Monday, April 29, 2013

Thomas Mira y Lopez on Donald Hall’s “Out the Window”

I first read Donald Hall’s “Out the Window” [link to excerpt] [pdf] in The New Yorker a year ago at 5:30 a.m. I was a barista at a French-Moroccan restaurant in the West Village and the morning shift began at 6. Two or three times a week, I would wake up before dawn and take the L train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, in the gloomiest of moods if I did not have something to read.
     Subway reading is tricky business. You want to choose something that can withstand and accompany the bumps and jostles of the ride. Light and engaging is good, yet at the same time you are conscious that fellow passengers notice what you read, that they can either approve or disapprove, even read over your shoulder. I like to read magazines because they are pliable and compact and The New Yorker in particular because I want to look like a serious, informed, young man. Magazines are also ideal for prolonged visits to temporary spaces (the subway, the bathroom, jury duty, doctors’ waiting rooms). They serve as buffers and distractions to whatever waits on the other side of that space—the news the doctor will deliver or the fact that once again I will put on a striped, coffee-stained American Apparel shirt and cap in order to look like a French sailor as I work a job that has no foreseeable future but also no end.
     But Hall’s essay does not distract. It confronts, ever so quietly, ever so memorably. And so while the L at 5:30 a.m.—reggaeton muffled on headphones, passengers bundled up like pigeons, the car locked into its tracks—might not be the most suitable space to read an essay about a poet gazing out his New Hampshire window, it is an intuitive one in which to read an eighty-three year old’s acknowledgment of his own mortality and fatigue.
     What first drew me to “Out the Window”, what made me resist the urge to flip through the cartoons, is that it’s about nothing. I like essays about nothing—or essays that don’t feel as if they have to be about something—because they usually then become something only after they’ve spent a long time thinking and reflecting about how they’re in a sense about nothing. Or, rather, “Out the Window” is about the everyday, which can be everything and nothing. The essay opens with Hall simply sitting at his window, a place he often occupies now that he is eighty-three. He is looking out at the birds in his feeder and at his family’s barn that must withstand another winter. He begins: “Today it is January, midmonth, mid-day, and mid-New Hampshire.” We are trapped alongside Hall in his armchair, yet still we move, honing in both in time (from month to midmonth to a time of day) and place. The ease with which Hall directs our focus underscores the dexterity of the language: today, a day, is not exactly January, just as the movement from time to a place both catches us by surprise and yet maintains a fluidity in the repeated prefix ‘mid’.
     Sentences such as the above strike me as admirable. Hall’s tone is quiet, sober, considered. Most of all, it is considerate: as Hall documents his losses at eighty three (one of which he says is language), he retains a control over the very language that his admissions claim to contradict. These losses—that of his wife, Jane Kenyon the poet, who died of leukemia at forty-seven, or his father who died at fifty-two—cause Hall to reevaluate his own physical and mental regressions. In doing so, he makes a small, quiet observation, one I did not expect him to make, that lets you glimpse the full weight of his life’s sadness as well as its blessedness: “I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two.” Hall does not set these up as juxtapositions, but as co-existing, harmonious, residing in a state truer to this poet’s life. More than that, in writing that “circles grow smaller”, he rephrases a metaphor his wife used to describe his mother’s death and is thus enacting his own words, “a ceremony of losses”, by repeating and honoring hers.Hall goes on to write: “When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.” He darkens over diminishments (a verb to match its object) and then sits, in the light, during the day, to watch birds and his barn. He is doing nothing, yet now we know the reason why: because if he were to do something (i.e. “lament and darken”), that would truly be doing nothing. We return to the essay’s beginning and feel the circles of Hall’s prose growing tighter.
     And then there’s his use of adjectives. Here is how he describes his grandmother’s death: “Three years later, in the Peabody Home, I sat beside her listening to Cheyne-Stokes breathing. I was holding her hand when she died.” It is difficult, I have found, to write death. Even more difficult to write it concisely. Yet here Hall nails it with one adjective that does not necessarily encapsulate death, but death in this specific case: not everybody has Cheyne-Stoke breathing when they die, not everyone who displays Cheyne-Stoke breathing is dying (they could be sleeping) but it is appropriate here. It’s a proper adjective, capitalized, a medical term in a poet’s lexicon, yet it does not feel out of place, nor like a difficult adjective just thrown in for the sake of opening our dictionaries. Earlier in the passage Hall has discussed his mother’s smoking habits: “two packs a day—unfiltered Chesterfields first, then filtered Kents”. Not only is this language rhythmic (from unfiltered to filtered, from first to then, from the Ch of Chesterfield to the K in Kent, unfil to field to first to fil to Kents, ter to ter to ter), but it surfaces very subtly, very coyly in the Cheyne-Stokes line: Cheyne-Stokes looks a bit like the word Chesterfield and, even though we are reading of Hall’s grandmother here and not his mother, I’m left scratching my head as to why this all sounds so familiar until I realize, ahh, that Cheyne-Stokes rhymes with chain smokes.
     Hall writes about difficult subjects—death and ageing—with seeming ease. Not just all ages (“thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk”) but old age. Not just old age, but his old age. As with the essay’s opening (“January, midmonth, mid-day, mid-New Hampshire”), Hall approaches his situation from all angles: how he sees himself, how he sees others and how others of all ages see him. Here’s one such passage: “Over the years I travelled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying—in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way—but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial.” How sly is this sentiment: we don’t become extraterrestrial, but we understand ourselves as such, which implies that others might have been understanding or seeing us like this long before we came around to such a viewpoint. This works because it’s true and not true (the elderly are not aliens but they can have greenish skin, extra (sort of) heads and most definitely strange protuberances) and because it both extends distance (by speaking of extraterrestrials and outer space) and collapses it in Hall’s honesty about his own condition, his own old age, his own body.
     This capacity for subtle surprise pervades the essay. “Cornflowers bloom,” Hall writes near the end, describing his landscape. Here is another great word choice—cornflowers are blue and so how much more important does that verb become, how much more connotation and suggestion does he get by pairing it with a cornflower instead of, say, a daffodil. He claims “New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures.” New poems might no longer arrive, but that assonance is surely there—even in the sentence where he doubts its place (“poems” and “no”, “me” and “prodigies”). And then there is metaphor. For the duration of the essay, Hall sits and looks out at his barn. As he traces its history, I do not realize till the essay’s end that this barn, its age, its past, runs concurrent with him. That it is, in fact, him: “Over eighty years, it has changed from a working barn to a barn for looking at.” That’s the thing about Hall’s metaphor, his prose in general: it is so quiet yet so in command that, like a hushed train trip at dawn, you do not realize you have reached your destination until you are already there. And while that destination—an essay’s end, a life’s end—may be both necessary and undesired, it at least leaves you with nowhere to go but walking up, through a turnstile and into daylight.


Thomas Mira y Lopez was born and raised in New York City. He now lives in Tucson, where he is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Arizona. His work appears online in Green Briar Review.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Megan Kimble on Worms Eating Garbage and People Considering Lobsters

The worms are not eating my garbage. The book says that they would—the title is, in fact, Worms Eat My Garbage. Not all garbage, of course; just food scraps and coffee grounds. I’d bought my worms from Linda’s Vermillion Wormery; found Linda in the shade of a warm Sunday farmers’ market and asked, “What about worms?”

It’s called vermiculture, the culturing of worms, vermicomposting when these worms convert organic waste into the dark soil of humus. Worms eat discarded food—up to four times their body weight in a day—and make waste that is full of nutrients and microorganisms and all the good things that make gardens grow. The point of composting food scraps is to turn them into soil instead of mummified artifacts in our landfills, stuck among our dead toasters and discarded shoes. It is simple if-then logic: If food scraps make up nearly a fifth of what we dump into landfills, if food has the highest rate of methane yield of anything we throw away, and if methane contributes to climate change, then I bought worms.  

Linda Leigh sells me two and a half pounds of red wigglers—a breed with a hearty appetite and zest for reproduction—packaged in a gingham bag tied with twine. “What I do is cut up my food scraps and then freeze them and then feed them to the worms,” Linda tells me, handing me a two-by-three plastic bin, and even as she tells me—as I nod and exclaim, “Great idea!”—I know that I won’t. Chopping and freezing food scraps? For worms? I barely have time to chop and freeze my own food, thank you very much.

But when I pour a wriggling mass of worms into a soil-filled bin, as they uncurl and relax from a knotted fist into a writhing expanse, aiding by my prodding fingers—so shiny, so squirming, so other-worldly—and as they ease and furrow and burrow into the dark, damp soil, flicking their posteriors in a curly goodbye, they endear themselves to me. They are my worms and I have brought them into my home.

My purchase of two and a half pounds of worm comes with a cartoon-covered book called Worms Eat My Garbage: How to set up and maintain a worm composting system. A parade of cheese rings, egg shells, lettuce leaves, and carrot tops marches towards three upright worms, smiling big wormy smiles. “Worms don’t make noise and they require very little care,” writes Mary Appelhof in Worms Eat My Garbage. “In deciding where to put your worm bin, consider both the worms’ needs and your own.” What are the worms’ needs? Temperatures between 59 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Moisture—enough so they’re slimy, not so much that they drown—ventilation and slight acidity, a pH level around 5 or 6. What are my needs? Something between a garbage disposal and a pet.

My worms spend their first few nights in my home in a closet with the light on. Linda had said the light would help them burrow into the soil rather than venture onto my tile and this seems like a sensible use of electricity. Of course, worms can’t actually see—their anterior parts (as opposed to the posterior, the limited anatomical options available to a worm) are simply sensitive to light, leading them to furrow into the darkness of soil or a bruised banana peel.

In a dream, I wake up to find them spread over Saltillo tile like spilled water, like Ghostbusters slime, and they wind, delighted, around my toes.

I move the worm bin outside. It had been the plan all along, at least until triple-digit summer temperatures force them back into the closet. I begin feeding them radish tops and onion peels and citrus rinds, stirring the scraps in by hand, unsettled and unaccustomed to moving worms around, worried that I might pull them apart as I shift heavy soil.

“The effectiveness of your vermicomposting system will depend partly upon your expectations and partly upon your behavior,” writes Applehof. My behavior is erratic, forgetful and then rushed. There is a reason so many writers have cats, animals so stubbornly low-maintenance they seem to insist: I don’t need you.

If I leave my worm bin untended for six months—an option presented to me by Applehof—worms will eat all the bedding and organic waste, producing a bin full of vermicast, “completely worm worked and re-worked material with a fine, smooth texture.” Which means great for soil but bad for the worms—without food discards to eat, the worms die; their little worm carcasses will soon become castings and then rich humus as microorganisms digest their slimy spirals into soil. 

And then it snows—in Tucson!—and I panic, mid-day, remembering the worms in their bin outside, convinced I will arrive home to a heavy, decomposing knot of dead worms. Frozen worms. I'm sorry, worms, I think, when I get home and lug the bin back to the closet. And then I wonder if they care. They might be cold, but they might not know it—they might just die before they realize the air has frozen and they are still outside.

In “Consider the Lobster,” an essay published in Gourmet in 2004, David Foster Wallace uses worms as the counterpoint example that proves that lobsters have preferences and thus, that they feel pain. If a lobster claws the edge of its container as its tipped into a boiling kettle of water, if it clings to the edge and clatters when a lid is placed atop, it is reasonable to assume it is expressing a preference not to be boiled. “It may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering,” writes Wallace. “If you cut certain kinds of worms in half, the halves will often keep crawling around and going about their vermiform business as if nothing had happened. When we assert, based on their post-op behavior, that these worms appear not to be suffering, what we’re really saying is that there’s no sign that the worms know anything bad has happened or would prefer.

Worms have sex. Of course this does not answer the question as to whether they prefer to have sex or not—whether they preferred that I not leave them in the snow—but even though a single earthworm has both male and female reproductive organs, it takes two to, well, do the wiggle. “Attracted by glandular secretions, they find each other and lie with their heads in opposite directions, their bodies closely joined,” writes Appelhof. Their clitella—the swollen band about a third the way down a worm, the presence of which signifies a worm is sexually mature—secrete mucus and pass sperm from one to another. Both worms form cocoons on the clitella—both cocoons receive eggs and sperm; both cocoons produce baby worms.

Worm sex doesn’t really have anything much to do with composting or climate change, but I think it does with preference and whether or not my worms are a pet or a garbage disposal or something in between. It also doesn’t have so much to do with lobsters or the considering thereof, except that when I read “Consider the Lobster,” I considered a lobster differently than I had before. At the Maine Lobster Festival, where is incidentally where his wonderful essay unfolds, mostly in a tent where 80,000 eat 25,000 pounds over lobster over five days in August, Wallace writes of how lobsters exhibit preferences—to be alone, to be at the bottom, of sea or tank, to be away from light. “In any event,” Wallace writes, “at the Festival, standing by the bubbling tanks outside the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, watching the fresh-caught lobsters pile over one another, wave their hobbled claws impotently, huddle in the rear corners, or scrabble frantically back from the glass as you approach, it is difficult not to sense that they’re unhappy, or frightened, even if it’s some rudimentary version of these feelings …and, again, why does rudimentariness even enter into it? Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in? …The truth is that if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.”

A week or two after my worms nearly froze, after they have returned outside when the weather thaws, after I started offering food again, a little bit at a time, and nicely chopped, after all of it, I went out for tacos with friends. On special at our favorite taco joint: worm tacos. Corn tortillas and sautéed onions and crunchy worms. I was not one of the brave few who paid for the worm tacos—too close to home—but when they arrived, spilling out of the splayed tortilla, and I saw that they were not earthworms—too short, looking more like fat rice than squirmy noodles—I tried one. It crunched, crustaceous, a small explosion of flavor.

After I re-read “Consider the Lobster” and after I crunched on a small silkworm, I walked outside, took a deep breath, and stuck my hand deep into the bin of earthworms and turned over soil. They curl around my fingers, roll and roil, flick and burrow. They wind around each other, curl into the concavity of an orange rind, cluster towards the tail of a radish. There might be a few dead worms after the unexpected freeze, but other organisms will take care of them, just as the worms will take care of us—“A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him,” wrote Shakespeare. “Your worm is your only emperor for diet.”

Megan Kimble is finishing up her MFA in Creative Writing nonfiction at the University of Arizona. She writes about food and the environment. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Patricia Vigderman on Alexander Stille


In the ancient agora in Athens a recreation of the Stoa of Attalos occupies the same ground where it stood in antiquity. Among excavated ruins, just off the route of the ancient Panathenaean procession up to the Acropolis, it was recreated down to the last details by archeologists from the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in the 1950s. Inside is a small museum of objects retrieved from the local earth. There I saw the fragile skeleton of a child buried near this spot around 1000 BC, in the Protogeometric Age. Her grave is reassembled in a glass case: the flat stones that formed the edge of the tomb, her head now a half skull filled with packed dirt, the thin bones of her arms, pelvis, and legs still plausibly showing the shape, still the inner outline of a small girl. And little jugs for wine and oil, two bronze bracelets, a ring, the pins that fastened the garment she wore on her journey to the underworld. Those burial jars, the pin that once secured the vanished cloth: they spoke of a kind of grown-up dignity particular to her time and place.
    How touching it was to see her small bones in that reconstructed context. It would be wrong to call her an object of art, but she seems to offer something more than scientific knowledge: the opportunity to feel simultaneously our transience on earth, the importance of being alive in our own moment, and the particularity of hers.
    Thousand of miles to the west, at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, the intricate floor of a circular display space is composed of twenty-two concentric circles, four thousand triangular pieces of black or yellow marble, with a touch of rosso antico and green porphyry at the center. It’s a marvel of illusionistic paving. Like the Stoa of Attalos it was copied stone by stone from the original—this time the belvedere floor of a villa discovered a hundred feet underground in the course of excavations at Herculaneum, ancient city covered by lava in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD that also obliterated Pompeii.
    The villa’s excavation was carried out in 1750, on behalf of the King of Naples, and the workers were slaves, convicts in chains. The Guide to the Getty Villa adds parenthetically that their chains were removed so they wouldn’t damage the ancient mosaic floors. This eighteenth-century cruelty allowed the stones to be lifted out piece by piece and reassembled in the king’s museum at Portici, near Naples. Two centuries later, that floor was recreated piece by beautiful piece in Malibu, to satisfy the vanity of an American millionaire.
    In his wonderful book The Future of the Past, Alexander Stille writes about the way the future (us) is always taking up its own concerns as it goes about honoring, preserving, and collecting the past. He writes about nature in Madagascar and oral poetry in Somaliland, about the vanished and the vanishing, and the resurrected. He writes about the Sphinx as a monument constantly undergoing change—from the organisms and animals inside it, from water moving through it. He writes about trying to save the Ganges from pollution while respecting its cultural position in India, and about the efforts of one American priest living in Rome to live spontaneously in the city’s present through the Latin language, to share the ancient tongue’s lovely conjunction with the place. And he asks if our efforts systematically to understand the past paradoxically makes it recede.
    Stille allows his questions to remain open, as he gets close to those who live with them every day: an American scholar who spent weeks mapping the stones in the paws of the Sphinx; Somalia’s most beloved poet regretting his own literacy. An archeologist in Sicily hears in an inscription on ancient treasure taken from its ground “an ancient voice crying out at a moment of incredible difficulty, similar to what happened in Bosnia or Kosovo.” The meaning of the old things is not just in the past, but for the present.
    This meaning is what I have been looking for in the places of the past, and in the museums of the present. One ravishing space now at the Getty Villa is its triclinium (which would have been the dining room). Part of a recent lavish renovation of the 1970s original, the room is decorated in marbles from Egypt, Tunisia, Sparta, and Turkey. It incorporates design elements from three different villas at Herculaneum. Resting on a bench there one’s eye falls on an almost sickening display of gorgeous luxury. It’s simultaneously an evocation of the past and a denial of the actual experience of visiting what’s left of that vanished world, with its flaking columns and unlit frescoes. Here in the imagined loveliness of Piso’s time, how distant we are from the delicacies Piso served there as the long first-century afternoons drifted into evening: flamingo tongues, ibex, and even field mice (fattened in little cages).
     The past is a foreign country of ancient voices, slave labor, buried children, and field mouse stew. We stalk it like hunters immersed in a world of animals, at once predators and prey. It’s a dark cave into which we shine the flashlight of the present, exploring what it is to be human by feeling our way: recreating, reassembling our understanding of what is true. Rationality and pleasure together nose us into that dark space, trying to bring the past back from the underworld to speak to us. This reconstruction of Roman leisure on a California shore is missing the gravity of the child’s skeleton, that delicate memento mori among the fortuitous remains of urban life. Nevertheless its particular aesthetic reality creates a rich experience of immediacy, loss, and grandeur.
    Displayed in another room at the Getty Villa is an eerily satisfying group of terra cotta figures, Orpheus and the Sirens, the work of an unknown Greek artist working in southern Italy. How incongruous perhaps this display of Greek and Roman antiquity by the Pacific shore, and how much I would not want it sent back to its proper context in Italy! I don’t think my compromised desire is incompatible with paying proper respect to the people and places where art flourished. The scientific desire to know them and thus enrich our perspective on our own shifting place in the continuum of time is only part of what has us digging in the old earth, and filling our museums.
    Running side by side with human rapacity and exploitation is that marriage of skill and imagination we call art, without which we would indeed be the poorest of bare forked creatures. Art offers a way of being in the present--briefly unannexed to the dead, even while connected to the past and the future. Stille’s book is deeply engaged with how the past is constantly shifting, as its story is constructed. Yet I am still engaged in art’s shiftlessness.
    Our human intelligence gives us the power to go back through history up the stream of time, said Robert Frost, but the point is not chiefly that you may go where you will,/ But in the rush of everything to waste,/ that you may have the power of standing still. Frost’s poem is called “The Master Speed” and that speed is indeed just the capacity for stillness, for self-abandonment in the moment, for being free of past and future, of narrative or progress, of time and death. Predators, slave-owners, mourners, and creators, we plunder and rebuild. Alongside the vanishing particularity of our graves we want the suddenly expansive moments of delight that free us from the brevity of our tales.

Patricia Vigderman is the author of a new essay collection, Possibility: Essays Against Despair (Sarabande Books) and The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner (Sarabande Books, 2007).  She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Gambier, Ohio, where she teaches at Kenyon College.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

An Alien’s Kiss: Brenna Fitzgerald on Octopus Intelligence in Sy Montgomery’s “Deep Intellect”

Imagine if you could touch, taste, build, and run with your arms. Sounds like the next powers of a sci-fi alien. But, there are real creatures on this planet with such capabilities and, thanks to Sy Montgomery’s essay “Deep Intellect,” we have the pleasure of getting to know them.

Octopuses. Yes, octopuses, not octopi (apparently octopi was discarded as the plural of octopus because of its Latin ending on a Greek word). The eight-armed ocean obscurity is pulled from deep waters and brought to the surface in this moving essay on octopus intelligence.

Because of their invertebrate status and their blob-like form, octopuses have never been thought of as intelligent creatures. Categorized as mollusks (and not many mollusks have actual brains), they’ve been misunderstood, perhaps even stereotyped (thanks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid), and generally ignored by America (sorry octopuses, Sea World prefers dolphins). The only place I’ve ever seen an adorable octopus toy you’d want to cuddle with was in Japan (more on that later).

What’s amazing is that octopuses actually do cuddle and play and use tools and strategize. They can also change color, shape-shift, and squirt ink. “Researchers who study octopuses are convinced that these boneless, alien animals—creatures whose ancestors diverged from the lineage that would lead to ours roughly 500 to 700 million years ago—have developed intelligence, emotions, and individual personalities,” writes Montgomery.

When Sy Montgomery traveled to the New England Aquarium in New Hampshire, she was bubbling with excitement at the prospect of meeting Athena, “the aquarium’s forty-pound, five-foot-long, two-and-a-half-year-old giant Pacific octopus.”

Standing above the tank, she dipped her hand into the water in the hopes of getting to touch Athena, “if she consented.” Octopuses in aquariums can distinguish between a familiar human and a stranger, and the way they approach a new person says as much about that person as it does about the personality of the octopus. Montgomery was one of the lucky ones (as octopuses have been known to take an occasional disliking to someone, and, mind you, they do have sharp beaks, teeth, and flesh-dissolving venom. Oh yeah, and their suckers can tear flesh).

“Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss—at once a probe and a caress,” writes Montgomery. “When I stroked her soft head with my fingertips, she changed color beneath my touch, her ruby-flecked skin going white and smooth. This, I learned is the sign of a relaxed octopus…I was honored that she appeared comfortable with me.”

The lyricism that Montgomery slips into when she writes about her contact with Athena is a testament to her respect and admiration for octopuses, and for this octopus, in particular.

When I lived in Japan, I encountered a similar adulation not only for octopuses, but also for squids, sea urchins, eels, clams, abalone and just about every sea creature known to humankind. Life from the sea has nourished and inspired the people of this island nation for thousands of years.

My first encounter with an octopus was when I bit into a fried battered ball doused in a sweet and salty sauce and found something chewy in the middle.

“Tako means octopus in Japanese” said my friend Masako. “This is takoyaki,” and she served me another fried ball before I had finished chewing the remnants of my first one. It was strange, but not unpleasant—thrilling, and a little scary, ultimately quite oishii (delicious).

I imagine Montgomery had similar feelings upon her tactile encounter with Athena (maybe minus the deliciousness).  But what Montgomery did know at the time (that I did not know when I ate takoyaki) is how intelligent octopuses are. “Octopuses have the largest brains of any invertebrate,” she writes. But the strangest part about this fact is that out of the 130 million neurons in its brain (humans have 100 billion) three-fifths of an octopus’s neurons are not in the brain at all, but in the arms.

“For example, researchers who cut off an octopus’s arm (which the octopus can regrow) discovered that not only does the arm crawl away on its own, but if the arm meets a food item, it seizes it—and tries to pass it to where the mouth would be if the arm were still connected to its body.”

And who said brain size or neuron count is a measure of intelligence? What about neuron placement? What about a decentralized mind? Octopuses can experience sensations humans can only dream of or write about in science fiction.

“We think of our world as the “real” one, but Athena’s is realer: after all, most of the world is ocean, and most animals live there. Regardless of whether they live on land or water, more than 95 percent of all animals are invertebrates, like Athena,” asserts Montgomery.

Who knows what other gelatinous beings are roaming around the planet, thinking and feeling and creating? The mysterious ways that octopuses navigate the world make me question what it means to really know something.

Brenna Fitzgerald is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at University of Arizona

Monday, April 15, 2013

Joe Slocum on Frederick Douglass, the Memoir, and the Power of the Written Word

Quick, try and find a picture of Frederick Douglass where he doesn’t look like a complete badass. Go ahead, I dare you. Open a new tab, and do a quick image search; I’ll wait.
     I just disposed of a bug on my desk. That should have been sufficient time to find out that Frederick Douglass was one photogenic man’s man. It isn’t just that he looks good, and he was genuine movie star good looking, or that he has some of the best hair in history, but in each photograph he looks like the smartest man in any room. And he was a badass. In chapter 10 he beats a former master so bad that he was never abused again. Oh, and he taught himself to read and write.
     One of the best things I’ve done in the past year was read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In terms of craft, Douglass gets no credit for his mastery of the written word. True, his life’s work is well-remembered, honored, and memorialized around the country, but that man could write circles around the best we have today. Prior to writing his first of three autobiographies, the man had been literate for roughly ten years. It’s difficult to keep track of dates in the life of Frederick Douglass because, as he notes on the first page, he’s not sure when he was born. His timeline is loosely based on overhearing a former master say at one point that he was about seventeen.
     When he was around seven or eight, Douglass was sent from a plantation to live with a new master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Auld, in Baltimore. There, Mrs. Auld began to teach him the alphabet. This went well until Mr. Auld found out and put a stop to educating their slave, but Douglass had the inch he needed. He saw the power of the written word as the gateway to freedom. Over the next few years, he traded food with local boys in exchange for reading lessons.
     In 1845, when Douglass wrote his first autobiography, he already had the craft of memoir figured out. Rather than just telling a “this is what happened to me” story, which might actually have been enough given how incredible his life was, Douglass includes reflection on every page to make his story mean something. Almost one-hundred and seventy years ago Douglass understood what Vivian Gornick would call the situation and the story.
     Towards the end of chapter four Douglass wrote one of my all-time favorite sentences, a sentence that embodies what I love about nonfiction and the essay: “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence.” Douglass holds true to this statement by treating all of the characters fairly, almost painfully fairly at times. Despite the Aulds being slave owners, Douglass writes, “In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.”
     The full text of his autobiography is part of Project Gutenberg, and LibriVox, among others, has the audio file for free. There’s no excuse not to read this underrated writer this year.


Joe Slocum attends the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. He is the Nonfiction Editor at Willow Springs, and misses Michigan dearly.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mike Coakley on Paul Zimmer's "Ug's Zoo" and the Death of the Animal

About six decades ago, Paul Zimmer killed a raccoon with a hose. He meant to frighten it away, not to kill it, but such things happen when you’re sixteen and scared, cleaning shit out of animal cages, “a little fucker, a diaper-headed jerk, a grab-ass idiot not knowing squatty-roo.” He writes about his job as a summer park department laborer in this past winter’s issue of The Gettysburg Review with didactic intentions, in the hopes that one single person might learn something from his story, garner a lesson.

And I suspect one might; in all stories, in every word, there is a lesson. But first, the murder itself: Zimmer had just finished cleaning the bobcat’s cage, the elephant’s, the bears’. By sixteen-year-old Zimmer’s estimation, he’d just skirted death three times. His last responsibility was the raccoon’s cage, a relatively safe and easy task—hose off the pallet and go. The raccoon latched onto his leg, beginning to climb him, so he blasted it with the frigid hose water to scare it off. Then, because perhaps the exertion of one’s will, especially at sixteen, can be addicting, empowering, he sprayed it again. And again, a third time, “for good measure,” though it had already fled from him, trembling and grumbling.

The alleged first recorded use of that term—“for good measure”—is in the biblical Book of Luke: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Is Christ talking about charity here, or judgment? Probably both. Whatever you dole out, expect to receive it, and no exceptions for burgeoning poets. In Zimmer’s retelling is the obvious guilt; though he knows restraint well enough to avoid outright self-flagellation, the regret exists in the act of retelling, in his very ability to remember after sixty-some years. How appropriate that Zimmer conjures idiom from the Bible here. What do we as a society agree upon as “sin” if not the killing of animals the way our essayist did—that overabundance of defense known more colloquially as offense?

I watched a movie this weekend in which Sam Rockwell holds a dog hostage with a flare gun. The movie was Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, and lest I spoil you, I’ll say no more. Except for this: The dog does not die. I never believed he would. Rockwell says it earlier on, and we understand the film to be winking at us: The animal never dies. While this isn’t true across the board (probably not even close), the spirit of it holds. We cheer when the dog in Independence Day jumps out of the path of the barreling explosion just in time, and when Old Yeller defies our expectations by dying at Travis’s hand (not all spoilers can be avoided), the world seems suddenly all wrong. It’s a common criticism of the way moviegoers think. We’ll watch human characters get blown to hell, but please, leave Milo and Otis alone.

I’d like to believe that empathy is indeed a factor here, that our identification with the carefully wrought animal characters is what moves us when we lose them. But I wonder if it might not be a different force entirely that makes creatures sacred to us, on the page, on the big screen, and in the day-to-day—a force that doesn’t close the emotional gap between us and the animal, but expands it. Old Yeller’s works our heartstrings not because we feel with Yeller, but because we feel for him. I think back to the first lesson I remember learning about writing stories, poems, and songs—beyond the necessary schooling on grammar and craft—which came during senior year of high school, when my writing teacher explained the difference between sentiment and sentimentality. Sentiment is earned emotion, carefully crafted and rehearsed such that we identify with our characters, while sentimentality comes without effort, by pushing universal emotion buttons—look at these neglected, mud-mottled orphans, behold these whimpering puppies. In essence, sentimentality has little to do with identification with characters, and more to do with our pity for them. Many of us protect and treasure the animal because of its status as “other.” We cannot know it, so we name it, we anthropomorphize, we assume that that without human consciousness must be defenseless, innocent.

But somehow, in “Ug’s Zoo,” Zimmer steers clear of the sentimentality that usually surrounds the death of an animal—both the wretched, sixteen-year-old Zimmer and the writer looking back. It is Ug Muskopf, Zimmer’s overseer, that laments the dead, sodden raccoon: “She just wanted to sit on your shoulder and lick your ear, and you killed her for that! Then you went tra-la-la home to your mama, and pretended that nothing had happened. That animal wasn’t just some bug for you to swat!” Zimmer himself ends the piece discussing not his feelings, not imagining the way this poor creature must have died, but with narrative restraint: “And I did run home tra-la-la to my mama, but I never told her what I had done, though when she found be huddled on the front porch, she knew I was feeling guilty about something.” And his final reflection, not explicitly about death, or guilt, or misunderstanding, or the sanctity of animals: “Sometimes it takes a long time in this world.”

Like all of us, Zimmer cannot enter the animal mind, the animal consciousness. While Ug, no doubt the superior caretaker of the two, talks intentionality—“She just wanted to sit on your shoulder and lick your ear”—Zimmer does little interrogation of the animal’s intentions and of his own. His admitted purpose in writing his essay is a net cast wide: he hopes we might “think hard about it and learn something.” Perhaps what we learn is that animal motivation can be accessed no better than our own. Perhaps this is what unites us with the animal—it is just as unknowable to us, if not more so, as we are to ourselves. Sentimentality makes it all too easy, more digestible than it should be.

Mike Coakley is a first-year fiction candidate at the University of Arizona. His work is forthcoming in the minnesota review.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Marcia Aldrich on Bernard Cooper

Invisible Engineering: The Fine Art of Revising: “The Fine Art of Sighing”

If you don’t already, you should know this essay by Bernard Cooper, for its pleasures will make you a connoisseur of the art in question: “Poised at the crest of an exhalation, your body is about to be unburdened, second by second, cell by cell” (“The Fine Art of Sighing,” in Truth Serum: Memoirs, 111). Its concise and lyrical prose, its brevity and effect of effortlessness, the constructed undertow of its associative method, an inventive demonstration of how a writer’s thoughts shape a piece—these qualities make it an exemplar of the contemporary essay.

Behind the ease of “The Fine Art of Sighing” is the writer’s art of revision, and that is what launched the inquiry I am about to describe. Can we detect the steps toward its art? How did Cooper shape the breath of its sentences, its elegant respiratory system, the suspended movement of the climax, and the expelled throb of the conclusion? Out if its beginning, how did he craft its final finesse?


For me these questions first emerged from pedagogical concerns—specifically a moment when, huddled in my cold office on a winter afternoon, the graduate assistants in an introductory creative writing course turned to the question of revision.

“How do you incorporate revision in your courses?” they asked. “What are your approaches?” In their voices was a yearning for answers. They had only recently encountered what all experienced teachers of writing know: the difficulty of pushing students forward and off their current mark. There could be no writing without revision, we all agreed. However, our students did not necessarily see it that way. Some of them positively bucked revision, as if we were trying to cage their noble and wild words.

One GA in particular, Christine, was perplexed by her failure to communicate to students the importance of revision. She had developed a series of systematic steps they should follow, yet these novices resisted them, or implemented them without improving their work. Students tend to believe that good writing comes out whole. No, we would insist, writing has a history. Revision is an essential return, even if only an hour has elapsed between the first version of the words and the second. Students needed to grasp that idea conceptually and experientially. How could we get the point across?

A thought emerged in that frigid room: It might be enlightening to show students the revisions that an admired essay went through to arrive at its final disposition. We had found that students liked “The Fine Art of Sighing,” which displayed a deceptive ease. It seemed an ideal pedagogical tool, highly wrought, of manageable length, and appealing to the apprentice writers we wanted to help.

Christine and I decided to email Bernard Cooper, saying we wanted to document the various stages of “The Fine Art of Sighing,” to analyze patterns, methods, specific changes, and authorial choices during revision. We wrote out and sent detailed questions—the mass of which embarrasses me—helpfully categorizing the topics on which we were requesting enlightenment: General writing practices (ten questions here), Conditions of writing (six questions), Specific practices in “Fine Art” (four questions), Revision of “Fine Art” (four questions, the second of which had eight parts), Content of “Fine Art” (two questions, one a two-parter), and “Fine Art” in the context of your other works (two questions).

Rather than shake his head at our presumption, rather than politely decline or—more what we deserved—press the Delete key with a stiff middle finger, Bernard Cooper wrote back, answering our questions and betraying not a sliver of irritation. His responses blossom with personality, generosity, and vividness.

When we contacted Cooper, we were operating under certain assumptions—that “The Fine Art of Sighing” went through many drafts and that we could, with his help, map out the revision process. We proposed to look closely at his drafts, analyzing why he chose this word instead of that one, this paragraph ahead of that one. Christine was prepared to undertake a close reading of Cooper’s changes and their significance, and to create therefrom a useful tool for teaching revision. She hoped that “he would create an order within the mystery,” that “he would give me a way to teach my students how to revise, a way that I could say, ‘Remember that great essay we read the first day of class? Here’s how he revises and writes. You should do that too.’” As teachers, we wanted to identify definite steps, from idea to draft to final version that we could pass on in the classroom.

We were in the grips, that is, of a fetish of the draft. This is not to say that writers don’t revise, or sometimes hold onto versions of a work as it stood prior to its published form. Obviously, writers often do. But the real process of composition is more fluid, interior, hesitant, oscillating, obsessive, and charged than is represented by a black-and-white text on paper or by a file bearing a precise time stamp.

The draft is a pedagogical fiction, a frozen moment when fixed words can conveniently be assessed by an instructor or by peers in a workshop, suitable for classrooms, places where, in the last moments of a session, a teacher raises her voice over the hubbub as students grab their backpacks and pull out their phones, to announce those familiar final words: “Drafts due on Tuesday!”

Cooper’s essay, it turns out, was inspired by a friend’s query: was he aware that he sighed all the time, “big melancholy sighs”?  (This and subsequent quotations come from Cooper’s email correspondence, specifically the answers he graciously provided to questions.) No, he was not:
I was stunned that a routine physiological response as fundamental as sneezing or sweating had escaped my attention. From where, in my body and temperament and history, did all this ponderous heaving arise?
He began to pay attention. The process of writing had begun.
I started out, simply, by attempting to describe the intake and exhalation of air, the metabolic and emotional release. The rest followed. Note that I do not say, the rest “flowed.” 
A sigh is invisible, of course, but that never stopped me from turning it over and glancing at its facets as though it were a solid object. I was exploring a simple phenomenon—it is the nature and meaning of the essay, to conduct this kind of verbal exploration—instead of setting out to make a point. The point made me, so to speak.
The result was one of his shortest pieces, written in a relatively short period of time.
The first half of “Sighing” came fairly quickly (if only every piece of writing would drop off the tree like a ripe fruit!), the rest over the course of two or three more days, then three weeks of small changes.
He also revealed that he had kept none of the working drafts for “Sighing.” He had no paper trail to provide or consult. He might keep a draft, he said, of a longer essay
to keep a record of the narrative. With long stretches of prose there’s too much to keep track of and it’s harder to assess in a glance, so to speak, and so I like to read long stretches in hard copy.
When he finishes an essay and sees it into print, even the long ones, he usually gets rid of the drafts.

This was a blow to our hopes, and there were more blows to come. We had pointed out, in one of our bloated questions, that “some writers keep their papers (lying in their treasures) with an eye turned towards posterity and history, perhaps assured of their place therein.” Cooper responded,
I don’t mean to sound too humble-pie-ish, but I wince at the thought of that kind of close scrutiny being devoted to my work; it leads to just the kind of self-consciousness I try hard to avoid.
Part of his reluctance to keep his drafts, and hence make them available for “scrutiny,” arises from a desire to make his writing a “source of pleasure for the reader rather than as an academic or analytic labor.” Cooper works to immerse himself in the process and to avoid, as much as any writer can, worry about the destiny of his writing. As he put it, “The fate of my work will unfold on its own. I’m happier when I can stand apart from how my work is received, or from how it might be compared to the work of other writers.” In short, the absence of a paper trail, of the very drafts we were after, was central to Cooper’s efforts as a writer.

Its hull damaged by these rocky shallows, the ship named Cooper Project finally ran aground on revision itself. As a teacher, one tends to separate revision from composition. Cooper makes no such distinction.
Writing, for me, is revision. I generate an inchoate blob of language and then try to shape and polish it till the words make sense, though I may not know what sense I was aiming for until revision shows me.

It was now clear Cooper was not going to provide us with a methodical approach to revision. Christine bemoaned what seemed a nil payoff: “His answer didn’t chart out a practice of revision that I could teach.” “Where were the steps?” she asked.

But there were lessons a teacher could learn nonetheless. A writer in a classroom is different from a writer outside of one. The process I offer my students and the process a writer like Cooper follows are separated by an impassable river. Consider the workshop, that classroom fixture. Before he’s finished with a piece, Cooper sometimes shows it to a few friends whom he has cultivated over a lifetime. Although he’s participated in a couple of writing groups,
It is a daunting task to absorb a great deal of commentary about one’s work all at once, weighing which suggestions to dismiss and which to implement.
Think of the often contradictory responses students are bombarded by in workshops, and think of the context: they must by a fixed deadline cough up a rough draft for exposure to near strangers whose comments are often untrustworthy.

Many of our students see themselves not as writers but as students, with limited time to write outside the classroom. They can’t call themselves writers. They do not write every day for three or four hours in the morning, as Cooper does. They do not go back later in the day, every day, to edit the morning’s work. They do not lie awake at night and think about an essay “with a mixture of excitement and apprehension,” as Cooper does. They do not beat their heads against “the metaphorical brick wall for quite a while” before they show their work for feedback. Obsession cannot be their method.

We began our project thinking that revealing how Cooper writes and revises would be instructive and encouraging for students. But what emerged for me is the gap between my own expectations for my students and the actual conditions of their writing. Much of what Cooper models—his philosophy of writing, the intimate relation of a writer to his work, the essay as an aesthetic object he brings to vivid realization, his method of revising through obsessive practice, the protection he affords his writing until he is ready to release it for commentary, his emphasis on the reader’s pleasure—does not help bridge the gap between writers and students. Rather, it maps differences. It confirms the distance between a professional, accomplished writer and a novice who dares not even claim the title.

While Cooper’s work takes its place in public, his writing process remains a secret I don’t know just how to whisper to a listening ear. How can students become so tied to writing that, driving or sleeping, they turn each facet over and over, looking hard at image and word until something emerges that pleases?

Far from producing a guide to revision, I think I’m better off going back to where I began—in moments of reading pleasure produced by “The Fine Art of Sighing.” Maybe it will inspire the young writer, who will inhale and exhale the sigh of writing: take a deep breath, I will say, release with feeling, attend to its passage, its history, its future. That is the fine art of writing.


Marcia Aldrich is the author of Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and Companion to an Untold Story, published by The University of Georgia Press in September 2012.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Cathy de la Cruz on The Carpenter Who Appreciated Termites

In his 1962 essay, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” Manny Farber said that narrative feature films “have always been suspiciously addicted to termite-art tendencies.” Before reading this essay and thinking about the concept of termite-art, all I knew of termites were that they were pests. They were secretive insects that could be living inside an antique chair on the side of the road.

Going to graduate school in La Jolla, California where Farber taught for many years before retiring by the time I came along, was my first exposure to physical termites. My fellow Visual Arts grad students and I had artist studios and would occasionally swap furniture. I remember someone whispering into my ear not to take a certain desk because there were termites living inside of it. I wondered why this classmate didn’t put a sign for others to be aware of this potential problem since she wouldn’t always be around to whisper a warning.

Farber said: “a particular act about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”

I live in Arizona now, the state that Farber was born and where he may have begun one of his early jobs as a carpenter. Currently, there are termites eating away at the casita I live in and it is not lost on me that a man who made and repaired wooden structures for a good chunk of his life would consider termites the constructors or even de-constructors that artists interested in having a dialogue with the rest of the world should model themselves after.

There are little piles of wood shavings in certain corners of my home and the previous tenant warned me about the termites. The termites I live with are quiet. They may be able to hear me, but all I hear are drops from the shower faucet. I never hear or see them.

Farber coined the term, termite art as that which digests and regurgitates the world and the artist’s experiences of that world into art. Termite art eats the house that it lives in, and in doing so, sees the inside of the structure it calls home by ingesting it. In doing this, the termite-artist also gains a better view of the external world that the home is situated within. The introduction of Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies states: “The important trait of termite-fungus-centipede art is an ambulatory creation which is an act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through a horizontal coverage.” Farber did not seem to care for the journey in cinema as much as he did for the tunneling.

I am beginning to think of my casita in a way I had previously not considered—I am beginning to think of my home as alive. If artist, Gordon Matta-Clark was around today and cut my house into two for one of his pieces, I imagine termites would break free. Termites would be everywhere. In an New York Times article on a Matta-Clark retrospective, Nicolai Ouroussoff said about the trained architect-turned-artist’s splitting of suburban homes with a power saw: “The physical process (of hammering away at the house’s foundation) becomes more important than the final perfected vision.”


Termites live in darkness. Farber believed that the best art came from artists who did not have an aim to go one particular place. Farber said the reverse to termite art was when a filmmaker made up her mind from the beginning that she knew what her film was going to be about and that there was no escaping that direction for the viewer. A pitfall of what Farber called white elephant art is to “treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prize worthy creativity.”

The term white elephant is typically associated with a gift that no one wants. Historically, the term originates with a less-than-desirable gift because the particular gift is more expensive to maintain than it was actually worth in value for the recipient.


In his essay, Farber described John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a termite performer. The idea was that termites feed on what’s around them and Wayne acted as a “counterpoint to the pale, neutral film life” of the John Ford film.

Termites can live for years in a piece of dead wood. If The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a termite colony, Wayne was perhaps the Worker termite who assisted his less anchored termites in digesting. I don’t know what happens when the termites are done or if they are ever done feeding on the piece of dead wood. I imagine a piece of dead wood that no one but the termites know is hollow the way I imagine John Wayne on screen as a big body among shadows and silhouettes.

Termites communicate using taste and touch as opposed to sight and sound. Some nests of termites are difficult to study because they seal themselves so tightly into their self-sustaining environment that is it hard to gain access to them. Certain types of termites can even hollow out a tree trunk without causing a mark on the surface. Farber had an uncanny knack for pinpointing exactly how a film was or was not operating. Perhaps because Farber was an artist himself, he was especially suited for film criticism since film comprises a number of different artistic disciplines all of which Farber seemed comfortable discussing.

Farber opens his essay with a discussion on painting. His use of referencing other mediums in his film reviews, which he so often did, could be seen as detours in getting to his point, which makes sense since Farber seemed to appreciate films which were often comprised of a series of detours. Likewise, when discussing a film Farber did not seem particularly fond of such as Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, he could manage to write what was essentially a montage, which illustrated his craft as a critic; the ability to write eloquently and cinematically about a piece of art he found frivolous. Farber treated film criticism as a total art form.

“Suicide becomes a game, the houses look like toy boxes—laughter, death, putting out a fire…”

Just like Farber could see craftsmanship for what it was even in a film he disliked, he could also see clichés and trickery in cinema he was fond of, and sometimes it was hard to tell how Farber even stood on a particular film. Farber noted that the dialogue in Antonioni’s La Notte was “sophomorically one dimensional” and that the film often included beautifully rendered shots simply “to fill the time interval,”. Another characteristic that Farber noted of white elephant art was its need to fill every moment of screen space with style and overfamiliarization.

Farber believed this overfamiliarization with what a film was about removed the tension of a film, flattened everything and was equivalent to just a bunch of punchlines, which he related to pornography in its need to get to a goal and stay there. In resorting to this, the film lost any chance of finding a unique shape for itself. One of my favorite lines of Farber’s essay is in reference to Jules et Jim, which Farber described by saying:

“As the spectator leans forward to grab the film, it disappears like a released kite.”

For years, I had trouble articulating why I did not like the Truffaut classic and Farber nailed that the film knew what it wanted to be from the get go and would not allow itself any alternate paths. There are no anchors in Jules et Jim to hold on to. Perhaps like Farber, I am more interested in cinematic moments that stand out from a single film versus a series of moments within a film that are all weighted equally.


Once when I was a kid, my mom paid a circus clown $5 to let me ride an elephant. The elephant wasn’t white, but standard circus-gray and it was the smallest elephant of the bunch. Still the circus employee tried to pile as many of us onto its back as possible. The elephant was displeased, frustrated even, and returned almost as soon as he left with us. Our ride did not last very long and no one was given a refund.

Farber was more interested in a continuous flow of quality cinema than a momentary novelty. He believed the quality all white elephant filmmakers had in common was fear: a fear of destroying its own structure from the inside out.

Farber ends his essay discussing the film, Ikiru. He saw the Akira Kurosawa film as summarizing what termite art aimed to be: not dwelling on a moment, but instead keeping speed, and moving forward. So many films have an unforgettable moment and linger too long in that space—almost patting themselves on the back for having gotten there. Termite art keeps moving forward “…forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed,” keeps burrowing even if it doesn’t know where it’s going. Termite art keeps moving forward especially if it does not know where it’s going or how long it is going to take to get there.

The friend I subletted my casita from said he thought it would take years before the termites made a real dent in the structure of my home. “It’s kinda sad actually when you really think about it,” he said. I hope I never see a termite here. I want to pretend that they are not here, working their magic. I don’t want to think about if or when the casita will collapse. I would rather just keep moving forward; thinking about carpenters who appreciate destruction because it gives them something to keep working on.

Cathy de la Cruz is a first-year candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Fat Man Story: Ander Monson on HL Mencken's "A Forgotten Anniversary"

This fine morning on the first of April I write from my bathtub here in Tucson, Arizona to you.

And in fact I'd like to discuss the bathtub, introduced to America in 1842 in Cincinnati in its modern form, then made of mahogany and lined in sheet lead, and later popularized by President Millard Fillmore. All this is from the mouth of one of my favorite essayists, H. L. Mencken, in his essay, “A Forgotten Anniversary,” published in the New York Evening Mail in 1917. The Evening Mail is no longer extant, of course, having undergone a series of fattening mergers and finally folding its adulterated bulk in 1967.

For some reason I always picture Mencken as fat. Maybe it’s the initials. Like A. S. Byatt. W. G. Sebald, or B. T. Overdrive, initials suggest the fatness, possibly adorned with a timepiece in a front pocket, or at the least a classist smirk on one's face. When I was chubbier and younger, more closely approximating a basketball or a Hutt, I am ashamed to say that I aspired to this air of eminence: I went briefly by A. S. Monson, and then Ander S. Monson, on account of the middle initial made me more distinguished, like Franklin W. Dixon (author of the Hardy Boys novels—also, as I found out sometime around fifth grade, a composite: there was no Dixon but a legion of underpaid, mostly female writers—but the middle initial remained, however false, and impressed itself on me), and also my burgeoning corpulence.

It remains an embarrassment. The initials, not the fatness—though I still live in the shell of the fatness—because that never really goes away, our sense of our fat former or maybe present selves hovering like the outer boundary of our electron shell even as we've now found somewhat leaner days. As essayists we would do well to cleave to our embarrassments, for therein might we open ourselves to others. Are you listening, Mr. Mencken?

So as fat as I am or was, thinking of Mencken this morning, I write this missive to you from my bathtub, across which I’ve spanned a 2 x 12 with my laptop perched atop, on which I type carefully, not wanting to allow a stray splash to render it inert. There is risk, then, in every character I depress to transmit this truth to you.

I’ve always been a sucker for the bathtub in all its iterations. I love immersion, one of the greatest pleasures of the human, and the bathtub is immersion’s domestic home, unless you have a Jacuzzi, a sensory deprivation tank, a space station, or a pool. Immersion is, after all, what we hope for in our fiction, even in our nonfiction: we hope to be caught and carried under, to suspend our disbelief, as we say, for a moment, to go all-in, to catch some extended air, to follow a story wherever it may lead, to give our brain over to another’s for a moment. Immersion is what allows art to work its magic on us, for us to be moved without moving, to believe without leaving, to be changed without changing our clothes or our selves. It’s in the losing of ourselves for an hour to the art thing (as Mark Ehling has named it, in this space, “an art feeling”) that allows us to experience a whiff of transcendence.

Or maybe that’s just the Taco Bell Cool Ranch Tacos I'm still smelling, which, I must admit, were pretty good. They taste just like a cool ranch. I can feel myself getting fatter. Keep typing, chunko.


The observant may notice that today's date is April 1. I woke up this morning anticipating my far-too-big bowl of cereal on my favorite day of the year, April Fool's Day, in which we fool and venerate the fooled. We ask for it, we dupes: we chuckle heartily, our hearts clucking their amusement at our credulousness. Today is the day in which we should celebrate the art of critical thinking.

It is also a day for Doritos Locos Tacos Doritos (this is sadly not a joke). Or at least Doritos Locos Tacos. Or at least just Doritos if you don't want to get all loco on them. Or maybe a Jumbaco. At first I thought it sad that Taco Bell maintained locations in Tucson, Arizona, where I now live. Given the number of taco carts and trucks and local fast food Mexican, how could it compete? Then I realized: it's not really competing: it's not Mexican. It's barely anything at all. I don't feel so bad about eating there now, particularly since they've upgraded all their foods to be made with Doritos (that last part's a lie...for now: can't you see this is the future we've been asking for? Why settle for corn or flour tortillas when you can get everything, your drink included, terrorized with superflavor detonating nacho crystals?).

It's a little early for the heartburn, but thinking of it and typing so hard is causing my plank to rattle and my stomach to get all churny.

I wonder: have you been duped? Have you believed? Have you ruefully been forced to question the authority you grant to NPR, to CNN, these initialed fatties of the media, to the Economist, to the NYT, to the BBC, all these we trust to proffer (not to profiteer) information?

Today is a day to celebrate being lied to. We are being lied to. We should take the opportunity to enjoy it. Crack a beer. Adjust your lie. Our golf is winter rules, which as any duffer knows means you should feel free to kick your ball back in the fairway, you know, for fairness.

We want the lie. We need the lie. The lie is entertainment. The lie is narrative. We’re reassured by being told a thing even if it is false. The lie is where the human’s drawn. The lie is wholeness, seamlessness, the convenient arrangement of events into a story that can mean. The lie is manipulation; the lie is art.


Clever reader, by now you may suspect my bathtub story’s rub is false, that Mencken’s bathtub story’s false. You would be correct. Not that Mencken didn’t write these things: he did. That's not the joke. The joke is that they simply were not true. It's not much of a joke, but I'll come back to that. I'm not convinced it's all that much of an essay either. But it was great fake news.

"Fake news has been with us for a long time," writes Robert Love in "Before Jon Stewart," his riff on the history of fake news in which he details late nineteenth century papers' penchant for publishing sensation and story [my italics] over fact. Fake news is with us now: today, more obviously, but weekdays when the Daily Show is on, when the Onion publishes, when we are credulous. While we no longer consider fake news from real news organizations okay (except on April 1st), fake news from fake news organizations is just fine—great, in fact. Often it delivers real news. And for sure we  like the taste of story. We always did, but in a disintegrating, disconnected world, we're suckers for a story. We like sensation, that slowness, that transporting feeling. We want—we must believe in fact, but I don't think that it's important to us as feeling something is.

But by emphasizing story we are asking for it, people. I don't mean to say that it's not possible to fact-check a story or ground a narrative in fact: it is, but by asking it for story, by constructing it to mean, to make us feel, we're leaving the realm of strict phenomena and are heading into interpretation, subjectivity: we're coasting toward an art feeling, a feeling of glorious emotional fatness. I ask that we remember this, our own hunger, our own desire, when we want to closely probe the things that offer us that art feeling, wondering just what we sacrifice to get it.


Here's Robert Love again:
Hoaxes like this seem so Colbert now, like mutant cousins to his notion of “truthiness.” But hoaxers are historically not comedians; they are, like Mencken, journalists who write entertaining stuff that sounds vaguely true, even though it’s not, for editors who are usually in on the joke. The hoaxing instinct infected newsrooms throughout the early days of modern newspapers to a degree that most of us find puzzling today. Newspapers contained hundreds, if not thousands of hoaxes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of them undocumented fakes in obscure Western weeklies. The subjects were oddball pets and wild weather, giants, mermaids, men on the moon, petrified people (quite a few of those), and (my favorite) the Swiss Navy. 
So years later Mencken revealed that his history, though widely believed and propagated, contained no actual bits of truth. He reports: “This article, as I say, was planned as a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days, and I confess that I regarded it, when it came out, with considerable satisfaction.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that the war elevated its stature. We might note that the height of the James Frey scandal occurred while the US government perpetuated mistruths leading to a unmeritorious war. We might note that the Clifford Irving hoax (subject of the film The Hoax, in which he faked the authorized biography of Howard Hughes) occurred during the height of the conflict in Vietnam. I point these out to suggest (and I am not the first) that our anger against these authors became a sort of national sport, an entertainment in which we built ourselves a safe outlet for our rage that we didn’t feel safe directing against the architects of the lies we were fed by the government and duly reported by the press, until they got wiser.

Today—this year, this decade, which feels like it's on the edge of slipping into something—we occupy a precarious space, perched between the age of the authority we’ve ceded to journalism (because who has time to check everything or maybe even anything?) and the age of crowdsourced, immediate (sometimes mis-)information, which makes up a good story. We need to trust our information, but what we really want is entertainment. We don't want to blink. A country's doomed: we are nonplussed. We keep clicking for something newer. The speed of news delivery, and the increasing devolution of those tasked to report and verify it as fact from the salaried to freelance staff do not jive well with increased reliability. What does that mean for how we can expect to live our lives? Must we okay the fudge, understand the imprecision, understanding that at least we're getting speed and something fun to—in the words of the prechewed 90s pop act the Spice Girls—spice up our lives like Doritos Locos Tacos?

Today—April First—we occupy a particularly precarious space, perched between belief and dis-, and it's a lovely one. I ask us to hold it and consider it: a moment of wonderment in which the impossible is sometimes possible for a moment before it disappears and drops us back into our lives this afternoon.


Though Mencken admitted that he made it up, no one took much notice. Probably because that's what papers did at that time. Or because essayist confabulates fake bathtub history doesn't have much pop or saleability. (Or it wasn't a story then; it might be now: see also Jonah Lehrer, see also Jayson Blair, see also Stephen Glass—how we like to hound our boys). Mencken's bathtub tale is still in fact perpetuated and propagated. The Museum of Hoaxes reports: "as recently as February, 2004, the Washington Post noted in a travel column, 'Bet you didn't know that . . . Fillmore was the first president to install a bathtub in the White House.' It sheepishly ran a correction a few days later."

(Maybe the ease of cut and paste exacerbates all this. In the time it took to use the keyboard shortcut to drop that bit of text in here it did occur to me that I might want to check that out at least on Wikipedia before reporting it to you again, but that seemed like a lot of work, and besides, I've spent enough time faking Wikipedia entries to not invest all that much trust there either.)

Of course we know Mencken as an essayist. And the essay (thus the essayist) gets by on the authority, such as it is, of the I. We take it for granted, sure: we have to, we don’t get to suspend our disbelief; to engage in an essay is to engage with the I in front of us, the simulated self speaking. If we didn't trust its intentions—that at least it's leading us wherever for a reason—then why are we listening to it speak? Of course the I in essay doesn’t come out and claim that what it is telling us is truth, or absolute: it claims its subjectivity. It is an I after all, and it can be mistaken or duped, led astray, confused, inveigled, mis- or disinformed. How well do we know ourselves, we ask: not as well as we would hope. We would not be this way if we did: confused, seemingly blind some days to the primacy of our habits and habituations. Otherwise the world would be a less surprising and dramatic place than it is, with a capacity for such glorious wreckage: we are weak in ways we cannot know, even though we should better gauge our seams and faults and accommodate for them. The essay prizes these, gets squinty trying to see things straight. It’s okay.

In fact Mencken goes out of his way to occasionally foreground the I in his essay: "and, for all I know to the contrary, [the first bathtub] may still be in existence and in use," "Moreover, the English bathtub, then as now, was a puny and inconvenient contrivance -- little more, in fact, than a glorified dishpan," "This legislation, I suspect, had some class feeling in it, for the Thompson bathtub was plainly too expensive to be owned by any save the wealthy," and so forth. Admitting the I to reflect upon the subject—or in the first instance to lie directly to the reader (since Mencken knew well to the contrary) increases its believability. It dimensionalizes the tale: there is the story and there is the I telling the story, and we occasionally see one or both or the space between them. Harder, oddly, to doubt an I that knows it's telling a story.

As such the essay as a form doesn’t (mostly: one could make an argument for "The Facts of the Matter" by Anonymous as a legit piece of hoaxery with a righteous point) have much truck with April Fool’s: we are all fools to believe what we read or hear on April first. We are fools to try to pin an I too closely to the truth or to project our rage on those who tried too hard to entertain—and failed, it must be said, except as quarry.

Instead we might do better to recognize performance and appreciate it when it’s in front of us, and simply say that we are entertained, that we were fooled, and that we can own our falling-for-it and think what that might mean for us.


I remember mornings growing up on April 1 when I would switch the sugar with the salt containers on the kitchen table and wait for my brother’s howl as he dug into his cereal. That might be a practical joke—anyway, it’s practically a joke—but it’s not an April Fool. I suppose I might have reminded him that In Life Sometimes the Names on the Containers Do Not Always Correspond with their Contents, and that this should be celebrated, not condemned, and also that I was bigger than him, which is unfortunately no longer the case, thereby changing the tenor of our relationship. Now he is an investment banker and I am up late writing an essay about a dead man I thought was fat for no good reason.

Still, I believe there was a lesson there for my brother: don’t believe the world is as stable as you think. It doesn’t take much to tip a life into submission, an economy into recession, a country into upheaval, a career into a downward spiral.

Still, there’s not much to be gained by my childhood joke: a wasted bowl of cereal, an irritated sibling, a story to be related years later without much narrative fizz or pop.

Whatever Fool the Authorities choose to perpetrate this year, whether it’s the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest, Instant Color TV, a guide to the small republic of San Serriffe, Life Found on the Moon, The Economist Theme Park, or The Guardian’s shift to an all-Twitter feed, etc., these hoaxes undercut themselves amusingly: even as you're reading them you're thinking, hmm, really? They're only sort of plausible at best, not really designed to fool us, or not for long.

If Mencken's essay isn't really a joke, and it's not an April Fool, perhaps it was a prank designed to illustrate something that he understood about how news propagates, un-fact-checked, even in the pre-Internet age. Though it might come in the voice of a noted humorist and essayist, published in a Newspaper of Note (perhaps not coincidentally The Evening Mail also counted among its contributors eminent cartoonist and maker of elaborate machines Rube Goldberg), and reinforced with some essaytastic goodness, that didn't mean that it was strictly true. I'm not exactly sure it is an essay, actually. Or if it is, it's a speculative one (a la Robin Hemley—note also Hemley's insistence on the usefulness of wonder—a rare commodity today).

Or maybe the lesson we might draw is that that The Evening Mail is no longer in operation, but the essayist is—as is his fake history of the bathtub. I'm operating the essayist right now, even if he turns out on a Google search (see, there are uses for these quick excursions) not to be all that fat (or fat at all: but maybe we can get this misinformation propagating).   

That’s how we get by, isn’t it? By propagating? By trust and a little optimism, a laptop in the bathtub,  the occasional salt in our cereal and a bit of wonder after?