Religion + cogscience + psych + soc + anthro + digital humanities = MOOC


Course: The Science of Religion
Length: 6 weeks
School/platform: UBC/edX
Instructors: Edward Slingerland, Azim Shariff
Quote:
What is religion? Are we wired to believe? Does science have the answers?…Drawing on new scientific advances, this religion course examines foundational questions about the nature of religious belief and practice.
Topics to be covered will include traditional and contemporary theories of religion, with a special emphasis on cultural evolutionary models.

I’ve always felt one of the factors religion had going for it was its ubiquity in human history and, for that matter, prehistory. This course helped me understand why that might be the case – and a lot of other things besides.

Because I’d already taken the Chinese Thought moocs with Dr. Slingerland, I expected this to include a lot of cognitive and psychological science; I wasn’t disappointed. I discovered a technique of breaking down religion into cognitive units, of tracing religion through history and language, and of studying religious texts, new and old, through the digital humanities technique I’ve previously seen described as corpus linguistics. I even got the verdict on remote prayer (spoiler alert: contrary to that episode of The West Wing, it’s not scientifically verifiable). The material only grazed the surface of most of these questions, but there’s only so much you can do in six weeks and they went for breadth rather than depth. I found it fascinating.

The course setup was standard mooc: a set of lectures, a couple of ungraded “knowledge checks” after each, and a weekly graded multiple-choice information retrieval quiz that comprised the final grade. Each instructor did a week or two as a unit, switching a couple of times during the course. Along with
numerous guest experts they look at religion (all religion, from Brazilian simpatias to Polynesian sects to the ancient Chinese to those more common to most of us) from a variety of angles. Do we have some cognitive structure that makes religion as natural as language, and if so, is it intentional, or a side effect, so to speak, of another structure with a more practical evolutionary value? What cognitive elements do religions have in common? What are the psychological benefits to religion? How does religion affect communities? Can we study religious development by examining religious texts of the past? Can we design models to predict religious development? What about atheism, how does that fit in? What is most likely to happen to religion in the future?

Each week featured several optional extended interviews with the guest experts, as well as publicly-available videos featuring Baba Brinkman and Jordan Peterson relating to the topics at hand. A final improv video discussing popular topics and hot debates from the message boards ended each week, and if you still hadn’t had enough, every lecture segment ended with a long list of references for further reading. And to my delight, as in the Chinese Thought course, a weekly “blooper reel” brought the funny. Neither of the instructors comes across as pedantic or stuffy – quite the contrary – but it’s still nice to know even seriously smart people screw up. Sometimes repeatedly. And they manage to maintain a sense of humor about it.

I encountered a couple of things I’d never seen before in a mooc. First, while some introductory material was available immediately, the course content could only be accessed after acknowledging the discussion forum rules. The rules were standard (no threatening, no ridiculing) and are included somewhere in every mooc, but the prominence was interesting, and probably a good idea given the subject matter. The forums were very active and interesting, well-covered by staff, and I didn’t notice any problems at all; I’ve seen hotter tempers in math moocs.

Another new (to me) twist, one which disappointed me, was the inclusion of a fairly common “live hangout” session – but only for Verified, that is, paying, students. More and more, edX courses are finding ways to tuck course material behind paywalls. It wasn’t lack of access to the material that bothered me – I rarely participate in hangouts, though I like to watch them, but here there was more than enough material to keep me very busy – as much as the harbinger of things to come. I have no idea what kind of incentives or restrictions are part of the package these days for course presenters, but I’m guessing it’s persuasive.

Bottom line: I found the course well worth the time invested, and made several connections to other areas of interest that invite further follow-up.

Pushcart XLI: James Kimbrell, “Pluto’s Gate: Mississippi” (poem) from Cincinnati Review

                        For Private First Class, C. Liegh McInnis
 
I appear to be a full-on rich guy
wheeling into Oxford
down the Cedar-lined drive across from William Faulkner’s
determined to shield myself (my fancy wristwatch
                                             my roadster
                                             both used both fast as hell) from the
                                             shame
I once knew in this my state

Pluto’s Gate was, in the ancient world, the entrance to the Underworld. Proto-travelblogger Strabo, writing in the time just before BCE would turn to CE, wrote: “This space is full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death.” Located in the Phrygian city of Hierapolis (today’s Turkey), only eunuchs devoted to the fertility goddess Cybele could tolerate its fumes. The site was unearthed by archeologists in 2013, but lots of people, including poet James Kimbrell, were more than familiar with it long before then.

Kimbrell gives us a tour of the present and past of his home state through the poem. It’s not a narrative as much as it is an evoked memoir. He grew up poor, but the speaker acknowledges the pain of that poverty alongside the recognition that “no one swerved to hit us” the way they swerved to hit the black people on their way to the voter registration sites in 1964. Even in poverty, there is white privilege.

…and we all cry out stumbling in that wilderness
if we had soup we could have soup and crackers
if we had crackers. but of course
we don’t because love comes on like a weight
and a claw and a sucker punch
and in the case of Mississippi
gateway to this our under-country
history is the dish that leaves us skinny

The poem has an off-and-on two-column structure, reminding me of a dialogue. Between whom? Past and present? The speaker, and Mississippi? The poet and PFC C. Leigh McInnis, to whom the poem is dedicated, a friend and fellow poet Kimbrell originally met back when they both served in the Air National Guard? Speaker and reader? The sparse use of punctuation, mostly in quotes, gives some freedom to reading as some words and phrases align one way with a bit of a psychic overhang in another.

The language is rich with allusions blending into each other, most of which I’m probably not even picking up on but I’ll give it a shot:

backwoods Medusa with a kudzu Afro
whose green gaze
sprouts branches from the fluted
columns of Beauvoir
                      O hold my hand brother before we return
peckers in the dirt of our poke-salad geography
redeemed as empty Faygo bottles
in the burned-down shed
in the bamboo patch
behind Bilbo’s poolhall.

The mention of Medusa brings us back to the ancient world, her snake-hair now an Afro of kudzu, the Vine that Ate the South, and bringing in the dual fascination and fear the white world has with black women, often shown in attitudes towards black hair. The columns of Beauvoir, post-bellum estate of Jefferson Davis in Biloxi, brings us back to the South, and pokeweed weaves in the kind of poverty that has people eating weeds. I was a bit surprised to find there may be a guy in Mississippi named Bilbo who happens to have a pool table in his garage, per a Flickr photo, but mostly it brings the obvious to mind, the hobbit pilgrim.

In spite of my fumbling with symbols and references, I greatly enjoyed this poem. The tone has a strong effect on me: a kind of thrumming of different pulses on some subharmonic frequency that’s sad and beautiful and hopeful, all at the same time. The past never leaves us, but matters most in how it affects actions in the present and future, and that is, to a large degree, our choice.

Pushcart XLI: Kalpana Narayanan, “Dr. J” (nonfiction) from Granta #130

My father has his own language for everything. A friend of a friend is a FOF. A suitcase is a rolly-polly. When I finished my MFA, I was a NINJA: No Income, No Job, No Assets. The tree in his and my mother’s front yard, he points out to me as we walk, is called M-Squared, because it’s either a maple or a magnolia, he’s not sure which. Growing up in the South, I used to see this bumper sticker everywhere: ‘I can do all things through Jesus Christ who Strengthens Me.’ One day in high school, I went out to my dad’s car and saw that he had made his own bumper sticker. It said: ‘I can do all things through Lord Venkateswara who Strengthens Me.’ My dad moved to Atlanta twenty-nine years ago with one suitcase, and began to name the new things he saw, and press himself into this life, and a world sprang up around him.

 

Complete essay available online at Granta

There are those who make their home where they are, in spite of ties to distant lands; and there are those who go looking for home, sometimes for years. We see both sides here.

In spite of Narayanan’s restlessness throughout, her admiration of her father shines through. It’s a good essay to read now. It’s also painful, with the gunshots of the Kansas City murder still ringing in my head. I kept thinking: it could’ve been this man. I think that’s the gift an essay like this brings us: it introduces us to someone in a close, personal way, so he’s not a stranger any more, and maybe that proliferates just a bit and changes a few attitudes. Not enough, not nearly enough. But some.

I went looking for header art for this post, as I always do. Granta features the writer’s photograph of her father; I often use the art that accompanied a piece in publication, when it exists, as an acknowledgment, but that image felt too personal somehow; I didn’t want to intrude. So I googled “Home”. All I got were images of houses, lovely clean modern suburban American houses sitting on large green lawns. Although that no doubt matches Narayanan’s home experience, it felt too parochial, just as the snapshot felt too personal and home feels like home when you find it. One thing I’m sure of: home is not a building.

India is still his home. It’s where his mother is. It’s where, the day after he cremated his father’s body, he and his two brothers drove out to the Ganges, dumped in their father’s ashes and then took a dip together in cold, holy water. My dad says that as a child, his father would wade into the Kaveri River, carrying my dad on his shoulders, and that day it was my dad’s turn to carry his father’s remains into the water. It’s ‘Bol Radha Bol’, a song about two rivers, people, merging, that he knows all the words to, and that he croons at night.
But it’s Atlanta where he’s commissioner of the NBA: the Noontime Basketball Association, a group of Georgia Tech faculty and staff that play at lunchtime, and Atlanta where he goes by Dr J, a name his friend gave him in the eighties, in the era of Julius Erving’s slam dunk.

Every once in a while, the thought comes to me: “I want to go home.” I’m not sure where that home is. My family lived in Connecticut for a couple of years when I was about 8 years old, and when we moved to Florida, I always looked back to Weston as home. I was in Florida for ten years. But I left as soon as I could, and headed for New England. For Home, away from home. I’ve never lived in Connecticut (I did get married there) but I’ll always feel more drawn to bricks and four seasons and a nearby sea and other states an hour away than to any other settings.

But home? Home should be something more. Maybe this is homelessness, similar to Narayanan’s, but without the constant searching; a kind of settling into homelessness as home.

Three visions of home. Maybe there are as many visions as there are us.

Pushcart XLI: Jamila Woods, “Daddy Dozens” (poem) from Poetry, April 2015

My Daddy’s forehead is so big, we don’t need a dining room
table. My Daddy’s forehead so big, his hat size is equator. So
big, it’s a five-head. Tyra Banks burst into tears when she seen
my Daddy’s forehead. My Daddy’s forehead got its own area code.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

What a fun beginning: I did, in fact, laugh out loud, right there in the coffee shop where I read this, at the line about Tyra Banks. Guilty pleasures confession: I spent more time than I care to admit watching ANTM for a while there. But, like ANTM and everything else under the sun, the poem changes, and while the tone remains this loudmouth bratty teen dragging stock mocks down the page, a lot of truth gets mixed in along the way. We start to understand more about her Daddy, and by the end, we understand some of the loneliness the blustery humor can’t hide any more.

Woods has done poetry slams, musical albums (including a collaboration with Chance the Rapper). Considering how aural that is – and poetry itself is, of course, a spoken art, though it’s not always presented or perceived that way – I’m surprised how much the layout of this poem on the page contributed to its meaning. At first I wasn’t sure it was a poem; maybe the lines are sentences, just breaking at the margins like all paragraphs. But no, I don’t think so. The words are so dense on the page, not in a heavy or cumbersome way, but in a busy, fast-talking sort of way. The blank lines between stanzas give the reader a moment to readjust, the speaker a bit of time to weigh the options of going on or not. And that last line, isolated and alone, makes a perfect ending, visual, aural, and semantic aspects all focused as an underscore.

Mao MOOC

Course: Mao to Now: On Chinese Marxism
Length: 6 weeks
School/platform: University of Newcastly (AU)/edX
Instructor: Roland Boer
Quote:

Rather than praising or condemning, the course focuses on building a deeper understanding of this history through two interwoven elements.
The first structures the course in terms of some ‘red tourism’ to the sites important to the communist revolution in the first half of the twentieth century.
Much of the course footage was filmed on location in China, including Shaoshan, Ruijin, Yan’an and important locations in Beijing, such as Tiananmen and the Nationalities Museum (minzuyuan).
The second element of the course will take those experiences and use them to help answer some fundamental questions:
    • Is China socialist or capitalist today, or is it perhaps both at one and the same time?
    • Is there such a thing as Chinese socialist democracy, and, if so, what is it?
    • Does China have its own theory of human rights, drawn from the long Chinese tradition and Marxism?
    • If the Chinese state is a form that has not been seen before, then what is it?

I really liked the structure of this course: each week after the first covered a location important to Mao’s life, from his birthplace to the location of the first Chinese soviet to the end of the Long March to the mausoleum at Beijing. Lectures are shot at various locations in those cities, in one of the most on-site moocs I’ve taken.

However, I’m left with the feeling that this was a very one-sided picture. In fact, if the Chinese government produced a mooc on Mao, I’m guessing it would look a lot like this, and given the extended access for filming lectures, I have to wonder if there was any outside influence on content. For example, I’m not sure how it’s possible to discuss Mao’s influence on China without mentioning the Cultural Revolution. But then, I’m the first to admit I know virtually nothing about modern China. Some scenes had me wondering if there was a subtext: for example, the video scenes of National Day celebrations in Tianamen Square, while discussing the enormous crowds gathering from the early hours and the respectful and celebratory atmosphere, all featured generous phalanxes of soldiers and police. I looked through some images of typical Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, DC, but I wouldn’t draw any conclusions based on such a casual experiment.

Grading took a variety of forms: most of the points came from multiple choice midterm and final exams, but peer instruction quizzes contributed significantly as well: single questions with four options for an answer. After entering a short explanation of one’s choice, the reasoning other students used for each answer was displayed before final submission of an answer. Additionally, participation in class polls earned a small number of points. I found it interesting to have so much exposure to what others were thinking, and it’s always nice to have different forms of evaluation. On the forums, I ran into a Chinese student I’d met in an earlier ancient Chinese philosophy course. Hang around moocs enough, and you start to recognize a lot of names.

Prof. Boer refers to himself as a Christian Communist; he teaches both in Australia and in China. Overall, I’d call the course a biography, with elements of political theory, history, and philosophy. In spite of, or perhaps because of the strong point of view differing from the one I’ve been exposed to in the US, I enjoyed the material, particularly the more philosophical mentions of how Chinese Marxism blended in both Confucius and the Dao and evolved over time to form its own flavor of socialism. But I still think far too much was skimmed over, even for a basic overview course.

Pushcart XLI: T.C. Boyle, “The Five Pound Burrito” from Kenyon Review #37.6

He lived in a world of grease, and no matter how often he bathed, which was once a day, rigorously—and no shower but a drawn bath—he smelled of carnitas, machaca, and the chopped white onion and soapy cilantro he folded each morning into his pico de gallo. The grease itself was worked up under his nails and into the folds of his skin, folds that hung looser and penetrated deeper now that he was no longer young….
And so it began: first, then the lunch rush, furious work in the hot, cramped kitchen, and all he could see was people’s mouths opening and closing and the great wads of beans and rice and marinated pork, chicken, and beef swelling their throats.

Stories, at least those using traditional narrative form, tend to start in the middle, the in media res technique hammered home by Creative Writing 101. Personally, I think it’s a tossup as to whether readers prefer it, or whether it’s simply that editors prefer it because they can more quickly decide whether or not to move on to the next of the thousand stories in the slush pile. Too gimmicky an opening line is cringe-inducing, but one that arouses curiosity about just what’s going on is the golden ticket.

This story starts not with events, but with an atmosphere, a characterization/setting so palpable you might have an impulse to wipe off your hands or dab at your mouth with a napkin. Nothing special is happening – at least, not for two pages, unless you count the waitress being late – but we know this guy by the time we’ve gone through those two pages. He’s tired. He’s depressed. He’s discouraged. He speaks with “a voice that was dying in his throat a little more each day as he groped toward old age.”

We really want something to happen for this guy. And, of course, it does.

When he saw the face in the tortilla that provided the foundation for the burrito he was just then constructing, he ignored it. It was nobody’s face, eyes, nose, cheek bones, brow, and it meant nothing except that he was exhausted, already exhausted, and he still had six and a half hours to go. And sure, he’d seen faces before – Mohammed, Buddha, Sandy Koufax once, but Jesus? Never. The woman over on Broadway had seen Jesus, exactly as he was in the shroud of Turin, only the shroud in this case was made of unleavened flour, lard, and water. He could have used Jesus himself, because that woman got rich and the lines for her place went around the whole city block. If only he had Jesus, he could hire somebody more competent – and dependable – than Sepideh and sit back and take a load off. That was what he was thinking as he smeared refritos over the face of the tortilla and piled up rice and meat and guacamole and crema, cheese, shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, the works – and why not? – for yet another pair of footballers who were sitting there at the back table like statues come to life. Call it whimsy, or maybe revenge, but he mounted the ingredients up till the burrito was as big as a stuffed pillowcase. Let them complain about this one.
That was when he had his moment of inspiration, divine or otherwise. He would weigh it. Actually weigh it, and that would be his ammunition and his pride, too, the biggest burrito in town. If he didn’t have Jesus, at least he would have that.

It’s a paragraph that’s a lot of fun to read, but the elements also seem carefully chosen to me. The face in the tortilla doesn’t impress him. Is that because he’s a fact-based guy with little use for faith, or because all the romance and imagination and inspiration and hope have drained out of him down the grease trap? Any element of the supernatural is converted to practical benefits reaped by the woman over on Broadway. He just goes about his job, a little pissed off, and makes a super-huge burrito… in revenge? Sure, he’s sick of burritos – having seen them through his eyes for a few minutes, I’m pretty disgusted by them myself – but I doubt the college footballer who ordered it would think a five-pound burrito was a bad thing. And then inspiration finally arrives in the form of a marketing plan rather than the face of Jesus.

And we still don’t know his name.

Then the story gives us some white space, and restarts on a completely different note:

We each live our days in accumulation of milliseconds, seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years, and life is a half we must follow, invariably, until the end. Is there change, or hope of it? Yes, but change is wearing and bad for the nerves and almost always for the worse. So it was with Sal, the American-born son of Mexican immigrants who opened Salvador’s Café with a loan from his uncle James when he was still in his twenties, and now, nearly forty years later, saw his business take off like a rocket on the fuel of the five-Pound burrito.

This reads so much like a typical opening paragraph, I have to wonder if it was originally written that way. Maybe it was moved, maybe the prelude was added; in any case, I think it was a great move. I know so much more about Sal from smelling the onions, and now I’m curious about how he ended up where he is, so this doesn’t seem like exposition at all but fine touches on an almost-finished portrait. As well, something about this reminds me of a novel with a short introductory vignette followed by grounding material. I’ve often read longish stories that felt like novel excerpts, but it’s unusual to read a shortish story that feels like a novel – not a story that needs to be fleshed out as a novel, but as a complete work, just reduced in size. Even the language is expansive and full, rather than streamlined or minimal.

And if it seems like these large quotes, such a detailed discussion of the first four pages of a nine-page story would be a spoiler, trust me, it isn’t. If the first half was packed, the second half is more so: a five-pound burrito in a bite-sized form.

I don’t know much about the technical aspects of magical realism other than it pervades much of late 20th century Latin American literature. The most important thing I gather from poking around is that it involves something extraordinary among the plebian. That fits. There’s nothing more plebian than Sal. And as for the extraordinary… I’ll leave that for the reader to discover.

I could imagine any of several shapes for the second half of the story, and sure enough, it followed one of them with a few surprises along the way. Again, the elements seem carefully chosen, tailored to fit. I know I’ve been somewhat harsh on TC Boyle’s stories in the past, and I have to wonder if I should take another look at some of them, because not only was this one great fun to read, it was also effectively executed.

But it’s going to be a long time before I eat another burrito.

Pushcart XLI: Allison Benis White, from “Please, Bury Me in This” (poem) from Copper Nickel  #20

I am making a world I can think inside.
 
Cutting faces of paper and taping them on glass like thoughts.
 
Am I a monster, Clarice Inspector asked in The Hour of the Star, or is this what it means to be human?
 
To have a mind, I think as I cut another face.

I’ve checked the page again and again – yes, it’s definitely Inspector, not Lispector. Is that a typo or a twist of phrase? I’m going to assume it is what it’s supposed to be, fitting with the introspection of the poem as the speaker contemplates mortality on Día de Muertos. I misread another line – “tapping on the glass”, as if requesting attention or entry, instead of “taping them on glass “– so it would make sense. The line “To have a mind, I think…” also led me to expect a prerequisite action rather than a prepositional phrase. I have no idea if this is just my sloppy reading or if there’s some attempt to induce a kind of alternate construction. It’s an interesting question. I suppose I’ll never find out.

In an interview with Niki Johnson of Superstition Review, White tells us this is an excerpt from a book-length poem in the form of a series of letters concerning various aspects of death, “[s]o it seems like I’m working on avoiding titling poems forever.” I like that, even though it does aggravate my more obsessive tendencies.

The metaphysical mind exploration continues in this section of the anthology. Right now I’m in the middle of a mooc combining psychology, neuroscience, and religion; there’s some evidence that the pervasive belief in an afterlife is connected to our inability to conceive of being gone. That’s what poems like this are for. The sugar skull, the person, here today, then “I am you gone.”

Medieval Spanish Manuscripts MOOC

Course: Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Burgos (Spain)
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid/edX
Instructors: Roger L. Martínez-Dávila
Quote:

• Garner knowledge and assess the history of medieval Spanish intercultural coexistence in the city of Burgos and the Kingdom of Castile and Leon
• Explore the world of medieval manuscripts and texts held in the archives of the Cathedral of Burgos and the city of Burgos
• Learn the craft of medieval paleography, or reading authentic handwritten manuscripts
• Transcribe medieval manuscripts and contribute to new scholar knowledge

By now, everybody expects the Spanish Inquisition (sorry, I just had to say it).

This was a natural extension of the earlier codicology course, focusing on paleography. But at heart it’s a history course – and at that, a real history course, since it’s one of the few history moocs I’ve taken that paid proper respect to original documents and historical research.

We led off with typical exposition of major events on the Iberian peninsula during the late middle ages, particularly as they elapsed in the town of Burgos. Included were museum tours of beautiful artifacts complete with stories: an 11th century ivory chest originally crafted by Andalusian Muslims, then adapted to serve as a repository for Christian relics after the Reconquista; a case for holding balls associated with some sort of Muslim game, carved from an elephant’s trunk so large, the curve isn’t apparent, likewise appropriated during conquest; silver dishes and gold pendants found buried by the Jews of Briviesca when their homes were burned in the (dashed) hopes they could return to claim their family treasures. I kept remembering Ta-Nehisi Coates’ theory that racism is fundamentally about plunder, and hate is just a means to that end. It was a bit creepy to be taking this course while, in the US, Jewish community centers were receiving bomb threats in escalating numbers, several Jewish cemeteries were vandalized, and at least two people were murdered because they looked Muslim (turns out, they weren’t, but that’s beside the point). Even in Canada, slaughter broke out at a mosque. This is why we must know history, because we are living it, repeating it right now, and we can change that if we are willing.

The second half of the course dealt with transcribing documents, which is where paleography came in. It’s something I’d very much like to learn; alas, I didn’t get very far, in spite of the recommended SILReST technique (Scan, Identify easy letters, Locate common words, Recognize abbreviations, etc). I have a feeling manuscript transcription is one of those things I just have to keep doing until I get the hang of it and can “see” words instead of squiggles. I’d spent several hours working on a French poem during the previous class, but didn’t get very far so I finally found someone who could help. Google Translate is useless, since abbreviations are used frequently, the spellings are often archaic, and just figuring out which letters are written is a major challenge in the first place.

The course material assures us that no Spanish is necessary for the course, but there’s no denying some familiarity is of great help. I can’t praise the other students in the course highly enough for their willingness to help and share ideas on the forums. We worked through several issues together such as: is this word vinoor como? Parrador, partador, pairador? I was quite excited to discover that the word I’d thought was “abdat” turned out to be cidbat (the “c” and “i” overly compressed), which is the medieval version of ciudad, city, emphasized by its proximity to the abbreviated form of Burgos. Yes, this is what I consider fun, you got a problem with that?

A focus of the course seemed to be on training and recruiting volunteer “citizen scholars” to help with the transcription of the documents so they can be used in historical research. History is, after all, based on documents, and the stories of the people of Burgos are to a large extent untold as town records gather dust in the archives.

That might be another reason I had such a hard time with the paleography section: in terms of content, these were some of the most boring manuscripts around. Instead of scientific or philosophical texts or literary material, these were more or less property transfer deeds: who sold what to whom under what conditions. In fact, the semantic content was never addressed at all, merely the transcription. I understand the importance of these documents: this is the gritty work of the historian, examining documentary evidence of the relationships of civic and ecclesiastical power in the town as well as the dealings between Jews and Christians. It was just very hard to get excited about it, in spite of the stirring prelude video about the forgotten lives to be uncovered:

Welcome to the Cathedral of Burgos. The Cathedral is the guardian of almost 1000 years of history. The memory of long ago lives still reside here, their hopes and worries, their friendships and enmities, their commitments and broken promises. Patiently they wait, wait to commune with us. Perhaps they walk alongside of us, here in the cloister, escorting us past guarded areas, whisking us past heavy doors, carefully guiding us past the realm of natural light, step by step, an to the home of memories: to the cathedral’s archive.
Thousands upon thousands of individuals like you, like me, carefully cocooned in leather and vellum, their lives now on paper and parchment. Their lives are the true treasure of the archive. It’s time to meet them.

I’m sorry, gentle friends; you’ll have to wait for someone else, since I’m simply not up to the task of hearing you at this time.

By coincidence, at the same time the Citizen Scholar program was unfolding, I got an email from my local library about a similar project: a set of 18th and 19th century state records are waiting for volunteers to digitize them so the information will be more readily available to historians interested in New England. Lives of the past from all over wait for us, as we will wait for historians of the future.

Future installments of this series include similar courses focusing on Toledo and Grenada.

Pushcart XLI: Angela Woodward, “New Technologies of Reading” from Conjunctions 10/20/15

William Blake: Plate 92, Jerusalem

William Blake: Plate 92, Jerusalem

One) 3-D Printing
 
Hard to say if the reading process is at all improved by this, but the figurines exude a degree of charm. These are produced not on a flat substrate but in three dimensions in successive layers: The ink is substrate and substance in one. The pieces with a religious purpose—eight million iterations of “God Is Good” extruded letter by letter and formed into a little stand-up Jesus—should remain tourist items. I was given a Santeria saint with her heart in her hands, which unfolds into a spell for binding love. From this incantation was designed and printed a splint made of the same biocompatible material that goes into sutures….
The process comes closest to fulfilling its promise in the wildlife series put out by Tasso. The text interlaces the natural history of the animal with its genetic code, or so says the accompanying booklet (with a scan of the reader’s wound, to determine how it might be fixed over time). Would there be blood beneath the fur? Would turning its pages wrench cartilage out of joint? Such a fantasy could be entertained at least.
 
Complete story available online at Web Conjunctions

So you read the title and think, Really? Someone’s just discovered ebooks and wants to complain about the decline of the paper variety? Or maybe it’s more of a neuro-semiotic approach, The Medium Changes Us as Well as The Message and we’re going to forget how to read. Maybe you, too, remember a college professor in literary theory announcing, back in the Reagan administration, that computer screens were responsible for the shrinking of the American attention span, ignoring the fact that pages have been around since antiquity.

But that wouldn’t even be close.

You keep reading and encounter the first section title, 3-D printing. What does that have to do with reading? Is someone printing books that way? If you know anything about 3-D printing, that strikes you as ridiculous, at least with current technology, but the first few sentences are fairly normal and describe the physical process accurately, and there’s something irresistibly highbrow about the phrase “ink is substrate and substance in one” so you trust the writer, the essay, a bit more (and you’re assuming it’s an essay because Pushcart includes “Fiction” in the byline for short stories and there is no such notation here).

But then everything goes to hell and you no longer know what’s going on. Who is Tasso? What, a heavy hitter slipped by you somewhere along the line, there’s another DeLillo or Calvino or Baker out there? Wait, genetic code? Oh, we’re in some other kind of thing now, where the book is the body and reading is a physical act upon a living being, in the case of Tasso, wildlife because who (other than Kafka’s Penal Colony Officer) would do that to people, and wouldn’t it be illegal? Talk about characters coming to life.

Oh good, another section, maybe things will settle down:

Two) Condensed Books
 
I’ve learned to avoid the pill versions. These are simply too strong. Often slow to take effect, suddenly the reader is drawn into an improbable romance involving a spy, a dermatology clinic, a girls’ camp by a lake. The smell of the old Reader’s Digest triple editions pervades the action, a clammy, mildewed dinginess at odds with the overall glitz. Note too that only the most staid of novels are available in this format, so that one feels violently ill and hallucinated while reinforcing gender roles long outgrown: his stubbly cheeks, the swish of her hair, the rewarded patience of the passive beauty. The last time, I woke up with my head throbbing, my mouth dry, carpet burns on my hips. I thought I could ingest a self-reflective arctic brooding, but it was all the most generic lust, him on top ruffling my bangs and calling me “baby.”
The charcoal versions I find fascinating, though also incomplete. I was ushered into one of the private rooms above Powells and given something the shape of a pencil box. The mechanism on the side ignites the contents. The reader controls the amount of fumes by opening or closing the lid. I let too much escape all at once. Before I had comprehended the complexity of the narrative, it had crumbled. I prodded the ashes and got only a few last puffs, goodbye, Sidney, I will carry your … it’s all so … refugee camp … two sisters … less able to … . built itself over the river, and was just as quickly razed by the … all confused in gray swirls of languid euphoria. The material once combusted can’t be revisited. This series makes use of mostly forgotten novels from the 1930s and ’40s….

No, not settling down. Ramping up, in fact. I’ve inhaled a few books, but only figuratively. Hey, embodied cognition is pretty much a neuroscientific fact, can embodied literature be far behind? Or is it here already, waw it here in the 19th century when Blake wrote, “They became what they beheld…”

Despite the craziness, there is a logic here, and a progression. Whereas 3-D printing – “printing” connects it semantically to printed books – only presented work and was accompanied by description, as we go along the material being read, through whatever medium, becomes more and more intrusive, until by the third section – Salves and Drones – we’re scraping the salve of stories off our skin and never quite getting it all and experiencing the torture that’s been committed in our names (if we are US citizens, though all countries have horror in their history).

And it’s all ironic, considering Bill Henderson’s longstanding mistrust of “new technology”, i.e., digital literature. The story is, by the way, available on the web-only version of Conjunctions.

I’m probably less sophisticated than the average Pushcart reader, so I was thoroughly confused for some time. Is this fiction or non-fiction? What label do I put on it? The editors seem to have classified it as non-fiction as I’ve noted above, and I’m perfectly happy to call it transgenre, but I suspect fiction is closer to the truth. Does it matter? Not at all. I went from confusion and frustration to respect and ultimately enjoyment. I went looking for the writer, wanting to know more (who is this?) and found her conversation with Jacob Singer at a literary blog called zoran rosko vacuum player:

No matter what the piece of writing, it’s created out of words. Writers are only working with words. That’s all we have. We don’t have ideas. We don’t have images. We don’t have scenes. We don’t have characters. The illusion of all those things can be crafted out of words, but those other things—the ides, the images—are by-products of language. Words in themselves have sounds and sense, and they shift and change in relation to the other words around them, both in their sound schemes and how they’re yoked grammatically….I’m not aiming to make a movie with my words. That’s just one approach.

~ Angela Woodward

I’m sure if Woodward could have sent us the pills, smoke, salve and drones, so we could experience literary invasion, she would have. But that just wasn’t practical.

Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth Scanlon, “The Brain Is Not the United States” (poem) from Boston Review, April 2015

The brain is not the United States, the brain is the ocean,
Dr. Yquem said, referring to its activity as opposed to its structure,
the brain is not the United States whose borders are mapped
and whose expansion is inhibited by bodies of water —
 
The brain is the ocean who is vast
and incorporates every chemical dumped into it,
whose depths we do not know, whose darkness we fear
in the most primordial way,
who stymies knowing up from down when one sinks fast into its long pull.

Complete poem available online at Boston Review

Ah, how cool, a poem that triggers a soundtrack (earworm alert) picked up in one of my moocs on how the brain perceives spatial location. For the second time in as many weeks, a Pushcart piece has fit right in with several of the brain/mind moocs I’ve taken over the past few years. Scanlon, it appears, is no stranger to these issues: another of her poems, “Stroop”, accurately characterizes the Stroop test; “will over sensation” is as good a way as any to phrase System 2 and System 1. So she knows the territory, probably better than I do.

But I felt I needed to sweep that aside and read the poem on its face. But it wasn’t possible, because we all bring everything we’ve ever learned, felt, experienced to everything we read, just as we bring our entire lives to every next moment.

With the Dr. Yquem reference, I tried to fit this into some grim tale of someone with some physical or mental brain disease, but it’s just too playful a poem, and I discovered Yquem is a French winery, which fits nicely with the chemicals dumping into the brain. I do love the distinction between structure and function; that’s straight from a couple of brain/mind moocs, in fact.

Wordplay abounds, but it’s subtle, maybe not even there and I’m inventing it. Dr. Yquem, for instance: is that really to evoke wine, or am I making that up, and it refers to an actual person? But who, if not a physician – a neuroscience professor? When the speaker gives the French word for brainle cerveau – I’m reminded that the Spanish word for head is cabeza and for beer is cerveza and now she’s got me doing it. Like Dan Reeder’s song above, it’s irresistibly catchy.

Despite all that, the language hints at something much darker than random babbling over afternoon wine, a darkness that shows up again and again in words and phrases – darkness, “its long pull”, medication, salvo and artillery and “a slow gun”, “a warning”. But as a whole, the poem is so much fun, using subject as in math to leapfrog to subject as in subordinate of royalty, the Pledge of Allegiance, taxes.

Then the last stanza:

The brain is not the United States, it is the ocean
and we are everywhere on its shores,
never knowing it entirely.

And I change my mind again, feeling a kind of desolation in that last line. Is this a woman touring France getting a little tipsy in the afternoon and letting her mind wander, getting to know previously unexplored or little-used corridors, watching how it works as it leaps from one association to another? Or is it a woman using wine to drown out her terror at some catastrophe: an illness, a failed marriage, a lost job? Just general anxiety? I don’t know.

In these dark days I tend towards play, much as the speaker does. I hope she has better luck than I do.

Pushcart XLI: Emma Duffy-Comparone, “The Devil’s Triangle” from New England Review, 36.4

Her parents always said they’d dig their own graves if anything happened to their children, so when her sister Claire disappeared on a camping trip in the White Mountains, Elsie kept an eye on things. She brought them groceries. Made mushroom risottos and bean enchiladas and coconut lentil soups and made her father sit at the table until he ate three bites. Took her mother to cafés downtown to drink cappuccino and play honeymoon whist. Signed her father up for beach yoga and dragged him to the ocean at sunrise with bamboo mats. Researched imaginal psychotherapy and psychodynamic insight therapy and expressive therapy and brief solution focused therapy and called psychologists and psychiatrists and support groups and chauffeured her mother to initial consultations. “I don’t need some Wellesley cunt taking notes while I play in a sandbox,” her mother would say, sinking into Elsie’s Volkswagen, clenching her purse, and Elsie would drive home and call someone else.
It had been a year of that. Still they knew nothing, and Elsie lived in that nothing, roaming the endless corridors of it, the silence unspeakable and huge.

We all grieve in our own ways, and here we watch three members of this family carve their own paths. The grief is doubly painful because Claire disappeared without a trace. If burying a child is agony, what circle of hell is not knowing?

Mom fades from the story as the focus turns to sisters Elsie and Mika. They have the extra twist of the knife as well: they’re triplets. What do you call triplets with a missing member, fate undetermined? That very question comes up and further contrasts the paths the two remaining sisters are taking through pain.

The three were living together in a house before Claire’s disappearance. After, Mika sublet her room and headed for Florida to party until she couldn’t feel it any more. The story follows Elsie, the soul of responsibility, on her trip down there, but it’s really about their differences, interactions, and what we do to survive the unsurvivable. I found the story well-designed, with a guinea pig that manages to stay just this side of maudlin and a yacht party with a variety of meaningful interactions about moving on – from bad relationships, from dead relationships, from nowhere.

The party turns nasty, but maybe indicates a kind of hitting-bottom; if either can plant her feet on the ocean floor, she might be able to break the waves and breathe. But we’re left not knowing, the only way to end the story.

This is the second story I’ve seen from Duffy-Comparone; the first, “The Zen Thing” from One Story, and the first story in Pushcart 2015, was also an intricately-tangled family tale.

Pushcart XLI: Sea Sharp, “The Tallgrass Shuffles” (poem) from Storm Cellar 4.2

Cover art from Sharp's recent collection

Cover art from Sharp’s recent collection

 
last night the wind said
be careful girl the
moon be watching
 
said keep your fingers
out the mud keep your tongue
in your head said the moon
 
is watching you said she’ll pull
you apart like the tide
when your time comes girl
 
Complete poem available online from Storm Cellar

One of the many benefits I get from reading Pushcart is that I “meet” so many interesting writers through their work. So far, I’ve been most intrigued by poet/math tutor Dominica Phetterplace, by the late Steinbjørn B. Jacobsen from the Faroe Islands, and now by Sea Sharp, intersectional “refugee of Kansas” now living in England.

I had a strong sense of the oppression of this poem on first read. I thought of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” with all the commandments and blame and implied terror of the world, the need to step very carefully even though you see others dance and dream and you can’t understand why you’re different. The moon imagery brought two things to mind: the moon is strongly associated with the feminine, and the moon sits up there in the sky above us all glowing white. I thought I had to choose. It wasn’t until I read Sharp’s website that I realized I didn’t, that the two conceits could coexist, and that’s the point.

However, it wasn’t until I read about her recently published poetry collection, The Swagger of Dorothy Gale & Other Filthy Ways to Strut that this poem came into focus for me. Now, I admit, I have no idea if this is one of the poems in the volume, but it has to be, it just must: Dorothy being chased down that Yellow Brick Road by a cautionary wind and a scolding, judging moon that has nothing to do with any wizard. Shuffling? Forget that; not this Dorothy Gale, no matter what the wind says.

Another great aspect of Pushcart is that I see some literary journals I otherwise wouldn’t. Storm Cellar calls itself “a literary journal of safety and danger” which, too, fits this poem. Focusing on, but not exclusive to, the Midwest, they look for “authors and artists who are under-represented in the Anglophone literary world. We want everybody to get weird and enlightened and learn and fall in love and have superpowers.” My wish list.

DinoMOOC

Course: Dinosaur Ecosystems

Length: 6 weeks
School/platform: Hong Kong University/edX
Instructors: Dr. Michael Pittman, Prof. Xu Xing
Quote:

Using the Late Cretaceous fossil site of Erlian, China as an example, we bring you to the Gobi desert, as well as leading international museums and institutions to find out how we reconstruct dinosaur ecosystems.
This biology and life science course will focus on the knowledge we can gain from studying animals and plants. You will learn about a dinosaur’s biology including their appearance, classification and diet. We will take a close look at the mostly meat eating theropod dinosaurs, as well as the main plant eating dinosaurs, the sauropodomorphs and ornithischians. At the end of the course, you will learn how palaeontologists use fossil and modern evidence to reconstruct dinosaurs and their ecosystems.

I love the folks at HKU. I’m still studying ancient Chinese philosophy, and China in general, because of their Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought mooc; their Twitter account ranges from interesting to seriously amusing; and they really put a lot of work into their moocs. I mean, just the course logo required several revisions to make sure the dinosaur neck would “align with archaeological findings”. Staff did a great job covering the discussion forums, offering information and resources along the way.

Problem is… I just don’t care at all about dinosaurs.

I thought I’d give this course a try anyway. Given the teasers they were sending out, and my general affection for them, I thought maybe I’d change my mind. I didn’t, but that’s not their fault. The lectures were clear, beautifully illustrated (many of the drawings were by award-winning paleoartist Julius Csotonyi), and varied: some involved sifting through sands at the Gobi Desert, others hunting through back-room storage facilities of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and they even took a trip to Glen Rose, Texas to check out fossilized dinosaur tracks.

The instructors were impressive. While the course was running, instructor Prof. Pittman made some news himself for his research into laser-stimulated fluorescence on fossils to reveal more detailed information than ever available about soft-tissue distribution – news Chelsea Clinton noticed, by the way. And Prof. Xu had previously discovered a new species, Gigantoraptor, among collected fossils from Erlian. They were joined by several other scientists during the course, some in the field, others in classrooms, museums, and labs.

The first four weeks reminded me of the catalogs found in Whitman’s poetry. I love Whitman, but by the time he lists every resident or occupation or flower the mood is lost. Much of the time, the lectures felt like a list of features of various critters, and I didn’t have the background to understand how anything related to anything else. So while it’s great to know that ornithominids and Alectrosaurus have arctometatarsalian feet that help them run faster, I’m not sure how those guys relate to therapods or ornithischians.

In other words, I really needed to create an overal taxonomy, but when I went looking for one, I found lots of conflicting information so I never got there. (addendum: during the last days of the course, I noticed a poster with a taxonomic layout was stored in a section of the course I hadn’t visited; I don’t know if it was there all along, but it’s exactly what I was looking for). I also should have made a chart for all the critters, with information about size, earliest and latest fossils, eating habits, etc. etc., but I didn’t do that either. I didn’t put enough effort into making the course meaningful to me, and that’s my fault. I feel like I let down the graphic designers who put so much work into a scientifically accurate logo.

The weekly graded quizzes relied on information-retrieval questions, so even with my cursory effort and primitive understanding I managed to do quite well grade-wise. I would think creative questions would be a natural for a course like this, more along the lines of “It’s 180 million years ago, the treetops are shredded, who am I?” But that might be a lot to ask for an introductory-level course offered to people from all educational backgrounds.

As I write this post, I’m beginning to see that I did pick up more than I’d realized from the course, and greatly enjoyed many aspects of it (which is one reason I write these posts). HKU has a great overview of the course that’s more reliable than my mumblings. Those who really like dinosaurs and have some idea of who’s what would probably find it packed with detailed information that helps determine what life was like for these guys; the forums were full of praise at the end of the course. Oddly, my favorite lecture was about foraminifera, teeny tiny marine animals unrelated to dinosaurs. Go figure. I also greatly enjoyed the sections on bone histology in the last week. I’d have to say the last two weeks were my favorite part of the course, in fact; they were less of a catalog of this-dinosaur-has-this-kind-of-teeth-and-that-dinosaur-has-a-beak.

Of course, the idea of dinosaur beaks is pretty cool in itself. Fun fact: Tyrannosaurus Rex had feathers. Or, at least, feather-like structures covering its skin. Want to amaze your friends? Tell them birds are dinosaurs. Which, by the way, they are, but only a scientist will believe you. A friend of mine (Hi, Lisa) just made a joke about the dinosaur-noodle soup she had the other night, and one of the clever tweets the course made, sent during Chinese New Year festivities, was a video about the Year of the Dinosaur (which most people are calling the Year of the Rooster).

About once a decade, I check to see if I still can’t play the guitar (I could when I was 16, but I seem to have lost it shortly thereafter), and more often I try to do some kind of visual art to see if I’ve suddenly developed some artistic sense (I haven’t). It was worth a try to see if I could get interested in dinosaurs, and if anyone could lure me in, it would’ve been these guys. I guess it’s just not to be. Foraminifera, maybe…

Pushcart XLI: Cate Hennessey, “Beets” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre 17.2

I have three seed catalogs on my kitchen table this morning, all of which arrived just after the new year. The furnace is having a hard time—3 degrees at 7 a.m.—and it’s trying mightily but not warming the rooms above 60 degrees. So here I sit, wrapped in sweaters and slippers and scarves, listening to the soft hiss of the gas burner as it heats the kettle. Dogs breathe sleep on their blankets. The sky is blue and cloudless outside, crackling bright, stark beautiful. Four months until anything can go in the soil. We gardeners are a hopeful lot.

Oh, the lure of seed catalogs: beautiful flowers, vegetables you want to eat right off the page. Who could resist? But so much doesn’t show up in those pictures: the dirt, the bugs, the weather that won’t cooperate, the animals searching for a meal, the seeds that never sprout, the sprouts that never bloom, the fruits that warp or bubble or shrivel. I tried it once. Literally, once. I grew some sweet peas, not for the produce but for the flowers, germinating the seeds on my windowsill then transplanting them to containers in the sun. Lovely and sweet-smelling, if sparse, they attracted bees from miles around. Then there were the three cherry tomatoes that made it into a single salad. I’m a city girl; I’ll stick to the supermarket.

But I understand the impulse. What is a seed but hope? This tiny, ordinary thing, stuck into the dirt beneath our feet, will somehow turn into something growing and alive, something to nourish body and/or soul. Forget the thing with feathers; the speck in your hand, that’s hope right there. But that isn’t all a seed needs: an element of luck is required, too, or your perfectly-timed planting can be derailed by a late frost or an early heat wave. Or something more catastrophic.

Hennessey creates a nice progression as she moves from beets and seeds to hope and its unavoidable partner, luck, from her diningroom table and her catalogs to her grandparents, who knew more about planting beets when they were children than she’ll ever know.

That most hobby gardeners need to learn how to store beets, that I need to learn how to store beets, kills me. Busia and her sisters and rural Poland would have known this by age 8, maybe earlier. Would they have had names for different varieties of beets? Or was only one kind of beets grown in sub-Carpathian Poland between the world wars? I don’t know; the people I want to ask are all dead.

So often, by the time we know the questions we need to ask, the people who know the answers are dead. But they leave something behind, of only the desire to find out.

Hennessey’s grandparents met in the camps, and survived. Here she pays a tribute to luck, but recognizes its limitations and honors those not so blessed:

If there is redemption from war, it is in them….
Of course that I am here at all is a direct consequence of the war that threw my grandparents together. But there were millions and millions for whom the family story ends only in death, given not even the strange and eternal gift of trauma. A future woman looking at the bird feeder becomes impossible. So I am back to lucky. The millions dead quite outweigh the scribbling, this moment at the table in which the snow lies still and the trees flutter with birds.

We then close the circle and go back to beets and seeds, the catalog and the kitchen, but it has a new feel to it now, an element that we’d not seen before. There’s a history there, and the seeds mean more, the purples and reds are more vibrant because we know how it came to be that the catalogs span the table. That’s what history does, especially the intimate history of families and individuals: it adds undertones to what would otherwise be ordinary.

And by the way, I’m craving roasted beets right now, tossed with a splash of orange juice and sprinkled with a little nutmeg and salt.

Pushcart XLI: Alex Dimitrov, “Cocaine” (poem) from The Adroit Journal #13

People disappear.
And go looking for a place to be looked at.
All the way down Wilshire and above us: like a sheet of indigo tile.
As we waited, our nicotine glowed in the distance like flies
to some heaven, some high road.
“Who sat on mountaintops in cars reading books aloud to the canyons?”
Like gods and at home being extras at best.

Complete poem available online at The Adroit Journal

I give up. Doesn’t happen often – I can usually find something to grab onto in any poem, essay, or story, even if I don’t really understand what’s going on – but here, I found myself at a complete loss after many readings, whispered, shouted, silent. Even after I found an interview with the poet in which he explicitly discusses the origins of the poem – two trips to LA, passing down the same block of Wilshire a year apart – I still don’t follow. I’m feeling pretty stupid right now, particularly since it was nominated by three poets in addition to the journal itself, so its meaning and excellence are clearly evident to those who know what to look for – and I’m missing it entirely. Guidance welcomed.

Pushcart XLI: Liz Ziemska, “The Mushroom Queen” from Tin House #63

For about an hour now she’s been thinking about the two races of man. One race is very, very slow; they crawl upon the earth like slugs, leaving silvery slime trails wherever they go. The other is very, very fast, about as fast as electrons, and when they pass by they leave a radiant residue, though you can never be sure if you’ve actually seen them, or if there’s a smudge on your glasses picking up the light in a funny way. The two races live side by side, completely unaware of each other, sucking on the same earth.
But on the night of the fool moon, a special moon that occurs once per decade—or every 9.3 years, to be exact—when the moonrise lag is equal to the moonset lag, causing great upheavals of the deep, cold waters of the Pacific Ocean, the slow race can sometimes catch up to the fast race.
All of this is just nonsense, of course. It’s the duration that’s the important part here. Nine-point-three years is a long time to be married.

Most of the philosophy moocs I’ve been taking over the last few years (including the one I just posted about) tackle issues related to “the hard problem of consciousness.” One of the foundational papers looking at the mind-body problem – are they the same? Is the mind physical, metaphysical, functional? – is Thomas Nagel’s “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” His conclusion: we can’t know.

That may be the case, but in this story a woman finds out what it’s like to be a fungus, while at the same time, a fungus finds out what it is to be human. And they relate their experiences quite convincingly.

The Mushroom Queen was tired of living underground. She can assume any form. Her skin is nicer than human skin, firm and white, and it has no pores, only spores, because mushrooms are self-propagating, which can get pretty lonely. So she deposed herself and came to the woman’s house from the east, traveling west along the shore of a wide green river, over the Appalachians, beneath the Great Lakes, flowing right across the vast midwestern plains. She was born over a century ago in the unkempt garden of a red-brick house that was once a home, then a nursery, then a nunnery, and is now again a home. That is where our woman arrives now, sucked across the country and extruded from the ground beneath a trellis of tangled vines that sprout purple flowers in the summer. They have switched places, the discontent of one calling to the desire of the other. Nature abhors a vacuum.

I did my usual googling around on the story, and discovered an interesting tweet by the author linking to a BBC article titled “Plants have a hidden internet.” And another find: slime molds have solved mazes, and traced subway and road systems. Consciousness is typically associated with attention and volition. Communicating needs and deciding pathways seem to require these things. So is this consciousness? Is it intelligence?

I’m pretty skeptical about such things. Consider: molecules called phospholipids come together to form cell membranes, not from any life force or desire, but simply because their polar heads and non-polar tails align as a circular bilayer due to electromagnetic attraction and repulsion. Consider also the “suicide” of infected/cancerous cells: they present indicators of their condition, thus marking themselves for destruction by cytotoxic T cells looking for those indicators. We might think, what noble cells, sacrificing themselves for the good of the organism! But the MHC receptors that perform this act of heroism evolved at some point on cells, and organisms with them had an evolutionary advantage over those without. It’s not always that easy to tell the difference between will and simply obeying the laws of physics.

Then again (I’ve always said every issue has at least five sides), theoretical physicist Max Tegman recently proposed that consciousness is a state of matter, similar to liquid or gas, called perceptronium. What is the origin of electromagnetic forces, gravity, and such? Could matter, at the sub-sub-atomic scale, have something akin to perception and preference?

I love a story that teaches me something, and even more if it lets me take a sidetour… But back to the story. The woman-as-fungus presents clear evidence of all the characteristics of consciousness even as she transforms into the mycelium beneath the surface of the world: information processing, a sense of wholeness, even a sense of embodiment.

In her newly dematerialized state, she is simultaneously nowhere and everywhere. But this is just an illusion, a temporary form of vertigo brought on by the sudden vastness of her being. In reality, she covers a little less than three square acres, one edge dangling in the cool green waters of the Hudson, the other pushed up against the crumbling blacktop of Route 9. A red-brick house squats on her chest like a poorly digested meal. There’s a maple tree growing out of her forehead, its flame-colored leaves the color of her panic.

The Mushroom Queen, her double now leading her old life as a human woman, has her own problems. She’d rather be eating the compost heap than the nice Brie her husband puts on the table (the rind is a distant cousin, after all). She finds it difficult to talk. Bathing in water makes her feel dirty, so she rolls around in the dirt to clean up afterwards. And there’s a growing sense of decay in the life she’s taken over, as the walls grow green slime and the dogs don’t get walked any more.

The dogs play a sort of Greek chorus in all this, acting out their own little dramas in different ways. Jill Schepmann of The Rumpus characterizes one of them perfectly as “the snarkiest little brown dog ever.” Even a little brown dog knows the dangers of desire – and yet can’t resist.

The very first paragraph bothered me, I’ll admit, for the most ridiculous of reasons: I happen to hate the “the woman/the man/the boy” construction. There’s nothing wrong with the usage; it’s useful for stories where names won’t be used, and here, with the duality of The Woman and The Mushroom Queen, it’s particularly appropriate, but we all have our little tics. It sent me into hypercritical mode, mentally rewriting “There’s a small brown dog nestled…” to “A small brown dog nestles…”, thanks to another tic around the “there was” construction (trauma from a long-ago writing class … deep breath… but that’s no excuse). Pretty arrogant of me, considering this story was already edited by the author, then again by Tin House, before being selected for not one but two prestigious prize collections (it can also be found in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017). The fool moon made up for it, and from there I was quite happy, not thinking about such nonsense again.

The narration switches modes as needed. In general it’s close 3rd person, flitting between various POV characters as they tell their own sides of the story. But it zooms out briefly to omniscient to bring up the real-world science, and then again at the very end to … well, I’ll leave that for the readers to discover. I consider the end a bit ambiguous, with two general ways it could go, but I choose to believe in the nestling of the small brown dog.

I notice this story was nominated by the original publisherTin House, of course, and by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, whose “Iconography” from the 2014 Pushcart I loved. I can see a similarity, not in the stories, but in the willingness to go beyond the literal, and to write serious stories with just a little twinkle in the eye.

Questioning Reality MOOC

Course: Question Reality! Science, philosophy, and the search for meaning
Length: 6 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX
Instructors: Marcelo Gleiser
Quote:

How much can we know of the physical world? Can we know everything? Or are there fundamental limits to how much we can explain? If there are limits, to what extent can we explain the nature of physical reality? RealityX investigates the limits of knowledge and what we can and cannot know of the world and ourselves.
We will trace the evolution of ideas about the nature of reality in philosophy and the natural sciences through the ages. Starting with the philosophers of Ancient Greece and ending with cutting edge theories about the universe, quantum physics, and the nature of consciousness.

Current events have a lot of us questioning reality these days. Different type of questions, though. The main questions in this course are outlined above: how do we know things, and how much is it possible for us to ever know? The course combines philosophical and scientific explorations, and proceeds chronologically from the pre-Socratics to the Renaissance to Einstein to the present day. Prof. Gleiser is a theoretical physicist specializing in particle cosmology, and the course roughly follows his book The Island of Knowledge, written for the general science reader.

I’ve taken three or four of these science/philosophy courses, and each time I get a little more comfortable. This one is pretty introductory, and it hits all the “ooooh, cool” spots (How would we know if we’re brains in vats? Why should we care about Schrodinger’s cats?) without requiring reading anything beyond Gleisner’s NPR blog articles. I have to say I found his explanation of electron orbits to be the most helpful one I’ve encountered, though it’s possible I’m just now at the point where I’m ready to start understanding things like what standing waves have to do with quantum theory.

Each week started with a great feature: an ungraded What Do You Know pretest, full of questions that range from factual (T/F: Violet light has more energy than red light) to conceptual opinion (Agree/disagree: Mathematics is something we invent; Reality only exists in our minds). These questions are repeated at the end of the week, offering concrete evidence that something was, indeed, learned, even if only a better definition of “reality”. Material also included a video lecture and several interviews with other philosophers and scientists on the topics covered. A few graded multiple-choice questions were scattered through the material, along with several short written assignments in the form of posts, journal entries, and short self-graded essays. A Reddit AMA with Prof. Gleiser finished off the week.

The discussion forums were active and I got into some excellent discussions along the way. I also enjoyed a project from the first week: understanding a pendulum’s motion. Now, I took the easy route and used the available online pendulum simulator, because I’m a klutz, but it was an interesting way to play around with the topic of observation and experiment.

I found myself often confused by the logistics of the course, so I just plugged away at whatever looked interesting, be it posting on a discussion or self-grading an essay or answering questions (though I never did find the Learning Journal). I say that a lot, don’t I. In this case, the multiple evaluation options were complicated by a bilingual approach: the course was offered in Portuguese as well as English, with all written material in both languages so everything appeared twice. I wholeheartedly support broadening the appeal to include more people worldwide, and I would rather deal with my befuddlement than restrict the audience. It’s a tough problem, and I applaud them for taking it on. I got used to the double-entries after just a few weeks; if more courses took this approach, we’d all get used to it, and it’s a small price to pay for inclusion of those who would otherwise be unable to participate.

One of the great discoveries for me in the course was another book, mentioned in Week 3: Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern . I’ve only gone through 80 pages, but it’s wonderful: Poggio, Medieval Book-Raider, goes among the monks to rediscover Lucretius and atomism as Europe turned towards renaissance. Manuscripts, history, philosophy, science, the classics, all packaged in a wonderfully told story: who could ask for more.

Pushcart XLI: David Tomas Martinez, “Consider Oedipus’ Father” (poem) from Poetry, June 2015

It could have been a car door
                leaving that bruise,
 
as any mom knows,
almost anything could take an eye out,
 
and almost anybody could get their tongue
                frozen to a pole,
 
which is kind of funny
                to the point of tears
                plus a knee slap or two
that an eye can be made blue, pink
by a baby’s fist, it fits
perfectly in the socket. It’s happened to me.
                Get it?

Complete poem available online at Poetry

A brutal poem, but in vocabulary, it’s also a very subtle poem, as subtle as the excuses the abused tell for their injuries. Lots of words of injury in innocuous contexts: tears, slap, sock-et, and hands, lots of hands.

My favorite line is almost comic: “For me, a woman’s tears / are IKEA instructions / on the European side.” I’m not sure what’s so hard to figue out, but I guess I’m the wrong one to ask.

I found myself uncomfortable as I read, at least until it gets into more analytical territory:

I’m sure for Laius, Oedipus’s father, it was the same.
                Think of him sleeping
after having held a crying Jocasta
because they had fought for hours
because she was stronger.
 
                Who knew better the anger of young Jocasta?
Knew that when the oracle, or the police,
                come, they are taking someone with them.
 
I’m sure Laius looked at the crib
                and thought better you
than me, kid
.

I’m not sure I understand the reference to Jocasta’s strength. Though she had nothing to do with Laius’ sins that brought on his curse, I always thought of her as a full participant in the abandonment of the baby Oedipus. I’ll give her mixed feelings, that she might be devastated as she pierced his ankles. I do love that sense of Laius trying to weasel his way out of another scrape. Excuses. Always excuses. The man gets the title; the woman gets the blame, the woman and her tears, her strength, damn her.

I had a hard time getting a grip on this one. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hit squarely on point, just that I’m not able to come up with much, or am not willing to publicly come up with much. It might be one of those things you get or you don’t.

Pushcart XLI: Doug Crandell, “Winter Wheat” (non-fiction) from The Sun #469

That fall my brothers and I would be sowing the fields on our own for the first time. Dad was working extra shifts at the ceiling-tile factory with the threat of layoffs ever present. One night he sat us down and said, “Wheat’ll be yours to get in the ground. Work together.” That was it. Derrick was eighteen, Darren was almost fourteen, and I was ten and proud to be included. “Questions?” Dad said. He was so spare with words that every one he did speak seemed significant. He looked at us, his eyes like round black stones. I envied the manly hair on his arms.

Complete story available online at The Sun

Doug Crandell seems like someone I’d like to know. The internet tells me his day job with the University of Georgia involves working with employers to reduce barriers to employment for the disabled. He’s also found the time to write five books with some of the most compelling titles I’ve seen, things like The Flawless Skin of Ugly People and Hairdos of the Mildly Depressed. Of his memoir The All-American Industrial Motel, Publishers Weekly says: “Throughout, Crandell struggles with the idea of what makes a man: is it working with your hands? Can a real man make a living off words? And, perhaps most importantly, how do men comfort one another in times of grief?”

Those are the same questions that permeate this essay, which I presume is also a memoir of one season when Crandell was ten years old. A stranger came to town: a man with a different way of being a man. A man who looked a little like a hippie or something, with his long hair and his beard. A man who held his baby because, well, it was his baby, why shouldn’t he hold it? A man who hugged and sang and played music while working – hard work, farm work planting winter wheat, 80 acres of it – and made work fun. A man who treated three young neighbors like friends and paid kindness for kindness. A man who left a space when he was no longer there.

I had the bad luck to read this while wasting a spare quarter hour in a coffee shop, and even though the story went exactly where I knew it was going to go from the bottom of the first page, I was glad I had extra napkins to wipe away the tears. Is it a sappy story, yes. Is it a new story, no. But it’s well-told, and there is a twist of sorts: the boys’ father is the centerpiece. He holds his first reactions of uncertainty and disapproval in abeyance, but, in the end, one honorable man recognizes another, and three boys learn that honor comes in different shapes and sizes.

In his Introduction, Bill Henderson named Wendell Berry as his muse for this year’s volume. This piece fits perfectly with that intent.

Pushcart XLI: Martin Espada, “The Beating Heart of the Wristwatch” (poem) from Purple Passion Press

My father worked as a mechanic in the Air Force,
the engines of planes howling in his ears all day.
One morning the wristwatch his father gave him was gone.
The next day, he saw another soldier wearing the watch.

Complete poem available online at The Progressive

In the age of cell phones and digital watches, have we lost the sense of time tick-tocking away? Maybe that’s overly romanticized, but I think there’s something about those regular clicks that subconsciously reminds us of time slipping away, maybe for the good, maybe for the bad. I wasn’t quite expecting the turn this poem gave to the ticking of a wristwatch, however: as a son’s reminder of his father’s heart, a perpetual keepsake that survives the loss of a parent.

The poem features at least three father-son pairs: the speaker’s father and his father; the speaker and his father; and the watch thief and his son. Quite possibly, the watch thief’s father is implied there as well. I wasn’t aware of the watch as a masculine symbol of one’s father, but why not. It could be, as well, that the symbolism is unique to the speaker, and he’s merely projecting it onto others, assuming they feel as he does.

When he died, I stole my father’s wristwatch.
I listened to the beating heart of the watch.
The heart of the watch kept beating long after
my father’s heart stopped beating. Somewhere,
the son of the man who stole my father’s wristwatch
in the Air Force holds the watch to his ear and listens
to the heart of the watch beating. He keeps the watch
in a sacred place where no one else will hear it.

The second stanza starts in what I consider a very confusing way: if the father’s watch was stolen years before, is this a replacement watch? Why would he have to steal it, and from whom? There must be a reason the poet chose to write it this way, so I tried to see it in different ways: maybe we’ve changed speakers, it’s the son of the watch thief – but no, he’s referenced later in the stanza. Maybe I’m just getting tangled up in minutiae. But it stopped me, and it’s an odd place to stop.

The repetition of phrases – “the beating heart of the watch. The heart of the watch kept beating…” does have a rhythmic presence. I also felt the last line of the poem – ” We listen for the heartbeat and hear the howling” – had a lot of rhythmic howling in the repeated “h” sounds, linking back to the howling of the jet engines and the howling night the father got drunk in the first stanza.

I find it kind of surprising, given the subject, that the poem doesn’t have a more obvious rhythmic structure. Maybe it does, and I just don’t have the ear to pick it up; maybe it’s meant as contrast.

I’m a big fan of the digital world, from the computer I’m typing this on right now, to, yes, the cheap no-wind watches that helps us catch the trains on time. I’m not sure if such things even last the decades needed to become associated with one wrist. If they do, I’m sure a son would treasure it passed down from his father. But he won’t know its beating heart. Does that matter?