Nell Painter: Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint 2018)

Art school would mean more than following my own inclinations. It would entail evaluation – judgment – according to already existing criteria. Whose criteria? Other people’s criteria. Other people’s judgment. An awful discord between freedom and other defined seriousness that I could not yet see. I had little understanding of the potency of good and better as applied obsessively to art schools and to art and to my own art in particular.
I had no inkling of how thoroughly art school would instruct me – teach me, challenge my abilities, and question my sanity. I didn’t know how much I would learn from the young art students beside me. I just knew I wanted to make art and make art seriously.
….
Why do something different? Why start something new? Why did I do it? What made me think I could begin anew in an entirely different field from history, where, truth be told, I had made a pretty good reputation? Was it hard leaving a chaired professorship at Princeton? I didn’t think so. For a long time, my answers, even to myself, were simple — too simple by far.
I said, because I wanted to.
Because I could.
I knew from my mother I could do it.

On Nell Painter’s website home page, there are three options: “Historian Nell Irvin Painter”, “Old in Art School”, and “Artist Nell Painter”. Three identities, different but related. That sort of sums up one of the tracks of this book: the struggle to incorporate multiple facets, the alchemy that was a journey, a transformation, and a consolidation. It’s a fascinating read.

She also looks at big questions like: Is an Artist born or made? At what point is someone recognized as an Artist? What are the strengths and limitations of an older student, and is there room in the twenty-first century art world for what Painter refers to as her “twentieth-century eyes”?

All of me wanted to be An Artist – and yet at the same time to keep my past as thinker and writer. But how could I be An Artist, when “academic” was so poisonous a concept in art and while I had always been academic? The very worst thing in the world you could call someone’s art was “academic,” meaning sterile, humorless, obscure, unattractive, and old-fashioned. Old.
An Artist’s art is ambiguous and ironic, possessing what teacher Roger called “right nowness.” I was doing my darnedest for ambiguity and irony, with mixed results, but right nowness? I was too old for right nowness.

Painter was not a complete neophyte to the process of art; she’d drawn all her life, and had taken several studio courses, mostly in painting. She started her full-time journey at the Mason Gross school of the Arts at Rutgers, and after three years worked on her MFA at RISD. On the first day, one young student asked point blank, “How old are you?” Painter writes about the similarities, and differences, between not fitting in because of her race and sex, and not fitting in because of her age, and of the difficulty of knowing which was which.

She struggled with conflicting priorities younger students couldn’t understand: caring for elderly parents (her mother died during her third year at Rutgers, and her father suffered from crippling depression, heaped on top of the usual challenges of eight and nine decades of living, after that), and residual professional responsibilities from her career as a historian. I get the sense there was a good deal of resentment on the part of instructors towards her when her last book as a historian was released and required multiple appearances, meaning time away from school; that it was titled A History of White People probably didn’t help matters. Beginning with the application of the label “Caucasian” to white people and travelling through other delimiters of whiteness, it made the NYT Best Seller list, and she’s one of the few people who’s joyfully entered into the spirit of schtick in her appearance on The Colbert Report and come out intact. But her instructors asked, “Why did you come to art school when your book was being released?” Those involved in publishing know how those things can go beyond the writer’s control. Brief trips to acknowledge honors – a Centennial Award from Harvard, the activation of her archive at Duke – were similarly met with disapproval, in one case resulting in a thesis reader withdrawing from her project.

She describes much of her artwork, both origin and process, in the book as well, including several full-color insets of her work. For example, one of her early projects at Rutgers was a combination of inspirations. She’d attended a Met series on Chinese scrolls of the Song dynasty via public transportation. The commute – “colorful congestion and junkiness and its characteristic sounds” including La Traviata on a recorder – so delighted her, she made it part of her project:

My final painting project reworked that assignment, adopting the style of an ancient Chinese scroll, reading right to left and painted in the scrolls’ warm, desaturated colors. I depicted myself as a mounted Chinese warrior in a gorgeous red coat, repeated in the style of simultaneous narration that I had just discovered in Islamic art in art history class. Chinese-warrior-me repeated seven times, starting with leaving my house, crossing Branch Brook Park to the light rail station, to Newark Penn Station, my New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line (complete with lumpy Chinese mountains)….
My Faux Chinese Scroll commemorated my emblematic experience in art school: my commute and my affection for New Jersey camaraderie. A commute anchovy in what I might call Du Boisian oneness with my fellow anchovy-commuters.

Later, while she struggled with the process of silkscreen, she came up with an idea combining ideas of male beauty from the Classical and contemporary periods,and fashioned images of Apollo Belvedere talking to Michael Jackson (whose ever-evolving appearance fascinated her), strips of conversation about their respective hairstyles.

So much of her art seems, to me, rooted in and/or inspired by history, yet she constantly struggled with both the different ways of approaching the disciplines, and with a kind of self-competition:

As a painter, I feared I could never measure up to myself as a historian because I’d never have enough time to learn to manipulate images as well as I had learned to answer the questions on my mind through research and writing. Is this a reason to stay in a place where you do what you do better than what you can do anew? Does this mean I could never change fields? Well, know. There was no reason on earth why Nell Painter, painter, had to equal Nell Irvin Painter, historian and author. I didn’t always know that.

This tension between past and present/future, between the historian and the artist, between the scholarship and dusty research of History and the improvisation and approximation of Art, is a major theme of the book. She resolves this quite beautifully at the end of the book when the Metropolitan Museum of Art asks her to do a presentation on “African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde.” She researched numerous artists from the Harlem Renaissance for her presentation. History, combined with her new artist’s sensibilities, became something new for her:

Now what history means to me in images is freedom from coherence, clarity, and collective representation. My images carry their own visual meaning, which may or may not explicate history usefully or unequivocally. For me now, image works as particularlity, not as generalization. This how art school changed my thinking about history and how visual art set me free.

I’ve admitted my stupidity in the visual arts several times in these pages. Often, when I read about art, either through the eyes of an artist or as an academic study, I’m lost; much as when I read about poetry, the language gets abstract and takes for granted that the yellow brings joy or there’s an ominous sense to the horizon. But I found this book to be enjoyable and informative, not leaving me behind at all even in discussions of technical processes or artistic approaches. That’s partly because the writing is clear and explains what’s necessary, but I admit I looked up all kinds of things (this reading-in-front-of-the-computer thing is getting to be a habit). What is grisaille? Who is Robert Colescott, whom she refers to as her “patron saint”? I was also pleased to recognize a few names, having incorporated some of their art as header images for stories in this blog: Kara Walker, Toyin Odutola, Amy Sherald, Hale Woodruff.

Some time last year, I saw a PBS story I’d seen about Painter, and put her on my “to read” list. When I started organizing my summer read list, it seemed like a natural inclusion in the “writing about jobs” category. I’m so glad I did. At times it’s very sad reading, at times infuriating, but overall it’s joyous and celebratory. Nell Painter seems like quite a woman, and her story is worth reading.

Umberto Eco: Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (Harvest, 1998 translation)

In short, all these erudite excursions of mine are concerned with a linguistics that I would call “lunatic,” and — as I have already said in my book on perfect languages — even the most lunatic experiments can produce strange side effects, stimulating research that proves perhaps less amusing but scientifically more serious….
I feel that what links the essays collected here is that they are about ideas, projects, beliefs that exist in a twilight zone between common sense truth and error, visionary intelligence and what now seems to us stupidity, though it was not stupid in its day and we must therefore reconsider it with great respect.

This book is a collection of five lectures, on mistakes in the field of linguistics that nevertheless yielded important things. Eco uses the example of Columbus: he thought he’d found India when he stumbled across the Caribbean islands and South America (he never did make it to North America), but his mistake was a great boost for Europe (if a tragedy for the men, women, and children who were already here minding their own business).

It’s not a big book – 115 pages, plus notes – but it’s extremely information-dense. I spent six hours on three pages, and still don’t have it all. The original lectures were targeted at professionals and grad students far more advanced than I, so he doesn’t do much background before leaping into things like Fenius or Abulafia. This was another read-in-front-of-my-computer book. And, although it was a bit beyond my grasp, I loved it. Though it’s time to move on, I’m nowhere near finished with it. But I find it more profitable to loop back over material, bringing more background each time, than to dig straight down.

The first essay, “The Force of Falsity”, applies Bob Ross’ happy accidents to the humanities. After reviewing the reworking of the cosmos over centuries and Columbus, we come to the Donation of Constantine, which, though later proved to be a forgery, directed medieval power structures. And then there’s the example of Prester John. The name was familiar to me, but I assumed he was one of the endless people in the middle ages who did something I can never remember. Turns out, that’s not the case: he was totally fictitious, but letters about his massive kingdom somewhere in Asia – a place of health, wealth, and perfect morality – was part of the engine of Eastern exploration. When the possible regions for this Kingdom were finally exhausted, he was moved to Ethiopia, likewise encouraging travel in that direction.

The geographical fantasy gradually generated a political project. In other words, a phantom called up by some scribe with a knack for counterfeiting documents (a highly respected literary activity of the period) served as an alibi for the expansion of the Christian world toward Africa and Asia….

Chapter 2, “Languages in Paradise”, was the place I spent most of my time. The chapter begins with a focus on the Creation story: when God said, “Let there be light,” was that speech, or will? If speech, what language? How did God speak to Adam? In what sense did Adam name the animals, that is, was the language he spoke at that time arbitrary (as linguists consider all human language) or innate?

Eco looks at the Babel story (including an interesting inconsistency between Genesis 10, where the 72 descendants of Noah dispersed “after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations” before Babel is built and the solitary language confused in Genesis 11), then jumps to the early Christian Church where Hebrew was considered the Adamic language. And now we move to Europe in the early middle ages.

The first step is the 7th century Gaelic book Auracepit na n-Éces (Precepts of the Poets) which claims one Fenius Farsaid, present at Babel, preserved his language, and his descendants became the Gaels and thus created the Gaelic language. Irish as the primordial language: this was all news to me. But this urge to heal of the wound of Babel, as Eco characterizes it, by finding the original language proliferated throughout Europe, and is the topic of his 400-page book The Search for the Perfect Language (The Making of Europe) from which this brief essay is distilled.

It thus happens that as soon as Europe was born as a bunch of peoples speaking different tongues, European culture reacted by feeling such an event not as a beginning but as the end of a long harmony, a new Babel-like disaster, so that a remedy for linguistic confusion needed to be sought….It is a quest that took two different paths: on the one hand, people (from Raymond Lully to Leibniz and further) looked ahead, aiming to fabricate a rational language possessing the perfection of the lost speech of Eden; on the other hand, people tried to rediscover the lost language spoken by Adam.

From 7th century Ireland we leapfrog to early 14th century Dante, where things get really interesting. First of all, he has an almost Chomskian view of the original language: it was a kind of universal grammar, a way to generate language, rather than a language itself. Dante got more practical with In De Vulgari Eloquentia (and, by the way, vulgar was not pejorative; vulgar languages were considered natural as they were generated from use, while Latin, by this time only used for formal or historical purposes, was considered a grammar, or a secondary language, and more artificial), where he proposes that the Adamic language was preserved until Babel, and that Adam’s first word to God was the name of God, EL. But when he wrote the Paradiso of the Comedy, he’d changed his mind, for, in Canto XXVI, Adam tells him:

The language that I spoke was entirely extinguished before the uncompletable work (the tower of Babel) of the people of Nembrot was even conceived…. Before I descended into the pains of Hell, on earth the Highest Good was called I, from whence comes the light of joy that enfolds me; the name then became EL: and this change was proper, because the customs of mortals are like the leaves on a branch, one goes and another comes.”

Eco goes into some detail to answer why these two changes were made, eventually arriving at Abraham Abulafia, founder of the Prophetic (or Ecstatic) Kabbalah, who I vaguely recall from the mooc on Kabbalah I took a couple of years ago. It seems pretty thin to me, since it’s based on the statement “Paleographers say that in certain codes of the Divine Comedy I is written as Y” as well as some speculation about whether Dante could have known of the work of Abulafia. Eco admits it’s only a hypothesis. I sure had fun with it, since it took me all over the place. At one point I had all three volumes of the Divine Comedy, a Bible, Eco’s book, and several browser tabs all open, trying to keep up with these few paragraphs.

But though the connections seem (to me, at least, and who am I to argue with Eco) attenuated, he brings the chapter to a lovely close:

Perhaps, on his way to paradise, Dante met, even if indirectly, Abulafia. I hope both men reached the same destination, where they are now talking to each other, making fun of our desperate efforts to ascertain if they had something in common. If by chance Adam has joined the party, only God knows what kind of language those three characters are speaking together. Perhaps the angels are providing an excellent service of simultaneous translation.

In the third chapter, “From Marco Polo to Leibniz”, Eco looks at culture collisions. He name three common reactions when cultures meet: conquest, which we’re all familiar with; cultural pillage, exemplified by the Hellenization of Egypt while many aspects of science and religion were brought back to Greece even as Egypt was subjugated; and exchange, such as in the early contacts of Father Matteo Ricci (another name new to me) and Marco Polo with the Chinese. Eco names two additional possibilities: exoticism, which is seen in Orientalism and, amusingly, “the Siddhartha syndrome of the hippies”; and something he doesn’t name but seems to be a form of cultural translation:

In a very curious sense we travel knowing in advance what we are on the verge of discovering, because past reading has told us what we are supposed to discover. In other words, the influence of these background books is such that, irrespective of what travelers discover and see, they will interpret and explain everything in terms of these books

He gives the example of Marco Polo’s unicorn, which was a rhinoceros. But the high point of the chapter is in the ancient Greek and medieval European reaction to Egyptian hieroglyphs, prior to the discovery of the Rosetta stone. These hieroglyphs became viewed as the Adamic language or, possibly, a system that could generate such a perfect language

At the beginning of the 15th century, European culture rediscovered Egyptian hieroglyphs. Their code was irredeemably lost (rediscovered only in the 19th century by Champollion) but at that time a Greek manuscript, the Hieroglyphica of Horapollus (or Horus Aollon) that purported to decipher the code, was introduced into Italy, in Florence. ….The scholars of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries believed that they signified mysterious and mystical truths, understandable only by initiates. They were divine symbols, able to communicate not merely the name or forms of things , but their very essences, their true and deeply mysterious meanings. They were thus considered the first instance of perfect language.

Later, in a sort of reverse of the Prester John migration, Chinese ideograms were seen as closer to the original language and conveying the true nature of things. This gets pretty complicated, going back and forth between Egypt and China as having the closest representation, or even the actual symbols, of the original language; it’s another track I want to pay more attention to next time.

But then we get to the big finish: Leibniz, working on logic and binary representations of numbers, received a copy of the I Ching, and recognized it as using a binary code. I’m still unclear as to whether it really is, or if it just seemed that way; the characters can be arranged in different ways. But in any case, it’s fascinating reading how things as unalike as an ancient Chinese philosophical fortune system and emerging modern mathematics managed to converge.

The chapter closes with a review of these explorations in the context of errors of cultural anthropology: that is, the misunderstanding of a new culture because we interpret it in our existing terms. But the cases Eco shows are, fittingly for this book, serendipitous; Leibniz may have misinterpreted Chinese writing, but, “looking for the mathematical awareness of Fu-shi, contributed to the development of modern logic.” And again, he ends on a lovely note:

But what does sound cultural anthropology mean? I am not among those who believe there are no rules for interpretation, for even a programmatic misinterpretation requires some rules….However, the real problem does not so much concern rules as our external drive to think that our rules are the golden ones.
The real problem of a critique of our own cultural models is to ask, when we see a unicorn, if by any chance it is not a rhinoceros.

“The Language of the Austral Land”, chapter 4, deals with the concept of a perfect and universal language, which grew out of the realization that Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters for the same concepts were the same, although they were pronounced differently. It was Francis Bacon (the 16th century philosopher, not the 20th century painter) who began this European search for universal characters.

These inventors of languages, which would be called philosophic and a priori, because they were constructed on the basis of a given philosophical view of the world, no longer aimed merely at converting the infidel or recovering that mystic communication with God that distinguished the perfect language of Adam but rather at fostering commercial exchange, colonial expansion, and the diffusion of science…. Many of the results – apparent failures – of these utopists contributed to the birth of new scientific taxonomies.

Eco brings in utopian works from the familiar – Gulliver’s Travels and Thomas More’s original Utopia – to the more (to me, at least) arcane, Gabriel de Foigny’s La Terre australe connue, all of which included some description of the language of utopia. He goes into extreme detail of Foigny’s fictional grammar and construction, which is head-spinningly complex in its attempt to be simple. Then we move on to Descartes’ analysis of such constructed languages. He didn’t think it would be possible, as our ideas aren’t really that simple. Swift, Joyce, and Borges all demonstrate in fictional settings.

Though I’m pushing the quotation limit a bit, the final paragraphs of these chapters (which were delivered as lectures) are too good to miss:

The failure of the utopias of the a priori philosophical language has thus produced some interesting experiments in the Land of Novels that, instead of constructing perfect linguistic systems, have demonstrated how our imperfect languages can produce texts endowed with some poetic virtue or some visionary force, I consider this no small achievement.

Chapter 5, “The Linguistics of Joseph de Maistre”, left me behind from the start. But one phrase leaped out at me: “Since it is linguistically difficult to demonstrate that a relationship exists between words and the essence of things….” This is where the Perfect Language begins, with the word that is sky, not the English or Chinese or Hebrew word for sky. And while I’ve pretty much gone with it in the context of these chapters, it’s still a puzzle to me. It reminds me of TS Eliot’s “The Naming of Cats” in which he proposes that a cat has three names, an everyday name used by the humans, a more formal name that is unique to each cat, and a name only the cat himself knows and will never tell. Do things – the sky, a rock, a radio, love, running – all have names they themselves know? Or that God endowed them with at creation? I also wonder about telepathy, if it conveys “yesterday John and Mary had a fight and she doesn’t love him any more” as a sentence, as images, or as simply a knowledge?

Yes, I’m lost in this chapter; maybe my brain was just full from the first four. So I will leave this as a sample:

This is Maistre’s idea of Reason; to reason means to entrust oneself to any analogy that establishes an unbroken network of contacts between every thing and every other thing. This can be said, and it must be done, because it has been assumed that this network has existed since the Origin; indeed, it is itself the basis of all knowledge.

I suspect my confusion comes from what I interpret as Eco’s own disapproval of Maistre’s work. Whereas he pointed out missteps in the prior thinkers, here he seems to be quite negative. But that may be my misunderstanding. And I am, throughout, well over my pay grade with this one; this is not a general readership book.

But setting aside this last chapter, I found this small book to be a wonderful adventure. Every page, sometimes every sentence sent me scurrying to look something up. I discovered all manner of things I’d never heard of, and I still have more work to do before I can consider that I have truly “read” the book. I recommend it highly for those who, like me, have an interest in language and history, and are never happier than when they are learning something new.

Emily Wilson: The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (OUP 2014)

This book traces the paradoxes that emerge in Seneca’s life and work through his attempt to gain “control“ or “empire“ (both covered by the Latin term imperium) in both the public and personal senses: to be influential over other people within his society, and also to be stable in himself. The phrase I use as my title, “the greatest empire,“ comes from a passage in Epistle 113 (113.30 ) dealing with the problematic relationship of these two kinds of empire. Seneca insists that those who attempt to conquer the world and attain political, military, and economic power are far inferior to those who manage to achieve the empire of control over themselves: imperare sibi maximum imperium est (“The greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself” – or, “The greatest kind of power is self-control”).

I came to read this book in a roundabout way. Philosophy tends to show up a lot in my Youtube recommendations. One day I realized I didn’t know much about the Stoics, so I listened to a few brief descriptions. From there, an interview with historian James Romm cropped up; he was discussing his book on Seneca, Dying Every Day, with Francesca Rheannon. It sounded interesting – a philosopher (about whom I knew nothing, other than his name) advocating virtue and simplicity while amassing a huge fortune serving as a top advisor to Nero – so I went looking for the book. I discovered Classics professor Emily Wilson had also written this other biography of Seneca. I’m quite fond of the introduction to her recent translation of The Odyssey (which waits patiently in my TBR pile for me to sit down with it and the Fagles and get serious) so I chose to read her book instead; or, perhaps, first.

This little reading adventure was highly productive. I found out a lot more about Stoicism in general, laying a foundation for further reading, and I have a somewhat better understanding of early Imperial Rome. I have trouble with straight history texts, which tend to throw names and battles and conquests around until I give up, but approaching history from the angle of biography/philosophy helps get the straight history stick together.

Seneca turns out to be a fascinating character. The only problem is, there’s very little solid historical data about his life. Few original sources exist, and what secondary sources exist sometimes contradict each other. Seneca’s own comments in his letters sometimes contradict what factual information exists. Much of his writing seems to be defensive, countering criticisms. Drawing conclusions about motivations is risky business. But it makes for a damn good read.

The book is organized chronologically from birth to death to his effect on the future up to the 21st century, and seats Seneca’s works in the context in which he wrote them, at least, as much as possible, since some works are undateable. Chapter I, Parental Love is Wise, goes through his birth in Spain and the family dynamics. This is often the part of biography that I find tedious and boring, but here it was quite helpful, since it helped me understand the social and political norms of the time, as well as potential family dynamics at play (an overbearing father, a favored younger brother). Chapter II, Nowhere and Everywhere, traces several journeys Seneca undertook, from time in Egypt to help with his respiratory illness (probably TB, asthma, some such thing), to his initial public service under Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, to exile to Corsica for adultery, which may or may not have actually taken place.

Then we get into the thick of things:

In Chapter III, we move back to Rome: Seneca, now a middle-aged man of about fifty, was recalled from exile thanks to the emperor’s new wife Agrippina and became tutor to her son Nero. I focus on the fascinating tensions and contradictions created by Seneca’s position as the educator of the young prince, including the paradoxes of being an ascetic philosopher who achieved vast wealth in the imperial court. In Chapter IV we turn to the life and work of Seneca’s last years, his repeated attempts to disentangle himself from Nero’s service, and eventually his long awaited death. The Epilogue traces some key moments in the reception of Seneca’s life and work in the later Western tradition. I point to the ways that Seneca’s yearnings for wealth and wisdom, for death and time, for power and kindness, for flexibility and constancy, even in the most terrifying and tempestuous of circumstances, have provoked both shocked resistance and the desire to emulate him, in the early Christian period, in the Renaissance, and into twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

That last Epilogue is wonderful. As I read more and more about Stoicism and its similarities and differences with Epicureanism (which I dove into a couple of years ago via Greenblatt’s The Swerve) and Cynicism, I kept thinking of two other possible connections: Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy in which Boethius is assured that his virtue is what matters, and nothing else should bother him, and contemporary cognitive and dialectical therapies, which examine painful emotional states for the thoughts that give rise to them, and try to eliminate any cognitive distortions that are causing the actual distress. I found no mention of Boethius in this book (there are some connections elsewhere, but I’m not confident in my knowledge of either Stoicism or Boethius to draw conclusions, so I’ll leave that for another day) but Wilson does connect the dots to CBT/DBT: “Seneca’s discussion of anger, and of the emotions in general, there’s comparison with modern analysis of emotional disturbance and mental health, having particular affinity’s with the cognitive therapy movement in psychology.”

One of the sociohistorical elements that this book helped me with is the shift from Rome the Republic to Imperial Rome. I got a much better sense of this, through Wilson’s comparison of Cicero and Seneca:

Moreover, Cicero and Seneca were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Cicero (despite repeated acts of hedging and compromise) struggled to stand up for the old ways of the Republic. Seneca, by contrast, belonged both to the empire and to the emperor. Despite deep hostility to particular emperors (such as Caligula and Claudius-at least after his death) and a degree of covert resistance to his ward and patron, Nero, Seneca had no interest in restoring the Republic and no particular hostility toward the institutional structure of the Principate.
Cicero turned to the writing of his works of philosophy only in the interludes between his political engagements; philosophy was, for him, a means to an end, the primary end being the renewal of the Republic. For Seneca, philosophy was an end in itself. His rhetoric aims to achieve a change in the readers individual psyche, not in the institutions of government. In Cicero’s time, there was still a sense that political action could make a difference. Cicero hoped that he really could bring down Caesar and Marc Anthony. Seneca, by contrast, had no hope that he could achieve anything by direct opposition to any of the emperors under which he lived. His best hope was to moderate some of Nero’s worst tendencies and to maximize his own sense of autonomy.

Seems I’ve heard that phrase about “moderating the worst tendencies” a few times in recent years. Never seems to work out that way, does it? And yet another book has special overtones when read in 2019.

As a fiction reader, I would claim the primary conflict here is between Seneca’s words and the life he leads. He carved out some exceptions to simplicity, declaring wealth and comfort to be “indifferent”, that is, not necessarily opposed to virtue as long as the head isn’t turned by them, and they can be easily released. Wilson spends a good deal of time looking at both sides of this. His essay De Beneficiis (On Benefits) seems in places to be an indirect defense of the wealth he had accumulated under Nero:

Seneca’s arguments in the essay allow him to suggest positive interpretations of his own service to the Neronian court, even though he never actually draws the connection directly. For instance, his insistence that the most important benefits are not material at all allows him to offer an implicit answer to those, like Suillius, who complained at how rich he had become . … This is a wonderful way of having his cake and eating it too. Nobody needs to be jealous or critical of his own huge material benefits under Nero, because wealth and status are not real benefits; the real gift Nero has given him, if any, comes from the mind.

In some places, Wilson uses what I interpret as sly wit to hold his feet to the fire a little bit. In his Letters to Licilius (112.2), written near the end of his life, he writes, “Not every Vine accepts grafting.” Wilson notes: “This is as close as Seneca ever comes to discussing his failure at teaching Nero.” She describes his daily self-examination, which found its way into the practices of future intellectuals such as Descartes and Virginia Woolf, as not precisely self-examinations as much as I’m OK what’s wrong with you-examinations:

His account of his day slips from the self who is supposedly the subject of the analysis to gaze around at all the other people he has encountered in the course of his waking hours. In discussing, for instance, how he snapped at an “uneducated person“, he does not then try to work out what made him snap; instead, he shifts to analyze why this kind of person might not be teachable, and therefore, why one ought to avoid such people. If this is the kind of moral training Seneca gave Nero, it is easy to see why the boy did not become strikingly self aware or self-critical.

It’s that last line that made me smile.

But she’s also got a good point: it is the very conflict between words and deeds that elevates his work.

Seneca’s intense awareness of, for example, the emptiness of luxury was not independent of his own experiences in luxurious living. Rather, he knew of what he wrote. He understood first hand that wealth cannot buy peace of mind; if he had not been so rich, he would have been less conscious both of the dangers and the advantages of having money. He was neither a monster nor a saint; he was a talented, ambitious, deeply thoughtful man, who struggled to create an uneasy compromise between his ideals and the powers that were, and who meditated constantly on how to balance his goals and his realities. His work is deeply preoccupied with the question of how to create and fully inhabit an authentic self, end of what it might mean to be authentic. This is one of the many ways in which his work seems particularly relevant to contemporary anxieties and concerns.

Some of Seneca’s darker views – on slaves, or on capital punishment – can be seen as simply rooted in his time. He complained of an exhausting trip to one of his villas; he was riding in a carriage carried by a group of slaves, but their fatigue was not noticed or mentioned. His objections to gladiator fighting, which gave him a reputation for humaneness, was indeed humane, not for the gladiators, but for the spectators: “He deserves to suffer this punishment for his crime. But you, poor man, what did you do that you deserve to watch it?”

The fourth chapter describes Seneca’s attempts to get out of Nero’s service without getting himself killed. I’m still not precisely sure why this was such an issue, but apparently it’s more about Nero being a touch crazy and Roman mores and such. And he doesn’t quite make it. He’s convicted of conspiracy, and sentenced to suicide. But, as Wilson says, “For somebody who wrote so frequently about the importance of facing death bravely and readily, Seneca was extremely good at avoiding it.“ He had to try three times before he succumbed: wrist slashing didn’t work, neither did hemlock, but it was a steam bath that finally suffocated his diseased lungs. This is almost too sad to satirize.

I get the sense, having listened to the interview with James Romm, that his book, which limits itself to the Nero years, is more consistently kind to Seneca; I’ll have to see if that plays out if/when I read it. But Wilson presents a balanced view, allowing readers to weigh factors with their own values scale. I’m quite taken with the writing style, which combines so many layers. It was truly an enjoyable read, and while there are a few elements that still confuse me, I have definitely made some progress here, both philosophically and historically.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By (UCP, 1980/2003)

We are concerned primarily with how people understand their experiences. We view language as providing data that can lead to general principles of understanding. The general principles involve whole systems of concepts rather than individual words or individual concepts. We have found that such principles are often metaphoric in nature and involve understanding one kind of experience in terms of another kind of experience.
…Definitions for a concept are seen as characterizing the things that are inherent in the concept itself. We, on the other hand, are concerned with how human beings get a handle on the concept – how they understand it and function in terms of it. Madness and journeys give us handles on the concept of love, and food gives us handle on the concept of an idea.

Any time I read anything about language, whether it’s from a literary or neuroscience or psychosocial point of view, I’m enthralled. This book, or at least excerpts from it, was on several reading lists when I concentrated in linguistics as an undergrad; revisiting it now has been incredibly exciting, since all these years later I have come across other facets that fit into the outlined concepts. Two caveats: I did a recreational read, as opposed to a serious academic read; and in the 40 years since this book was published, many of the concepts have been refined, expanded, or qualified. But damn, it was fun anyway. I need to do this more often.

Key to the theory: metaphors, the handles that help us understand more abstract concepts, emerge from our physical and cultural experience. This implies that different cultures would have different metaphors. The opening salvo of the text was the example ARGUMENT IS WAR (see what I did there? The book is, after all, an argument for a theory). He shows how elements of combat, clear in a personal argument (intimidation, threat, appeal to authority) also show up in what he calls rational argument, such as a formal debate or academic panel, because a great many cultures find the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor fits. Imagine a world in which an argument is experienced differently: ARGUMENT IS EDUCATION, or AFFECTION, or COOPERATION. Imagine Twitter in such a world. Hard to do, isn’t it?

I found certain aspects downright exciting, mostly because they brought in concepts I’d seen in other contexts, usually moocs (how did I read before moocs?). One is the rather obvious CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT, which barely deserves mention in the real world. Of course we feel warmer sitting next to a fire than if we sit in the next room. But apply it to syntax, and things get interesting.

There is a rule in English, sometimes called negative transportation, which has the effect of placing the negative further away from the predicate it logically negates; for example,
Mary doesn’t think he’ll leave until tomorrow.
Here n’t logically negates leave rather than think. This sentence has roughly the same meaning as
Mary thinks he won’t leave until tomorrow.
Except that in the first sentence, where the negative is FURTHER AWAY from leave, it has a WEAKER negative force. In the second sentence, where the negative is CLOSER, the force of negation is STRONGER.

Lakoff extends that beyond negation. Examples in this section include “I found that the chair was comfortable” vs “I found the chair comfortable.” The first sentence could apply if I looked up product reviews and saw that most people said it was a comfortable chair (or, in the 80s, asked people if it was comfortable) whereas the second strongly implies that I sat in the chair and judged it comfortable. “I taught Greek to Harry” and “I taught Harry Greek” show the same pattern: the first sentence allows some wiggle room (I might have taught Greek to Harry, but I’m not saying he learned it).

In summary, in all these cases a difference in form indicates a subtle difference in meaning. Just what subtle differences are is given by the metaphor CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT, where CLOSENESS applies to elements of syntax of the sentence, while STRENGTH OF EFFECT applies to the meaning of the sentence. …
The subtle shades of meaning that we see in the examples above are thus the consequences not of special rules of English but of a metaphor that is in our conceptual system applying naturally to the form of the language.

This allows for all sorts of artful dodging on the part of politicians and salespeople. Or, if you want to be more upbeat about it, go see Arrival again, with this on a post-it: “Because we conceptualize linguistic form in spatial terms, it is possible for certain spatial metaphors to apply directly to the form of a sentence, as we conceive of it spatially.” Lakoff uses this to propose that true paraphrase is impossible, since changing anything about a sentence – even word order – changes the meaning, if only in very subtle ways. If paraphrase is impossible, translation is well beyond the pale. And yet we go for it.

Position, in various ways, shows up again and again in these examples. Some of them stem from the canonical person:

The canonical person forms a conceptual reference point, and an enormous number of concepts in our conceptual system are oriented with respect to whether or not they are similar to the properties of the prototypical person. Since people typically function in an upright position, see and move frontward, spend most of their time performing actions, and view themselves as being basically good, we have a basis in our experience for viewing ourselves as more UP than DOWN, more FRONT than BACK, more ACTIVE than PASSIVE, more GOOD than BAD. Since we are where we are and exist in the present, we conceive of ourselves as being HERE rather than THERE, and NOW rather than THEN. This determines what Cooper and Ross call the ME-FIRST orientation: up, FRONT, ACTIVE, GOOD, HERE, and NOW are all oriented toward the canonical person; DOWN, BACK-WARD, PASSIVE, BAD, THERE, and THEN are all oriented away from the canonical person.

This affects word order: we say up and down, good and bad, and the other pairs, in those orders, me-first, unless there’s a reason to reverse them. And previously this preponderance of being upright when healthy brought us to the GOOD IS UP, HAPPY IS UP metaphors: my spirits rose, cheer up, things are looking up, etc.

One of those, UNKNOWN IS UP (something uncertain is up in the air) has all kinds of interesting consequences, even though it’s in conflict with GOOD IS UP, and I admit I’m a bit confused, since an explanation or resolution seems absent. Nevertheless, it matches with the rising intonation of a question (in English; hey, I’m having enough trouble without bringing Mandarin and other tonal languages into things).

And it also matches with one of my other favorite topics: maps! All this GOOD IS UP stuff reminded me of the convention of putting north at the top of a map. So I went poking around and verified that NORTH IS UP is a fairly recent convention, one I thought might be related to mapmakers living in the northern hemisphere using the North Star for orientation and various measurements, and the UC-Santa Barbara Geography department seems to more or less agree with me. But maybe not. Map historian Jerry Brotton of Queen Mary University in London explains explains it differently: in Christian medieval maps, east was often at the top, as, for example, in the oft-seen T-O pattern. Early Islamic maps put south at the top. Chinese maps did indeed put north up. “In Chinese culture the Emperor looks south because it’s where the winds come from, it’s a good direction. North is not very good but you are in a position of subjection to the emperor, so you look up to him”. That’s some cool cultural positional orientation right there. It was Mercator who pretty much sealed the deal on north being at the top, and Brotton considers that to have been an arbitrary choice.

But we’re just getting started on position. Lakoff describes how we typically see a frontless object as facing us, meaning if a ball is between me and a tree, I think of the ball as being in front of the tree. But that isn’t universal. He cites the Hausa, a Nigerian ethnic group, as seeing the ball behind the tree; it’s as if the tree inherits my orientation (that’s my interpretation; Lakoff would come up with a much better metaphor, I’m sure) and is, like me, facing forward, which means its back is towards me, and the ball. This brought to mind egocentric vs geocentric frames of reference, a concept I picked up from (guess what) another mooc, in which a neuroscientist brought in Lakoff. By the way, the book includes an afterword from 2003 which includes some neuroscience, particularly how the brain maps space. Don’t you just love it when everything comes together?

Another really exciting idea, one completely new to me (unless I forgot about it, a not-unlikely possibility) is what Lakoff calls AN INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION – not a musical instrument (though it might be) but an instrument as a kind of tool. He gives the examples of naming cars, guns, and, indeed, musical instruments, and/or referring to them as travelling companions, participants in the journey rather than mere things: “Me and my old Chevy”. This leads to the observation that, in English, the word “with” indicates both accompaniment (“I went to the movies with Sally”) and instrumentality (“I cut the salami with a knife”).

But given the fact that with indicates ACCOMPANIMENT in English, it is no accident that with also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY….
The reason that this is not arbitrary is that our conceptual system is structured by the metaphor AN INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION. It is a systematic, not an accidental, fact about English that the same word that indicates ACCOMPANIMENT also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY.
This grammatical fact about English is coherent with the conceptual system of English.
As it happens, this is not merely a fact about English. With few exceptions, the following principle holds in all the languages of the world:
The word or grammatical device that indicates ACCOMPANIMENT also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY.
….Where the INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION coherence does not appear in a language, it is common for some other conceptual coherence to appear in its place. Thus, there are languages where INSTRUMENT is indicated by a form of the verb use or where ACCOMPANIMENT is indicated by the word for and. These are other, nonmetaphorical, ways in which form may be coherent with content.

I was immediately frustrated that he didn’t indicate the languages that are the exceptions, or give better examples, so I went looking for more detail – and found a surprise (Google is a wonderful thing). In 1997 one Thomas Stoltz, professor of linguistics at the University of Bremen, apparently also went looking to quantify Lakoff’s statement:

However, the large-scale comparison of 323 languages has yielded a completely different result. Contrary to the supposed universal status of the above syncretistic pattern, two thirds of the languages in our sample distinguish between comitative and instrumental by formal, ie, morphological means (Stoltz 1997:127).
…As a matter of fact, coherent languages cluster in Europe whereas incoherent languages are by far more frequent outside Europe (Stoltz 1997:130)

Thomas Stolz, “On Circum-Baltic instrumentals and comitatives” from The Circum-Baltic Languages: Grammar and typology, edited by Östen Dahl, Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm

I would guess that, since 1987, even more research has been done, and somewhere there’s a detailed exposition of which languages do what. If I kept diving down this rabbit hole, I’d never get to another book, so at some point I have to accept that everything is asterisked and move on. But it’s still fascinating to me, how language works.

Much of the book, particularly the early chapters, lay down a framework to hold all these theories together. There’s also a section towards the end on truth, which he roughly subdivides into three camps: objectivist, subjectivist, and experientialist, which combines elements of the other two. The analysis of the limitations of LABOR IS A RESOURCE is politically relevant right now. And there’s a chapter on metaphor creating new meaning which includes an anecdote that’s completely charmed me:

An Iranian student, shortly after his arrival in Berkeley, took a seminar on metaphor from one of us. Among the wondrous things that he found in Berkeley was an expression that he had heard over and over and understood as a beautifully sane metaphor. The expression was “the solution of my problems “ – which he took to be a large volume of liquid, bubbling and smoking, containing all of your problems, either dissolved or in the form of precipitates, with catalysts constantly dissolving some problems (for the time being ) and precipitating out others. He was terribly disillusioned to find that to the residence of Berkeley had no such chemical metaphor in mind. And well he might be, for the chemical metaphor is both beautiful and insightful. It gives us a view of problems as things that never disappear utterly and that cannot be solved once and for all. All of your problems are always present, only they may be dissolved and in solution, or they may be in solid form. The best you can hope for is to find a catalyst that will make one problem dissolve without making another one precipitate out.

Reading a 1980 book in 2019 is sometimes weird. There are lots of references to Jimmy Carter, the energy crisis, and inflation, all of which seem slightly off-key as we’re reinterpreting these things in more contemporaneous terms. Oh, and Pete Rose, pre-scandal. As were so many back then. There are passages that seem prescient: “Communication theories based on the conduit metaphor turn from the pathetic to the evil when they are employed indiscriminately on a large scale, say, in government surveillance or computerized files.…When a society lives by the conduit metaphor on a large scale, misunderstanding, persecution, and much worse are the likely products.”

It’s been a very long time since I read a real academic work on language. So why now? Back in April of 2014 – five years ago, which is a lot longer in confused-old-lady time – I took a Futurelearn mooc about Cognitive Poetics taught by Peter Stockwell out of the University of Nottingham. I’d just started moocing; as became my habit, I followed him on Twitter. This May, he tweeted something that caught my attention: one of the books that was most significant to him was this very text. This was just a day after I posted my reading list for this summer, but I realized just how long it had been and got a hankering to trip down Memory Lane, so I added it. Prof. Stockwell has his own book on Cognitive Poetics in the process of publication; I’m considering this a sort of warm-up, and boy, was it fun.

John Urschel and Louisa Thomas, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football (Penguin, 2019)

I am a mathematician, a PhD candidate at MIT.
I am also a former professional football player, a retired offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens.
Many people see me as a walking contradiction. They think that the pursuit of excellence in football makes the pursuit of excellence in mathematics impossible. They think that a strong interest in one makes a strong interest in the other improbable.…
I don’t spend a lot of time wondering about the ways in which I’m an anomaly. My life is the only one I know. It’s normal to me. We all have multiple and diverging identities. In different ways, math and football are both essential to me.

I’ll admit, I see football and math – at least, when done at the high levels like the NFL and an MIT doctorate – as an improbable pairing. It’s not that an interest or talent in one would preclude interest and ability in the other; it’s the time and focus needed to reach the NFL or MIT. Urschel managed to pull it off, then wrote a book describing his journey so far.

Don’t expect to find an easy secret; there isn’t one. Urschel points to two innate characteristics that helped: his ability to compartmentalize – to focus on football during football time and to focus on math during math time – and his work ethic. I’d add to that a passion for both fields, which includes curiosity, a need to go beyond showing up for class or practice whether it’s reading extra books or observe expert players and put in the extra work to fully understand or develop skill. I don’t know much about how football players talk about football, but I know a little about how mathematicians talk about math (at least, publicly) and he talks about math like a mathematician. I can only assume football players will see the same feature in his description of practice and games.

I’m sometimes asked about the connection between math and football. People want to know what edge being good in a classroom gave me on the field. I know what they want to hear, and I usually give it to them. I talk about basic physics, intelligence, and problem solving. But the truth is, football and math or disjoint in my experience. When the ball is snapped, I’m not thinking about vectors and forces. I’m not really thinking about much of anything. I’m simply moving.
Math gives me a way of making sense of the world. It helps me see past the confusion of everyday life and glimpse the underlying structures of the universe. It reveals the properties of shapes and the prevalence of patterns. It describes the relationships between things. I’m drawn to the rigor and clarity of mathematics, and to the elegance and simplicity of solutions to even the most complex problems. …
Football put me in contact with something messier, something elemental and deep within me. Its strength and not only my body, but also my confidence and will. …I never had as much raw athletic talent as a lot of the guys I played with and against. I relied on my intensity and competitiveness and desire.

I smiled when I read this. It comes from years of algebra and calculus teachers trying to find ways to make math interesting or engaging to their students, while teaching calculation techniques and assigning twelve differentiation problems that are boring as snot. So they bring in, as Vi Hart has said, shopping and sports, because kids love shopping and sports so of course they’ll be interested in how the path of a ball can be predicted from starting speed and position or the price of an object from the percent markup. No, they won’t, but it’s the best they can do. And in the meantime, Urschel is explaining the birthday problem, which I’ve run into several times in various probability moocs – if you have 23 people in a room, there’s about a 50% chance two of them have the same birthday, and once you get more than about 60 people, it’s almost a sure thing. That’s interesting because it seems wrong, so he explains how it works in terms anyone can understand. Or skip the explanation, if you really want to; it won’t diminish the rest of the book. But it’s fun.

Urschel didn’t realize he had any special math ability for a long time. As a college freshman, he started out in Engineering, but took all the math classes and had to be forced to take any engineering at all. Even when he realized it was math all along, he wasn’t focused on being a mathematician, because he wasn’t sure what a mathematician did all day. It wasn’t until he worked on a paper solving a heretofore-unexamined problem that he finally understood:

And this is what mathematicians did all the time. They didn’t sit around doing really hard homework, which was my old vague conception of the life of a math professor.
In that moment, I realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to produce new results. I wanted to discover things that no one else had. I wanted to be a mathematician.

Again, this made me smile. I’ve said before that in high school, I assumed that mathematicians wrote problems for math books. It wasn’t until recently, when I could look over the shoulders of mathematicians at work through moocs and Twitter and blogs and books, that I realized that idea was wrong.

After high school, Urschel had offers from several colleges, including Princeton, which made his mom swoon (she still hoped he’d be an aeronautics engineer – a rocket scientist). But he chose Penn State, because of football, rather than the academic program (forgive me, but apparently Penn State is a big deal in college football?). It was in a class on differential equations, when he solved a fifth-degree polynomial in his head (the professor posed it as a problem that could not be solved by traditional methods, and was shocked when he raised his hand and gave the correct answers) that he realized math was something he was good at – and something that was way more interesting than he’d realized.

He describes being something of an underdog on the football field, and his way of dealing with it:

I didn’t know what the others would see in me either. I was an undersized recruit, and not prized. I had terrible technique. I was well aware that didn’t really to be the one no one wanted to be around. ….
So I kept quiet period there was only one way I knew how to deal with the uncertainty: control what I could. I could keep my head down. I couldn’t turn myself into some outgoing social person automatically I could be respected. So I’d listened calmly when the coaches yelled at me, which they did every day period I’d figure out whom not to mess with and keep my distance. I’d learn who the leaders were.

We see a lot of the football side of his life, but there’s little about individual plays and more about the decisions he made, and his life as a football player. For instance he describes a distinct difference between college and pro ball, which he characterizes as a shift from being in a brotherhood to having professional colleagues. There’s some detail of individual plays, particularly one game with the Patriots involving the strategic effect of an ineligible receiver downfield (I’m lost here, but this might mean something to someone reading), and a few instances of the expected grit of playing football. Like noticing he was walking funny, and discovering he’d ripped a callus off the ball of his foot – so he shoved it back on and kept playing.

I had to laugh at Urschel’s remedy for post-game pain:

On the plane back to Baltimore, I passed out from exhaustion.…My body had never felt so beat up. My hand was throbbing where a nose tackle had to stepped on it; my knee creaked when I bent it; my head had a dull ache. But when I lay in bed, I was too wired from the game – not to mention all the caffeine, equivalent to 10 cups of coffee, that I had taken right before the game period so I got up, found a pen and a clean piece of paper and focused on an unproved conjecture. Immediately, I felt myself calm down.

Like I said, he sounds like a mathematician.

We go through the revelation of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal with him. Sandwiched between multiple declarations of “abuse is way worse than any football team penalty, and the kids suffered more than any of us ever will” is a somewhat bewildered position: this happened years go, why is it affecting us? Those of us who read a lot of racial justice material usually hear this in the form of “I never had slaves, why should I be penalized?” The answer is the advantage one group makes for itself at the expense of another. Urschel himself becomes the front-and-center icon of “We don’t just care about football, we have scholars too”, but no other player is mentioned as serving PR in this way; so my question is, was he the only one who could present such a narrative? And isn’t that a statement, too?

He also takes us through his decision to retire from professional football. Because I follow a lot of mathematicians on Twitter, I remember this: his announcement immediately followed the New York Times article describing a frightening study of brain trauma in football players. But Urschel explains he retired because, when it came time to go back to football, he simply wanted to stay at MIT and continue his math work. As surprising as it may seem to the rest of us, math, like football, is a youngster’s game (I heard that from one of my math mooc profs a few years ago, too). He’d already had one serious concussion, an injury that took months for full recovery, and he was aware of the risks. He also knew the study that got so much attention had a problem with selection bias (another term I’m familiar with, in a primitive way, from another mooc), a point made by the researcher herself and included in the NYT article. So the timing was a coincidence.

This book wasn’t originally on my reading list for this year. I added it to the category of “writing about work” because I kept seeing it. I follow several mathematicians on Twitter – fallout from all those moocs – and just as Penn State held Urschel up as a sign that football players can be scholars, mathematicians hold him up as a sign that mathematicians can do cool things like play football. Jordan Ellenberg interviewed him for Hmmm. Ben Orlin got a great blurb from him on his first book, Math With Bad Drawings. And just as I finished this book and started notes for this post, Mike Lawler posted about the credit-bearing online Calculus course on outlier.org that Urschel is teaching; if I had $400 sitting around I’d take it for sure. If stuff like this had been around when I was in school, who knows, maybe things would’ve been a little different for me.

It’s an interesting and fun read. This is the book I should’ve read when I was moving, rather than poetic analysis.

Mark Kurlansky: Salt: A World History (Penguin, 2002)

I bought the rock in Spanish Catalonia…. it was, after all, despite a rosy blush of magnesium, almost pure salt, a piece of the famous salt mountain of Cardona. The various families that had occupied the castle atop the next mountain had garnered centuries of wealth from such rock.
I took it home and kept it on a windowsill. One day it got rained on, and white salt crystals started appearing on the pink. My rock was starting to look like salt, which would ruin its mystique. So I rinsed off the crystals with water. Then I spent fifteen minutes carefully patting the rock dry. By the next day it was sitting in a puddle of brine that had leached out of the rock. The sun hit the puddle of clear water. After a few hours, square white crystals began to appear in the puddle. Solar evaporation was turning brine into salt crystals.
For a while it seemed I had a magical stone that would perpetually produce brine puddles. Yet the rock never seemed to get smaller. Sometimes in dry weather it would appear to completely dry out, but on a humid day, a puddle would again appear under it. I decided I could dry out the rock by baking it in a small toaster oven. Within a half hour white stalactites were drooping from the toaster grill. I left the rock on a steel radiator cover, but the brine threatened to corrode the metal. So I transferred it to a small copper tray. A green crust formed on the bottom, and when I rubbed off the discoloration, I found the copper had been polished.
My rock lived by its own rules. When friends stopped by, I told them the rock was salt, and they would delicately lick a corner and verify that it tasted just like salt.
Those who think a fascination with salt is a bizarre obsession have simply never owned a rock like this.

To those of us who buy a 2-pound canister of salt every couple of years (maybe every four or five years, if we do little cooking) and leave it on the topmost shelf until the saltshaker needs refilling, it seems a bizarre notion that salt often determined the population centers and shifting fortunes of the ancient and medieval world. For those of us who have been cautioned about excess salt in the modern diet, it’s surprising that lack of salt halted armies and dissipated cities. And where salt is freely available on every table in America, we have to remember that salt production, transport, and trade was, for several thousand years, the primary occupation of a sizable percentage of humanity, when it was far more life-and-death than seasoning a french fry.

Kurlansky’s book puts salt at the center of every society, from ancient Chinese administration and the Mayan empire to medieval Europe to the American Civil War and Indian independence. It’s not a casual-reading book. I could spend three to six months using this as a text central to a host of other sources on world history and science (and it would require other sources; this presentation is often more broad than deep). A quick read was all I had time (and mental stamina; I’m still pretty befuddled) for right now, so I’m mostly going to stick to the “fun stuff” in this post. But be assured, there’s plenty more within the pages.

What “fun stuff” could salt provide, you may wonder? How about the underground salt cathedrals, just outside Krakow, Poland:

In 1689, the mines began offering miners daily Catholic services at their underground place of work. The miners of Wieliczka begin carving religious figures out of rock salt. Three hundred feet below the surface, miners carved a chapel out of rock salt with statues and bas relief scenes along the floor, walls, and ceiling. They even fashioned elaborate chandeliers from salt crystals.
Increasingly, the mine had visitors. In the early 17th century, as in Durnberg, the Crown began to bring special guests, mostly royalty. They came to dance in ballrooms, dine in carved dining rooms, be rowed in underwater lagoons. In 1830, the Wieliczka Salt Mine Band, which still performs, was started because of the quality of the acoustics in the mine.

Not only is the Band still available, you can visit the mine on your next trip to Europe, and even hold your wedding or business meeting in the rooms carved from salt.

Ancient China was, like most societies, deeply invested in salt, and provide some interesting perspectives. Soy sauce was invented as a way to stretch the preservative and culinary power of salt; it started out as fermented fish sauce, with soybeans added for bulk. Later, the fish was dropped, though it was retained in Southeast Asia. Salt and Iron government monopolies were a long-term source of debate through several early dynasties. And perhaps most interestingly, Kurlansky tells of the brine wells, dug in Sichuan about 250 BCE, where workers would sometimes become ill and even die, or where occasional explosions would occur. Within a few hundred years, the Chinese learned to tame the evil spirits causing these misfortunes by a system of bamboo pipes channeling them to boiling houses where they lit flames to evaporate the brine into salt. This is considered the first use of natural gas in the world. It wasn’t for a couple of millennia, until geology became established as a science, that we learned how underground salt deposits trap organic material, leading to the frequent partnership of salt and oil or gas. In fact, Texas became an oil state when companies drilling for salt discovered oil instead.

Egypt’s salty contribution to the world was, of course, mummification (which used natron rather than sodium chloride) and, culinarily, the olive. It seems olive oil was widely used for thousands of years throughout the Mediterranean region, but olives themselves were considered inedible until some Egyptian discovered they were edible if soaked in brine. But it turns out the best olives for oil are not the best olives for eating, so one had to decide.

Salt was a valuable commodity, so mines turned up in Europe as well. Some of the earliest mines, around the time Julius Caesar approached Gaul, were tended by Celts. This was all pretty normal, until a more recent discovery:

Only in the 1990s did Westerners become aware of the mummies that had been found in the Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. …As with the early Egyptian burials that are 1000 years older, the corpses have been preserved by the naturally salty soil.
….These unknown People were in appearance notably similar to the large blue eyed blonde Celtic warriors described by the Romans almost two millennia later. Their conical felt hats and twill jackets bore a close resemblance to those of the salt miners in Hallein and Hallstatt – not unlike the much later plaids of the Scottish Highlands.…Textile historian Elizabeth Wayland Barber concluded that even the weave was nearly identical workmanship. Why Celts might have been in the salty desert of Asia many centuries before there were known to be Celts remains a mystery.
In the centuries when the Celtic culture was documented, beginning 1300 years after these seemingly Celtic bodies were buried in Asian salt, they did trade and travel great distances, usually selling salt from their rich central European mines.

Kurlansky’s book was published while investigation of these mummies was just beginning. As time goes on, it gets more complicated, with subsequent research bringing in Tocharian linguistics, DNA analysis, and political tragedy (yes, that Uyghur).

Salt became much less necessary after the development of canning and refrigeration/freezing technology. Salt led to other discoveries, such as potash and chlorine bleach. It was a former salt baron, Edmund McIlhenny, who, his salt fortunes in now useless Confederate dollars after the Civil War, happened upon capsicum peppers from Mexico, and created… Tabasco sauce.

The United States is both the largest salt producer and the largest salt consumer. It produces over 40,000,000 metric tons of salt the year, which earns more than one billion in sales revenue. …But little of this is table salt. In the United States, only 8% of salt production is for food. The largest single use of American salt, 51 percent, is for deicing roads.

Plot twist: After millennia of harvesting salt from the earth and sea, we are now putting it back. Some future historian might wonder why.

Kurlansky has written a few dozen books on a variety of interesting subjects, including paper, milk, the Basques, and an album of international culinary adventures with his daughter as they spin the globe and cook a meal from whatever pops up. I’m perhaps more taken with Simon Garfield’s style (and inclusion of far more diagrams, maps, and visual examples of the topic at hand), but don’t be surprised if one of these – perhaps Paper or International Night – shows up on these pages at some point.

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.