hopeful that the course might be quite interesting.

There wasn’t any reading Sartre, it’s true, and rather than reading chapters of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, there were nutshell versions of pertinent ideas. But a great deal of work went into putting together a course that showed applications and consequences of those ideas in the form of film, literature, and music. And, yes, discussion questions.

Each of eight content weeks (plus an introductory week) focused on a topic – say, identity, or freedom, or happiness. Material included a warm-up exercise, perhaps a poll on what quality makes humans different from animals, or a discussion question like “Is a happy virtual reality better than a miserable reality?” Lecture videos tended to run longer than the canonical 6-minutes, but usually included film clips and/or music videos pertinent to the topic. Clips varied from 1984 to more obscure European films; the music videos were mostly alternative/progressive rock: Pink Floyd, REM, Radiohead. This sounds minor, but trust me, while permission is almost always granted for this sort of thing, the process – even if it’s just putting up a credits list of public domain items – still requires significant work. A lot of care went into this course.

Specific discussion questions followed each video – and, by the way, this is the only course I’ve taken that has figured out how to solve the problem of “what part of ‘Reply, don’t start a new thread’ do you not understand”. Unfortunately, it was difficult to follow up, since only direct replies were notified, but that’s true no matter what. Brief multiple choice quizzes with several attempts were also included, as well as a “Gallery Assignment” – basically a discussion question plus art, which ended up offsite on a Princeton board. Grading was a complicated mixture of these elements, but basically required self-reported participation in discussions and the Gallery as well as quiz scores to earn a passing grade.

I was psyched at the beginning, but I have to admit, I got a little tired of it as time went on; I more or less skipped the last two weeks. That isn’t the fault of the course, which is imaginative and carefully designed and executed. I just have a preference for the dry, straight lectures and reading assignments so many people take courses like this to avoid. I knew what it was going in, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to try something a little different. And for those who would rather bypass the dry lectures and voluminous reading, it offers an experiential way to encounter some of the basic ideas of existentialism.

David Brooks: The Book of Sei (Faber and Faber, 1988)

How so many could have interpreted such diverse things in so similar away I cannot tell. Perhaps the sight or rumor of what others were doing influenced their understandings; perhaps there were dimensions to these signs and portents that none could detect or consciously register. Whatever it was, in Vincentia, in St. Mary’s, in Albatross and Mooney Creek and all the small hamlets in between, on hillsides, on neighboring streets, on curves of the highway, roofs came off the houses, the paneling of weatherboard and fibro left the walls, and here a man could be seen showering in a cage of two-by-fours, there a family could be seen in their lounge room watching the sky over their television, in the manse at Albatross the housekeeper could be seen through the gaps of the bookshelf she was cleaning, staring across to where the SP bookie was tearing the paper from his shop-front, digging away at the putty of the windows, and from the first stirrings of this strange exposure, just after six on Friday, to the time of the shower on Sunday evening, people all down The Head began living out-of-doors in the comfort of their own carpeted rooms, sitting up late by unseasonal hearth-fires, making toast as they had once done as children while all the stars of the southern hemisphere attended. True enough, we laughed at ourselves, but we sat there just the same, against the cool night air, listening to the possums, yarning as we haven’t since our honeymoon.

”Blue”

A couple of decades ago, I acquired a book titled Sudden Fiction International, one of several anthologies of very short stories edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. I’m not sure when, how, or why the book came into my possession, or if I even read it at the time (the 90s were a pretty weird time for me, much like the 80s, the 70s, the 60s, the aughts, the 10s…). I did pick it up (again?) about ten years ago, when I started writing a bit of flash, to read as a model. I loved these stories, but one in particular stood out: “Blue” by David Brooks (who is, I should clarify, an Australian writer and professor, not the American journalist), originally published in his collection The Book of Sei. It remains one of my favorite stories.

For some reason, I never followed up to see what else Brooks had written, though I thought about it from time to time. And for some other reason, I finally decided it was time, a few months ago, to read the collection whence what has remained one of my favorite short-shorts ever came.

The twenty-three stories in the collection live in a world of possibilities, as Emily Dickinson imagined, but express those possibilities quite differently. A few are science fiction. Many are metaphysical, dancing around ontological questions. Some read like essays, some like history, anthropology, or biography. Most are fairly short; many are very short, two to four pages. They are all lyrical, mysterious, and intriguing.

A few exemplars:

Du” – a traveller, ill from his journey, spends a year in the city of Du, and discovers a strangely universal game that persists in him after he leaves, even as he travels to other cities. “In the City of the Game all things bear up on the stranger to the same effect, the dance of streets, the dance of customers, the dance of pieces on the board all linked, all governed by rules as deeply graven as topography itself…. Could it be, as some have claimed, that the modern game is a ritualization of the ancient conflict, a refinement of all its subsequent eruptions?”

The Dolphin” – A people come from another star just as Earth is forming, and end up, during a period of constant rain, splitting into two groups, one on land, one on sea. They hope to reunite, but never quite do.

The Journal of Roberto De Castellán” – A young naval officer tries to document the different peoples living on several separate islands; initially the largest island was populated with convicts, but some escaped to the second island, and some escaped to the third, etc etc. A sociological mystery.

The Lost Wedding” – A woman washes and hangs out her wedding dress periodically. She remembers getting engaged, spending a month preparing for nuptials, dressing for her wedding, nearing the church, then returning home for some forgotten item; but when she got back to the church, no one was there. And now, no one remembers it at all. Did it happen? “When she talks about her wedding, as she sometimes still does, Jennifer Cooley keeps changing things – one time, say, it’ll be a brooch she goes back for, another time a ribbon – as if fitting the wedding into the real history of things were a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, or like one of those shapes that in the children’s game you have to get into the right shaped holes…..Maybe she just doesn’t have the right shape yet.”

Black” – Various philosophers over time – among them, quoted in the story, are Grosseteste and Scotos Erigena, but Thomas Aquinas could be added to the list – have proposed that “Everything that is, is light.” What if it’s the other way? There’s an intriguing image of dark underneath writing, bringing to mind the idea that, instead of implanting black ink on white paper, maybe writing is scraping appearance enough to show the black reality underneath.

The Line” – What if one’s writing took on a will, a life of its own, independent of one’s pen? Where might it go, where might it end up?

Striptease” – Essayish examination of striptease, through the person of a man living with an artist who sometimes works as a stripper when finances require. It brought to mind two paintings by Manet, Olympia and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. All, of course, are from male viewpoints. But I also recall a short piece from an old Pushcart that featured a stripper’s musing on her art, on the men who watched her, written by a woman. I loved that piece. I had to mark it as Private, at the author’s request, because she worried it would impede her job search. I would have hired her on the spot.

The Tape-Recorder of Dreams” – Science says we dream far more than we remember. What if we had access to those forgotten dreams? Would we become addicted to listening, to ours, to the dreams of others? Remember, this was written pre-Internet. Would we become more compassionate, realizing that we all harbor evil? Would we be inspired? Might we think differently about consciousness, the border between life and death? Would recordings be banned? Required? Metaphysics as speculative fiction: “Although the face of society was not thus greatly altered, ones judgments upon its extremities were dramatically curtailed. One had to admit that deep within one’s self was very likely, in embryo, all evil, all perversity, and so one trod all the more gingerly…. It came to be suggested that at death we are not transported to some new and unaccustomed place, but into that parallel world towards which our dreams had always gestured.”

These have been compared to stories of Borges and Calvino, and I see the similarities. Sometimes they’re also highly spiritual, occasionally anthropological. The only story that didn’t interest me at all was the first and title story, the longest in the collection; it’s a tale of a lost wanderer in the woods that turns into a kind of Kama Sutra.

But the rest, to varying degrees, were stories I greatly enjoyed, though none quite reached me the way “Blue” did. Even as I dictated the paragraphs for this post (using voice recognition to save wear and tear on my wrists), I kept choking up.

And at last it came by the bucket full. A short, torrential pour which no one could have predicted and which all, mysteriously, recognized as the only true and likely culmination of those strange three days of air and light. Children ran about with buckets, the young people danced, and we who are older just sat in mute amazement: a short, sharp burst of blue carnations, tiny blooms like great, sky-petalled snowflakes in the evening dust. And we knew, all of a sudden, how terribly, terribly thirsty we had been, and we sat there or sang in the phenomenal rain, and something deep within us was drinking, every stem, every petal, every tiny perfect flower, slaking, in that long, imperfect summer, a deep, deep need for miracles, for something a little more than rain.

”Blue”

When I first started blogging back in fall of 2010 – my third start, after deleting my first two attempts – I had no idea what I wanted to do in this space. I keep wanting to delete those old posts, a mishmash of TV recaps and random thoughts. But among them is a post titled “Favorite Stories” which includes this one, and generated the idea to blog BASS and Pushcart. I’m not sure why it took me so long to look at Brooks’ other work, or why it struck me to do so now. Maybe that’s another metaphysical/psychological mystery, an impulse with its genesis in a forgotten past, an unseen present, or a looming future. In any case, I’m glad I finally got around to it. Maybe I should put Dean Paschal – another writer whose story, “The Puppies”, shows up in that old post – on my read list for next summer, after Pushcart.

 

Neuro in three acts: Fundamentals of Neuroscience MOOC series

Course: Fundamentals of Neuroscience (three course series)
Length: 5, 6, and 8 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: David Cox
Quote:

Based on the introductory neurobiology courses taught at Harvard College, Fundamentals of Neuroscience is a three-part series that explores the structure and function of the entire nervous system — from the microscopic inner workings of a single nerve cell to the staggering complexity of the brain.
You’ll study the electrical properties of individual neurons, examine how neurons pass signals to one another, and how complex dynamics result from just a few neurons. You’ll explore sensation, perception, and the physiology of functional regions of the brain.
Through fun animations, documentaries, and interactive virtual labs discover what makes the brain tick and how we perceive the world around us.

I’ve been taking this three-part series for so long, I don’t even remember when it started – oh, there it is, September 4, Part 1, The Electrical Properties of the Neuron. Then, in mid-October, Part 2, Neurons and Networks started, while Part 3, the examination of the broadest system, The Brain, began on Dec. 5. It’s all self-paced; in general, I finished each segment early, since I’ve been doing introductory neuro over and over for a while now. What can I say, I like brain stuff. I still have about a week to go before I finish up Part 3, but I wanted to get my postings done before the end of the year to clear the decks for Pushcart on January 1.

IIRC, I started this course several years ago when I was still fairly new to moocs; I quickly dropped it, since it was loaded with off-site content, much of which I had a lot of trouble working (I’m not sure if it was the system, or me, that was faulty). Things went much better this time around, perhaps due to streamlined and imported bells and whistles, perhaps due to me being better prepared.

I get the sense the developers of the course were really most interested in the first segment on electrical properties of the neuron –potentials, resistance, and the effects of electrolytes – since that’s where most of the fancy stuff was found: graphics to adjust levels of electrolytes across membranes with adjustable resistance, etc. I found some of it rather difficult to follow, and the material on length constant and time constant was far too brief. It’s possible I struggled because I was less interested in this particular area. Most neuroresearch, of course, measures electrical activity, so it’s appropriate that it’s emphasized.

In this segment there was even an optional do-it-yourself lab for “Recording and stimulating a nerve.” Materials required included a spiker box, stimulation cable, computer and smartphone, and a cockroach. Yeah, I think I’ll pass on that one.

The second course in the series moved up a level to interneuron communication via neurotransmitters and modulators, synapses, and excitation/inhibition patterns. Included were several interesting “Extras”, interviews with researchers looking at such topics as optogenetics – using a light-activated channel from algae to stimulate and record neuronal activity – and connectomics, a technique to understand the informational organization of the nervous system.

Part Three was more about structure and pathways in the brain: sensory and motor pathways, as well as the connections between areas that record memories and produce emotional responses. Some of the information – the structure of the lateral geniculate nucleus along the visual pathway, for instance – was extremely detailed and very helpful, while some – the sensory pathways – seemed more of an overview.

Each week’s material consisted of a number of short video lectures with two or three graded Practice Problems following, plus a final exam at the end of each course. Multiple attempts are given for each question in both cases; most of the questions are information-retrieval, the exception being the first course where a fair amount of applying various equations is required.

A great deal of material is covered, and it can be overwhelming for those who haven’t encountered these elements before, but that’s what learning is for. Fun fact: the only neurons that seem to be able to reproduce are located in the olfactory region (smelling) and the hippocampus (memory). No one’s exactly sure what this means yet; it’s possible the memory cells, most replicated in infants, actually destroy memory by “writing over” existing patterns. But why those cells? Why not spinal cord neurons, which might allow function to be regained after devastating injury? The answer will probably be found in evolutionary function; I have no idea what it might be, but I’ll bet it’ll be fascinating.

I find it all fascinating, that what we think and feel and do all boils down to electrical impulses carried by tiny wires. In many cases, particularly in the third course, the consequences of things going awry, despite all the redundancies and plasticity, are covered briefly. Given how complicated the neural system is, it’s kind of amazing things don’t go wrong more often. Yet here we are, still. At least for now.

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein: I Think, Therefore I Draw: Understanding Philosophy Through Cartoons (Penguin, 2018)

Like the best jokes, the best cartoons address philosophy’s Big Questions. They explain and illustrate these perennial conundrums and there are various answers in ways that hard sometimes ingenious, sometimes profound, and sometimes even a bit useful. Yep, these cartoons are incisive snapshots of the Biggies.
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Here, then, is a collection of our favorite philosophical cartoons and our annotations about what they teach us about the Big Questions in philosophy. Questions like, “Is there really any difference between girls and boys?” and “Is there a cosmic scheme?” and “What went wrong with right and wrong?” Eighteen of the most frequently asked questions in the history of philosophy.

I avoid visiting my local bookstore in person (unless I’m picking up a specific book they’ve ordered or held for me) because I can’t resist interesting covers and intriguing titles. Sometimes just walking past the display window is enough, as when I saw this volume a few weeks ago. I mean, it’s cute and tiny, about the size of a mass market paperback, and you had me at philosophy, hello, can I take it home mom, please?

Inside it is also cute and tiny and philosophical. The organization is, as advertised, around eighteen philosophical questions, introduced by eighteen cartoons. The connection between cartoon and philosophical point may be a bit tenuous, but that’s what the text is for. For example, Dave Carpenter’s cartoon featuring a man telling his psychiatrist, “I never realized how empty my life was until I started tweeting about it”, is part of the first section about the meaning of life, titled “What’s it all about, Alfie?” and brings in Heidigger’s Everydayess (and, for me, evoking DFW’s “This is Water” in the process) and Frankl’s logotherapy. All in about a page.

And therein lies the reason I avoid buying on impulse. If I’d thought about it, looked it over carefully, I would have realized there wasn’t enough bang for my buck here. Fast food. I don’t object to brevity – flash fiction is one of my favorite genres – but to fit Everydayness into a couple of sentences (not even complex sentences, for pete’s sake) kind of offends me. Then again, it’s not billed as a deep text on Heidegger, or anyone else, but more of an appetizer. And if it leads someone to investigate some nugget of philosophy in more depth, well, that’s nothing to sneeze at. For me, it was Sophie’s World, but whatever works.

In any case, it was an enjoyable book, and those who want a nutshell-version of philosophy, an offering of canapés from which one might choose an entrée – or maybe just a smile – would no doubt find it quite suitable. And, of course, for those who, much as I need Bad Drawings to approach math, can only overcome their fear of philosophy via cartoons, this would be ideal.

It’s one in a whole series put together by two former Harvard philosophy majors who spent most of their lives in other careers before producing humorous philosophy books. They’re all books I might like to check out of the library, or spend an hour browsing through in the atrium for that matter. I just wish I hadn’t impulsively spent part of my precious book budget on candy.