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

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

Complete story available online at Salmagundi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete essay available online at Georgia Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete story available online at Medium

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

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

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

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

Margaret Wardlaw, Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Orlin, Ars Technica interview with Jennifer Ouellette

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

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

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

Spoiler alert: Yes!

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

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

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

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

Some of my favorite chapters:

_____

Chapter 3: The Fleeting Joys Of Buttered Toast

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

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

Chapter 6: Sherlock Holmes and the Bicycle of Misdirection

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

Chapter 11: Princess On The Edge Of Town

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

Chapter 15: Calculemus

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 17: War And Peace And Integrals

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

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

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

Chapter 19: A Great Work Of Synthesis

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

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

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

Chapter 26: A Towering Baklava Of Abstractions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____

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

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

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

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

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

Tariq Mix: “Mentor to Mentee”

Tariq Mix: “Mentor to Mentee”

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

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

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

Gregory Nagy interview in The Atlantic 10/13/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete story available online at NER/LitHub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Long Foreman: Among Other Things (Pleiades Press, 2017)

I had gone to the colony in order to write about inanimate things. I had once written with great enthusiasm, and with some success, about my great-grandfather’s walking stick. I had also written about a wooden club, and had written another essay about a bag of dirty laundry that was left in my old apartment in Ohio by a German woman. I was asked many times at the colony what I was writing, and I explained as many times, to different listeners, that my plan was to write a collection of short pieces about inanimate things. They would come together as a book, I said, one that I hoped would be worth reading. Every time I described it, I was less convinced of the likelihood of this.
My secret anxiety was that I had run out of objects worth writing about. I couldn’t just run to the nearest department store and purchase a laundry basket, so that it could be the subject of my next contemplative prose piece.
Now, though, I was about to take on more objects than I could possibly write about in one book, all of them pregnant with meaning to someone who was now gone.

~~ “We Are All Dealers in Used Furniture”

I’ve been thinking a lot about things lately. First there was the book I read in May by long-haul moving truck driver Finn Murphy, whose advice was: leave everything behind and get new stuff, it’s cheaper and will fit your new life better. Then there was my own (very short-haul) move in July; I had to part with furniture I loved, as well as stuff I should’ve thrown out a decade ago, and I came across some wonderful things I thought I’d thrown out years ago: a paper from college with an encouraging note from the professor, music from the dozen or so choruses I’d sung in over the years, a teapot that was prettier than I remembered. And of course there was Marie Kondo all summer, telling us to throw away everything that doesn’t spark joy. Joy is good; I like joy as much as anyone, but I treasure many things for reasons other than sparks of joy.

Foreman’s essays in this collection show very nicely how things can carry essentials beyond joy.

The pieces also challenge our concept of thing. We tend to think of all that is as fitting into categories of either person, place, or thing. But in Foreman’s essays, a thing, like a bag of left-behind laundry, or a sculpture, might become a person. Or, person might become a thing, as with an art model. The boundaries can be more porous than we might think.

The above quote is from the next-to-last essay, “We Are All Dealers in Used Furniture”, in which Foreman details the events surrounding the death of his Aunt Posey, including going through her home to sort things into what to discard, what to sell, and what to take as inheritance pieces. Hence the reference to more objects than he could possibly write about; it’s the longest piece in the book at 80 pages. He brings up several poems written by poets who lost family members, pointing out things I probably wouldn’t have noticed, like the absence of the father in Robert Lowell’s “Father’s Bedroom”. I love that Aunt Posey drew medieval knights in battle with animals and monsters; it sounds like manuscript marginalia, though in that case I would have expected snails and rabbits.

It wasn’t until I got to that quote that I realized the book was intended to be about objects. I kept thinking (I tend to consider various approaches to these posts as I read) that many of the stories were about things; I suppose it should have been obvious from the title, but some of the pieces require a more metaphorical approach to recognize them as being about things, which is when I started thinking about porous boundaries.

The final essay, following Aunt Posey but not about her, puts the perfect coda on the longer story, and the book. The family gathers to put together a 9000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. And of course, they’re doing something else entirely. “We don’t mourn at my mother’s house – not formally.” I’ve never thought of jigsaw puzzles as vehicles for grief, but I will every time I see one; and the next time death is in my circle, I might just break one out for all of us mourners.

The collection starts off with two shorter essays that focus clearly on things in the literal sense: a walking stick, and a club. If I may once again borrow a concept I learned from Ken Nichols’ blog, these two stories teach us how to read the book. While objects take center stage, they are pointers to more important matters: “The stick would complete my walking self when I had not realized that I was a fragment”, he says of his grandfather’s walking stick. The club, bought at an antique store, led to darker places: the Rodney King beating, an ancestor who was in the Klan. But it eventually leads back to light when it breaks as he uses it to hit a baseball: “I reacted to the death of the club with a mixture of surprise, embarrassment, and relief….I wondered if it had not been a club after all.” That the club was seen to die upon breaking hearkens back to that overly simplistic person-place-thing categorization being a little messier than we might realize.

His essay about his high school – a place that becomes, for the duration of the essay, a thing, as well as a container for things, including a python that springs a freak attack one afternoon – covers a lot of historical and sociological ground about its past as a military school, and about his family. “If I learned nothing else there, I understand that to spend mornings and afternoons in a place for four years entails merging that place with the person you are, or strive to be, whether you like it or not.” And again, person, place, and thing entwine. I would like to think we’re able to un-merge from negative places, but it can take time, a great deal of hard work, and, most crucially, the recognition that the merging has took place.

One of the weirder stories is about dirty laundry left behind by a subletter. It seems to me, if you find someone else’s dirty underwear (among other items) in your apartment, you throw it out. Immediately. But Foreman spent a lot of time thinking about it, trying to find someone who might want the skirt and shirts, trying on the socks. Wait – trying on a stranger’s unwashed socks? Is he nuts? I started to think this was a gag of some kind; I have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to irony, and maybe this was a Seinfeldesque fantasy.

But then, it got very real. He talks about the stuff with his friends: “Most people, when I told them about Sarah’s abandoned laundry, were less interested in it than they were in other things, like movies and their own lives.” Boy, do I know that feeling. Even on the Internet, where you’re supposed to be able to find anything, I can’t find people who are willing to talk to me about stuff I want to talk about for more than 280 characters, if that.

A couple of essays about Foreman’s decision to go vegetarian (in a non-evangelical way, thank god) didn’t particularly interest me until he revealed what to me was a surprising fact: Hitler was a vegetarian. Then we get serious when he imagines what lunch with vegetarian Hitler might be like:

I don’t like to think I could have a pleasant talk with Adolf Hitler, or that I could bear his presence long without at least being critical, even brutally honest, but if we could somehow meet at a dinner party or reinforced bunker, and I couldn’t help interacting with him, I might well behave as I do when faced with anything I consider worth protest. I am afraid I would act like I do in all awkward encounters: evade the points of contention between us, downplay our differences, be polite, avoid a scene.
….Instead we would talk about our favorite salads. I would sing the praises of chickpeas, and worry that, by discussing food instead of his atrocities, I might be doing something unforgivable.

This style of writing mesmerizes me. The comedy and absurdity makes me think it’s humor, but the tragedy and profundity layered in there cancels that out, and the self-deprecation makes it all somehow very real. It leaves me a bit off balance, and I realize, that’s the same thing he did with the laundry, except it’s more intense here because everything’s more intense with Hitler. Except that invoking Hitler usually turns trite, but discussing favorite salads kept us from going down that road. It reminds me of a flash Steve Almond wrote, “Nixon Swims”, which, being about Nixon, could’ve also been trite, but had me in tears, since it wasn’t really about Nixon at all, just like this isn’t about Hitler.

The story about working as a live model for art students was memorable as an example of a person intentionally becoming a thing, if a sentient, reflective thing. I hadn’t realized it was so physically taxing. A secondary thing in the story is the robe. You can’t just take off your clothes; you have to change, in private, into a robe, then remove the robe when it’s time to start. There’s a tiny vignette about the robe getting lost that again went through absurdity and came out real on the other side.

“Boxes” presents Foreman’s stint as a temp for a law firm, and made me realize how, when expertly used, “show don’t tell” is extraordinarily effective. Privilege, in corporate and personal forms, is never mentioned but laid out bare via boxes full of documents that must be examined and tagged. The calmness of the voice in the essay only inflames my reaction.

“James and the Giant Noise Violation” was most notable, to me, for the behavior of the girlfriend Aurora. Foreman moved to Missouri; Aurora came with him to pick out a place, then when the time came, moved a hundred miles away. If she had a reason, it isn’t given. She left several art projects in Missouri, however, including a bizarre bust based on a casting of a friend of hers; bizarre because of the naked men on the torso, bizarre because of the handprints on its back, and bizarre because it was from the hips up, so looked like it was “halfway buried in the floor.” It’s interesting that I began to see Foreman as a person at this point. I know him slightly through Twitter, and have always assumed he was a rather water-off-a-duck’s-back kind of guy. Now I began to see him differently.

“Skillet” is a wonderful piece, my favorite in the book at the moment, I think, about the aftermath of a kitchen accident that melted a skillet, and the oddly-shaped remnant of metal that remained afterwards. And through this thing we come to several urgent matters. About huddlers and spreaders, the cost of our tendency in modernity to leave the nest farther and farther behind:

Post skillet, I gained some insight concerning why my four brothers and one sister lived within an hour of each other – within sixty miles of the house where we grew up. It is one thing when your skillet explodes and roasts your kitchen and you panic, and you have a brigade of family members who can reach you in fifty minutes in case things really go wrong. It is another thing altogether when this happens soon after you’ve moved to Missouri and you live alone….

About the fragility of the world, about the damage that can be done in a mere minute. “I was upset with the world because of the stuff it was made of…. I wanted the world to be stronger than that.”

And, in a poignant end to this essay that began with a Chaplinesque accident:

If my brother Jim found the ugly piece of metal on my desk, he would throw it away, and so would my brothers Sam and David. So would my father. So would my mother. This would make no difference, if i did not think the piece of metal meant something, if there were nothing of significance I thought I could learn from it. Years after its creation, I sit at my desk sometimes still and let it hang from my fingernail by its stem. I stare at it, and think about nothing.
I am convinced that my family would in no way understand this, that they would not see the value of this useless piece of previously useful metal. I worry that no one else would get it either, and sometimes I know that I am utterly alone in this world.

As someone who was always alone in my family, and someone who now remembers to recite “nobody gives a damn what you say” whenever I have an impulse to tweet, reply, or otherwise communicate to a world that, truly, doesn’t give a damn what I say because everyone’s only interested in what they themselves are saying, or what the Influencers are saying, I understand this. And again, I somehow found it surprising coming from someone like Foreman, who appears, on Twitter at least, to be a successful professor and writer who now has a family of his own, a family that, presumably, understands him just fine. I wonder if they look at him funny when he writes essays about a stranger’s laundry, though.

I also appreciated a paragraph from the preface:

Scenes in the essays that follow have been rendered as faithfully to objective truth as possible, and every sentence was written with the intent to portray things with clarity and honesty. The value of clarity, honesty, and objective truth is a worthy subject for another preface to a different book.

I’ve gone ballistic in the past over nonfiction that invents things to make reality work more like a story, or to fill in gaps in memory. I’m fully aware of the difficulty of remembering exactly what happened, what was said, years in the past, particularly in emotionally charged moments, but writers have always had ways of handling that without lying to their readers. So I’m glad to read nonfiction that aims for, as much as possible, 100% truth, rather than 82% truth. And I’d really like to see that preface on the value of truth.

I e-met Foreman about five years ago, when I made a snarky remark about a story of his that appeared in a Pushcart volume. As luck would have it, somehow he found it, and made a good-natured joke on Twitter. I asked him a few months later if he would answer some questions about the story for an online writers’ group I was still using (yes, it was that long ago), and he generously did. He’s the second writer who’s responded graciously to my clumsy remarks, and ended up, well, not a friend exactly, but someone for whom I feel warmth and appreciation. I’ve had his book on my read list since it came out a couple of years ago, but my mistake was: I put it on a special list, not on my library list or Amazon list or browser bookmarks list. I put it in my Google Calendar. So every three to six months, I’d get a message, “Read Rob Foreman’s Book” and I’d be in the middle of something – a nasty math mooc, the current Pushcart, and most recently, a move – and push it forward a few months.

A few weeks ago, I forwarded a tweet from my blogging buddy Jake Weber, hoping to lure some of the writers who follow me (I have no idea why) into joining us for the impending BASS 2019 read. Rob was the only one to reply affirmatively. So I made his book a priority for this summer session. I now wish I’d read it years ago. But then again, maybe this was the ideal time for me to read about things. He has a short story collection coming out in 2020, titled I Am Here to Make Friends.

In every essay, no matter how far removed from my personal experience, I found something I strongly identified with. The margins are littered with exclamation points and scribblings of “yeah, I know!”. Some of these were silly: who hasn’t forgotten a pan on the stove (mine did not result in any kind of disaster, though I threw it away, afraid to reheat it); I associate “Thanatopsis” with my monstrous fourth grade teacher, though I’m not sure if that’s real or something I conjured up since my mother died that year; and I’ve always wanted some kind of walking stick – and now I’m approaching the age and condition where a cane would not be inappropriate – but fear it would draw too much attention. That’s where the overlaps between Foreman’s world and mine deepen: timidity, self-assurance, courage, loneliness, haplessness shading into learned helplessness, healing, and always, a sense of great significance in everyday things.

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.