Tony Hoagland, Twenty Poems That Could Save America (Graywolf, 2014)

…[T]his book begins with a generalist essay on American poetic diction, and it ends with a broad exhortation for poetry’s relevance and vitality in our country’s school systems. In between, not so hidden among other appreciations and critiques, I find, to my own surprise, a recurring complaint about the lack of adulthood represented in much new American poetry. The presence of this theme surprises me because I am an ardent believer in poetical irreverence, spontaneity, informality, and subversion of decorum – qualities not usually associated with maturity.
Though it was not a conscious agenda in writing these essays, I nonetheless stand by my complaint. I believe that poetry has a role to play in contemporary American culture, and that it has lately retreated from that risk, that faith, and that opportunity. …The avant-garde continues to make its dubious claims of political credentials; the uber-theorists and technicians create their Rubik’s cubes of difficulty; and the charming but superficial disco-dance of Personality has crowded into the verbal foreground of many poems, displacing the enterprise of sustained thought, emotional intensity, ethical agency, and even subject matter itself.

Tony Hoagland, Preface

One of the poems I very much enjoyed in the last Pushcart was Hoagland’s “Into the Mystery”. I’m always looking for ways to improve my embarrassingly low poetry reading ability, so when I saw this collection of essays on contemporary poetry, I jumped at it.

Some of the essays review poetic techniques: diction, something he calls poetic housing, and composite poems. Others look at individual poets: Sharon Olds, Robert Bly. Others talk about specific categories of poetry: the New York School, spiritual poems. And the title essay, saved for last, bemoans the teaching of poetry and makes some suggestions for a core curriculum, and what life lessons that curriculum might teach.

Hoagland is critical of a great deal of contemporary poetry, seeing it as populist and fun but not really poetically significant. This made me feel a little less forlorn about my constant refrain of “I don’t know what to say about this” every year as I work through Pushcart. Maybe it isn’t entirely my incompetence; maybe the poems just don’t use what I’m able to recognize.

He takes some swipes at Big Guns, dismissing Steven’s “Emperor of Ice Cream”, though the poet finds redemption in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Hey, Paul Simon got pissed off whenever anyone requested “59th Street Bridge Song” (aka “Feeling Groovy”) and more people know Bobby McFerrin for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” than any of the truly brilliant genre-spanning work he has done; an occasional trip to Goofytown doesn’t define one’s art.

He’s also rather negative about John Ashbery, who I just struggled with but still feel fondly towards, as he was a mainstay of ModPo:

What’s missing from [John Ashbery’s] Marivaudage and many other such textual experiments, are two related poetic values: emphasis and reciprocity. Without a discernible emphasis, without some hint of authorial allegiance assigned to some moments in the poem over others, we cannot begin the process of response. We need to be able to identify what and where the stakes are in a poem ; where the gravity, or weight, is located. …Without such a stake or declaration, regardless of style, the poem will lack substance.
Similarly, without a reciprocal relationship between a poem and a reader, that is, a relationship that deepens through responsiveness and rereading, one of the most basic reasons for poetry has been inexplicably abandoned. At that point, virtuosity, verbal facility, and intelligence are beside the point. If the poem does not need the reader, the reader does not need the poem.

My problem is, I can’t tell if what I determine is a lack of emphasis is my problem, or the poet’s. For example: in the “Poetic Housing” chapter, he talks at length about two poems by Jean Follet, and while I come away with greater appreciation for them after reading his remarks, I don’t think I would be able to apply anything new to future reading. His housing checklist…

What kind of poem is this?
How big is the whole?
Where is the center? What is the central element?
Am I reading for sound, sense, story, or image?
Is this image centrally significant?
What is the general perspective or tone?
What are the extraneous or secondary parts?

…tempts me greatly, but I’m not sure what the questions mean, or if I would be able to answer any of them in regard to any new poem. And that’s the issue, isn’t it; each poem needs to be approached on its own, and any greatness therein can take any number of forms. So many people – poets, mostly, I guess – seem to have this instinct for grasping what is significant in a poem; it’s usually fairly subjective, described by words like “powerful” or “nimble” or involves images that resonate or contrast, or uses languages in ways that “uplift” or “disorient”. I seem to have lost the rule book for what is powerful, uplifting, etc. At one point he rewrites one of Follet’s poems to make it a “lesser” poem, and I have no idea if I’d be able to tell which was which in a blind test.

The final essay proposes that poetry, the right poetry, teaches all sorts of useful things: “the ethical nature of choice…. respects solitude…. stimulates daring…. rehabilitates language…. rehearse the future.… aesthetics of broad application.” This essay appeared in the April 2013 online edition of Harper’s, but poetry was already being cast in the wastebin in favor of more marketable skills. There were periods of Chinese history during which applicants for government jobs had to display poetic proficiency, but that was a long time ago. His main point in this final piece is that the wrong poetry is being taught badly, mostly by teachers who are insecure about poetry themselves.

Addendum: As I was deleting my notes for this post, I realized I’d left out something important regarding “poetry teaches the ethical nature of choice” – not something important about poetry, but about the highly romanticized vision Hoagland seems to have of our legislative process. As an illustration of this particular poetic effect, he asks his reader to imagine a Congressional committee meeting in which legislators are discussing a bill that involves short-term results or long-term gain. One lawmaker quotes “Travelling Through the Dark” by William Stafford; the committee discusses the two points of view, and a couple of minds are changed on what to do with the bill. First, any representative/Senator who discusses poetry in a committee meeting would be shamed mercilessly for all time. Second, maybe he thought it was different in 2013 when he wrote this piece – I don’t think so, not at all – but it’s my impression that legislators decide their positions on bills depending on a) reactions of campaign donors, and b) effects on re-election polls; every other brain cell is devoted to crafting an explanation in the face of pretty much any objection how that position is right. Bless Hoagland for his naivete. But it’s the kind of “application of Poetry” that further distances the art from any real purpose.

In my mooc travels among mathematicians (will I ever learn integral calculus, differential equations, or continuous probability? I doubt it) I’ve heard many stories about how awful it is to announce oneself as a math teacher and immediately get a response of, “I HATED math!” Hey, try telling people you’re a poet, or teacher of poetry. I’m guessing at least as many people hate poetry as math, and just like in algebra class, the problem isn’t necessarily the subject but the approach to teaching it. The objective in many English classes is to get the answer right on a test, not to feel anything or see anything new in a poem. And for that matter, history is another subject ruined by high school; we come out of it with names and dates (if we’re lucky) and have no idea how things came to pass. I wonder if our present predicament combines all three deficiencies.

Hoagland died last year, so there will be no more poems from him; yet his words can still speak to us. I enjoyed this collection, even though I’m dubious I can apply it; I want to get a used copy for my next trip through Pushcart. I don’t know that it will help, but at least it might give me some encouragement.

I picked a very bad time to read this volume. I’d already packed my books for my move, so I went through the list of library books I’d marked, and picked this rather randomly. I should’ve picked one of the easy-reading fictions, because my concentration has been horrible, and time has been an issue. I’m still not back to reading-weight, let alone writing-weight, but it’s time to start working out.

Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein, Notes from a Young Black Chef (Knopf, 2019)

Gumbo, in its essential form, arrived shortly after 1720, carried in the taste and muscle memories of enslaved West African people. The word gumbo comes from the Gold Coast Twi term ki ngombo which means “okra” (itself an Igbo word, the language of my grandfather and my father )…..
Like stolen labor, this stew became part of a southern culture whose origins rest on the corrupt scaffolding of slavery. Nothing about what it has become undoes this fact, though the dish never stopped growing and evolving. When Germans arrived in Louisiana, they introduced spicy andouille sausage. When the Spanish took over in the late 18th century, they threw in their famous jamón and added a salty meatiness to the stew. And after the Spanish government brought fishermen over from the Canary Islands in the late 1700s shrimp and crab pulled from the Gulf of Mexico were added, and seafood gumbo, my favorite, became common too.

When I put this book on my list, I had no idea Onwuachi had been a contestant on Top Chef. I stopped watching a long time ago, but still have a lot of residual fondness for the show. I simply wanted to read another chef book, and getting a black perspective appealed to me.

Onwuachi’s life sort of mimics the gumbo he makes. Instead of various cultures coming to him, he’s been born in them, gone to them, and searched them out. He started out in Queens, NYC, was sent to live with his grandfather in Nigeria “to learn respect” when he was eleven, became a gang member in his teens, dealt drugs in college until he got kicked out, and moved to Louisiana with his mother when he decided to pull himself together. He didn’t cook much in his youth, unlike many chefs; his mom ran a catering business so he was around food, but his forays into restaurants were short-term and unsatisfying.

Until he went to work on a ship cleaning up the Gulf oil spill. This guy’s life is a metaphor.

Onboard ship, he developed the kind of appreciation of flavor, technique, and innovation that would serve him well as a chef. But he knew he needed more training, so he talked himself into a spot at the Culinary Institute of America and moved heaven and earth to figure out how to pay for it. That included his first catering company, put together with duct tape and sheer nerve over a thin but resilient layer of confidence. Along the way he got a prized externship at Per Se, and later, a gig at Eleven Madison Park, two of the swankiest restaurants in a city that eats swanky restaurants for breakfast.

As he graduated from the CIA (the foodie one, no spies), the hierarchy at EMP changed, and he decided to leave. The tirade his boss hit him with on his way out is memorable:

“Think of your ancestors!” he exploded. “Think of Carême and Escoffier. Fuck, think of Chang and Keller,“ he said, reeling off the list of famous chefs who had shaped the fine dining world. There was a great irony in Flint echoing what my grandfather had said about my ancestors when I was living with him in Nigeria: “Your ancestors will never leave you. They are part of who you are.“ Here was Flint, a guy who I knew thought black chefs had no place atop the kitchen hierarchy, telling me to think of my ancestors, as if my ancestors were his ancestors too. But no, my ancestors aren’t Carême and Escoffier or Keller or even Daniel Humm or David Chang. My ancestors are the ones I thanked after granddad killed [the rooster] Red, back in the dusty courtyard of Ibusa. My ancestors are those who, like Aunti Mi, ground cassava flour for hours, soaked stockfish, and hit kola trees until the nuts fell down. My ancestors are steeped in the curries and jerk of Jamaica and found in the stews and rouxs, gumbos and jambalayas of Louisiana. It wasn’t something I’d ever expect Flint to understand, but it was something I couldn’t deny any longer.

From there, he developed his catering company, competed in Top Chef, then opened – and quickly closed – his first restaurant in DC. And he was 27 years old. Time to write a book, and figure out the next step.

One of his anecdotes concerns a TV producer, unnamed, who tells him “America isn’t ready for a black chef who makes this kind of food…. Fine dining: veloute. What the world wants to see is a black chef making black food, you know. Fried chicken and cornbread and collards.” I’m not sure about America, but to this TV viewer, this is definitely the attitude of competitive-reality TV producers. I’ve watched (not recently; things may have changed) a host of different shows, and time and again I’ve seen a LatinX and Asian chefs told to abandon ideas of French brunch or farm-to-table and their CIA training and go with what fits with their last name. And here Onwuachi is making what is authentic to him – a fascinating fusion of New York, East Texas/Louisiana, Jamaica, and West Africa – but it doesn’t match with the producer’s idea of what kind of food black people make. This is a theme from the start of the book: “I am an African American chef, so if I cook my food, isn’t every menu I create African American by default?”

The book opens with a wonderful chapter capturing his thoughts while catering the dinner honoring the architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He’s aware of every detail happening on the fifth floor as the food is prepared and served, but he’s also aware of the exhibits below, and how his story adds to that larger story. Then we back up and go through the uneven childhood, the growing pains, the twists and turns that got him to the fifth floor, directing a crew that a few months later would staff his restaurant.

That the restaurant failed is not glossed over at all; it’s dissected in detail. I remember reading something in some book somewhere that it’s a workout rule to “never end on failure”, but the book seems to end on failure with the closing of Shaw Bijou. Yet it left me with the sense that Onwuachi viewed it as a low point on which he could plant his feet and take another leap of faith. That attitude seems to be reaping rewards: he’s the chef for a hot DC hotel restaurant, and just won the 2019 James Beard Rising Star award. Seems to fit in my math prof’s theme of “You learn more from your mistakes than your successes.”

Like gumbo, Kwame Onwuachi has picked up a lot from various influences, and has adapted to a wide variety of settings and expectations. Because he’s so young – he’ll be 30 in the fall – it’s a gestation story, a first installment on what promises to be a life that continues to absorb and react and grow. Or, who knows, maybe he’ll settle down, having sowed his wild oats, and run the same restaurant for the next 40 years. We’ll have to watch what happens.

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman (HarperCollins 1998)

Popular myth has it that one of the most remarkable conversations in modern literary history took place on a cool and misty late autumn afternoon in 1896, in the small village of Crowthorne in the county of Berkshire.
One of the parties to the colloquy was the formidable Dr. James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. On the day in question he had traveled fifty miles by train from Oxford to meet an enigmatic figure named Dr. W.C. Minor, who was among the most prolific of the thousands of volunteer contributors whose labors lay at the core of the dictionary’s creation.

Although the official government files relating to this case are secret, and have been locked away for more than a century, I have recently been allowed to see them. What follows is the strange, tragic, yet spiritually uplifting story they reveal.

No, I haven’t seen the movie. Given the tepid reviews, I don’t plan to. But I was interested in the story, given that one of my three prized possessions is the Compact Edition of the OED [Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (in slipcase with reading glass)], bought during a BOMC promotion ($25!) when I was studying linguistics in college.

One more housekeeping task: the title above applies to the American edition; the British edition was titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words and is the title credited in the film. To my surprise, I rather prefer the American title, since it emphasizes a point made early in the book:

The story that follows can fairly be said to have two protagonists. One of them is Doctor Minor, the murdering soldier from the United States, and there is one other. Just say that a story has two protagonists, or three, or ten, is a perfectly acceptable, unremarkable modern form of speech. It happens however that a furious lexicographical controversy once raised over the use of the word – a dispute that helps illustrate the singular and peculiar way in which the Oxford English Dictionary has been constructed and how, when it flexes its muscles, it has a witheringly intimidating authority.

I would timidly suggest that the book, in fact, has three protagonists. The third is not the OED, but language itself.

As illustrated above, each of the eleven chapters begins with an entry from the first edition of the OED, a word that has significance for the text that follows: murder, polymath and philology, lunatic, sesquipedalian, elephant, bedlam, catchword, poor, dénouement, masturbate, diagnosis. Although the relevance of some of these are obvious, others are unexpected; if you’re curious, I recommend reading the book. It’s part biography, part history, and part linguistic text, and dances among these foci to create a surprisingly emotional experience.

The story is pretty well-known by now: Dr. William Minor, an American surgeon who started showing signs of psychiatric illness while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, moved to London in the hopes of easing his mental pain. It didn’t work; he murdered George Merrett, just an ordinary guy with six kids and a pregnant wife on his way to the early shift at the brewery, during a psychotic event. Minor spent most of the rest of his life in an English asylum, though obtaining fairly good conditions due to his obvious high intelligence when he wasn’t alarmed by demons only he could see. During the same period, James Murray, a poor Scot who truly pulled himself up to the pinnacle of academia by his intelligence and determination, became editor of the then-fledgling “Big Dictionary”, the first undertaking in the English language to illustrate the meanings of every word, and changes in those meanings, by quotations over time. This required a huge volunteer force to read and submit quotations from 150 years of literature, so flyers were sent out to recruit those who were interested. William Minor happened across one of those flyers, and was indeed interested; he became one of the most prolific contributors from his cell in the asylum, using the uninformative address “Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire”.

But the popular myth story above – which includes a dramatic reveal as Murray greets the governor of the asylum with the assumption that he is the amateur wordsmith and only then finds out his best worker is a madman – is just that, myth, fake news, a Hollywood rewrite. The real story is, I think, far more human and moving. Murray became aware that Minor was not just a country doctor with a lot of time on his hands by way of a visiting scholar who referred to him as “poor Dr. Minor”, and set out to understand just what was so poor about him. That single word, poor, is the turning point of the tale. Murray could have taken several paths, including cutting off all communication and expunging Minor’s participation to protect the dictionary project from scandal. But he chose otherwise:

I was of course deeply affected by the story, but as Doctor Minor had never in the least alluded to himself or his position, all I could do was to write him more respectfully and kindly than before, so as to show no notice of this disclosure, which I feared might make some change in our relations.
…A few years ago an American citizen who called on me told me he had been to see Dr. Minor and said he found him rather low and out of spirits, and urged me to go to see him ….I then wrote to Dr. Minor telling him that, and to that Mr. (I forget the name) who had recently visited him had told me that a visit from me would be welcome.

This did indeed result in a visit, and those visits continued over a period of some years. He did this six years before the dramatic fictional story connected with an elegant formal dinner honoring the dictionary staff, with full knowledge of Minor’s background, and with the respect and compassion deserved by all. Yes, I definitely prefer this account to the “surprise!” version.

Winchester presents evidence that Minor earned the compassion bestowed on him with behavior before and after the murder. He was, after all, a surgeon, and though that was a very different prospect in the latter half of the nineteenth century than today, it had a humanitarian aim. He also was a military officer. After his confinement, he apologized to Merrett’s widow and sent her money out of his army pension; she forgave him, and came to visit him several times, often bringing books he’d requested.

One point that’s emphasized is how different and similar Minor and Murray were. Minor was from a wealthy family, and had education easily available, while Murray was from working-class people and left school at 14, as was the practice then. He later made up for it, but it was a struggle. They were both of high intelligence and strongly motivated. It seems they were similar in appearance, particularly in the cultivation of long beards. One was, of course, mentally ill, and the other quite sane; yet they were united by their shared love of words. Murray arranged for a photographer to complete a portrait of Minor, which adorns the cover of the book. I’ve put a background of both men on the header image; without knowing, would you be able to tell which was the professor and which the madman?

While the history and process of the creation of the OED is well-described, Winchester has written another work, The Meaning of Everything, to more fully cover the details of the seventy-year process. James Murray was not the first editor, and he did not live to see the work completed, though he did produce several of the first volumes. Minor also did not live to see the final publishing. His psychiatric and physical illnesses worsened to the point where he was no longer able to participate in the project. He was eventually returned to America, where he spent his final year in a hospital.

It’s a book that wraps together several separate threads. For all its focus on historically documented facts, it has quite an emotional impact. In fact, I had a lot of trouble dictating the final paragraphs to include as quotes, because I kept tearing up as I read:

… The only public memorials ever raised to the two most tragically linked of this saga’s protagonists are miserable, niggardly affairs. William Minor has just a simple little gravestone in a New Haven cemetery, hemmed in between litter and slums. George Merrett has for years had nothing at all, except for a patch of grayish grass in a sprawling graveyard in South London. Minor does, however, have the advantage of the great dictionary, which some might say acts as his most lasting remembrance. But nothing else remains to suggest that the man he killed was ever worthy of any memory at all. George Merrett has become an absolutely unsung man.
Which is why it now seems fitting, more than a century and a quarter on, that this modest account begins with the dedication that it does. And why this book is offered as a small testament to the late George Merrett of Wiltshire and Lambeth, without whose untimely death these events would never have unfolded, and this tale could never have been told.

It’s not a book about a dictionary at all; it’s a book about being human.

Finn Murphy, The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road (Norton, 2017)

My own baptism into life as a driver for a major van line was not smooth. I was nervous and cocky when I first got on the road…. Almost 40 years later, I am a calm, meticulous, and imperturbable driver. I am highly sought after and exorbitantly paid. That didn’t happen overnight.
You are about to go on the road with me, a long haul mover. It’s a road uncongested by myth. You’ll see the work, meet the families I moved, and visit with the people who populate this subculture. You’ll smell the sweat, drink in the crummy bars, eat the disgusting food, manage an unruly labor pool, and meet some strange people. But I hope you also experience the exhilaration and the attraction, of the life out there. ….
Come on, let’s take a little ride. ..

A few months ago, the PBS News Hour aired a segment with Finn Murphy and mentioned his book. I was interested in knowing more about a kid from Cos Cob, Connecticut, who drops out of Colby College after his third year (!) to take up truck driving, so I put it on my To Be Read list; in fact, it got me started on the category of “books about jobs, especially those rarely written about” that’s part of my interregnum reading this year.

The book is mostly about Murphy’s particular niche in the industry, long-haul household moving, usually for executives relocating or retiring. These movers, called bedbuggers, are low-status to other truckers, but earn pretty good money. Boy, do they work for it, though, and this book shows exactly how.

There’s plenty of trucker slang and details about trucks, for those who are hoping for that. There’s some autobiography. About half of it is about individual moves, some for nice people, some for real dickheads. And sprinkled through it all, we get a glimpse of Murphy’s views on his industry, on economic tradeoffs, and on life in general. For instance, the first moving job he handled on his own, at 21 years of age, generated the aphorism we could all take to heart: “Don’t let anyone ever tell you what to do with your truck.” He’s also developed an interesting view of possessions:

After more than three thousand moves I know that everyone has almost the exact same stuff and I certainly know where it’s all going to end up. It’s going to end up in a yard sale or in a dumpster. It might take a generation, though usually not, but Aunt Tilly’s sewing machine is getting tossed. So is your high school yearbook and Grandma’s needlepoint doily of the Eiffel Tower. Most people save the kids’ kindergarten drawings and the IKEA bookcases. After the basement and attic are full it’s off to a mini-storage to put aside more useless stuff. A decade or three down the road when the estate is settled and nobody wants to pay the storage fees anymore, off it will all go into the ether. This is not anecdotal. I know because I’m the guy who puts it all in the dumpster.
Movers are there at the beginning point of accumulation and all the points to the bitter end, so we tend to develop a Buddhist view of attachment…. Sentimental value of stuff is a graven image and a mug’s game. The only beneficiary is the self storage guy. What my customers need to know is that it’s not the stuff but the connection with people and family and friends that matters. Practically everyone I move gets this wrong.

I find myself half agreeing and half disagreeing. I’m particularly interested in this because I’m getting ready to move – just a couple of blocks, but I still have to figure out what to take and what to toss since I’m downsizing. I find I’m letting go of a couple of pieces of real furniture because they’re less useful than the IKEA shelves (except they’re Staples shelves). I figure I’ve had my rolltop desk for 35 years now, so it’s provided plenty of enjoyment. As for my mother’s china, I feel like I’m betraying her by giving it away, so I’m keeping a few of the unusual pieces. When I sold my piano 25 years ago because I just couldn’t afford to keep moving it, I was devastated for days; it was just part of me for so long, to lose it was to give up a piece of my self-image of a person-with-a-piano. So while I agree that stuff is just stuff, some stuff has more importance than other stuff.

There’s a fairly big omission in the book. Murphy took what he calls a long hiatus from trucking, from the 80’s to 2008, and doesn’t really explain it. When I hear something like that, my mind goes to dark places: jails, rehabs, hospitals, homeless shelters. It turns out, on rewatching the PBS segment, it wasn’t that dark at all. He started a business and got married. It’s odd he’d omit that. His return to trucking after the collapse of both, however, is beautifully conveyed:

In 2008 I found myself washed ashore in a city out west where I knew nobody; I was fifty-one years old, single, with no job, no plans, no nothing. I was unmoored. It was the most difficult period of my life. I didn’t want to think about how I’d lit the fuse to my previous life and watched it explode. All I wanted to do was to go back on the road. I wanted to climb into a truck, hit that start button, watch the air pressure build up, and go. In that respect I knew I’d have plenty of company among other drivers. That’s what we do.
Fifty-one years old is not a propitious age to go back to building tiers in a moving van. I was in decent shape, but moving furniture is a young man’s work. I wasn’t at all sure I could make the grade. What I did know was that I could certainly perform other tasks much better than before. I was no longer a young man in a hurry. I wasn’t a young man at all. I was another piece of flotsam hitting the road because I thought I’d run out of options.
Another thing I knew now was that moving, for the shipper, was to experience an emotional nosedive. Maybe I couldn’t lift like I used too, but maybe, just maybe, I could use my own failures and hard-earned understanding to grease the wheels of my work and make the experience easier for the people who were moving. Maybe I could breach the wall of suspicion and enmity people have about movers. That felt attractive. I wanted to do it the right way, the way I never had done it before. I wanted to interact with my shippers and helpers applying compassion and professionalism. I wanted to approach the work itself with serious intellectual intention toward performing even the smallest tasks properly.

I greatly enjoyed these introspectives. He wonders why people hate movers so much. I do, too; I’ve always been grateful someone was willing to do what I couldn’t. He’s not going to stand still for any myths about the trucker as modern-day cowboy, either; there are log books, weigh stations, and plenty of paperwork. He’s not big on myths in general. “The myth of the trucker as a latter-day cowboy is the same narrative that the urban rapper or the southern rebel adopts to accept his place at the bottom of the American dream.” He has tremendous respect for people who work their way up from nowhere, but recognizes that they are exceptional, not typical. Every time I hear that crap, I want to ask why the speaker hasn’t become incredibly rich because after all Bill Gates started Microsoft and Steve Jobs started Apple so what’s wrong with you? I find it idiotic when, at the end of something like American Idol, the winner says something stupid like, “See, if you work hard you can accomplish your dreams” when tens of thousands of people worked just as hard and most of them never saw the inside of a studio. Fact is, some people are incredibly talented (and that includes traits like perseverance, dealing with disappointment, and motivation), and some are lucky. Murphy had the intense motivation, the interest in physical work, from the start, but never forgets his privilege.

His mover-stories are both entertaining and meaningful. An obstetrician, originally from India, is moving to LDS country for the high birth rate, and maybe for the polygamy. A family watched as a staircase collapsed and their treasured piano smashed on the ground, then invited the crew to stay for dinner. A high-rise delivery requires clever negotiation skills when another move has commandeered the elevators. One exec refused to let the movers use any of the 11 bathrooms in the house, telling them to use a Porta-Potty a mile away.

My shipper, after helping topple his bank in 2008, caught another plum job with another troubled public company that was paying for this move. Without getting all Eugene Debs about it, it seems to me that while many bad movers end up in orange vests picking up trash on roadsides, many bad executives get new million dollar jobs running other companies into the courtroom.

Sing it, bro.

One of his stories is about a bar, connected to a motel, that caters to long-haul movers, the only such set-up he’s seen. Since, for whatever reason, they’re the bottom of the totem pole at most trucking-oriented restaurants and bars, it was a real oasis. The bartender checks to make sure he’s done driving for the night before serving, then shows him around. A guy at the end of the bar would sell excess packing and loading supplies, as well as drugs. The hookers who populate other cheap motels, looking to roll any trucker dumb enough to take them on, are chased away. And best of all: moving company shirts with logos from all over the country, and even around the world, are pinned to the wall. Murphy tries to get his best friend and company owner to come out and put up a shirt, but it doesn’t work out. Spoilsport – it would’ve made a great ending. But, to be honest, that he didn’t do it made me trust that the rest of the book was real, which in this era of 86% true nonfiction and alternate truth, is no longer a given.

Finn Murphy doesn’t fit into any convenient category. Maybe that’s why, after reading his book, a couple of interviews (including an extended one with PBS’s Terry Gross, who he admits in his book having a bit of a crush for) I don’t really feel like I know him at all. He’s very open in the book about a lot of things, from outlooks on life to the client wife who jumped his bones to the two-year estrangement with his parents when he left college (his father presented him with a bill for tuition spent), yet I feel there’s a curtain there. Maybe it’s just the confounding of my expectations. That’s a good thing, because I need to remember, especially now, that everyone is their own category.

I lay quietly, snug in my cocoon, wondering why people think it’s odd that a guy like me is a long-haul mover. I just helped another family navigate a major transition. What else could possibly matter? This is why we’re all here: to help each other navigate.
My last thoughts before drifting off were about navigation. A mover’s job is to shift people from where they are to where there supposed to be. Lucky for me, every once in awhile I find the place where I’m supposed to be too. It’s a priceless gift that I only get when I’m out on the road.
It’s the best job in the whole world.

It’s not the life for me – I prefer stability and predictability – but his enjoyment comes through loud and clear. It’s a rare thing, to find work that suits you so well. It’s even rarer to recognize what suits you when you run into it.

Pushcart XLIII: Molly Gallentine, “Powder House” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre #19.1

Outside 77 St. Marks Place in Manhattan, an old man walks a miniature dog, and a skateboarder sweeps past them on the street. Inside, I blink and slowly dig my spoon into a half crystallized, fishy gelatine, slunk out of a plastic bowl. The apartment belongs to a friend of mine from grad school named Brandon. A tenement built in 1845, it is a typical narrow railroad layout with the rare prize of a balcony on either side.
When my mother first walked down St. Mark’s, with its line of smoke shops, open mic venues, and its tattoo parlor doubling as a coffee shop, she called it “a circus”. I was drawn to the neighborhood as I was drawn to Brandon’s character – to his inquisitiveness and loud laugh. Brandon embraced eccentricities. He was always working on quirky projects, constructing things: a coffee table, a costume for Burning Man, a black-and-white film on his Super 8 camera.
Brandon and I make the movie together. In the film, my hand picks up a small antler and places it into a pot of boiling water on his stove. it’s the first step in our gelatin recipe: sterilizing cartilage.

It’s an essay about W. H. Auden, a post-Revolution era cookbook, a New York gluemaker, 9/11, hartshorn aka baker’s ammonia, the changing face of formerly artsy NYC, architect Richard Meier, and the war on terror. And it’s all held together by… Jell-O.

Gallantine’s current website indicates she’s putting together “a book of essays that investigate America through the culinary lens of Jell-O”. In 2011, Gallantine and her above-mentioned friend Brandon made a short Super8 film based on her MFA thesis about gelatin. I’m not sure of the sequence, but this article appears to be about the making of that film, which indeed includes the grating of hartshorn and production of a rather loose gelatin mold.

It sounds impossible to link all these things together in a way that makes sense, let alone that’s readable, but somehow she pulls it off. Everything is connected to everything else. The dust from the grated hartshorn reminds her of Marcy Borders, who became locally known as the “Dust Lady” as she was photographed covered with dust from the disintegrating Tower on 9/11. The exquisitely detailed architectural models of Richard Meier (the model-people have facial expressions), housed in a museum on the site of a former tobacco factory, somehow remind her of Borders as well. The apartment in which they made the film once housed Trotsky and, later, Auden. They use the recipe from Hanna Glasse’s 1796 book Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple. Later, gluemaker Peter Cooper, in pursuit of glue recipes, created Jell-O on a site that previously manufactured ammunition.

In Latin, gelatin means “frozen” or “to freeze”, which may be one of the many reasons we associate it with a kind of utopian America. What Jell-O tapped into and sold to its consumers exists both in and out of time. It’s a depiction of an America we are nostalgic for, even if our memory of it is a shared delusion. In Jell-O America, families have a mother and a father, a high – if not superior – moral standard, and everyone dines on roasted bird and treats from the icebox. A woman unveils her molded gelatin creation to her family, garnering squeals of delight. The woman stands proud. It is the food of perfection, a substance that allows her to assert control over otherwise unwieldy fruits and vegetables. Psychologically speaking, it is a food that encapsulates and controls.

I would never have thought of Jell-O as a metaphor for a society, a culture, a country, but turns out, it works well. What holds us together is wobbly, takes time to set, and can shift over time. Dismantling that “shared delusion” (at least among the white middle class; those struggling under Jim Crow or unable to achieve their dreams because girls don’t do that sort of thing might feel differently) about the glorious past might be the healthiest thing we as a culture could do, but it’s so nice to think there once was a time when everything was ok, maybe because it means things could be ok again.

This makes a nice final piece, since it is so broad and encompassing. All the individual stories and poems are situated in this gelatin called Pushcart XLIII, and some of it makes us happy or sad or angry or pleased. But it doesn’t hold still either. Read this book five years from now, and a retrospective will be born.

Pushcart XLIII: Molly Cooney, “Transition: The Renaming of Hope” (nonfiction) from Georgia Review, Summer 2017

Ashley Mackenzie: Phase Transition

Ashley Mackenzie: Phase Transition

I will miss Anne, with the well-placed e and easy shape. Steep climb, perfect point, and the slide into the runout of three short, round letters. The way the letters smooth across the page in a tiny creek of repeat, nn, and slip into silence. Anne. I will miss the way her name sighs. Anne. It’s quite ordinary, really, the taper into nothing and the beauty of that sweep.
I will miss the way Anne fits with Molly and Ellis. I’m Molly, and this is my partner Anne and my kid Ellis. Anne doesn’t say her name, unless she’s standing in front of an extended hand, forced to own something. But I say it, like a mantra sometimes, a reminder of where my feet stand. Molly, Anne, and Ellis. A reminder of where her toes are headed. She doesn’t even know her own name yet.
I will miss the voice of a decade of whispers, of vocal cords still short and lithe. The voice that hides behind compression shirts and silence and my willingness to speak, that presses down and adjusts its register, wishing for longer, thicker cords pushing sounds to a depth her small voice can only imagine now.
I hope she lets me record I love you before I have to let her voice go.

Complete story available online at Georgia Review

We all know the politics, the important civil rights issues (who knew plumbing would become part of political debate). But Cooney’s essay, though it touches on some of those topics, focuses on the interpersonal effects of transgendering. What is it like to pick a new name, to hide breasts, to need adult masculine clothing in petite sizes, to consider costs, including financial costs, and benefits of medical treatment? And: what’s it like to have one’s life partner transition? For all our sophisticated pondering about gender fluidity and spectrums, real life experience can be a lot more uncertain, a lot less classifiable into moral certainties.

One focus of the essay is the voice, how it defines us. Anne sees her voice as a betrayal; she’s masculinized her appearance, but without testosterone, her voice remains feminine. All her life she’s been quiet for various reasons: an overwhelming family, bullying at school. Now her voice becomes her tell. I would very much like to know, if she starts testosterone and her voice deepens, she will speak up more.

Names turn out to be more complicated than we might expect. We all use pseudonyms in the form of screen names these days, and many of us use nicknames, middle names, or other variations, but when it comes to changing one’s name, that seems like a bigger deal. The choices are infinite, raising the dilemma of overchoice, too many choices. And what do the kids call a transitioning parent? Anne’s process came late enough that she was able to pre-plan (they decided on “Poppy”), but other situations might get more complicated.

Then there are the more subtle aspects of gender, things we don’t notice until norms are violated:

There are layers and layers of learning how to re-gender yourself. It’s not just new clothes and a new name. Not just wide stance and strong shoulders, nor just taking up space and talking loudly. For many transmen it’s about how a guy props the door with his foot, that imperceptible difference in the kick of leg and tilt of hip. The tight nod hello. How a guy holds his toddler, no hip, arm crooked high. To teach yourself gender is to walk through the world as an artist, noticing details not meant to be noticed, watching each shift and sway and breath to find out how we codify and signify gender, and then to try on that skin day after day after day.
….There is no manual, no checklist, no comprehensive website; the process is mostly about so many details that are learned along the way, observing people and listening to stories shared by other genderqueer and transpeople, and it’s about so much patience.

When I read this, I immediately thought: why is there no comprehensive website? On causal googling I was able to find a few message boards, but they might not be sufficient (there are tons of message boards for all sorts of things, and most of them are crappy). Anyway, message boards are merely updated versions of word-of-mouth. But each situation is so different, and there are a huge range of needs; is large-scale advice possible? For very subtle features – posture, communication style – there may be no substitute for practice with feedback.

The article transitions into a different consideration: what is it like to be the partner of someone transitioning? Pop culture plays these things for laughs, or solves them neatly in 30 minutes or 10 pages, but again, real life isn’t as easily plotted. Cooney describes her reactions with exquisite clarity:

Holding Anne’s hand queered me. Standing next to her gender-nonconforming cuteness outed me to the world. What a relief. Anne fought all her life to blend in and I clamored to be noticed. As Anne transitions, she’ll shift from being seen as a queer dyke to being a straight white guy—suddenly tossed up from years of isolation to the place of privilege in our narrow mainstream world. And me? What will become of me? I’ll be seen as a straight girl living in the Longfellow neighborhood of South Minneapolis with her husband, toddler, two cats, and a dog in our two-story house with a porch in front, raspberries in the garden, and a giant maple out back. I try to imagine the assumptions people will make about my family and my life, about who I am and what I stand for. You can see us now, standing side by side. Hand in hand. Ellis tight on my hip. Anne’s feet facing forward and my toes outturned, the way they always are.
This is not what I signed on for.

As it happens, in a former job I was acquainted with a woman who began undergoing transition. When he mentioned his intent and new name, my first thought was, “How is Carol doing with this?” I didn’t know either of them well enough to inquire. But now I have something of an answer, even if it doesn’t wrap things up neatly in 30 minutes. Love is love, and love is complicated, and all of us follow different paths through it. I wish my colleague, and Cooney and her partner, the very best, however they work things out.

Pushcart XLIII: Heather Sellers, “Pedal, Pedal, Pedal” (nonfiction) from The Sun #493

My mother’s fear of people contributed to my shyness. I could not figure out how to interact socially in a light, carefree way: not at school, not at the restaurant where I hostessed, and not at Disney World, where I ran a cash register. I was often mute, unable to get my words to move out of me and into the world.
Whenever I went for a ride, though, I breathed easy, because of the way a bike moves through space: fast, quiet, smooth, each moment unfurling into the next. I could sing and often did: songs from The Sound of Music, Man of La Mancha, West Side Story. When I was on my bike, I could not only envision a happy, outgoing future self; I was her. The true me was the girl I was on the bike, and the other me was like a girl under the spell of a horrid witch in a fairy tale.

Complete story available online at The Sun

Sometimes, a girl’s best friend is her bicycle.

Sellers tells her autobiography through the bicycles she has loved. From her first tricycle, to the red bike she had at age five, to the purple bike she got at age ten, to her mother’s unused green bike borrowed after the purple bike was stolen, to more adult bikes later on, bicycles were her version of a talisman as well as transportation. And later, they were her entrance into social interaction and friendships.

Despite the struggles of her youth – or maybe because of them – it’s a warm, hopeful piece, the stock in trade for The Sun. I found her description of her introduction to university to be both funny and familiar.

At college I’d been expecting to find wise professors, studious young people, and a new intellectual life waiting for me to step into it. Instead the campus was inhabited by heavily made-up girls with jewelry and sandals, and smug-faced boys in chinos and polo shirts — perfectly groomed, confident, and involved in one long conversation that I couldn’t join. I walked around the campus in a daze, unable to fit a single syllable into their flow of words.

That’s exactly why I didn’t go to college right after high school – I wouldn’t have stood a chance – but took night classes until I was in my thirties. Too bad I didn’t have a bicycle.

She tells us of Texas, where no one rode bikes, and Michigan, where she found a bike shop that welcomed her and folded her into a social circle. It wa there that she truly learned to socialize. How someone gets a PhD with the limited skills she describes is beyond me, but more power to her.

Sellers wraps up the piece with a declaration: “On land I have fallen so many times. On my bike I have not fallen — not ever, not once.” That sounds like pressure to me, but to her, it’s safety.

Pushcart XLIII: Allegra Hyde, “Let the Devil Sing” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review #149

Violet Brunton: "Orpheus and Eurydice" c. 1910

Violet Brunton: “Orpheus and Eurydice” c. 1910

The road to hell is narrow, bordered by a serpentine river and sheer mountain cliffs that swagger upwards and out of sight. Road signs warn of tumbling rocks, landslides, car crashes at the blind corners. The weather is fair and crisp. My husband drives our rented Peugeot. He does this calmly, effortlessly, while I sit in the passenger seat and stare at the road unblinking, as if I might intuit the speeding approach of a brakeless eighteen-wheeler or the meteoric plummet of falling rocks. But what would I do if I could? A car bound for hell will get there one way or another.
Dyavolsko Garlo, the locals call it. The Devil’s Throat. A cavern plumbing Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains. The site where, according to legend, Orpheus descended into the underworld to seek his beloved Eurydice, who had died of a snakebite soon after they wed.
“The Devil’s Throat,” reads a sign, “44 km.”
My husband and I love one another, but our marriage feels like a sham. This is one of our problems. The other is living in Bulgaria.

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

The Bulgarian Tourism Office is not going to appreciate this story, which paints their country as a worn-down place full of sulky teenagers forced to take English classes. Does the speaker (this is nonfiction, so presumably it’s Hyde, but I’m uncomfortable nosing into the marriages of real people) hate Bulgaria because her marriage is depressing, or has her marriage – apparently arranged to get a visa for work in Bulgaria – taken on the depressed air of the country?

The real-life couple’s trip to the Devil’s Throat is interlaced with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, allowing comparison between the two couples. The key scene in the myth takes place when Orpheus, trying to rescue Eurydice from Hades, looks back, and loses her to death forever. A scene of comparable impact in the present occurs on the 300 Steps of the cave, when hubby casually looks back at our speaker, provoking her decision to remain in the marriage but let go of the resentment and anger that has become such a prominent feature.

I’m far more taken with the interpretation of the myth than the current-day domestic drama playing out. Hyde is right; the story, the operas (the Gluck setting has one of my favorite arias, Che Faro Senza Euridice, which I didn’t realize for years takes place after he loses her since it’s a peppy little tune), all focus on Orpheus and his grand failure, rather than how Eurydice must have felt when he fails her by looking back, and she again falls back into Hades. They are reunited when Orpheus, distraught by his failure to redeem Eurydice, takes his life, and thus joins her.

The speaker’s view of marriage is rather grim, but perhaps realistic given the circumstances:

Perhaps this is marriage, I think. It’s not the paperwork, signed for one reason or another; it’s two pairs of feet making the same steady climb, the same bid for light. Two souls seeking the same fate, doomed or otherwise.
I let my scared self fall backward, peel away, that ghost of me, bottled up and angry. I grip the railings tighter. I scramble upward after my husband, back into Bulgaria, our daily struggles, our yearnings, the grayness and the poverty, and I hear the waterfall roaring in the cavern behind me, the Devil’s Throat loud with its heady music, made from a river tonguing deep into a mountain, carrying things in and bringing nothing out, like a lover’s heart, a promise, a tale told for the dead as much as for the bereaved.

This story was also published in Best American Travel Writing 2018. The Bulgarian Tourism Office will have to take some comfort in that.

Pushcart XLIII: Gabriel Daniel Solis, “The Hunter” (nonfiction) from Oxford American #98

Frida Kahlo: The Wounded Deer

Frida Kahlo: The Wounded Deer

Hunting season swept through my hometown with the crisp northern winds that sent leaves and trash dancing down King Street, near the Old Spanish Trail. In late fall, the town’s annual hunters’ gathering—Buck Fever—packed the county fairgrounds with guns and taxidermy and families wearing matching camouflage outfits, scents of damp hay and manure and hot funnel cakes swirling together in the cool dry air. It seemed like everyone in Seguin went to Buck Fever, and even though we weren’t real hunters, my family went, too.
I was never comfortable at Buck Fever like I was at the Diez y Seis dance during the same season, a night of commemoration that packed the placita with gritos and laughter and kids running through the old oaks, with aunts and uncles and familiar faces from Our Lady of Guadalupe dancing together in a perfect rhythmic trance to the conjunto beat. With scents of roasted corn and barbecue and the band’s synthetic fog. With drunk, sweaty men fighting on the courthouse lawn, their wet-obsidian bodies twisting into each other and my dad’s rock-calloused hand reaching through the crowd to pull me away.

Complete essay available online at Oxford American

It’s not by accident this essay follows the short story “The Whitest Girl” in this anthology. Both show the coexistence of Latinx and Anglo cultures in the US, and both showcase the idea of fitting in, whether it’s a white girl who won’t fit in to a mostly-Latina school, or a Latino boy who makes an effort to fit into white culture by going on a dove hunt – and regrets it on many levels.

It’s a much broader essay than the hunting episode that forms the narrative spine. Solis also brings in his understanding of Tejano history, how “the border crossed us” and thousands were expected to forget the stories of their mothers and grandmothers and join with people who hated them. He brings in a number of Latinx writers, including Gloria Anzaldúa and Octavo Paz, as well as the Frida Kahlo painting I’ve used as a header image.

He recalls a friend recounting a hunting episode in which the quarry unexpectedly turned out to be human: Mexicans, a dangerous species, says the friend, and fair game when his father shoots, not murder at all. The horror of this murder is only amplified by the current climate. That his white friend tells him the story only further complicates the picture.

My friend told the story around me without hesitation. And why wouldn’t he? He couldn’t see the Mexican in me. He could not have known that the Mexican and I were the same, connected and separated by the histories of violence that haunt the borderlands. Or maybe he did know but denied it because denial made him feel better—safer—around me. The Mexican is sometimes hard to recognize in seventh-generation Tejanos like me, who in many ways are more American than Mexican, immensely proud of our heritage and culture even as we struggle to speak its language, to embody its distinct ways of knowing the world around us. Like descendants of other colonized peoples, twenty-first century Tejanos and Tejanas are contradictory, volatile, stunning mosaics of psychocultural tensions.

It’s this complication of competing ideas, the ability to ignore one thing while obsessing about something that’s essentially the same, this blending of history and culture and everyday life and the emotional insecurity of a teenager, all supporting a single memory, that makes essays like this, and stories like the prior one, memorable and worth reading. Not only are there easy answers, there aren’t even any easy questions. It’s not a hold-hands-and-sing-and-we’ll-be-ok essay; it’s simply a quiet, calm voice that says, “It’s complicated”, challenging the loud, strident voices who see everything as simple.

Pushcart XLIII: Brian Doyle, “The Wonder of the Look on her Face” (nonfiction) from Creative Nonfiction #62

I was in an old wooden church recently, way up in the north country, and by chance I got to talking to a girl who told me she was almost nine years old. The way she said it, you could hear the opening capital letters on the words Almost and Nine. She had many questions for me. Did I know the end of my stories before I wrote them? Did my stories come to me in dreams? Her stories came to her in dreams. Did the talking crow in one of my books go to crow school? Where did crows have their schools? Did the crow’s friends talk, too? Did they have jokes that only crows know? Did I write with a typewriter like her grandfather? Did I use a computer? If you write on a computer, do the words have electricity in them? Is it too easy to write on a computer? Do you write better if you write slower? She wrote with a pencil. She was about to start writing her third book. Her first book was about bears, and her second book was about her grandfather’s fishing boat.

Complete story available online at Creative Nonfiction

This encounter with a child, told in one breathless paragraph, seems almost to be stream-of-consciousness – a one-and-a-half page embodiment of the “it’s more fun if you don’t know where you’re going” idea – but I see three main sections. We are introduced to the girl through her ideas and questions about writing (and the memorable emphasis conveyed by italics), then Doyle tells her some of his ideas about writing – not how to do it, but what is most fun for him – and then the closing section ends with his impromptu gift of a pen (“it might have a very good book in it”), received by her with an ineffable quality of wonder.

Doyle, Canadian author of several books of essays, short stories, and YA lit, has been a frequent occupant of Pushcart pages; this is my third encounter with him. He died in 2017. This essay, published in the “Joy”themed issue of Creative Nonfiction, makes a nice epitaph: a gift to all of us for our own writing, to discover our own joy, whether or not we know what will happen.

Pushcart XLIII: Hal Crowther, “Christian Soldiers” (essay) from Narrative, Spring 2017

Father Dan was the poet, the intellectual of the brothers Berrigan…. As a federal fugitive, Dan Berrigan represented the confluence of serious poetry and nonviolent resistance to the government of the United States—to me, at that time, an irresistible combination. I read most of Berrigan’s work that was then in print. Impressed by his craftsmanship and passion, I was an unlikely candidate for his brotherhood of faith. His poem “The Face of Christ” begins “The tragic beauty of the face of Christ shines in our faces.” A pilgrim like me, from a family of agnostics, Unitarians, and hardheaded, freethinking Scots, is not instantly engaged. But what fascinated and haunted me was the life where his intellect and faith had led him, a life that in a few months would place him in a prison with felons who had never read a poem.

Daniel Berrigan, for those of you who only read about the 60s in high school history textbooks, was a fixture of the Vietnam era as an anti-war priest. He ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and was imprisoned several times for destroying draft records and other acts of nonviolent civil disobedience (and lest you think he was some kind of radical liberal, he also protested at abortion clinics). One of the fine points that’s been lost to history – a history not that old – is that a great deal of protest against the Vietnam war was generated by the draft, an element that is no longer in play today when we send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan. I have to wonder if the Iraq war, now considered a major policy failure by a broad range of analysts, would have happened if there’d ben a draft.

But back to Berrigan. He died in 2016, inspiring Crowther to write this piece as a remembrance. Through it, he examines the effect of religion on public opinion and societal values, from the conscience-building Jesuit foundations of the Berrigans to “the soft, malleable, spongy sort of God who forgives us for everything or who can be molded to any desperate purpose – the worst examples of this all-too-human heresy would be the KKK using the cross of Dan Berrigan’s Jesus as a symbol of racist terrorism, or jihadists murdering Muslims (and others) in the name of a homicidal god.”

Can traditional religion, burdened by its own history, disrespected by science, crowded almost into the shadows by conspicuous consumption and metastasizing technology, still inspire unusual individuals to live heroically, on a consistently higher moral plane? The answer, for anyone familiar with the Berrigan brothers, is a confident “Yes.” But there’s always my other question, which I’d never be rude enough to pose to a man of faith: If God made and loves us all, why did he make so many of us cruel and stupid?

I’ve said several times that some of the most honorable people I’ve known were Christians – Catholic, Mormon, Protestant – but that their religion was something I learned about after I began to admire them. The people who lead off their Twitter profiles with “Christian” seldom impress me with their ethics; they tend to use religion as a club, in both the weapon and clique sense of the word, and find ways to justify what they want to believe. When I see a person acting with kindness, generosity, and compassion, I’m open to knowing more about where that comes from. When I see someone acting with superiority and judgment, I run the other way.

What seems to attract Crowther to Father Dan’s ethic is an internal consistency, along with a willingness to accept responsibility for his actions. It’s easy to be a Twitter warrior; it’s a lot harder when you are willing to go to prison for actions you believe to be right.

Pushcart XLIII: Rick Moody, “A Country Scene” (nonfiction) from Salmagundi #174

The meth heads, if that is the correct designation, had been watching the house for months. Agreed, this presumes the meth heads had their shit together enough to watch anything at all, beyond NASCAR or Alaska State Troopers. Their hard, rural lives mainly involved sleeping in, for days at a time, in the extremity of despond, because that was what it felt like when the pollutants evacuated the relevant neurotransmitters….
Did they start watching the house after they were rebuffed in their attempt to snow-shovel the driveway, for cash, on one occasion? ….We can imagine their contempt for the owner as he lifted each wet, intractable shovelful of precipitation, when more practical methods were, for a paltry sum, being offered to achieve a like result. Maybe they wanted a closer look at the premises, while shoveling, as they waited for a climatically advantageous period, a period in which the owner of the house would no longer be likely to visit so frequently as he did in summer. It was, after all, his second home.
And so: the meth heads decided upon October, right after the birthday of the owner. They did not break in during a birthday celebration, during the eating of gluten-free chocolate-chocolate made from a box. Among the questions pursuant to the crime, including wondering whether the perpetrators were beaten frequently as children, was the question of whether they were observing through the windows during the two-day birthday celebration. Was candle extinguishing observed? Conjugal activity? Excretory episodes? And did they try the patio door with their crowbar before the burglary?….

Nonfiction takes a lot of forms, and most of them show up in each Pushcart volume at least once. There’s straight reportage, which informs the reader of some relatively obscure topic: the story on a community of people living in their cars at an Oregon rest stop was a good example. Persuasive essays present a point of view and support it with some aspect of logical argument. Then there’s memoir, which may capture just a brief moment of the writer’s life to share it, along with some life lesson; “A Fish in a Tree” from this year’s volume, for instance. Very common these days is the “thought piece,” which, though based on personal experience rather than logical argument, may combine different elements, as Pam Houston’s opening essay did this year.

Creative non-fiction might fall into any of those other categories, but usually includes some formal, structural, or narrative element that makes it atypical. Kiese Laymon’s essay collection How to Kill Yourself and Others in America takes the overall form of a music album, and goes through storytelling, letter writing, and rap. Jason Novak’s painful remembrance of a child took the form of a comic. Although formal experimentation is more common as fiction – I’ve seen pieces set as glossaries, indices, lists, recipes – creative nonfiction can take a variety of paths.

Rick Moody chooses to relate an incident in his life by means of what seems to be a story, complete with a Study Guide at the end. The story is from the point of view of a group of rural meth dealers/users who break into a house and spend a couple of raucous days there.

In short order, across the threshold, the meth heads came to feel that all that was in the house belonged to them. The door swung back, and to the meth heads it was like the first time they non-consensually abridged the freedoms of a teenage learning-disabled girl. The prevailing order of things, in which, by and large, you leave to other people their ideas about property and ownership, was overturned, and the appurtenances of that house were theirs.
However, achieving the threshold of the premises also leads us to an important metaphysical question, one that is implicit in breaking and entering in the majority of circumstances, and that metaphysical question is: having had their quiet enjoyment of the premises would they shit on the bed, whichever bed; for many lawless, upcountry sons of liberty, this was a traditional part of the breaking and entering game, it was part of the folk literature of breaking and entering, a culmination even, and though they had performed just the four or five burglaries in the Eastern Dutchess County area, they were well aware that shitting on the bed was practically de rigeur.

The house, of course, turns out to be Moody’s. The shitting-on-the-bed trope runs through it, the ultimate symbol of degradation. It’s easy to be an armchair liberal who sympathizes with the structural inequalities in society, forces that keep some people at socioeconomic bottom and allow others to rise; it’s a lot harder when a bunch of guys break into your country house, your second home – the house where your family held a birthday celebration a few days before – spill the food on the floor, pour out the booze, and shit on the bed.

Having described what happened by imagining the invaders actually performing their acts – a bit of clearly indicated speculation in the service of nonfiction – the Study Guide begins with the kinds of questions you’d normally expect in a study guide, but then moves into a much more personal expression of horror and rage.

Questions for Further Study
1) How is class a particular feature of the burglary at the heart of “A Country Scene”?
2) Is it possible to write a story in which there are no conventionally sympathetic characters? Is the narrator in this story sympathetic?

10) Is it possible for the perpetrators of these burglaries, who took, for example, the ring I proposed to my wife with, to commit these crimes without ever undertaking to feel the loss that the violated party feels (and here I use the word violated, despite its overuse in this context, because I now understand precisely what it means)?
11) How can I go on doing my work, when the place where I did my work was the setting of this “country scene”? That is, a place defiled by these guys, and made more their home than mine?

The break-in becomes theft, not of the contents, but of the house itself, and certainly destruction of a sense of safety and comfort, a full-immersion bath in vulnerability. When we first read the title – The Country Scene – we imagine lots of green and butterflies and singing birds, a relaxing break from the pace of city life, or even suburban life for those with jobs and deadlines and demands. We want to kick back, take our shoes off, and bask in the sun for a moment. Until we read this story, which paints a very different Country Scene, one that could intrude on the more pleasant variety at any time.

The slow pace, the gradual movement from an almost comic scene of ridiculous destruction to the sense of personal violation, makes this approach particularly powerful.

Pushcart XLIII: John Landretti, “A Fish in the Tree” (non-fiction) from Orion #36:2

I often imagine my walks as two circles of concurrent experiences. One circle is external and sensuous – footfalls and bird song, rain – the physical journey: the other circle is internal and imaginal – ponderings and conjunctures, dreamscapes – the figurative journey. Now and then these two experiential circles overlap, forming a mandorla. in their slender overlay I occasionally encounter an infusion of both worlds: the imaginal strikingly present in common things.

On a routine morning walk through a park near his home, Landretti noticed something unusual: a stick in a tree. Not a branch, but a log that obviously came from somewhere else. He spent the rest of his walk wondering how the branch had come to rest in the ash tree’s branches, then realized it intrigued him because it looked like a fish. A coelacanth, to be precise: a fish thought to have gone extinct 66 million years ago until live specimens were discovered in 1938 swimming in the waters off Africa. That experience led to this essay about the human capacity for perception.

My experiences reading nature writing has always been uneven, but perception is a different matter. As it happens, I’ve taken several moocs dealing with our capacity to view the world and how our retinas, cochleas, and other sensory organs convert input signals into comprehension, such as this excerpt from a lecture by Dartmouth neuroscientist Peter Tse:

Scientists largely agree that there is no redness out there in reality. Redness is a construction of our perceptual systems that exists in our conscious experience, but is not a property of reality-in-itself. What is presumably real are pigments in the surfaces of the flower-in-itself, and the pigments we experience as red. But redness and those pigments seem to exist in two different domains, one in consciousness and the other in the world-in-itself, regardless of how it is being experienced or even whether it is being experienced.

Landretti also discusses the phenomenon known as pareidolia, our predeliction for seeing patterns in randomness, be it mythical characters in arrangements of stars or a Man in the Moon (or a rabbit, a more common interpretation in China), enlisting the help of a Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown sees a duck and Linus sees a scene of St. Phillip’s martyrdom.

All of this takes place in the discussion of the intersection between the physical and the metaphysical, emblemized by the mandorla. I’d never encountered the term before, and initially wondered if it was a variation on mandala; but despite a vague similarity – they are both artistic expressions of religious concepts, one from Buddhism and one from Christianity, one word descending from Sanskrit for circle and the other from the Italian word for almond – on casual research I can find no etymological or semantic connection.

The mandorla is the intersection of two circles; Venn diagrams come to mind, but these circles are representative of heaven and earth, typically encasing images of Jesus or Mary as liminal figures. In Landretti’s case, he sees these more as intersections of imaginal and physical, reality and perception. The essay celebrates this blending of fact and fancy with references to a host of examples and analogues in addition to Charlie Brown, from Nabokov to Emily Dickinson.

This was obviously a profound experience for Landretti, and he relates it with thoughtful appreciation for the mysticism. Me, I prefer the neuroscience route, but there’s room for both.

Pushcart XLIII: Jung Hae Chae, “The Great Meal” (non-fiction) from Agni #86

When the bell rang at noon at Five Ocean Trading, it was time. The swishing of scissors, the clicking of dies, cutting of a thousand berets and beanies and bowlers and fedoras, the up-and-down cross-ankle pedalling of a sea of sewing machines, even the chattering of the AM-radio man or woman in the background – time to rise to something holy.
Or to lunch.

It’s an often-heard truism that food brings us together, crosses boundaries otherwise impenetrable and lets us share in the human activity we associate with warm companionship. Chae’s essay takes a slightly different approach: food as a vehicle for memory.

It’s how she remembers the people at the factory where she worked. Ms. Cho and the good rice that was so important for the meal; a manager who brought brightly colored and highly spiced rice or fish cakes; Mr. Lee, a former double-agent who brings a bowl with a flying phoenix; and Jane, Chae’s contemporary with whom she dreams of what they’ll do as soon as they have enough money.

But I read a lot of divisions. The Koreans and the Chinese. The “men-children and the woman-mothers.” The Mexican workers, who “were not welcome at the table”, who took the jobs Koreans didn’t want (does that sound familiar?), who are “used. They were used to being used.” Even Chae separates herself from the people with whom she shares lunch: “Ashamed of having to wear a dual identity of sorts: at once an aspiring human with a lofty, though as yet unknown, purpose, a comrade-in-arms with the Wretched of the Earth as my coworkers seemed to me then; and a thud of a human spiraling out of control.” I know that feeling well, the feeling of being all about good intentions with little to back it up.

Chae remembers her own childhood in South Korea, a time, sans refrigerator, that required some finesse and long-forgotten – or, for most of us, never-learned – techniques for keeping food safe and wholesome. It was a time she was separated from her mother, living with her grandmother. After she and her mother were reunited, she watched as cancer took her mom’s voice and then her life:

The upside of being given something of a notice of impending death is that one can prepare for it. Ostensibly, your life does “flash before your eyes” when the end is near. Time collapses. You stop caring about what other people fill their buckets with. You start using the good crystal bowl you’ve been saving for special guests and start wearing the gold watch. You settle old feuds and stop to talk to neighbors and pet their dogs. The mundane fills with meaning. You appreciate the simple ingredients of life: water, wind, colors, flowers, children. My mother did strange things like that.

I have a feeling the food-as-connection idea is comforting but not really true. Haven’t we all run afoul of another family’s idea of Thanksgiving, or what constitutes a good picnic or barbecue? In recent decades, a kind of separation-by-food has evolved as well: the vegetarians over there, the gluten-frees over here, the allergies bringing their own, and then we have those who can do a two-hour lecture on the sociopolitical implications of whatever you put on your table. Food as connection works when people are starving, or when the group is homogenous. Otherwise, food as memory works a lot better.

But then, Chae turns the food-as-memory idea on its head in a paragraph that ties a somewhat scattershot essay together beautifully:

It was forgetting that was at the heart of drinking, forgiving at the heart of communal eating. We seem able to forgive anything or anyone – even the nation’s traitor, or the lover who had made her wait in the maid’s wings, or the mother-daughter who passed on without bidding proper goodbye. We pass on – when we share our foods and each earnestly, noisily, more so by morsel, with our good tongues. That is when the food is good for the body: it washes us of our debris, tears us down, build us up once again to face the insufferable.

Maybe this is how food brings us together: its comfort makes forgiveness more possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attributed to Banksy

Attributed to Banksy

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

Complete story available online at About Place

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

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

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

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

So where does that leave hopepunk?

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yes, distant reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Ch. 6

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

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

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

Ch. 20

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

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

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

Ch. 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Math Book even a Mathphobe Can Love: Ben Orlin’s Math with Bad Drawings

This is a book about math. That was the plan, anyway.
Somewhere, it took an unexpected left turn. Before long, I found myself without cell phone reception, navigating a series of underground tunnels. When I emerged into the light, the book was still about math, but it was about lots of other things, too: Why people buy lottery tickets. How a children’s book author swung a Swedish election. What defines a “Gothic” novel. Whether building a giant spherical space station was really the wisest move for Darth Vader and the Empire.
That’s math for you. it connects far-flung corners of life, like a secret system of Mario tubes.

Ben Orlin, Introduction, Math With Bad Drawings: Illuminating the Ideas that Shape our Reality

As a lifelong mathphobe, I rarely buy math books; no matter how highly recommended they are, I get stuck in the pages of formulas, equations, and sample problems that require translating, much as a text in an unknown language requires, resulting in a Google-translate version of the math. I neither learn nor enjoy it. But I’ve been following Ben’s blog for about five years now, so I knew I was going to buy this book, I knew I’d enjoy it – AND I knew I’d learn something.

To be sure, I had a couple of concerns. First, I thought it might be what the Tumblr-turned-book market cranks out, merely a “greatest hits” reprint of his blog. Nope; all the material in the book is brand-new, though he references his blog a few times. And by new, I mean new: I’ve seen many explanations of the triangle inequality theorem that turned into the Charlie Brown Teacher wah-wah but I will remember Ben’s triangle struggling to bring its arms together and falling… short.

My second concern was that, while starting out as a “fun math for everyone” book, it would soon turn into formulas and equations. Let’s face it, most math books (even “friendly” math books that start out with lots of reassurance that “anyone can learn math”) read like rule books: “The ball shall be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together. It shall weigh not less than five nor more than 5¼ ounces avoirdupois and measure not less than nine nor more than 9¼ inches in circumference.” But again, my faith in Ben was rewarded: This book is more like the 7-year-old next door tossing a ball in the air and calling out, “Hey, wanna come play?” The only things that resemble math-book formulas are a couple of endnotes that are pre-declared to be esoteric. Oh, there is a bit about methods of calculating certain baseball and football stats, but even that is presented in a non-scary way (at least as far as the math is concerned; the sports stuff is still lingo, but I suspect most will consider that a plus rather than a minus).

The first thing that struck me about the book, before I’d read anything, was the high quality of the physical object. The dust jacket is appealing and representative, including some of Ben’s “bad drawings”, also reproduced on the endpapers and flyleaves. My practice is to remove and put aside dust jackets while I’m actively reading a book, lest it get torn or dirty (I’m super-destructive, I am I am), and recover the book when I’ve completed the first read and shelve it. I was surprised, and pleased, to see one reproduced drawing on the cover of the book itself, a nice detail. The book felt heavy, and I soon realized that’s not just because it’s a 400 page book, but because the pages are of unusually thick paper, presumably to prevent bleed-through of the many color drawings on nearly every page. In fact, I had to learn how to turn pages all over, the feel was so different.

And color! On every page, color! The Bad Drawings are all in color, sometimes monochrome but often a mixture. Even the running titles (vertically set!) and colored boxes enclosing page numbers are in colors that match the topic (red is probability, purple is statistics). I’ve become more appreciative of books as physical objects as I’ve encountered more truly well-produced books; this one keeps the bar high.

But what about content? No problem. You can find an excerpt at Popular Science, and another at Vox; I find these difficult to read online, and like the book layout far better, but then I’m an old fart. And by the way, you can find a bunch of reviews, interviews, and other goodies on Ben’s blog, if you want more.

The opening division – How to Think Like a Mathematician – presents the playful, investigative approach to math: “Creativity born from restraint.” That tickled me, because it’s in many respects the basis of poetry with its forms of meter and rhyme, not to mention Oulipo, who delight in such things as writing entire books without the letter “e”. And the Ultimate Tic Tac Toe is pretty cute.

I’d like you to meet this chapter’s star: the triangle.
It’s not your typical protagonist. Snooty literary types may dismiss it as two-dimensional. Yet this atypical hero will embark on a typical hero’s journey: rising from humble origins, learning to harness an inner strength, and ultimately serving the world in a time of crisis.

Chapter 6, We Built This City on Triangles

In the Geometry division, I was surprised by how captivating I found bridge trusses, and the reasons they are made with triangles instead of some other shape. The chapter on European paper sizes was maybe my favorite of the book; they make sense, like the metric system, unlike the American way of remembering how many ounces in a pound and feet in a mile and make it stop! The stories of brownies and the Colossus at Rhodes made scaling more understandable than memorizing formulae, and we even got into some biology with explanations of the differences between ant and elephant legs. I found the chapter on dice asked a question I’d never considered: why are dice typically shaped as cubes? I had encountered pig-shaped dice in a logic mooc, and I’ve seen a few non-cuboid novelty dice in my travels, but why are standard run-of-the-mill dice always cubes? Then there’s Chapter 10, An Oral History of the Death Star, told from the POV of various participants: the Imperial Geometer, Imperial Physicist, Imperial Engineer, and a few others in conversation with Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader, trying to outline the difficulties involved in building the most advanced killing machine ever.

The Probability section included the hilarious chapter “10 People You Meet in Line for the Lottery”, as well as chapters on DNA (yes, more biology), and weird insurance and how companies determine what to charge for, say, multiple-birth insurance or Extraterrestrial Kidnapping Insurance. Some of this chapter gets into economics more than I’m comfortable with, since, despite how much I enjoyed the terrific Oxford mooc on economics, I still find anything to do with money to be boring as snot.

I admit that there is something reductive about the whole project of statistics, of taming the wild, unpredictable world into docile rows of numbers. That’s why it’s so important to approach all statistics with skepticism and caution. By nature, they compress reality. They amputate. They omit. They simplify.
And that, of course, is the precise source of their power.
….By condensing the world, statistics give us a chance to grasp it.
And they do more, too. Statistics classified, extrapolate, and predict, allowing us to build powerful models of reality. Yes, the whole process depends on simplification. And yes, simplification is lying by omission. But at its best, statistics are an honest kind of lying. The process calls upon all the virtues of human thought, from curiosity to compassion.
In that way, statistics are not so different from stick figures. Their bad drawings of reality, missing hands and noses, yet speaking a peculiar truth all their own.

IV: Statistics: The Find Art of Honest Lying

I had some troubles with the Statistics section, possibly because it’s the mathiest in the book, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t fun spots, such as the history of baseball statistics. Anyone who liked the movie Moneyball will find a similar storytelling approach that makes a niche subject interesting to the outsider. There’s also a chapter on corpus linguistics, the statistical analysis of language use and a particularly hot topic in literary circles these days. But I confess: I still don’t understand p-hacking beyond the most elementary level.

The final section – On the Cusp – is about the difference between what is continuous and what is discrete. The camel example reminds me of the sorites paradox, aka the Problem of the Heap (from another logic mooc), but I’m improvising wildly here; as a mathphobe, I don’t quite grasp the connection in this section as we veer from electoral math to measurement of coastlines (which is in itself another fascinating paradox from, you guessed it, another mooc). I’m sure those with greater in-depth understanding will see a discipline that’s lost on me. In any case, it’s all fun, and if there’s anything that can convince a mathphobe that math matters, it’s election math.

After I’d read the book – and I couldn’t believe I’d read a math book, cover to cover – I went back to connect the endnotes with the text to which they referred. I’m going to guess this was a “de-academicizing” decision, avoiding cluttering pages with footnotes, but I like to know when I read a text that hey, there’s more info about this in the back. So I spent a couple of hours flipping back and forth, making notes in the margins (I told you, I’m destructive). Sometimes it’s just a simple citation; sometimes it’s an expansion on the topic; and sometimes it’s a funny comment. Don’t skip the end notes. Ok, you can skip the citations (unless you want to look something up; I looked up Poe’s prose poem “Eureka” but TLDR’d it), but the rest are worth reading.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with math all my life. It wasn’t until about five years ago, thanks to a brilliant mooc on mathematical thinking, that I saw a different way to approach math, a more investigative, playful way that viewed mistakes as part of the game. It was in that course that I also was referred to Ben’s breakout essay, “What it Feels Like to be Bad at Math”, and started following his blog. He’s always been patient with my stupidest questions, encouraging with my painfully slow progress, and generous with his time and talents.

I hope this book introduces him to a wider circle of mathphobes (and those of us slowly recovering from same); there are lots of us out there, and we all could benefit from seeing the fun side of math.