Bertrand Russell / Bradley Trevor Greive: In Praise of Idleness (St.Martin’s 2017) [IBR2022]

Russell’s message changed my life. Not immediately, perhaps – at least not visibly. But I started to look at my spare time differently, and then my time on earth in general. I tried to cut back on passive entertainment and move towards more active interests.
…. Given how impactful Russell has been in my own life, I was determined to share his sui generis genius with as many people as possible, and having at last secured the blessing of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, I present this modest volume to you.
I am neither a philosopher nor a mathematician and I am known primarily for my humorous gift books, so I do not pretend that I am worthy of this task. Nevertheless I feel honored to have the opportunity to present Russell’s work to a new audience. My only hope is that Russell’s essay might have heard you a similar epiphany to that which I experienced.

Bradley Trevor Greive, Introduction

I found the title of this intriguing. I’m not sure idleness is the best word for what’s being presented (yes, I am editing Bertrand Russell, you got a problem with that?). Idleness denotes lack of activity, what Russell would call passive entertainment; that is, Netflix and 48 hours of weekend televised sports. What he’s promoting is something else: non-work time – leisure – as a means of ramping up the creative powers, diffusing thought from targeted activity and letting things rip.

There are clear precedents that speak to the value of this process. When Newton spent a year at home because of the plague, he didn’t sit idly, he invented calculus. When Linus Pauling was sick in bed with a cold, he dabbled with a strip of paper and figured out protein structure. St. John spent time on Patmos and wrote the book of Revelation (hmm, might not be the best example).

Russell’s essay is couched in irony and wit.

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.

It’s important to remember that Russell was writing from the UK in the 1930s. I’ve watched Downton Abbey enough to be familiar with the shift from landowners (“What is a week end?”) lauded as providers of employment, to the question of just why so many people spent their days paying calls, hunting foxes, and being dressed several times a day for different functions, while others were slopping pigs and sewing and mining all day.  Russell’s solution – everyone works four hours, leaving a less exhausted working class able to function more creatively in their off hours – doesn’t map easily onto the 21st century US.

At the root of it all is the view that leisure lets us develop those things that aren’t necessarily profitable in the short run, but last millennia.

In the past, there was a small leisure class and a larger working class. The leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no basis in social justice; This necessarily made it oppressive, limited in sympathies, and caused it to invent theories by which to justify its privileges. These facts greatly diminished its excellence, but in spite of this drawback it contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.

I wonder if this is at the heart of the educated/practical divide. I recently learned that Robert Boyle, who, as one of the first chemists, discovered that the pressure of a gas is inversely relative to its volume and started thinking about heat as motion, was the son of one of the richest men in England. That’s why he could build a laboratory for his experiments. But look at Antoine Lavoisier: he was on a brilliant course with oxygen and the law of conservation of mass, but he got guillotined during the Reign of Terror because of his and his family’s ownership of tax agencies and general upper class status.

Today, everybody wants smartphones and technology to do more and more, but there’s a strong anti-education contingent that seems to want to limit education to certain people and certain subjects. More gadgets, more financial tinkering, less history and philosophy and art. Keep it practical. And, as Russell points out in several ways, preach about the virtue of hard work without ever doing any yourself.

As I was reading this, I thought of the attitudes towards moocs. Way back in the early days (about a decade ago; time moves on an accelerated scale these days) I was deeply insulted when a professor I admired referred to those of us who were not taking the course to prepare for further academic study in the subject as “hobbyists.” A few months ago, the Digital Learning Scientist working on MIT’s biology department held a zoom meeting on mooc engagement during the pandemic; when describing the data, they indicated taking the course as a verified student – that is, paying for it – is a “rough indicator” of dedication to the course. Rough is right.

Acknowledging different students had different goals, she said, “People who are retired do this for entertainment even.” The idea that someone could commit to a concentrated study of biology simply because they find it fascinating is not a first-thought idea, even after a pandemic makes understanding what mRNA is and how the immune system works a practical skill. Forgive me for ranting, I’m still wounded. But where Russell doubts that universities are fulfilling their goal as cultural generators, I see moocs as being so much more inclusive, reaching well beyond those who want a degree. Yet those are the very students modd educators dismiss as entertainment-seeking hobbyists.

Back to the book. The essay itself – a short little thing – is packaged with a foreword, afterword, and recommended reading list by Bradley Trevor Greive. I had no idea who that is, and his self-description as a writer of “humorous gift books” didn’t help (even after googling around, I have no idea what a humorous gift book is). Turns out he’s also instrumental in Australian television and film.

His introduction sets up Russell’s essay by explaining how he came across it. His Afterword a brief biography of Russell, and, most interestingly, his summary of what he calls the Russell Method of Creative Discipline, based on the prof’s activities, conversations, and diary entries:

– Exhaustive research and thought to the point of complete immersion in the subject.
– Attaining physical and objective distance from the project, during which further contemplation is undertaken in a state of active idleness.
– Seeing the work or solution as a whole, and reproducing same.
– Sober self criticism and editing after the fact to ensure the creative and intellectual integrity of the project.

This combination of study, escape, contemplation, inspiration, and critical evaluation makes perfect sense end served the prolific Russell well; To wit, without escape from the cerebral churn Russell could not find the freedom to think creatively, and without the intensely disciplined study he had nothing of substance to think about in the first place.

Bradley Trevor Greive, Afterword: In Praise of Doubt

See why I say idleness is maybe not the best word? This is a lot of work. I’m nowhere near Russell’s level, but it’s why I read a story or a book and let it percolate before I write about it; often I have no idea what approach to take at first, but it gradually comes into view. Sometimes it doesn’t. I suspect readers can tell which posts fit into that latter category.

Russell won a Nobel Prize for his writings; they’re collected in various ways. He was a Socialist dove who valued people above profit, which makes him everything the State – pretty much any State – distrusts. I’m vaguely familiar with some of his mathematical and philosophical work from various moocs, but I’m more interested in his social views. As usual, I’m intimidated by Great Names, so this was a good way to dip my toe in. Thanks to Greive’s reading list, I have an idea how to proceed.

Roxane Gay: Bad Feminist (Harper 2014) [IBR2022]

We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us. Feminism will better succeed with collective effort, but feminist success can also rise out of personal conduct. I hear many young women say they can’t find well known feminists with whom they identify. That can be disheartening, but I say, let us (try to) become the feminists we would like to see moving through the world. When you can’t find someone to follow, you have to find a way to lead by example. In this collection of essays, I’m trying to lead, in a small, imperfect way. I am raising my voice as a bad feminist. I am taking a stand as a bad feminist. I offer insights on our culture and how we consume it. The essays in this collection also examine race in contemporary film, the limits of diversity, and how innovation is rarely satisfying; It is rarely enough.

Roxane Gay, Introduction

I chose not to read this book when it came out because I didn’t want to read about feminism. Part of that hesitation is covered in Gay’s introduction: it’s a complicated topic that seems to mean different things to different people, yet somehow manages to leave out huge swathes of women. And part is a lack of enthusiasm for pedantic diatribe, however earnest and appropriate. *Footnote (if I could do footnotes in WordPress): I should have trusted Gay.

So why read it now?

Over the past several years, I’ve repeatedly quoted Gay’s article, “Not Here to Make Friends” on unlikeable characters (as well as her tweets and other writings). The surprise came late last year, when I discovered it was included in this collection. A quick glance showed me yes, there’s a lot of gender and sexuality, but there’s also academia, Scrabble, and Sweet Valley High, as well as politics and race and intersections of all of the above with gender and sexuality. Click “add to cart.”

The book is divided into five sections: Me, Gender & Sexuality, Race & Entertainment, Politics, Gender & Race, and Back to Me. The essays appeared in many print and online magazines over several years, so some were familiar, like “Not Here to Make Friends” (which always makes me want to read The Age of Innocence; fortunately, or not, I get over it pretty quickly). They’re all fairly short, and they all are immensely readable.

In these pages I learned about the exhaustion of real-life academia I so love reading about in fiction:

An alarming number of my students don’t seem to want to be in college. They are in school because they don’t feel they have a choice or have nothing better to do; because their parents are making them attend college; because, like most of us, they’ve surrendered to the rhetoric that just succeed in this country you need a college degree. They are not necessarily incorrect. And yet, all too often, I find myself wishing I could teach more students who actually want to be in school, who don’t resent the education being foisted upon them. I wish there were viable alternatives for students who would rather be anywhere but in a classroom. I wish, in all things, for a perfect world.

“Typical First Year Professor”

As someone who deferred higher education after high school, then found myself passionately drawn to it in any form (continuing most recently in moocs, OCWs, and Youtube classes), I’m actually a fan of postponing college until one really wants it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in learning; I was, and that was generated by reading, by seeing interesting characters who knew things I didn’t. But let’s face it, most people go to college to get a good job, not because they really REALLY want to finally understand Chaucer or calculus or the Middle Ages. The result is what Gay sees in her classes.

Then I read about Scrabble. I confess: I love the NYT Sunday Crossword (and no other, though I’ll take anything in a pinch), I spend an enormous amount of time on Wordle and its derivatives, as well as WEBoggle, which is psychically equivalent to taking a cigarette break while avoiding the physical damage, but I’ve never liked Scrabble. But it turns out, I love reading about Scrabble. At least in “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically,” in which Gay takes us through her introduction to the world of competitive Scrabble via a casual invitation she accepted simply because she was new in town and had nothing else to do. And I learned the reason WEBoggle never accepts “Broasted” as a word is because it’s a proper noun.

Other articles included references less familiar to me that nevertheless were emotionally wrenching. In “What We Hunger For,” Gay discusses her love for the Hunger Games stories in the context of her own experience of sexual violence. That’s followed by “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” and the ineffectiveness, and ultimate nonsense, of trigger warnings. The Race & Entertainment section reference movies and TV shows I’ve either never seen (Tyler Perry movies, Django Unchained) or saw so long ago I don’t really remember them (The Help). The exception is Fruitvale Station, which stuck with me:

It is in this context that Fruitvale Station works compellingly to treat Oscar Grant as a man. Forced to decide whether to sell drugs to support his family, Oscar makes what we hope is the right choice, throwing a large quantity of marijuana into the Bay. He tries to get his job back at a local grocer after being fired. Not only are his options drastically limited, his learning curve is steep. There is little room for error. For some young black men, there is no room for error at all.

“The Last Day of a Young Black Man”

Most of these essays are very short. Many were published in online magazines, others in print venues. Many of them cover ground that has become familiar; others show we’ve moved on without resolving much. Social media, political agendas, entertainment trends, these change quickly. It’d be nice if we went back to the eighteenth century when writing about morality would last forever, but those essays tended to be so general as to weave into whatever current events were playing. Gay’s essays are very specific, so they have a shorter shelf life.

It’s still a book worth reading, if only to remember back when it seemed like change was possible. And if the issues in the more time-specific essays are more familiar now, the good news is that Gay is now writing NYT opinion columns.

Leonard Mlodinow: The Upright Thinkers (Vintage 2015) [IBR2022]

In the wrong hands, science can be famously boring. But the story of what we know and how we know it isn’t boring at all. It is supremely exciting. Full episodes of discovery that are no less compelling than a Star Trek episode or our first trip to the moon, it is peopled by characters as passionate and quirky as those we know from art and music and literature, seekers whose insatiable curiosity took our species from its origins on the African savanna to the society we live in today. How did they do that? How did we go from a species that had barely learned to walk upright and lived off whatever nuts and berries and roots we could harvest with our bare hands to one that flies airplanes, sends messages instantly around the globe, and re-creates enormous laboratories that conditions of the early universe? That is the story I want to tell, for to know it is to understand your heritage as a human being.

I’ve read several history-of-science books; they tend to provide encyclopedia-style citations for history – born, died, discovered – and focus on the science, with some acknowledgement to major influencing events: wars, plagues, the printing press. Many start with the ancient Greeks, but quickly skedaddle up to Copernicus or even Newton so they can get to the good stuff. They tend to ignore biology completely, sticking to physics and chemistry. That’s fine; they’re often good books, for what they are.

Mlodinow’s approach is a bit different. He focuses on the changes that occurred in how scientists approached discovery, and how that led to new science, rather than the details of the discoveries. And he starts much earlier: a few million years earlier, in fact.

Let me put in here is that it’s a very Western-centric book: Mlodinow’s story is a fairly straight line from Greece to Europe.  Egypt, the Islamic Empire, and India are mentioned as supporting players; China and the American peoples are pretty much ignored, as is sub-Saharan Africa. This is necessary for the story he is telling, similar to reducing the pre-human species to four, but let’s not interpret this as meaning there was no scientific inquiry elsewhere. 

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, he traces the evolutionary development of humans, both in biological and social and intellectual terms, up to Aristotle:

Part I, spanning millions of years, traces the evolution of the human brain and its propensity to ask “Why?” Our why’s propelled us to our earliest spiritual inquiries and led, eventually, to the development of writing and mathematics and the very concept of laws – the necessary tools of science. Ultimately those why’s led to the invention of philosophy, the insight that the material world operates according to rhyme and reason that can, in principle, be understood.

I liked this section – it’s short, about 60 pages – so much, I started a Cerego set to help me retain some of the information. The emphasis is on what change allowed each step to take place. Why was Göbekli Tepe built 14,000 years ago, when no one lived within miles of the place? Why was Thales able to think about what the world was fundamentally made of, when no one had before? The section ends with Aristotle’s view of science as the study of purpose, a direction that would persist for a thousand years.

The second section – “a story of revolutionaries who had the gift of seeing the world differently” – shows how Aristotle’s view of science yielded to Galileo and Newton as physics, chemistry, and biology developed from the late Middle Ages through the late nineteenth century. I was a bit disappointed that biology got less page space; it’s mostly Darwin. But Mlodinow is, after all, a physicist. And though it took place in the mid-20th century, I still think the story of Linus Pauling, discovering the structure of protein by cutting up paper strips while in bed with a cold, would’ve made a great addition; FMI see MIT’s introductory Biology mooc. Again, the focus is not on the details of the scientific discoveries but on the change in viewpoint, the new approach, that allowed scientists to look at old questions in new ways.

The third section watches Newton’s laws crumble to quantum physics as the atom is uncovered, quanta and relativity emerge, and uncertainty takes a bow. This can sound intimidating; it’s not. You won’t learn quantum physics, and it probably helps to have had some exposure, however basic, to the concepts, but it’s very readable, and again is as much about the personalities and interactions as the science.

The Second World War becomes an end point of sorts. And because early 20th century physics was focused in Germany, it includes a scorecards of sorts: who had to leave, who chose to leave, who chose to stay and work on a Nazi version of an atom bomb. I’ve read before that, had Germany not chased away so many of its most talented people, had they not expended so many resources on murdering people they hated, they could have won the war (and then, presumably, murdered everyone they didn’t like). Something to think about as the US turns more authoritarian every day.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the storytelling nature of so much of it. He writes of the Merton Rule relating constant acceleration to average speed, and tells how Nicole Oresme created what can be viewed as the first graph to demonstrate the mathematics. At the time, other scientists were unimpressed. Mlodinow relates this to the 20th century chemical engineer at 3M who developed Post-its, and the unenthusiastic reception he got from the marketing department who could see no use for sticky scrap paper. Then he brings in his father’s childhood experience in rural Poland when someone threw a sheet over a goat and the Purim celebrants thought it was a ghost: “They were merely interpreting what they saw in terms of the context of their beliefs…. Had we not been raised in a Newtonian culture, [Newton’s laws] that are now so self-evident to us all would have been, for most of us, incomprehensible.”  Sometimes we see the future but don’t recognize it. And, sadly, sometimes we try to undo it and return to the blind past. 

He offers this anecdote about Galileo as a college dropout in search of a job:

After quitting school, Galileo at first supported himself by giving private mathematics lessons. He eventually got wind of an opening for a junior position at the University of Bologna. Though he was twenty-three, he applied, and in a novel twist on rounding he reported his age as “around twenty-six.” the university apparently wanted someone “around” a little older and hired a thirty-two-year-old who had also actually finished his degree. Still, even centuries later, it has to be comforting to anyone who has ever been turned down for an academic job but it’s an experience you share with the great Galileo.

He offers still more comfort, and some advice, to academics:

But one of the traits that distinguishes the successful physicist is the knack (or luck) of choosing problems that prove both enlightening and solvable. … In physics, there is little consolation in thinking you had a “beautiful idea” if it was not a correct idea. And so in physics, as in any attempt at innovation, you have to maintain a difficult balance, being careful about the research problems you choose to pursue while not being so careful that you never do anything new. That’s why the tenure system is so valuable to science – it makes it safe to fail, which is essential for fostering creativity.

While he presents this in the context of scientific research, it’s also true in other fields. I remember Al Filreis, Penn English professor, director of the Kelly Writer’s House, and developer of the extremely popular modern poetry mooc known as ModPo, said something similar: he didn’t know if he could create a participatory, partly synchronous mooc, but he figured he had tenure so he wouldn’t get fired for trying. Moocs have decided to go another way, but ModPo, and its year-round offshoot SloPo, continues. So the next time you hear of a state wanting to end tenure and get rid of those pesky professors and their non-traditional ideas, you might want to think about what that loss means in terms of new ideas that might, oh, I don’t know, save civilization from melting as the temperature rises.

Mlodinow also looks at the difference between physics and chemistry. It turns out he originally planned to study chemistry but physics wooed him away. “Different areas of science not only focus on different questions, but also have different cultures.” Basic physics required observation and mathematics; chemistry required technology to measure and control substances in small amounts. As a result, it took longer to develop, and more people played a part.

A friend and I have been watching a TV program that has twice now used the “scientists believe in what they can see and touch” and I’ve gone off on a rant about that statement.  Mlodinow discusses the progression of science from what can be seen and touched to what outcomes can be expected and confirmed to how mathematics and statistics now serve as core evidence. He goes a bit into how string theory complicates this, since it’s quite possibly not confirmable by any means we know. Then again, the atom was hotly contested for a very long time by some very smart 20th century physicists.

Mlodinow’s father is a constant presence in the book; in fact, he begins with his father’s story about trading a crust of bread for an explanation of a mathematical puzzle when he was in Buchenwald. 

I was in my late teens when my father recounted that episode, and it made a huge impact on me. My father’s family was gone, his possessions confiscated, his body starved, withered, and beaten. The Nazis had stripped him of everything palpable, yet his drive to think and reason and no survived. He was imprisoned, but his mind was free to roam, and it did. I realized then that the search for knowledge is the most human of all our desires, and that, different as our circumstances were, my own passion for understanding the world was driven by the same instinct as my father’s. As I went on to study science in college and after, my father would question me not so much about the technicalities of what I was learning, but about the underlying meaning – where are the theories came from, why I felt they were beautiful, and what they said about us as human beings. This book, written decades later, is my attempt, finally, to answer those questions.

Some may find it too “soft” and prefer more detailed science, in which case something more like Marcelo Gleiser’s The Island of Knowledge might be a better choice. Both books have their place. I very much enjoyed the relaxed, anecdotal style, and the expanded timeline. I have Mlodinow’s Elastic as well, and a number of his other titles appeal to me. I’m surprised – dismayed, really – that I’ve never read him before. I wonder what else I’m missing out on. I want to read all the books, before they’re gone.

Asking Alice: Down the Rabbit Hole, guided by Martin Gardner and Robin Wilson [IBR2022]

The last level of metaphor in the Alice books is this: that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician. At the heart of things science finds only a mad, never-ending quadrille of Mock Turtle Waves and Gryphon Particles. For a moment the waves and particles dance in grotesque, in conceivably complex patterns capable of reflecting on their own absurdity. We all live slapstick lives, under an inexplicable sentence of death, and when we try to find out what the Castle authorities want us to do, we are shifted from one bumbling bureaucrat to another. We are not even sure that Count West-West, the owner of the Castle, really exists. More than one critic has commented on the similarities between Kafka’s Trial and the trial of the Jack of Hearts: between Kafka’s Castle and a chess game in which living pieces are ignorant of the game’s plan and cannot tell if they move of their own wills or are being pushed by invisible fingers.
The vision of monstrous mindlessness of the cosmos (“Off with its head!”) can be grim and disturbing, as it is in Kafka and the Book of Job, or light-hearted comedy, as in Alice or Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday…. it is a vision that can lead to despair and suicide, to the laughter that closes Jean Paul Sarte’s story “The Wall,” to the humanist’s resolve to carry on bravely in the face of ultimate darkness. Curiously, it can also suggest the wild hypothesis that there may be a light behind the darkness.

Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Annotated Alice

Last Fall, before I’d even finished my 2021 In Between Reading stretch, I became acutely aware I’d never read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland thanks to a @FiveBooks post about Illustrated Philosophy Books. Their entry  The Annotated Alice was annotated by none other than Martin Gardner, who I’ve heard adoring math professors refer to as the Father of Recreational Mathematics for years. It occurred to me it would make an interesting project for this year. I figured I would be able to better understand all the mathematical and logical subtleties I’d seen referred to in Alice mentions over the years, but had never really knuckled down to understand. And thought “recreational mathematics” seems like an oxymoron to me, I’m always looking for ways to make friends with math. I put it on my list.

Which, alas, is a very long list, and it might have just stayed there had I not seen another @FiveBooks category, the History of Mathematics, a couple of months later. Through that article I discovered the archivist, Robin Wilson, had written Lewis Carroll in Numberland, described as a mathematical biography of the author. That brought to mind Alice waiting on my list, and so I ordered them both as a project read for this year.

To my surprise, Gardner’s annotations focus more on historical and biographical details, the differences between the published work and the original hand-written and illustrated manuscript (titled Alice’s Adventures Underground) and the 1886 stage play, and commentary about the original illustrations (included) by John Tenniel. There are some comments about the science, math, and logic, but they’re not as numerous, nor as explanatory, as I’d expected.

I should add that I got the 1960 edition of the book. A “Definitive Edition” was published in 1999, updated to include more material. I wasn’t clear on this at the time I ordered it; I probably should get the newer version, and take note of additions and changes.

Wilson’s book, as the full title Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Life might suggest, focuses far more on Dodgson’s mathematical publications and notes, tying them in to his children’s books and published articles when applicable. He includes a great many puzzles that appeared under Carroll’s and Dodgson’s name, as well as articles and portions of books on logic. I found his use of graphical solutions to syllogisms and logic problems particularly interesting; I would, I like pictures. Others might be interested in his method of finding the day of the week for any date, or his discourse on voting methods, a very popular contemporary topic. Additionally, he includes excerpts from “Hiawatha’s Photographing,” a parody of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” and his dramatized defense of Euclid’s Elements as the standard text of geometry. He also includes a royal anecdote (and denial):

A well-known story relates how Queen Victoria was so utterly charmed by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that she demanded:

Send me the next book Mr. Carroll produces –

The next book duly arrived; It was entitled An Elementary Treatise On Determinants. Queen Victoria was not amused.
Dodgson firmly denied this story thirty years later in the second edition of his Symbolic Logic:

I take this opportunity of giving what publicity I can to my contradiction of a silly story, which has been going the rounds of the papers, about my having presented certain books to Her Majesty the queen. It is so constantly repeated, and is such absolute fiction, that I think it is worthwhile to state, once and for all, that it is utterly false in every particular; nothing even resembling it has ever occurred.

No British newspaper reports have been found that support Dodgson’s account, so perhaps it was true after all…

Robin Wilson, Lewis Carroll in Numberland

This sounds like a rather Wonderland passage itself: a fun occurrence, a denial, and the lack of evidence that something never happened as evidence that it did.

Some of my favorite takeaways from these two books:

FREEFALL: In the first chapter of AAIW, Alice falls down the famous rabbit hole, grabbing a jar of orange marmalade along the way then fears to drop it lest it hurt someone beneath her, and puts it back on a passing shelf. She wonders, as her fall continues, if she might fall all the way through the earth. Gardiner devotes significant space to this event, noting Dodgson’s familiarity with free fall and, in the later Sylvie and Bruno, sees an anticipation of Einstein’s elevator explanation of gravity and acceleration. The fall itself – “In Carroll’s day there was considerable popular speculation about what would happen if one fell through a hole that went straight through the center of the earth” –  recapitulated in Sylvie, also gets due attention as an investigation over history from Plutarch to the twentieth century. This also features in Wilson’s Scene 8 in the initial section of his book.

KNOTS: In Chapter 3 of AAIW, involving, among other things, a figurative poem resembling a long mouse’s tail, Alice responds to the mouse’s assertion “I had not!” with “A knot!’ said Alice, ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. ‘Oh, do let me help undo it!’” Knots became a series of mathematical puzzles Carroll included in his puzzle column for the magazine The Monthly Packet, and collected all ten in his puzzle book A Tangled Tale.

Gardner mentions this, but Wilson expands on it, including that it was dedicated to, not Alice Liddell (the real-life Alice) but to Edith Rix, another girl with whom he had a mathematical correspondence; she went on to study mathematics at Cambridge and, additional poking around uncovers, worked as a computer (in the pre-data-processing sense) at Greenwich Observatory. He prints one of the Knots in full and summarizes the rest. They are something like contemporary word puzzles, expanded to make them little stories. This was only one example of Dodgson’s fascination with puzzles and his effort to extend challenges to those who dared. I wonder if Dodgson/Carroll could have been considered a predecessor to Gardner in the field of Recreational Mathematics.

DUCHESS AND CHESHIRE CAT:  I found Gardner’s notes on Chapter 6 of AAIW to be a lot of fun, though they tend to go far afield:  “Ugly Duchess” by Quintin Matsys as the basis for Tenniel’s illustration of the Duchess; the historical authenticity but uncertain origin of the common expression “grin like a Cheshire cat” in Dodgson’s day; Dodgson’s invention of the Wonderland Postage Stamp Case; and the origin of the name of the flower “foxglove” (Carroll’s explanation in The Nursery ‘Alice’ appears to be folk etymology rather than the real thing).

More substantial are the considerations of The Cheshire Cat, who tells Alice, “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad” and offers her presence as proof. Gardner quotes an entry from Dodgson’s diary:

Query: when we are dreaming and, as often happens, have a dim consciousness of that fact and try to wake, do we not say and do things which in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which is the sleeping life?”

Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson, Diary, 2/9/1856 entry

Several years ago, I had a therapeutic misadventure (beware of overdoing the NSAIDS when you’re on blood pressure medications; depleted potassium has bizarre effects) which resulted in hospitalization and delirium. I would have brief dreams, then think they had actually happened. I kept worrying about the game I was in, the arts and theater troupe that visited that morning and invited me to a block party, my trip to South America where corn burst into butterflies. I was definitely quite mad, all from taking dreams as reality.

Gardner quotes Plato’s Theaetetus, which also considers how one can determine if one is in a dream, or reality: “How can you determine whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; Or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking stage?” I thought also of Zhuangzi:

Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.


Gardner closes the chapter with his observation:

The phrase “a grin without the cat” is not a bad description of pure mathematics.” although mathematical theorems often can be usefully applied to the structure of the external world, the theorems themselves are abstractions that belong in another realm….

Martin Gardner, Chapter VI, The Annotated Alice

I’ve heard some highly qualified mathematicians discuss the nature of mathematics to understand the general thrust of this: what, after all, is two, if not embodied in two of something? I’m way out of my pay grade here, but it’s still fun to consider.

MAD HATTER: Gardner suggests that Carroll urged Tenniel to use one Theophilus Carter as a model for the Mad Hatter. Why? The man was known as the Mad Hatter (a common term following from the problems hat makers experienced, later discovered to be from the mercury used in hatmaking) because he not only wore a hat, but was a bit of a nut: by trade a furniture dealer, he supposedly invented the alarm-clock bed, which would throw one out of it at a set time (this is not well-documented in reality; there was such a bed in the Great Exhibition of 1851, but Carter’s name is not in the existing records). Gardner also tells us the Mad Hatter was not in the original handwritten manuscript, but was added later.

TORTOISE:  In Chapter 9, Alice asks the Mock Turtle why he called his teacher a tortoise when he wasn’t one. “We called him tortoise because he taught us,” he replies. Gardner mentions this pun is incorporated into Carroll’s  article, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” a logico-geometric sequel to his previous logical resolution of Zeno’s Paradox. Wilson expands on this, reprinting the article, which ends with an even more devastating pun:

…Achilles was still seated on the back of the much-enduring Tortoise, and was writing in his note-book, which appeared to be nearly full. The Tortoise was saying, “Have you got that last step written down? Unless I’ve lost count, that makes a thousand and one. There are several millions more to come. And would you mind, as a personal favour, considering what a lot of instruction this colloquy of ours will provide for the Logicians of the Nineteenth Century—would you mind adopting a pun that my cousin the Mock-Turtle will then make, and allowing yourself to be re-named Taught-Us?”
“As you please!” replied the weary warrior, in the hollow tones of despair, as he buried his face in his hands. “Provided that you, for your/em> part, will adopt a pun the Mock-Turtle never made, and allow yourself to be re-named A Kill-Ease!”

Lewis Carroll, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles” from Mind, April 1895.

When it comes to Through the Looking Glass, Gardner praises the chess moves for their authenticity:

Considering the staggering difficulties involved in dovetailing a chess game with an amusing nonsense fantasy, Carol does a remarkable job. At no time, for example, does Alice exchange words with a piece that is not then on a square alongside her own. Queens bustle about doing things while their husbands remain relatively fixed and impotent, just as in actual chess games. The White Knight’s eccentricities fit admirably the eccentric way in which Knights move; even the tendency of Knights to fall off their horses, on one side or the other, suggests the Knight’s move, which is two squares in one direction followed by one square to the right or left.

Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice

And, of course, there’s a complete exegesis of Jabbewocky. But, having read many such explanations, I found other comments of more interest.

TIGER-LILY: The Tiger Lily was to be a Passion Flower, but Dodgson, who’d originally started studies for the priesthood and was devoutly religious, discovered the name of the flower echoed the Passion of Christ, not mundane earthly passions; he substituted the Tiger Lily to avoid sacrilege.

TWEEDLEDEE AND -DUM: From my participation in recent biochemistry moocs, I’ve become somewhat acquainted with the concept of enantiomers, molecules that differ only in that their structures are mirror images that cannot be superimposed; think gloves. This is a concept taken from the broader geometric concept of enantiomorphs, and Carroll embodied it in Tweedledee and Tweedledum:

Tweedledum and Tweedledee are what geometers call and enantiomorphs, mirror image forms of each other. That Carroll intended this is strongly suggested by Tweedledee’s favorite word, “contrariwise,” and by the fact that they extend right and left hands for a handshake. Tenniel’s picture of the two enantiomorphs arrayed for battle, standing in identical postures, indicates that he looked upon the twins in the same way.

Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice

I have to admit I found the Alice books themselves a bit disappointing. Why? Because it seems all the best parts have been quoted so often they’re practically part of everyday life. As a result, what was left was mostly  transition material. I’m not particularly interested in chess, so that entire content of Through the Looking Glass  didn’t intrigue me the way it should, and I’ve frequently admitted my inability to math, which made the few truly mathematical parts difficult to read. Yet I consider it time well spent. If nothing else, I’ve finally discovered that TTLG is a separate book from AAIW, a sequel; I’d never been sure if it was a chapter, a subtitle, or some other thing.

Is it ok that I admit to having “Remember what the dormouse said: Feed your head!” buzzing in my mind the entire time I was working on these books?

I was also a bit horrified right off the bat by a section of Gardner’s Introduction:

Carroll’s principal hobby – the hobby that aroused his greatest joys – was entertaining little girls. “I am fond of children (except boys),” he once wrote….. He thought the naked bodies of little girls (unlike the bodies of boys) extremely beautiful. Upon occasion he sketched or photographed them in the nude, with the mother’s permission, of course. “If I had the loveliest child in the world, to draw or photograph,” he wrote, “and found she had a modest shrinking (however slight, and however easily overcome) from being taken nude, I should feel it was a solemn duty owed to God to drop the request altogether.” Lest these undraped pictures later embarrass the girls, he requested that after his death they be destroyed or returned to the children or their parents. None seems to have survived.
….He became adept at meeting little girls in railway carriages and on public beaches. A black bag that he always took with him on these seaside trips contained wire puzzles and other unusual gifts to stimulate their interest. He even carried a supply of safety pins for pinning up the skirts of little girls when they wished to wade in the surf.

Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Annotated Alice

This book was published in 1959; it’s quite possible this didn’t sound as horrifying back then, before the Oprahfication of child abuse turned attention from scary guys in trench coats to the friendly guy who’s fun to hang out with. And Gardner goes on to clarify he isn’t indicating anything amiss:

There is no indication that Carol was conscious of anything but the purest innocence in his relations with little girls, nor is there a hint of impropriety in any of the fond recollections that dozens of them later wrote about him.

Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Annotated Alice

Gardiner also includes that the children he spent time with have had uniformly positive things to say about him, and cherished his friendship. One of his favorite child friends was Alice Liddell, daughter of the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, where Carroll worked; she was, of course, the model for the literary character, as well as the child he originally made up the stories for. As for Wilson, he dismisses out of hand any dark speculation, calling it nonsense.

So what are we to make of Dodgson/Carroll’s life work as a mathematician and teacher? Gardner’s opinion – as a mathematician – is fairly clear: “[H]is lectures were humorless and boring…. His books on logic and mathematics are written quaintly, with many amusing problems, but their level is elementary and they are seldom read today.” Wilson claims, “if Dodgson had not written the Alice books, he would be remembered mainly as a pioneering photographer, one of the first to consider photography as an art rather than as simply a means of recording images.” But it is as the author of the two Alice books he has become a fixture in our collective consciousness.

As for me, I have no doubt that, if Dodgson/Carroll lived in this era rather than the 19th century, he would have been a YouTube sensation, perhaps rivalling Vi Hart in her heyday, or giving  Matt Parker and Grant Sanderson a run for their money.

At the end of his book, Wilson includes mention of the Lewis Carroll Window at the Daresbury Church in Cheshire, completed in 1935: a stained-glass representation of the Nativity, with Carroll and Alice in reverent attendance, and with scenes from the book included below. “In memory of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), author of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” That might be the concise summation of his life right there.

Rian Malan: The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Other Stories of Africa (Grove, 2012) [IBR2022]

In South Africa, it’s like a law of nature: there’s no such thing as a true story here. The facts may be correct, but the truth they embody is always a lie to someone else. Every inch of our soil is contested, every word in our histories likewise; our languages are mutually incomprehensible, our philosophies irreconcilable. My truths strike some South African writers as counterrevolutionary ravings. Theirs strike me as distortions calculated to appeal to gormless liberals in the outside world. Many South Africans can’t read any of us, so their truth is something else entirely. Atop all this, we live in a country where mutually annihilating truths coexist entirely amicably. We are a light unto nations. We are an abject failure. We are progressing even as we hurtle backward. The blessing of living here is that every day presents you with material whose richness beggars the imagination of those who live in saner places. The curse is that you can never get it quite right, and if you come close, the results are often unpublishable.

Rian Malan, Foreword (2012)

I got this book for the title story. I didn’t do so well with the rest. I’m one of the gormless liberals in the outside world who annoy Malan because we watched Invictus with tears in our eyes and don’t want to hear a word against Mandela. He’s probably got a point: I have enough trouble figuring out USAian sociopolitics without figuring out South Africa’s conflicts, so we cling to a hero for dear life. But music, ah, music, yeah, that’s something I want to know about. Until the lawyers get into it, at which point I put my head down and cry.

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” brings to mind Helen DeWitt’s conflict between art and commerce, sandwiched between layers of legally institutionalized racism.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a Zulu man stepped up to a microphone and improvised a melody that earned in the region of $15 million. That Solomon Linda got almost none of it was probably inevitable. He was a black man in white-ruled South Africa, but his American peers fared little better…. All musicians were minnows in the pop-music food chain, but blacks were most vulnerable, and Solomon Linda, an illiterate migrant from a wild and backward place, was totally defenseless against sophisticated predators. Which is not to say that he was cheated. On the contrary, all the deals were perfectly legal. No one forced Linda to sell “Mbube” to Eric Gallo for 10 shillings, at if Gallo turned around and traded it at a profit, So what?

Have you heard the one about Solomon Linda? In 1939 Apartheid South Africa, he and his band, The Evening Birds, recorded a song he called “Mbube,” which means lion. And of course it’s on Youtube today, as is everything. It’s mostly an a capella chant with Linda’s falsetto wail above, but at 2:24, almost the end, he comes out with a series of notes that we recognize as the melody beneath familiar words: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.…” He was paid about ten shillings and signed over his rights to the Gallo publishing company; chances are it was just like that back then, who knows what he was told. The song did quite well in southern African countries, selling 100,000 copies over the next ten years. Linda kept working as a packer in a factory.

In 1948, Pete Seeger was trying to get a folk-singing career going in the US when ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax showed up with a bunch of records of world music, among them, “Mbube.” Seeger liked that. He had no idea what the word was they were singing, but to him it sounded like “Wimoweh” so that’s the song he recorded and sang with the Weavers. Gallo told him it was African folk music, so Folkways bought the publishing rights. Seeger got cancelled by the Red Scare a few years later, but bounced back. To be fair he later learned about Solomon Linda and asked that his own royalties be transferred to the Zulu man. They weren’t.

In the early 60s, a New Jersey doo-wop group called the Tokens heard the Seeger recording and wanted to do the song, but wailing wasn’t going to cut it. Their record company hired Julliard-trained musician George Weiss to write lyrics for the American pop market. The only clue he had was something about lions so he wrote the lyrics that today we associate with Linda’s melody recorded in 1939. The Tokens’ version is the one I remember most clearly.  

Solomon Linda died in 1962. His family couldn’t afford a stone for his grave.

The song showed up on a lot of albums and in a lot of movies until the 90s when Disney put it in The Lion King, and now we’re really off to the races. Solomon Linda’s daughters, living in Soweto, had no idea.

Malan continued to push for some semblance of justice in spite of that signed 10-shilling contract, and found it when the guy who wrote the book on South African intellectual property law remembered a legal maneuver used by Dickens’ family to get some income from the dead author’s work. It worked. Three Zulu sisters went after Disney and won, mostly because Disney didn’t particularly want headlines about their signature Africa-movie taking advantage of an African musician. That’s where the article, expanded from Malan’s original Rolling Stone piece, ends.

To my surprise I found a 2019 documentary on Netflix. ReMastered: The Lion’s Share that features Malan describing the entire journey and a few years beyond the cited article. Whereas the article focused on the musicians – Linda at first, then the others – the documentary is something of The Rian Malan Story. Not that it’s an uninteresting story. Turns out his great-uncle, Daniël François Malan, was the Prime Minister who instituted Apartheid; Malan’s sense of guilt affected the course of his life (much of this is included in various other stories in the collection), and drove him to help this one South African family get its due. Alas, the sisters who eventually were awarded a trust were never sure things were on the up-and-up, though Malan wasn’t able to find any evidence of fraud. That the ending wasn’t entirely happy isn’t a surprise. If everyone had been happy, a screenwriter would’ve turned it into a White Savior film.

Another piece I tried to pay some attention to was “The Body Count,” part of Malan’s reporting on the AIDS crisis. It’s an older piece, from the 90s, so it’s hard to fit into context, but he basically felt the number of deaths, probably the number of cases of AIDS in the region, was exaggerated. He wasn’t saying AIDS wasn’t a horrible problem causing disease and death among South Africans; he certainly wasn’t saying it wasn’t caused by a virus, which was a competing theory at the time, believe it or not. But as best I can tell (and I may be misreading here) he felt the case numbers were arrived at by extrapolating from the number of pregnant women at local clinics. He couldn’t find funerals or caskets or any kind of activity to match the number of deaths being reported. And he seems to have looked very hard. His thoroughness – checking other countries, various economic levels of casket makers, cemeteries in outlying areas – is quite convincing.

His reputation apparently took a hit for that reporting. Again, I don’t have the background to judge one way or the other, but he makes a strong defense for himself. Given all the crap that went on in the US with AIDS, and the even more incredible crap that’s going on right now with COVID, I’m not surprised.

“The Beautiful and the Damned” is a bitterly satirical piece about the 1993 Miss World contest, held in Sun City, South Africa, against the violence attending the political birth of the new Constitution and the shift of power. Miss South Africa, Jacqui Mofokeng, wasn’t the first Black woman to hold her title, but she was the first Black title-holder who didn’t look pretty damn white. Apparently the South African version of talk radio had a field day with that.

Jaqui and I went to the same school, incidentally, a rather expensive private establishment called Woodmead. In my day, Woodmead was whites-only, but it was integrated in the late seventies, in bold defiance of apartheid. Now it’s predominantly black and widely regarded as a model of racial harmony and integration. The headmistress’s office was petrol-bombed by rioting students the other day, but we don’t want to go into that, do we? Nah, fuck it. Let’s party.

Mofokeng came in second to Miss Jamaica, the promoters made their money, and Malan’s story ends there, with a postscript:

By the time this piece hit the newsstands, South Africa’s political factions were tearing one another apart in the worst bloodletting we’d ever seen, and the pessimism evident in my cynical asides seemed entirely prescient. Ninety days later, Nelson Mandela came to power in a miraculously peaceful election, and I wound up looking, as was so often the case, like an idiot.

In spite of my discomfort, I have to hand it to this guy, he can write a story. I appreciate someone who can admit he was wrong and not sound disappointed there wasn’t more bloodshed.

But back to Jacqui Mofokeng. According to Wikipedia, within a few years she started a political career which continued until April 2021 when she, and her daughter, died of COVID.

I feel a bit guilty that I didn’t try harder with this book, but it really defeated me early on. Part of it is that the background changed over time, and part is what he says in his foreword:  it’s a crazy place. But I’m glad I got to know something about Solomon Linda, and when I next hear “Wimoweh” it’s his 1939 version I’ll remember.

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Jeremiah Moss, “Open House” (non-fiction) from N+1 #36

N+1 Art by Amanda C. Mathis: Displacement
It reads like a personal essay if you don’t think about it too much, but it really is research based… there’s multiple section about Instagram and how it’s shaping this.… there’s a fair amount of sourcing, but he doesn’t do it in a really overt way where it’s a giant block quote…. It’s really outward looking, in some ways research reported but also personal. …. A lot of times fiction writers who are writing an essay, it’s got a very narrative frame, like “New person is moving in” and it’s not that at all, it’s much more complicated than that; he’s covering decades here, he’s not interested in one neighbor, he’s interested in thirty years of changing.

Justin St. Germain I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead podcast (edited)

I’ve got to find time to listen to this podcast; it rambles a lot (as all podcasts do, that’s what people love about them, they aren’t speeches) but it contains so much info on different approaches to essay writing.

The essay in question is about gentrification, specifically in New York.

The Great Invasion began sometime in the late 1990s but didn’t really take shape until after September 11. That’s when the new people found the East Village. The new people, the emphatically normal, come from someplace else, the Midwest, the South, but that’s not what makes them invaders. Many of us come from someplace else. I come from someplace else. Move anywhere and you’re potentially interloping. So what is it? How can I talk about the new people and their superpower of invasion? I’m forever grappling with this question, reducing, stereotyping, and then struggling not to be reductive. What I keep coming back to is their apparent belief that their way of living belongs everywhere, that it should trickle down the ladder of power and fill every lower space, scouring and purifying as it goes. Spaces of queerness. Spaces of color. Spaces of marginalization. Spaces of This is our little scrap of somewhere, can’t you just let us have it, oh you who have everywhere? With good reason, colonization and Manifest Destiny are the enduring metaphors of gentrification.

It makes a great read, funny and poignant in turns, with recognizable characters and situations if you’ve lived in a neighborhood for any length of time. I’ve seen a lot of changes in my small city over the past twenty years, some good, some bad. And I do recognize the feeling of being swept out so the more desirable tenants can come in. I’m not sure it adds anything new to the topic; this has been going on forever in New York, traceable through a lot of literature set in the city with parents arriving here especially in the pre-war years and their kids breaking away from their traditions but returning to upgraded housing. But it’s a great way to remind people that the poor have lives and pasts and histories that matter, too, and maybe we should think twice before turning their buildings into condos and townhouses to build up the tax base.

The author is fascinating in himself. Jeremiah Moss is a pseudonym for his writing; Griffin Hansbury became a psychotherapist, writer, and activist whose blog is full of stories about people being pushed aside to make room for people who matter more.

I came in the early 1990s because it made sense for me to be here. I was a young, queer, transsexual poet, and where else would a young, queer, transsexual poet go but to the East Village? Back then the neighborhood still throbbed with its hundred years of counterculture, a dissident history going back to the early anarchists and feminists, up through the bohemians and Beats, the hippies and punks, the poets, queers, and transsexuals too. I had a pair of combat boots and an elite liberal arts education, thanks to a full ride of grants and work-study programs, but not much money. I hail from generations of peasants, washerwomen, and bricklayers, orphans raised by nuns, 12-year-old factory workers, icemen who sang opera while they slung frozen bricks, soldiers, hucksters, and bookmakers, thick-legged Italians and paper-skinned Irish Catholics, most of whom didn’t get to high school and not one of whom saw the inside of a college classroom. I had ambition but didn’t yet understand entitlement…. The East Village was full of people who were bruised like I was bruised, people who weren’t quite pulled together but were trying to make something interesting with their lives. I belonged here. In this neighborhood. In this crumbling tenement.

I find myself with little to say about the piece, mostly because the essay is clear and forceful. I’ll just leave it at that.

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  • The essay is available online at N+1 
  • Author’s website
  • The episode of the podcast I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead referenced above can be found online; the discussion of this essay begins around 58:15

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Jerald Walker, “The Kaleshion” (non-fiction) from Creative Nonfiction #73

Art from LitHub
A particularly high point: Sidestepping all the mayhem, in an essay called “The Kaleshion,” Jerald Walker recounts the perilous path from Afro to Jheri curl to self-administered haircuts, one of the last of which yields a hilarious disaster and a rare and welcome moment of laughter.

Kirkus Review of Pushcart XLVI

I concur with Kirkus Review. Think of this piece as a palate cleanser: having examined – sometimes with a touch of humor – all manner of contemporary and perennial troubles, from climate change to domestic violence to children lost in the economic shuffle to racism, we’re now allowed to laugh out loud. And a satisfying laugh it is, too.

It’s a short piece, and it’s available online (link below) so I’ll let the Kirkus commentary serve as a brief recap. What I am compelled to point out is that, for all it’s narrative drive and humor, there are craft elements that deserve attention. Like, the use of second person voice in nonfiction.

Kaleshion isn’t a word in the dictionary. It’s a word on your barber’s wall, handwritten beneath a photo of a bald head. There are other photos up there with made-up words to identify other haircuts, but your father never selects those, because they require hair. Male preschoolers should not have hair, your father believes; that’s a crime to which he’ll no more be party than to genocide…. What’s the deal with that? You don’t know. All you know is he relaxes his stance in the nick of time, because it’s 1974 and the Afro is king. You grow yours the size of a basketball and swear on your grandmother’s grave that you’ll never get a kaleshion again.
But it’s never a good idea to swear on your grandmother’s grave.

While the instruction manual mode of second person would seem to be the natural way to use the POV, here we’re in narrative mode. The memoir reads more like a fictional story, giving it more of the narrative drive I noticed before (it really keeps you turning pages) while glossing over years in places. The tendency of second person to conflate, or at least slightly confuse, subject, object, and reader, allows the narrator/author to take a step back and foreground the character/author.

This confusion, the exploitable flaw of second person, is emphasized, brought into the narrative in fact, in one scene in particular when Walker, as an adult, goes to a new barber and asks for a trim, but gets something else.

When he spins the chair around, you are surprised to discover the mirror is actually a window, through which you see another man in another barber’s chair staring at you. And yet, somehow, the barber standing behind that man’s chair is also standing behind yours, which means the window isn’t a window and the man is you. It’s amazing the difference a kaleshion can make.

This scene where the second-person “you” mistakes himself as a third-person “him” for a moment is a brilliant way to bring second-person into the story, not just use it as a writing tool.

At the same time, the story evolves in top-notch narrative form to bring in another great craft moment: using humor to highlight tragedy: Walker’s girlfriend doesn’t recognize him, and he fears she’s calling the police, which could lead to… well, you know. While the story never loses a beat, nor drops the amused tone, we’re reminded how the real world permeates even absurdities, to the extent that some readers will start whining, “Why is everything always political with these people?” all of which only makes it sad and funnier at the same moment.

The final anecdote is again hilariously relatable for anyone who’s had a near-catastrophe – coffee spilled on a tie, a broken heel – moments before an important public moment. The ending brings back the confusion of the barber’s chair and makes a point about ego at the same time, then closes with the perfect phrase.

I swore, after I ordered an additional three books the other day, that I wouldn’t buy any more for this year’s In-Between Reading, since I already have far more than I can read in six months. But this essay impressed me so much, from technique to pure enjoyment, I had to order Walker’s 2020 essay collection, The Making of a Slave.  I often get into form, function, and meaning when I look at poetry, but in this essay, it all worked together. I can’t wait to read more.

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  • This essay is available online at the original publisher Creative Nonfiction and as an excerpt from the essay collection at LitHub   
  • Find out more about Walker’s 2020 essay collection, How To Make A Slave

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Debra Gwartney, “Suffer Me To Pass” (non-fiction) from VQR 96.2

Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!
—Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Assault”

Let’s talk about epigraphs.

Typically, an epigraph – a short quote from some other work an author inserts at the beginning of her own piece – is considered a thematic introduction, or perhaps a contrast to the ideas to come. It’s always fun to figure out the connection.

As I read this essay following the portion of the poem above, I kept trying to figure out the connection. Savage beauty: is this a person, an idea, some metaphorical thing? Why is it blocking her path? Ah, there are beer bottles on a hiking trail, is this another ecological piece, a “leave no trace” thing?

But then I encountered, as did the narrator, the man with the hatchet.

But Cheryl kept moving ahead. I didn’t want to follow her and I can’t say why I did, really, but together we came upon a man and a woman atop a slope. The woman saw us and said please. That one word. Please, please. The man had his left arm clamped across her chest and in his right hand he held a hatchet. The shiny blade was poised at her neck, which poked out of her filthy T-shirt like a cherry-red thumb.
I whispered to Cheryl, “Run.” We could be back at my car in a half-hour if we hurried like we’d never hurried before, with me at the wheel, doors locked, Cheryl calling the sheriff. Wouldn’t people with uniforms and guns and squawky radios be better equipped to deal with this? But my friend acted as if she hadn’t heard me and she started talking to the woman on the hill in a voice I could hardly make sense of. Oddly calm, the cadence of a mother to a worried child, the singsong of someone slipping a hand under a wounded rabbit, as if we were a hundred miles from any hatchet-wielding man.

Ok, I get the savage, but where’s the beauty in this scene?

Turns out this was all a kind of prelude. The encounter on the trail was a trigger for Gwartney, a reminder of childhood trauma. Her father hit his other daughters. Never her, but her two younger sisters. As a nine-year-old, she deeply learned a lesson: “Whatever it took, I was never to infuriate the man.”

Her friend Cheryl learned other lessons. She somehow got the man to lower the hatchet, and led his wife away, even as the man followed them to their car where they finally found safety and brought the woman to a haven where she could rebuild her life.

And this then is the core of the essay: we can cling to lessons necessary when we are nine years old and defenseless against the adults in our lives, or we can learn other ways of reacting to violence upon others. We can become defenders, not appeasers. What really drives this home is that Gwartney knows there will be no punishment for the husband who threatened his wife with a hatchet; the state itself has become, worse than an appeaser, a sympathizer, because the state is significantly comprised of men who might one day wish to hatchet their wives. And, as well, who has time to prosecute every abuser.

But what about that epigraph?

Since I am admittedly dense when it comes to poetry, I poked around looking for some analysis. It’s typically seen as a nature-versus-civilization type of thing. The speaker encounters frogs on a path, and while she would like to investigate them further, she’s too timid, and thus begs the Savage Beauty of nature to let her pass, to stay on the path from house to house with no messing around in frog ponds. I found a nice outline of this in a 2015 thesis posted online:

Yet, the woman senses that her anxiety stems not from the elements of nature, such as the “crying of the frogs,” but from her compliance with civilization’s demands as she hurriedly travels from one house to another. The speaker recognizes the absurdity of her fear, and senses that society has tamed her the same way it has tamed natural landscapes. For instance, her complacency within her unnatural social environment exemplifies why she would refer to herself only as “a timid woman,” but this self-depreciation also takes on a sarcastic tone which further suggests a longing for a more natural state.

Jenna Lewis, Master’s candidate, Appalachian State University

The conflict for Gwartney is not nature vs civilization, but appeasement vs defense: the allure of safety envisioned by a nine-year-old versus the courage of an adult.

The poem brings a lot to the essay. The title “Assault” refers to the assault of nature on the speaker, who is too convention-bound to meet it with the abandon it requires. Then there is the editing so that it opens everything with that word, suffer. I learned, in the prior essay “Gutted,” about lyric association, and I would guess this would be an example of that technique, sharpening the impact of the essay on a poetic grindstone.

I’ve never experienced physical abuse of any kind. I don’t think I was even slapped on the playground in a grade-school melee. Yet I’m as paralyzed by observed violence as Gwartney is; my instinct is to run, to call for help from people who are better equipped to deal with such things. This doesn’t necessarily stem from fear, though of course I do feel fear, but more importantly, it stems from the sense that I am incompetent. No matter how bad things are, my involvement will make them worse. The greatest help I can give anyone is to keep far away.

We all learn different things. Like Gwartney, I wish I had learned to be Cheryl. And now, like her, I fear it is too late.

*  *  *     

  • This essay can be found online at VQR
  • Read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem in its entirety
  • The thesis quoted above, “The Worlds Of Edna St. Vincent Millay,” is posted online

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Cathryn Klusmeier, “Gutted” (non-fiction) from Agni #91

Photograph by Cathryn Klusmeier
You definitely can miss it, I think, when you read it, in a way I think is kind of great. I ended this essay shook, because she’s a good writer and both of the stories are hellagood stories to tell. A woman on this kind of a boat, catching fish in this kind of a way, is a story itself, and this family story… in a pile of very well-written things that I’m learning are parts of everybody’s lives, there’s something about the thing that looks nothing like that, it just sticks in your head.

Elena Passarello, I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead podcast (edited)

Although I primarily read it for the short stories, I’ve always found the non-fiction in Pushcart to be great reading. No matter what the topic – writers’ experiences, the history of bathing, bell ringing, people living at a highway rest stop – I almost always find myself engaged. And most of the pieces usually go beyond their apparent topics into broader concerns.

So when this essay started out describing the gritty details of commercial salmon fishing, I figured I’d find myself interested in something I’d never really thought about before. And given a fairly direct clue at the end of the first sentence, I knew it would connect to something else, something far more emotionally gutting, if I may borrow from the highly apt title.

When the salmon aren’t biting—which is a lot of the time—Eric and I sit with blood caked on our faces and talk about neon squid lures and diesel engine mechanics and my father’s unraveling brain. As we wait—and even when the fishing is good, we do a lot of waiting—we talk about wind speeds and water temperatures. We talk about gaff hooks and hydraulic gurdies. We wax poetic about properly sharpened filet knives and salted herring threaded on barbed treble hooks. Every morning from May through September we rise at first light to discuss the state of the tides, the swells, the current. We talk about how much sleep we haven’t gotten, how much food we have left. We discuss very seriously the right angle to place the knife so it glides down the salmon’s belly just so. We never talk about how bad the other person smells….
Living and working every day, often sixteen hours at a time, on a two-person, thirty-seven-foot commercial salmon fishing boat in Southeast Alaska is like this. It’s work that lasts all day, every day, seven days a week, for five months straight.

Just when I’m getting into the whole “I’m a fish-killer” thing, wondering just how long I could stand that kind of life (I’d measure in minutes, not months or years), Klusmeier introduces her father: he’s being kicked out of one hospital because he’s violent, so they’ve had to find another, a good one, the last one on the list, but it’s far away so they won’t be able to visit very often. I’m still not 100% sure I know exactly what he’s got: mental illness, dementia, an inoperable brain tumor pressing on his frontal lobe? But what is clear is that he isn’t the father Klusmeier knew, and they’re running out of options, having long run out of money.

Then I read something chilling: this started a long time ago.

I was fourteen the first time my father asked me to kill him. He was forty-eight. “Should the worst happen, I need you to have someone take me out and shoot me. Please, make sure I don’t stay alive. It’s too hard on you. If something happens to me, don’t keep me alive,” he said to me. “I’m asking you. Please.”
…[B]y the time we finally got the whispered early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis it didn’t matter anymore. We had to start making decisions for him. End-of-life care, they call it. And nobody knew what he wanted, and he certainly couldn’t tell us, but I did. I knew. He’d told me exactly what he wanted. He asked me to kill him again two more times after that first day in the street—once when I was sixteen, another a year later. He wanted it to be easy. He wanted it to be fast. He wanted it simple and clean. It was none of those things, of course. I’m not sure it ever is.

I’m guessing that forty-eight year old men don’t tell their fourteen-year-old daughters to kill them if the worst happens, unless they have some inkling that the worst is happening. Alzheimer’s, even the early-onset variety,  can be insidious, and take a long time to progress. Then again, it could be he’d just read an article about some tragic family and wanted to make sure she knew his preferences. I’m not sure a fourteen-year-old has much standing with doctors when deciding end-of-life care, but it’s a conversation more of us should be having within our families. I have a packet of living-will documents sitting on my coffee table; it’s been there a while, I’m just trying to figure out who the two witnesses should be. But I’m a lot older than forty-eight. And every time I can’t remember the word I want, I think about that packet.

You might be wondering what this has to do with salmon fishing. Just in time, Klusmeier tells us:

It’s a hollow sound, the dull conk that makes the wild eyes of a thrashing Chinook go soft. It’s not a tap, it’s a conk. And this distinction is important. A good hollow swinging conk to the temple with a gaff hook quells a salmon in the water. It kills her immediately. Too much force, one loud thwack, and you’ve lost her. You’ve knocked her off the line….
The conk is important, but it took me years to understand why Eric kept harping on it. Why he kept yelling over the drone of the engine, “Don’t tap it, conk it! Listen! Don’t tap it! CONK.”
Because it’s not really for us, that sound. Sure, a good conk is the most efficient way to kill a fish. If a salmon dies in the water, you’re less likely to lose it to a struggle at the boat. It’s quick, you can move on to other lines with other fish. But most importantly, the fish dies immediately. They exit this world before ever leaving the water.

Do you see the connection to Alzheimer’s – the disease sometimes called “The Long Goodbye” – now? It isn’t just salmon that are gutted in this essay. The writer, the subject, and the reader also find themselves experiencing that hollow sensation of being sucker-punched by an unavoidable reality, the kind of pain that love sometimes costs, to make sure we know its worth.

That would have been enough for any essay to deliver. But in googling around to see if there was more information out there, I discovered I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead: a podcast by two writing professors, essay specialists.  Their comments on this essay provided the introductory quote above, as well as a discussion of and how this piece managed to tie together two very different stories without using a lot of connective tissue.

There is no connective commentary; there is resonance in between the two, but it’s all implied, not explicit. Even the resonances are a little subtle… I was worrying about what was going on in the family narrative, and also so compelled by the details of the fish narrative, the resonance was so buried, I was holding on through the story telling. I don’t think I experience this very often in braided essays…. I’m interested in how the writer made that work.

Elena Passarello, I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead podcast (edited)

I’ll return for Justin St. Germain’s comments on “Open House” later when I’ve read that essay. They also compared the current Pushcart edition with Best American Essays in this episode. I’ve never read BAE but the comparison fit with my impressions of Pushcart vs Best American Short Stories: BASS tends to be more commercial and mainstream, while Pushcart tends to push the envelope more.  That’s fine with me; I love both of them for what they are.

But what really blew me away was their more academic discussion of the lyric essay, the use of lyric association, and image links, all of which were new concepts to me. I feel like I snuck into a course on Writing the Essay and came away with a lot of secrets. I spent at least an hour looking into academic essays on these topics, and while I don’t quite have it down, I at least know where the ballpark is.

I’m not really a podcast person; I don’t commute or run which seems to be when most people listen to podcasts, and while I’ll go through twenty-four hours of Yale’s OCW lecture videos or dozens of mooc videos, accompanied by their transcripts, without any problem, I have trouble maintaining attention to audio-only feeds. But I think I’ll make an effort to listen to this one, given how much I got out of one episode. And now that I’ve discovered that Elena was a Jeopardy contestant – well, I’m going to learn to listen to podcasts.

This is why I love Pushcart non-fiction: you never know where you’ll end up, but you’re almost sure to enjoy the ride – even when it breaks your heart along the way.

*  *  *     

  • This essay can be found online at Agni  
  • The episode of the podcast I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead reference here can be found online; the discussion of this essay begins around 1:05:00
  • Cathryn Klusmeier’s website

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Jennifer Bowen Hicks, “Night Cows” (nonfiction) from The Sun, August 2020

The Icelandic Forestry Service is encouraging people to hug trees while social distancing measures prevent them from hugging other people, RÚV reports. Forest rangers in the Hallormsstaður National Forest in East Iceland have been diligently clearing snow-covered paths to ensure that locals can enjoy the great outdoors without coming in too close a contact with other guests, but can also get up close and personal with their forest friends. “When you hug [a tree], you feel it first in your toes and then up your legs and into your chest and then up into your head,” enthuses forest ranger Þór Þorfinnsson. “It’s such a wonderful feeling of relaxation and then you’re ready for a new day and new challenges.”

Iceland Review 4/10/2020: “Forest Service Recommends Hugging Trees While You Can’t Hug Others”

Many of us took up new habits and activities during the pandemic. Flour disappeared from store shelves as sourdough baking soared. A rush of creativity gave us all various musical collaborations, some window-to-window, some over TikTok. I bought houseplants for the first time in twenty years; there were a couple of failures, but most of them are lush and bountiful today.

Hicks made friends with a herd of cows. Especially one named 3214.

The cows showed up just as the world began to end. They were there when I returned to Minnesota from Manhattan, where I’d gone to pick up my older son after his spring 2020 college semester had been canceled…. Number 3214 is the one I look for. She’s not the softest or the sleekest. She doesn’t have the biggest eyes. On the bridge of her forehead, where most of the cows have black fur, she has a thick swirl of dirty white. She is bony, and her coat has lost its shine. But isn’t it always the case that we can’t help but love those who seem to love us? I make this bold claim because 3214 — “Fourteen,” for short — recognizes me, or so it seems. She moves to the front of the herd deliberately and looks right at me, as if trying to hold eye contact.

I’m still not completely clear on where the cows came from – I gather they were delivered to a nearby university – but it doesn’t matter. It’s this odd connection in an odd time that feels so genuine to those of us who also had some odd connections.

Hicks was dealing with a great deal at the time. She worried about the students in her writing class at the nearby prison, students at great risk she was now unable to  contact. She had drive a fair distance to pick up her son when his college closed for spring semester, and also pick up his ex-girlfriend – a “bonus daughter” she calls her – to shelter in place with her. The girl came down with symptoms soon after, then recovered. Hicks’ divorce became final.  So if she found comfort in Fourteen, who’s to blame her.

It’d one of those oddly appealing nature-adjacent non-nature essays The Sun likes to publish, a way of reminding us how connected we are to the natural world no matter how cosmopolitan we think we are. In Iceland they hugged trees. Why not make friends with a cow.

It’s the first piece in this collection that overtly addresses the pandemic. I don’t know if there will be more this year, or next. Or what we’ll be doing next year. Never has time felt more capricious. But there’s sourdough to make, plants to water, trees to hug, and cows to pet, music and art to share, until then.

*  *  *   

  • Essay is available online for a limited time at The Sun

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Dennis Held, “What I’ll Miss” (non-fiction) from Terrain, November 2020

Maybe I should have eaten more Chicken in a Biskit; should have used the air conditioner in the car more often; should have had more shrimp, and more bacon; gone back once more to the ocean; kept and loved one more dog.
The languid, heady, Southern smell of honey locust blossoms in the spring: I’ll miss that. Gardening, turning the soil. Tomatoes and peas, sunflowers. And beets: who knew I’d learn to love beets late in my life?
Until recently, I did not know that they make chocolate pound cake—now I’m going to miss that; that it’s really simple to spray WD-40 into a car lock, and it will work better; that there are two different spellings of “discreet” and “discrete.” I did not know what it would feel like to have a definite end.

A while back, a Pushcart story was based on the author’s loss of her son. I copied a few paragraphs, mentioned the context, and exited: “[Y]ou don’t analyze someone’s sacrament.” I hesitate here for the same reason.

But I’ll try – very briefly – because it’s a piece worth reading, emotional impact aside. Held confronts his terminal cancer diagnosis (as far as I can tell, he’s still with us) with straightforward honesty, lyric observations about the wonders of life, and a touch of humor. It’s a sweet read, with an enigmatic ending.

So now it’s slow and steady and we’ll all try to get through this with some grace and decorum. One thing I know—wait, what was that thing? I’ll keep you posted.

May I have this grace. May we all.

*  *  *     

  • This essay is available online at Terrain
  • The author reads his essay on Spokane Public Radio

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Rebecca Cadenhead, “My First Blood” (nonfiction) from The Harvard Advocate, Spring 2020

Cadenhead’s philosophy about keeping an open mind and trying new things rings true to her journey throughout school and her plans for the future. While the senior was accepted to Harvard University, she opted to take a year off before attending the prestigious school in 2019.
“I felt kind of burnt out,” she said. “I really want to travel and take a break from being strictly academic.”
With plans for the next year undecided, she said she’ll go anywhere in the world that will allow her to volunteer her time, experience new things and become a certified sea instructor.
“I’d really do anything as long as it involved building things. I just want to experience life,” Cadenhead said. “I think that would be a great time to see and do things I’ve never done before especially because I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I’d rather figure out what I want to do before I go to school.”

2018 Hudson Independent article reviewing Cadenhead’s accomplishments in high school and her decision to take a gap year before college.

While the high school accomplishments listed in the above article included interning at Marvel Comics, studying satellites with NASA, two different medical research projects, and performances on violin, harp, and viola, it is her trip to Patagonia that she reflects on in this wide-ranging essay that considers the relationship between ecology, psychology, class, and race.

And how does she begin?

I’m watching a cat drink out of a bowl of blood.
A few minutes ago, I was taught how to slaughter a lamb, which is the source of the blood. The lamb’s carcass, still fresh on the table, is leaking bodily fluids out of both ends onto the concrete floor. Blood is still dripping out of its neck into a bowl, where the cat waits to lap it up. It’s red, poppy-red, so bright it seems fake. I’m starting to feel like I’m hallucinating.
I’m playing at butcher as a sort of cultural experience. This is not without some irony. By the time my grandfather was my age, he had killed countless chickens; when you grow up as a sharecropper, it’s an essential skill. He showed me how to do it once, miming instead of using a live bird. You grab the chicken by the neck and twist sharply, until you snap the vertebrae. Today, he goes to Walmart to buy Vienna sausages, and his granddaughter has to travel over five thousand miles to see something he would’ve considered standard. Progress, I guess.
I’m doing a backpacking expedition in Chilean Patagonia with an outdoor education program. My group mostly consists of the kind of American and European teens who are disaffected enough to disappear into the woods for over a month, but wealthy enough to do it on another continent.

This isn’t Outward Bound, where misbehaving youth are sent to endure tough love and straighten themselves out; this is a gentler kind of exposure to the elements and reality as an exploration of the world to understand one’s place in it. Ecological tourism, it’s sometimes called. And Cadenhead isn’t excusing herself from anything. Notice that, while she makes critiques of the group, she doesn’t hold herself separate from it. She mostly uses “we,” not “they” when highlighting the ironies of this group of rich kids roughing it.

I think they might be on a mission to change us, too. While we’re here, they announce on the first day, we will Leave No Trace. We will act like we want to erase our existence. Unfortunately, we are never very good at this; throughout the trip, we trample endangered plant species, accidentally spill soap into sensitive freshwater environments, and secretly dump our food waste onto the forest floor.
Maybe Leave No Trace requires more significant unlearning than Felipe and Carolina imagined. American thought isn’t predicated on such ideas of limitation and restraint. As a culture, we rarely challenge the notion that Americans should take what they want.

She makes the point that it is people from highly industrialized nations – mostly of the northern hemisphere – that produce most of the greenhouse gasses, while it’s the people of the southern hemisphere who are right now feeling its most brutal effects in terms of weather, drought, and famine. That “the same forces that preserve this place will eventually destroy it.” She notes her own behavior contributes to this.

And yet, she also notes differences between herself and the others:

I immediately notice that I’m the only black person in this group. I’m also one of only a few girls. On our first night, we sleep in tents segregated by gender: one for the girls, three for the boys. Perhaps if I were different, I would have the freedom some of these boys seem to possess; they walk like where they step doesn’t matter. I, meanwhile, have been raised to ward against the danger of mistakes.

How many times do we see this play out in the headlines. A girl at a party makes the mistake of having one too many drinks; a boy at the party makes the mistake of raping her, that is, having sex with her while she is unable to protest. The judge declares the boy should not spend his life punished for a mistake, while the girl needs to learn how to behave responsibly. My boss once complained bitterly about receiving a ticket for rolling through a stop sign at 6am on his way to the gym, apparently unaware that if he were a Black man in another state – or a Black woman named Sandra Bland – he could have ended up dead instead of paying a fine for what was, in fact, illegal behavior. But some people believe they are good, and their trivial illegalities shouldn’t be held against them. I believe several world leaders fall into this category at the moment. Others are held to account for making faces, backtalk, and wearing their hair in a particular way.

Cadenhead tells the story of her two grandfathers, one who served in Vietnam to escape sharecropping, and one who went to Harvard and met the professor who invented Napalm. “Fieser later remarked, ‘I have no right to judge the morality of Napalm just because I created it.’” I’m not sure that’s the question that needs to be asked of him, but all right, some people can just sidestep responsibility.

She ends with the feast of the lamb whose slaughter began the piece:

Later, the lamb is served for dinner. It is a great success. Everyone eats it, including the girls who left the shed. Including me. The only exceptions are Felipe and Carolina, who are both vegans. As I chew on the meat, I contemplate my weakness. Fucking conformist, I hiss. You’d do anything to blend in.
But I was just trying to survive, I whimper.
Maybe that’s not quite true, though. Survival is different from the path of least resistance. I make a mental tally of the major actions of my life; did I do them because I had to, or because I wanted to? I wanted to, I realize. The thought is unpleasant. I’m in Patagonia because I want to be. I’m going to Harvard because I want to. I have been taking and taking and taking my whole life, mostly just because I can.

A brief coda shows the changes she’s made since the trip, mostly using less carboniferous transportation, and how the lamb stays with her. For those of us for whom the film Silence of the Lambs was a cinematic high point, the image is striking, but she never mentions it, perhaps because the film isn’t part of her consciousness. Or perhaps because she doesn’t need to mention it; she leaves it to the reader to bring it in. And if the title evokes Rambo – or menstruation – that may or may not belong to the reader as well.

I can see so many reasons this essay – written when she was still a teenager, I believe – is Pushcart material. Structurally, she opens and closes with a dramatic event; I happen to like this closing-the-circle technique. In terms of content, she begins with a striking image that remains in the mind throughout, and long after reading, an image that she relates to the more thematic elements. Those thematic elements take the personal to the universal, from this teenager to how much of the world works and where the problems are with that. The honesty with which she faces her participation in climate change is impressive. The essay spans time, from the past – her family – to the present, to the possible future, as she indicates some changes she has made since returning. And, by the way, she now writes for the Harvard Crimson; one of her columns reflects on the challenge of choosing responsible vegan products, so she has followed through.

It’s a great essay, because for all those bullet points from Expository Writing 101, it’s a pleasure to read. I expect – I hope – to see a lot more from her as time goes on.

*  *  *     

  • This essay is available online at The Harvard Advocate
  • Hudson Independent article reviewing Cadenhead’s accomplishments in high school and her decision to take a gap year
  • Cadenhead’s articles for The Crimson

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Richard Hoffman, “Remembering the Alchemists” (non-fiction) from Consequence #12

Image from Seattle Artists League webpage
In the essay I ask this question: “What does it mean to be the foremost arms dealer in the world? The health of our American economy presently depends upon the murder of other human beings. How did we get here? When did we make this deal with the devil? How long have we been addicted to this poison?”

Richard Hoffman, online blog

If a theme is emerging in the early part of this volume, it’s more of a list, a Hit Parade of Contemporary Issues that keep (some of) us up at night. And now for your reading pleasure, an essay on gun violence, from neighborhood shootings and children accidentally shooting themselves to global warfare.

If I sound a bit peeved, it’s not because I have any dispute with the article. I’m just tired of reading another analysis, another examination of the problem, in the absence of any solution.

The title comes from a poem:

In the early 1970s, with the exuberance and promise of the antiwar movement and counter-culture turning to disillusion, the poet Charles Simic asked the question I am circling here:   Poem Without A Title
  I say to the lead
Why did you let yourself
Be cast into a bullet?
Have you forgotten the alchemists?
Have you given up hope
In turning into gold?
  Nobody answers.
Lead. Bullet. With names
Such as these
The sleep is deep and long.

The incidents Hoffman includes will break your heart. Again. And again. And we deserve the heartbreak, because we will not change.

As I started writing this post, the article was available at Consequence magazine. It appears it no longer is. I have no idea how to interpret this (maybe they, like other print magazines, make articles available briefly on a rotating basis, and its turn was up), but it just adds to my frustration.

*  *  *  

  • Author’s blog post about the essay, quoted above.
  • Smithsonian Article about Basil Zaharoff, “an arms salesman who made a career out of selling to both sides in a conflict”

Brandy Schillace: Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher (S&S 2021) [IBR2021]

Experimental surgery always carries with it both “can” and “should”: the philosophical question of whether a thing ought to be tried at all. Transplant isn’t just about practical medicine; it involves questions about bodies and souls — the animating principle, however you define it. What is a meaningful life? Who decides it’s worth and value? Who decides when it ends?…. Transplant surgery asks hard questions about where the body ends and we begin. Who are we? Where are we? And what, for better or worse, does that mean for the future of bodies, brains, and the human soul?

I’m of two minds about this book (Ms. Thoughtful Reader and Madame Ranting Critic, if you will). I enjoyed it greatly; I’ve had a lot of trouble finding medical nonfiction aimed at the general reader over the past couple of decades, and this was full of technical details at just the right level. And, wonder of wonders, it was written with great narrative drive; I really had to finish many sections, though I had other things to do and other places to be. So it was a very good book.

Because it’s a good book, I’m quite disappointed in what seems to me to be an attempt to jack it up with the title’s reference to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as the overhyped subtitle: “A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul.” These elements evoke an image of a staid doctor by day who goes rogue in his basement at night on some semi-psychotic pseudo-religious quest. That is not at all the case. According to the text, Dr. Robert White was a talented surgeon in good standing all his life, a devout Catholic who was invited to an audience with the Holy Father after a neuroscience conference on transplants, and conducted all of his research in a university hospital under laws and norms of the time. There’s no secret here, no hidden cabal with twisted motives. In spite of the frequent references to Dr. Frankenstein, often by Dr. White himself, there is simply a surgeon hoping that transplanting a brain – or, more accurately, transplanting a healthy body to a patient’s head when the body is failing – would save lives.

Ok, so it isn’t simple. It isn’t simple at all. But that’s what makes it interesting.

After a brief introduction to Dr. White, Schillace takes us to the world’s first kidney transplant in 1954. Dr. White is in the gallery, observing, and begins to form the ideas that will propel him throughout his career. I found the medical details of this historic surgery, and the surgeries that led to it, fascinating; those with less of an interest in what I airly refer to as “medical stuff” may be less entranced. In any case, it serves as a beginning to Dr. White’s story.

One of the more interesting philosophical issues raised throughout the book is the location of the soul. This has been pondered since people were people, and some of the history is given here. It was Dr. White’s belief “that all of the so-called human element resided in the brain as a soul,” both that which he believed survived after death, and the consciousness, the individual personhood.

The soul need not have a physical structure that we can detect, he explained, because it existed in “the fourth dimension.” We must look beyond a mind-body relationship, he insisted, and understand the more philosophically complex mind-soul-body relationship…. This strange metaphysical connection, in all its complexity, he called “the White principle.” Science demanded proof. Catholicism required faith. White never considered them opposed, but as he aged, he went further in trying to unite them through his own philosophical doctrine.

He also believed that animals did not possess souls. Whether that was theologically-based, or convenient, is unclear. But from the moment he heard a Russian Soviet doctor had transplanted a second head onto a dog – resulting in an ultimately disappointing visit to Moscow –  he knew he had to research brain transplants. And that meant dogs. And monkeys.

The experiments are described in detail, and can be hard to read for those of us who have loved our pets and never questioned their ensouledness. Much of the book concerns this battle between animal rights activists – from the fledgling PETA to Peter Singer – and medical research. For Dr. White, it was clear: his animal research saved human lives. He had specific patients he’d saved using techniques he’d developed in the lab on monkeys. He was eventually nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in hyperthermia,  the discovery that cooling the brain reduces metabolism and so allows it to go without oxygen, as in major cardiovascular surgeries, for longer periods of time. But the epithet Dr. Butcher arose for a reason (Mr. Humble was his own self-generated epithet).

His dream was, of course, to transplant a human head. His dream subject would have been Stephen Hawking or Christopher Reeve. It isn’t until fairly late in the book that we discover the catch: no, he hadn’t discovered the secret to reconnecting the spinal cord. Mr. Reeve’s head would have sat atop an equally paralyzed body. This makes the idea of a head transplant seem rather questionable, and is a good reason he never got that far.

However, the book goes on to cover more recent research into the brain-body connection via computer chips. Grey’s Anatomy viewers are familiar with those. There are ways to bypass the spinal cord and control devices, including prosthetics and computer consoles, by thoughts, and some progress has been made in controlling muscles. This would make Dr. White’s head transplant far more useful. But it’s still years away, and Dr. White didn’t live to see it. It is nonetheless a truly fascinating section of the book.

Schillace maintains a non-judgmental tone as she presents White’s work, allowing readers to make up their own minds about his research and larger questions of animal rights, the soul, and transplants. Dr. White’s enthusiasm and his motivation of saving lives are equally strong as the voices of his critics.

I discovered this book through the FiveBooks weekly “What are you reading this weekend?” thread. It was an impulse addition to this year’s in-between reading, and a successful one.  

Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures (William Morrow 2016) [IBR2021]

Even if the tale had begun and ended with the first five black women who went to work at Langley’s segregated west side in May 1943—the women later known as the “West Computers”—I still would have committed myself to recording the facts and circumstances of their lives. Just as islands—isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity—have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling.

I’d wanted to see the film version of this book, but for various reasons that never happened. So when someone recently mentioned it, I added it to my reading list, another “unusual career paths” book like others I’ve read before. It’s not that the careers are that unusual, but as the author says, the circumstances made them notable.

I was surprised to find out that the story of these women, the West Computers, started during WWII, when NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, predecessor to NASA, worked on warplane design. Reducing drag seems to have been the biggest problem. Though different types of planes – bombers, fighter planes, transports – had very different requirements. 

Of course, the technical information, though interesting, isn’t the focus of the book. NACA was located at Langley in Virginia, a state where segregation was still law. Hence, the West Computers; the East Computers were the white women who did the same job, in a different building.

I kept reacting to the word “Computers” being used to denote people. I have a dictionary that was published in the 30s; I knew a long time ago that it defines “computer” as “one who computes,” so it’s not a new usage to me, but it still sounds strange. Then again, a lot of the language in the book, the language of the time and place, has an even stronger effect, as the battlefield against racial discrimination took place in strange ways:

Most groups sat together [in the lunchroom] out of habit. For the West Computers, it was by mandate. A white cardboard sign on a table in the back of the cafeteria beckoned them, its crisply stenciled black letters spelling out the lunchroom hierarchy: COLORED COMPUTERS. It was the only sign in the West Area cafeteria; no other group needed their seating proscribed in the same fashion. … It was Miriam Mann who finally decided it was too much to take. “There’s my sign for today,” she would say upon entering the cafeteria, spying the placard designating their table in the back of the room. Not even five feet tall, her feet just grazing the floor when she sat down, Miriam Mann had a personality as outsized as she was tiny. The West Computers watched their colleague remove the sign and banish it to the recesses of her purse, her small act of defiance inspiring both anxiety and a sense of empowerment. The ritual played itself out with absurd regularity. The sign, placed by an unseen hand, made the unspoken rules of the cafeteria explicit. When Miriam snatched the sign, it took its leave for a few days, perhaps a week, maybe longer, before it was replaced with an identical twin, the letters of the new sign just as blankly menacing as its predecessor’s.

This process of removing the sign, waiting for it to show up again went on for quite a while before whoever placed the sign gave up. The women still sat at the same table, but the stigma, the shame, was gone.

Race wasn’t the only issue, of course. Women who worked with engineers on extended projects wouldn’t be credited on reports, the public recognition of their expertise. “Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all” muses Shetterly.  

Then there was the question of attending an important weekly meeting. Katherine Goble asked to attend the meeting; she was refused. She asked again the next time, and again was turned down. Eventually, she was allowed in, and, wonder of wonders, the sky didn’t fall. Persistence once again paid off. But it was never a given: “Whether or not a woman was promoted, if she was given a raise, if she had access to the smoky sessions where the future was being conceived and built, had much to do with the prejudices and predilections of the men she worked for.”

The story is carried along a broad outline of history that intersects with both the mission of NACA/NASA and the Civil Rights movement. WWII, breaking the  sound barrier, school segregation (one county in Virginia closed its schools rather than comply with integration), Sputnik and the space race, and voting rights, all blend together. John Glenn’s orbit and safe splashdown became a turning point for Katherine Johnson, who undertook the assignment of figuring out how to make sure the capsule ended up near the ship that would recover Glenn:

“In the recovery of an artificial earth satellite it is necessary to bring the satellite over a preselected point above the earth from which the reentry is to be initiated,” she wrote. Equation 3 described the satellite’s velocity. Equation 19 fixed the longitude position of the satellite at time T. Equation A3 accounted for errors in longitude. Equation A8 adjusted for Earth’s west-to-east rotation and oblation. She conferred with Ted Skopinski, consulted her textbooks, and did her own plotting. Over the months of 1959, the thirty-four-page end product took shape: twenty-two principal equations, nine error equations, two launch case studies, three reference texts (including Forest Ray Moulton’s 1914 book), two tables with sample calculations, and three pages of charts.

A woman receiving credit for her own work was almost as big a deal as the successful recovery using her work. It’s quite a joyous chapter.

And yet, it’s not so much the story itself as the very telling of the story that I keep thinking of. I’d certainly never heard of these women. It seems they did a fair amount of public speaking, but national recognition never came their way until a chance comment moved Shetterly to interview some of the women and research the book in order to tell the story. This is the importance of diversity, of access, of different voices in the room. As Shetterly says in her Epilogue:

Most people are astonished that a history with such breadth and depth, involving so many women and linked directly to the twentieth century’s defining moments, has flown below the radar for so long. ….For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies. …For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we’ve believed to be true, that we want with our entire beings to be true, but that we don’t always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America.

The history that spans from the personal to the national to the scientific makes this interesting reading for a broad audience. That may be why there’s also a Young Reader’s edition and a Teacher’s Guide, as well as the film. But I was perfectly happy with the original.

Kathleen Flinn: The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry (Penguin, 2007) [IBR2021]

This is not for pretend.
As we’ve done three or four times a week since January, my Basic Cuisine class gathered this morning en masse, on time and in uniform. We first watched a chef move through a three hour demonstration; we anxiously take notes, as we must repeat his lesson in a training kitchen later. This afternoon, I’m searing thick magrets de canard for a classic preparation of duck à l’orange. Magrets are the breasts of Moulard ducks force-fed corn to fatten their livers for foie gras, a process that fattens everything on the duck. We must take care with the sauce, a slightly complicated preparation that requires cautious reduction of veal stock and orange juice, the sweetness tempered with vinegar. Our potatoes and carrots must be “turned” – a cut that transforms an otherwise unremarkable vegetable into a precise seven-sided torpedo shape.
This is my life now.

Kathleen Flinn, food enthusiast and journalist turned software manager, found herself merged out of her upscale corporate job in London. She considered returning to the States, but instead, with the advice of her long-time-friend-turned-recent-boyfriend Mike, decided to do what any level-headed person would do under the circumstances: she cashed in her 401K and plopped down $26,000 to take a three-part Cuisine course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “I don’t know that I want to be a chef, or that I particularly want to work in the food industry when I am done with my training…. I just know that going to Le Cordon Bleu is something I have to do,” she wrote in her application’s “statement of motivation.”

It would be easy to ridicule that step, but I get it. No one understands why I spend time reading stories and books, then writing about them in a blog no one reads, or why I spend so much time and effort taking moocs of no practical use whatsoever. The price tag may be a little different, but I get the power of internal motivation.

I got this book on impulse after I saw it mentioned in my Goodreads feed. I didn’t have any “weird career/educational move” books on my list for this year’s In-Between Reading, and I’d enjoyed the art school book, the trucking book, the football-player-turned-mathematician book from prior years. So I added it in.

My first thought was:  This book really wants to be Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia, with a fired marketing manager heading to Le Cordon Bleu played against Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina. But the timing doesn’t fit; Flinn’s time in Paris roughly overlaps with the time Powell was writing her book, and was published before the movie (one of my favorites, by the way) was released. In my view, it suffered from the comparison, but that’s my failure, not the book’s.

Flinn goes through three levels of Cuisine (the savory side, as opposed to pastries and desserts): Basic, Intermediate, and Superior. She describes her struggles to produce the dishes required:

I put together several little vols-au-vent. They look as if a kindergartener put them together with Play-Doh. I agonize over my leeks to cut them into a perfect julienne. Then, I work on my eggs. We must make them the classic way, by dropping them in simmering water with vinegar and, with a ladle, wrap the egg white around the yolk as it cooks. Poached eggs should look like shiny, smooth parcels. Mine look like gnarled creatures from a horror film. As I finish the last egg, a strong burning smell hits me, a mix of burned grass and onions. I forgot my leeks. They’ve burned to black.

There’s a hilarious story of a duck dropped on the floor, and the decision to serve it anyway. Flinn even took it home with her after grading (permitted, even encouraged, so no food would be wasted) and the leftovers for her own dinner. “Don’t eat the skin,” she advises her boyfriend.

By the time she gets to Superior Cuisine, more is expected:

“La sauce n’est pas chaude,” says chef du Pont. He holds his wrist to the plate and looks at me with alarm. “L’assiette n’est pas chaude.” He waves me away. “Nous sommes finis.” How could I be so stupid? I’d forgotten to heat my plate – an utterly simple thing that I’ve learned the first day in . “We’re finished,” he says, ending his critique abruptly. He doesn’t taste anything. But for this, I can not blame him. In Basic Cuisine or even Intermediate, I might have gotten marked down for a cold plate. But in Superior Cuisine, it’s inexcusable.

Each chapter ends with a recipe based on the dish from class, or a thematically related dish. From simple veggie soup to pastry-wrapped fish and delicate sauces, there’s a lot of food info here.

There’s a lot more as well. During class, chefs relate various trinkets of information: the history of the word and entity restaurant (based on the French for restorative, meaning soup), and the origins of the term cordon bleu (a medal given to honored knights; it became associated with grand food when banquets were thrown in their honor). Flinn also explores Paris and relates her experiences, not just at markets and restaurants, but in various neighborhoods and, eerily, in the catacombs created in the late 18th century when the contents of graveyards were consolidated in underground quarries.

There’s also some rumination on wider implications of various aspects of her experience:

Who decides what is quality cuisine anyway? Some of the sauces we learned in Basic were once thought daring, revolutionary. The unusual combinations we’re learning in superior are trendy; unconventional pairings with classic technique are common on haute-cuisine menus. But it makes me wonder more about the general nature of evolution. We can reinvent anything, even ourselves, and some things will change, but in the end, something familiar always remains.

We also see, through Flinn’s eyes, the other students – Le Cordon Bleu attracts an international student body – including a super-competitive woman who’d been a lawyer before coming to the school. Flinn wonders if her attitude is acquired of necessity in the corporate world, where creativity and cooperativity take second place to “winning.”

I was surprised at how resistant I was to the occasional appearance of what I perceived as Hallmark Card sentimentality. At one point, after working on her consommé to get the right degree of clarity, Flinn writes, “I consider how wonderful it would be to toss some hamburger, egg whites, and tomatoes into the soup of life. Suddenly, everything which we clear and the purpose of it all would be revealed,” and I wrote in the margins, “Oh, please.” I’ve been reading too much edgy fiction and academic nonfiction, perhaps, nudging my reading style into a kind of intolerant cynicism. I’ve got to keep an eye on that. A little skepticism is fine, but I don’t want to start sneering at felt words from genuine hearts, whether I feel them or not.

Flinn has since written two other food-related books, gives classes (online during the pandemic), and hosts a podcast, all available via her website. I’d say she put her education to good use, if not in the most typical fashion. And she’s earned that cherished line in her obituary: “Graduated from Le Cordon Bleu.”

Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On (St. Martin, 1987/QPBC 1993) [IBR2021]

People died while Reagan administration officials ignored pleas from government scientists and did not allocate adequate funding for AIDS research until the epidemic had already spread throughout the country. People died while scientists did not at first devote appropriate attention to the epidemic because they perceived little prestige to be gained in studying a homosexual affliction . . .
People died while public health authorities and the political leaders who guided them refused to take the tough measures necessary to curb the epidemic’s spread, opting for political expediency over the public health.
And people died while gay community leaders played politics with the disease, putting political dogma ahead of the preservation of human life.
… It is a tale worth telling, so that it will ever happen again, to any people, anywhere.

When I first read this book back in the 90s, I was most interested in the medical aspects, and secondarily in the politics. Over the years, I became quite fond of some of the people who appear within – and enraged with others. Because, although this is a work of journalism filled with details of budget battles and political wrangling, it’s also an engaging narrative, using recurring motifs, highly personal stories, and occasional lyricism to enhance its readability for the general public.

The Bicentennial Parade of Tall Ships in New York begins the book, and is referred to several times thereafter as a possible beginning to the epidemic, at least in the US. This theory seems to still be considered; a casual google didn’t turn up anyone objecting to it.

July 4, 1976
New York Harbor
Tall sails scraped the deep purple night as rockets burst, flared, and flourished red, white, and blue over the stoic Statue of Liberty. The whole world was watching, it seemed; the whole world was there. Ships from fifty-five nations had poured sailors into Manhattan to join the throngs, counted in the millions, who watched the greatest pyrotechnic extravaganza ever mounted, all for Americas 200th birthday party. Deep into the morning, bars all over the city were crammed with sailors. New York City had hosted the greatest party ever known, everybody agreed later. The guests had come from all over the world.
This was the part of the epidemiologists with later note, when they stayed up late at night and the conversation drifted toward where it had started and when. They would remember that glorious night in New York harbor, all those sailors, and recall: from all over the world they came to New York.

The Feast of the Hearts, a Danish tradition, ties together with the 1977 death of a Danish physician who worked in a clinic in Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo). She may have been the first European, first Westerner, to die of the disease, though it mystified doctors. A friend and physician wanted to study Pneumocystis after she died, but was discouraged from doing so because it was so rare; his tropical disease research later points to an African virus, which is, as I understand it, the current theory. The recurrence of the Feast of the Hearts is one of the most touching echoes of the book.

Another effective trope is Before and After, both as an overall structure and in the lives of various people who came to realize, at varying times, that this was not something that would go away in a few months.

….Before and after. The epidemic would cleave lives in two, the way a great war or depression presents a commonly understood point of reference around which an entire society defines itself.
Before would encompass thousands of memories laden with nuance and nostalgia. Before meant innocence and excess, idealism and hubris. More than anything, this was the time before death. To be sure, death was already elbowing its way through the crowds on that Sunday morning, like a rude tourist angling for the lead spot in the parade. It was still an invisible presence, low, palpable only to twenty, or perhaps thirty, gay men who were suffering from a vague malaise. This handful ensured that the future and the past met on that single day.

Then there are the personal stories. Some are of the major players: Bill Krauss, Cleve Jones, Larry Kramer, told alongside more journalistic accounts of their actions. Or Paul Popham, who presents a complicated picture (an activist who is closeted in his work life) but watches friends who shared a house on Fire Island with him one summer die one by one:

A year ago, he had come here with the ashes of his friend Rick Wellikoff. It had been a sunny, melancholy day, warmed by the sharing of grief with Rick’s surviving lover and friends. Now, Rick’s lover was ailing too, the fourth person from the house on Ocean Walk to be stricken by this new plague, and Paul was alone with the ashes of Jack Nau.
The cold white fingers of the sea stroked the indifferent sand, littered by a winter’s worth of misshapen flotsam. Paul open to the box and shook. The sea’s fingers reached to grab Jack’s ashes and pull them into the brine. Paul gazed out to where the leaden sky met the gray Atlantic and wondered when it would all end. This can’t be happening, he thought, it’s simply too unbelievable. Yet, as he shook the last of the bone dust that was once Jack Nau into the sea, Paul knew that it was happening and it was all too believable.

Some are practicing physicians who watched patient after patient get sick and die. Some are public health officials, who fought the good fight against a unopposable foe for every small victory they could achieve. And some are just people caught in the crossfire. People like a woman who goes in for hip surgery and refuses a post-op blood transfusion, unaware she’d been transfused while under anesthesia. She later learns she has AIDS from a newspaper story. People like a kid from the midwest who came to San Francisco to get away from bigotry, but favored close relationships instead of the bathhouse scene. People like a flight attendant who refused to believe his KS was contagious so entered into three-city sexual liaisons with gusto, only to be labeled (incorrectly, as it turned out) Patient Zero.

And Rock Hudson, whose death somehow changed everything.

I chose to include this book in this year’s Re-Reading Project primarily because of COVID-19; that my reading fell during Pride Month was a happy coincidence. I’m well aware that AIDS and the corona virus are very different diseases and the epidemics have vastly differing courses and effects, but I wondered if reading in this moment showcased any similarities. Boy, did it. To wit:

The conflict between public health and politics\profit, with public health on the losing side most of the time. In the case of AIDS, this was most specific to shutting down the bathhouses (which both the gay community, and the bathhouse owners, vehemently opposed) and keeping the blood supply safe by banning donations from gay men (which, again, was opposed by blood banks and by the gay community). Shilts makes the community opposition to these measures seem more understandable by rooting them in the time, when gayness was far less accepted than it is now (and let’s face it, it’s not exactly popular in a lot of places even today) and owning one’s sexual preference was a new freedom in places like San Francisco. With COVID, there were early assurances from the highest levels of the Federal Government that this was “just the flu” and panic wasn’t necessary, to forestall an economic slowdown. Six hundred thousand deaths later, there are probably those who still feel that way.

Poor communication from medical experts to the public, even when the attempt to communicate was genuine. To my surprise, Anthony Fauci turned up in this category. He was just a name the first six or seven times I read the book, but of course he’s practically a celebrity now. In the early 80s, while considered a hero dealing with the epidemic on public health grounds, he made a comment about household contact, then walked it back as being out of context and remarked that the public didn’t understand the language of science.

This eerily parallels his early remarks on the inefficacy of face masks – which he also walked back as being out of context and in reaction to the shortage of protective equipment for hospital personnel. Even heroes trip over their feet sometimes.

Political animosities and personal grudges became higher priority than health. The most grotesque example of this from the 80s comes from a San Francisco newspaper editor, outraged when a group of gay readers wrote a letter calling for his resignation over poor coverage of the epidemic.

Paul Lorch decided to exact his own revenge. He took the letter demanding his termination and the list of all the people who signed it, and set it aside. One by one, as they died, he crossed their names off the list, gtting the last laugh, so to speak.

I usually think I’ve seen enough of this world to no longer be surprised by any depravity, but this shocked me.

Denial, willingness to believe hoaxes and rumors. This was not just a problem in the general public; for a year or so, much of the medical and research community did not believe the cause of the various illnesses could be a single virus, and a new virus at that. A significant portion of the gay community didn’t believe the disease – which at first appeared as Kaposi’s sarcoma – was contagious at all. Fear of homophobic reprisals kept a lot of the medical information more restrained than it should have been. As for COVID, I don’t have to go into it, do I? From  “just the flu” to “the vaccine makes you magnetic,” it’s been a wild ride.

Perception of victims as unimportant.

The NCI conference fueled Gottlieb’s suspicion that no one cared because it was homosexuals who were dying. Nobody came out and said it was all right for gays to drop dead; it was just that homosexuals didn’t seem to warrant the kind of urgent concern another set of victims would engender. Scientists didn’t care, because there was little glory, fame, and funding to be had in this field; there wasn’t likely to be money or prestige as long as the newspapers ignored the outbreak, and the press didn’t like writing about homosexuals. So nobody cared….

This might not seem to have much to do with COVID, but I remember a lot of talk about old and sick people who would’ve died anyway. It’s amazing how callous we can be when the stock market is our only metric.

The federal government’s unwillingness to spend money or take any role at all. Shilts outlines this with exquisite clarity: the CDC couldn’t provide airfare for epidemiologists to visit outbreaks and interview patients; even a textbook was out of the question, a virology lab, with the necessary precautions, was a pipe dream. Another agency waited two years for a centrifuge to conduct basic  experiments. When pressured, officials lumped together all kinds of spending as being related to AIDS, though the link was tenuous at best, and insisted everyone had enough money. Remember the bidding war over respirators and PPE in the early months of COVID, because the Feds let the states fight it out? The vaccines started out that way as well but fate intervened in the form of an election. In January 2021, when the vaccines were first approved, my local health service predicted my age group (65 to 70) would be eligible in June or July. The feds got involved in late January, made vaccination a priority, and I got my shots in March. Elections matter.

I confess, I started skimming around page 400. There is a certain repetitiveness to the major themes: lack of action, lack of money, inability to convince the community of the danger, divisions within both the public and the research communities. The fight between NIH and the Pasteur Institute, as well as the CDC, is the stuff of legend, and shows the worst side of some people. Every time I’ve read the book, I’ve become lost in the timeline, though it’s clearly indicated nearly on every page and chapters are separated by the year in which they occur. Still, it has a sameness, with escalating numbers.

It’s a monumental work of journalism, covering three cities in detail, plus a host of government agencies, health facilities, and ordinary lives. Yet it’s the humanity that makes it a beautiful read. Shilts, a gay man, decided not to find out his HIV status until he’d finished the book, in the interests of journalistic integrity.

“HIV is certainly character-building. It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.

Randy Shilts, NYT interview, 1993

 The book was published in 1987. He died in 1994 at the age of 42.    

George Saunders: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (RH, 2021) [IBR2021]

We are going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art – namely, to ask the big questions: how are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing? How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seemed to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?
(You know, those cheerful, Russian kinds of big questions.)

I haven’t read much Russian literature, and the little I’ve read hasn’t really stuck with me. Out of the seven stories Saunders investigates in this book, I’ve read two of them before. I didn’t get much out of them the first time; this was a wonderful opportunity to see what I’d missed.

The book is a 400-page encapsulation of the MFA course on the Russian Short Story that Saunders has taught at Syracuse University for the past 20 or so years. Each story gets an individual approach, since each story has its own way of unfolding.  Although the audience of the course is the emerging writer, each chapter first examines a story as a reader would, and only then brings in ways to incorporate the findings into writing. The first entry actually had me thinking, “I wonder if I could write a story using this kind of approach.” But then I came to my senses. It doesn’t matter which side of the page you live on; it’s worth reading.

Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trooper of a reader) felt it, it’s valid. If it confounded you, that’s worth mentioning. If you were bored or pissed off: valuable information. No need to dress up your response in literary language or express it in terms of “theme” or “plot” or “character development” or any of that.

This might be why I enjoyed the book so much: it’s approach to stories was similar to my approach in this blog. I always feel bad when, in September and January, I see page views climbing, knowing students have been assigned stories from the latest BASS and need to answer questions like: Who is the protagonist? What is the theme? What is the initiating event? Those students will be disappointed when I start rambling about what the story reminded me of, and why it might have made me side with one character or dislike another. It’s not that the technical elements are extraneous – they’re very important – but there’s a much more organic way of recognizing them. You can’t help but talk about them when you’re encountering a story as an experience, rather than an assignment. Saunders helps connect the two approaches.

We start off with Chekhov’s “In The Cart.”   

And again she thought of her pupils, of the examination, of the janitor, of the school board; and when the wind brought her the sound of the receding carriage these thoughts mingled with others. She wanted to think of beautiful eyes, of love, of the happiness that would never be… His wife? It is cold in the morning, there is no one to light the stove…. And at night she dreams of examinations, peasants, snowdrifts. And this life has aged and coarsened her, making her homely, angular, and clumsy, as though they had poured lead into her. She is afraid of everything and in the presence of a member of the Zemstvo Board or of the Trustee, she gets up and does not dare sit down again. And she uses obsequious expressions when she mentions any one of them. And no one likes her, and life is passing drearily, without warmth, without friendly sympathy, without interesting acquaintances. In her position how terrible it would be if she were to fall in love!

I ran into a challenge off the bat. Saunders begins with a brief preface asking what makes a reader keep reading. Then he proposes to answer that question by giving us the story one page at a time, followed by a pause in which we will consider “what has that page done to us.” What? No, no, that’s ridiculous, I’m going to fish out the separated pages and read the whole story… except I didn’t, because he knew what he was doing, he knew what questions to ask at the end of the first page. This is how I learned to trust George Saunders.

It was a remarkable reading experience, to find that the questions raised were indeed answered. Saunders calls it “a kind of call and response” and that’s a good a description as any. How did this sad, depleted woman get that way? I expect the story will serve up some situation that will challenge her current frame of mind, and she will either respond to it, or not. In fact, the story offers up a bit of a bluff at first, then, in the closing pages, shows what it is when someone becomes something else, even if just for a moment. Had I read the story for myself – had I read it all at once instead of chapter by chapter – would I have had the same experience? I doubt it.

I was even tempted to try to write a story using this kind of guide, this “set up a question, answer it but set up another one, keep an overall question going” kind of atmosphere. Don’t worry; I wasn’t tempted for long. I realized pretty quickly that’s a stupid reason to write a story, though it’s probably a great way to actualize a story that’s already in one’s mind, begging to be written.

Though that chapter-by-chapter approach was highly effective, Saunders returned to the more traditional read-then-analyze with the second story, “The Singers” by Turgenev. 

“What shall I sing?” asked the contractor, with mounting excitement.
“Anything you like,” replied Blinker. “Just think of something and sing it.”
“Yes, of course, anything you like,” added Nikolai Ivanych, slowly folding his arms across his chest. “We have no right to tell you what you should sing. Sing any song you like. Only, mind, sing it well, and we shall afterward decide without fear or favor.”
“Aye,” Booby put in, licking the rim of his empty glass, “so we shall – without fear or favor.” “Let me clear my throat a little, friends,” said the contractor, passing his fingers along inside the collar of his coat.
“Come now, don’t waste time – begin!” the Wild Gentleman said forcefully and dropped his eyes. The contractor thought a moment, shook his head, and stepped forward. Yashka stared fixedly at him.
But before proceeding with the description of the contest itself, it may be as well to say a few words about each or the characters of my story.

In the margin next to that line “But before proceeding…” I wrote, “WTF??!?” Seriously, you spend eight pages setting up a singing contest in a remote country bar, and then you stop to describe your characters? What kind of writer are you, Turgenev, anyway? And that turns out to be the focus of Saunders’ analysis:  “I teach ‘The Singers’ to suggest to my students how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be.” Maybe he realized he wasn’t great at incorporating description into plot; maybe he didn’t realize it until he read over his draft, and he decided, not to fix it, but to capitalize on it. Maybe sometimes a reader’s WTF moment is an important part of the story experience.

As we read a story (let’s imagine) we’re dragging a cart labeled “Things I Couldn’t Help Noticing” (TICHN). As we read, we’re noticing — surface level, plot type things (“Romeo really seems to like Juliet”), but quieter things, too: aspects of language, say (“Tons of alliteration in the first three pages”), structural features (“It’s being told in reverse chronological order!”), patterns of color, flashbacks or flashforwards, changes in points of view. I’m not saying that we’re consciously noticing. Often, we’re not….
What we are adding to our TICHN cart are, let’s say, non-normative aspects of the story — aspects that seem to be calling attention to themselves through some sort of presentation and excess.
….A good story is one that, having created a pattern of excesses, notices those excesses and converts them into virtues.

Another thing that endeared this chapter to me was the title: “The Heart of the Story.” It’s a phrase I’ve used from time to time for the focus of a story’s meaning; not necessarily the climax, or the theme, or a moment, but the overall lifeforce. I thought I’d invented that phrase. It’s not all that unique, so I’m not surprised to see it elsewhere, but it’s comforting, like a slight pat on the back, that maybe I’m not totally crazy when I fumble around trying to convey my story experiences.

Chekhov’s “The Darling” is next.

She was always enamored of someone and could not live otherwise. At first it had been for Papa, who was now ill and sat in an arm chair in a darkened room, breathing with difficulty. Then she had devoted her affections to her aunt, who used to come from Bryansk every other year. Still earlier, when she went to school, she had been in love with her French teacher.

Saunders uses this story to examine patterns and what makes them work: “What transforms an anecdote into a story is escalation.” He brings out charts (“The Various Loves of Olenka”) and a diagram of the five-act structure, for those who just can’t live without technical details (I learned that he was an engineer before he was a writer; not the first time I’ve heard of someone making that transition, though we usually think of it going the opposite direction).

I think of this entry as more writerly than those preceding it, because the story itself is a bit easier to read and recognize its technique. Producing such a story is, of course, another matter.“Master and Man” by Tolstoy is the longest story included in the book, and, for me, the hardest to read.

Having driven through the snow they came out into a street. At the end house of the village some frozen clothes hanging on a line — shirts, one red and one white, trousers, leg-bands, and a petticoat — fluttered wildly in the wind. The white shirt in particular struggled desperately, waving its sleeves about.

Hard in that I felt like I was missing a lot conveyed by unfamiliar references; Saunders’ discussion of wormwood confirmed that for one element. Also hard because… well, it seemed too long, like there were points of interest but they were far apart, separated by long descriptions. And hard because I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I was finished. That’s why this book was written, of course: to help readers like me figure out how to make something of a story that eludes us.

I learned that Tolstoy is considered a writer who incorporates Christian morality and ethics into his work (though perhaps less so in his life); maybe he’s the Russian analogue of Flannery O’Connor (or she him, since he preceded her by a century). This made the “Eye of God” viewpoint particularly interesting to me. I also appreciated how all this morality was conveyed with the usual explicit epiphany, and I loved Saunders’ interpretation:

Vasili does not launch into a soliloquy or internal monologue describing his changed feelings about master/ peasant relations or his radical new understanding of Christian virtue as it applies to the treatment of the less fortunate…. He just acts…. Vasili has changed. We know this because of what he’s just done. It’s kind of a miracle of writing. Without narrating the logic of the transformation, Tolstoy has made Vasili do exactly what the story made us believe he could never do….
Tolstoy is proposing something radical: moral transformation, when it happens, happens not through the total remaking of the sinner or the replacement of his habitual energy with some pure new energy but by a redirection of his (same old) energy.

A brief digression: When I read Saunders’ short story “Tenth of December” a few years ago, I used as header art a photograph by artist Riitta Päiväläinen: a laundry line full of frozen clothes. This was in response to the story’s use of a frozen coat in the snow. Now I see frozen laundry as an image in this story, and read Saunders’ interpretation of it, and feel like I was ahead of my time.     

The story still feels tedious and hard to read (possibly the side-effect of too much contemporary fiction, when tends to be more streamlined) but I can now admire what it does. Worth a book, right there.

Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” is one of the stories I’d read before.

Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov woke up rather early and made a “b-rr-rr” sound with his lips as he was wont to do an awakening, although he could not have explained the reason for it. Kovalyov stretched and asked for the small mirror standing on the table. He wanted to have a look at the pimple which had, the evening before, appeared on his nose. But to his extreme amazement he saw that he had, in place of his nose, a perfectly smooth surface. Frightened, Kovalyov called for some water and rubbed his eyes with a towel: indeed, no nose! He ran his hand over himself to see whether or not he was asleep. No he didn’t think so. The Collegiate Assessor jumped out of bed and shook himself – no nose! He at once ordered his clothes to be brought to him, and flew of straight to the chief of police.

A decade ago, when I was still harboring delusions that I could write stories, I wrote a flash I titled “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room.” A reviewer in an online workshop dismissed it as derivative of Gogol’s “The Nose,” which I hadn’t read but had someone copied. I found it online and read it, and couldn’t see anything in common with my story except the word “nose” (the nose in my piece was an advertising symbol from a closed-down bakery, which a homeless man took to a house he sometimes broke into for shelter and invited a woman from the soup kitchen to join him… the similarities in the story elude me still). I regarded Gogol’s nose as something of a novelty piece, fun to read but not sure why it was considered great literature. So I was glad to have Saunders teach me.

…[T]he meaning of a story in which something impossible happens is not that the thing happened (it’s only language after all, with somebody at the other end of it, making it up) but in the way the story reacts to the impossibility. That is how the story tells us what it believes.

This opened up worlds to me, not just for this story but for all the stories that include fantastical elements. Reginald McKnight’s “Float” came to mind, since, unbelievably, I’d actually  made that connection back when I wrote about it: it’s not about the shoe, it’s about how everyone regards the shoe. Again, I’m really excited that I stumbled across something that happens to be a real thing (and please don’t tell me if I’m misinterpreting, I don’t get to be excited about my own writing that often).

Saunders also discusses skaz, a Russian storytelling tradition that I’ve come across before in connection with Toni Morrison and in my second person study. It’s described as the blurring of lines between narrator and narrated, but Saunders makes it seem a bit more encompassing than that.

What really struck me was his comment about ‘…[S]omething troubling (a missing nose, a hateful political agenda) is met with polite, well-intentioned civility — a civility that wants things to go on as usual.” Don’t tell me 19th century stories have nothing to do with contemporary society. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all.

“Gooseberries” is another story I’d read before.

Ivan Ivanych came out of the cabin, plunged into the water with a splash and swam in the rain, thrusting his arms out wide; he raised waves on which white lilies swayed. He swam out to the middle of the river and dived and a minute later came up in another spot and swam on and kept on diving, trying to touch bottom. ‘By God!’ he kept repeating delightedly, ‘by God!’ He swam to the mill, spoke to the peasants there, and turned back and in the middle of the river lay floating, exposing his face to the rain. Burkin and Alyohin were already dressed and ready to leave, but he kept on swimming and diving. ‘By God!’ he kept exclaiming, ‘Lord have mercy on me!’ ‘You’ve had enough!’ Burkin shouted to him.

Note that this is the passage from which the book takes its title, a book which joyfully splashes about in stories. On my prior reading, I’d come away with the idea (perhaps harvested from googling resources and analyses) that the story is about the guy who has to be happy eating his sour, hard gooseberries, even though they’re obviously not edible, and the kind of self-delusion (or self-will) that requires. Joy didn’t enter into it. Thank you, George Saunders, for bringing the joy.

Because, in addition to examining another digression in great detail, he points out how every instance of joy – whether the swim or bathing for the first time in months or the new house or the drowsiness that leaves a pipe uncleaned – requires a balance of misery: someone’s impatient to get on with the walk, filthy water that pours off the bather, the gooseberries themselves, the stench in the next room. And this brought me to Le Guin, and Omelas: if every joy depletes someone else, is joy ethical? Saunders’ point is that the story takes several viewpoints at the same time and refuses to fully endorse or disavow any of them.

Tolsoy’s “Alyosha the Pot,” the shortest story in the book, finishes things off.

[S]uddenly, in the second half of the second year, something happened to him that had never happened before in his life. This something was that he found out, to his amazement, that besides those connections between people based on someone needing something from somebody else, there are also very special connections: not a person having to clean boots or take a parcel somewhere or harness up a horse, but a person who was in no real way necessary to another person could still be needed by that person, and caressed, and that he, Alyosha, was just such a person. This he learned from the cook, Ustinya…. Alyosha felt for the first time that he – he himself, not his work – but he himself was needed by another person.

This too brings in a great deal of morality and Christian virtue: is humility a good thing, or can it be overdone? Saunders spends a lot of time on the amazement issue, how it relates to the final few sentences in which Alyosha is again amazed, and how the amazements could be connected.

— —

The book ends with an Appendix containing three writing exercises: editing, escalation, and translation. I haven’t done any of them. Yet. I’m trying to resist, because who knows what will happen if I get it into my head that I should try writing stories again.

Since this is a new book – brand new, just published this year – it may not seem to fit into the “re-reading” theme of this In-Between-Reading period. However, two of the stories Saunders discusses are stories I’ve read before, so I’m slipping it in (besides, I said I’d be doing some new reads, so it fits there, too). However it fits in, I’m very glad I read it; it’s a delight to read, and I hope it will give me more ways to think about stories as I read forward.

A final digression: I ordered the book online from my local independent bookseller for shipping to my apartment ten blocks away, as that’s how these things are done during pandemics. When it arrived, I saw that it was a signed copy. It may be the only signed book I have, and I got it by accident. I’m very glad I did.

* * *

  • Indiebound Book Link
  • LARoB review
  • Reginald McKnight’s short story “Float” online at Georgia Review.
  • My blog post on “Float”.
  • Riitta Päiväläinen photograph “Vestige: Ice and Wind”
  • Zin Kenter’s flash fiction “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room” online at FriGG.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Sangamithra Iyer, “Governing Bodies” (nonfiction) from Kenyon Review #XLI/1

I do think our younger selves are always still a part of us, but like our memories, we can’t access them fully. This is also true for family history for many of us, where colonialism, war, migration or death have left those of us still living with only pieces of stories. “Governing Bodies” is a narrative formed by salvaging fragments, while acknowledging the losses. I was also exploring other kinds of split-selves from the elephant-headed Ganesha to colonized subjects under the British rule like my grandparents, as well as logging elephants who once roamed free. I was interested in this tension between subjugation and freedom, complacency and rebellion, and the moments when a suppressed self rises to the surface.

Sangamithra Iyer, Author Interview at Kenyon Review

Iyer covers a lot of ground in this essay – her grandfather’s life in Burma and India, her loss of her first language, her experience as a childhood immigrant to the US, her reactions to the legends of Ganesha and stories of prearranged marriages, her decision to continue vegetarianism outside of her upbringing – but the image that stays with me most is water. Flow. I’ve always been fond of the Lao Tzu idea that water, the softest of things, overcomes hardness with its flexibility, but Iyer has something different in mind: continuity. The self, maintaining its integrity over time and distance and changes.

But her life, and her grandfather’s life, is aligned with water in a more concrete sense. Grandfather was a civil engineer until he walked away from one way of life and became a water diviner – yes, the guys with sticks who find water – and activist with Gandhi in India. This decision is the backbone of the essay.

Iyer, too, became an engineer, but recounts her life in terms of water:

The Irrawaddy River in Burma is named after the mythical, multi-trunked, white elephant, Airavata, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word Iravat, “one who is produced from water.” My family history is a story produced from water. If I were to trace my grandfather’s engineering career, I’d follow it along the Irrawaddy River. If I were to trace mine, I’d follow it from streams in the Catskill Mountains through aqueducts and tunnels to New York City’s pipes and faucets. My experience is also in the Yosemite Valley—Sierra Nevada snowmelt that gravity carries to San Francisco. It is on rooftops and in rain barrels in Cameroon; in buckets in the Sanaga River.

I got a bit distracted (don’t I always) by a single sentence later in the piece: “Can you re-create a life—re-member a body—from the knowns and the unknowns?” Iyer was describing various ways her bodily truth – her first language, her early yoga training – was no longer accessible to her.  I was quite taken with that idea of re-membering the body’s memories, dismembered by time and change. However, I discovered that the etymology of “remember” is very different from that of “dismember”; the first comes from the Latin memor, mindful, and the second, from the Latin membrum, limb. I was disappointed to learn this; thinking of the words as related felt much more satisfying.

Iyer’s investigation into her grandfather’s life revealed other fascinating tidbits, such as the account, by a gentleman known as Elephant Bill, of training elephants to haul teak for commerce. This ties in with Ganesha, of course, and tangentially to her vegetarianism. Even here, I see water coursing around, getting into nooks and crannies that a hard, straight substance like iron would overlook.

In researching her grandfather’s life, she discovered his employment records indicated he was “permitted” to resign. We can say it was a different time, we can talk about how the world has changed, but when one man decides whether to permit another to resign, that means something else: in this case, colonialism. And again, she brings in the water metaphor:

But I wonder what his resignation letter—this document that signified his shift from engineer to activist, from civil servant to freedom fighter, from subject to rebel—said. Thatha, like all of us, was produced mostly of water. It wasn’t about resigning but rather about restoring flow—like water desiring to be undammed.

It’s a lovely essay, full of interesting events (her moment in school when she refused a hamburger; a yoga class where the child’s pose is eventually recalled; her childhood horror at the idea of an arranged marriage) that all work with this idea of flow, with the continuity of self even as the self changes, and the ability to find one’s course.

I think that may be why the editors of this volume chose this as the last piece. Literature will continue on. We will continue on. Even after a year of disruption and isolation, grief and loss, we are changed but we are still who we are. And there will be a next year, and a new volume to read. We will find our direction.

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Essay available online at Kenyon Review

Author interview available online at Kenyon Review

Editor’s note “Why We Chose It” available online at Kenyon Review

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Naira Kuzmich, “My Father Recycles” (nonfiction) from The Pinch #39.2

Recycled Art: “Flow,” Kaneko Organization
My father: greencard holder, watching his breadwinner wife leave early in the morning, return late in the evening; my father, once a dreamer dreaming of his own shoe repair shop in East Hollywood, California, but soon a cynic, embarrassed of his accent, of who he has become, made to be, in this new country, in the America of the Americas, the always bigger and better, new city of Los Angeles. My father does not care about the environment, about green grass, about ozone layer and smog. He recycles only for the homeless who roam the alley behind his house with their grocery carts. At first, he collects the bottles in a plastic bag, just holds it out for any man or woman he sees rifling through other people’s trash, waits for them to come to him. But sometimes, he does not wait. …Watching the men and women in the alley, he quickly finds a favorite, likes the best discipline of one man, a man of routine, the homeless Mexican who comes by every week, loyal to his route.

At first glance, this essay – a three-page-long paragraph – might seem very stream-of-consciousness, like a diary entry written one long night, or a letter never meant to be sent. But even brief examination will show that it’s quite intricately constructed, weaving together many disparate threads – family, the immigrant experience, other immigrant experiences, tragedy, comedy, irony, bitterness, joy, grief – in a way that keeps everything firing at the same time.

The lead-off topic is the father’s recycling project, which isn’t recycling as we think of it but more like turning over redeemables to those who survive on such things. The concern is not for things, not even important things like the health of the planet, but for people who are now struggling as the father once struggled as a new immigrant with a family.

We get to see a little bit about that, how this family survived by redeeming boxtops:

I’m a nobody, an immigrant, too, once a five-year-old staring at her feet as she wandered the streets of her new neighborhood, collecting cigarette cartons, mama and daddy cutting out the paper barcodes to send in an envelope to a Marlboro catalog. A family exercise in getting by, getting what you can in America: a red duffel bag, an air mattress, a small portable grill. A family of nonsmokers, never-smokers, never-ever-smokers, advertising a tobacco company during Sunday trips to the beach. Me, a nobody immigrant, it seems, always and forever, at 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, taking the red duffel bag to countless cities and countries after I’ve left home, this house, left only a year after my parents sign on the dotted line, buy it, mortgage it, finally, finally, after fifteen years in America. The red duffel a handy carry-on, the perfect size, all this before my diagnosis, all this before 28, this year, this faithful year, now -where was I?

I don’t know if youngsters today know how popular boxtops were at one point. Cereals offered items in exchange for ten boxtops, something like trading stamps (I’m old enough to remember trading stamps, the messy job of pasting them into books, the trip to the redemption center where a hundred books – hours of work, thousands of dollars of purchases – would redeem an electric frypan or an ottoman; my cutlery is courtesy of Betty Crocker, in fact) and of course we all learned the word “facsimile” because we were told that would do, in order to get around sweepstakes rules if a purchase were required.

But what’s this about a diagnosis? And here’s where the architecture of the story demands our patience: we won’t find out for a while, as we return to the father and his interaction with the recipients of his recycling. But in a half page we come across the word cancer and we realize this isn’t about recycling bottles, it’s about something much larger.

Among the ironies is the one about Marlboro providing comfort and joy to a struggling immigrant family (“magically we had a bed, a red duffel bag, a novel way to cook our hot dogs”) of never-smokers and non-smokers (the words mean different things to epidemiologists) while the products most associate with lung cancer are, in fact, not involved in about twenty percent of annual lung cancer deaths.

Another aspect of this essay that I treasure is that bitterness is not overlooked or ignored or pretended away. The struggles of the family, the long road to finally signing the mortgage on their home, the daughter who was taking the world by storm when the right side of her body started dying, the blamelessness of her illness: these are not covered over with uplifting words of courage, though of course there must have been tremendous courage all along. And that blamelessness is recalled almost with embarrassment and connected to the blamelessness of all illness, in an act of generosity equal to the father handing out recycled bottles.

The Mexican man appears only a few years older than my father, but both are healthier than I. I can’t help but to think this sometimes, especially at night: luckier. You can google the statistics for lung cancer, you can take the time. I will take your pity. I will take anything you give me. Tell me: what can you give me that I can exchange for more time? I’ve already taken what the universe has given me and I’ve taken from the universe what I can. I’ve tried to make something beautiful happen here. But how can I say in words that I have never smoked, and where did that get me? How can I say it without suggesting others deserve my fate? Because they don’t. Still, which lyric turn holds my bitterness, the terrible surprise? What immigrant language can explain irony without resorting to coincidence, mere cliché? But I can say I’ve watched my father run, that I’ve watched him recycle. I can say I’ve come back home, to this house, to this city, the America of Americas, to be healed and to die. I can say it, I’m saying it. I’ve tried to make something beautiful happen here.

I do my due diligence: I look up the statistics on lung cancer, and more importantly, I look up Naira Kuzmich. She was an emerging writer with a singular voice, significant publications and a promising future  when she died in 2017. And that surprised me. Pushcart usually includes posthumous entries, and due to its nature delays are inevitable, but this one seemed to take longer than usual to work through the system. In any case, I’m glad this essay made its way here. It’s a bit of recycling itself, perhaps. And if some reader wishes to take the title “My Father Recycles” in a more universal sense, maybe even a religious sense, that we are all recycled through the memories of others and the love we left behind, well, that’s something too.

Shenandoah magazine ran an online memorial, including this recollection from Kuzmich’s writing mentor, a comment that ties in perfectly with the essay itself:

When I read our correspondence from years ago or her final weeks, it strikes me that we were always having the conversations some have only when they know they will lose each other. Imagine that your words spoken to friends at the end of your life are only a reiteration of the love you have given generously throughout. Naira did this without even knowing it was incredible. And those of us who knew her, whether in person or through her writing, will spend the rest of our lives saying to her: Thank you. For everything. It was so beautiful.

Josie Sigler Sibara, from “Naira, Fiercely: Remembering the Life and Work of Naira Kuzmich” in Shenendoah Magazine

It’s quite an effective piece. Add me to those who wish we could have seen what Kuzmich would have done, had she had more time.

* * *

“Naira, Fiercely: Remembering the Life and Work of Naira Kuzmich” available online at Shenandoah magazine

“Lung Cancer in Nonsmokers” available online at Yale Medicine