Allen Gee: My Chinese-America (SFWP 2015)

I think that those African-Americans who like to assume that I have white privileges, or the upper hand of lighter skin pigmentation, aren’t aware that some whites, especially in the academic arena I work in, view me as a fierce source of competition, fearing I’ll match the stereotypical Asian prodigy, or be the diligent hardworking immigrant. One white male writer once complained to me in a jealous tone, “I wish I had a cultural background like yours to draw upon!”
….
While I do consider myself hardworking, which stems from my family’s original blue collar Toisanese farming roots in China, my determination stems more from a desire to live the most involved writing and teaching life possible, for the sake of wanting to fully explore the life of the mind. So for me, being Asian in the New South means occupying a unique space, a territory of my own, neither black nor white …. And although some African-Americans believe I have advantages because my complexion is lighter, or supposedly more acceptable, and might also view me as a competitor vying for limited claims to minority status, they have not walked far enough in my shoes, and would certainly be surprised to know how much we have in common, as different as we are.

It’s easy for those of us in White America to see Asians as the “model minority,” and more or less forget about them when we have those Twitter fights about racism. Then a pandemic comes along and shows you what was just under the surface all along.

That has little to do with why I chose to read this book, however. Back at the end of January, I read a piece by Gee recalling his mentor James Alan McPherson in Pushcart 2020. I put both this book, and a volume of short stories by McPherson, on my list. As it happens, current events added to my interest.

As an English professor, a former basketball player, and skilled fisherman, Gee bucks a lot of stereotypes about Chinese American men. As his essays point out, he often has to deal with them anyway. He covers a wide spectrum from the very personal – family and dating – to the societal, to the universal experience of aging.

The first essay, “Profile,” is a harrowing account of an encounter with a Kansas State Trooper as he was traveling from his then-home in Houston to the midwest to Albany to see his parents. That’s followed by a more reflective look at the past in “Is It Safe There?”, which takes its title from a friend’s question about going to Chinatown. Gee, as it happens, spent his early childhood in New York’s Chinatown, where his family owned restaurants. He writes with fondness of his memories, and with sadness about how so much of the flavor is being lost to gentrification:

These days, I fondly recall accompanying my grandfather on his self-appointed rounds, but as more and more of the Chinatown I knew vanishes, I have the sense that more of my own history is disappearing, and so part of myself seems to be winnowing away , like I am slowly being erased. I’m left feeling less and less connected to where I once felt the most culturally anchored and secure and alive.
We are constantly told that change is inevitable in life, but what happens when we have almost nothing left to return to?

We then shift to a peculiar date he had with a woman I would describe as an Asiaphile/stalker. It’s almost comical; it’d make a great scene for a movie, but this was real life, with people looking on. But we’re back to serious business with “Fraught with Masculinity” as Gee, buying formula for his infant daughter at WalMart, finds himself about to walk into a showdown between two rival gangs. He took a detour into a McDonalds to avoid the situation, and in the essay uses the opportunity to look at images of masculinity in multicultural American:

What I intuited before the age of twelve was how American representations of Asians failed to correspond with who I was, and aside from the dearth of rolemodels throughout popular culture, Asian-American male stereotypes were already prevalent. …[W]hile emasculation is how Asian-American males are otherized, hypervirilization and being attributed with a menacing intent to elicit fear is how African American males are most often stereotyped. Neither minority group is allowed to be thought of as “normal” – that would deem them equal with whites.

I’ve never thought of Asian men (and I’m thinking of East Asian in particular; as Anthony Bourdain once said, Asia is a big place) as being less masculine, but I’m aware that’s a common trope. What particularly interested me wasn’t even in the piece itself, but came up as I was dictating the above quote using word-recognition software to save wear and tear on my disintegrating hands. Instead of “how Asian-American males are otherized”, the result was “how Asian-American males are authorized.” A perfectly understandable substitution based on pronunciation of a rarely-used word, but remarkably pertinent semantically as well: stereotypes, particularly those that weaken and dismiss the target, are ways of authorizing, both in terms of permission, and in terms of writing them as characters rather than allowing them to be who they are. While this author-izing of Asian men writes them as harmless and allows them to be ignored and dismissed, rewriting African American men as threatening justifies abusive treatment and assumption of wrongdoing.

One of the most contemplative pieces is “Silences” and outlines Gee’s relationships with the men in his family. One startling revelation is that his father didn’t know he’d been adopted until he was 45 years old. I’m a little confused as to how that’s possible, but I suppose birth certificates weren’t required in the past as much as they are now. While considering his father’s reluctance to give him advice throughout his life, Gee comes to embrace the habit of silence that is part of the family.

“Point Guard” is a fascinating essay both structurally and informationally, even for those of us who don’t basketball at all. Gee discusses his own basketball career, originally undertaken as way of fitting in as a teenager, in parallel with a second essay about Jeremy Lin and the reaction America had to a Chinese basketball star.

When you feel that you can affect or dictate the flow of the game by determining the pace – by scoring on your own and creating opportunities for teammates, or by shutting down an opponent or outplaying him or her – or when you are dominant because of your vision come up dribbling, and passing or shooting skills, and when you want the ball and everyone looks to you and wants to get you the ball so that you are the locus of play, like a conductor or floor general, or when you are the man, the woman or the one whose play determines whether your team wins or loses in “clutch” moments, only then do you know what it is to be a “true” point guard.

I have no idea what a point guard is, but that paragraph sure makes me wish I was one.

Somewhere in today’s feeds was a request that more white people write about their white privilege instead of about the problems faced by people of color. I will own my white privilege here: “Asians in the Library” was hilarious. It’s hilarious to me because I’m not the subject of the rant of the UCLA student who simply was fed up with so many Asians in the library – “they come to our school, which is fine” – committing atrocities like talking on cell phones (which is annoying, but is annoyingly cross-racial, trust me on this) and having family over on weekends. It’s funny in the way the current crop of freedom fighters are posting rants about refusing to wear masks in stores that require them. That is, not funny at all. Enter Jimmy Wong, who made his own song/video in reply, and it’s even funnier/sadder. It’s all available on Youtube, but no, I’m not going to provide links.

“The Real New South” gives us a sense of Gee’s experience living in Georgia as an English professor. It’s an interesting look at what it is to not fit into a binary society based on black and white. The experiences of aging take the stage in “Echocardiography” as an erratic heartbeat leads to the realization that the body does, eventually, betray us all. I could identify with the sense of shock as he found himself “buying a long plastic pillbox with letters for each day of the week on top of seven compartments.” Ah, yes. The first pill bar. It felt like giving up. I now have one with AM and PM compartments for each day. And an extra one for as-needed analgesics. You can get used to anything, turn anything into normal. Whether you should is another question.

A fishing trip provides the narrative for “By 2042” that somehow pivots to the question of minorities becoming the Ugly Americans when they become the majority. Just as he did with basketball, Gee took an activity in which I have no particular interest – deep-sea fishing – and made it fascinating. I had no idea so much was involved. Most of the people on the boat that day probably had no idea, either; it turned out to be that kind of tourist trip where someone else does most of the work but you get to pull on the rod at the right moment and claim your fish. My father, who’d never been fishing before, hung a sailfish on our living room wall after such a fishing trip. But the boat captain wasn’t prepared for someone at Gee’s level of expertise,and that led to a decision on how to handle disappointment when a silly mistake let the big one get away.

The book wraps up with a state-by-state travelogue relating various experiences or statistics related to Gee and/or to Chinese American history. Turns out his grandfather came to Maine in the 30s on vacation. And Gee wants to retire to Florida. I grew up in Florida. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. But I hear there’s good fishing.

Some aspects of my life are directly contrary to Gee’s; on others, we share traits. My father held secrets. I never did find out exactly when he came here from Sweden. He was determinedly American. I learned a few words of Swedish and a couple of recipes from his older sister, but that’s about it. Our culture was supposed to be American, though I still have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. I didn’t find out my older sister was adopted until I was sixteen. I thought it was cool. To my parents, it was something to be hidden. I connect with him on the unlikeliest things: the pill box, the descriptions of fishing and basketball. From his Pushcart essay, I learned that he considered himself not very well-read at the time he became interested in literature. These reading projects I do are all aimed at fixing my similar lack of background.

And further considering how silence has pervaded our family, I know it is not simply something mysterious, shameful, confounding, and divisive; nor is silence something to be resented. It is a behavior that will forever be in the air, seeming as natural as the wind or the sun. For although I might wish otherwise, not only is silence a deeply ingrained part of our history, but I sense it’s deep in our bones, as if it’s a part of our destiny, and so in many forms, it will most likely continue.

I’m glad he let his voice, and through him his father’s and grandfather’s voices, be heard in this volume.

Daniel Chamovitz: What a Plant Knows (Scientific American/FSG, 2012) with BONUS MOOC!

We are utterly dependent on plants. We wake up in houses made of wood from the forests of Maine, pour a cup of coffee brewed from coffee beans grown in Brazil, throw on a T-shirt made of Egyptian cotton, print out a report on paper, and drive our kids to school in cars with tires made of rubber that was grown in Africa and fueled by gasoline derived from cycads that died millions of years ago…. And plants continue to inspire and amaze us: the mighty sequoias are the largest singular, independent organisms on earth, algae are some of the smallest, and roses definitely make anyone smile.
Knowing what plants do for us, why not take a moment to find out more about what scientists have found out about them ?

I’ve lived a relatively plant-oblivious life – until about six months ago. And now I’ll talk about my plants (not even interesting ones, basic beginner stuff) like old ladies talk about their bunions.

It’s all @drunkphyto’s fault.

I was minding my own business when someone retweeted her tweet into my feed last September: “The smell of cut grass is the grass releasing a wounding compound into the air to warn other plants that they were injured. You are smelling their screams.” I immediately thought of Seth Fried’s “Animacula”, a short story in the form of a lab report about organisms with strange properties, including screaming. Oh, and Liz Ziemska’s “The Mushroom Queen” which acquainted me with the interconnectedness of fungi via mycelia.

I emailed @DrunkPhyto to tell her how excited I was about all this (yeah, I know) and, to my surprise, she gave me a friendly reply rather than a restraining order. She recommended a number of books, one of which was Chamovitz. So it ended up on my reading list. And I started eyeing the plant stand in the supermarket, until I finally brought home a tiny philodendron, then an ivy, and an oxalis, and various flowers….

I was in for another surprise. As I started reading, I realized I’d taken all these moocs on biology, physiology, biochem, anatomy, and other sciency topics, and while I’d encountered cell respiration and the Michaelis-Menten equation multiple times, I’d never learned anything specific to plant biology. I didn’t even know how photosynthesis worked! So I checked edX for any moocs on plant bio, and found little beyond agricultural ecology. Ah, but on Coursera, I found… Understanding Plants: What a Plant Knows , taught by Daniel Chamovitz! So of course I signed up. It follows the book very closely, and includes very helpful diagrams the book lacks. Double bonus: He has a second course, Understanding Plants: Fundamentals of Plant Biology , which I will take as soon as I finish up the biochem I’m struggling with.

How way leads on to way…

Plants must be aware of the dynamic visual environment around them in order to survive. They need to know the direction, amount, duration, and color of light to do so. ….Plants don’t have a nervous system that translates light signals into pictures. Instead, they translate light signals into different cues for growth. Plants don’t have eyes, just as we don’t have leaves.
But we can both detect light.

The book’s approach is to examine how plants sense their environment, through chapters like What a Plant Sees, What a Plant Feels, How a Plant Knows Where It Is, What a Plant Remembers. For each sense, the approach is to look at the human equivalent – say, sight – and break it down to its fundamental quality – sensing light – while pointing out key differences between the human version and the plant version – plants don’t have brains to interpret light signals into pictures – and presenting experimental evidence and theories for ecological significance of the sense.

There’s a fair amount of technical detail for a general readership book. The basics of electrochemical conduction, for example, and the regulation of water through ion transport to cause movement; gene expression and epigenetics; receptors and phytochromes. The experiments that revealed various processes and qualities are described in detail. I have to admit, I was surprised that Darwin was such a plant buff, proving that plants sense light in the tips of shoots. One of the most ingenious experiments was by Thomas Andrew Knight, a 19th century gentleman (rather than a scientist) who concocted a kind of water wheel to create centrifugal force to understand the role of gravity in plant growth, the International Space Shuttle being a couple of centuries in the future.

One of the most interesting chapters was What a Plant Hears, for several reasons. Caution: Spoiler ahead! First, it was a negative finding, and, as Chamovitz points out in his mooc, “one of the other problems in scientific research is that you can’t publish negative results.” This is particularly pertinent to this chapter, since a poorly-designed study in the 60s, coupled with a pop-science (in the worst sense of the phrase) book, had everyone convinced that plants like to be talked to, and they prefer classical music to rock. I’ll admit, I thought this was the case until I read this chapter; I had no idea the study was flawed and the hypotheses invalid. But because no one wants to publish negative results, failures to replicate the study weren’t anywhere near as publicized as the original work.

Even more interesting, the mooc contains a post-production video updating the hearing lecture, since later experiments have shown that plants do show responses to low frequency sounds, possibly via touch sensors (which is, fundamentally, what hearing is), and this may be related to sending roots in the direction of water. As Chamovitz says, “Science is a self-correcting system,” and new research leads to new theories.

Our dictionary’s definition of smell excludes plants from discussion. They are removed from our traditional understandings of the olfactory world because they do not have a nervous system, and olfaction for a plant is obviously a nose-less process. But let’s say we tweak this definition to “the ability to perceive odor or scent through stimuli.” Plants are indeed more than remedial smellers. What odors does a plant perceive, and how do smells influence a plant’s behavior?

The chapter on smell was also particularly interesting. Just like us, plants have receptors for volatile chemical molecules, which are the basis of smell. Anyone who has sped up the ripening of a peach or avocado by placing it in a paper bag with a ripe banana has used this sense: ethylene is given off by ripe fruits and signals other fruits to ripen. I learned this practice goes back many centuries, though it used other means: incense in China, for example.

And here’s where the book’s approach really works for me: given that this is the case, why would this happen? What’s the evolutionary advantage to having one ripe peach encourage others to ripen as well?

From an ecological perspective, this has an advantage in ensuring seed dispersal as well. Animals are attracted to ready-to-eat fruits like peaches and berries. A full display of soft fruits brought on by the ethylene-induced wave guarantees an easily identifiable market for animals, which then disperse the seeds as they go about their daily business.

So it isn’t that peach trees thought it would be a good idea if they did this; it’s that those plants that had this facility, however it was acquired (by mutation?) would have better reproductive success than those that didn’t. This is evolution in a nutshell. This is also my own musing, not a point made explicitly in the book, so if I’m off-base, tell me.

It’s this sense of smell that @DrunkPhyto was (slyly) referring to with “smelling their screams”. This exact point comes up when considering that an injured leaf will release a volatile chemical, and other leaves, on the plant and on other plants, will respond to it with self-protective measures:

While the phenomenon of plants being influenced by their neighbors through airborne chemical signals is now an accepted scientific paradigm, the question remains: are plants truly communicating with each other (in other words, purposely warning each other of approaching danger), or are the healthy ones just eavesdropping on a soliloquy by the infested plants, which do not intend to be heard?

There’s no real answer to this question, but again resorting to evolutionary advantage, plants that warn their own leaves to defend against intruders would likely survive more than plants that didn’t. How the “altruism” of warning other plants comes into it is murkier, though it’s scientifically doubted.

We don’t typically think of memory in connection with plants, but it turns out we can. Again, Chamovitz breaks down memory into its essential parts – storage, encoding, and retrieval – and shows how this works in an organism with no brain, no hippocampus. The Venus Flytrap serves as an excellent example of short-term memory: about 20 seconds. Plants that want to bloom or seed at specific times of the year keep track of the length of the day via genetic suppression or expression; this serves as a kind of medium-range memory. And the most interesting memory of all, long-term memory, spans generations via epigenetics, a topic I know far too little about:

…Not only do the stressed plants make new combinations of DNA but their offspring also make the new combinations, even though they themselves had never been directly exposed to any stress. The stress in the parents caused a stable heritable change that was passed on to all their offspring: the plants behaved as if they had been stressed.… In other words, stressed parents give rise to offspring that grew better under harsh conditions compared with regular plants.

Human experience tells a different story, since human offspring are subjected to other inputs beyond genetic inheritance. But it’s an amazing paragraph: what doesn’t kill a plant, makes the species stronger.

A look at awareness – consciousness – ends the book; it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. I myself hold two conflicting instincts about this sort of thing. I’ve always found it impossible to understand how a plant could “know” it’s time to bloom or seed, or for that matter how a red blood cell knows to pick up oxygen in the lungs and drop it off in the tissues. The biochem mooc I’m taking just did a wonderful lesson on that process, in fact, and it helped to clarify that it’s all about osmosis, competing pressures, and electrical charges repelling and attracting each other. But you could say the same thing about our brains: maybe all the art, belief, and knowledge is just a matter of manipulating matter and energy, no matter how much it feels like we control it with our will. On the other hand, I find it troubling when anyone declares some ethereal quality – like art, or religion, or emotion – is what makes people special, and when it turns out bees dance and whales communicate, the goalposts get moved to keep humans unique. I don’t try to reconcile these two ideas. Like Whitman, very well, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.

Granted I have little to compare it to, but I don’t think I could have picked a better entrée to plant biology than this book. It combines a hint of romanticism with solid scientific evidence, and bounces off my prior learning (if unorthodox, via moocs and youtube) in biology and neuroscience to bridge the gap between human and botanical. Finding a mooc attached to it was a super-deluxe Easter egg.

For readers who’d rather not bother with the technical details, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And who knows, you might just come away with curiosity about something you always thought was way over there somewhere. Way does lead on to way, after all.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Suzanne Farrell Smith, “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap” (nonfiction) from Brevity #59

If you find a mouse on a glue trap, he’ll eyeball you with one black shiny eye while breathing in and out faster than you have ever seen anything breathe. You will panic, though you know the mouse is panicking harder.

Complete story available online at Brevity

How would you tell the story of finding a mouse stuck in a glue trap you yourself did not put down, but was rather a carryover from the former owners of your house? What would you want to convey: what actions, tone, emotions, persons secondarily affected?

You might use second person, if you wanted to dramatically increase the chances of some random editor/slush pile reader tossing it into the Rejects bin, then make it very short, in order to mitigate that possibility. But you’d make it all one paragraph, again shooting yourself in the foot. Then you’d send it to a litmag that specializes in very short, very creative nonfiction, that wants to see something different.

You might want to cram in a range of emotions, and make them evident not by explaining – “I felt sad/happy/scared” – but through actions and considerations. This is, of course, show don’t tell, the first rule learned in Writing 101, but if you think about it, it’s also Real Life: nobody reads a Bad News Letter and thinks, Wow, I’m sad and scared; no, you crumple up the letter, maybe throw it, maybe cry, maybe stare at nothing, maybe grab a bottle or a pile of chocolate or the phone, maybe a lot of things, but naming emotions wouldn’t be one of them. That’s why it’s a rule.

Ok, I can’t do this any more; see, its harder than it looks.

When the mouse starts to struggle, you will tell your husband to kill it, no save it, and you will run to your phone and search “how to remove a mouse from a glue trap.” Articles will tell you to use oil, so while your husband brings the glued mouse out to the back walkway so that your three young sons, in jammies and waiting with popcorn bowls for a Saturday-night Christmas movie, don’t see it, you will hunt for the carafe. Outside, the mouse will sniff and stretch from the trap…. You will cover his body with an old tri-fold cloth diaper and douse his legs with olive oil. Your husband will say, “He’s going to smell too good to predators,” and you will tell the mouse, in all honesty, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry you smell delicious.”

I would never think of a two-page memoir about finding a mouse as being interesting, but this really was, as writing. We know the narrator has conflicting feelings; we see a strange juxtaposition (every time I use that word, I worry, because I was once told it’s a signal of bad writing, but it’s a useful word and fits what’s happening here) of the drama in the basement and the kids getting ready to watch a Christmas movie upstairs. Hilarious sentences are followed by maudlin ones, but it combines to give an honest portrait of the moment.

The title had me stuck on “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie,” simultaneously the cutest and the most right-wing children’s story ever written. But the text had me comparing it to Richard Wilbur’s poem “Death of a Toad”, often considered hyperbolic, more of a satire of romantic poetry given its subject matter. Smith stays firmly within real limits, even as she explores a reaction some of us might find odd.

It’s a great example of putting the creative in creative nonfiction without going gimmicky. Yes, I know, there are those who think second person is automatically gimmicky, but it works here, distancing the narrator from herself enough to present the scene, and putting the reader in her place, a place some readers, again, might not consider, um, normal. The kids upstairs are just the icing on the cake, offering a parallel to the end stage and the morning-after scene, a scene that is as inevitable as it is… no, not heartbreaking, but more than wistful: let’s call it appropriately somber.

No, let’s not call it anything at all. Let’s just read it, and that’ll tell us more.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Hal Crowther, “Dante on Broadway” (nonfiction) from Narrative, Winter 2019

Which heroes of the past do we expect to see honored by urban statues? In the South, mostly generals. Everywhere, politicians, saints, philanthropists, famous athletes. I couldn’t see the statue’s head, up there among the spring leaves, but the larger-than-life-size (nine and a half feet, actually) male figure was dressed in an outfit that looked nothing like a military uniform, more like an academic gown or a priest’s cassock that covered the big fellow down to his shoes. A medieval aristocrat’s everyday street wear, as it turned out, specifically Italian, Florentine, thirteenth century. If I had been sitting on the other side of the little park, I would have seen its name on a large iron sign: Dante Park.

Complete story available online at Narrative

This was not my first Crowther essay. Back in Pushcart 2014, he was represented by a piece that started off with “ a wonderful riff on the crwth,” as I said at the time (a string instrument that has fallen into obscurity). Then he went on to bemoan how everything of value has been supplanted by modern versions of less aesthetic and/or humanistic worth. I rather took exception to that, though I did feel a tug of sympathy for all the crwths in the world collecting dust on antique store shelves.

He’s basically written the same essay here. And I’ve had basically the same reaction. In fact, as I’ve been keeping track, it’s the third piece in this volume that’s had me more or less in agreement with parts, yet resentful of the overall tenor.

The essay starts out with his own recent discover of Dante Park in New York, featuring an outsized statue of the Italian poet who created The Divine Comedy. At that time, he was distracted by a passing truck that specialized in shredding documents.

Representing the thirteenth century, Dante, father of the modern Italian language, progenitor of the Renaissance, disciple of Aristotle, a great poet whose sacred mission was to preserve the wisdom and literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans and protect their precious, fragile links to his own time and culture. Representing the twenty-first century, Information Destruction at Your Door.
Irony doesn’t hit us much harder than that. I like to think that a lot of people, if they had shared my vision at that moment, would have been as blindsided as I was. Realistically I know that 95 percent of the people who pass through Dante Park have never heard of the poet (“Dante? A wide receiver for the Browns?”) and would have no negative response to a Pro Shred truck. And that, of course, is a huge part of the problem.

I have to wonder if Crowther realizes the documents being shredded include things like financial and medical records containing identification numbers that could be used to pirate identities or commit various forms of extortion. Sometimes they also include obsolete manuals and forms that could just be thrown away, but shredding typically is done for security purposes. They aren’t destroying dictionaries or copies of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or the original Gutenberg Bible or Book of Kells. Those things are, in fact, in abundant existence, not only in museums on paper (where moth and rust doth corrupt) but as facsimilies on library shelves and even household shelves, not to mention in the Cloud where everyone can take a good look at them from their cozy bed at 3am should the desire arise.

I should admit now that I became interested in Dante because the professor of a math mooc spoke so lovingly of it, and I ended up studying it with the help of another mooc, and the online site of a third university. Dante isn’t going anywhere.

In America’s social-media century, with an illiterate Twitter-addicted liar steering the ship of state, even yesterday—the past twenty-four hours and their printed, taped, and digitalized record—is routinely erased, distorted, denied. There are idiots afoot who must start every day like the first day of creation, as empty of memory as Adam waking up in the Garden of Eden.

And of course here is where I agree with him. Right now, as I read this, there’s a misinformation campaign in overdrive convince America that the Orange Man had the pandemic solved long ago and it’s Obama’s fault the tests didn’t work and Hillary’s fault China is growing bat viruses in labs and that his press conferences get the best ratings of any tv ever in history (let me be clear lest I become part of the problem: none of that is true), while medical personnel are getting sick and, in a few cases, dying because PPE is being kidnapped by the Feds and ransomed for maximal profit instead of being directed to where it’s needed… oh, never mind, just go read the news.

And yes, I agree, we tend to forget things. There’s a meme on the internet – which Crowther seems to scorn – that starts, “I’m old enough to remember…” and concludes with something that happened a year ago, or a month ago – or sometimes, just days ago. There is an epic battle for history being fought right now in the present, and revisionists are re-revisioning as often as necessary. Any attempt to show them actual proof of their former positions meets with cries of “fake news” or “you’re a nasty person”, the latter often reserved for women who have the nerve to contradict a man.

But wait a minute. Dante “wrote his greatest poetry in the Tuscan vernacular to expand the reach and influence of ‘those who know.’” This was not considered a good idea at the time, as scholastic and literary work was in Latin. Wouldn’t Dante be on Twitter or Youtube or Tik Tok today, trying to expand knowledge? And let’s not forget he didn’t know Greek and was dependent on translations of Homer. That’s not a serious flaw, but a 13th century Crowther might have seen it as one.

I’m tired of academics and the intelligentsia blaming the internet for everything. There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. In the 13th century, I’m willing to bet most of Florence was more interested in gossip and love ballads than in Aristotle. Someone like Dante would have been among the most educated, in a stratified society that depended on lower castes as laborers. And don’t forget, Dante was run out of town by the rulers of the day, and the leadership of the Church, as he exposed in “The Inferno”, was a corrupt cesspool. So don’t go crying about evil modernity and blame everything on the Internet.

There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. You know what else is there? Courses on Dante, on Milton, on Shakespeare. Videos of lectures on topics from protein purification techniques (sorry, I’m taking a biochem mooc at the moment, that’s where my head is) to the history of Ethiopia to the differences between various musical modes and keys, as well as theoretical reconstructions of music from Egypt and ancient Greece and pretty much everywhere else. Through Twitter, I get to peek over the shoulders of classicists, astronomers, mathematicians, historians, medievalists, artists, writers, etc etc. While this alone isn’t educating, it’s often a springboard to papers, books, and courses on topics I’d otherwise never see.

If you can’t find anything but crap on the internet, blame yourself.

While I seem to be thrown by these I-agree-I-disagree pieces, I find that I like them. They help me clarify my thinking, draw boundaries without insisting that everything is right or wrong. That’s another problem we’re dealing with right now: cancel culture, the all-or-nothing approach.

I sympathize with Crowther’s sense that the world is leaving him behind. The world left me behind years ago, and I’m a little younger than he is. I prefer books to e-readers, myself. But that doesn’t mean that innovation is a bad thing. Sometimes it means the way things are saved and stored changes. And, yes, sometimes things are lost: no copies, no notes, of The Divine Comedy in Dante’s hand exist. And somehow, it’s still with us, because of the means of duplication in existence at the time.

When I saw the title of this essay in the Table of Contents, my first thought was, Oh god, someone made a musical out of The Commedia, or out of Dante’s life. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. On the one hand, it could be amazing; but more likely, it’s a lot of catchy tunes and special effects rather than anything to do with the guy who got lost halfway through the journey of his life, and turned to his poetic idol to see him to a salvation that transcended poetry. So I was relieved when I didn’t have to choose.

I doubt I’ll ever get to New York at this point, but if I do, I will seek out Dante Park. And if I happen to catch sight of a shredder along the way, I won’t worry about it, but will give a toast to Crowther for drawing me there.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Patricia Foster, “Eulogy” (nonfiction) from Ploughshares #134

Hieronymus Bosch: Tondal's Vision

Hieronymus Bosch: Tondal’s Vision

“Family.” He shook his head. “It’s all Bosch and Brueghel.”

Complete essay available online at Ploughshares

The prior story, “In That Time,” let us watch a twelve-year-old discover, in one moment on one morning, a different way of viewing his father, a discovery that altered their relationship going forward. Here there’s a similar core event – new information alters the perception of a person – but it takes place over a longer period of time, and by adults, one of whom was not involved in the relationship to begin with; whether it alters anything going forward is uncertain.

Foster was aware her husband had been spent time in foster care as a very young child, never knew his father, and was abused by his stepfather and, ultimately, his mother. His rage at his mother is understandable, almost inevitable. For reasons I don’t understand, they obtained records of his mother’s involvement with state agencies, and a different picture of the mother emerged: she was, in post-WWII-America, simply another girl who couldn’t find her way out of poverty to reclaim her son. But she tried – boy, did she try.

The 40s were a different era from today. An unwed mother was an abomination, and mercy was in short supply. In order to retain what today we would call parental rights, she had to pay for foster care out of her salary as a waitress and factory worker. She visited him as often as possible: first, four times a week, then, when the foster placement was changed, once a week, the maximum permitted.

Because I’m writing this and because I can, I decide to give Ann a happy moment, an hour of delight playing with her one-and-a-half-year-old son. He’s pushing a shiny red fire truck across the floor, a toy she’s just bought him, though it will mean she’ll have to scrimp on laundry soap and stockings. But as he bends down to a crawling position and runs the toy back and forth on her old wood floors, making rrrrrhhhh-rrrrrhhh sounds with his scrunched lips and saying, “Mommy, Mommy, look,” she can’t imagine why anyone would give a fig about new stockings. His hair sticks up in a ruff, his pants are a bit too long, but he’s so gloriously occupied with the thick rubber wheels and the white plastic ladder that raises and lowers she forgets that very soon she’ll have to take him back. Back to his foster home, back to sleeping in the hallway in a house where the older boy has taught him to sing out, “Bad boy! Bad boy!” with such glee he too thinks it’s funny.

There are those who feel that most troubles are caused by bad choices. That may be true, but there are people living in circumstances where the only choices are bad ones.

And yet Ann managed to run a boarding house that provided some financial security. She still had to work, of course, and with childcare still decades away – and with the predominant moral attitudes of the era – she was still unable to claim her son. “It turns out that getting him back also requires a husband.” So she got that as well.

How can she know—can any woman know?—that the very thing that is her salvation will also be her undoing? How can she know that though the husband will adopt the boy, he’ll come to resent him and resent her for having him, will punish the boy for being such a pain in the ass without even a drop of his blood? How can she know he’ll beat him, step on his hands with his construction boots, mock him, berate him, make him stand naked in a chalked circle for punishment? “I gave the kid a name, for shit’s sake,” he’ll yell at her years later, as if he’s the one who’s been played for a sucker.
This man, who once seemed so easygoing, so playful, eating a huge forkful of birthday cake, thick with frosting, while holding her boy in his lap, will, in three years, become an alcoholic, crashing again and again into Bridgewater State Hospital’s detox unit, while she’ll be passive and hopeful, then devious and resentful, and finally depressed.

It’s quite a task, to turn an abusive mother into a sympathetic figure. Her husband finds some peace in the information. Not a happily-ever-after kind of uplift – hence the marvelous line quoted above about family being something out of bizarre and often horrific art – but a realization that his mother loved him, a realization that went a long way. “And she really tried,” he tells his wife. Yes, she did. It doesn’t make up for everything, but it makes a difference.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Megan Baxter, “A Deliberate Thing I Once Said to my Skin” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review, Fall 2018

To consider my tattoos we must first consider skin. Skin is our barrier against the world, enveloping our body so that we don’t lose our precious water and evaporate like dew. …. The strata of our skin resemble a slice of the earth, where twenty-five to thirty layers of skin cells separate us from the outside world. Scratch your epidermis and you might flake off a few dead cells, but cut into your dermis and you will bleed and slap your hand to the cut in pain. It is in the dermis that tattoo ink is deposited and where, as the years of a life progress, the ink sinks like heavy water, fading away through layers of skin like a figure retreating into shadow.

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

Is there a philosophy of the tattoo? Given the devotion of a not insignificant number of people to this art form, I would imagine so, but it might be a bit different for each practicioner or participant. Baxter gives us several viewpoints, all accented with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Not a bad choice, as he was the poet of everything and everyone, a singer of every physical experience a person might undertake from love to war to death to lying on the spring grass. Baxter speculates he might have encountered tattoos on Civil War soldiers he spoke to, as that was a means of identification should they perish on the battlefield. That practice, she explains, lives on in the military, particularly the navy.

She mentions another historical tattoo story which I’d never heard: an Iconoclast emperor in the Byzantine empire punished two priests who refused to destroy their icons to torture, first by beating, then by tattooing poetry on their foreheads. I looked up the poem; it’s quite long, and I wonder how it would fit on one forehead. I also wonder if Kafka was inspired by this when he wrote “In the Penal Colony”, another story about tattooing as punishment.

Pain is part of the process, and Baxter finds it a benefit:

The pain of fading, the pain of mistake, is not as bad as the pain at its origin under the needle.…
But the pain is essential. It releases endorphins that flooded you with something like love and joy. The two-beer buzz. Sex. French fries and milkshakes. The good stuff. And after a while you won’t be able to describe the pain but you will know that it is a key and the release is worth the scratch.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
– Walt Whitman

Exercise advocates also insist that the pain of running or aerobics releases endorphins and improve mood; maybe my endorphin system is defective in some way, because all exercise ever did for me was make me tired and sore.

Baxter also reveals some of her own inspirations that resulted in tattoos, most dramatically, a Utah eagle, but also her first experiene as a teenager. She has seven tattoos, and considers herself done at this point. “You came into the world perfect”, her mother says after each one. She isn’t immune to the implications of that statement.

I’m pretty laissez faire about tattoos, much as I am about most things consenting adults wish to do with their bodies. I’ve occasionally thought about what kind of tattoo I would get, much as I sometimes, even in my senior dotage, think about names for children I never wanted to have. I’ve seen some beautiful work, art that used the anatomy of the body as a platform for non-planar art. And I’ve seen some stupid stuff, including my husband’s self-tattoo of my initials on his fingers.

If there is a philosophy, or a psychic drive that I don’t happen to share, that’s fine. To each their own.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Samantha Libby, “Chinko” (nonfiction) from New England Review #39.3

Igor Molochevski: “Invisible Beast”

Igor Molochevski: “Invisible Beast”

The word “Chinko” means nothing. It is the name given to a river in a place where the river gets lost in thick brush and fields of termite mounds. Chinko Park, established to protect what little is left, is called a national park, but there is nothing national in a place without the rule of law. Chinko’s only defense is a handful of well-trained rangers who spend weeks at a time in the wild, waiting for poachers or armed groups to emerge from the thick bush and attack. This is a dangerous part of the world—everyone knows at least that much.
In war-torn Africa, outsiders often feel an obligation to dissect old clichés and invent new ones. But I show up empty-handed. After ten years working in human rights and humanitarian aid around the world, I can no longer be deluded as to my own relevance. I come for a reason startlingly few want to admit: I need to work and there is often work to be had in places where nobody wants to be.

Complete story available online at New England Review

Libby has had a remarkable decade working on the front lines of global justice: from Hanoi to Ethiopia to the US, from art to children to anti-violence to returning soldiers, her resume
glows with good works and challenges Twitter SJWs everywhere. As she outlines the dangers of this particular place and time in this essay – “Ambush, torture, helicopter crashes, black mambas, road accidents, strange and familiar diseases, overdoses, and friendly fire” – I lose track of the exact nature of her mission. Something about connecting remote communities by radio in the hopes of reducing violence.

But the project doesn’t matter. That’s not what the story is about. It’s background.

As we read, we find sandwiched in between the Chinko material some of the horror Libby endured as a child who became the target of an entire cohort of bullies.

The form the bullying took was varied but relentless. Sometimes it was simple and predictable. I was not to be sat next to, invited to birthday parties, or included in activities. Other times, it was violent. I was chased, pinned down, and abused. Sometimes, it defied logic. I was pushed into a self-described jury of ten-year-old children where I was judged to be ugly, stupid, and weird. When I asked why, I was beaten with sticks and driven away….
I hold on to these scattered vignettes of my childhood. I bury them, but I do not discard them. Over the years, they have coalesced and grown into a single living beast. I cannot see it, but it can speak to me and it calls me horrible names. I have acquired some strength with time. I locked the thing up in chains and threw it into my deepest dungeon. I go about my life, but as time goes on, I can feel it stretching against its bonds. I know that one day I will not be able to hold it back. What will happen when we finally meet? I am curious about this in the same way I am curious about the viciousness of war. Over the years, both have become constants to me. My Invisible Beast is deadly, but in its own way it is also precious to me.

No explanation for this abuse is given, perhaps because there is nothing that would explain, much less justify, it, even in the slightest degree. Typically, children react to some perceived difference when they choose a target for mass bullying: a physical trait, a new arrival in town, an unfamiliar cultural background, family history, something. In Libby’s case, we have no idea, and of course, as a child, neither did she. She only knew everyone else saw something terribly wrong with her, and she had no idea what it was.

The abuse isn’t really what the story is about, either. More background.

I remembered the story from BASS 2019, “Wrong Object” by Mona Simpson, and the inspiration for her fictional story: a team of domestic violence therapists believed that most abused people “spent their lives containing the trauma they had endured, working not to pass it on.” Simpson’s story was all about keeping powerful destructive impulses contained.

And that, I think, is what the essay is about: Libby struggling to keep her Invisible Beast, the pain and rage of an entire childhood, from bursting loose. Still convinced she does not deserve the kind of life others might think of in their dreams, she understands what the people of Chinko are dealing with.

Love stories and passion—not lust, but ideas of growing old in a place—are wild ideas in this place. Their evenings are twisted with dreams of women who are gentle in a way that is foreign to this land. This is not the kind of talk I have heard before, from men on remote bases in Afghanistan or Iraq, engaged in wars their leaders have determined for them. The wishes and hopes of the men of Chinko are not wrapped around the axle of desire but around a need for the kind of company that will alleviate the constant injury of life in this place. The names of the dead are never spoken. At Chinko, there is no need to acknowledge the daily constant of pain. It is one of the reasons I feel at home here.

Imagine a childhood with threats equal to the poachers, armed militias, animals, and diseases of Chinko.

It would be easy to hold Libby as an example of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” but I don’t believe that, either. Yet there is a connection between her childhood experience and her presence in humanitarian projects: by keeping her Invisible Beast contained, her energy is pouring into the negative places and making them, if not positive, at least a little less negative. Makes me feel like I’ve wasted every minute of my own life. Except I grew up with a different experience, leading to a different conviction: that the most generous, caring thing I could do for anyone was to keep far away from them.

Libby is the sort of person I could have been, the sort of person many of us could have been. Maybe someone reading her experience will realize that soon enough to do something about it.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Ottessa Moshfegh, “Jailbait” (nonfiction) from Granta #144

The day before I left home for college, I made a phone call to the publishing house of a writer I’ll call Rupert Dicks. Dicks had a reputation as one of the most audacious and brilliant minds in literature in the last century, and his work represented everything I held as sacred at the time – he was innovative, unapologetic and dedicated to the craft of honest prose. At seventeen, I knew I was a writer, and I wanted to know what Rupert Dicks knew. I was determined to get him to tell me.

Complete story available online at Granta

The stress of recent events must be getting to me: this is the second Pushcart piece I have a strong urge to push back on, despite finding several points of agreement.

Moshfegh tells the story of how she entranced a high-end writer she calls Rupert Dicks (the literaria probably know who he is, but I don’t) into reviewing her writing and giving her solid notes. She never promised him sex; she just let the implication hang in the air until, after what must’ve been a few months of meetings (and one touch, and an insipid kiss, both of which came as a surprise to her), she got the detailed analysis she wanted. Then she breezed off.

Part of me admires a 17-year-old who can pull that off. Twenty years later, in a terrific interview with Alex Clark for The Guardian, she’s impressed, too, “that I had so much gall.” Given all the ways this could’ve gone wrong – from blacklisting to rape – she was also lucky that the writer was basically law abiding, if lecherous.

Did she, in fact, do anything untoward at all? There was no promise. Dicks (I love the use of that name) could’ve told her to buzz off at any time. I have a feeling that the idea that a young writer-to-be wanted his guidance was as much of a draw as the anticipated sex.

Where I start wanting to push back is when Moshfegh pats herself on the back a little too proudly in the interview: “It gave me some insight into my own strengths and, like, arrogance, which has been an asset. My arrogance as a writer has been really important [laughs].” And in the memoir itself:

At thirty-six, I’m pretty fluent in irreverence and cynicism. My assumption that people are ultimately self-serving lowers my expectations and allows me to forgive. More importantly, it empowers me to be selfish, and to cast off the delusion that I’ll get what I want just by ‘being nice’. We are all unruly and selfish sometimes…. One has to be somewhat badly behaved to write above the fray in a society most comfortable with palatable mediocrity. One has to be willing to upset the apple cart. Apples go flying, people trip and fall, yelp, grab for one another. A street corner is transformed into a tragic circus. And everybody gets an apple, each one bruised and broken in a special way. That’s the kind of writer I have always wanted to be, a troublemaker. I can’t fault Dicks or anyone else for wanting the same.

Again, I have to agree with so much. Moshfegh has received a great deal of recognition for her work; obviously she’s doing something right. Reviewers love to use phrases like “brutal honesty” and “disruptive”, and they use them a lot with her. I’ve only read one of her stories; it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m the first to admit that isn’t really a problem. I seem to have trouble with the contemporary version of honesty.

Where I want to push back is first of all the idea that a woman using sex to get what she wants is a good thing since men have used sex to dominate women and have used women in general to get what they want forever. While it’s cute that Dicks is hung by his own petard, his own desire, I don’t see all of us getting down into the mud as a forward step. Possibly a necessary one: when men are used by women in the same ways women have been used by men, maybe they’ll realize how scuzzy their own behavior has been. I doubt it, but I allow for the possibility. It seems to me it’s more likely we’re going the route of an eye for an eye making the whole world blind.

The second thing that bothers me is the value-laden language that declares this kind of writing, this kind of writer, this kind of person, to be superior “in a society most comfortable with palatable mediocrity.” I think there are other ways to speak, to be, to write, that are not mediocre, and that palatable is not automatically bad. I continue to worry that the loud voices, the “at least I’m honest” crowd, are simply uninterested in others and don’t want to be bothered with subtlety and tact, let alone contemplation or reason. I worry that it’s not by accident that we ended up with the current national administration at this moment.

Maybe I’m just one of those quiet voices too mediocre for this moment, and jealous of the arrogant who get their way by demanding it. You have to be super-confident to pull that sort of thing off. When I get assertive, I get squashed, and then I obsess about it. Really, I still worry about the stupid things I said and did in high school, and they weren’t really all that stupid.

Or maybe I’m just grumpy from current circumstances. It really is a fun essay to read, with that pulsing thread of danger lurking underneath. Sort of like real life these days.

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 Great Writers Steal [sorry, I recently discovered it’s no longer there, but it was, once], 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.