Bridget Quinn, Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order) (Chronicle, 2017)

Great lives are inspiring.
Great art is life changing.
The careers of the fifteen artists that follow run the gamut from conquering fame to utter obscurity, but each of these women has the story, and work, that can scramble and even redefine how we understand art and success.

It strikes me that we might need a little caveat here before getting started. Can we agree at the outset to lay down our qualms about Ye Olde Arte Hystore at the door of this book? Put them down. Walk away. Let us agree that together we shall fear no corsets, nor nursing saviours, nor men in top hats and cravats, nor vast expanses of peachy dimpled thighs.
Let us withhold judgment until we know more.

Last year, I read Nell Painter’s book Old In Art School and found I enjoyed reading about art. The OCW about Don Quixote examined a Velázquez painting (Las Meninas) in great detail as part of the discussion of the narrator/subject, and I found that fascinating. But then, whenever I tried to find an article on some artist, or a video on a style, I would lose interest almost immediately. Art has its own language and its own values (just like writing), and the sources I found just barreled ahead and started lecturing about what makes this part energetic and this part ominous and… well, I can take their word for it, but I can’t understand it.

But I keep trying. Towards the end of last year, I read The Millions “A Year in Reading” entry by Grace Loh Prasad (about whom I really know nothing, but I love these year-end briefs). This was the first book she described:

Quinn seamlessly weaves together biography, art history, memoir, and incredible storytelling, such as in the chapter on Edmonia Lewis and the rediscovery of her long-lost sculpture The Death of Cleopatra. Her writing is intimate and unstuffy, and it makes learning about important and overlooked artists feel like having a conversation with a smart, badass friend.

Grace Loh Prasad

Who doesn’t love a smart, badass friend. So I ordered it. And I have to agree: it’s a marvelously unstuffy book that talks about art in language I can understand, and even more importantly, talks about artists in ways that make me interested in their lives and work.

The artists discussed are all women, but there’s great diversity beyond that, in era, race/ethnicity, artistic medium and style, and life story. I was surprised to discover that I’d heard of a couple: I got interested in Kara Walker while reading Painter’s book, and Ana Mendieta showed up in an art mooc I took (and hated) back when I started doing moocs; I didn’t remember her name, but I did remember her siluetas, so the class wasn’t a complete loss.

I enjoy Quinn’s approach. It is, indeed, less stuffy than most, sometimes irreverent, sometimes poignant. She’s a good storyteller, whether she’s relaying an artist’s life, the story of a painting, or the moment she herself discovered the artist. The chapters are fairly short; it’s easy to read two or three in one sitting. I even started to understand some art, thanks to her inclusion of comparisons and contrasts; yes, this was another book I read at the computer so I could look up the works mentioned but not included.

The images are wonderful: full-color reproductions of several works by each artist. Each chapter begins with a full-page illustration of the artist by Lisa Congdon. It’s nice to have an image of the artist under discussion, and interesting to compare these with the self-portraits that sometimes show up in the chapter.

I kept trying to figure out a way to summarize the individual chapters without doing a full paragraph on each one, but they are all quite different and all deserve full attention. So forgive the length of this post; the book is nowhere near as cumbersome.

The first chapter about Artemisia Gentileschi shows how easily Quinn moves from art to biography to social commentary. It opens with a discussion of Gentileschi’s Judith Severing the Head of Holofernes, a Biblical story of a Jewish woman using what skills she has – seduction – to destroy the leader of the forces massing to slaughter her people. “The two women work in dispassionate exertion. They could be Julia Child and Alice Waters deboning a turkey.”

From there, she takes us to the rape of the seventeen-year-old Gentileschi at the hands of one of her art teachers, the legal climate in which the wrong was done, not to her, but to her father, and the trial her father brought against the rapist which involved obstetric examinations and, best of all, torturing Gentileschi with thumbscrews to ascertain the truthfulness of her version. As a result she was married off to another painter and ended up in Florence, which turned out to be good for her career. Quinn also discusses the poor renderings of female nudes by even such experts as Michelangelo, for lack of models. I hadn’t known this until I looked up his sculptures for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo as mentioned in the text. The other female hero Gentileschi paints is Susanna, another biblical rape story.

But the artistic centerpiece of the chapter is her Self-Portrait as La Pittura, the embodiment of the art of painting. Here she maintains the existing traditions as regards hair, jewelry, and dress, but does not include the usual gag in the mouth symbolizing the muteness of art. As Quinn puts it:

Artemisia Gentileschi was never quiet. She was instead the heroic center of her own art, fashioning a new language of womanhood, in action and in form.
Her heroic women are not man-eaters, but man-beaters. That’s one reason why her Judith Severing The Head Of Holofernes appalled so many for so long. Not only is a woman depicted performing a heinous act on a man, but also it’s a woman daring to depict it.
Artemesia refused the gag. And from four hundred years away she speaks to us still, saying: Dare to be great.

Judith Leyster’s chapter starts with an art gallery adventure. The Louvre acquired a painting by Franz Hals, only to discover upon cleaning that the signature was not Hals at all. At first it was thought to be the work of Hals’ brother, but it eventually was resolved that the then-unknown Leyster was the artist. Quinn quotes Germaine Greer’s observation: “At no time did anyone throw his cap in the air and rejoice that another painter, capable of equaling Hals at his best, had been discovered.” Legal action and recompense followed quickly.

Her Self-Portrait is amusing for the paintbrush aimed at the crotch of the male musician she is shown painting, but more importantly, it’s been revealed through infrared examination that the figure was originally a woman, possibly a self-portrait within a self-portrait. “In other words, Leyster predicted her own erasure from the history of art.”

The chapter on Adélaïde Labille-Guiard traces her clever maneuvering through the years before and during the French Revolution

There was an 18th century version of trolling that supported an entire economy of the most vicious satire. As a woman artist, Labille-Guiard was an easy target.
….For women artists the leap from intimacy with a man to being an untalented slut has, in the public eye, never been a big one.
Slut or not, she was shrewd. With no husband to defend her, or support her financially, Labille-Guiard defended herself. Between 1782 and 1783 she showed six portraits of important male Academicians. It was a brilliant stroke, securing valuable eyewitnesses to her talent. If any man admired his portrait, he must admire Labille-Guiard’s ability as well.

When the winds shifted, she painted portraits of the power forwards of the Revolution. But she still had to burn one of her paintings, her greatest masterpiece. It’s here that I discovered the hierarchy of classical French painting: still life at the bottom, history painting (“big ass canvases with a story to tell” as Quinn puts it) at the top. There’s also a great deal of compositional strategy in this chapter: why what is behind the subject of a painting may be as important as the subject itself.

The story of Marie Denise Villers has two focal points and a wonderfully humorous accent. When Quinn was in grad school for art history, the objective was connoisseurship: “Basically: knowing who made what, just by looking at it. To be able to perceive, by attitude, gesture, mood, and style, what belongs to whom.” In a discussion with Professor Alfred Moir, this was developed and evolved:

“You know the problem with connoisseurship?”
I did not. I had no idea there was a problem with connoisseurship.
“It doesn’t take into account the artist waking up on the wrong side of the bed.” He leaned forward and lifted a finger, as if to shake it in my face. “It doesn’t consider the really shitty day.”
….Later it would occur to me, what about the opposite? The Day When Everything Goes Right. The Fucking Excellent Day.

Turns out Villers had one of those when she painted Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes. Again, this turns into a comedy of errors: in 1917 the New York Met aquired a gift of what was thought to be a painting by Jques Louis David. In the 40s it was discovered this could not be a David, and by 1951 it was tentatively attributed to another woman painter. At this point critics came out of the woodwork to point out flaws which, when the painting bore the imprimatur of David, had been unnoticed. It wasn’t until 1996 that Villers was credited as the artist, by comparison with two of her other works.

And here the plot thickens. Quinn looks at those other works in detail, and proclaims them “bland” and lacking magic. I can’t really tell the difference. She goes to some trouble to show the difference in interpretation of the Portrait as painted by a man (sexual anxiety) and by a woman (artistic anxiety). But the point is that Villers and her student Charlotte happened at a special moment; soon thereafter France became far more restrictive to women, and, Quinn writes, “by 1804, Napoleon had shut down every avenue of official education and exhibition for women artists in France.”

So a singular moment in time is the secret of Villers’s marvelous, moving painting: two young women longing to make art found themselves in a brief period of opportunity, when instruction, exhibition, and even fame were possible.
And in that moment, perfection happened. A Fucking Excellent Day. Longing and kinship and ability became great art. A masterpiece.

I regret that I’m unable to see the perfection. But I’ll take her word for it.

Rosa Bonheur painted a very different subject: horses and bulls. It seems she was very popular towards the end of the 19th century, to the point of children playing with Rosa Bonheur dolls. She became friends with Buffalo Bill, meeting him when he was in Paris. And she was gay: Quinn compares her and her companion Natalie to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. She had an official permit for crossdressing – that is, wearing pants – at a time when only women who could defend the need for pants could legally wear them. A monument to her stands in France: not a sculpture of the artist, but of a bull like those she painted.

The only flaw in this book occurs in this chapter. Her painting, The Horse Fair, is spread across two pages, a necessary choice to see anything close to the details. But that means the gutter of the pages runs down the center, making the crucial central figure – the only non-mustachioed figure, thus possibly a woman, even a stand-in for Bonham – hard to see. Fortunately, the Internet offers numerous options.

With Edmonia Lewis, we get our first look at art outside of painting; that is, sculpture. And we happen upon another fascinating story of an outstanding piece of art being lost. The Death of Cleopatra had been missing for a century in the 1980s when curator Marilyn Robinson started looking for information on Lewis for her own work. She sent out (pre-internet) feelers.

A curator at the Metropolitan Museum of art, perhaps lingering over bagels and orange juice some lazy Sunday, happened to see it and recalled a recentish letter from one Frank Orland, a dentist/history buff from a Chicago suburb, who’d written to the Met looking for information on the very same Edmonia; he thought he might have something of hers. The museum curator, feeling generous, sat down the juice and contacted the number listed in the Times.
Richardson pounced on the lead. She called. And called. She left messages. They were not returned. So what would any academic on an independent scholar’s salary do? Damn straight – she got on a plane, then in a car, and then marched up Frank Orland’s front steps and rang his bell.
A now-pliant Orland led Richardson to a barren corridor in a nearby suburban shopping mall. Hardly the place one might expect to find, say, a monumental marble statue of an Egyptian Queen. …
Orland leaned into the storage room and flicked on the light.
There sat Edmonia Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra, a regal monarch limp on her marble throne. Tragic, moving …and, noted Richardson, “surrounded by holiday decorations and papier mache turkeys and Christmas lights and Christmas elves.”
Richardson was shaking.
A celebrated work by one of nineteenth-century America’s most important sculptures, lost for a hundred years, was now quite suddenly found.

If a shopping mall storage room is an unusual place to find a marble sculpture, Edmonia Lewis might also be considered an unusual prospect for fine art. She was born of a Chippewa mother and Black father, orphaned at age nine, kicked out of several schools, and as the Civil War started, was beaten severely and left for dead in a field. Nevertheless, she persisted, and through William Lloyd Garrison, met a teacher and went to Rome.

In addition to the qualities of Lewis’s work, particularly her Hiawatha sculpture, Quinn discusses the implications of white marble. It was, in Lewis’s time simply what sculpture was made of, but in antiquity, the Greeks and Romans painted their statues. The worship of whiteness came later.

Paula Modersohn-Becker painted what Quinn calls the “first female nude self-portrait in Western history”, while Alice Neel may have painted the oldest nude self-portrait; she was eighty at the time. Given Neel’s early life – she was hospitalized for suicidal behaviors in her 30s, her first child died, and the second was taken by her husband when he abandoned her to live in Cuba, a lover burned and slashed hundreds of her works – it’s a triumph she made it to eighty, so as far as I’m concerned she can paint anything she wants. Her most notable work was of gay men and couples, mostly from the Warhol Factory.

Vanessa Bell painted her sister, Virginia Woolf, without a face, yet “captures something essential in her, opposed or a way of being in the world as distinctive as her facial features. …She ignored mere features, capturing her sister’s essence instead.” She did the original covers for Woolf’s books, including the highly phallic image for To the Lighthouse. She served as a sort of base for a couple of Woolf’s characters, including the painter Lily Brisco in Lighthouse.

The chapter on Lee Krasner spends a fair amount of time on her marriage to Jackson Pollock, and credits her with discovering him and introducing him to those who would support his rise to artistic stardom. Her own work seemed to get lost in the mix. The images presented in the book are all very different – from Self Portrait (1930) to Seated Nude (1940) to Composition (1949) to Milkweed (1955). Surprisingly, I like the later three works far better, and here’s where I try to grapple with the language of Abstract Expressionism:

Ab Ex as perfected by Pollock was all about doing. According to influential critic Harold Rosenberg, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Abstract art is sometimes described as a departure from reality, but a better way to say it might be that it seeks to express a different reality. The reality behind our visible world. …
You wouldn’t think of a jazz musician as a fraud trying to trick you into thinking noise was really music. No, because you feel music intuitively: your soul and spirit (and even body) understand its message. The same is true of abstract art if he will give it time and attention. It will work on you, if it’s good.

I’d never heard of Louise Bourgeois, but I recognized her Femme Maison works: literally, “housewife”, they are half woman, half house, and express a feminist reaction to the expectations women live under.

Bourgeois’s feminism may have been born at the dinner table where her father verbally abused her in front of whatever company happened to be there. As an example, take a look at the video
“Louise Bourgeois Peels a Tangerine”. She seems to have returned the disfavor, though much later, with her sculpture Fillette. It means “little girl” but the work is a 2-foot penis, looking remarkably like the preserved corpses I’ve viewed for anatomy moocs: brown/orange and rough. Robert Maplethorpe took an iconic photo of her holding the sculpture, “her right hand cupped beneath the glans penis as if it were the muzzle of a small dog… She might be any lady who lunches in midtown, one who doesn’t go anywhere without her little pet.” Quinn associates it with DaVinci’s Lady with Ermine, a painting from half a millennium prior which is also loaded with sexual symbolism.

While some of the women, particularly those from earlier centuries, were from artistic families yet never attained any kind of status in the art world, the opposite is the case with Ruth Asawa. Her father was a truck farmer in California; when she was sixteen, he was arrested and she was interned with so many other Japanese Americans in one of America’s most revolting acts. She found the benefit in it, however, since a casual school formed which included interned artists. She eventually went to a small teacher’s college, but found that, in her fourth year, she was not allowed to do the practicums required so she had to leave without her degree. She made some contacts through her sister, who was studying Spanish in Mexico, an found the Black Mountain College, an experimental school with a superstar roster of instructors including John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, who became her mentor. Her work includes wire art based on folk techniques she learned in Mexico, and more traditional fountains in San Francisco, where a High School for the Arts is named after her.

The chapter on Ana Mendieta begins with a scene from Law & Order:

In the hot early morning of September 8, 1985, a doorman working the night shift in Greenwich Village heard a woman’s voice pierce the night, screaming, “No, No, No, No,” then moments later, the sound of a large object striking somewhere nearby.
Artist Ana Mendieta, thirty-six years old and married less than a year to renowned sculptor Carl Andre, fifty-two, had just plummeted from the bedroom window of their nearby apartment – thirty-four stories – and died on impact.
Because Mendieta is known for the ethereal self-portraits-cum-crime-scene-outlines she called siluetas – and because the police took no photos – it’s tempting to imagine the scene. Rather than gruesome, I want to picture Mendieta as she was in her very first silueta: a naked body covered in white flowers, all ripeness and purity, associating her own procreative forces with the power of the Great Goddess.
….Even Andre doesn’t seem to know exactly what happened; over the years, he’s given three very different accounts. …A celebrated pioneer of minimalist sculpture, Andre and his brilliant career were affected not at all.

Quinn, fully aware of Andre’s sculpture, discovered Mendieta in 1992 at the Guggenheim opening in NY, where protesters objected to the white male palette (one woman, no artists of color) and the inclusion of the famous sculptor who many believed had murdered his wife.

Mendieta came to the US in 1961 from Cuba; she and her sister, young teens, lived in a series of temporary homes in Iowa. She is known for “earth art”: using the planet itself as a canvas:

Earth Art tended toward the massive and the masculine, requiring big machines and accompanying egos….If there were an ancient prototype for the new art, it would be Stonehenge way back in the Neolithic, impressive and lasting, at least in part because it’s just so damned big. The Neolithic inspiration for Mendieta runs more to the plastered skulls of Jericho and myriad great goddess images found all over the world.

As I mentioned, I was aware of Kara Walker from other sources. Her silhouettes, as Quinn notes, have the appearance of lighthearted gaiety on first glance, but when examined more closely, they contain a shocking – and damning – portrait of the sexual and physical exploitation of black people. “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does,” Walker has explained.

But the chapter starts with a very different piece of art:

At the behest of Creative Time, Kara E. Walker has confected:
A Subtlety
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
An Homage to the unpaid and overworked
Artisans who have refined
our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the
Kitchens of the New World
on the Occasion of the demolition of the
Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

It’s a giant sphinx-like sculpture made out of sugar, with a head fashioned to evoke a “mammy” with clearly black features, and, in the back, ten-foot-tall vulva protruding over curled toes. This is an artist who goes there. The sculpture combines the histories of whiteness, blackness, sexuality, industrialization, and capitalism, probably a few other things I’m not sophisticated enough to see. There’s a reason Walker won a MacArthur “genius” grant at twenty-seven.

In the final chapter, we learn of Susan O’Malley turning the pain of her mother’s degenerative illness into art by enlarging and mounting notes she wrote – “Love you Baby”. O’Malley’s specialty was textual art: the careful placement of words in surroundings that emphasize or contrast with the meaning. She created a series of nine signs for the Montalvo Arts Center, titled A Healing Walk: at various places on the trail there are wooden signs reading “You are Here, Awake and Alive,” “This Beautiful Moment”, and similar sentiments. Quinn compares it to Dante:

Nine was the number favored by Dante in structuring his Divine Comedy, which begins with a walk: In the middle of our lives / I found myself in a dark woods / the right road lost. Dante’s guide is the poet Virgil; in A Healing Walk, the artist O’Malley is ours. And just as Virgil takes Dante through Hell, then on a steep path up until they see the stars, O’Malley’s path culminates in the summit overlooking the quiet balm of the natural world.

I’m a little dubious of this interpretation overall, but some of the pieces indeed fit.

O’Malley died suddenly at the age of thirty-eight; the Montalvo Arts Center made her installation permanent.

Quinn finishes with a brief postscript:

Our story began with my finding sixteen women artists in the third edition of H. W. Janson’s seminal History of Art. I’ve presented fifteen here. Why one short?
I’ve left room for myself. For you. For anyone who wants it.
Insert yourself here.
….Hell, insert anything you like – poet, architect, filmmaker, actor, brain surgeon, astronaut – and run with it. Great lives in great works are endless: we just have to look for them. And of course create them.

I’m delighted to have found this book, a book that made the artists come alive for me, and that did, in spite of my lack of artistic comprehension, make sense of many aspects of art.

It turned out that Quinn, while studying art history and connoisseurship, came to be inspired most by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard in an unusual way. Her professor gave her an assignment of high honor, a request to authenticate a Labille-Guiard painting. “I had already decided to follow Labille-Guiard, not study her. I wanted to be like her, to explore what talent might lie inside me with passion and courage.” No, not painting; she left art to become a writer, which is how this book came to be, and probably why it is far more enjoyable for someone like me than the entries written by those who achieved full connoisseurship.

Bart D. Ehrman: Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (S&S 2020)

When I’ve told people the title, they have often been puzzled or even slightly offended. But let me be clear: I am not saying that a literal heaven and hell have experienced historical changes. I’m saying that the ideas of heaven and hell were invented and have been altered over the years.
And I think that can be proved. There was a time in human history when no one on the planet believed that there would be a judgment day at the end of time. At another time, people did believe it. It eventually became a standard Christian teaching and is accepted as orthodox truth by many millions of people today. Between the time no one believed it and many people did, someone came up with the idea. That is, it was invented. So too with every idea of the afterlife. That doesn’t make the ideas wrong. It just means that they were ideas that once did not exist and then later did.

I’ve mentioned my misspent youth as a fundamentalist before. In the years since, my interest in religion has been more academic and historical (and, musical: I love church music from Palestrina to Mozart and standard Protestant hymns; I bounce in and out of various churches periodically because that’s where the music is). This book is just another attempt to make sense of a pretty insane path that, in spite of the difficulty of pinning anything down, keeps affecting our daily lives for better or worse. And it’s less prone than Dante to give me nightmares (once the Pentecostals get into your brain, you can never completely get them out).

My impression – and I haven’t done the careful study that would be necessary to confirm this – is that this book at least generally follows the flow of thought as presented in the Yale OCW’s I went through last year, and has at least some elements in common with the mooc “Early Christian Outlook and its Jewish Matrix: Narratives of Gospels and Acts”, which looked at Christianity as a Jewish sect and examined the influences in the Jewish world that would have been in play at the time. That is: Judaism itself, under the pressures of exile and Roman rule, underwent a shift towards anticipating a Messiah and into apocalypticism in the late Second Temple period; that shift influenced both the message of Jesus and Paul; early Christianity had many different beliefs, and what ultimately became today’s Christianity was also influenced by apocalpyticism generated by, among other things, Roman persecution and the need for unity to expand and maintain the church. I still think there’s another phase of development: the Roman Christianity that used hierarchy and strict obedience to orthodoxy to maintain power. But I’m just a dilettante, though I prefer to think of myself as a learner at an elementary level.

The book starts at the end: In Chapter 1, Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell, Ehrman looks at the early Christian period, between the time of Jesus and the original apostles and the codification of the Canon, a time when many varieties of Christianity existed in widely separate places. We learn about “the earliest Christian forerunner to Dante’s Divine Comedy”, the Apocalypse of Peter, attributed to the disciple but written some time around 100 to 150 CE, too late to have come from his pen. Several other works are included here to underline the second-century belief in a hell of torment versus a heaven of paradise. Then comes the kicker:

None of these visions can be found in the Bible, because they do not, in fact, represent the earliest Christian views of the afterlife. The ideas of a glorious hereafter for some souls and torment for others, to come at the point of death, cannot be found in either the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus. To put it succinctly: the founder of Christianity did not believe that the soul of a person who died would go to heaven or hell.
But this became the standard Christian view over time, and it will be helpful to see where it ultimately came from, when it started to be adopted, and why it seemed so attractive….To see where this belief originated, we will need to begin our explorations many years before Christianity – before even the most ancient writings of the oldest parts of the Bible.

The rest of the book is the examination of how we got to this view of heaven and hell, essentially the one most commonly held today in Western Christianity. We start in 2100 BCE with the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered the first extant written literature in the world, to look at the fear of death. Enkidu goes to great lengths to find a way to cheat death, but ultimately fails. In several philosophy and religion moocs I’ve encountered the idea that the fear of death – the very impossibility of imagining what it is to be dead – may have been the motivation for imagining an afterlife; this seems to jibe with Ehrman’s thinking. I’ve also frequently seen the idea that the lack of justice in this world may have motivated consideration of judgment in the afterlife, where those who were wicked but went unpunished or even profited from their wickedness would finally get their just desserts. Again, this fits with the ideas in this book, though it comes in much later.

Another idea I encountered in some mooc along the way – I wish I could remember where – is that Virgil invented the hell of punishment in the Aeneid. Ehrman concurs with this as well, showing how, in Homer, the shades lived in Hades as sort of depleted, bored people, but weren’t punished, except for a very few (Tantalus, Sisyphus, Tityus); the pleasant Elysian Fields await heroes (or perhaps offspring of the gods, favored of the gods, it seems to shift). Then, several centuries later, comes Virgil, who turns the afterlife into reward and punishment galore.

Some six or seven centuries after the Homeric epics, Virgil does not populate Hades with shades that all experience the same boring and pleasure-free existence. He writes of hellish torments for some and heavenly glories or others. Most have to be punished for their sins before being given a second chance at life. Why such a change from Homer? What has led to this invention of heaven and hell?
It is hard to say what among the enormous changes in the political, social, and cultural worlds between seventh century Greece and first century Rome might have affected the shift in thinking. But it is relatively easy to see what happened in the realm of ethical thought. Equity has become an issue. …The wicked, no matter how powerful and revered in this world, will pay a price in the next. Those who have done what is right, however, will be rewarded.
By the time of Virgil, these ideas had been around for centuries, popularized most importantly by the greatest philosopher of antiquity, Plato.

I was glad to see that my hazily-recollected notion was confirmed, and that further explanation was forthcoming. We spend a few pages looking at Greeks and early Roman philosophers before arriving at the main event: the Biblical view of what happens when we die.

Ehrman’s primary point is that throughout much of the Hebrew bible (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament), resurrection concerns not individual people but the nation of Israel. In later books and in the apocryphal books such as the Maccabees, a more apocalyptic view comes into play, possibly a reaction to the Babylonian captivity and/or the growing awareness of Hellenistic philosophy – specifically, Platonism – in Jewish thought. While resurrection of the body and soul becomes more prevalent, the punishment for sin is annihilation: death, in other words. Torment isn’t part of the picture yet.

In a very interesting section subtitled “What Did Jews Believe at the Time of Jesus”, Ehrman gives us an overview of the work of Pieter Willem van der Horst, who examined a thousand epitaphs that have been preserved in the archaeological record in a thousand-year period of Jewish life leading up to Jesus. He points out what an extremely small sample this is. In fact, the conclusion doesn’t go much beyond noting the variety of beliefs about resurrection. We then take a look at the work of Josephus, the first-century historian who wrote extensively about the Jews as a people and a nation. This gives us three distinct groups with differing views on the afterlife: the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. These views boil down to “annihilation, immortality, or resurrection.” This is where we start with Jesus and the Greek bible (the New Testament).

I get antsy whenever someone, anyone, points to a Biblical verse and declares what it means, whether it’s a PhD who’s studied six ancient languages and knows the history and archeological findings of the area of ancient Israel, or a country preacher who is sure he has a direct connection to God via prayer. Let’s face it, we’re dealing with documents written by people in a very different time and culture, in a different language, and, to boot, those documents were recopied over and over, broken apart, reunited, and so may or may not closely resemble the original texts. We in the US can’t agree on interpretations of the Constitution, which was written in our language a mere 200 years ago and is buttressed by a fair amount of supportive documentation including the explicit Federalist Papers; how can anyone claim to know the exact meaning of esoteric references in documents far more alien to us?

But we have what we have, and Ehrman goes through the hot spots of afterlife theology in the gospels: Gehenna, sheep and goats, poor man Lazarus and the rich man. He ends up here:

One of the other criteria I take very seriously is the need for any saying of Jesus to fit well into his own early first-century historical context as a Jew from Galilee. I have pointed out that for over a century now critical scholars have been widely convinced that Jesus subscribed to a thoroughly apocalyptic worldview. My contention in this chapter is that his apocalyptic understanding of his world extended to his view of the afterlife. Jesus did not focus on what would happen to an individual at the point of death. He was principally concerned with that great act of God that was coming soon with the appearance of a cosmic judge from heaven, the Son of Man, who would destroy the evil powers in control of this world and establish a great, utopian, and eternal Kingdom. Those who lived as God wanted to them to – loving their neighbors as themselves, doing good for others in need – would enter into that Kingdom. Those who lived lives of self-centered sin and wickedness, on the other hand, would be destroyed, never to exist again.
Like other apocalypticists of his day, Jesus believed this day of reckoning was coming very soon ….But what happens if it doesn’t come? Then adjustments have to be made, and those who accept Jesus’s teachings have to reinterpret and possibly even alter them – maybe a little at first but then, possibly, more thoroughly. …It will be these later developments that lead to the views of heaven and hell still believed by so many of Jesus’s followers in our day.

We then go on to look at the books of Paul, and how it seems he might have changed his view when he began to realize the End of Time might not come before his death. It’s one thing to talk about what happened to some other people who die before the Return; but when it seems it might be your fate as well, maybe you reconsider. However this mostly concerns whether, at death, souls go into a kind of hibernation until the Return, or whether they immediately go on to be judged and rewarded or destroyed (because annihilation is still the punishment for sin, not eternal torment).

One of the topics I found most interesting was the discussion of 1 Corinthians on the new incorruptible and eternal body that will be given to the righteous at the resurrection. This draws from the transitory state of matter in neo-Platonic thought and removes that problem from the afterlife by a “mystery”: “We shall be changed.” This interests me for a musical reason: I remember all those Messiah performances, as a singer and an audience member, hearing that phrase from “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and not having a clue what “we shall be changed” meant but loving the sound of it. Paul turns it into an act of God that allows the resurrection of the body in incorruptible form.

So Ehrman considers that the actual words of Jesus and Paul indicate a heavenly afterlife for the righteous, and destruction, eternal death, for the wicked. He then looks at how the notion of torment crept into both the scripture and thinking of earliest Christians. This is the section that is likely to cause the most discomfort for those whose belief follows from the King James Version of the Bible. I can appreciate that discomfort on two levels. Spiritually, if you’ve been raised with a belief, it’s hard to hear that maybe Jesus didn’t say that, or maybe this piece here was appended to that part there three centuries later by a Roman empire now adjusting to Christianity. And aesthetically, the KJV is, in many places, beautiful to those of us whose first language is English, so saying it’s wrong is like editing Shakespeare. But we’re looking at analysis here.

And, of course you knew we’d get here eventually, there’s the book referred to as Revelation, or, if you prefer, The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Ehrman points out that this is not whoever wrote the Gospel of John, as the writing is very different (“a bit like reading a page from a Dickens novel and then another from a sophomore in a creative writing class”). There are also some important points about the genre that affect how it is read.

This book, like all books of the Bible, was written both in and for its own day, and if we want to understand what its author meant, we have to place his book in its own historical context.
In addition, we have to understand better what kind of book it is. I will be arguing that it is not a prediction of what was to happen thousands of years after the author’s day. He was describing what he thought would take place in his own time. He did so by using a literary genre common at the time, called the “apocalypse,” a genre found in a number of works, especially during the four-hundred-year period between the Maccabean revolt and the end of the second Christian century.

In other words, the Whore of Babylon isn’t whatever scandalous actress is making gossip sheets these days, nor is it your least favorite politician; it’s Rome. And the Beast isn’t Hitler, it’s Nero. The Lake of Fire is a symbol. Just as Gehenna was a dump used to burn trash, the wicked were destroyed, not tormented.

So how did we get to burning forever? The post-Biblical period; the apocalyptic books; and the earliest communities of Christians who every once in a while faced a new round of persecutions from Rome. And a sense of justice. He even mentions apocatastasis, Origen’s theory that no one is in Hell forever but all are eventually purged of sin and saved. I learned about this back when I read Jo Walton’s Lent, and wish Augustin hadn’t dispatched it to the dustbin of theology.

I was a bit disappointed that the book ended here. I suppose it is the end of the story, since we’ve now got people going to heaven when they die, then being reincarnated for the Final Judgment, and the wicked being punished forever. But it seems to me heaven and hell continued to develop in different ways, as reflected, not only in religious and academic discourse, but also in fiction. Look at Dante, at Milton, and, yes, at Walton.

I chose to read this book after seeing a blog post Jim Harris about a previous Ehrman book. We’d just crossed paths discussing BASS stories, so I was intrigued my new friend was, like me, interested in religion as an academic rather than a spiritual pursuit; that is, more interested in the history of Christianity than it its truth or guidance. He mentioned this book would be published soon, and since I’d so enjoyed Walton’s Lent just months before, I put a hold on it at my local library.

That brings us into a bit of contemporary drama. I placed the hold in late February 2020, knowing the book was scheduled for release on March 31. In late February, COVID-19 was something happening in China and, maybe, Italy. On March 15, 2020, the Portland Public Library shut down the physical building (online services continued) following the diagnosis of two cases in Maine; what we now refer to as lockdown followed within days. I forgot about this book; I was still working on Pushcart and had a shelf of other reading, and the closure was only for two weeks (we were so naïve).

During the first week of June, the library announced it would open a “Library-to-go” service, initially to distribute books that had been placed on hold before lockdown by appointment only, staggered to reduce the number of people at the library at once. The pickup notice I found in my email delighted me, as 1) I’d forgotten all about it, and 2) the library was waking up! On June 11, stepped into the library building for the first time in months; it was only for about 30 seconds, but it was wonderful.

This has nothing to do with Ehrman’s book, of course, but does show how unexpected events can influence one’s viewpoint. I probably have a positive bias towards this book because of its place in my personal COVID history, minor as it is. So I have no trouble imagining the impact exile, destruction of the Temple, or persecution could have on one’s point of view. And for those who find these kinds of man-created-God thoughts offensive, that’s fine; there’s plenty of other stuff you can read.

Doug Mack: The Not-Quite States of America (Norton, 2018)

The United States of America is not just a nation of states but also – legally and officially – of those scattered shards of earth and populace that make up our outposts far from the North American continent: the territories of the Virgin Islands of the United States, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, along with the uninhabited Minor Outlying Islands.
They have U.S. National Parks and American Legion posts and U.S. post offices – just a standard first-class stamp gets your mail there; it’s all the same country. Their millions of citizens earn American dollars and pay into Social Security and Medicare and serve in the U.S. military at impressively high rates. They participate in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee and receive Pell Grants and play Little League baseball and have 4-H Clubs and serve as United States Ambassadors. They pledge allegiance to the American flag, even if Old Glory hasn’t made room for them.
Yet for the average resident of the states (lowercase s – because States would be the whole nation), the territories are all but forgotten. They’re extant but inconsequential, vestiges from another era whose ongoing existence is a cultural curiosity, like Tab soda or professional mini-golf. They flicker into our consciousness here and there – an offbeat news story, a friend’s tropical-island vacation photos, a passing reference in the fine print of a governmental form – and for a moment we think, oh, right …we have territories. Then, just as quickly, they disappear from our minds once more.
The territories are not part of our conception of ourselves.

I know we’re all dealing with multiple crises at the moment – pandemic, police violence, economic disruption, racism finally under national examination – but try to remember back in 2017. Man, that was a long time ago. Ok, hurricanes, especially Maria, that devastated Puerto Rico (and the US Virgin Islands, but somehow that never really got on our radar screen), the President of the United States throwing rolls of paper towels at people whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed, Jose Andre’s World Central Kitchens feeding an island while politicians sat on their thumbs, a corrupt deal with an out-of-its-element electrical company to repair the Puerto Rican grid, and it went on and on for months until we got bored and started looking for new outrages, which, sadly, are always available.

Somewhere in that time frame, a tweet by Doug Mack crossed my path. The question about the citizenship of Puerto Ricans kept coming up, and it seems his book about the US Territories had been published earlier that year and answered a lot of the questions that were coming up. Not just about Puerto Rico, but about all the territories, however many there were, because most of us had no idea.

I got that book for last year’s in-between reading period, but I never got to it (appropriately enough) so I rolled it over to this year. I was a little unsure, since I’m not really interested in “travel books”. Turns out it’s not a travel book at all. Oh, there are some tales of people and interesting places and a chance encounter with a CIA-trained chef (that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the spy shop, for those who didn’t spend years mesmerized by Top Chef), but it’s really a book about history and culture and American colonialism and why we don’t know anything about the US Territories.

Mack became interested in researching the Territories after an encounter with “the Quarters of Destiny”: you know, those special-issue quarters each state has, with a specific image carved on the back. Turns out the Territories have them, too, which he discovered looking at a portfolio of the quarters. Then a few days later he read something about American Samoa, and thought, “That’s one of those mysterious places on the quarters.”

Until very recently, I couldn’t even list the territories, let alone tell you anything about them. And if there’s anyone with no excuse for this, it’s me, a travel writer with a college degree in – ahem – American Studies.
My obsession with Americana runs deep, pulsing through my childhood in Minneapolis ….Years later, at Carleton College, amid the prairies and cornfields of southern Minnesota, I channeled this fascination into actual academics. I could rattle off esoteric facts (about the states ) and tell you the name of just about every capital (of the states). I graduated with the self-satisfied confidence of the newly diploma: I am a credentialed expert on all things American.
When I started out as a writer, my gaze turned overseas. I filed stories from Rome, from Ecuador, from a tiny Icelandic island. I was ever on the lookout for Americana and how it translated abroad ….
Yet in all this time, it never occurred to me, Mr. American Studies Guy, Mr. Globally Aware Travel Writer, that there was more of my very own country to consider. Parts of the USA about which I was not just fairly ignorant but almost wholly unaware. Places I could not reliably find on a map, within a thousand miles or even, in some cases, within the correct hemisphere.
And then one day I encountered what I now think of as the Quarters of Destiny….
It also seemed that, right around the turn of the twentieth century, the territories were part of the national mythology and the everyday conversation….It was one of the focal points of the 1900 presidential election, between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan.
A century or so ago, Americans didn’t just know about the territories but cared about them, argued about them. But what changed? How and why did they disappear from the national conversation? Was there a compelling reason why they mattered for the present day USA, or were they just remnants of a long-past historical moment?

These questions form the backbone of the book. Some of the answers may surprise you. For instance, in some ways they seem an awful lot like… colonies, can that be true? What’s a commonwealth, anyway? What’s the difference between an American national and an American citizen? What does guano have to do with all this?

It all started with the Guano Islands Act of 1856, when farmlands needed fertilizer and all these uninhabited islands covered in bird poop were just sitting around waiting for the taking. We still have Navassa (Haiti thinks they have it, and we’re pretty much in a stalemate that nobody seems to care too much about) though mining ended in the 19th century. From there, it became a game of I’m a Big Boy Now, as the US decided to make its mark on the world by acquiring non-contiguous lands; at the same time, the Navy wanted to become King of the Pacific, ceding the Atlantic to Great Britain. War seems to be a major motivation. Some territories were picked up after the Spanish-American war. Others became strategically important in the World Wars.

Mack goes through the territories one by one, while continuing the overall theme of answering those questions of how we came to have territories and why we don’t think of them now. Just when you think you’ve had enough of the history, he switches over to a nice little dinner he had with some people he met in a bar and we find out more about the attitudes towards the US and some of the culturally important aspects of island life. And then we’re back to political analysis and maybe a little economic scrutiny, ending with another group of new friends in “the rain forest version of Cheers. It’s a fascinating way to write a book, keeping a full-length narrative running while delving into details for each individual territory. It’s also very successful at keeping me turning pages.

Some details I found interesting:

The US Virgin Islands

In terms of the overall structure, Mack focuses his attention in this chapter on why the territories were acquired to begin with (guano), while delving into the USVI specifically.

On St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, the St. Thomas Historical Trust Museum is a paean to “Danish industry and Manor life” and pretty much ignores the indigenous peoples and the more recent colonial struggles, including a major slave revolt in the 18th century. There’s a reason for this:

[Danish tourists] come to the territory in droves, specifically for the history, for the portal to their 19th century glory days. The American tourists come for the beaches and the shopping. The museums and historic sites, intentionally or not, reflect this imbalance and tailor their content to their ticket-buying audience: the Danes. History is written not just by the victors but by those who are most eager to underwrite it.

Next time someone tries to tell you only White Christian Europe has ever produced anything important, remember all the peoples and things that have been left out, overshadowed, or appropriated to create that impression.

American Samoa

This seems, to me, like the most appealing of the islands Mack discusses. Again, he contributes to the overall story by focusing on the Imperial Moment and Insular Acts of the early 20th century, with the assistance of Columbia Law Professor Christina Duffy Ponsa.

Ponses answers all pointed back to the turn of the twentieth century, the USA’s so-called Imperial Moment. “That’s what the historical actors at the time see as the question: can we do empire?” she said. “In the wake of the Civil War, the federal government has become more powerful and the United States is now flexing its muscle on the international stage and European powers have been annexing colonies, so the question arises, Do we do this, too?
The nation’s answer: “Let’s go for it!”

This leads to constitutional questions: does the Constitution follow the flag? The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, left that up to Congress. Yeah. There’s also some routine racist stuff about how alien races can’t possibly be included with Anglo-Saxons. Fortunately, it’s a well-constructed book, it can handle being thrown across the room a few times.

Turns out American Samoa made the decision to decline citizenship – they are American nationals – to avoid possible “outsider land-grab”. The Lapita have been here for 3500 years, and trace their ancestry back another 3500 before that. They aren’t giving that up for a Marriott and a bunch of designer outlets. “There was pressure, even duress, but the fact remains – and American Samoans are deeply proud of this fact – that these islands were granted to, not claimed by, the USA.” They’d rather keep fa’asamoa – the Samoan way.

One surprising fact is that American Samoa – the Territories in general, in fact – have a much higher rate of military enlistment than any state. The NFL and professional wrestling also have an outsized proportion of Samoans. And: they have fa’afafine, the third gender, a person who is born male but identifies as female. Maybe they could help some mainland Americans understand how that works.

Guam

The prominent overall theme of this section is the general public’s waning interest in the Territories:

The Spanish-American war had helped put the United States on the global stage, and soon there were much bigger battles, literally, than what was going on in these small islands. The United States became more deeply involved than ever before in goings-on across the globe, at the same time that the ever-growing mass media was covering ever more stories in ever more distant places. The territories were overshadowed by the competition. These “foreign” islands were no longer the most interesting foreign lands.

We always have been suckers for bright shiny new objects.

One of those goings-on was a little thing called WWII, and Guam bears the scars. They may have the world’s largest Kmart (not sure if that’s still the case) and watch out for karaoke clubs (they aren’t really about karaoke) but they also have the War in the Pacific National Historical Park, where signs warn you to stay on the trail because there may be unexploded ordnance in the brush.

When Guam fell to the Japanese in the early days of WWII, the Chamorros were put in rapidly constructed, crude concentration camps, or just murdered.

Nearly twelve hundred Chamorros died during the years of Japanese occupation and the Battle of Guam. (If you think about the standard narrative of the war in the Pacific, it’s always USA versus Japan, with little acknowledgement that many of these islands were already populated by people caught in the middle.)
The South Pacific Memorial Park was established in 1970, a joint Japanese-Chamorro project. There’s no ill will here, just a mutual sorrow.

“Nearly a million Japanese citizens visit Guam every year.” Guam also has a very high rate of US military service; in the Iran and Afghanistan wars, the casualty rate for troops from Guam was six times higher than any state. I’m trying to understand these things.

The Northern Mariana Islands

In terms of the overall arc of the book, this section looks at some of the legal and political issues the Territories have dealt with in more recent decades, including the growing discomfort the US began to feel with their role as colonizers. Yet, as you might imagine, when a group of people can’t vote for President and have congressional representation that can’t vote on anything, there’s little motivation to cater to their needs and opinions. Alas, the territories can’t seem to agree themselves on their relationship to the US.

“Saipan is the most welcoming place on the planet,” Angelo had told me in an email before I arrived, and every day I met people who proved him right. And the landscape really was gorgeous, with the sky so pristinely blue that it felt manufactured and seemingly endless flame trees, ablaze with bright orange flowers.
But there was also an unmistakable sense that all was not well on Saipan, a disquieting feeling that the whole island had been burned, hardcore.
..
It was often the stillness of abandonment: empty houses, empty shops, entire vacant factory complexes, with broken windows and the occasional tree growing out of a roof.
I pulled my Hyundai to a halt when I saw an entire abandoned mall. …
The more modern the ghost town, the more disconcerting it is. Pompeii has a certain charm area Chernobyl does not. Recent ruins indicate research, relatable failings: THIS COULD BE YOU. Here, not too long ago, were vigor and joy and laughter and big plans. And then something went horribly wrong.

I’ve read this chapter three times now, and I still am not sure what it is that went wrong. It seems to be the predictable aftermath of Congress using the territories to experiment with economic approaches. One Speaker of the House called it his “Galapagos Island.” Mack has a particularly juicy way of describing it: “Imagine that you used a Club Med brochure and Atlas Shrugged as your manuals for constructing a new economy in a place with a long history of insularity and colonialism. What’s the worst that could happen in this laissez-faire Shangri-la?” Then there’s this tidbit, which I find shocking: “On Saipan, the tap water for most residents is not potable.”

The wartime history of this island again echoes the “caught in the middle” tragedy. It’s not just the mass suicide of the Japanese who realized they were losing the island. It’s the ghost of the North Field airbase on the small, now mostly abandoned island of Tinian, where Little Boy and Fat Man were loaded into the Enola Gay and Bockscar. Mack incorporates these aspects of the island with great sensitivity.

On the softer side, there’s the ubiquitous laundromat/poker room combination, and a lovely evening that included “Fanta with a Founding Father.” But overall, it’s the bleakest chapter.

Puerto Rico

The overall sense of this chapter is a summary. Mack presents his nine points answering the question of why no one cares about the Territories any more, one of those points being “it can get ugly so let’s not think about it.” That might be the ultimate American attitude towards everything, from colonies to race to COVID testing.

The chapter starts out, however, with an anecdote that delighted me: a visit to artist Samuel Lind’s house and a close look at his sculptures and prints celebrating the bomba dance. This charmed me because, four years ago in Pushcart 2016, I read a fascinating short story featuring bomba as both a plot and structural element: a dance with doctors in the interests of patient advocacy. As the header image, I chose a Lind print. All of this was out of a place of complete ignorance; I had to google “bomba” to learn what it was and why it was pertinent, and my choice of Lind was completely random. But it stuck with me, and now, four years later, I run into it again. This is why I blog what I read; it makes it more likely I’ll remember it later.

The main issue here is the conflict within the territory about its relationship to the States. The three sides – status quo, independence, and statehood – are passionate about their positions. The politics goes a little beyond me. The humanity doesn’t.

This is also where, by sheer accident, Mack ran into the CIA-trained chef (“I was Emeril’s sous chef in Orlando”), as well as an architectural student who, along with his photographer wife, got them into what might be the most opulent home Mack had ever seen – including “around eighty handmade tiles telling the story of Don Quixote.” There was a year when everything I read or did ended up connected to Norway; this year seems to be all about Don Quixote. And, fun fact: Puerto Rico has the highest concentration of Walgreens in the US, and the highest concentration of Walmarts in the world, which depresses the hell out of me.

The territories are neither united nor states nor part of either American continent, which makes it hard for them to assert their legitimacy as part of the United States of America. It’s understandable that so many people think of them – implicitly or explicitly – as foreign. But when you consider everything tangled up in the territories – issues of basic human and political rights, issues of immigration and military readiness, issues of regional politics and our reach in the world – it’s clear that they are integral to our national story, even today. And there’s the rub: the territories are the most important domestic policy issue Americans aren’t talking about, precisely because we don’t think of them as a domestic policy issue at all.

Yes, the territories are, in fact, modern day colonies. Of course they are. This fact has not changed since the Imperial moment. And that’s a problem, one that we, the United States of America, must resolve.

This was, in terms of the political content, a more intense read than I was prepared for at the moment. Turns out, it was a good read anyway. I learned a great deal about the Territories (beginning with what they are), actually found them on maps, figured out the difference between Micronesia and Polynesia (sort of), and felt everything from sorrow to amusement to delight. It’s not a travel book, but it’s not a history book, either; it’s somewhere in the middle, which is so appropriate for the subject of places somewhere in the middle of us and them.

Rebecca Goldstein: Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Schocken, 2009)

I was being true to Spinoza in leaving behind the personal sense of him that had opened up to me within the space of one small Hebrew phrase; and yet it is back to that personal sense of him that I am trying now to return, even knowing what I know about his philosophy. I would like to recapture the sense of the man behind the formidable system, locate the pounding pulse of subjectivity within the crystalline structure of radical objectivity.
There was a moment long ago when I knew next to nothing about the magnificent reconfiguration of reality laid out in the system of Spinoza, and yet when I felt I knew something about what it was like to have been him, the former yeshiva student, Baruch Spinoza.
I would like to know that feeling again, even though I know that the desire amounts to betraying Spinoza.

This wasn’t the book I expected it to be, but in retrospect, that’s a good thing. I’m nowhere near ready for full-on Spinoza philosophy, and here I got a gentle introduction to some of the key points wrapped in an engaging story of a person, a people, and three nations, as told by a philosopher.

I became interested in this book last year when I read Goldstein’s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. One of the characters referred to Spinoza as the “atheist’s theologian” (note: I don’t consider myself an atheist; there isn’t a commonplace label for my constantly shifting spiritual quasi-beliefs) and some casual googling uncovered his phrase Deus sive Natura, God or Nature. I wasn’t sure what the exact implications of this phrase were, and I wanted to find out. Goldstein’s book seemed like a start.

After a brief abstract that combines biography, history, and philosophy in a sort of preview-of-coming-attractions, Goldstein starts with a scene from her own childhood at a New York yeshiva high school for girls. Her teacher, Mrs. Schoenfeld, used Spinoza, the excommunicated Jew of Amsterdam, as “a cautionary tale of unbridled human intelligence blindly seeking its own doom,” and among other things as the perils of valuing philosophy over the Torah. We get a second biography from this point of view, along with a thoughtful student’s reactions. At one point, Mrs. Shoenfeld speaks of one small positive feature of Spinoza, and in doing so, made an impression she might not have intended:

However, continued Mrs. Schoenfeld, Spinoza did retain one Jewish virtue, and a very important one at that: Respect for his parents. Just think about that for a moment, girls. Even a man like that, completely godless, still honored his parents. He waited until both his parents had passed away before he revealed his apikoros. … He had followed exactly the prescribed mitzvahs for mourning a parent, going every day to the synagogue, saying Kaddish. And while his father lived, he had kept his silence because of shalom bayis.

But now, with this phrase, Spinoza burst into vivid life before me. It was as if I suddenly knew him, knew the manner of person he was. ….He had not wanted to hurt his family by speaking his doubts aloud. Though he was a man who had given himself over entirely to the search after truth – I knew this instinctively – still he would not speak the truth so long as his doing so might hurt those whom he loved.
And from this one fact about Spinoza I knew that Mrs. Schoenfeld was mistaken in thinking that it was his arrogance that explained his departure from orthodoxy. An arrogant person would not have shown such heightened consideration for others’ sensibilities. He would not have waited until his father had died before revealing how deeply he questioned the beliefs of the fathers. The thought occurred to me that he must have been a lovable man. I sat in Mrs. Schoenfeld’s class and I felt that I loved him.
My teacher had tried to make us feel Spinoza’s betrayal as our own, as if we, too, were part of that close-knit community of former Marranos, which in some sense we were. She had tried her best to put the seventeenth-century philosopher into familiar terms, and she had succeeded, though, at least in my case, not exactly as she had intended.

I hadn’t realized until I read Harold Bloom’s NYT review (which, I confess, I poorly understand, but I don’t think he’s a fan) that the title has two meanings. For me, Goldstein was the philosopher betraying Spinoza by approaching him in a more personal sense rather than through the radical objectivity he spent his life writing about. But “Betraying Spinoza” can also be a descriptive term for the yeshiva boy, the Sephardic Jew whose family fled from Spain to Portugal to Amsterdam long before he was born in search of a place they could safely be Jewish, who turned his back on Torah and Talmud and disavowed the special relationship between the nation of Israelites and God in favor of a view of the universe through reason, a view that made logic into God, into everything that is.

To get to Spinoza’s ideas of the fundamental nature of the world and the route to salvation, Goldstein takes us through Sephardic history in Spain and Portugal as well as his life in Amsterdam where Jews were relatively safe. She sees his vision of identity as a reaction to the Jewish identity which, prior to arrival in Amsterdam, was denied, hidden, or forgotten, yet always existed. The question of “What is a Jew” – is it a cultural, genetic, religious, voluntary, or permanent trait? – for her resolves in his idea that, in the system Spinoza envisioned, “To the extent that we are rational, we, all of us, partake in the same identity.”

We also need to understand the importance of Kabbalah to Sephardic Jewry in particular. I was glad I’d taken a mooc explaining the basics of Kabbalah, since the ideas come at you quickly.

Lurianic Kabbalah, transmitted from his visions of Elijah, offered a new narrative to explain the moral history of the suffering world, and the role that the Jews were chosen to play in that moral history. It is a tale of a shattering – a shevira – at the very beginning of the creation of the world, when the
Ein Sof, or that without end, contracted itself so that the world could be created. The divine light entered into the ten vessels that were waiting to receive it, and some were shattered, the shards falling into the abyss from which the world arose, carrying sparks of light that were trapped within. From the moment of its first being, then, the world was not as it ought to have been. ….It is tikkun ha olam – healing the world – which in mystical terms is described as the gathering up of the shards of the broken vessels, the divine light caught within them. ….When all is restored to its rightful place, the Messiah will come; his arrival will not deliver our redemption to us, but rather signal that redemption has, through man’s spiritual efforts, been achieved.

This view that the world was broken from the start and our job is to fix it somewhat parallels Spinoza’s idea that the world is made of logic and everything in it is as it should be; and if we can attain that logical view, much of our conflict stemming from differences will be unnecessary. I see the likeliness of either approach happening getting slimmer all the time, but I’ve become more pessimistic every day over the past three years. In any case, Spinoza departed from Kabbalistic ideas at the broken vessels, because why should they break? He’s got a point.

Biography is sprinkled throughout the book. Sometimes it’s factual and objective from the academic side of Goldstein; other times it’s through imaginings as her fiction writer self steps forward. Aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy are explained as well: conatus, the essence of identity that makes us who we are; the pleasure of expanding into the world, the pain of withdrawing from it, the desire towards pleasure are the primary emotions. “Reality is ontologically enriched logic”: that’s the sort of thing I’m going to need to read more about; it almost makes sense, but not quite.

It’s a book that makes me want to know more. I suspect Spinoza’s ideas have been superseded by those of others – Nagel’s The View from Nowhere, a more contemporary discussion of radical objectivity in light of information we now have from science, keeps cropping up here, as it did in Goldstein’s novel. But it’s a start, and, in places, an emotionally gripping one.

Allen Gee: My Chinese-America (SFWP 2015)

I think that those African-Americans who like to assume that I have white privileges, or the upper hand of lighter skin pigmentation, aren’t aware that some whites, especially in the academic arena I work in, view me as a fierce source of competition, fearing I’ll match the stereotypical Asian prodigy, or be the diligent hardworking immigrant. One white male writer once complained to me in a jealous tone, “I wish I had a cultural background like yours to draw upon!”
….
While I do consider myself hardworking, which stems from my family’s original blue collar Toisanese farming roots in China, my determination stems more from a desire to live the most involved writing and teaching life possible, for the sake of wanting to fully explore the life of the mind. So for me, being Asian in the New South means occupying a unique space, a territory of my own, neither black nor white …. And although some African-Americans believe I have advantages because my complexion is lighter, or supposedly more acceptable, and might also view me as a competitor vying for limited claims to minority status, they have not walked far enough in my shoes, and would certainly be surprised to know how much we have in common, as different as we are.

It’s easy for those of us in White America to see Asians as the “model minority,” and more or less forget about them when we have those Twitter fights about racism. Then a pandemic comes along and shows you what was just under the surface all along.

That has little to do with why I chose to read this book, however. Back at the end of January, I read a piece by Gee recalling his mentor James Alan McPherson in Pushcart 2020. I put both this book, and a volume of short stories by McPherson, on my list. As it happens, current events added to my interest.

As an English professor, a former basketball player, and skilled fisherman, Gee bucks a lot of stereotypes about Chinese American men. As his essays point out, he often has to deal with them anyway. He covers a wide spectrum from the very personal – family and dating – to the societal, to the universal experience of aging.

The first essay, “Profile,” is a harrowing account of an encounter with a Kansas State Trooper as he was traveling from his then-home in Houston to the midwest to Albany to see his parents. That’s followed by a more reflective look at the past in “Is It Safe There?”, which takes its title from a friend’s question about going to Chinatown. Gee, as it happens, spent his early childhood in New York’s Chinatown, where his family owned restaurants. He writes with fondness of his memories, and with sadness about how so much of the flavor is being lost to gentrification:

These days, I fondly recall accompanying my grandfather on his self-appointed rounds, but as more and more of the Chinatown I knew vanishes, I have the sense that more of my own history is disappearing, and so part of myself seems to be winnowing away , like I am slowly being erased. I’m left feeling less and less connected to where I once felt the most culturally anchored and secure and alive.
We are constantly told that change is inevitable in life, but what happens when we have almost nothing left to return to?

We then shift to a peculiar date he had with a woman I would describe as an Asiaphile/stalker. It’s almost comical; it’d make a great scene for a movie, but this was real life, with people looking on. But we’re back to serious business with “Fraught with Masculinity” as Gee, buying formula for his infant daughter at WalMart, finds himself about to walk into a showdown between two rival gangs. He took a detour into a McDonalds to avoid the situation, and in the essay uses the opportunity to look at images of masculinity in multicultural American:

What I intuited before the age of twelve was how American representations of Asians failed to correspond with who I was, and aside from the dearth of rolemodels throughout popular culture, Asian-American male stereotypes were already prevalent. …[W]hile emasculation is how Asian-American males are otherized, hypervirilization and being attributed with a menacing intent to elicit fear is how African American males are most often stereotyped. Neither minority group is allowed to be thought of as “normal” – that would deem them equal with whites.

I’ve never thought of Asian men (and I’m thinking of East Asian in particular; as Anthony Bourdain once said, Asia is a big place) as being less masculine, but I’m aware that’s a common trope. What particularly interested me wasn’t even in the piece itself, but came up as I was dictating the above quote using word-recognition software to save wear and tear on my disintegrating hands. Instead of “how Asian-American males are otherized”, the result was “how Asian-American males are authorized.” A perfectly understandable substitution based on pronunciation of a rarely-used word, but remarkably pertinent semantically as well: stereotypes, particularly those that weaken and dismiss the target, are ways of authorizing, both in terms of permission, and in terms of writing them as characters rather than allowing them to be who they are. While this author-izing of Asian men writes them as harmless and allows them to be ignored and dismissed, rewriting African American men as threatening justifies abusive treatment and assumption of wrongdoing.

One of the most contemplative pieces is “Silences” and outlines Gee’s relationships with the men in his family. One startling revelation is that his father didn’t know he’d been adopted until he was 45 years old. I’m a little confused as to how that’s possible, but I suppose birth certificates weren’t required in the past as much as they are now. While considering his father’s reluctance to give him advice throughout his life, Gee comes to embrace the habit of silence that is part of the family.

“Point Guard” is a fascinating essay both structurally and informationally, even for those of us who don’t basketball at all. Gee discusses his own basketball career, originally undertaken as way of fitting in as a teenager, in parallel with a second essay about Jeremy Lin and the reaction America had to a Chinese basketball star.

When you feel that you can affect or dictate the flow of the game by determining the pace – by scoring on your own and creating opportunities for teammates, or by shutting down an opponent or outplaying him or her – or when you are dominant because of your vision come up dribbling, and passing or shooting skills, and when you want the ball and everyone looks to you and wants to get you the ball so that you are the locus of play, like a conductor or floor general, or when you are the man, the woman or the one whose play determines whether your team wins or loses in “clutch” moments, only then do you know what it is to be a “true” point guard.

I have no idea what a point guard is, but that paragraph sure makes me wish I was one.

Somewhere in today’s feeds was a request that more white people write about their white privilege instead of about the problems faced by people of color. I will own my white privilege here: “Asians in the Library” was hilarious. It’s hilarious to me because I’m not the subject of the rant of the UCLA student who simply was fed up with so many Asians in the library – “they come to our school, which is fine” – committing atrocities like talking on cell phones (which is annoying, but is annoyingly cross-racial, trust me on this) and having family over on weekends. It’s funny in the way the current crop of freedom fighters are posting rants about refusing to wear masks in stores that require them. That is, not funny at all. Enter Jimmy Wong, who made his own song/video in reply, and it’s even funnier/sadder. It’s all available on Youtube, but no, I’m not going to provide links.

“The Real New South” gives us a sense of Gee’s experience living in Georgia as an English professor. It’s an interesting look at what it is to not fit into a binary society based on black and white. The experiences of aging take the stage in “Echocardiography” as an erratic heartbeat leads to the realization that the body does, eventually, betray us all. I could identify with the sense of shock as he found himself “buying a long plastic pillbox with letters for each day of the week on top of seven compartments.” Ah, yes. The first pill bar. It felt like giving up. I now have one with AM and PM compartments for each day. And an extra one for as-needed analgesics. You can get used to anything, turn anything into normal. Whether you should is another question.

A fishing trip provides the narrative for “By 2042” that somehow pivots to the question of minorities becoming the Ugly Americans when they become the majority. Just as he did with basketball, Gee took an activity in which I have no particular interest – deep-sea fishing – and made it fascinating. I had no idea so much was involved. Most of the people on the boat that day probably had no idea, either; it turned out to be that kind of tourist trip where someone else does most of the work but you get to pull on the rod at the right moment and claim your fish. My father, who’d never been fishing before, hung a sailfish on our living room wall after such a fishing trip. But the boat captain wasn’t prepared for someone at Gee’s level of expertise,and that led to a decision on how to handle disappointment when a silly mistake let the big one get away.

The book wraps up with a state-by-state travelogue relating various experiences or statistics related to Gee and/or to Chinese American history. Turns out his grandfather came to Maine in the 30s on vacation. And Gee wants to retire to Florida. I grew up in Florida. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. But I hear there’s good fishing.

Some aspects of my life are directly contrary to Gee’s; on others, we share traits. My father held secrets. I never did find out exactly when he came here from Sweden. He was determinedly American. I learned a few words of Swedish and a couple of recipes from his older sister, but that’s about it. Our culture was supposed to be American, though I still have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. I didn’t find out my older sister was adopted until I was sixteen. I thought it was cool. To my parents, it was something to be hidden. I connect with him on the unlikeliest things: the pill box, the descriptions of fishing and basketball. From his Pushcart essay, I learned that he considered himself not very well-read at the time he became interested in literature. These reading projects I do are all aimed at fixing my similar lack of background.

And further considering how silence has pervaded our family, I know it is not simply something mysterious, shameful, confounding, and divisive; nor is silence something to be resented. It is a behavior that will forever be in the air, seeming as natural as the wind or the sun. For although I might wish otherwise, not only is silence a deeply ingrained part of our history, but I sense it’s deep in our bones, as if it’s a part of our destiny, and so in many forms, it will most likely continue.

I’m glad he let his voice, and through him his father’s and grandfather’s voices, be heard in this volume.

Daniel Chamovitz: What a Plant Knows (Scientific American/FSG, 2012) with BONUS MOOC!

We are utterly dependent on plants. We wake up in houses made of wood from the forests of Maine, pour a cup of coffee brewed from coffee beans grown in Brazil, throw on a T-shirt made of Egyptian cotton, print out a report on paper, and drive our kids to school in cars with tires made of rubber that was grown in Africa and fueled by gasoline derived from cycads that died millions of years ago…. And plants continue to inspire and amaze us: the mighty sequoias are the largest singular, independent organisms on earth, algae are some of the smallest, and roses definitely make anyone smile.
Knowing what plants do for us, why not take a moment to find out more about what scientists have found out about them ?

I’ve lived a relatively plant-oblivious life – until about six months ago. And now I’ll talk about my plants (not even interesting ones, basic beginner stuff) like old ladies talk about their bunions.

It’s all @drunkphyto’s fault.

I was minding my own business when someone retweeted her tweet into my feed last September: “The smell of cut grass is the grass releasing a wounding compound into the air to warn other plants that they were injured. You are smelling their screams.” I immediately thought of Seth Fried’s “Animacula”, a short story in the form of a lab report about organisms with strange properties, including screaming. Oh, and Liz Ziemska’s “The Mushroom Queen” which acquainted me with the interconnectedness of fungi via mycelia.

I emailed @DrunkPhyto to tell her how excited I was about all this (yeah, I know) and, to my surprise, she gave me a friendly reply rather than a restraining order. She recommended a number of books, one of which was Chamovitz. So it ended up on my reading list. And I started eyeing the plant stand in the supermarket, until I finally brought home a tiny philodendron, then an ivy, and an oxalis, and various flowers….

I was in for another surprise. As I started reading, I realized I’d taken all these moocs on biology, physiology, biochem, anatomy, and other sciency topics, and while I’d encountered cell respiration and the Michaelis-Menten equation multiple times, I’d never learned anything specific to plant biology. I didn’t even know how photosynthesis worked! So I checked edX for any moocs on plant bio, and found little beyond agricultural ecology. Ah, but on Coursera, I found… Understanding Plants: What a Plant Knows , taught by Daniel Chamovitz! So of course I signed up. It follows the book very closely, and includes very helpful diagrams the book lacks. Double bonus: He has a second course, Understanding Plants: Fundamentals of Plant Biology , which I will take as soon as I finish up the biochem I’m struggling with.

How way leads on to way…

Plants must be aware of the dynamic visual environment around them in order to survive. They need to know the direction, amount, duration, and color of light to do so. ….Plants don’t have a nervous system that translates light signals into pictures. Instead, they translate light signals into different cues for growth. Plants don’t have eyes, just as we don’t have leaves.
But we can both detect light.

The book’s approach is to examine how plants sense their environment, through chapters like What a Plant Sees, What a Plant Feels, How a Plant Knows Where It Is, What a Plant Remembers. For each sense, the approach is to look at the human equivalent – say, sight – and break it down to its fundamental quality – sensing light – while pointing out key differences between the human version and the plant version – plants don’t have brains to interpret light signals into pictures – and presenting experimental evidence and theories for ecological significance of the sense.

There’s a fair amount of technical detail for a general readership book. The basics of electrochemical conduction, for example, and the regulation of water through ion transport to cause movement; gene expression and epigenetics; receptors and phytochromes. The experiments that revealed various processes and qualities are described in detail. I have to admit, I was surprised that Darwin was such a plant buff, proving that plants sense light in the tips of shoots. One of the most ingenious experiments was by Thomas Andrew Knight, a 19th century gentleman (rather than a scientist) who concocted a kind of water wheel to create centrifugal force to understand the role of gravity in plant growth, the International Space Shuttle being a couple of centuries in the future.

One of the most interesting chapters was What a Plant Hears, for several reasons. Caution: Spoiler ahead! First, it was a negative finding, and, as Chamovitz points out in his mooc, “one of the other problems in scientific research is that you can’t publish negative results.” This is particularly pertinent to this chapter, since a poorly-designed study in the 60s, coupled with a pop-science (in the worst sense of the phrase) book, had everyone convinced that plants like to be talked to, and they prefer classical music to rock. I’ll admit, I thought this was the case until I read this chapter; I had no idea the study was flawed and the hypotheses invalid. But because no one wants to publish negative results, failures to replicate the study weren’t anywhere near as publicized as the original work.

Even more interesting, the mooc contains a post-production video updating the hearing lecture, since later experiments have shown that plants do show responses to low frequency sounds, possibly via touch sensors (which is, fundamentally, what hearing is), and this may be related to sending roots in the direction of water. As Chamovitz says, “Science is a self-correcting system,” and new research leads to new theories.

Our dictionary’s definition of smell excludes plants from discussion. They are removed from our traditional understandings of the olfactory world because they do not have a nervous system, and olfaction for a plant is obviously a nose-less process. But let’s say we tweak this definition to “the ability to perceive odor or scent through stimuli.” Plants are indeed more than remedial smellers. What odors does a plant perceive, and how do smells influence a plant’s behavior?

The chapter on smell was also particularly interesting. Just like us, plants have receptors for volatile chemical molecules, which are the basis of smell. Anyone who has sped up the ripening of a peach or avocado by placing it in a paper bag with a ripe banana has used this sense: ethylene is given off by ripe fruits and signals other fruits to ripen. I learned this practice goes back many centuries, though it used other means: incense in China, for example.

And here’s where the book’s approach really works for me: given that this is the case, why would this happen? What’s the evolutionary advantage to having one ripe peach encourage others to ripen as well?

From an ecological perspective, this has an advantage in ensuring seed dispersal as well. Animals are attracted to ready-to-eat fruits like peaches and berries. A full display of soft fruits brought on by the ethylene-induced wave guarantees an easily identifiable market for animals, which then disperse the seeds as they go about their daily business.

So it isn’t that peach trees thought it would be a good idea if they did this; it’s that those plants that had this facility, however it was acquired (by mutation?) would have better reproductive success than those that didn’t. This is evolution in a nutshell. This is also my own musing, not a point made explicitly in the book, so if I’m off-base, tell me.

It’s this sense of smell that @DrunkPhyto was (slyly) referring to with “smelling their screams”. This exact point comes up when considering that an injured leaf will release a volatile chemical, and other leaves, on the plant and on other plants, will respond to it with self-protective measures:

While the phenomenon of plants being influenced by their neighbors through airborne chemical signals is now an accepted scientific paradigm, the question remains: are plants truly communicating with each other (in other words, purposely warning each other of approaching danger), or are the healthy ones just eavesdropping on a soliloquy by the infested plants, which do not intend to be heard?

There’s no real answer to this question, but again resorting to evolutionary advantage, plants that warn their own leaves to defend against intruders would likely survive more than plants that didn’t. How the “altruism” of warning other plants comes into it is murkier, though it’s scientifically doubted.

We don’t typically think of memory in connection with plants, but it turns out we can. Again, Chamovitz breaks down memory into its essential parts – storage, encoding, and retrieval – and shows how this works in an organism with no brain, no hippocampus. The Venus Flytrap serves as an excellent example of short-term memory: about 20 seconds. Plants that want to bloom or seed at specific times of the year keep track of the length of the day via genetic suppression or expression; this serves as a kind of medium-range memory. And the most interesting memory of all, long-term memory, spans generations via epigenetics, a topic I know far too little about:

…Not only do the stressed plants make new combinations of DNA but their offspring also make the new combinations, even though they themselves had never been directly exposed to any stress. The stress in the parents caused a stable heritable change that was passed on to all their offspring: the plants behaved as if they had been stressed.… In other words, stressed parents give rise to offspring that grew better under harsh conditions compared with regular plants.

Human experience tells a different story, since human offspring are subjected to other inputs beyond genetic inheritance. But it’s an amazing paragraph: what doesn’t kill a plant, makes the species stronger.

A look at awareness – consciousness – ends the book; it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. I myself hold two conflicting instincts about this sort of thing. I’ve always found it impossible to understand how a plant could “know” it’s time to bloom or seed, or for that matter how a red blood cell knows to pick up oxygen in the lungs and drop it off in the tissues. The biochem mooc I’m taking just did a wonderful lesson on that process, in fact, and it helped to clarify that it’s all about osmosis, competing pressures, and electrical charges repelling and attracting each other. But you could say the same thing about our brains: maybe all the art, belief, and knowledge is just a matter of manipulating matter and energy, no matter how much it feels like we control it with our will. On the other hand, I find it troubling when anyone declares some ethereal quality – like art, or religion, or emotion – is what makes people special, and when it turns out bees dance and whales communicate, the goalposts get moved to keep humans unique. I don’t try to reconcile these two ideas. Like Whitman, very well, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.

Granted I have little to compare it to, but I don’t think I could have picked a better entrée to plant biology than this book. It combines a hint of romanticism with solid scientific evidence, and bounces off my prior learning (if unorthodox, via moocs and youtube) in biology and neuroscience to bridge the gap between human and botanical. Finding a mooc attached to it was a super-deluxe Easter egg.

For readers who’d rather not bother with the technical details, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And who knows, you might just come away with curiosity about something you always thought was way over there somewhere. Way does lead on to way, after all.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Suzanne Farrell Smith, “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap” (nonfiction) from Brevity #59

If you find a mouse on a glue trap, he’ll eyeball you with one black shiny eye while breathing in and out faster than you have ever seen anything breathe. You will panic, though you know the mouse is panicking harder.

Complete story available online at Brevity

How would you tell the story of finding a mouse stuck in a glue trap you yourself did not put down, but was rather a carryover from the former owners of your house? What would you want to convey: what actions, tone, emotions, persons secondarily affected?

You might use second person, if you wanted to dramatically increase the chances of some random editor/slush pile reader tossing it into the Rejects bin, then make it very short, in order to mitigate that possibility. But you’d make it all one paragraph, again shooting yourself in the foot. Then you’d send it to a litmag that specializes in very short, very creative nonfiction, that wants to see something different.

You might want to cram in a range of emotions, and make them evident not by explaining – “I felt sad/happy/scared” – but through actions and considerations. This is, of course, show don’t tell, the first rule learned in Writing 101, but if you think about it, it’s also Real Life: nobody reads a Bad News Letter and thinks, Wow, I’m sad and scared; no, you crumple up the letter, maybe throw it, maybe cry, maybe stare at nothing, maybe grab a bottle or a pile of chocolate or the phone, maybe a lot of things, but naming emotions wouldn’t be one of them. That’s why it’s a rule.

Ok, I can’t do this any more; see, its harder than it looks.

When the mouse starts to struggle, you will tell your husband to kill it, no save it, and you will run to your phone and search “how to remove a mouse from a glue trap.” Articles will tell you to use oil, so while your husband brings the glued mouse out to the back walkway so that your three young sons, in jammies and waiting with popcorn bowls for a Saturday-night Christmas movie, don’t see it, you will hunt for the carafe. Outside, the mouse will sniff and stretch from the trap…. You will cover his body with an old tri-fold cloth diaper and douse his legs with olive oil. Your husband will say, “He’s going to smell too good to predators,” and you will tell the mouse, in all honesty, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry you smell delicious.”

I would never think of a two-page memoir about finding a mouse as being interesting, but this really was, as writing. We know the narrator has conflicting feelings; we see a strange juxtaposition (every time I use that word, I worry, because I was once told it’s a signal of bad writing, but it’s a useful word and fits what’s happening here) of the drama in the basement and the kids getting ready to watch a Christmas movie upstairs. Hilarious sentences are followed by maudlin ones, but it combines to give an honest portrait of the moment.

The title had me stuck on “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie,” simultaneously the cutest and the most right-wing children’s story ever written. But the text had me comparing it to Richard Wilbur’s poem “Death of a Toad”, often considered hyperbolic, more of a satire of romantic poetry given its subject matter. Smith stays firmly within real limits, even as she explores a reaction some of us might find odd.

It’s a great example of putting the creative in creative nonfiction without going gimmicky. Yes, I know, there are those who think second person is automatically gimmicky, but it works here, distancing the narrator from herself enough to present the scene, and putting the reader in her place, a place some readers, again, might not consider, um, normal. The kids upstairs are just the icing on the cake, offering a parallel to the end stage and the morning-after scene, a scene that is as inevitable as it is… no, not heartbreaking, but more than wistful: let’s call it appropriately somber.

No, let’s not call it anything at all. Let’s just read it, and that’ll tell us more.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Hal Crowther, “Dante on Broadway” (nonfiction) from Narrative, Winter 2019

Which heroes of the past do we expect to see honored by urban statues? In the South, mostly generals. Everywhere, politicians, saints, philanthropists, famous athletes. I couldn’t see the statue’s head, up there among the spring leaves, but the larger-than-life-size (nine and a half feet, actually) male figure was dressed in an outfit that looked nothing like a military uniform, more like an academic gown or a priest’s cassock that covered the big fellow down to his shoes. A medieval aristocrat’s everyday street wear, as it turned out, specifically Italian, Florentine, thirteenth century. If I had been sitting on the other side of the little park, I would have seen its name on a large iron sign: Dante Park.

Complete story available online at Narrative

This was not my first Crowther essay. Back in Pushcart 2014, he was represented by a piece that started off with “ a wonderful riff on the crwth,” as I said at the time (a string instrument that has fallen into obscurity). Then he went on to bemoan how everything of value has been supplanted by modern versions of less aesthetic and/or humanistic worth. I rather took exception to that, though I did feel a tug of sympathy for all the crwths in the world collecting dust on antique store shelves.

He’s basically written the same essay here. And I’ve had basically the same reaction. In fact, as I’ve been keeping track, it’s the third piece in this volume that’s had me more or less in agreement with parts, yet resentful of the overall tenor.

The essay starts out with his own recent discover of Dante Park in New York, featuring an outsized statue of the Italian poet who created The Divine Comedy. At that time, he was distracted by a passing truck that specialized in shredding documents.

Representing the thirteenth century, Dante, father of the modern Italian language, progenitor of the Renaissance, disciple of Aristotle, a great poet whose sacred mission was to preserve the wisdom and literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans and protect their precious, fragile links to his own time and culture. Representing the twenty-first century, Information Destruction at Your Door.
Irony doesn’t hit us much harder than that. I like to think that a lot of people, if they had shared my vision at that moment, would have been as blindsided as I was. Realistically I know that 95 percent of the people who pass through Dante Park have never heard of the poet (“Dante? A wide receiver for the Browns?”) and would have no negative response to a Pro Shred truck. And that, of course, is a huge part of the problem.

I have to wonder if Crowther realizes the documents being shredded include things like financial and medical records containing identification numbers that could be used to pirate identities or commit various forms of extortion. Sometimes they also include obsolete manuals and forms that could just be thrown away, but shredding typically is done for security purposes. They aren’t destroying dictionaries or copies of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or the original Gutenberg Bible or Book of Kells. Those things are, in fact, in abundant existence, not only in museums on paper (where moth and rust doth corrupt) but as facsimilies on library shelves and even household shelves, not to mention in the Cloud where everyone can take a good look at them from their cozy bed at 3am should the desire arise.

I should admit now that I became interested in Dante because the professor of a math mooc spoke so lovingly of it, and I ended up studying it with the help of another mooc, and the online site of a third university. Dante isn’t going anywhere.

In America’s social-media century, with an illiterate Twitter-addicted liar steering the ship of state, even yesterday—the past twenty-four hours and their printed, taped, and digitalized record—is routinely erased, distorted, denied. There are idiots afoot who must start every day like the first day of creation, as empty of memory as Adam waking up in the Garden of Eden.

And of course here is where I agree with him. Right now, as I read this, there’s a misinformation campaign in overdrive convince America that the Orange Man had the pandemic solved long ago and it’s Obama’s fault the tests didn’t work and Hillary’s fault China is growing bat viruses in labs and that his press conferences get the best ratings of any tv ever in history (let me be clear lest I become part of the problem: none of that is true), while medical personnel are getting sick and, in a few cases, dying because PPE is being kidnapped by the Feds and ransomed for maximal profit instead of being directed to where it’s needed… oh, never mind, just go read the news.

And yes, I agree, we tend to forget things. There’s a meme on the internet – which Crowther seems to scorn – that starts, “I’m old enough to remember…” and concludes with something that happened a year ago, or a month ago – or sometimes, just days ago. There is an epic battle for history being fought right now in the present, and revisionists are re-revisioning as often as necessary. Any attempt to show them actual proof of their former positions meets with cries of “fake news” or “you’re a nasty person”, the latter often reserved for women who have the nerve to contradict a man.

But wait a minute. Dante “wrote his greatest poetry in the Tuscan vernacular to expand the reach and influence of ‘those who know.’” This was not considered a good idea at the time, as scholastic and literary work was in Latin. Wouldn’t Dante be on Twitter or Youtube or Tik Tok today, trying to expand knowledge? And let’s not forget he didn’t know Greek and was dependent on translations of Homer. That’s not a serious flaw, but a 13th century Crowther might have seen it as one.

I’m tired of academics and the intelligentsia blaming the internet for everything. There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. In the 13th century, I’m willing to bet most of Florence was more interested in gossip and love ballads than in Aristotle. Someone like Dante would have been among the most educated, in a stratified society that depended on lower castes as laborers. And don’t forget, Dante was run out of town by the rulers of the day, and the leadership of the Church, as he exposed in “The Inferno”, was a corrupt cesspool. So don’t go crying about evil modernity and blame everything on the Internet.

There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. You know what else is there? Courses on Dante, on Milton, on Shakespeare. Videos of lectures on topics from protein purification techniques (sorry, I’m taking a biochem mooc at the moment, that’s where my head is) to the history of Ethiopia to the differences between various musical modes and keys, as well as theoretical reconstructions of music from Egypt and ancient Greece and pretty much everywhere else. Through Twitter, I get to peek over the shoulders of classicists, astronomers, mathematicians, historians, medievalists, artists, writers, etc etc. While this alone isn’t educating, it’s often a springboard to papers, books, and courses on topics I’d otherwise never see.

If you can’t find anything but crap on the internet, blame yourself.

While I seem to be thrown by these I-agree-I-disagree pieces, I find that I like them. They help me clarify my thinking, draw boundaries without insisting that everything is right or wrong. That’s another problem we’re dealing with right now: cancel culture, the all-or-nothing approach.

I sympathize with Crowther’s sense that the world is leaving him behind. The world left me behind years ago, and I’m a little younger than he is. I prefer books to e-readers, myself. But that doesn’t mean that innovation is a bad thing. Sometimes it means the way things are saved and stored changes. And, yes, sometimes things are lost: no copies, no notes, of The Divine Comedy in Dante’s hand exist. And somehow, it’s still with us, because of the means of duplication in existence at the time.

When I saw the title of this essay in the Table of Contents, my first thought was, Oh god, someone made a musical out of The Commedia, or out of Dante’s life. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. On the one hand, it could be amazing; but more likely, it’s a lot of catchy tunes and special effects rather than anything to do with the guy who got lost halfway through the journey of his life, and turned to his poetic idol to see him to a salvation that transcended poetry. So I was relieved when I didn’t have to choose.

I doubt I’ll ever get to New York at this point, but if I do, I will seek out Dante Park. And if I happen to catch sight of a shredder along the way, I won’t worry about it, but will give a toast to Crowther for drawing me there.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Patricia Foster, “Eulogy” (nonfiction) from Ploughshares #134

Hieronymus Bosch: Tondal's Vision

Hieronymus Bosch: Tondal’s Vision

“Family.” He shook his head. “It’s all Bosch and Brueghel.”

Complete essay available online at Ploughshares

The prior story, “In That Time,” let us watch a twelve-year-old discover, in one moment on one morning, a different way of viewing his father, a discovery that altered their relationship going forward. Here there’s a similar core event – new information alters the perception of a person – but it takes place over a longer period of time, and by adults, one of whom was not involved in the relationship to begin with; whether it alters anything going forward is uncertain.

Foster was aware her husband had been spent time in foster care as a very young child, never knew his father, and was abused by his stepfather and, ultimately, his mother. His rage at his mother is understandable, almost inevitable. For reasons I don’t understand, they obtained records of his mother’s involvement with state agencies, and a different picture of the mother emerged: she was, in post-WWII-America, simply another girl who couldn’t find her way out of poverty to reclaim her son. But she tried – boy, did she try.

The 40s were a different era from today. An unwed mother was an abomination, and mercy was in short supply. In order to retain what today we would call parental rights, she had to pay for foster care out of her salary as a waitress and factory worker. She visited him as often as possible: first, four times a week, then, when the foster placement was changed, once a week, the maximum permitted.

Because I’m writing this and because I can, I decide to give Ann a happy moment, an hour of delight playing with her one-and-a-half-year-old son. He’s pushing a shiny red fire truck across the floor, a toy she’s just bought him, though it will mean she’ll have to scrimp on laundry soap and stockings. But as he bends down to a crawling position and runs the toy back and forth on her old wood floors, making rrrrrhhhh-rrrrrhhh sounds with his scrunched lips and saying, “Mommy, Mommy, look,” she can’t imagine why anyone would give a fig about new stockings. His hair sticks up in a ruff, his pants are a bit too long, but he’s so gloriously occupied with the thick rubber wheels and the white plastic ladder that raises and lowers she forgets that very soon she’ll have to take him back. Back to his foster home, back to sleeping in the hallway in a house where the older boy has taught him to sing out, “Bad boy! Bad boy!” with such glee he too thinks it’s funny.

There are those who feel that most troubles are caused by bad choices. That may be true, but there are people living in circumstances where the only choices are bad ones.

And yet Ann managed to run a boarding house that provided some financial security. She still had to work, of course, and with childcare still decades away – and with the predominant moral attitudes of the era – she was still unable to claim her son. “It turns out that getting him back also requires a husband.” So she got that as well.

How can she know—can any woman know?—that the very thing that is her salvation will also be her undoing? How can she know that though the husband will adopt the boy, he’ll come to resent him and resent her for having him, will punish the boy for being such a pain in the ass without even a drop of his blood? How can she know he’ll beat him, step on his hands with his construction boots, mock him, berate him, make him stand naked in a chalked circle for punishment? “I gave the kid a name, for shit’s sake,” he’ll yell at her years later, as if he’s the one who’s been played for a sucker.
This man, who once seemed so easygoing, so playful, eating a huge forkful of birthday cake, thick with frosting, while holding her boy in his lap, will, in three years, become an alcoholic, crashing again and again into Bridgewater State Hospital’s detox unit, while she’ll be passive and hopeful, then devious and resentful, and finally depressed.

It’s quite a task, to turn an abusive mother into a sympathetic figure. Her husband finds some peace in the information. Not a happily-ever-after kind of uplift – hence the marvelous line quoted above about family being something out of bizarre and often horrific art – but a realization that his mother loved him, a realization that went a long way. “And she really tried,” he tells his wife. Yes, she did. It doesn’t make up for everything, but it makes a difference.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Megan Baxter, “A Deliberate Thing I Once Said to my Skin” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review, Fall 2018

To consider my tattoos we must first consider skin. Skin is our barrier against the world, enveloping our body so that we don’t lose our precious water and evaporate like dew. …. The strata of our skin resemble a slice of the earth, where twenty-five to thirty layers of skin cells separate us from the outside world. Scratch your epidermis and you might flake off a few dead cells, but cut into your dermis and you will bleed and slap your hand to the cut in pain. It is in the dermis that tattoo ink is deposited and where, as the years of a life progress, the ink sinks like heavy water, fading away through layers of skin like a figure retreating into shadow.

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

Is there a philosophy of the tattoo? Given the devotion of a not insignificant number of people to this art form, I would imagine so, but it might be a bit different for each practicioner or participant. Baxter gives us several viewpoints, all accented with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Not a bad choice, as he was the poet of everything and everyone, a singer of every physical experience a person might undertake from love to war to death to lying on the spring grass. Baxter speculates he might have encountered tattoos on Civil War soldiers he spoke to, as that was a means of identification should they perish on the battlefield. That practice, she explains, lives on in the military, particularly the navy.

She mentions another historical tattoo story which I’d never heard: an Iconoclast emperor in the Byzantine empire punished two priests who refused to destroy their icons to torture, first by beating, then by tattooing poetry on their foreheads. I looked up the poem; it’s quite long, and I wonder how it would fit on one forehead. I also wonder if Kafka was inspired by this when he wrote “In the Penal Colony”, another story about tattooing as punishment.

Pain is part of the process, and Baxter finds it a benefit:

The pain of fading, the pain of mistake, is not as bad as the pain at its origin under the needle.…
But the pain is essential. It releases endorphins that flooded you with something like love and joy. The two-beer buzz. Sex. French fries and milkshakes. The good stuff. And after a while you won’t be able to describe the pain but you will know that it is a key and the release is worth the scratch.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
– Walt Whitman

Exercise advocates also insist that the pain of running or aerobics releases endorphins and improve mood; maybe my endorphin system is defective in some way, because all exercise ever did for me was make me tired and sore.

Baxter also reveals some of her own inspirations that resulted in tattoos, most dramatically, a Utah eagle, but also her first experiene as a teenager. She has seven tattoos, and considers herself done at this point. “You came into the world perfect”, her mother says after each one. She isn’t immune to the implications of that statement.

I’m pretty laissez faire about tattoos, much as I am about most things consenting adults wish to do with their bodies. I’ve occasionally thought about what kind of tattoo I would get, much as I sometimes, even in my senior dotage, think about names for children I never wanted to have. I’ve seen some beautiful work, art that used the anatomy of the body as a platform for non-planar art. And I’ve seen some stupid stuff, including my husband’s self-tattoo of my initials on his fingers.

If there is a philosophy, or a psychic drive that I don’t happen to share, that’s fine. To each their own.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Samantha Libby, “Chinko” (nonfiction) from New England Review #39.3

Igor Molochevski: “Invisible Beast”

Igor Molochevski: “Invisible Beast”

The word “Chinko” means nothing. It is the name given to a river in a place where the river gets lost in thick brush and fields of termite mounds. Chinko Park, established to protect what little is left, is called a national park, but there is nothing national in a place without the rule of law. Chinko’s only defense is a handful of well-trained rangers who spend weeks at a time in the wild, waiting for poachers or armed groups to emerge from the thick bush and attack. This is a dangerous part of the world—everyone knows at least that much.
In war-torn Africa, outsiders often feel an obligation to dissect old clichés and invent new ones. But I show up empty-handed. After ten years working in human rights and humanitarian aid around the world, I can no longer be deluded as to my own relevance. I come for a reason startlingly few want to admit: I need to work and there is often work to be had in places where nobody wants to be.

Complete story available online at New England Review

Libby has had a remarkable decade working on the front lines of global justice: from Hanoi to Ethiopia to the US, from art to children to anti-violence to returning soldiers, her resume
glows with good works and challenges Twitter SJWs everywhere. As she outlines the dangers of this particular place and time in this essay – “Ambush, torture, helicopter crashes, black mambas, road accidents, strange and familiar diseases, overdoses, and friendly fire” – I lose track of the exact nature of her mission. Something about connecting remote communities by radio in the hopes of reducing violence.

But the project doesn’t matter. That’s not what the story is about. It’s background.

As we read, we find sandwiched in between the Chinko material some of the horror Libby endured as a child who became the target of an entire cohort of bullies.

The form the bullying took was varied but relentless. Sometimes it was simple and predictable. I was not to be sat next to, invited to birthday parties, or included in activities. Other times, it was violent. I was chased, pinned down, and abused. Sometimes, it defied logic. I was pushed into a self-described jury of ten-year-old children where I was judged to be ugly, stupid, and weird. When I asked why, I was beaten with sticks and driven away….
I hold on to these scattered vignettes of my childhood. I bury them, but I do not discard them. Over the years, they have coalesced and grown into a single living beast. I cannot see it, but it can speak to me and it calls me horrible names. I have acquired some strength with time. I locked the thing up in chains and threw it into my deepest dungeon. I go about my life, but as time goes on, I can feel it stretching against its bonds. I know that one day I will not be able to hold it back. What will happen when we finally meet? I am curious about this in the same way I am curious about the viciousness of war. Over the years, both have become constants to me. My Invisible Beast is deadly, but in its own way it is also precious to me.

No explanation for this abuse is given, perhaps because there is nothing that would explain, much less justify, it, even in the slightest degree. Typically, children react to some perceived difference when they choose a target for mass bullying: a physical trait, a new arrival in town, an unfamiliar cultural background, family history, something. In Libby’s case, we have no idea, and of course, as a child, neither did she. She only knew everyone else saw something terribly wrong with her, and she had no idea what it was.

The abuse isn’t really what the story is about, either. More background.

I remembered the story from BASS 2019, “Wrong Object” by Mona Simpson, and the inspiration for her fictional story: a team of domestic violence therapists believed that most abused people “spent their lives containing the trauma they had endured, working not to pass it on.” Simpson’s story was all about keeping powerful destructive impulses contained.

And that, I think, is what the essay is about: Libby struggling to keep her Invisible Beast, the pain and rage of an entire childhood, from bursting loose. Still convinced she does not deserve the kind of life others might think of in their dreams, she understands what the people of Chinko are dealing with.

Love stories and passion—not lust, but ideas of growing old in a place—are wild ideas in this place. Their evenings are twisted with dreams of women who are gentle in a way that is foreign to this land. This is not the kind of talk I have heard before, from men on remote bases in Afghanistan or Iraq, engaged in wars their leaders have determined for them. The wishes and hopes of the men of Chinko are not wrapped around the axle of desire but around a need for the kind of company that will alleviate the constant injury of life in this place. The names of the dead are never spoken. At Chinko, there is no need to acknowledge the daily constant of pain. It is one of the reasons I feel at home here.

Imagine a childhood with threats equal to the poachers, armed militias, animals, and diseases of Chinko.

It would be easy to hold Libby as an example of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” but I don’t believe that, either. Yet there is a connection between her childhood experience and her presence in humanitarian projects: by keeping her Invisible Beast contained, her energy is pouring into the negative places and making them, if not positive, at least a little less negative. Makes me feel like I’ve wasted every minute of my own life. Except I grew up with a different experience, leading to a different conviction: that the most generous, caring thing I could do for anyone was to keep far away from them.

Libby is the sort of person I could have been, the sort of person many of us could have been. Maybe someone reading her experience will realize that soon enough to do something about it.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Ottessa Moshfegh, “Jailbait” (nonfiction) from Granta #144

The day before I left home for college, I made a phone call to the publishing house of a writer I’ll call Rupert Dicks. Dicks had a reputation as one of the most audacious and brilliant minds in literature in the last century, and his work represented everything I held as sacred at the time – he was innovative, unapologetic and dedicated to the craft of honest prose. At seventeen, I knew I was a writer, and I wanted to know what Rupert Dicks knew. I was determined to get him to tell me.

Complete story available online at Granta

The stress of recent events must be getting to me: this is the second Pushcart piece I have a strong urge to push back on, despite finding several points of agreement.

Moshfegh tells the story of how she entranced a high-end writer she calls Rupert Dicks (the literaria probably know who he is, but I don’t) into reviewing her writing and giving her solid notes. She never promised him sex; she just let the implication hang in the air until, after what must’ve been a few months of meetings (and one touch, and an insipid kiss, both of which came as a surprise to her), she got the detailed analysis she wanted. Then she breezed off.

Part of me admires a 17-year-old who can pull that off. Twenty years later, in a terrific interview with Alex Clark for The Guardian, she’s impressed, too, “that I had so much gall.” Given all the ways this could’ve gone wrong – from blacklisting to rape – she was also lucky that the writer was basically law abiding, if lecherous.

Did she, in fact, do anything untoward at all? There was no promise. Dicks (I love the use of that name) could’ve told her to buzz off at any time. I have a feeling that the idea that a young writer-to-be wanted his guidance was as much of a draw as the anticipated sex.

Where I start wanting to push back is when Moshfegh pats herself on the back a little too proudly in the interview: “It gave me some insight into my own strengths and, like, arrogance, which has been an asset. My arrogance as a writer has been really important [laughs].” And in the memoir itself:

At thirty-six, I’m pretty fluent in irreverence and cynicism. My assumption that people are ultimately self-serving lowers my expectations and allows me to forgive. More importantly, it empowers me to be selfish, and to cast off the delusion that I’ll get what I want just by ‘being nice’. We are all unruly and selfish sometimes…. One has to be somewhat badly behaved to write above the fray in a society most comfortable with palatable mediocrity. One has to be willing to upset the apple cart. Apples go flying, people trip and fall, yelp, grab for one another. A street corner is transformed into a tragic circus. And everybody gets an apple, each one bruised and broken in a special way. That’s the kind of writer I have always wanted to be, a troublemaker. I can’t fault Dicks or anyone else for wanting the same.

Again, I have to agree with so much. Moshfegh has received a great deal of recognition for her work; obviously she’s doing something right. Reviewers love to use phrases like “brutal honesty” and “disruptive”, and they use them a lot with her. I’ve only read one of her stories; it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m the first to admit that isn’t really a problem. I seem to have trouble with the contemporary version of honesty.

Where I want to push back is first of all the idea that a woman using sex to get what she wants is a good thing since men have used sex to dominate women and have used women in general to get what they want forever. While it’s cute that Dicks is hung by his own petard, his own desire, I don’t see all of us getting down into the mud as a forward step. Possibly a necessary one: when men are used by women in the same ways women have been used by men, maybe they’ll realize how scuzzy their own behavior has been. I doubt it, but I allow for the possibility. It seems to me it’s more likely we’re going the route of an eye for an eye making the whole world blind.

The second thing that bothers me is the value-laden language that declares this kind of writing, this kind of writer, this kind of person, to be superior “in a society most comfortable with palatable mediocrity.” I think there are other ways to speak, to be, to write, that are not mediocre, and that palatable is not automatically bad. I continue to worry that the loud voices, the “at least I’m honest” crowd, are simply uninterested in others and don’t want to be bothered with subtlety and tact, let alone contemplation or reason. I worry that it’s not by accident that we ended up with the current national administration at this moment.

Maybe I’m just one of those quiet voices too mediocre for this moment, and jealous of the arrogant who get their way by demanding it. You have to be super-confident to pull that sort of thing off. When I get assertive, I get squashed, and then I obsess about it. Really, I still worry about the stupid things I said and did in high school, and they weren’t really all that stupid.

Or maybe I’m just grumpy from current circumstances. It really is a fun essay to read, with that pulsing thread of danger lurking underneath. Sort of like real life these days.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Allan Gurganus, “I Confess: My Cultural Misappropriation” (nonfiction) from Salmagundi #197-198

I.
It kicked in early, my confusion: When is cultural appropriation appropriate? By the age of six, I owned three good puppets. Those being gifts, I had not made them. My mother boasted a Master’s degree in education; so Christmas brought me a cardboard marionette theatre. It was red and gold. My arbitrary players? A yellow fur lion, one ancient Austrian woodcutter and a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. Having only these actors might seem limiting; but, odd, all my plays about the world fit them exactly.
The character-puppet I did not need was one representing a sensitive freckled white boy with bangs, seersucker shorts, and his own National Geographic subscription. He would have bored me very much. It was others, always others, I pursued. The less like me, the more I needed them. What I didn’t know, they were. By asking them, by moving them around our little stage, I farmed my life toward theirs. I kept trying to understand them from the inside out. My strings lifted their hands and paws. Manipulation, you say? Don’t puppets require that? Isn’t all art manual labor in the service of certain truth-telling tricks?

Complete story available online at Salmagundi

Once in a while, I run across a story in these anthologies that suffers by mere timing. When originally published in early 2018 in an issue devoted to “This Age of Conformity” it would’ve been an interesting extension to the discussion of cultural appropriation. Now, in the post-American Dirt period, it seems a little late. Some things, when lead times of over a year are involved, can’t be anticipated.

Gurganus defends his ability to write characters unlike himself by recalling two experiences from his childhood. One, as above, is his puppet collection. The other is his foray into ventriloquism, and the metaphor of throwing one’s voice. He also raises, in the third part, the artistic tradition of the homage, of building on an older work and continuing the development of an idea. He also brings in his own oeuvre, which started off with a bang in 1989 with the immensely popular and highly acclaimed The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. That novel included a prominent black character, and he provides testimony for the authenticity he endowed her with.

This is all well and good, though it seems like a self-defense to a charge not made. Much of the appropriation discussion sounds like that, with writers asserting their right, their mission, to bring to the page the lives of people unlike them, to leave the “write what you know” advice in the past and use imagination, research, and empathy to include characters that serve the work, whatever their demographics. It is a confusing conversation, to be sure, one that I struggle with. But I think we’ve reached a point where it’s agreed that there’s no prohibition against white writers writing non-white characters, as long as a) they are honest characters and not stereotypes, and b) not all non-white characters are translated through the vision of white writers.

About a month ago, in the wake of the American Dirt controversy, my blogging buddy Jake Weber wrote a few posts about his experience dealing with the question of appropriation as a writer. I felt like I got a little closer to understanding the boundaries as a result. If Gurganus’ post does the same for others, I’m all for it. The metaphors are quite clever. But I’m still aware that every time a writer of color objects to a particular work, white men line up to argue back.

I’d suggest that such ethnic guardians—advocating enforced cultural monopolies—are accidentally practicing their own form of one-voice one-note puppetry. To say that six-year-old black children should be issued only puppets depicting six-year-old black children—that backs us into an enslaving literalness. I grew up in the south of water fountains marked “Colored ONLY.” To willingly re-nail that sign onto any human replenishment as essential as Narrative, that repeats a tragic mistake for tricky new reasons.

Until the 60s, white American children played virtually exclusively with white dolls. I would venture that in most households, they still do. We don’t call that enslaving literalness; we don’t call it anything, it just is.

This is a complex issue. I don’t mean to argue with Gurganos. I haven’t read any of his work, so
I have no standing whatsoever. I’ll leave the arguments to those better versed in the details. I will just say that, while more or less agreeing with his basic point – that a writer can find ways to incorporate characters unlike herself – I’m a bit antsy about the overall tone. And frankly, I’m tired of the whole argument. Hmmm… is that called privilege?

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Camille T. Dungy, “Is All Writing Environmental Writing?” (nonfiction) from Georgia Review, Fall 2018

‘Autumn in Georgia,’ by Hale Woodruff, ca. 1931

‘Autumn in Georgia,’ by Hale Woodruff, ca. 1931

We are in the midst of the planet’s sixth great extinction…. Yet some people prefer to maintain categories for what counts as environmental writing and what is historical writing or social criticism or biography and so on. I can’t compartmentalize my attentions. If an author chooses not to engage with what we often call the natural world, that very disengagement makes a statement about the author’s relationship with her environment; even indifference to the environment directly affects the world about which a writer might purport to be indifferent. We live in a time when making decisions about how we construct the products and actions of our daily lives—whether or not to buy plastic water bottles and drinking straws, or cosmetics with microbeads that make our skin glow—means making decisions about being complicit in compromising the Earth’s ecosystems.
What we decide matters in literature is connected to what we decide will matter for our history, for our pedagogy, for our culture. What we do and do not value in our art reveals what we do and do not value in our times. What we leave off the page often speaks as loudly as what we include.

Complete essay available online at Georgia Review

I’m a little off-balance with this essay. It’s like I’ve walked in on a counterargument, but I’m not sure what the original argument was. As a result, I agree with many of the points made, but since it seems to be pushing back against an unknown proposal, I keep changing my mind about whether I agree overall or not.

As I read the counterargument on the face of it, because writers all exist in and are influenced by their environments both in the present and over the course of their lives, and because the subject of writing exists in an environment or is devoid of an environment either intentionally or not, all writing is environmental writing. Therefore, anything can be called environmental writing.

This is similar to the argument, made by Roxane Gay in BASS 2018, that all writing is political because the act of writing is inherently political. I agree with that, in that if you’re writing a simple boy-meets-girl story, you’re erasing a large part of the world, and if your characters all live in the John Cheever suburbs of the 50s, there’s a statement to be made about what has been ignored. But if I pick up a volume billed as a political anthology, I expect a more direct observation about what’s left out, an analysis about who is privileged and who is ignored. And if I select an anthology of environmental writing, I’d expect the environment to feature in the stories, or for the volume to include some analysis of how conveniently it was left out and why that might be.

But on the face of it, I do agree that we are influenced by our environments, and that those environments include choices, made by us or by others, about what is important and what is not. I agree that leaks into writing, mostly deliberately, whether via a positive or negative impression of the ethos the environment reflects. And I also agree that to exclude interactions with nature or with one’s environment is to make a statement just as the inclusion would be.

Take for example the powerful poem from Pushcart XLII, Christopher Kempf’s “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s”. I would say this poem includes equal parts environmental, historical, social, literary, and biographical writing, in a synergy that exploded for me as I reached the last lines. If it were included in a volume of environmental writing, I’d have no problem with that. Nor would I object if it were in an anthology of any of the other subject headings.

In contrast, a recent story, “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” by Jason Brown, also combines these elements. The environmental aspect is not as pronounced, but it’s there, but it’s more of a family story with historical and social overtones influenced by environment. Is it an environmental story? Yes, but putting it in a volume so labeled would puzzle me unless there was some analysis emphasizing how the environment influenced the characters present and past.

On the other hand, something like Lisa Taddeo’s “Suburban Weekend” or Tony Hoagland’s “Into the Mystery” are clearly influenced by the environments in which they are set, but I would balk at putting them into an environmental anthology that doesn’t analyze why they are there. Maybe Dungy feels that’s the reader’s job, but that seems more of a way of reading than a way of labeling writing. And that may be a good point: maybe to put such stories in an environmental volume trains us, as readers, to think of all stories in that way, to look for the role the environment does – or doesn’t – play in the story as written, and to consider why the writer chose to compose it that way.

In such urban environments, it might be difficult to remember that you are, in fact, in an “environment,” given that we’ve come to think of the terms environment and nature as referring to someplace wild and nonhuman, more akin to the foothills of my childhood than to the cul-de-sacs terraced into their sides. But that line of reasoning slides us toward the compartmentalization I resist. Our environments are always both human and other than human.

Again, I agree. When I read Wendell Berry’s “The Great Interruption” in BASS 2019, I argued with him a bit when he said, “It meant in Port William what it could not mean, and far more than it could mean, in any other place on earth.” It was a story of curiosity, of innocence, of putting two and two together, of growing up, a story of humor and unexpected interruptions in the most delicate of moments. I disagreed that such elements are unique to any place on earth. It was a story told around town with a knowing smile for years, that evoked certain emotions. I see that as a function of community, and while the community in the story is rural, there’s no reason an urban community – and I mean the word community in the sense of people who know and care for each other – wouldn’t react in similar ways.

In 2009, when Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry was published, one of the most remarkable statements the book made was that black people could write with an empathetic eye toward the natural world. In the general public perception of black writers, the idea that we can write out of a deep connection to the environment—and have done so for at least four centuries—came, and I think still comes, as a shock.
As the editor of Black Nature, I was able to make the anthology a complete project by expanding the presentation of how people write about the environment. Not all the poems in the anthology are of the rapturous I walk out into nature and find myself  ilk, though such poems are there…. And so, many of the poems in the collection do not fall in line with the praise school of nature poetry but, instead, reveal complicated—often deadly—relationships. The authors of these works mix their visions of landscapes and animals into investigations of history, economics, resource extraction, and other very human and deeply perilous concerns.

This may be the source of the original argument I am lacking: has there been discussion about this volume not being environmentally themed? This seems to run side by side with the troubles in the science fiction community when women and writers of color started getting recognition and winning prizes for their work: one subset of the community felt they weren’t writing science fiction at all. The idea that there are those with a different way of viewing the environment, or science fiction, or poetry or music or anything creative, aren’t conforming to norms is how art mummifies itself. And, let’s be honest, if these volumes with different points of view and different ideas had come out of the white male community, a la Raymond Carver or David Foster Wallace, everyone would be falling all over themselves to praise the innovation and adopt the style.

But I’m just guessing at all this. I am curious about that 2009 anthology. I took a quick look at the table of contents, but of course since I read very little poetry it didn’t mean much to me. However, I can think right away of several more recent poems I’ve encountered that Dungy might call environmental while others might not.

One is “Tallahatchie” by Susan Sommers-Willett, a mirror addressing the river as a mirror of Emmett Till, reflecting the deeply complicated relationship with nature that Dungy refers to elsewhere in the essay. The second is Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition”, clearly setting out the dynamic (“We thought / Fingers in the dirt meant it was our dirt”) with a heartbreaking echo. Then there’s Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact” which brings me to tears with every read. For that matter, the song “Strange Fruit” has a similar vibe.

Yes, all these poems connect dead African Americans to nature. Yes, some readers of environmental writing might be more comfortable to see them classified as black poetry, or political protest. Interesting how segregation finds its way into interesting corners of our lives. To see a poem that connects Eric Garner with nature is a way to broaden the environmental tent; it can also be seen as making visible something that some might prefer not to see, and thus might be kept out of the tent.

The history of human divisions is often constituted of stories about one set of people being hostile toward the presence of others. An ideology that would demand the exclusion or subjugation of whole populations of human beings is an ideology quick to assume positions of superiority over all that is perceived to be different. If you can construct a narrative that turns a human into a beast in order to justify the degradation of that human, how much easier must it be to dismiss the needs of a black bear, a crayfish, a banyan?

One thing that has stuck with me from a mooc on the philosophy of human rights was the recognition that the Western world tends to view people – especially Western people, that is, white people – as having intrinsic value, and everything else as having only instrumental value. This is what I hear in this paragraph of Dengy’s essay. But what if it works in reverse of the order she imagines, as the Kempf poem above seems to intimate? What if, upon arriving, Europeans in search of trade goods to build wealth saw the people they encountered as just more of the wildlife of the uninhabited (because they were uninhabited by Europeans) forests and plains? That the entire tableaux was of instrumental value, as blessed by the God who gave people dominion over the earth, the Bible once again being used as justification of whatever was most profitable?

Since I agree with so much, why am I having trouble with Dungy’s argument? I think it’s mostly that I can’t see what she’s arguing against, since it’s not included. I’ve changed my mind several times in the course of writing this piece, and I’m still not sure just what it is I agree with and where I draw the line.

But when I ran into the idea of segregating certain areas of literature, whether it be science fiction or nature poetry (whining, Why do you have to bring politics into everything), and thus excluding black poetry and relegating it to its own corner so genres like environmental writing or science fiction can be kept pristine and not upset readers (that is, the readers who “matter”) with such ideas, I can understand the counterargument better. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get it.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Rebecca McClanahan, “Stories that Fit My Hands” (nonfiction) from Georgia Review, Winter 2017

Yes, she can recite the names and punch the corresponding numbers, but who are these people showing up at her door every few hours, or phoning her from across town or across the country and saying things like, “Hi Mom. How are you today?” Up until a few months ago, Dad would have connected the dots for her once again, would have intervened in a phone call like this one. But he is worn down and, since his latest stroke, when he does connect the dots they form in a strange design.

If you need more evidence that comedy and tragedy are flip sides of the same coin, read the opening paragraphs of this pair of essays about adult children caring for parents in seriously declining health. McClanahan thought she had found the answer to her mother’s confusion around phone calls: setting up speed-dial for the six children in birth order. “It was a brilliant solution”, she says, but man proposes, God disposes, and now Mom is trying to call her dead sister on her wristwatch.

This is the first to two linked essays in this selection, titled SATURDAY NIGHT AND SATURDAY NIGHT AND SATURDAY NIGHT WITH THE NEIGHBORS. We join McClanahan and her husband as she welcomes her parents, living next door, to dinner. The essay brings together Waiting for Godot, Dadaism, her father’s delight in not using his knife at dinner and his insistence that he was in New York on 9/11 in spite of the reality that he wasn’t. It’s a scene of not-quite-chaos, with chaos in the feelings just below the surface. McClanahan’s husband tells her to think of it as theater. That’s a technique therapists sometimes recommend for dealing with difficult others: become a detached observer rather than an emotional participant. But that’s a tall order.

The second essay, OUR GOD IS TOO BIG, takes its title from an answer to the 1952 book by JB Phillips, Your God is Too Small.

I closed the book. My God is not too small. He is too big.
To hold, I mean, in the palm of my hand. A hand that can reach to touch this man I have grown, almost too late, to love beyond measure. Why enlarge the aperture? if God still lives, he can shine through the smallest gap, the cleft of a rock. Ancient poets could fit a whole life, and death, into a few syllables.

The focus is on the father, who is now hospitalized and near death. Again, there is a constellation giving the scene emotional resonance: a nurses’ aide named Jeremiah which generates Biblical references, and the book. It’s exactly the scene you think it is.

Maybe essays like this are meant to bring back our own memories. For me, it was across family lines. First, my mother-in-law, who my husband affectionately referred to as “dippy”; we were no longer married (and he was in fact dead) when that dippiness became something more serious. She was living with her daughter, but the stories she called and wrote about had me alarmed at times. They turned out to be imaginings, but imagine living in such a mental place.

My experience with my father’s death was shorter, but more intense. He was fine until he wasn’t, and then he wasn’t fine for three weeks in Intensive Care following bowel surgery and multiple heart attacks. He’d move his hand in odd patterns in the air, doing imaginary crossword puzzles. He didn’t want me there; he only wanted people who wouldn’t or couldn’t come. I always thought that was a grand metaphor for everything.

I’m not sure these essays add anything to the conversation about caring for aging parents, but they do provide a conduit for memories, for those of us unfortunate to have them. For those dealing with such problems, maybe it’s enough to see that they’re not alone, that struggling to cope with the increased demands doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. And it doesn’t mean you don’t love your parents.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Margaret Wardlaw, “Monsters” (nonfiction) from Creative Nonfiction #66

The old Victorian anatomy lab was the final resting place for hundreds of human remains, carefully dissected, labeled with pins, and floating eerily in jars of formalin. The pathological museum was once the crown jewel of the state’s oldest medical school, and a full century later, the jars remained. The specimens were long since obsolete, but what could be done with them? Their eerie glass gathered dust, and they became dismembered sentinels, staring out at each new generation of novice physicians.
There were babies among them….
[A]s late as the 1980s in some medical publications, physicians called these babies “monsters.” When I was a medical student in the early 2000s, one particularly haunting specimen still bore the label “anencephalic monster.” Suspended naked and eternally lonely in his strange glass coffin, he had no top to his skull, only a small amount of brain, and huge staring eyes. Monster. That was the technical term, and it had been that way for as long as anybody could remember. It was the term the Royal College of Surgeons had used, and the Renaissance doctors before them, and the medieval manuscript writers before them.

Complete story available online at Medium

I was, at one point, something of a connoiseur of How I Became a Doctor books. From 1965’s Intern by Dr. X (who railed against paying 85 cents, plus “3 per cent sales tax in this miserable state”, for a lunch of chicken a la king over mashed potatoes, pie a la mode, and coffee, and did nothing for cancer patients because there was nothing in that era to do) to the somewhat technically-oriented neurology books by Harold Klawans or the more poetic musings of Oliver Sacks to the bawdy and irreverent anecdote approach of House of God and The View from The Vue, I loved them all. Then things took a turn, and medical books became more introspective; the gaze shifted from patients to doctors, from illnesses to the culture of medicine. I rather lost interest, possibly because the information I read for was more readily available to general readers, possibly because, with age, I became one of the many hostile patients left behind by the culture of medicine, its obsession with statistics and screenings and its lack of interest in what is actually bothering the patient.

Wardlaw’s essay is decidedly in the introspection camp. It was written as part of a 2018 writing challenge offered jointly by Arizona State University and Creative Nonfiction for the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “channel the spirit and anxieties of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into new nonfiction tales of science, medicine, and world-changing technologies in the twenty-first century.”

In an interview witih CN’s Hattie Fletcher, Wardlaw recounts a colleague’s comments on reading the work in progress:

I remember when I first wrote it, I showed it to a pediatric palliative medicine doctor. I wasn’t actually looking for structural feedback at the time, more wanting to share with her my emotional experience of caring for a dying child, and hoping to connect with someone who had likely had similar experiences. I remember she told me she thought it had too much disparate content and was actually several essays. I felt disappointed, because I had hoped to make an emotional connection and wound up instead with editorial advice that I just didn’t agree with.
I felt very strongly that it was one piece, and I wanted to give the reader the sense that I had of how humans have always been obsessed with these babies. I wanted to show them the connection that I felt with people across history who have felt both compelled and unsettled. There is already a fair amount of academic work about this phenomenon, for example he postmodern philosopher Margrit Shildrick has called it “our transhistorical horror and fascination with the monstrous.” And I’ve written many essays about monstrosity with an academic audience in mind.

Margaret Wardlaw, Interview

I can understand the colleague’s perception of several essays. There is a rotation of topics, but the essay is crafted so that the rotation is smooth and serves a purpose: to guide the reader from past to present, then to project into what might be possible for a better future. I see it as a unified whole, examining, through several lenses, how medical science and technology can obscure the very humanity it purports to serve.

We start in the past with an overview of the storage of pathology specimens in glass jars, among them fetuses that didn’t survive the womb due to various genetic or developmental abnormalities. Monsters. This wasn’t grotesque voyeurism; it was an attempt to classify and understand those abnormalities in the hopes of one day having the knowledge and skill to prevent them. Those jars bring us into the almost-present, as Wardlaw did her medical school dissections in the presence of these specimens, “under the fixed stares of the babies”.

The present becomes intensely personal, as Wardlaw describes the care of a baby she calls Luz, a child whose disease is “incompatible with extrauterine life” yet has survived almost a year by the benefit of medical technology. Luz may seem like a new topic, but there is a similarity between the old specimens in jars, and the living baby in a contemporary intensive medical setting: an isolette, IV tubes, monitoring wires. While it’s miraculous that life can be sustained, the methodology is also dehumanizing, just as storing fetuses in jars for future study was dehumanizing.

Wardlaw describes her decision to hold Luz, something that sounds so simple, but in a medical setting, is complicated, rare, and worthy of a documentary essay. And it works: Luz stops crying.

Maybe if I can do this now, for this baby, just hold her when she needs it, when she’s crying out in a great need, and just come to her as a baby, maybe it could be a sort of penance for all those babies. A penance for my whole profession, and for all those years that we thought these children were monsters and treated them horribly, and locked them in jars forever, and forgot altogether that they were ever babies at all.

It’s a much more interesting essay because it draws on a history of fearing those who are different. This fear might be self-protective, a fear of what might happen to us, what could happen to our future children, what might even be contagious in times when disease processes were poorly understood.

One of the medievalists I follow specializes in monsters. Various places were thought to be inhabited by all sorts of semi-human beings: the head-on-legs gryllus, the chest-faced blemmyes, the one-legged sciapods. Our fascination with monsters goes back long before history, and was possibly an evolutionarily adaptive trait. But it’s no longer needed.

Wardlaw is not content to merely ease the distress of one baby; she turns the essay outward, expressing the benefit this child could provide if we could not turn away:

And yet, far from being regarded as mistakes, these babies were an important part of the natural order. There was a perfection hiding in the otherworldly shapes of their uncommon bodies. There was a God who, with time and care, fashioned their physical flaws to point perfectly to our spiritual ones. And if one looked closely enough, a baby like Luz had the power to teach, instruct, and correct. Even in her short life, she could be a guide, bending us forcefully toward our own better nature.

There are times, frequently now, when I fear our better natures have gone to sleep, or dissipated, or are buried beneath the sins that are also part of us, and sometimes just eclipsed by the stresses of contemporary life. If we can recognize the humanity of a baby whose face and brain have folded in on themselves, we might have a chance at doing the same with someone who disagrees with us on Twitter.

Ben Orlin: Change is the Only Constant: The Wisdom of Calculus in a Madcap World (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2019)

Calculus takes the most vexing and mysterious things imaginable — motion, change, the flow of time — and boils them down to ironclad rules of computation….It inspired Tolstoy, Borges, and David Foster Wallace. It shaped visions of history, ethics, and the powers of the human mind. Calculus is the canonical example of turning the impossible into the routine, and its ideas have nourished not only science, but economics, philosophy, and even literature, too.
That’s the case I wanted to make in this book…. an exploration of the human side of calculus, what it has meant over the years to everyone from scientists to poets to philosophers to dogs. If calculus is going to remain a fixture of math education—even for those not pursuing STEM careers—then we need to bring out its humanity, to find a version of calculus that speaks to everyone.

Ben Orlin, Ars Technica interview with Jennifer Ouellette

First, the important stuff: I’M IN A MATH BOOK! And a calculus book no less. Ok, it isn’t a calculus textbook – it’s a history/philosophy/literature/science/mythology/puzzle book that shows how concepts of calculus exist in all those disciplines – and it’s just my name, but still, if you flip back to page 319, the last page, I’m listed as one of the people who “gave excellent feedback at various stages”. I considered myself honored to receive an early draft of some of the chapters, and while I’m not so sure my feedback was excellent, I’m thrilled to be right there in print.

And now that It’s All About Me time is over, what about the book?

Last year, Ben Orlin’s first book, Math With Bad Drawings (also the title of his ongoing math-humor blog, completely charmed me despite the persistent mathphobia I periodically try to overcome. And now, a year later, his second book takes on the same challenge but focuses on calculus. After three years and five moocs (two of which I actually passed) trying to learn calculus, I’ve felt pretty traumatized by derivatives and, especially, integrals. Could Change is the Only Constant: The Wisdom of Calculus in a Madcap World charm even me?

Spoiler alert: Yes!

I want to be clear: this object in your hands won’t “teach you calculus .” It’s not an orderly textbook, but an eclectic and humbly illustrated volume of folklore, written in non technical language for a casual reader. That reader may be a total stranger to calculus, or an intimate friend; I’m hopeful that the stories will bring a little mirth and insight either way.

While this book won’t teach you calculus, it will teach you all sorts of other interesting things about interesting people, events, and ideas from literature, history, and, yes, math. Because the chapters are short, self-contained and cover individual topics, it’s possible to skip over something that seems confusing and move on to something completely different a few pages later. I’ll be honest: I’m not sure how this book would strike someone with no experience whatsoever in calculus. I’d love to find out; any volunteers?

Writers know that all writing is rewriting, and this book underwent extensive editing. Ben helpfully wrote about the process, from his recognition that “my book was not working” to his use of a mathematical model to fix it. I read a pre-revision draft, so I saw the murdered darlings. I am quite sad that a section on Adrienne Rich ended up minimized to a single epigraph (“The moment of change is the only poem”) but I have to admit, the rewrite was an improvement, and far closer in style to his first book.

Also similar to his first book is the physical object: clever dust jacket and thematic echo on the hardcover and endpapers, great page design allowing lots of room for notes and doodles, heavy paper preventing bleed-through of colors (though, unlike the first book, the only color used throughout is red). And just so you don’t think I’m some groupie who’d applaud anything Ben did, another reader, book artist Paula Beardell Krieg, also gave it high praise.

Some of my favorite chapters:

_____

Chapter 3: The Fleeting Joys Of Buttered Toast

One day, cradling a fresh mug of tea and munching a piece of wheat toast (ugh – I thought I grabbed white), I plopped onto a sofa next to my friend James, an English teacher. “How’s it going?“ I greeted him.
James took this placeholder question like he takes everything: in complete and utter earnest.
“I’m happy this week,“ he reflected. “Some things are still hard, but they’ve been getting better.“
Evidently, I’m a math teacher first and a human being second, because this is how I responded to my friend’s moment of openness: “So your happiness function is at a middle sort of value, but the first derivative is positive.“
James could have slapped the toast from my hand, dumped his tea over my head, and screamed, Friendship annulled! Instead, he smiled, leaned in, and said – I swear this is a true story – “That’s fascinating. Explain to me what it means. “

And he does. Don’t be scared, there aren’t really any nasty equations, just a lot of graphs, and if you can tell up from down, slash from backslash, you’ll be all set. My takeaway: if you’re talking about a good thing (like being happy), a positive first derivative is what you want. And, for that matter, a positive second + derivative, though at some point we get into the philosophy of too-much-of-a-good-thing. And if you’re talking about a bad thing, you definitely want the first derivative to be negative. But there are lots of combinations, and Ben explains which ones are preferable. Assuming you want to be happy (hey, I just read a short story about a masochistic robot, I take nothing for granted).

Chapter 6: Sherlock Holmes and the Bicycle of Misdirection

You know how Holmes always had a brilliant way, unknown to anyone else, to figure out his mysteries?
Turns out he didn’t always get it right. Don’t get me (or any of the logic professors I’ve taken moocs from) started about deduction vs induction, but here we’re talking about a specific story, “The Adventure of the Priory School”, in which the tracks of a bicycle are analyzed to figure out which direction the bike is moving. This is one of those cases where I’m not completely sure I fully understand the analysis, but it’s so much fun to read, I don’t mind.

Chapter 11: Princess On The Edge Of Town

This is a wonderful chapter for those of us who would rather read about Phoenician legends than math equations. It features Pygmalion and his sister Elissa (aka Dido when Virgil got around to writing the Aeneid), and has absolutely nothing to do with My Fair Lady (different Pygmalion myth) and everything to do with getting the most out of an oxhide. Or, in calculus terms, maximization. In calculus class, this often gets turned into the sheep-pen problem; this is way more fun.

Chapter 15: Calculemus

This might be my favorite chapter. It’s a debate about making math easier for people to use, versus keeping math in the realm of specialty knowledge only a few can access.

As 20th-century mathematician Vladimir Arnol’d explains, Gottfried Leibniz made sure to develop calculus “in a form specially suitable to teach …by people who do not understand it to people who will never understand it.”
….The point of “calculus” – a word Leibniz coined – was to create a unified framework for calculation. Centuries later, mathematician Carl Gauss would write of such methods: “One cannot accomplish by them anything that could not be accomplished without them.“ In my darker moments, I have said the same of forks. But just as I continue to dine with times, Gauss saw the profound value of calculus: “anyone who masters it thoroughly is able – without the unconscious inspiration of genius which no one can command – to solve the respective problems, yea to solve them mechanically …”

This surprised me. Every math course I’ve taken now in my adulthood (which means moocs) has stressed the importance of understanding what the notation means and has gone through extensive proofs to show that, yes, the sum of the derivatives is the derivative of the sum and how the power rule works instead of just moving, multiplying, and subtracting the exponent. I would have been happy to take it for granted, but noooooo. And here’s Leibniz, saying the point of his system is to take the understanding out of it:

For all inquiries that depend on reasoning would be performed by the transposition of characters and by a kind of calculus…. And if someone would doubt my results, I should say to him: `let us calculate [Calculemus], Sir,’ and thus by taking to pen and ink, we should soon settle the question.

I asked Ben, via email (one of the many things I appreciate about Ben is that he’s so patient with fools like me), to clarify for my own edification: Have math teachers been overcomplicating things for us poor students? No, not really.

It’s important to understand mathematics deeply, but it’s a pain if you constantly have to draw on your deep understanding.
Take arithmetic. It’s important to know how our numeral system works (i.e., the meaning of place value), and why the standard algorithms (e.g., “carrying” and “borrowing”) do what they purport to. You don’t want arithmetic to be a collection of black-box procedures beyond the reach of your understanding.
But also, once you know the procedures, it’s okay to execute them a bit mindlessly. In fact, it’s preferable!


The chapter goes on to explain that Leibniz was imagining calculus as part of a greater system, where all reasoning, particularly mathematical, could be reduced to symbol manipulation, making it more accessible so that more problems could be solved without constantly reinventing the wheel to figure out a derivative.

The first Calculus mooc I took (one I actually passed, and that made me so happy I took it again) this kind of accessibility was described as democratization:

This is an example of the way in which mathematics is a democratizing force: problems that at one time would have only been accessible to the geniuses on earth are now accessible to everyone. At one time in history, you would have had to have been the smartest person on earth to have calculated the area of some curved object. But now, armed with the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, we can all take part in these area calculations.

—Jim Fowler, Calculus 1 (Coursera/OSU), Winter/Spring 2013

I have a feeling a lot of calculus students would settle for a little tyranny of genius, particularly around the time the AP Calc tests get started.

Chapter 17: War And Peace And Integrals

Back in 2014, Ben wrote on his Math With Bad Drawings blog: “Forget the history of calculus. Write me a paper on the calculus of history.” He suggested seeing history as an integral, as Tolstoy did; or as an infinite series (converging or diverging?); or as a set of partial differential equations (this is where I flunked out of most calculus classes, so don’t ask me) or as various other mathematical structures. In this chapter, he expands on Tolstoy’s vision of history as a giant Riemann sum (don’t worry, he explains those in terms we can all understand).

Tolstoy knew where history must begin: with the tiny, fleeting data of human experience. A surge of courage, a flash of doubt, a sudden lust for nachos – that interior, spiritual stuff is the only kind of reality that matters. Furthermore, Tolstoy knew where history must end: with grand, all encompassing laws, explanations as tremendous as what they seek to explain.
The only question is what comes between. How do you get from the infinitely small to the unimaginably large? From tiny acts of free will to the unstoppable motions of history ?
Though he couldn’t fill the gap himself, Tolstoy sensed what kind of thing should go there. Something scientific and predictive; something definite and indisputable; something that aggregates, that unifies, that binds tiny pieces into a singular whole; something akin to Newton’s law of gravitation; something modern and quantitative … something like … oh, I don’t know …
An integral.

This doesn’t quite work out, since systems made up of many very. small pieces can become unpredictable pretty quickly. But it’s a wonderful journey, and, as Ben says, “Tolstoy’s integral fails as science but succeeds as metaphor…. History is the sum of the people living it.” To us today – and I mean today, this very day, these days when the story of the decade happens every couple of hours – it may not seem like we contribute much, given the way power has been working lately. But we are still affecting history. At least, let’s hope we are.

Chapter 19: A Great Work Of Synthesis

One way I know I don’t really understand calculus is that to me, the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus is just another ho-hum thing to remember, a not-very-exotic thing at that. In every course or video, its introduction is heralded with pomp and circumstance. It seems pretty straightforward to me: the derivative and the integral are inverse functions: what you do with one, you can undo with the other (there’s a lot of ‘sort of’ in there). The chapter explains how this works in simple terms, because it’s fairly simple. Why it’s such a big deal, I still don’t know. Some things, even Ben can’t explain to me.

While this chapter is indeed about the FT of C, I include it in my favorite chapters because it stars an unlikely player: an 18th century woman, Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Wikipedia describes her as a philosopher-mathematician-theologian-humanitarian. Her mathematical achievement was something like what Euclid did for geometry or Fibonacci for algebra: at the age of 30, she wrote the first comprehensive calculus text for students. And she positioned the FT of C prominently.

She received an appointment to the University of Bologna, only the second woman so honored, but changed course and spent the rest of her life serving the poor and running various charities and institutions. And there’s also a fun story about the mistranslation of her book that generated a curve still called “the Witch of Agnesi”. I’m always up for fun stories.

Chapter 26: A Towering Baklava Of Abstractions

This is a chapter about a two-page endnote published in 1996. Perhaps that sounds arcane, so let me dispel any doubt: it is arcane. Fantastically so. The endnote in question imports a prickly, cactus-like topic from one arid setting to another – from the desert of introductory calculus to the bizarre greenhouse of experimental fiction. The book in which the endnote appears – Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – has been dubbed “a masterpiece,” “forbidding and esoteric,” “the central American novel of the past thirty years,” and “a vast, encyclopaedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Wallace’s mind.“
My question is this: why, in a work of fiction, a dream of passion, would Wallace force his soul to this odd conceit? Why devote two breathless pages to – of all things – the mean value theorem for integrals?
What’s the MVT to him, or he to the MVT ?

In this chapter, Ben juggles the MVT, its “elder cousin” the IVT, Infinite Jest, DFW’s view of math, a quick view of 18th century mathematics history, and Sierpinski triangles. It might be the most fascination-dense nine pages in the book. And it all hangs together, because parts of it aren’t supposed to make sense.

So first he lays out the MVT, which is really pretty simple and intuitive when it’s just explained with a real-life example, like taking a car trip and figuring out your average speed. No problem.

Then we go to Infinite Jest. No, I haven’t read it. I did try: I was on page 6 when news of DFW’s suicide broke, and that ended the book for me. But apparently there’s bit on page 322 about Eschaton that has something to do with tennis balls “each representing a thermonuclear warhead,” and that points to an endnote about nuclear weaponry that requires the MVT. And just when I’m ready to throw the book in a corner, Ben tells me: “Now, if none of this is making sense to you, fear not. The fact is that none of this makes any sense to anyone.” Couldn’t you have told me that before I started crying over how bad I suck at calculus?

Much of the rest of the chapter discusses why DFW would have done this, and involves his fascination with a certain type of math, his degree in analytical philosophy, and the shift in the 18th century from intuitive descriptions to symbolic notation of concepts like the MVT. Buried in there are two gems.

The first relates directly to the influence of mathematics on Infinite Jest: “In one interview, [Wallace] explained that Infinite Jest borrows its structure from a notorious fractal called the Sierpinski gasket.” By the way, that 1996 interview with Michael Silverblatt of NPR’s Bookworm – who recognized the fractal structure and asked specifically about it – is available online. This almost makes me ready to pick up the book again. But… no, not yet.

The second is a math book DFW wrote, Everything and More: A Compact Hisory of Infinity. I have always wanted to read more of his nonfiction, and at first I thought this would be a great place to start, but Ben describes it with phrases like “a dense, technical treatise” and “a thornbush of forbidding notation” so I think I’ll stick with A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. But I’m happy to know about it.

_____

These are only a few of the twenty-eight chapters; maybe the one that most grabs your fancy lies in one of the others, like the time the Church tried to ban paradoxes, or the medical researcher who ran afoul of Math (it’s a good thing this happened in 1994, before Twitter), or the chapter that borrows from Flatland (another wonderful book; I have an annotated edition that’s historically, sociologically, and mathematically enlightening), or how Ben finally finds a real purpose for Clippy, that annoying MS-Word helpbot from years past.

An end section titled “Classroom Notes” lists chapters according to topics as they would be covered in a calculus class. Since, as Ben made clear, this is not a textbook, this makes it easier for students who are using a textbook and/or class to find the material pertaining to, say, limits or optimization. As such, it’s far more useful than an index. A thorough bibliography for each chapter is also helpful.

This storybook is by no means complete – missing are the tales of Fermat’s bending light, Newton’s secret anagram, Dirac’s impossible function, and so many others. But in an ever-changing world, no volume is ever exhaustive, no mythology ever finished. The river runs on.

Could this mean there’s a Volume 2 in the future? I have no idea, but I’m betting there’s something lurking in Ben’s idea kit that will someday result in another book on my shelf. For now, I can say that this one helped to ease some of my lingering anxiety and shame about calculus, and generated just a little more motivation to try again than I had before. Not now, not yet; but maybe someday, and that makes it a valuable door re-opener for me.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Allen Gee, “Old School” (nonfiction) from Ploughshares 01/10/18

Tariq Mix: “Mentor to Mentee”

Tariq Mix: “Mentor to Mentee”

How could I say that James was providing me with ideological perspectives that I would be able to apply to my Asian American identity for the rest of my life, to ward of any sense of inferiority based upon race, as far as my status as a citizen could be concerned? How could I express that he was passing down insights about how to read a short story or an essay or a novel that would serve me as a professor decades later? How could I know that we were only in the formative stage of what would evolve into a twenty-nine-year friendship ?

Gee refers to his relationship with James Alan McPherson as “old-school mentoring.” He refers to the original use of the term in the Odyssey: Athena disguised herself as family friend Mentor and looked after Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, during his father’s long absence. Classicist and philogist Gregory Nagy (who teaches a great mooc on the Greek hero which also covers this ground) puts it this way in an inverview for The Atlantic:

…[A] mentor is someone who instills a heroic mentality in somebody…. she will put menos into Telemachus. It’s a Greek word that’s usually translated as “heroic strength.” But really, menos is not just strength of any kind—it is mental strength. And by that, I mean the kind of surge of power you feel in being able to put things into action. You can see the connection between menos and “mentor.” Menos is .mental strength, and a mentor is someone who gives mental strength to someone else.

Gregory Nagy interview in The Atlantic 10/13/17

So mentoring is more than friendship, different from teaching or counseling, although all of these can be involved in the relationship.

Gee was a new student at the elite Iowa Writers Workshop MFA program when he was assigned to McPherson’s workshop section. He tells the story of his first encounter:

So for my first critique in McPherson’s workshop I submitted a fishing story that wasn’t my best work, including a main character with no descriptive racial features; the character was virtually white. Therefore, after the workshop ended, James called me over out in the hallway.
“Why did you put that story up?”
I lowered my voice. “It was smoke.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was being cautious. I’ve heard how cruel it can be here, so I didn’t want to put up what I’ve been spending all my time on.”
James stared at me with concern as if I were an ailing patient requiring a diagnosis, but he also appeared amused as if recognizing that I possessed some street smarts.
“What are you really working on?” he said.
“A novel. It’s about a Chinese restaurant in New York.”
“Can you bring me some of the pages tomorrow?”
“I will,” I said but immediately felt vulnerable.

The essay details their long friendship. To my reading, it is more of a memoriam, a goodbye and thank-you, for McPherson (who died in 2016 after a long illness) than a record of Gee’s experience as mentee, particularly the later half.

I’m always at a disadvantage with these types of memoirs. There’s a blurb by Jane Hirshfield on the cover of this edition of Pushcart: “A book made by the entire community of writers, for the entire community of writers.” To someone in that community, this would stand out as poignant inspiring; I’m guessing many writers at least met McPherson, many must have known him in some depth, and his work would be on all their reading lists. To me, it’s reading about famous people (I know… but my famous and your famous aren’t the same thing): interesting, but out there somewhere.

Another factor might be that I’ve never had a mentor. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but I never earned it. Mentoring is hard work, and it is aimed at the future, so when a mentor chooses a mentee, it must be someone they believe will have a future in the same field. I pretty much stumbled about in my youth, showing some promise in the early phases of many things (writing, science, singing, business) but never really getting beyond the basics of any particular discipline. Mentoring is hard work, and an investment of time in the future of anther person. It’s clear I never showed enough promise for a would-be mentor to want me. And by the time I got myself together, it was too late; mentors select young people who can grow and develop over decades.

I am, however, inspired by this essay to put Elbow Room, the collection of short stories that won McPherson the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to an African American, on my TBR list. Like Gee when he first entered Iowa, I am not well-read. Fortunately, there’s a cure for that.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Maureen Stanton, “The Human Soup” (nonfiction) from New England Review #39.2

In ancient Rome, bathing was practically an art form, a religion. After temples, bathhouses were the most common buildings. A fourth-century census recorded 856 public bathhouses for Rome’s million or so citizens, which would be the equivalent of 900 public bathhouses in Dallas, Texas, today….
On a typical day in ancient Rome, a tintinnabulum rang to summon men and women to the baths—mixed-sex bathing was common. Entrance fees were free or low, so the poor could bathe, too. They soaked in the warm tepidarium or the hot caldarium, or dipped into the bracing frigidarium, all while being entertained by jugglers, acrobats, musicians, and poets. Vendors hawked wine, pretzels, cake, eels, and quail eggs. You could hire a depilator to pluck unwanted hair, or someone to oil, sand, and scrape your skin. All this bustle created a cacophony that “could make you hate your own ears,” wrote Seneca, the first-century rhetorician.

Complete story available online at NER/LitHub

Who would have expected that an article about baths could be so enjoyable to read? Stanton layers together a general history of Western bathing, particularly communal bathing, with her own extensive experience in spas and Ys across America. These are both wrapped around a backbone anecdote about her acquaintance with a particular hot tub bather which opens, closes, and appears periodically throughout the piece. It’s a very effective way to combine the information-heavy piece I like, with material having emotional resonance, while maintaining a strong forward narrative drive. Mind + heart + body: this is a piece I wish I’d written

I should say that I am not a bath person. While I realize others find it heavenly, the benefit of sitting in my own human soup escapes me. The necessity to take a shower before and after (and quite possibly the need to clean the tub pre- and post- as well) makes it anything but a relaxing experience. I can’t get comfortable enough in a bathtub to read or listen to music or smell candles or do any of the relaxing things others seem to love. I had the opportunity to use a Jacuzzi once, and while it was more interesting than a regular bath, it still isn’t something I want to do again. Even if everyone is clothed in swimwear (which is not a given), the idea of getting into a hot tub, with friends – or, heaven forbid, strangers at the Y – is repellent to me. But I still loved this article. Even the gross parts. And boy, there were gross parts.

The general history section starts with the Roman bathhouses and proceeds through medieval Europe to pre-revolutionary America and more contemporary times. There is a brief mention of Japan’s communal traditions, but the Western world is clearly the focus. It seems European Christianity changed its tune a few times, discouraging bathing at some points while encouraging it later. It’s all remarkably interesting, considering there’s a lot of discussion of effluvia.

The sections on American bathing include a nod to the present, in the form of washing immigrants clean:

The People’s Bath in New York could accommodate 500 bathers daily, but the poor didn’t flock to the bath, in spite of 100,000 promotional flyers promising free Colgate soap. In the first year, just 10,504 people bathed there, about six percent of its capacity….
Perhaps the people understood that the baths were meant to “cleanse” more than their bodies. The New York Sun editorialized that public baths would transform “grimy Anarchists, and some of these Poles, Russians, and Italians into good Americans.” Public baths were necessary for elevating the “moral and physical well-being” of the poor, said Dr. August Windolph to the American Association for Promoting Hygiene and Public Baths. Boston’s mayor, Josiah Quincy, asserted that when “physical dirt” was banished, then “moral dirt” would be, too.

Interestingly, “When bathhouses offered swimming and recreation instead of just cleansing, the people came.”

Stanton’s more personal history uses a technique I’ve tried to include in this blog: she tucks little clues to the essence of her being into long passages, so that only the careful reader will draw closer to her. We learn about a moment in her marriage when she realized her husband was an alcoholic; we follow a relationship that would end in death; and we watch her tour the hot tubs and spas of America in another relationship. One of the most striking moments for me came early on in the piece, when she admits her annoyance with a fellow bather: “I disdained this man, but my feelings were disproportionate to my annoyance, and so I wondered, what aspect of myself did I see reflected in him?” That’s a very honest and self-aware attitude, one I think I need to become more familiar with.

She admits to some squeamishness in various situations, from seeing hairs floating on tub foam to an episode of staph mastitis, acquired, she believed (though it couldn’t be proved) from a session. And yet she finds the practice so pleasant, she continues. I believe in her enjoyment, even though I can’t share it. Empathy across an experiential gap. I’m sure there are those who don’t understand how I could so enjoy an article like this; I hope you too can cross that gap.

On the most bitterly cold January nights in Maine, the hot tub at the Y feels exquisite. One such night I sat in the tub with two men in their early forties, one craggily handsome, the other small and wiry, all of us silent in the bubbling water until the large man appeared. As he stepped into the tub, the craggy man slid over, ceding his place. “You don’t have to move,” the large man said, but the craggy man smiled. “That’s your spot.” Vacating the spot was a sign of respect, as if the large man were an elder or, if this were ancient Rome, an esteemed philosopher.

The structural backbone story follows a man she sees often at the Y hot tub and pool, waiting for his Russian mail-order bride. Over the course of the article, the woman arrives (he brings her to the Y, in fact, which generates some emotion for Stanton), to his once-again solitary state whens he apparently is no longer in the picture. Stanton finds herself feeling a distant fondness for him, and ends on a sweet, hopeful note: “He had not died of a broken heart, after all.” Following her lead, I, too, disliked the man in the beginning, and began to feel some fondness for him towards the end. Empathy across the experiential gap, again. He, too, has his story, and she reveals it at just the right pace.

This is one of those pieces that makes Pushcart so special: it puts these improbable reads in front of me, and they’re fascinating. There’s very little erotic in the piece, though the propensity for eroticism is discussed as one of the primary objections to the practice in various times and places. Cleanliness isn’t really the purpose, either. We discover an interesting aspect of shared hot tub culture: they function something like neighborhood bars, where people get acquainted and chat, and strangers find willing audiences for their stories. Surprisingly, there’s a social function.

After prayer failed to relieve St. Augustine’s sadness over his mother’s death, he thought to “go and bathe” because he’d heard that bathing “drives the sadness from the mind.” A recent study in France found that a hot bath more successfully eased anxiety than paroxetine (brand name, Paxil), a prescription antidepressant….
A pair of Yale researchers found that hot baths can ease loneliness. “Feelings of social warmth or coldness can be induced by experiences of physical warmth or coldness,” they wrote. Their study showed that people who rated higher on loneliness scales bathed or showered more often, longer, and with hotter temperatures. Bath-taking, they suggested, is “an unconscious form of self-therapy,” in which people substitute physical warmth for “social warmth.” We literalize the metaphor: warm the body, warm the heart and soul.

And then, if you will forgive my repetition, there’s the empathy across the experiential gap. That may be what saves us all, if anything can at this point.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Homeschool” (nonfiction) from N+1 #33

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin: "The Teacher"  Cover art for the Everyman edition of Rousseau's Emile

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin: “The Teacher”
Cover art for the Everyman ediiton of Rousseau’s Emile

For most of my childhood — from kindergarten until tenth grade — I did not attend school. Homeschooled is the term I used as a kid, the term I still use today for expediency, though it has always seemed misleading, since schooling is what my mother meant to spare us from by keeping us at home. We lived during those years on a farm in Vermont that sat thirty miles outside the nearest functional town and was, in a lot of ways, autonomous…. I spent most mornings doing the chores I shared with my brothers: feeding the chickens, stocking the woodbin, hauling hay bales out to the sheep pasture. After that, the day was my own. Sometimes I read alone in my room, or sat at the kitchen table drawing comics in my sketchbook. As the oldest, I was often responsible for the younger kids, but like most children in large families they were easy — hungry for attention, game for whatever task I invented.

I’m always surprised at how a personal essay can take a topic that’s emotional or controversial and clarify the issues involved. It’s also possible to ramp up tensions, of course, but it’s a lot more interesting to inform all sides from a place of “this is my life” and not scare the horses.

O’Gieblyn’s mother chose to homeschool her children for primarily sociopolitical reasons tinged with religious reasoning: she felt schools were more interested in turning out docile and obedient workers, and inculcating beliefs environmentalism and sex education. She’s not wrong about either, though whether either of those are good or bad depend on where you sit. “We were to be in the World but not of it,” a phrase associated with Christian fundamentalism but not that far from Buddhism either.

The homeschooling was rather informal, dependent less upon a curriculum than on life at the farm. Her mother would send the required reports in, calling it “delight-directed integrated study”, a phrase that would have education reformers drooling eagerly. We get a sample of these reports:

On the topic of comprehensive health, she wrote: “Meghan had a great introduction to the health care system this past spring when she spent four days in the hospital having her appendix out.” On Citizenship, History, and Government: “We hope to have contact with a family of Russian immigrants through friends of ours who will be sponsoring them. This should help make real to Meghan some of the freedoms we enjoy in this country.“ All of the letters were written in the same shrugging, breezy tone that was her primary mode of defense, and barely concealed her hostility towards state intervention. On sex education: “Presently she is gaining a good base of information by being involved with the life cycles in our barn, and some sheep we will breed this fall.“

I’m dubious – these could indeed make great topics for exploration, but would require guidance and additional resources – but it’s hard to argue with results. Then again, while O’Gieblyn seems to have learned something along the way, it’s possible the same approach would be disastrous for someone less self-motivated. That’s the problem with systems, isn’t it, whether a national school curriculum or a mother’s idea of what learning is: they always work for someone, but rarely work for everyone.

While covering her own experience, O’Gieblyn also includes some material about the origins of home schooling, typically rooted in Rousseau’s Emile. She also introduces us to John Holt, who, during the 60s, discovered his imagined audience of hippies and peaceniks was augmented by religious fundamentalists.

This broad spectrum of home schooling is amusingly evident in Homeschool Day at Six Flags, an event conceived in capitalism; that is, it was a way to draw crowds after the start of school in September:

The Christian Reconstructionists were easiest to spot (patriotic T-shirts), as were the macrobiotic hippies, who overlapped somewhat with the anti-vaxxers, the anarchists, and the preppers. There were the rich suburban kids whose parents had pulled them from school to better facilitate backpacking trips to Mongolia, and Mennonite girls in long denim skirts, plus the occasional Quiverfull family numbering twelve, fifteen, twenty-five. The full spectrum, In other words, of American private dissent. But even then, it didn’t feel like a community so much as a summit of isolated tribes.

I happen to know three families that homeschool (or did). None of them are religious, nor are they anti-socialization. One father, a mathematician, wanted to convey his enthusiasm for math to his kids, and they ended up learning at home; after a move, they were given a choice and started regular middle school. In another family, a move generated a casual question – “Do you think you’d like to go to school at home?” – and the answer was yes; that mother used printed curricula, organized groups, and even a few moocs. The third family started homeschooling when they became alarmed at their son’s falling grades, and the seeming inability of the school to do much about it. All three sets of parents are great people (admittedly, I only know them online, but I’ve known them for several years and they haven’t ended up on the evening news yet). So I understand the wide variety of homeschooling families, and that it includes those without agendas other than giving their kids the best education possible.

One of the most interesting aspects of the piece comes when O’Gieblyn discusses her transition, at age 15, to regular high school. Uneven academic performance would be no surprise, but she indicates a sense of otherness as well: “I was wholly ignorant of the social scripts that governed large groups of females.” I find this interesting not because it triggers some vengeful aha, but because so much of how she describes herself sounds like how I felt throughout my twelve years of public school education. And even now. People want to talk about things I can’t chime in on: their families, trips, parties, favorite restaurants or clubs. I brand myself a hermit to belong to something, as I too have this sense that I have no idea what I’m supposed to talk about with others.

Another thread that interested me a great deal dealt with Tara Westover’s recent book, Educated. Westover was part of a religious survivalist family, and she left by studying and going to college, eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge University. But that isn’t the interesting part; it’s the reaction to her book that raises my eyebrows. Apparently she isn’t hard enough on her parents:

Several critics found it unsettling that’s for parents or occasionally characterized, in her memoir, with a note of affection, and that’s the descriptions of her childhood landscape we’re undergirded by a sense of longing. …Westover once hinted that the early iterations of her book had a lighter tone. When she first began writing, she confessed in one interview, she regarded her family’s behavior as harmless and eccentric ….Her authority as a narrator – and more fundamentally, as a witness to her own life – was for many readers discounted by the brain washing she’d experienced as a child….In the end, Westover, who has described her life as a process of regaining “custody of her own mind, “ was subjected, again and again, to the insistence that she did not actually know her own mind.
This is the predicament of people who were raised in highly controlled environments: any ambivalence about your upbringing is proof of its success, a sign that you are not yet completely free period

I have to wonder why she changed the tone of the book, if it was her own decision, or pressure from a publisher who knew what was marketable and what wasn’t. For the record, O’Gieblyn’s tone towards her upbringing is quite positive. For her, it wasn’t so much of an escape as simply a growing up and making decisions about what kind of independent life she wanted to lead, which might be called the true objective of all parenting.

The essay finishes off with a very nice closure, showing where all this has brought her. I’m very fond of circular shapes in essays, and this one not only returns to the personal, but shows the results of this particular homeschooling we’ve been reading about:

It is impossible to anticipate how a person will interpret the lessons of her childhood, whether she will find them an impetus for violence or a source of creative inspiration. In my own family, my siblings and I have proved the outcomes of my mother’s pedagogy wildly unpredictable. Despite her best efforts to raise us deliberately, each of us has negotiated, in idiosyncratic ways, the legacy of our childhood, and our lives have veered down such divergent paths that when we are all together, it is difficult to imagine we were reared under the same roof. My mother raised a writer, a musician, a missionary, a hotel manager, and an accountant; a progressive, a centrist, two moral Conservatives, and a Libertarian. I do not have children, but my siblings have collectively produced half a dozen. All of them go to school.

For any mother, that’s quite a record of success, and the diversity of outcomes strikes me as one of the primary objectives.

This is O’Gieblyn’s third appearance in Pushcart since I’ve been reading it. She’s appeared in some of the most prestigious magazines around, and she published a collection of essays a little over a year ago. I’d say that gives her a certain authority as a success story.