Pushcart XLII: Philip Connors, “Burn Scars” (nonfiction) from N+1 #25

I thought I heard a shout from far below….
The shout came twice more before I recognized the voice and hollered back. It belonged to Teresa, fiancée of my friend John, whom we had both been mourning for three weeks…. During a dozen summers of lookout duty I had mostly spent my nights in a cabin at ground level, in another mountain range entirely, but there was no cabin on John’s peak, only the tower — a spacious live-in model. I invited Teresa up the stairs, feeling almost embarrassed at having to proffer an invitation. She had spent far more time there than I had, hanging out with John; I was merely an emergency fill-in, on loan from a different ranger district twenty miles east. A fire there the previous summer had left my home tower surrounded by a 214-square-mile burn scar: a bird’s nest marooned in a charscape. There wasn’t a whole lot left to catch fire in that country, so my boss figured he could spare me for a few weeks while I covered John’s shifts on Signal Peak, and my relief lookout worked extra to cover mine.

I remember having read a short story featuring a fire lookout. It’s an interesting setting for a story, full of associations – wilderness, caution, protection, vigilance, risk. But this is not fiction. Connors worked as a fire lookout, wrote a book about it, and now tells another episode in this piece.

It’s an elegy of sorts, a kind of mourning song for both John, whose death came not by fire but by a trail accident, and the wilderness as it burns and tries to grow back. But fire isn’t the only danger, as the wilderness itself is encroached on by people – and, as he points out in the essay, fires started by people tend to do more damage than those started by lightning.

This is beautiful writing, lyrically weaving all those themes together as Connors and Teresa prepare to return John’s ashes to the wilderness he spent so much time protecting. I’ve said many times I’m not a nature person, but even I can be alarmed by the loss of woodlands at the hands of both fire, and development. What’s particularly interesting is the implied respect for fire. This isn’t an enemy to be conquered or feared; it’s a force with which we share the earth. It’s a tone I’ve heard in accounts of city firefighters as well.

In 1947, forest fires destroyed huge swaths of Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island, up the coast from where I live. I’ve driven through some of those areas. They still have the acrid smell of burning pine, seventy years later.

Although it’s a long piece, it reads quite easily. Nevertheless I found my mind wandering. I’m just not made for nature. But I recognize, and admire, love when I see it, be it love for a friend, or a forest.

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Pushcart XLII: Jaquira Díaz, “Beach City” (nonfiction) from Brevity #52

We talked about Miami Beach like it belonged to us, convinced that the tourists who came down to swim in our ocean and dance in our nightclubs were fucking up our city. We were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-year-old hoodlums, our hair in cornrows, too-tight ponytails, too much hairspray, dark brown lip liner, noses and belly buttons pierced, door-knocker earrings, jailhouse ankle tattoos….
We were the ones who knew what it meant to belong here, to be made whole during full moon drum circles, dancing, drinking, smoking it up with our homeboys. We knew what it meant to bloody our knuckles here, to break teeth here, to live and breathe these streets day in, day out, the glow of the neon hotel signs on the waterfront, the salt and sweat of this beach city.

Complete story available online at Brevity

When I encountered Díaz for the first time five years ago, I said her story had a “mastery of tone and nuance”. She still does. This reads like poetry.

It’s a short piece, a memoir-ish essay about growing up in a city famous for its high-end glamour lifestyle. After the introduction dispenses with the outsiders, she tells us of her own experience in brief snippets. The slight defensiveness of the opening fades and pride of ownership and belonging takes over, her disdain for the bright lights and fancy cocktails and expensive clothes eclipsed by community and friendship and love.

I think a lot of us understand this sense of being part but apart, whether we live in college towns or resort areas. Even in sleepy Vacationland, we have the summer influx, the cruise ship visitors who ride up and down Congress Street on the Downeaster Duck bus/boat, watching us locals emerge from CVS with our aspirin and pretzels or go to the bank or take a lunch break from our jobs.

But I wonder if there is more recognition on the other side than we locals realize. My husband and I used to visit Mt. Desert Island once or twice a summer. We always recognized we had a lot more in common with the people making birdhouses than the Bar Harbor/Northeast Harbor yacht set, or even the Acadia National Park hikers. We knew we didn’t belong at Jordan Pond House, but we went anyway, just for the popovers. Then we’d hang out in Southwest Harbor, where the working people kept their boats, and feel like we were home.

In any event, Díaz’s evocative essay brought a lot out for me. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of writing: not to be over there, explaining one’s existence, but to connect with others, to let us all be the same in some way. The next time you’re on vacation, enjoy the luxury, but look also at the wonders beyond the glitz.

Pushcart XLII: Christian Wiman, “I Will Love You in the Summertime” (nonfiction) from American Scholar, Spring 2016

Teresa Chen: Ambivalence #6 - 2016

Teresa Chen: Ambivalence #6 – 2016

Twenty years ago, while watching some television report about depression and religion—I forget the relationship but apparently there was one—a friend who was entirely secular asked me with genuine curiosity and concern, “Why do they believe in something that doesn’t make them happy?” I was an ambivalent atheist at that point, beset with an inchoate loneliness and endless anxieties, contemptuous of Christianity but addicted to its aspirations and art. I was also chained fast to the rock of poetry, having my liver pecked out by the bird of a harrowing and apparently absurd ambition—and thus had some sense of what to say. One doesn’t follow God in hope of happiness but because one senses—miserable flimsy little word for that beak in your bowels—a truth that renders ordinary contentment irrelevant. There are some hungers that only an endless commitment to emptiness can feed, and the only true antidote to the plague of modern despair is an absolute, and perhaps even annihilating, awe. “I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord,” writes the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. “And you gave them to me.”

Complete story available online at The American Scholar

A few pieces back, I praised Jamie Quatro’s story “Belief” for its straightforward approach to life as a Christian, and its honesty about the mix of joy and struggle. This piece, written in a very different style, takes a similar look at what it means to have faith.

The title comes from a comment made by Wiman’s two-year-old daughter when, during a bedtime ritual, he asked if she loved him. He interprets her cryptic reply – “I will love you in the time where there is time for everything, which is now and always” – while recognizing that he is constructing meaning apart from her intent: “I think that sometimes life and language break each other open to change, that a rupture in one can be a rapture in the other, that sometimes there are, as it were, words underneath the words—even the very Word underneath the words….” That’s the essence of poetry, isn’t it, to use words to evoke the ineffable meaning beyond, underneath, the words.

There’s a section on the meaning of prayer, drawing out the aphorism “Prayer doesn’t change things; prayer changes people, and people change things” into a more sophisticated setting, prayer as less of a laundry list of needs and wants and more of a meditation to connect with the divine will. He draws from a number of poets and writers of various times and places to express, much as Quatro did, the complicated nature of faith for him, its combination of “lament and love”. That phrase stood out to me, since I encountered it at length in last fall’s mooc on classical Greek literature. It seems lament and love songs are intertwined, exchanged, and mirrored in many of the epics and plays. This fits with the very common experience of us all: we cry at weddings or when receiving great news, and bond over laughter and comradeship at funerals and wakes. Yet Wiman is certain of the centrality of faith for humanity, whether as individuals we have “addressed it consciously or not.”

As for myself, I have found faith not to be a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound. As for my children, I would like them to be free of whatever particular kink there is in me that turns every spiritual impulse into anguish. Failing that, I would like them to be free to make of their anguish a means of peace, for themselves or others (or both), with art or action (or both). Failing that—and I suppose, ultimately, here in the ceaseless machinery of implacable matter, there is only failure—I would like them to be able to pray, keeping in mind the fact that, as St. Anthony of the Desert said, a true prayer is one that you do not understand.

I connect very strongly with the ambivalence in the piece, with the acknowledgment that faith brings with it a certain discomfort. Wiman, former editor of Poetry Magazine and presently faculty at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, wrote about his return to faith following a medical diagnosis in 2012.

Pushcart XLII: John R. Nelson, “Funny Bird Sex” (nonfiction) from Antioch Review 74.1

We humans like to think our species is unique.… Fire, underwear, irony, iPhones, art appreciation, AK-47s, judgment in the afterlife, life after offspring—all these set us apart, or so we believe. We’re the animal with a touchy self-pride, the animal that insists on locating itself in a separate, usually higher category. Man is the only animal that laughs at the sex lives of other animals.

One of the things I like about Pushcart is that they are not tied to the alphabetical-order tyranny of BASS; they can run a string of dark matter (exploitation, slavery, depravities, loss, the violence lurking beneath the surface of us all), scatter some hope and inspiration among it, then relieve the tension with sexual humor, all while still examining the subjective/objective aspects of writing and experience. Or maybe it’s just a fun piece about bird sex.

Just as I got to this essay, a video from a year ago came up in my twitter feed with the caption: “A year later, still #1.” Tell me you haven’t seen this scene played out at every bar, every wedding, every office party you’ve ever been to. Tell me you don’t know someone who reminds you of the (male) cockatoo on the right. Tell me you’ve never been the (female) cockatoo on the left. Or vice versa. This is Nelson’s point: “When we laugh at birds, we laugh at ourselves.”

In addition to reading examples of funny bird sex, Nelson tells us of funny human reactions to bird sex. It seems, in a trick of watching the watchers, birders who come upon bird sex in the wild invariably giggle. I would, I suppose. But one Althea Sherman, in 1925, had less of a sense of humor, objecting to profligate house wrens, flickers (“a weak-minded, inconsistent, frivolous creature that is called from duty by the notes of any stray male”), and a particular red-winged blackbird she named Brigham for his polygamy. Give ‘em a break, Ms. Sherman, it’s hard out there for a bird. I was going to comment on the tiny size of a bird brain, but it turns out birds have as many neurons in their forebrains as mammals.

But if we hold birds accountable for their sex lives, we need to recognize our similarities:

Males of many animal species are “dim in their sexual discernment,” says Robert Wright in The Moral Animal, and will try to breed with almost anything. Sure, it’s funny to us that a turkey will try to hump a stick with a fake head. But what about the millions of human males who masturbate to representations of women, including “women” who are literally cartoons?

If we looked at ourselves the way we looked at birds, we might be surprised. A fun essay. Entertaining. And informative. Isaac Bashevis Singer would be pleased.

Pushcart XLII: George Saunders, “Taut Rhythmic Surfaces” (nonfiction) from Southampton Review, Winter/Spring 2016

John F. Petro: “Myth & Moor” (1885)

John F. Petro: “Myth & Moor” (1885)

I didn’t know James Salter well at all, personally. I only spent part of one day with him….
But actually he had been a dear friend of mine for many years before that, and will continue to be a dear friend to me as long as I live through his prose. He did for me, and does for me, what any dear friend might do. He helps me sustain my sometimes faltering faith in an idea I base my life on: namely, that there is something sacred about working in prose; that purifying one’s prose style is a form of spiritual dedication; that working with language is a beautiful and noble way to spend one’s life. Every time I read his work I feel a kindred spirit there and am convinced all over again that the way we write a sentence can be everything: exploration, devotion, celebration. A person is never more himself than when he’s writing a sentence he’ll later stand by.

When I read tributes like this one (delivered by Saunders at a speech following Salter’s death in 2015) I’m acutely aware that I don’t have a “favorite author”, and I worry that there’s something wrong with me. I don’t even have a “favorite story” or “favorite novel”, or for that matter a favorite movie or song. Instead, I have a cluster of songs/movies/stories/songs that I love, often for very different reasons, and at various times one or the other is preeminent in my heart; but that’s because of the circumstances of the moment, where my head is at as we used to say, not because of the work itself.

Maybe that’s the difference between me, as a reader, and someone like Saunders who spends his days crafting that which I read. A workman knows fine workmanship. A baker can tell when someone properly proofed the dough, added the yeast at the right temperature, because the baker has thrown out so many failed loaves. A dancer can tell when another’s pointe is just a little off; a pianist knows when a passage isn’t as clear as it should be. A writer, someone who cares about sentences and phrases and syllables and how they fit together into paragraphs and works, knows writers.

What James did so magnificently is make the case for desire, reminding us of how good it feels, how essential it is for us, how wonderful, how unavoidable, an inevitable and happy result of simply being alive – while at the same time reminding us that it’s dangerous to desire. Or, maybe, dangerous to simply desire, to believe that the satisfaction of desire is sufficient for a human being.
We can’t live with desire and we can’t live without it, we say.
Correct, says the Salter story.

I don’t think Saunders is saying there’s one right way to form prose. I think he’s saying that there are many approaches, many styles, but each one has potential for excellence. A writer who hits excellence consistently, whatever her style, deserves notice.

I’ve never read Salter’s work, which maybe hampers my appreciation of Saunder’s comments. But it doesn’t hamper my appreciation of appreciation; there’s no more beautiful thing. Though I’m no Saunders, I hope, along the way, I’ve expressed appreciation for various works I’ve read, because we give what we have.

Pushcart XLII: Daniel Harris, “Zombies” (nonfiction) from Salmagundi 190/191

Historically, there are two entirely unrelated types of zombies, one dull and quiescent, the other rabid and infectious. There are, on the one hand, the somewhat soporific zombies who shuffle around such films as White Zombie, Revolt of the Zombies, and I Walked with a Zombie – macabre colonialist cautionary tales from the 1930s and 1940s often set in a tenebrous Caribbean where evil voodoo mesmerists resurrect dead slaves. On the other hand, there is George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead in which, after a returning space probe from Venus explodes in the upper atmosphere, spreading either radioactive contamination or Venutian microbes, the dead arise to cannibalize the living. This one low-budget cult classic inspired a feeding frenzy that culminated in thousands of films, novels, video games, T.V. shows, apps, tshirts, action figures, board games, pet costumes, collectible dolls, mutant Mickey Mice, and cookie jars with lids made of slate grey ceramic brains – the spawn of a mercantile pandemic for which there is as yet no known cure.

Confession: I’ve never seen a zombie movie. I have, however, read Bennett Sims’ zombie novel, A Questionable Shape which is more about philosophy, art, literature, and the nature of our relationships to each other, and to the world (it’s a great book). And Manuel Gonzales’ short story collection The Miniature Wife featured a couple of zombie stories that also were about things other than zombies. So while I’m travelling blind in some areas of this essay, I recognize other points quite handily. I found it quite enjoyable, since I prefer thinking about what zombies mean, and why we’re so obsessed with then, to actual zombie adventures. And that’s what the essay is: an examination of zombies as an expression of contemporary culture, the zeitgeist of our discontent, if you will.

The essay goes on for seven or eight pages, comparing zombie movies and gross-out movies (Animal House, American Pie), the connection to gamers, the importance of the bite in symbolic and cinematic terms, plot, connections to ancient literature (Homer, Hesiod, Virgil all incorporated the undead), and the relationship to contemporary movements such as anti-urbanism, individualism, and libertarianism. It’s all quite interesting, if not particularly moving.

And then we get to the final paragraph, where the boom drops:

Why does a culture of plenty obsess over scarcity? Do we feel we are living in a fool’s paradise, that plenitude is unsustainable, that we have pushed the planet beyond its limits? The comforts of civilization are fraught with anxieties about hardship and distress, fears that manifest themselves in popular culture, in novels and films that imagine a world depleted of its resources. Global warming, pandemics, nuclear war, terrorism, pollution all contribute to our sense of the precariousness of our affluence and privilege, apprehensions that lead us to create obsessive scenarios of decimation, annihilation, apocalypse. Zombies are the scolds of prosperity, loquacious lay preachers who remind us that the whole complex structure of civilization could collapse in an instant and we could find ourselves, between breakfast and lunch, scrounging for our next meal, even as they scrounge for theirs, us.

I don’t think that’s specific to zombie lit, however. Doomsday books and movies have been a staple of pop culture for decades, and, as pointed out in the essay, disaster/ghost/horror stories go back to the beginnings of literature: what is the story of Adam and Eve if not the ultimate universal doomsday scenario? What is the Theogony if not a horror story? One of the differences between Eastern religions and philosophies, I’ve learned in my mooc travels, is that the West views humanity as flawed, needing rescue from a supernatural source, and history as linear, while the East sees the universe as cyclical and people as capable of finding the right path to internal peace without supernatural intervention. Yet Eastern literature has its share of ghost stories, too.

In the worst of times, we fret about our demise; in the best of times, we fear it won’t last. Our awareness of the inevitability of our own death – often cited as the difference between people and animals – takes many forms. Zombies are one way we assure ourselves that not only are we not really gone, but that we can bring our friends with us, whether or not they want to come along.

Pushcart XLI: Lauren Slater, “Bloodlines” (nonfiction) from The Sun, March 2015

I put my hand on the mound of dirty laundry, then lifted my palm to my nose and took in the scent of him. I felt happy because, well, here he was, the man I’d married, his scent the same now as it had been twenty-odd years earlier…. I recalled an experiment I had once read about: A group of men wore simple cotton T-shirts for a couple of days, perspiring in them, sleeping in them, and finally peeling them off and giving them to the researchers, who then asked female test subjects to select the T-shirts that smelled the best to them. The researchers found that each woman consistently rated highest the T-shirts from the men whose immune systems contained important components that hers lacked, thus ensuring that any offspring they produced would have a robust defense system. In other words, women are drawn to men who have deep genetic differences from them — immunologically, at least. Why would this be? Because evolution does not want us to pick mates with genomes that are the same as ours. Evolution wants diversity; the more, the better.

Complete story available online at The Sun

This essay – it’s listed as an essay, and is included in the 2016 Science & Nature volume of the Best American series – sweeps from a dissolving marriage (Wikipedia indicates Slater is now divorced) to home DNA testing for ancestry and medical markers to what it’s like to live with cancer even after a ten-year “clear” period. I had a lot of thoughts about this as I read, but I’m not going to share many of them, since my thoughts have been a bit unreliable lately.

Opposites may attract, but living with them is a different story.

We have been married for twenty-two years. Everything was fine until, twelve years into it, we had kids. Our children changed us. They brought out in B. a love so fierce, so focused, that I fell off the edge of his world, plunging into some sea where, no matter how much I flounder and flail, he fails to toss me a line.
My children often seem to be apparitions, floating forms, people of poured glass, ghostly and beautiful and beyond my reach.
I recently told my husband that if we want to save our marriage — in which whatever common ground we had has long since eroded into rubble and slid down some steep slope — then we need to spend time together without the children. It works like this, I told him: The husband and wife are a team of two. That team has to be the priority, or the family collapses.
It works like this, my husband told me: We need to do more things together as a family. If I would join them when they play Scrabble or Clue, then our marriage would improve.

I found it an odd choice for the final entry in the volume, given that Pushcart, unlike BASS, can determine the order. But this could be the product of my unruly thoughts at this time. I’ve been waiting for those thoughts to settle down, but they show no sign of doing so, and time moves on. I must do something; and since I’m unwilling to commit myself in white and black on this one, I’ll just leave these passages and the link to the original publication for those who’d like to pursue it.

Marcelo Gleiser: The Island of Knowledge (Basic, 2014)

Consider, then, the sum total of our accumulated knowledge as constituting an island, which I call the “Island of Knowledge”….The Island’s growth has a surprising but essential consequence. Naively, we would expect that the more we know of the world, the closer we would be to some sort of final destination, which some call a Theory of Everything and others the ultimate nature of reality. However, holding on to our metaphor, we see that as the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance – the boundary between the known and the unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination – whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyway – but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.

This past Spring, I took Prof. Gleiser’s science/philosophy mooc that focused on the question, Can we ever know the very essence of reality, or is there some knowledge that can never be within our grasp? Is it all a matter of developing technologies and learning how the universe works, or are there some things that simply can’t be discovered by reason, observation, and scientific method? This book was the basis for that course.

Prof. Gleiser has an eclectic approach to science. He’s a theoretical physicist, but the book is far more. I noticed a brief comment about his training towards the end: “I was twenty-seven and in search of ways of connecting the rational scientific approach that I was learning in school with a strong sense of spirituality I had nurtured since an early age.” That willingness to look beyond science, to philosophy, to human emotion and interaction, shows up clearly throughout this work. “If reason is the tool we use in science, it is not its motivation,” says Gleiser. While it’s mostly science, there is a strong thread of philosophy as well; this is a scientist comfortable with ideas of divinity. This was the course that inspired me to read Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, a historical/philosophical work I enjoyed tremendously (and blogged about here).

Gleiser’s opinion is that we can’t know certain things, not because we don’t have good enough instruments or don’t have string theory nailed down yet, but because some things are simply unknowable. The “brain in vats” question is the classic example – how could we know? – but there’s also the limitation of the time horizon of the universe, and it seems there are most likely distance limitations at the small end of the scale as well. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

The book starts off with the pre-Socratics and the first inklinks of atomism. I discovered Ernst Mach, of Mach-1 fame, never accepted the existence of atoms, though their existence was theoretically proven during his lifetime; as I understand it (take this with a large shaker of salt), he didn’t say they didn’t exist, simply that he didn’t accept the existence of something that couldn’t be seen (he’d have changed his mind if he’d lived long enough to watch “A Boy and his Atom” on Youtube, a movie made with atoms). The first chapters move very quickly to Einstein, and the early 20th century forms a large part of the book as more and more questions arose for every answer. Once the quantum door was kicked in, everything was up for grabs, and we moved right along to the present.

While I’m sure I didn’t fully understand all the material on even an introductory academic level, it’s a very readable book, with good explanations and analogies that made most of the technical material at least partly understandable. For example:

[Q]uantum theory implies that there is a natural fuzziness to matter, a finite “smallness” to all things…. If we apply this notion to space, it is natural to expect that the same will be true: that there is a smallest distance of space beyond which nothing can be smaller. According to this view, space is not really a continuum but fuzzy, so that motion cannot proceed smoothly from point to point…. A competing view is to consider that it is not space that needs to be “quiltized” but the notion of point particles that needs to go.

When I was young and even more foolish than I am today, my then-boyfriend and I used to argue about whether the universe was fundamentally analog or digital (oh, come on, who hasn’t had those arguments). And when I read Euclid’s Elements, I was almost disappointed to find a proof that a plane must be continuous, thus analog. But maybe I was mistaken about that interpretation, since it appears scientists are still arguing about it.

I also enjoyed reading “But we do not know what electric charge or mass is…. Mass and charge do not exist per se; they only exist as part of the narrative we humans construct to describe the natural world.” I asked once in some course just what “charge” meant, since I can’t describe it without referring to electric charge, which of course is circular reasoning. So I’m always happy to find out that no one actually knows what “charge” is, beyond that it’s a quality some particles have that causes certain behaviors. This seems like the opposite of Ernst Mach’s problem with atoms: we can see it, feel it, but don’t know what it is. Mass seems to be in the same category.

How much can we know of the world? Can we know everything? Or are there fundamental limits to how much science can explain?…. From our past successes we are confident that, in time, part of what is currently hidden will be incorporated into the scientific narrative, unknowns that will become knowns. But as I will argue in this book, other parts will remain hidden, unknowables that are unavoidable, even if what is unknowable in one age may not be in the next one. We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.
This view is neither antiscientific nor defeatist. … Quite the contrary, it is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.

It was this attitude that made this book so enjoyable for me. Back in the days when I argued about the nature of the universe for fun, I read a lot of general-readership science books, particularly Asimov. I somehow got away from that. Gleiser has written several other books on various aspects of physics and cosmology, and of course there are many other scientists writing for non-scientists these days. Maybe it’s time to get back into it again.

Pushcart XLI: Barry Lopez, “The Invitation” from Granta #133

Granta art by Nick Clements

Granta art by Nick Clements

When I was young, and just beginning to travel with them, I imagined that indigenous people saw more and heard more, that they were overall simply more aware than I was. They were more aware, and did see and hear more than I did. The absence of spoken conversation whenever I was traveling with them, however, should have provided me with a clue about why this might be true; but it didn’t, not for a while. It’s this: when an observer doesn’t immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language, into the vocabulary and syntactical framework we all employ when trying to define our experiences, there’s a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen the meaning of an experience.

Complete essay available online at Granta

As I read this essay, I kept thinking, “I’ve read about something like this, recently.” It took me a while to pull it out of my overloaded and sometimes unreliable memory. The Chinese Thought mooc, of course! Confucians see language – including the behavioral language of ritual – as the means of perfecting the individual to full humanity, whereas Daoists feel it’s a distraction from what is essential. “The Way that can be spoken of is not the enduring Way,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Dao de Jing in the 4th century BCE. “He who speaks does not know.” Yes, Prof. Slingerland pointed out the irony of a book dissing language, but that’s how Dao rolls.

Most importantly, he didn’t stop with examining ancient texts, but related the concepts to contemporary neurological, social, and behavioral science. In this case, that meant a guest lecture from UCSB psychology professor Jonathan Schooler on his theory of verbal overshadowing: attempts to describe nonverbal experiences tend to make the experiential memory less accurate on subsequent recall. In its simplest form: if you show someone a face, and ask them to describe it in words, they will be less likely to recognize the face a few moments later than if they did not need to put language to the impression.

Lopez goes beyond this in a paean to the primacy of experience Lao Tzu would appreciate: a broadening of pertinence from the immediate event to what was seen a half hour, or three days, before (tracks of a caribou, for instance), and to later events. The event of seeing a bear isn’t over when the bear is no longer seen; it might never, technically, be over, in much the same vein as the Butterfly Effect.

He also advocates grounding experience in a place. It’s too bad Orion didn’t get to publish this article; it’s exactly their “Nature, culture place” brand (and may the Universe forgive me for using the word “brand” in that sense, it just happens to be appropriate to syntax and semantics).

A grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket is more than a bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket. It is a point of entry into a world most of us have turned our backs on in an effort to go somewhere else, believing we’ll be better off just thinking about a grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket.
The moment is an invitation, and the bear’s invitation to participate is offered, without prejudice, to anyone passing by.

I’m not sure I want to participate in such an event, apologies to Lao Tzu and Lopez; I’m not much of a nature person to begin with, and the bear’s a dealbreaker. But I understand the point, the distancing of us from not only nature, but from reality. And again, we have this triad of will, nature, and body that’s been humming around for the past several pieces: the will to experience nature without culture’s safety nets around the body. The willingness to experience.

Pushcart XLI: David J. Unger, “Fail Again” from The Point #10

FAILURE FESTIVAL is an invitation. An invitation for you to help us engage failure in a public setting. We need you because we don’t know how to do it on our own. We don’t know whether to barrel towards it, argue with it, or sit on its lap. We don’t know if we should give it keys to our apartment, or ask it to apologize. Sometimes we cower in the corner. Sometimes we lie down and try to convince it that we are asleep… or dead.
We want to know what failure reveals about our world that success masks. We do not expect easy answers. We may find none at all. This is a celebration and acknowledgement of the fact that when things inevitably don’t go as we plan, somehow, we must adapt. Please help.

Complete essay available online at The Point

I’ve learned, in the past three years, to embrace failure, mostly through the influence of a bunch of math teachers who are convinced if you aren’t getting things wrong, you aren’t learning anything, and that learning to tolerate frustration and persevere is more important than memorizing trig identities. One thing I can always succeed at is failing at math, so I’ve finally found a way to, um, succeed?

This isn’t a unique approach. Every writer, every dreamer who ever poured out her heart on paper knows at least one line from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, a line celebrated in 2014 by Trinity College in Dublin with “a free exhibition of beautiful, heroic and instructive failures” in its Science Gallery. And just last month, MIT’s Technology Review published a story on Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman – and PhD candidate in math – John Urschel, who says “In math, you have to be comfortable with failure.” And the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm 500 Startups is all about failure: “The alternate name we came up with for 500 Startups was ‘fail factory,’ says [founding partner Dave] McClure. ‘We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn.’”

Before we were all about “winning”, failure was a recognized route to success.

So I was really eager to read this piece, a journalistic look at the Failure Festival presented in Boulder, CO back in 2014.

I got a bit lost in the description of the festival itself. Apparently it was a three day audience-participation dance-and-performance-art thing. Garbage bags served as ponchos, tomatoes were provided for throwing and carrots for carving. It was probably much better in person than it was to read about. But I must admit, sadly, the piece didn’t work for me. But if an article about a failure festival fails, does that make it a success?

Pushcart XLI: Jenn Shapland, “Finders Keepers” (nonfiction) from Tin House #65

Tin House Art by Martin Wittfooth

Tin House Art by Martin Wittfooth

A library is not a list. A library is dirty, has smells. I know this because I interned in a special collections library. It’s a special collections library that happens to house, along with its First Folios and signed copies of The Waste Land, a larger assortment of socks than you might guess.
Personal effects generally arrive at the Harry Ransom Center’s loading dock on the University of Texas campus via happenstance. They get stuck into boxes of manuscripts and books for reasons unknown. They’re stowaways. That is why I’m so fond of them….
It was in 7B, before my long afternoons itemizing and categorizing the socks of the dead and famous, that I began to collect certain stories. Stories about wanting and having, giving and taking, even stealing…. Yet as I poked and prodded into what began to seem like the dusty broom closet or unexamined under-the-bed of culture, it was my own relationship to objects that began to feel illicit.

What does it mean to own something? Not the legalities – those are easily determined by consulting a list of conditions that must exist. But what does it mean to us, psychologically? Is it purely for the practical reasons of economic advantage or control over disposition that we want to own a house or a plot of land or a business – or a letter written by Einstein, or the socks worn by someone powerful or famous – or is there something more, a kind of closeness? If it turned out the socks were mislabeled and were just thrown in the box by a packer with sore feet, what would that mean – that it is knowledge that determines value? Would we even want to know? Does that make the determining factor something more like faith?

Shapland’s essay about her internship at the Harry Ransom Center focuses on her work with a molecular model kit owned by Einstein (I was just looking at a similar kit the other day, available on Amazon for less than $20), but branches out to consider motivations behind thefts from the archives, and the human relationship to property in general, a relationship that is, in some crucial ways, fundamental to the spectrum of capitalism and communism but remains fundamentally illusory, as her last paragraph makes clear:

Maybe this desire for communion, for identity – the longing in belongings – is what Walter Benjamin means when he says that collection is a renewal, acquisition a form of rebirth. And isn’t it funny, the big lie at the heart of the enterpriser. All of this stuff is ultimately just that. No apparatus, no matter how meticulous or expensive or careful, can protect a collection from the inevitable slippages, losses, thefts, whether the perpetrators be people, bugs, mold, disintegration, or time. Acquire it, collect it, steal it, forward it, conserve it, preserve it, store it, house it, box it, hold it, wear it, but there’s just no keeping it.

The essay triggered a great many thoughts I’ve had floating around for a long time. So this post will be even more self-indulgent than usual: less about the essay, more about me and my reactions, which float around the fringes of ownership, since Shapland does such a good job with the center portion.

I live near the Maine Historical Society, which includes “the boyhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”, a phrase I’ve heard so often it’s implanted in my brain. Why is this home so special, why is the Rainy Day Room a place people visit in hushed awe, why is it so special to look out the same window where “it is thought” he wrote, “Be still, sad heart! and cease repining; / Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; / Thy fate is the common fate of all, / Into each life some rain must fall, / Some days must be dark and dreary” in response to a rainy day? Do they hope to be graced with the same inspiration? Is it an homage? An attempt to own something? I wonder if someone has tried to buy the property, simply to own it. And I wonder: if some document were discovered that proves he wrote the poem elsewhere, how would the room change?

Transference. That’s the psychological function at work here. It’s a combination of projection, ascribing some aspect of yourself – fantasies, desires, imagination – to the object, and introjection, taking some part of it unto/into yourself. For William James, this is the way objects (which, importantly, can also be whole people) become extensions of the self.

I wonder if that’s what’s behind my occasional obsession with songs: I’ve been known to play a song over and over, then I suddenly stop. I’ve called it ownership, though it has nothing to do with purchasing anything. It’s more than the point of memorization, but less than understanding (I never feel like I fully understand anything), so that’s not it. I don’t know what it is that happens, but it’s like an orgasm without the burst of pleasure: a sudden sense that I’m done, and I don’t want any more. The song is mine, in a way I can’t define, a way that has nothing to do with legalities.

The thefts Shapland describes (the essay appears in the issue of Tin House named “Theft”) are again puzzles on the fringes of ownership. A page of an original Einstein manuscript was stolen, and carefully protected – locked away, self-archived – by the thief (who was eventually found). Was it just the illicit thrill? Again, was it a hope to be inspired, a wish that genius could be transmissible through century-old paper? Or again, are we back to homage, communion? Or is it just a way for a poor schlub to feel special?

Shapland tells of processing a set of papers for the David Foster Wallace collection, and of being unable to part with some of the clips she was authorized to discard. Other paper clips, labeled and sorted, are kept in a locked archive box. “Once we decide objects are worth collecting for reason apart from monetary value, where do we draw the line?” I don’t fully understand the need to archive paper clips – or socks, or Andy Warhol’s gas bills – yet someone does, as these activities are funded somehow. Why are Warhol’s bills items of importance, whereas mine, hell, even my best creations, have no value at all to anyone but me? What makes someone’s paperclips a big deal?

It’s interesting, as I wander around these fringes, that in current gaming and internet vernacular, to own someone is to defeat them or make them look ridiculous in some way. This particular usage has technical roots (I understand the term originated with hackers successfully breaking into a system, thus owning it), but ownership of people has a long and horrible past (and I use the term “past” with some caution, since that past extends to the current moment) in America. I wonder if that past adds to the sense of humiliation a mocking own conveys.

Is there something wrong with me, that I am missing this urge? Given how common collecting is, perhaps it’s a normal part of human behavior – so what’s wrong with me, that things hold so little interest? I do crave owning books, but only for practical purposes, so that I can write in them and crack the spines and dog-ear the pages and love them in my own way. I’ve become fiercely interested in old books and manuscripts, but again, not to own, but to learn about, to understand who made them. Am I missing the ownership gene? Is this why I’ve always been an apartment dweller, and view major ownership – a house, a car, a business – as a burden? It feels like a major failing, almost feels unAmerican, to lack this ownership urge.

I started to write letters to the personal effects I itemized in 7B. I wrote them on the HRC’s yellow paper, on which I was supposed to be recording details about the collection for the finding aid. That’s one reason I’m not a librarian. And one reason the librarians started to give me some side-eye. You’re not supposed to have all these feelings when you’re working behind the scenes. Or if you do, I guess you’re not supposed to write about them. You’re not supposed to commune with the objects. That gradually became clear. It now occurs to me, at the distance of several years, what I brought to this job as a twenty-five-year-old graduate intern, and what gets me in trouble at most of my jobs: unlicensed perspective.

I don’t have the same unlicensed perspective (I love that phrase) as Shapland, but I have my own. I can commune with a 15th century manuscript from my living room via a cable connection. I own songs via memory. I own books of wisdom and unique ideas through cheap used paperbacks. I have my own unlicensed perspective.

Stephen Greenblatt: The Swerve (WWNorton, 2011)

To all but a handful of people in Germany, this quest, had Poggio tried to articulate it, would have seemed weird. And it would have seemed weirder still if Poggio had gone on to explain that he was not in fact at all interested in what was written four or five hundred years ago. He despised that time and regarded it as a sink of superstition and ignorance. What he really hoped to find were words that had nothing to do with the moment in which they were written down on the old parchment, words that were in the best possible case uncontaminated by the mental universe of the lowly scribe who copied them. That scribe, Poggio hoped, was dutifully and accurately copying a still older parchment, one made by yet another scribe whose humble life was equally of no particular consequence to the book hunter except insofar as it left behind this trace. If the nearly miraculous run of good fortune held, the earlier manuscript, long vanished into dust, was in turn a faithful copy of a more ancient manuscript, and that manuscript a copy of yet another. Now at last for Poggio the quarry became exciting, and the hunter’s heart in his breast beat faster. The trail was leading him back to Rome, not the contemporary Rome of the corrupt papal court, intrigues, political debility, and periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague, but the Rome of the Forum and the Senate House and a Latin language whose crystalline beauty filled him with wonder and the longing for a lost world.

This book was mentioned in Dartmouth’s science/philosophy mooc Questioning Reality, a course exploring the limits of knowledge: can we know everything, or are some things beyond science no matter how far we advance? The first week of the mooc looks at ancient Greek and Roman concepts of natural philosophy, what today we’d call physics, concerned with the question “What is the world made of?” Lucretius, a follower of the Epicurean tradition (which has nothing to do with feasting and partying) believed the universe was made of atoms, and the void, and while atoms typically fell in a straight line through the void, once in a while they would, out of random chance, swerve, collide, and create matter. This random chance was eventually theorized by 20th century physics as the Uncertainty Principle, and becomes handy as the escape clause from determinism.

The book starts with Poggio, 15th century manuscript hunter, on his travels through Europe in search of works from classical Rome. He stumbles on to Lucretius’ magnum opus, De Rerum Natura, a work only hinted at by extant documents of his age.

This book didn’t sit well with a lot of people, people like religion reviewer Jim Hinch (LARB), literature professor Colin Burrow (The Guardian), and historian and professor John Monfasani of SUNY (IHR/London). None of them feel Greenblatt’s conclusions are strongly supported in the text. But they all agree that it’s a thoroughly engaging, eminently readable book. While I might lean towards agreeing with them on the first point – hesitantly, since I am not qualified to judge historical writing – I’ll agree wholeheartedly with the second: I loved reading this book.

Not only is Poggio’s story wonderfully told, particularly when the text branches off into interesting digressions about manuscripts, philosophy, history, archaeology, and ecclesiastical intrigue. Each branch works together so smoothly, there was no sense of disruption; I was immersed in a scriptorium, in Pompeii, in ancient Rome or Greece, and heartbroken as Poggio witnessed the execution of his humanist friend for heresy. I’ve come to admire how, in some pieces, digressions create a sense of confusion and disruption, while other writers, as Greenblatt does here, blend things together seamlessly and allow the reader to expand whole networks of knowledge.

So what of the complaints about the thesis of the book?

I’ll admit I was wondering if I missed the part where the world became modern because of Poggio’s find, even before I read a word of commentary. It always seemed to me that the Renaissance had a lot more to do with the printing press than with any single work. The book ends with the oh-so-casual mention of De Rerum Natura in Thomas Jefferson’s library. I have to admit, it’s a goosebumpy moment, reading that and all it implies, but that’s part of the spell of a great book; it needs to be evaluated, much as Wordsworth wanted poetry written, not in intense emotion but in tranquillity.

It’s a bit hypocritical to love a book, yet doubt its primary claim. And yet here I am, contradicting myself, containing multitudes. Would Whitman be proud, or disappointed?

Greenblatt’s specialty has been the Renaissance and Shakespearean era; he was, in the 80s, perhaps the primary founder of The New Historicism; I suppose a lot of folks weren’t quite done with the old historicism yet. I vaguely remember reading an essay of his while in college, but that was a long time ago and I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have; I’d like to try that again, based purely on his writing style.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the controversy, I’m very glad I know a little more about the middle ages, about Epicurianism, and about manuscripts. And about a guy named Poggio, who had a passion for understanding where things came from.

Pushcart XLI: Jenny Hendrix, “The Physics of Turtles” (non-fiction) from Orion #34.3

For all the talk about this city’s action and energy – “So much to do!” people say, “The best place in the world!” – I’ve had the feeling, this spring, that there’s really very little going on.
Oh, there is, I suppose, a form of energy that’s traded around, expended as stress, frustration, rage, or, for the more sensitive, used as shields against these things. But nothing of significance, I find, truly happens here most days.
… True, there are in between these moments frights and irritations, careless jostlings and accidents and forthright ugly acts – the resplendent oddities and solipsisms so common to city life. Yet I seem to find myself in a state of constant ground-standing against their effects, resisting the impulse to be porous to them. And so I proceed instead under a hard shell, the days passing in a kind of inertia.

“The editorial impulse of Orion lies at the nexus of ecology and the human experience”, says the submissions page, and this short essay fits the bill precisely. Hendrix shows us a slice of nature in the city, and uses it to break free from what city living has become. No, “uses it” isn’t correct; it’s more something that happens to her, unasked: a stack of map turtles falls over.

It’s hard to explain why this had the sensation of an event, of something’s having happened indeed that day, for perhaps the first time. Yet it did. Somehow, the sound of falling turtles and the seven wary heads that regarded me from the brown water broke through the day’s sense of sameness.

Something I noticed: too many exclamation points. At least, that was my first reaction. A lot of writing teachers and workshop participants would squawk over four exclamation points in such a short (2 pages) piece. But forget the rule book and pay attention to what the writer is doing: the exclamation points are entirely functional and signal a shift in enthusiasm: from others, in the beginning, who rave about the wonderful city to our emotionally blunted narrator, to the narrator herself, who by the end of the piece, has found her own enthusiasm thanks to the collapsing turtle stack.

And again I’m reminded of the Joyce Cary quote, first brought to my attention by Charles May: “Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’” Hendrix didn’t include the exclamation points out of carelessness or poor technique; she did it because they serve the story.

I’m quite fond of turtles, at least in the abstract: I’ve never had a turtle as a pet, nor do I wish to, but my online twitter avatar and quote last year was turtle-based. I’m not exactly sure what Hendrix means by sameness, or the sense of something happening, but I believe that she experienced something positive, and that’s good enough.

Pushcart XLI: Chris Offutt, “Trash Food” (nonfiction) from Oxford American #88

OA Art: "Fruit Loops Landscape,” by Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman

OA Art: “Fruit Loops Landscape,” by Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman

During lunch John T. asked me to give a presentation at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium over which he presided every fall.
I reminded him that I lacked the necessary qualifications. At the time I’d only published a few humorous essays that dealt with food. Other writers were more knowledgeable and wrote with a historical context, from a scholarly perspective. All I did was write personal essays inspired by old community cookbooks I found in secondhand stores. Strictly speaking, my food writing wasn’t technically about food.
John T. said that didn’t matter. He wanted me to explore “trash food,” because, as he put it, “you write about class.”
I sat without speaking, my food getting cold on my plate. Three thoughts ran through my mind fast as flipping an egg. First, I couldn’t see the connection between social class and garbage. Second, I didn’t like having my thirty-year career reduced to a single subject matter. Third, I’d never heard of anything called “trash food.”

Complete article available online at Oxford American

I’d never heard of trash food, either. Junk food, sure. Then there’s dumpster diving, but I didn’t think “trash” was being used that literally. I was further confused when John Edge (the John T. of the story) of the Southern Foodways Alliance gave possum and mullet as examples of trash food. I have an older edition of The Joy of Cooking that includes entries for possum, squirrel, porcupine, raccoon, and a host of other things I wouldn’t consider dinner, complete with skinning and dressing procedures, but I assumed that went along with hunting or something. I’m pretty nonadventurous, culinarily speaking: you’d have to force me to eat sweetbreads (not to mention avocado toast, so please, don’t mention it around me). But still, I didn’t associate it with class.

However, Offutt did, and he wrote up his reaction to Edge’s request and presented it at the SFA’s Fall Symposium. Turns out Offutt grew up in Appalachia, and has found himself subjected to some stereotypes.

I write about my friends, my family, and my experiences, but never with a socio-political agenda such as class. My goal was always art first, combined with an attempt at rigorous self-examination. Facing John T., I found myself in a professional and social pickle, not unusual for a country boy who’s clawed his way out of the hills of eastern Kentucky, one of the steepest social climbs in America. I’ve never mastered the high-born art of concealing my emotions. My feelings are always readily apparent.

He gives some examples of foods he might consider trash food: Cheetos, pork rinds, Vienna sausages, Jell-O with marshmallows, fried baloney, corndogs, RC cola, Slim Jims, Fritos, Twinkies, and cottage cheese with jelly. Now I’m really confused: half the homes in America have some of those foods, and many suburban 60s households served marshmallowed gelatin and Vienna sausages at casual afternoon functions. I didn’t know you could fry baloney, but it makes sense, and corndogs are a summer fair staple.

I’ve watched a lot of culinary competitions, from Bocuse d’Or to America’s Worst Cook. I still remember when Top Chef’s Hung Huynn, classically trained in French technique and holding a résumé listing Per Se and Guy Savoy, was scolded for not making Asian dishes. A Latina on Next Food Network Star was told to change her “culinary point of view” (the shtick required of all FN shows) from European brunch to TexMex. Food snobbery abounds, and abides in everyday life as well: are those veggies organic? How did that chicken spend its days (yes, the Portlandia episode)? Is there meat/gluten/sugar in this? And yet, blue-box macaroni binds together several generations across class lines.

But food aside, stereotypes are stereotypes, and it’s hard to have to keep fighting them, so I’m not surprised Offutt bristled a bit at the assignment. I’m not sure what Southern Foodways Alliance expected from him, but I’m hoping this turned into a learning experience all around.

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

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

 

Complete essay available online at Granta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete story available online at The Sun

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

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

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

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

Pushcart XLI: Monte Reel, “Naming Happiness” (non-fiction) from Orion #34.101

Almost every day during the fall that I turned forty, I walked to a park in Buenos Aires where a C-shaped pond cradled a large flower garden.… On weekdays I visited the park alone, but on Saturday mornings I brought my three-year-old daughter, Sofia. She liked my company because I carried stale bread to feed the coscoroba swans and white-winged coots. I liked her company because she didn’t mock me when I stared at birds and trees and tried to match them with pictures in field guides. I probably should have sagged with shame: I was fast becoming a cliché, the Lover of Nature, one of those guys with the boots and the new field glasses who’d lost the ability to mask his low-grade OCD. But Sofia didn’t judge. Maybe watching someone struggle to attach the correct names to common objects seemed perfectly natural to her, since she spent a lot of her time doing pretty much the same thing.
She stared at the stripe of sunlight that sparkled atop the wind-stirred ripples in the middle of the pond.
“What is that called?” she asked. She must have watched me pin down the name of the leaf. Maybe she wanted to play the same game.
I tracked her squinting gaze. “You mean that stripe on the water?” I asked. “The sparkles?”
“What is that called?”
“Not sure,” I said, to casually. “I think it’s just called sparkles.”
She sighed, theatrically. “No it’s not.” She’d recognized the lazy disregard in my answer, and I recognized her frustration: it was the maddening sense that the world is speaking a language we haven’t fully learned, and no one else seems to realize that this is a serious problem.

One of the many concept I swam around in during the Chinese philosophy moocs I took last year was the differing attitudes toward language and naming. The Confucians, particularly the later Mohists after the Linguistic Turn of the mid-Warring States period, put great stock in names, in precise language, in the concept of “rectifying names” to form the basis of “bian“, distinctions, arguing. The Mencians, and later the Daoists to an extreme degree, were less enthusiastic about language (and eschewed bian entirely) since it represented a social construct and therefore wasn’t natural. The problem they always ran into was how to teach and represent Daoism without language, and that’s where a lot of the fun comes in.

Reel seems to combine both viewpoints: he wants to name the world, but using poetic rather than factual or scientific understanding of his nature guidebooks. The complementary bookend closing the essay reveals his discovery of the term “The Road to Happiness” to describe the glimmering stripe of light over water, found in an English translation of a 1950s Russian physics paper. ” The act of pinning a precise label on that phenomenon filled me with something I’ll call ecstasy.”

There’s a definite beauty to the phrase “The Road to Happiness”, and I’m not about to stand between anyone and his ecstasy. But it doesn’t bring me ecstasy, and I wonder if this naming he seeks is purely subjective, almost solipsistic. When I hear the phrase, I think of someone walking out on that road and sinking beneath the surface of the water, which brings to mind something other than happiness. However, I do appreciate that some phrases grab us in ways we don’t understand. It’s a more personal, spiritual take on the Confucian/Mohist “rectifying names”.

Mine was an age of specialization that actively discouraged the kind of intellectual leapfrogging that drove naturalists like Thoreau to try to unite science and spirit, to reconcile the romantic and the empirical. I always feared overstepping my bounds.… Attempting a generalized grasp of natural phenomena, without dedicating oneself to a tightly focused area of study, betrayed a pitiful naïveté.… This logic had formed an alliance with the fear that hid somewhere in my hindbrain: knowing too much might kill whatever magic remained in the world.

I always get nervous when a writer invokes Thoreau. Nature essays are not my thing. I’ve read some great ones, thanks to Pushcart, but I’m one of those glass-half-empty people when it comes to the wonders of the natural world: Yes, sunsets are beautiful, there’s nothing like snow-capped mountains or a murmuration of starlings, but please, let me enjoy them from an air-conditioned or heated room and for god’s sake those are spiders and here come the bees what are you crazy?

Reel tells a story from his childhood: he collected “Indian beads” and created stories about the people who had made and traded them. Research revealed the objects to be the fossilized remains of creatures known in Linnaean classification as Delocrinus missouriensis, and in common parlance as “sea lilies”. They aren’t lilies at all; they are ocean-dwelling animals related to starfish, and related species are abundant today in Monterrey Bay. In 1989, the fossilized remains from eons past were named the state fossil of Missouri due to their plentiful presence in the state.

This raises the question: how did so many sea creatures end up in Missouri? And the answer is found in earth science: 150 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still plodding around, the Great Plains were part of a large sea. Reel found this information disappointing; I find it exhilarating. I celebrate the imagination of a child, but I also celebrate the amazing processes by which the world exists in the form we see it today. And don’t get me started on what happens when we ignore reality and live in fantasy.

I thought of Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”, which has the speaker leaving a scholarly lecture on stars to stand under the still night sky and look up. In another poem, Whitman acknowledged his enormous respect for science (“Hurrah for positive science! long live exact demonstration!… Gentlemen, to you the first honors always!”) before presenting his own orientation: ” Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,/I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.” I think Reel is making a similar point, that science can take him so far, but it is not his dwelling. By the way, one of the University of Iowa professors who runs their Whitman Web mentioned a reading of Whitman’s poem I’d never heard before: given the references to time, he wasn’t escaping science, he was bringing it outside with him, checking out the light that had travelled years to get here. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, though I’m not sure it fits with the science of the time.

I had a strong reaction to another section of the essay:

The Germans, I would learn, had come up with the precise word for what I was doing. Beziehungswahn is the mania for seeing meaningful connections linking almost everything, including oneself, to almost everything else. It’s a clinical term. A form of madness.

German often has wonderful words for concepts that take entire sentences to express in English, so I was delighted to find another. Except… a bit of research tells me that Beziehungswahn is a clinical term captured in the English diagnostic phase “ideas of reference”. This is not some universal oneness better ascribed to Buddhism – or, again, Whitman (“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles”). It is instead the psychotic delusion that the waitress at the coffee shop is talking to her customers about you, or the color of that man’s tie is a message meant only for me. It’s “everyone’s laughing at me” on steroids, and it’s exquisitely painful and disabling, not soul-expanding at all. But I may be misreading Reel’s intent, and I may be misinterpreting the use of the word.

Reel is a well-established journalist and author of The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon.

Pushcart XLI: Jane Lancellotti, “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Write a One-Star Review” (non-fiction) from Narrative, Winter 2015

Charles Joseph Travies de Villiers: "La Critique" (c. 1830)

Charles Joseph Travies de Villiers: “La Critique” (c. 1830)

“The highest Criticism,” Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous essay “The Critic as Artist,” “is more creative than creation.” What he meant, of course, is that the riches of the imagination are as crucial in judging art as they are in creating it. Notice how the godlike capital C for Criticism is working here. How it makes you wish that Wilde himself could show up next to the reviewer’s desktop and cover the whole darn keyboard with his paisley cravat to prevent the cynic from posting that he would rather scoop out an eye with a rusty spoon than read Great Expectations.
Through the ages, there have been major thinkers, such as Matthew Arnold, whose fluency and insight elevated the ways in which we talk about art. Only now, instead of Arnold of Great Britain, we have Arnie from Massapequa, who misguidedly equates Jane Eyre with “another of those cheesey love novels written by Danielle Steel.”

Complete essay available online at Narrative

When a newly-published friend found himself squeamish about facing Amazon comments, Lancellotti read the online reviews for him, and discovered the universe of haters. They’ve always been there, and not just since the Internet. They’re the Monday-morning quarterbacks of the creative arts, the people who sneer, “My five-year-old draws better than that” at the museum, who want books and movies about good guys and bad guys, not ambiguity and symbolism and structural amplification of effect. They’ve just become more visible in the past ten years. I used to follow “Least Helpful”, a compendium of less-than-insightful negative reviews. They mostly do movies now, but their Classics Revisited section makes the point of this essay. Or you could just ask the next teenager you see what he or she thought of The Scarlet Letter. I happen to think the way literature is taught in most schools has something to do with it, but that’s just a hunch.

But so what? Maybe I’m speaking as a non-writer who doesn’t have to deal with the issue, but there are plenty of serious literary reviewers out there (like the NYT and Washington Post, both of which gave the friend’s book positive reviews, not to mention dozens of literary websites and journals), and chances are, readers who are considering buying a serious book take those reviews more seriously than what’s on Amazon. Isn’t there room for everyone? BuzBo and ChaCha have a right to their opinions, too, and as long as they’re not writing for Kirkus Reviews, why shouldn’t they express those opinions? I doubt Jane Austen is losing sales because of them.

Who are these people? Are they online versions of the bully who kicks over bicycles? Or the kid who gets his bicycle kicked over? Or are they, more likely, past-hopeful writers whose thwarted ambitions propelled a spite-filled review of Philip Roth?

The more important issue is: why do we get so nasty? Lancellotti wonders if internet reviewers would be as harsh to the author if they met face to face. I doubt it; consider road rage, where cars offer some kind of protection. Maybe there’s a clue here as to the nasty turn political discourse has taken. Maybe we’re all just getting meaner, because we spend hours a day in consequence-free jousting on media like Twitter where the snarkiest comment wins. Nastiness inflation, if you will. I have to wonder if it goes back to the first “My kid beat up your honor student” bumper stickers.

Another issue the essay mentions is the function of criticism, of the book review. The word “critic” comes from the Greek word meaning “judge”. That implies a set of at least partly objective standards to which a work should be compared, rather than a tongue-lashing. But the word has a definite negative connotation, so much that we soften it as “constructive criticism”. And criticism goes much deeper than book reviews; it’s often an analysis of an entire approach to literature, and a description or proposal of guidelines for that approach. But that isn’t the kind of criticism that’s happening on Amazon, nor should it be.

If I may, ahem, criticize – I don’t think this essay adds much to the ongoing discussion of  why anonymous internet reviews are so negative, and it brings even less to a clearer understanding of the genre of criticism. At first I thought we were getting a more personal view from the writer’s angle, but that’s dispensed with quickly in the opening and closing paragraphs in favor of what might be called “ain’t it awful”: the conflict between popular taste and artistic vision. It is, however, an essay about art: the impact of art, various views of art; and that seems to be the focus, so far at least, of this year’s Pushcart. Personally, I preferred how Dominica Phetteplace explored the issue – or, for that matter, Vi Hart’s video essay. But that’s only my opinion, as a reader, based on my personal taste – not as a professional literary critic. I’ll leave that to the people who are trained. People like the editors of Narrative Magazine and the Pushcart series. And I’ll try to learn from what they see.

Pushcart XLI: Lia Purpura, “Scream (or Never Minding)” (non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, 69:3

There are things I’m supposed to never mind. “Never mind” means silent and agreed upon, and that I must want, more than anything, to get through the day, and so should assent to go along. Glance. Turn the page. Turn away from a scream, and the place from which scream would rise, if cultivated by attention paid.
 
Subjects one might avoid: ruined land, ruined animals. Because the issues of the day can begin to feel old, and people get tired of feeling bad.
 
When I was a child I was not daunted. I let myself get completely exhausted.
 
Never minding makes it possible to do things like eat what you want, and talk about simple, daily things.
 
A scream is not speech.

I wasn’t sure if this would be considered an essay or a prose poem. Then I noticed that Washington College’s Literary House Press, who will be publishing it in a limited-run illustrated letterpress edition this coming fall, calls it a “lyric essay.” That’s a good description. We go from Munch’s “The Scream” to #419 and back again, and it hangs together beautifully though it may take some time to understand how.

As with several of the pieces I’ve read in this anthology so far, I was very aware of a kind of prescience in that the essay was written at least a year and a half ago, yet it’s painfully, tragically appropriate to now. Of course, I can’t rule out that I’m simply seeing everything as pertinent, no matter how far afield. But given all the recent screaming (including mine), I have to wonder: were we never-minding all along?

I learned a great deal about “The Scream” from this piece. I did not know that Munch created four different versions of the scene we all know, nor that one of them, a pastel, includes a poem, hand-written by Munch in two columns on its frame, a poem nearly, but not quite, identical to one he’d written in his diary three years earlier:

I was walking along the road with two friends
The Sun was setting – the Sky turned blood-red.
And I felt a wave of Sadness – I paused
tired to Death – Above the blue-black
Fjord and City Blood and Flaming tongues hovered
My friends walked on – I stayed
behind – quaking with Angst – I
felt the great Scream in Nature

I also did not know, until Purpura’s essay told me, that the location of the painting is an actual road in Oslo, one that, in Munch’s time, overlooked both a slaughterhouse, and the insane asylum where his sister lived.

I did not know any of this, and that surprised me, given the ubiquity of this image. Which is, of course, Purpura’s point, though she expands the scope well beyond art history.

Purpura points out how we’ve trivialized the painting, turned it into a joke, a t-shirt icon (not to mention a cake at the café Munch Museum). The power is too much, so we’ve reduced it to the never-minding of signifying upset without the messiness of being upset. She compares it to busts of composers in her elementary school music room:

I remember the bust of Beethoven and Mozart (and Haydn and Liszt and Chopin) in my elementary school’s music room. I couldn’t make any sense of them: a pianist with no arms; but joyless composer who wrote “Ode to Joy.” Their limbless bodies in marbly coldness. Stunted and chopped. I knew I had with a bit of neck was meant to be never minded. Another version of how-things-are-done. The men, canonical. The sculptures, memorial. A cliché of sight. I understood.
Still it was hard to see anything but severedness.

I’ve been in maybe two or three dozen music rooms over the years, and most of them had similar busts. Now I want to run into all of them – all that severedness! – and smash all those busts. Or melt them, I suppose, they’re probably plastic, cheaper than marble or plaster. She’s right; they don’t make sense. How did I never realize this before?

Munch’s painting looks very different to me now. As does #419.

#419 is a cow; that’s a tag in its ear; there’s a #308 right behind it, a #376, and a #454 – all jammed in the frame of the photo.. This must be a mixed lot. If I stand back just a little or, rather hold the newspaper out at arm’s length and unfocus a bit, the numbers fade and the cows are wearing bell-shaped earrings.If I shut my eyes, and shut many more things – doors in the brain, as if windows in cold – if I conjure up Heidi and green fields and milk pails, I can hear the little cowbells tinkling.

We see what we want to see because it’s easier when we sit down to eat a cheeseburger – as I do fairly often – if we don’t think about cow #419. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as we are all discovering now. Call it compassion fatigue, or settling for not-the-worst, or just plain not wanting to look. Never-minding has its costs, and eventually the piper must be paid. Then the screaming begins.