Trick or Treat?

By Songyi Zhang

If you ask an American what are the most celebrated holidays in the US, Halloween must be one of the top answers. I’ve been told that this pumpkin-and-ghost themed holiday has become in recent years more and more popular and that celebrations start earlier and earlier.

Look, in mid-August you can see some stores in the US have already put the Halloween products—haunted house toys, candies and pumpkin baskets—on the shelves. By September, you won’t miss Halloween decorations in the restaurants and small bookstores. In pharmacies, the Halloween colors of orange and red dominate the aisles for stationary and cards.

In my first October of studying in America, I had a chance to visit a farm outside of Pittsburgh with other international students. I was shocked to see huge pumpkins scattered on the ground at one side of the entrance. These pumpkins were so much bigger than the ones in China. Some were gigantic enough to serve as a stool for three slim Asian students.

It’s American tradition to decorate doorsteps and yards and even kitchens and living rooms with pumpkins and squashes. The squashes have various shapes and colors; some look really ugly. For the bolder households, artificial spider webs and skeletons festooned the exterior, sending an atmosphere of horror.

At first I couldn’t believe that Americans don’t eat the huge pumpkins. You would think at this harvest time it makes sense to appreciate big pumpkins at the dining table. But no. Several American friends told me the big pumpkins taste sour, no good. The small ones may be made into pumpkin soup and pies.

Trick or treating isn’t strange to young Chinese. We learn briefly about Halloween traditions through books and TV programs. But I hadn’t seen a real trick or treating in person until I came to America. I was surprised to see how a non-religious holiday is celebrated so elaborately, especially among children. Putting on those eccentric costumes of known cartoon and legendary characters—such as Frankenstein, Transformer and Snow White—is like a must-have experience for every American childhood. I overheard parents discussing with their young children about what to wear for the coming Halloween. So I imagined the kids must play different roles every year. Whether their parents have to shop for various costumes or rent them, I think it’s still a sizeable expense, especially if the family has more than one kid.

I’m not surprised that Halloween has also become known in China, catching up with the fame of Christmas. If any holiday can create a source of moneymaking, business people are always eager to commercialize it. Same as in America. On the evening of October 31st, when I see the kids in all sorts of costumes knocking on the neighbors’ doors for treats, I wonder how many treats the manufacturers have gained from Halloween. No trick at all!

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Julia Kristeva’s Abjection: a Lecture on the Powers of Horror

by Mike Walker

 
Every year around Halloween—near the first of October, really, as I like to have a whole month for this—I tend to re-read old ghost stories by the like of M.R. James, folk tales of British corpse ways, and historical non-fiction about vampires from the Balkans. Halloween makes for a grand excuse for becoming immersed in things gothic, the dark and gloomy for a whole month or better. This year, I decided to focus on a less common but equally apt work in the canon of horror: the linguist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s classic work on abjection, Pouvoirs de l’horreur (Powers of Horror). Kristeva’s objective in this book-length essay is to address the role of abjection  as a psychosocial property and a literary device. Coming from her background as a practicing psychoanalyst and also a pioneering linguist who wrote her Dr. d’État dissertation on the semiotic development of the early European novel, no one appears better poised than Kristeva to address this topic and she does a magesterial job. To me, the concept of a nuanced essay that explains via both theory and example the mechanisms of abjection in literature is something not only quite useful to the scholar but something that has been missing from how general scholarship of gothic literature, film noir, and a variety of other genre have been commonly approached.

Kristeva defines the abject as “To each ego its object, to each superego its abject. It is not the white expanse or slack boredom of repression, not the translations and transformations of desire that wrench bodies, nights, and discourse; rather it is a brutish suffering . . .”. She continues on this motif further explicating in poetic terms her vision, but the core point has been made: within the Lacanian framework, the abject is a central waypoint on the definition of the relation of the personal ego with the greater world; it is not just the presence of disgust or horror, but that entire gamut of suffering we encounter.

Kristeva later notes that “The abject is, for Dostoyevsky, the ‘object’ of The Possessed: it is the aim, and motive of an existence whose meaning is lost in absolute degradation because it absolutely rejected the moral limit (a social, religious, familial, and individual one) as absolute—God.” Therefore the abject is the fulcrum, it is that which we use as our compass of moral regulation by default. It is knowing when you’ve had too much to drink, or when someone is not a person you wish to invite to your party. However, it does not end there: the abject is also the horrors that via their totality and catastrophic nature cause a sense of awful wonder. A rocket hitting a multi-floor apartment tower, a bridge that fails and falls—cars, people, and all—into a cold river below, these are all things that are abject. When human design and the intent of malice come into play, the situation is even more dire and often more horribly enchanting. There is a photo from a school video camera of Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris stalking through the school with weapons in hand that I have seen republished in multiple articles about their murderous rampage: why should we tolerate seeing this, much less wish to see it? What is the draw of the obscene? It represents the horror: it shows us the murderers beyond any question of their acts or their evil nature. When we hear a ship has sunk, we wish to see the abject act—a ship, verily sinking—not an empty ocean of its aftermath.

Kristeva opens Powers of Horror with a general overview of what she means by the term “abjection” and how the “abject” and the process of “abjection” differ, plus a slight introspection into the history of the abject as a sociocultural phenomenon—covering with strong insight such aspects as how early Christian mystics delighted in the abject and how the concept of self-abuse and piety evolved in part from their views of abjection. Kristeva is careful to clarify the differences between the grotesque and the abject and how the abject can share in the material corpus of things that cause disgust but also transcends such a base emotional reaction. Working from there, she approaches a variety of oftentimes surprising literary examples, such as the works of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and through these works places the apex of the literary interest in the abject to run alongside the same timeline as the romantic era focus on the sublime and further into the modern era focus on psychological realism. As in her dissertation years before, Kristeva is highly adept at capturing all the verve of the carnival and grotesque in a write such as Céline plus the depth and scope of the variform abject she locates in literature.

Kristeva further delineates her view of the abject as “that experience, which is nevertheless managed by the Other, “subject” and “object” push each other away, confront each other, collapse, and start again—inseparable, contaminated, condemned, at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable: abject. Great modern literature unfolds over that terrain: Dostoyevsky, Lautreamont, Proust, Artaud, Kafka, Celine.”

What Kristeva demonstrates in her overall approach to the modern period is that these writers belong to a trajectory of acceptance of vileness alongside virile aggression and accelerated lack of confidence in a faith-based, morality-regulated society. We perhaps easily forget now how even Spinoza and Kierkegaard, who are considered essential to secular philosophy today, wrote within the guise of religion. They lived, after all, in a world of feast days, fast days, civil accord revolving around things holy while all that was not holy remained in civil discord unseen.  Kristeva points to the abject as not however the absence of something—not, in example, famine due to a lack of harvest—but the precise presence of a matter of disgust or a means of arriving at disgust.

According to Kristeva, Jorge Luis Borges before her has already defined the abject and abjection—though not in those express words—as key to the crucial drive of all literature. Kristeva describes Borge’s declared objective of literature as “vertiginous and hallucinatory”, all tales told are after all “narratives of the infamous” and with Borges leitmotif of noir and reliance on the detective story’s tropes, abjection is rife in his works. Yet abjection does not negate hope: abjection, Kristeva explains, is the realization of disgust and the ability to process something from the point of being disgusting, repulsive, to the complexity of horror. While animals can be repulsed by something—a decaying corpse, in example—their response to such an incident is predicated on disgust more than horror. For the human, horror quickly pushes simple disgust out of the picture: a corpse unexpectedly encountered may be disgusting, but soon the primary raw emotion is one of horror and fear: why is there a dead body here, where it is unexpected? Is this a murder? Is the killer still on the loose? Could I be the next victim?

Kristeva further remarks that abjection “becomes a substitute for the role formerly played by the sacred, at the limits of social and subjective identity. But we are dealing here with a sublimation without consecration. Forfeited.”

In this, we find possibly the most direct aspect of the abject as a literary device rather than a trajectory or catalyst for literary furtherance: where in pre-modern times literature would seek the supplication of tragedy via God, via prayer, via faith, we find  that the modern writer is divorced from religion. As Kristeva says, that option is forfeited—even if faith is central in the story, even if the author actually speaks with conviction of the power of God, there is still the modern angle of society and social ills being more real, more present, than the relationship of the protagonist with God. It is not a question of God being present, being extant, or not: it is a question of death and how society deals with death. When even the most pitiful death occurs in a pre-modern text, unless it is of someone evil and unredeemed, the death is predicated on the repair of supplication, of consecration, of burial even in holy ground. I mentioned in the introduction to this essay how I like to read vampire stories—supposedly true ones—from the Balkans: often, in historical, native, vampire lore from this region the curse of the vampire is itself broken and the undead goes back to being normal, nice, docile, dead once the corpse is buried in a proper manner in a consecrated churchyard. In much of modern literature, there is no curse but neither is there consecration. Both are removed. In any case, the abject is localized in the horror of what has happened: a murder, an unexplained death, a body thrown out without proper burial. These are all things that understandably repulse us and likewise horrify us in their ability to occur in the first place.

Kristeva also considers, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, the role of “a pharmakos, a scapegoat who, having been ejected, allows the city to be freed from defilement”. This is akin to the situation of the vampire of folklore, another case where actual removal of the offending party and placing him either in exile or else somewhere where he “should” be will remedy the status of abjection. Since abjection is a process, the removal of its catalyst will bring the process, understandably, to a close. While the classical pharmakos is a chosen representative designed to be expelled from the community and free it from some manner of crisis, the Slavic vampire is an unexpected cause of evil and is more directly tied to such in a cause and effect manner: if the vampire is haunting your community and causing problems—disease, murders, poor harvests or whatever you wish to blame it for—it makes sense to rid yourself of the offending creature. The pharmakos is most often a criminal or slave, a person who serves little purpose to the community and is looked down upon, but may not be directly at fault for whatever disaster is being responded to via casting him out in exile. In both cases though, the person blamed, the person decided upon as the scapegoat is abject: a rotten corpse suspected of reanimating itself and terrorizing the community, or a person who has somehow proven himself unworthy of the typical courtesies of a society.

Though the abject is the matter of disgust while abjection is the process of repulsion, Kristeva finds the sublime inspired by the abject—forged from it in fact—even when she  discerns little jouissance in the abject realm. She is far from the first to make this discovery, though she articulates it better than anyone else I’ve read on the topic. The sublime arises from the abject just as the sublime was found in the early ruins so beloved by the British Victorians: they loved such ruins so much, tempered by the centuries and eroded by rain and snow, as to go forth and build follies that imitated ruins where no ruins existed. They built useless, expensive, monuments to decay and that—the creation of a thing of decay and loss in the wake of no such real loss, or false loss to replace real loss,—is truly abject. The horror of something grand fallen into nothingness, dissolved beyond usefulness, decayed to its primeval corpse-self, is the territory of literature where Kristeva finds the greatness of abjection. Through her Biblical examples, her classical examples, her in-depth study of Céline’s writing, Kristeva takes her reader away from the simple point of the abject being simply that which is disgusting or foul, and into the complex arena of the abject being that which pushes margins. The contemporary term “trainwreck” well comes to mind, as the abject is that which can inspire both our collective sense of horror and acknowledgement that something awful has transpired but also that very special fulcrum that balances between mystical surprise and very organic repulsion. In such, in the truly abject despite its multiple and varied forms, we locate the powers of horror.

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How To Make A Zombie

by John Samuel Tieman

Why zombies? Why now? Zombies are everywhere. Wikipedia lists fourteen comic books, eight nonfiction books, over thirty novels and anthologies devoted to zombies. I won’t even count the movies and TV shows.

My favorite is AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, which begins in post-zombie-apocalypse Atlanta. Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, awakens from a coma. He finds himself abandoned by the living, and surrounded by the dead. He fights his way to a rural area, where he joins with other survivors in a grim struggle for their lives.

Who are the zombies? Zombies are not our friends. Let’s think about that. Zombies are like us. They are like us in the same way that a mirror image is like us. Zombies bear an uncanny resemblance to the living. But the resemblance is grotesque, a missing leg, half an arm. Then there’s that complexion. Zombies are as singular in their purpose as they are unrelenting. There is no reasoning with a zombie. No amount of mediation will help. They are unintelligent. They are slow-moving. Individually, they are easily defeated, but when they “swarm”, you’re pretty much lunch. Zombies are not our friends.

Or, to be precise, we don’t consider zombies good neighbors. Neighbor is defined by two paradoxical qualities, a degree of familiarity and a degree of distance. The neighbor is both knowable and unknowable. Esperanza and her family have lived catty-corner from me for almost fifteen years. I like Esperanza, and know a lot about her. I know, for example, that she was born in Honduras. But I will never know what it is like to grow up in Central America, to marry a Norteamericano, to become a naturalized citizen.

And that’s what makes neighbors interesting. There’s so much I’ll learn, and so much I’ll never know. That’s not true of zombies. With zombies, we know what they are, and we know everything they will ever be. With the neighbor, this is never that clear. With the neighbor, there is mystery.

And that’s how you make a zombie. First, the concept of neighbor dies. Not the neighbor – the concept of the neighbor. Actually, the zombie who used to live next door, that guy is still staggering around the park. Their home zip codes notwithstanding, zombies are not considered our neighbors. They are the evil other, about whom we know all we need to know. It’s not the zombie who has died. It is, in one sense, the love for the neighbor that has died.

Why zombies? Why now? Because the zombies are everywhere.

Because zombies are Muslim “extremists”. Because zombies are Mexican “illegals”. They are unrelenting and unintelligent. They have no inner life. They look like us, but they have bad complexions. There is no reasoning with them. There is no negotiating with them. Because the problem is not one “illegal”, not one “extremist”. The problem is when they “swarm”. We know what they are. We know all they will ever be. We know what to do. We kill them. We keep them out. If we don’t, they’ll eat us.

This is the world we live in, a world where dialogue is anathema. A recent survey of Tea Partiers revealed that over two-thirds favored candidates who neither compromise nor negotiate. That attitude is hardly exclusive to the right. There are plenty of intractable liberals. Personally, I am neither pro-zombie nor anti-zombie. I simply point out the world in which we live. When Marshall McLuhan first spoke of the global village, we imagined a world filled with neighbors. What we got is a city filled with zombies.

But what do you do with a zombie? In the opening episode of “The Walking Dead”, the deputy sheriff is pursued by a zombie with no legs. She is terrifying. Later in the show, Rick Grimes returns to that zombie. Indeed, he goes out of his way to find her in a suburb of Atlanta. She keeps crawling toward him. She still wants to eat him. But he has a gun. He is no longer threatened by this legless creature. I thought he was going to avenge himself for having been so terrified by her. Instead, he pities her. He says, “I’m sorry this happened to you”. Why? Because this woman, for all her differences, is still his neighbor.

Let me be perfectly clear. I’m not proposing a new immigration policy. I don’t know what to do about terrorism. I’m not that wise. I’m simply saying there are no zombies.

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Superfoods

by Michael Simms

About six months ago, trying to solve a number of serious health problems including Crohn’s disease and asthma, I became a vegan. I cut out all meat, dairy, and processed foods. I also began reading extensively about nutrition. Two books I highly recommend are Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman and The China Study by T. Colin Campbell.

In a nutshell, this is what I learned:

All fruits and vegetables are good for our general health, but some are so powerful in strengthening our bodies against disease that we should make sure that we eat them regularly. Here is a partial list of these superfoods:

Cruciferous vegetables (kale, broccoli, Swiss chard, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, turnip greens, mustard greens, rapini, etc.)
Berries (blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, elderberries, pomegranates, etc.)
Tomatoes
Peppers
Mushrooms
Onions, garlic, leeks
Legumes (beans, peas, tofu, green beans, soymilk, etc.)
Nuts and seeds (walnuts, cashews, almonds, sesame, sunflower, linseed, flax seed, etc.)

Also, it’s important to eat across the color spectrum. Ask yourself each day whether you’ve eaten something that is red, something green, something blue, yellow, purple, black, orange.

In the last six months, I’ve lost 35 pounds, the symptoms of my Crohn’s which I’ve had for over 30 years have disappeared, my asthma has cleared up, and I’ve started running again.
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Book Review: Farang by Peter Blair

reviewed by Zara Raab in The Cafe Review 

 
 

Farang: Poems by Peter Blair
Autumn House Press, 2009,
64 pages, paper, $14.95,
ISBN: 978-1-932870-34-3

“Farang,” we quickly learn in Peter Blair’s book about his years in the Peace Corps, means “foreigner” in Thai. The clear images of these melodic narrative poems evoke the legacy of the Vietnam War years, the tensions between Thais and ex – patriot Americans, the struggle to cobble together a pathway between cultural differences, and the lyrical beauty of Thailand and its peoples.

The book introduces the first of its four sections, “November Full Moon,” with the poem, “Discussing the Dream of Culture with Professor Kwaam,” in which an ethereal, clean – shaven, smiling Professor Kwaam pontificates on Thai and American cultures — “two dreams / of one world, the Dharma. A few months ago / he taught me Thai and how to read palms: / A good way to hold hands with a girl. He winked.” The novice poet – traveler is in need of instruction:

Noodles slip off my novice chopsticks.
My soup darkened by soy sauce, peanuts,
sugar, the strands disappear in my bowl.
Kwaam’s noodles twine in clear broth.

Of course, the poet meets a girl. Her name is Siripan. She’s young and beautiful, a school teacher who instructs the poet in vocabulary and demonstrates the ramwong, a kind of waltz, “spinning / through all the positions that turn / a man and woman into blossoms.” But Siripan is already lost, drifting from her family, which does not approve of her dating farangs. Siripan and the poet share stories of their fathers and grandfathers. “They traveled far to find their wives,” Siripan says poignantly. “Our kiss feels like an ocean, / its waves breaking on opposite shores.” So far no one has traveled far to marry Siripan, who appears later in the book only as a longing, a memory.

After visiting a Buddhist temple, the poet tours the bars and brothels of Bangkok, the Angel City, with his boorish American friend Harry, who “tramples / his shadow with his feet / seeking all joys but wisdom / among the metal – grated storefronts, / the butcher – shop, fortune – teller, apothecary, serving the bodily / charkas of the city.” Leaving Bangkok for the countryside, the poet is haunted by ghosts and nightmares featuring Kukrit from The Ugly American, and wakes to the slow turning blade of his ceiling fan: “farang, farang, farang.”

In section two, “Up – country,” the poet – narrator keenly observes scenes of village life: He visits temples on whose walls human figures “pursue their karma”; he joins in the rice planting, standing ankle deep in the fields beside the buffalo; he attends a village fair where he is accosted — farang! — by village youths and wins an ivory Buddha which “hangs on my chest, / smooth as a stone that’s been sunk / in flowing water for 25 centuries.” In “In the Hot Season,” a boy not much younger than the poet’s own twenty – one years floats on the river in the noonday heat. This poem, exemplary of Blair’s best, describes a boy floating on “wide, brown water” in a river “starved of rain”, where tree roots “show through like gray ribs / near the banks.” The boy’s canoe is merely a packing tin “emptied of bamboo shoots.”

The poem’s easy cadences foreswear meter and rhyme for subtle alliteration — “gunwales gleaming,” “wide, brown water” — and strong, graceful lines and syntax, with line breaks punctuating the unfolding narrative, following the grammatical units of meaning. While not especially playful, inventive, or surprising — highly valued qualities in much contemporary poetry — Blair is adept at seeing beneath the surface of the sensory world to the feelings and desires of the boy, the boy’s pleasure in a lazy day on the river, his cotton shirt “a white flag draped over the side, signaling / his surrender to a day without desire.” Blair imbues the boy with the deep qualities of his culture: When the boy’s “eight – fold path lies across / low water cradled by gnarled hills,” he becomes an emblem of his culture’s Buddhism. The final stanza zooms out, giving the reader a wide – screen view:

As the rumbling, spattering caravan
of trucks, buses and tuk – tuks pass
over him on the bridge on their raucous
way to Bangkok, the Angel City,
he floats diamond – bright and solitary
in the middle of the sweltering town.
Halfway from either bank, he finds
the bright center of the afternoon.

And the poet, too, finds the bright center of the poem.

At the close of this second section, the poet travels with his students by bus to the Gulf of Siam, where Ampon, one of his young students, has promised to reveal his secret beach near his house there. But then, suddenly, the festive occasion turns hollow and ghastly: Ampon drowns.

Word spreads through the palms, mangoes
and village streets. His father descends stairs
under his house, walks out into the light,
watching me. My skin never feels so white.
In the house, his mother wails, prepares the body.

“My skin never felt so white” is one of several striking expressions of the poet’s own otherness. The moment of silent confrontation between the father whose son has died and the poet, the climax of these first two parts, has its formal complement in sections three and four, “The Dream of Culture” and “The Land of Transit.” Among Blair’s reflections on the two cultures, he tells us that word has come from the American Consul of his own father’s death in Pittsburgh. He is now the fatherless boy, the one abandoned.

Back in the States for the funeral, at the close of this tender, sensitive collection, the poet stands awkwardly at O’Rourke’s Bar and Grill with his old classmates. And once again, this time to the big, hairy – chested American boys he’s known since grade school, he finds himself farang.

http://www.thecafereview.com/

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A Story To Occupy The Mind

by John Samuel Tieman

Between me and my God
There are only eleven commandments;
The eleventh says: Thou shalt not
Bury thy brother alive

— Atukwei Okai

Like many Americans, perhaps most Americans, I watch with keen interest the Occupy Wall Street movement and its affiliates, in my case Occupy St. Louis. Like many Americans, perhaps most Americans, I wonder if this movement is ephemeral.

Occupy Wall Street says in its “Statement Of Purpose, “We, the 99 percent, are hereby taking action against the greed and corruption of the richest 1 percent, the bankers, politicians, and corporate persons that govern our nation.” In my experience, the problem with being the 99% is that there are 99 voices all speaking at once. Mass movements are often as exciting as they are confusing. There are 99 sub-texts. In this case, however, there is a clear message. America, it is OK to critique capitalism.

It is OK to critique capitalism. This is an affirmative message in that it encourages reform that mitigates against the worst impulses of capitalism, impulses that have enriched the already rich, impoverished many who were middle class, and further impoverished the already poor. Occupy Wall Street is a reform. Far from being a violent manifesto, the “Statement Of Purpose” endorses nonviolence.

I am reminded of our political ancestors. Roughly one hundred years ago, the British consolidated their social democratic impulses with the trade union movement, the result being the Labour Party. In our country, these same impulses became more fragmented, with the social democratic critique of capitalism, Eugene Debs for instance, becoming a tiny voice, and the union movement becoming both pro-worker and capitalist. Any lingering critique of capitalism was muted by several persecutions of the left, the worst being McCarthyism.

But that’s over now. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, there also fell the fear of the leftist critique. No one worries about the communist take-over. They worry about the corporate take-over of their pension plan, their small business, their family farm. Folks worry about their jobs, their homes, their health.

This is the critique that is not going away. It is a call for reform. But it is reform with a hard edge, because the 99% are clearly saying that capitalism cannot go on like this. If it means class warfare, then let there be class warfare. Folks remember that, from Reagan’s deregulation to Madoff’s larceny, this war was ignited by the 1%.

Embedded in this critique is a clear narrative, a clear story – some people are inordinately rich because some people are inordinately poor. Bob Smith is poor because Bernie Madoff stole his money. Sam Smith got laid off while the CEO got a million dollar bonus. The poor fight the war while Haliburton … . You get the idea. It is a consistent narrative. Nothing sparks reform quite like a good story.

Let me tell another story. I am a Vietnam veteran from a modest background. I am grateful for the G. I. Bill. In large part, it was through the G. I. Bill that I got my bachelor’s degree, my M. A., and my first teacher’s certificate. The G. I. Bill also helped me finance my home. Should I need it, I have health coverage from the Veterans’ Administration, a fact I find comforting. I can say, without hesitation, that the G. I. Bill changed my entire life, as it has changed the lives of millions of veterans. My point being that I am one of millions of citizens who can attest to the fact that large scale governmental programs can do tremendous good.

Folks are not blind to the fact that unchecked government can do harm. But that is not the problem right now. Indeed, in most arguments these days, that’s the red herring. The problem is unchecked capitalism. Thus the gift of Occupy Wall Street – it is OK to critique capitalism.

Someone once said, I think it was Huey Long, that if a guy worked hard and played by the rules, he didn’t want to take away this guy’s first limousine. Long wanted to take away his second limousine. There are practical consequences to a critique of capitalism. Reforms lead to proposals, and proposals lead to laws. Tax the rich. Regulate the corporations. Pay for the wars. But in the spirit of our political ancestors, like Huey Long, this doesn’t mean punish those who have done no more than work hard and play by the rules. It means this. Take care Vince, a janitor, who worked hard, played by the rules, but is now, at age sixty, out of work because a corporate take-over led to his impoverishment.

first published in The St. Louis Beacon
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Occupy St. Louis

by John Samuel Tieman

I went to the Occupy St. Louis rally on Friday. There was a lot of excitement in the air. What struck me was the range of folks — housewives, veterans, unionists, an AARP group, students, teachers of course. Not just the usual “Same Six Radicals”, as a friend puts it. I had a number of folks to march with, especially the American Federation Of Teachers, and Veterans For Peace. The unions were well represented, so I marched with the veterans. We shut down Market Street, demonstrated outside Bank of America, then outside The Old Courthouse where the Dred Scott Case was decided, and where slaves used to be sold.
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Dialects of Driving

by Arlene Weiner

On September 21 a blog post here by Songyi Zhang complained of the habits of American (that is, U.S.) drivers, and contrasted them with Chinese and Canadian drivers. What Songyi Zhang doesn’t know is that there are considerable local differences in driving habits: dialects.

Pittsburgh, where I live, has been called “The city that lets you in.” Yes, generally speaking, if you are waiting to enter a long line of moving traffic, Pittsburghers will let you in. It’s also the habit in Pittsburgh, when cars are waiting at an intersection for a light to turn green, that the person going straight through will allow a car traveling in the opposite direction to turn left in front of him or her. After long residence in Pittsburgh, I lived in New Jersey for three years, commuting to work on heavily traveled two-lane roads. At first I would wave an opposing driver signaling for a left turn to turn in front of me. But they didn’t. They didn’t expect this opportunity and didn’t respond. So I gave up the habit.

I won’t make a moral generalization about this. Maybe it’s not that Pittsburghers are more polite. Maybe it’s that traffic is generally less heavy and drivers less frustrated. Other Pittsburgh habits are not so considerate. They are just cultural differences.

For example, there’s a phenomenon I call “the Pittsburgh glide.” When a light (and by the way, Pittsburghers call this a REDlight, accent on the first syllable, not a “traffic light” or just a “light”) turns yellow, Pittsburghers don’t stop for it—they go through. They go through if the light is yellow when they approach it. It’s my impression that they go through if they’ve SEEN the yellow from a distance. Recently I’ve seen people who simply follow the bus or truck ahead of them through the light. Since they can’t see that it’s red, it’s okay, right?

The dialect in New York City is, or was some years ago, in conflict with this habit. In New York, the culture was to “jump the light”—that is, to anticipate a light’s turning from red to green, to start through as soon as the light facing the perpendicular street turned red. (This habit started when there were no yellow lights, only red and green, and maybe is influenced by taxicabs.) This must be the origin of the phrase “a New York minute,” meaning no time at all.

I’ve driven through Pennsylvania and into New Jersey on interstate highways many, many times, and I think I could tell when I get to New Jersey just because cars zoom past me (in the middle lane) on the right-hand side as much as on the left-hand side, and I think they actually prefer to pass on the right. At one time many left-hand lanes in New Jersey were reserved for vehicles that carried more than two passengers, but I don’t think that’s the reason. Someone from New Jersey will have to explain it.

Based on her experience in Quebec, Songyi Zhang mentioned speeds in Canada versus speeds in the U.S. Some fifteen or so years ago my family spent a number of vacations in Ontario, and the speed at which those Canadians drove took our breath away. I attributed it then to it’s being a bigger country. Either Canadians have driving dialects too (and why not? many Quebecois think they’re a department of France—but French drivers are another story) or habits have changed a great deal since then—either ours or theirs.

Now, Massachusetts. I learned to drive in Massachusetts, but I am not, not, not a Massachusetts—at least not a Boston—driver. I hate to tailgate or to be tailgated. When I drove in Massachusetts, if I left a reasonable space between my car and the car ahead of mine, inevitably another car would insert itself into that space. I was an adult when I learned to drive and my driving instructor knew I came from New York City–one of the few places in the U.S. where people can never learn to drive without being or feeling deeply deprived. He said, “The difference between New York drivers and Boston drivers is that New York drivers don’t know how to drive, and Boston drivers know how they ought to drive, but won’t.”

When I moved from Massachusetts to California (long, long ago), even though I had a driver’s license, I had to take an over-the-road test to get a California license. And I failed! Why? The examiner explained: “Remember when you were going through an intersection and you slowed down? That wasn’t necessary. The other driver (opposite) was signaling for a right turn.” (“Ha!” I thought. “In Boston, the other driver might have been signaling for a right turn and turn left in front of you.”) “You know how to handle a car,” the examiner said. “You just haven’t learned our California style of driving yet.” Style? Style? I could have spit.

_____

Forty Years Ago

by John Samuel Tieman

I occurs to me that I got home from Vietnam forty years ago today. Indeed, at this very hour.

My major sensation is not so much nostalgia or sadness as much as — forty years! Forty years. My God, I was only twenty at the time I got out of the army, and now it’s twice as many years since! How — How — Where did forty years go …

original art
covers my living room wall
but all I see is
the blank tv screen in which
an old man is reflected
_____

Elegy

Last week my mother died in Texas.

Today in Pittsburgh, Eva and I and our two grown children Nicholas and Lea went to the Monongahela River. We carried a wreath Eva had woven of wisteria, roses, and lilies to a place where a willow leans over the water. I read a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye — Prayer in my Boot — and Nicholas threw the wreath into the water. We said goodbye to my mother.

I’m so grateful to have poetry to carry me.

_____

Schizo-writerac

By Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I just finished reading a review of mine, published only recently though I wrote it quite some time ago. It surprised me. Why? Because it’s a pretty decent piece of writing, and I have absolutely no sense of being the person who wrote it.

Okay, I know I wrote it—I remember working on it–and it’s in my computer review files. But: If you threatened me with the gallows right now—if you said: Write that review again here “or else,” I’d have to take the knotted noose from your hands, place it around my own neck, and jump.

This feeling of complete alienation doesn’t happen as much when I read my published poems again (though there are occasions), but it always occurs when I revisit essays or critical prose (yes, even blog entries though they feel more casual.) I simply cannot connect to the self who conjured those words. (You may have experienced a similar disconnect when looking at papers from your college days—your thesis perhaps!)

After all these years I am still baffled to realize there are at least two distinctly separate selves living inside this writer. And they don’t really know each other all that well.

Getting them to sit down to a cup of coffee together doesn’t help. Huh, my quotidian self mutters when I see some obscure verb I somehow used in an especially clever way. How did “she” come up with that? (Quotidian-self never has the answer.)

“She” is the self who lives in “the zone” (or she can at least access it from time to time.) Zone-self also has a full-time secretary who looks things up—a diligent worker, confined to a small chamber in my own left frontal lobe, who lives for revision alone; her favorite reads are any and all forms of reference materials. She also happens to be a bigamist—married at present to Webster’s unabridged, as well as to both Roget’s and Rodale’s Synonym Finder. (Fortunately this worker-bee never needs to eat or sleep—she’s on call whenever the zone-self beckons, 24/7. (I know—now I’ve identified three selves—so far. Is there a doctor in the house?!)

But: Back to the review: Will somebody give it a gold star?—my mother, perhaps? my lanky high school English teacher, Mr. Dudley Igo? (Where I go they go…where they have gone I shall go…) Even if they did, even if they could, the writer who receives it will never be the starry-eyed one who is nervously sipping a cup of green tea on this pleasant autumnal morning, 2011—the one currently poring over this short blog entry (delaying a long string of errands that must begin with the arrow pointing to “empty” and thus a visit to the Arco for gas)—the same one scratching her head while trying to figure out how to coin a new word: “schizo-writerac.”

_____

Victims of Victims VI

by Elizabeth Kirschner

In the morning, my father makes runny, scrambled eggs, limp bacon. His eyes are bloodshot as he stares at my mother as she eats her half of a banana, her standard breakfast. I want to play musical spoons, or telephone, but just what message would I broadcast? Love me like there’s no tomorrow? Love me before putting one foot in grave? 

“Time for presents,” I announce, then go on, “after all, it’s Christmas and Christmas is for giving and good cheer.” I sashay over to the artificial tree, note that its growth has been stunted, as has been mine. The old ornaments are hanging on its fake branches, bobbing like shiny eggs that might have an orderly holocaust inside them. I touch them gingerly and declare, “Christmas must be magic,” but there’s only black magic at the center of my parents’ twisted existence. 

I sit Indian-style on the floor. My father sit down to, opens his legs in a victory “v,” holds a plastic trash bag, ready to field the wads of wrapping paper my mother will punt his way. 

“Mom,” I say, “this is for you,” then hand her a package as though it were sacred as the Bible. She rips it open, stares at my gift until her eyes are stunned with tears. 

“How could you?” she asks as she holds up the sampler that Grandma helped me make as a child. “Bless this House O Lord we Pray,” she whispers as she reads the stitched words aloud, then traces the neat purple x’s that form each letter. “You shouldn’t have,” she goes on, “it’s too precious for me.” 

I go over to her, hug like a tree, one whose root ball is packed too tight and whose growth, like mine and the artificial tree’s, has also been stunted. “Happy Christmas,” I say and her eyes well up again, like dark grottoes. 

Then I turn to my father. “This is for you,” I say as I toss him his gift. He quickly unwraps it and a smile warps his lean, elegant, ugly face. “Electric socks,” he declares, just like the king he is of this tawdry kingdom. “Thank you, Tizzy Lish.” 

I soften as I always do when he calls me by my nickname and reply, “I know your feet are always cold. These should help.” 

“I like warm tootsies,” he responds as he hands me my gift. I sigh, can’t imagine what’s inside. I open it carefully, trying not to tear the paper, which has snowmen on it, just like my nightgown. What I lift out makes me start to cry. It is my father’s favorite cardigan sweater, the one with suede elbow patches, chamois-lined pockets and leather buttons. 

“Dad,” I say, “I can’t believe you are giving this to me,” and truth is, I can’t. This is the sweater, the very same sweater, I stole from his bureau for years to wear around the house to somehow feel close to a man who could not let me be close. He scolded me for this, sternly so, told me to stay out of his things, but like a child with her blanky, I could not be without that sweater. It would now become my “habit of art” sweater, one that I wore whenever I wrote day in, day out till the day he died. 

Thank you,” I whisper and for a small moment in time, we are gifted by the gifts we have given and received. For a small moment in time, we are no longer the victims of victims, but tremble inside the bodies of angels, those erratic birds of transport. We are deemed, by the small god of our understanding, become a holy trinity while memory, as concentrated as death, sleeps in Sinnissippi lagoon where every one of our monsters, at least for this moment, has been slayed.

_____

Restaurant Review: Root 174

by Noah Gup

Billing itself as a “neighborhood bistro” and drawing its name from Regent Square’s area code, Root 174 hopes to establish itself as a neighborhood favorite. Pledging to do a movie night with a Star Wars themed meal, chef and owner Keith Fuller is full of ambitious ideas, and Root 174’s eclectic, wild menu effectively displays culinary chutzpah.

This farm-to-table experimentation is best showcased in the appetizers. Confit wings display a masterful array of flavors, from the coffee spiced, crispy wings, to the green curry paste on the side. A sprinkle of dehydrated bananas add more of a crunch than flavor, but their light sweetness tempers the curry’s bite. Bone Marrow Crème Brulee was another triumph of creativity. Bone marrow, the current food fad, is buried beneath a savory pudding of cream, cheese and a crisp top layer of Parmesan. Spread on ciabatta, the bone marrow is sweet and rich. Slices of apple only accentuate the bone marrow’s sweetness and add a light touch of fall to a heavy dish. Fuller’s take on a Caesar salad is no less interesting. Preserving only the essence of a traditional Caesar, the lettuce is grilled. Instead of croutons there are tiny strips of crisp dough that add a salty but crispy touch. But the true clever touch is an insert of a bed of cannellini beans, giving a filling heart to the dish. Also, avoiding a usual pitfall of Caesar salad, dressing is applied appropriately, without drowning the salad.

Root 174 still feels in many ways like a work in progress. After a wait, an order of Concord grape soda is flat and flavorless, tasting like extremely diluted grape juice. A side of Brussels sprouts is served fried and salted, though absolutely nothing to enhance their flavor except a side of gummy bacon jam, which is too sweet to eat.

The main courses are also a hodgepodge of different nationalities, though lack some of the ingenuity of the appetizers. An order of Mexican influenced chicken was set up wonderfully. A bed of grits is smooth, the mole sauce adds spice and sweetness, and a topping of tomato corn salsa adds freshness. However, the chicken (served lightly fried) was far too dry, requiring intensive effort to cut. Still, coupled with the mole sauce and the fresh salsa, it was near impossible not to enjoy. A daily special of mussels, however, was a stumble. Served in a spicy tomato sauce with potatoes, peppers and onions, the sauce lacked any of the intrigue of Root 174’s other options. The mussels themselves lacked any of the subtle sweetness that makes quality mussels appealing. Besides chunks of homemade spicy-sweet sausage, there was nothing memorable in the dish.

Root 174 also offers a variety of vegetarian entrees, and their take on falafel is full of bold flavors. The Falafel itself is not as heavily spiced as many others, but chunks of chickpeas within its crisp exterior added some textual variation. Yet the sides the falafel is served with give it distinction. A side of tapenade is startlingly strong and a streak of homemade harissa hot sauce transported me back to Israel. For dessert, a slice of Peanut Butter & Jelly cheesecake is worth getting simply for the clever arrangement; the fresh jam spread around the just-sweet-enough cheesecake is also enticing.

Root 174 is not the most attractive of restaurants. For seating, there are two long wooden booths on both sides of the restaurant, which are not terribly comfortable. The floor is dirty linoleum, and besides a chalkboard menu of specials, there isn’t much more to look at. Still, the wait staff is so friendly and welcoming that the modest ambiance makes the environment only more endearing. Root 174’s occasionally hiccups are often forgivable due to the casual atmosphere. But if this restaurant wants to live up to the promise of its finest moments (and its price tag), a more refined experience is necessary. Still, when Root 174 shines, as with the appetizers, it is unique, surprising, and a whole lot of fun.

(Root 174 is located at 1113 South Braddock in the Regent Square neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Entrees range from $15-$26.)
_____

Very Lucky Indeed: An Interview with Dinty Moore

Interview by Sue Kreke Rumbaugh

Dinty W. Moore is the author of the memoir Between Panic & Desire (University of Nebraska), winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2008. He also has written two other creative nonfiction books, The Accidental Buddhist and The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes, a collection of short stories, Toothpick Men, and the writing guide, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. He has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, Crazyhorse, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, The Normal School, Black Warrior Review, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, Iron Horse, and Chautauqua, among others. He teaches in the creative nonfiction PhD program at Ohio University and the MFA low-residency program at the University of New Orleans’ Edinburgh, Scotland Summer Writing Workshops. He also has taught in the MFA low-residency program at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pa. In addition, he serves an ex-officio Board Advisor for The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, edits Brevity, the on-line journal of concise creative nonfiction. He is a recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. In addition to writing, Dinty is an avid photographer and budding illustrator. Dinty and his wife, Renita Romasco, the woman who caught his eye as he passed by on a bicycle, live in Ohio.

Q1: How would you describe your book’s structure, in terms of the varied chapters, the playfulness with the quizzes and information amidst a serious look at our culture in the past forty years?

The book was written during a time that I was very interested in experimental structure and the classic question “does form shape meaning or does meaning shape form?” So I deliberately incorporated as many different forms as I could make fit, without, I hope, becoming chaotic. I worked hard to make the puzzle pieces connect to create a coherent whole. I hope that my efforts were successful, but there is no doubt that in the end it is a very quirky book. The book is humorous, too, so much of what I do with form is playful, at times even tongue-in-cheek.

Q2: Also, is there anything that you would want to say re: how you came to write such a book?

I wanted to write a ‘cultural, generational’ memoir, meaning that instead of just capturing my life and the various influences that shaped who I am, I attempted to catch those influences and factors that shaped many of us who lived through the 60s, 70s, and 1980s, and to see how these cultural forces also shaped the world we now live in, and our perception of the world we now live in. It came, I suppose, from the initial instinct that just “my life’ would not be interesting enough, but it ended up becoming a fascinating and captivating project. For the author at least. Readers will have to decide for themselves.

Q3: In playing with your book’s structure, with each of the chapters written in slightly or extremely different forms, is there one that was particularly fun for you to write?

The chapter that looks at the Beatles, Charles Manson, and John Lennon’s obsession with the number nine was perhaps not fun, but fascinating. It seems the more you pull at something, the more connections you find, and that was the case here. I learned a lot.

Q4: You integrate fiction, or fictionalized scenes, in your memoir. Is this a break from what we know as memoir being truthful story about one’s life?

Well, it is my hope that a savvy reader will be fully aware of when I am lapsing into imagination – the phone call with Tricia Nixon for instance – and when I am sticking to observable truth. I am no fan of a memoir that take events that never happened, that the author knows never happened, and tries to pass the fictionalized events off as “what happened.” My book — and again, this is my hope, others must judge – tiptoes the line between playful imagining/speculation and outright fibbing pretty clearly and stays on the playful side. It is all in what signals you send the reader and what you make clear to the reader. To say, “I imagined this,” and then to tell what you imagined is nonfiction – you really imagined that. But the reader must be in on the nature of things.

Q5: In addition to being a creative writer, you are a photographer, but are you also an illustrator? (Did you draw the pictures of the bodies in the autopsy chapter? – Nice job, if so!)

Yes I drew them, but I think they are rather crude and laughably primitive. Thanks for the compliment all the same.

Q6: How was it to win the Grub Street Prize in 2008 for your book?

A distinctly pleasant honor.

Q7: You are currently teaching in an MFA program in Scotland – how is it and how is it different from teaching in the US?

Well, most of the students are Americans or American ex-pats and the program is associated with the University of New Orleans, so in that way it is not so different. But being in a vibrant, European city such as Edinburgh certainly exposes you to a richness of culture and being exposed to unfamiliar stimuli is good for any artist.

Q8: With all of the work that you do – as teacher and editor as well as a volunteer – how do you find the time to write and publish as much as you do?

I ask myself the same question. I’m overscheduled, almost always. Even here in Scotland I’m on the laptop juggling countless balls back at home. I wouldn’t mind if it all slowed down a bit, frankly.

Q9: What else would you like to say about this book, your life as a writer, teacher, or life in general?

I’m lucky to have this life, one of constant intellectual stimulation, new challenges, great friends who also happen to be brilliant storytellers. Very lucky indeed.

_____

Book Review: Between Panic and Desire by Dinty W. Moore

Reviewed by Sue Kreke Rumbaugh

With subtle wit and outright humor, Dinty W. Moore takes the reader on a journey like no other in his latest memoir, Between Panic and Desire (2008 – University of Nebraska Press).

From the outset it is clear that our author, a seasoned writer of creative nonfiction, is on a quest of discovery, understanding and forgiveness. His style of writing is engaging and the structure, intriguing in this fast-paced, quirky memoir that is deadly serious.

Dinty invites the reader to come along and we settle in quickly. Comfortable in our leather-upholstered bucket seat, we sit back and relax, preparing to take in the sights. Then suddenly the author’s overarching dilemma appears and we are jolted. What is this? We wonder. Still, we stay calm. We have fastened our seat belts.

“I just bask in the unknown for a while, alone on the road, halfway between Panic and Desire.” [two small towns in central Pennsylvania] “Until it occurs to me: I have been here all of my life.”

This passage from the Prologue of Dinty Moore’s 141-page memoir sets the stage for this collection of 18 essays, interviews and stories as well as two quizzes (just for fun). A wide variety of formats are bolted, soldered and rigged together cleverly so as to reveal the life and personal struggles of our narrator in an uncanny way. In the end we learn that our author is not only a writer, but also an editor, speaker, mentor, husband, colleague, photographer and protector of all animals – great and small.

We roll into Chapter One: Hello, My Name Is, with great expectations. It is the perfect start. Dinty’s name, after all, catches one’s attention. Within this book it seems certain that we will come to know the answer to the often thought, sometimes-posed question: How did you get your name? We take off, hopeful that our curiosity will be satisfied and the answer finally and eternally put to rest.

No. The question is not answered. Not here. Not quite yet.

Intrigued and still comfortable, we continue on, kicking back to make our way through the next few chapters. Up, down and around we go through the narrative like riders on the last seat of the Jack Rabbit roller coaster at Pittsburgh’s Kennywood Park. The story zigs and then zags. We struggle to stay in our seat, trying not to move beyond the safety bar. What is this? We ask. Something is amiss. This is not how a book goes. There is a new approach to each chapter, lurking around every bend. Is this perhaps a prose comic book? We wonder. And we continue on, our question held tightly in our sweaty palms. When we finally catch our breath, relaxing again with the aid of humor, we do not rest long. We are not easily fooled. There is a lot going on here. Then, just as we think that we are going to be allowed to plant our feet firmly on steady ground again, we are off and quickly smashed by yet another bend in the track. We are thrown on our side. We know now, with certainly, that this is no simple little ride that we are on.

Then when the narrative straightens a bit and we go on into shared historical events, the familiar is calming. At last, some facts that we know. Then suddenly there is a new twist. Our author combines his personal life with political events of the time and we come out laughing. It happens at the top of the hill when our author floats out the Boomer question: Where was Dinty William Moore when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated? This question is often asked: Where were you? and readily answered by those over the age of 50. Our author, as it turned out, was where most Boomer kids were then, in school. But that’s not all. Dinty remembers more. He remembers where he was when he revealed who had done it. That is: who shot JFK? Dinty’s conclusion: “Richard Nixon.” He spilled the beans to the guy standing next to him in the line for the lavatory.

Few have connected these dots so quickly.

Like the murder he solved in elementary school, Dinty’s quick mind and dry humor are used to solve, or rather, help the reader to solve, several other mysteries littered over the following chapters. It is not a clean and neat process. Like the chapters before, these are not stacked, one on top of the other, as in regular books. Rather, we fall into a cauldron of facts, rise to new heights of awareness, and shoot through feelings and fights to discover new shapes, forms and ways of understanding. Like a child’s building that is constructed from an Erector set, something is askew. Our ability to balance is put to the test.

Who is this man, Dinty Moore, and what is this collection of stories about?

Much of the background of the collection of essays is set in the raucous Baby Boomers’ time of experimentation, radicalism, and angst. But as a child, in the early years of television, he studied the characters and scenes of regular programming to learn about life. The result: a mosaic essay, Son of Mr. Green Jeans – a Meditation on Missing Fathers, where we read of our author’s search for the ideal dad. On television, fathers were seemingly plentiful, loving and approachable. Each one was perfect. They dressed nicely, acted politely and were always there when needed. Dinty’s life experience did not match these images, however. What is wrong with this picture? Dinty asks.

Dinty and the reader are now on this quest together, forging on through this story, we will not be defeated. We follow him as he trudges through feelings of unrest in search of answers. Then, finally we learn that he finds his path, and begins studying, experimenting and writing.

His launch into writing began, he recalls, came while on a helicopter ride home from covering the story of a major flood in Johnstown, Pa., as a journalist. He tells us, “The thwack of the rotors and the rushing air transported me. I wasn’t the lost and lonely boy-reporter. I was a gunner in Vietnam. Rat a tat. Rat a tat. The trees were filled with evil people trying hard to bring me down.”

With his fear and desire exposed, Dinty breaks open with all-out humor.

At the beginning of the second section: Paranoia, we are treated to a conversation between the author and a telephone psychic who happens to be a member of a prominent political family. Using this journalistic Q&A format, we learn what lies in the future for our author.

“You are not done screwing up,” the psychic hotline lady tells Dinty. The response is sad, but most likely a freeing moment.

What the psychic does not reveal is the origin of our author’s name.

Ignoring the elephant in the room, we move on and read about the 1960’s drug and music culture including the Beatles. Here Dinty provides insights into the study of patterns – recurring links, information, and formations in nature. He focuses on the attributes of the number 9. “Musicologists joke about a ‘ninth symphony syndrome’.” He tells us of Beethoven, Schubert and Dvorak – all who suffered at the hands of this number. Nine, we learn, is to be taken seriously.

Before we receive our quiz at the end of this section, we learn how the author moved from writing as a journalist, to film making, then grant writing, in the chapter entitled: 1984, a reference to George Orwell’s famed book of the same name that Boomers held onto, in anticipation of just what would happen that year. Our author makes note of his growing desire to write about the thoughts and ideas swimming in his head. “Desire began to overtake panic, an odd feeling indeed.” Fast forward 10, or maybe 40 years and Dinty, as an adult, is now an accomplished writer in several genres and is revered in many, if not all 48 states, Alaska and Hawaii. He is an esteemed professor and a beloved family man. What happened in between is a fun, funny, thought-provoking and very human story.

Finally! In Chapter 13: Son of George McManus, we learn the origins of our author’s name.

Dinty Moore, most often associated with a canned food product, is actually a character in the popular 1913 comic strip, Bringing Up Father. Not just any character, Dinty Moore is a particular type, essential to the comic strip’s narrative and now also, in the life story of our author and main character in his memoir, Dinty William Moore.

With the question about Dinty Moore’s name finally put to rest, our author is now fully exposed to the audience and allows for more probing. The format here: an autopsy report.

By dissecting his character in an autopsy, the author reveals his physical, psychological and emotional states of being. Through details such as his height, weight (actually he does not reveal this), hair, heart and more, he provides the reader with clues. It is now up to the reader. The reader must suture the truth together. But we are not abandoned. Footnotes are provided to help us, providing us with further details and sometimes, the punch line of a joke. A drawing of the author’s character, his body, is included as a visual aide. We finally discover how the two sides of Dinty W. Moore, Panic and Desire, fit together. The sketch is a self-portrait and, perhaps, the author’s debut into his next career: illustration.

Chapter 19: “Curtis Knows Best” – Towering, Permanent, Perilous, and Soon to be Televised on a Widescreen Near You is perhaps the most disheartening experience in our author’s life. He wanted to be a writer, became one and was invited to appear on National Public Radio’s (NPR) program, Fresh Air, with host, Terry Gross to talk about it. In an essay following the interview, author Curtis White analyzes the program in Harper’s Magazine. Our author’s 15 minutes of fame is put to death or, at least muted. The article was not complimentary – of the show or its guest. The result? Using White’s article along with pieces from an interview with a founding member of the rock group KISS, Dinty confronts the author’s allegations, tongue-in-cheek, in an imaginary television docudrama he entitles: Curtis Knows Best. At the end of the play, Oprah Winfrey announces that everyone has won a car and, as in all good American dramas, everyone lives happily ever after.

In the final chapter of Dinty’s book entitled: The Final Chapter, our author recalls the last time he encountered his father. Through the exchange we learn about our author’s new look at life and all that he has worked to overcome.

But the story, the ride that we have been on, does not end here.

The final two sections: Index and About the Author provide additional important information, insights and clues. Please read before unbuckling your seat belt. You will be rewarded!

_____

Book Review: Transfer by Naomi Shihab Nye

Transfer: Poems

by Naomi Shihab Nye
Rochester, NY: BOA Editions
September, 2011

ISBN: 978-1934414644

reviewed by: Mike Walker

The argument is often made that poetry holds great social value beyond its aesthetic merits, that it can teach useful lessons and communicate in difficult emotional regions where plain prose would be lost or even give over to a physical fight. Some of these defenses of poetry certainly are launched in fear that beside more popular forms of literature like the novel, poetry suffers for shelf space and sales in the bookstore. Perhaps it also suffers a similar lack of attention in the classroom and elsewhere, but is the argument valid? Can poetry in a unique sense communicate where other forms of fiction or nonfiction cannot so readily? Naomi Shihab Nye would make a strong argument that in fact it can and, in some instances, poetry may be the best mechanism of breaking down walls of distrust and fear.

Nye is an Arab-American and her poetry in this volume, as its title even suggests, is mainly concerned with the Arab diaspora’s experience and the current views of the Middle East in the United States in a time when Americans fear terrorism at the hands of Muslim extremists and have been engaged in two long wars in Islamic, Arab, nations. Other Arab-American, Arab, and Islamic poets are of course presenting work concerned with the crucial intersections of faith, politics, culture and war, but what makes Nye very special and worthwhile in this book is her constant focus on her own experience and the personal journey she’s undertaken. Beyond the emphasis on the Middle East, she has a more personal focus on her own father and his journey to America. She doesn’t insist, pretend, nor even suggest that her experiences are appropriate stand-ins for a short course in Arab-American relations but instead presents them as the experiences of just one woman who happens also to be a great writer. She never comes forward and says “I am here to tell you all about my world, which you may be unfamiliar with or confused about, so listen” but instead portends that “I am here, a woman from this other place, well-travelled in this other place, and I would like to tell you about my gathered views of there—and of here, also”. Born of a Palestinian father and American mother, she doesn’t claim ever to represent every Arab, every Arab-American, or anyone else, yet she has to know that she brings the voice and weight of tremendous, unique, experience to us all the same.

where is the name no one answered to
gone off to live by itself
beneath the pine trees separating the houses
without a friend or a bed
without a father to tell it stories
how hard was the path it walked on
all those years belonging to none
of our struggles drifting under
the calendar page elusive as
residue when someone said
how have you been it was
strangely that name that tried
to answer

This is Nye’s poem “Dusk” and it intones as well as any the experience she desires to share, to convey. There is a constant feeling in Nye’s poems of names not answered, of clues and fleeting traits or ideas made manifest but not stable elements enough to remain with us very long: ghosts, always ghosts. There is that feeling you get if you’ve ever travelled in less-developed parts of the world—Africa, southeast Asia—where air travel only brings you in so far, then it is boats and unsure bridges and cars from the 1970s the rest of the way. The feeling of travel being an ordeal but also an honor. The feeling of the horizon being endless and all your kinfolk being spread over a vast globe. Some you have the fondest memories of yet know you won’t see again. As for myself, I am no expert on the Middle East or Islam or Arab historiography, but I’ve studied the Islamic art and architecture in some depth and from that can attest that by tradition, most Islamic—especially Arab—cultures are ornate in their arts. This opulence, this ornate fashion of art comes across in Nye’s poems: some are decently long, complex, and grand in their images while others are crafted of only a few slight words yet perfect in their ability to convey a consummate point. Her poem “Mall Aquarium, Dubai” is a good example:

In how many worlds are we invisible?

Blue glitter, flickering fins,
fish barely notice us,
as we blur and jostle the edges of their vision.

She did not need more on a page to bring to us what she experienced; she said it all perfectly in a scant few words. That’s it, that’s all. I have not see this aquarium—I think I may have read about it, and apparently it’s very large, very grand—but I don’t need exact details, honestly, as I have a good impression of Nye walking past it, perhaps a shopping bag and her purse in hand, looking over her shoulder and seeing a fish not quite looking back. It is in such a moment when she decides this is worthy of a poem. Like many established poets, Nye has taught poetry and creative writing and sometimes I feel teaching is itself the best instructor of economy in poetry: via editing the work of others, teachers understandably learn how to edit themselves. If this is in fact the case with Nye, it certainly shows. Her work is always on-point, just as long as it needs to be but no more extensive, and yet, the shorter works in this book never feels truncated, either.

Nye’s mastery of length is matched by a studied mastery of form, plus an expected yet refreshing expertise in description. This book is, at least in name, about her father and about the transfers between nation to nation, culture to culture, and father to daughter, yet via extension is about everyone who left one land for another. This is a key aspect to the book, as her style of writing, while personal, doesn’t seem overly focused on her family or herself in a way that excludes its universal applications. That is to say, when Nye writes about the Middle East, about experience, it is lush and poetic but the personal aspects of it do not detract from its overall address to a larger arena. There is no doubt in my mind that Nye’s father is present in these pages, but the idea of this book as a tribute to him has not prevented the book from also reaching into topics that are very apt and very complex. Nye’s writing is mordant, precise, yet like the very best of non-fiction, it makes itself personal in tenor without being explicit in persona. It is not hard to envision the places and problems Nye details as being ones any Muslim-American encounters or that anyone from Middle East may ponder in relating one culture to another. When Nye declares in her poem “Member of the Tribe” that she cannot speak of Afghanistan, she cannot explain it though she tries her best to explain the intense tribal connections present in Iraq which often have confounded our fighting forces there, you sense that Nye is the real thing. You know she’s been asked before, countless times, as a writer and public intellectual to offer her thoughts on the Middle East and she knows just whereof she should speak and where she would rather leave questions unanswered.

There is a great book entitled Exotics at Home by the anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo which concerns how anthropology—and especially Margaret Mead’s work—helped shaped the American view of “the other” and how we look at ethnicity in terms of society, culture and even corporate marketing. I was re-reading this book when I started reading Nye’s Transfer and the non-fiction work was a great help in approaching her poetry because Nye is really about the same topic: her work seeks to explain how we view the Arab other, the Islamic other. She explores this territory, as I stated above, in a way that is both personal and also universal, but always in a manner of humble humanity. Her core interest is not only in explaining herself, her family, what it means to be mixed of American and Arab origins alike, but how the real material of a place differs from its abbreviated explanations furnished on the nightly news. Her poetry asks a question she never quite makes plain, but always is latently unspoken though apparent: how do we know, as in really know, a place and a culture? To write about issues that are very painful, or at least very frustrating, a poet can either immerse herself in the ordeal or remove herself as an anthropologist or historian would do, although from reading di Leonardo’s book I know that the anthropologist or other social scientist is not always so successful in this regard, either.

Another poet whom I much admire, Victoria Chang, had written about the Holocaust and done so via the process of removal: however strong her empathy and moving her poetry, we know she, as a young Asian-American no more than about thirty years old, was not there. Her parents or grandparents, also, not there. Yet she has analogs for empathy with the Holocaust experience. Nye on the other hand, was there when she speaks of the Middle East. She trots around the shopping mall in Dubai, obviously a wealthy, posh, and beautiful man-made place but one not so very far from places where the very most basic of needs go unmet. We have seen writers, including poets adept and talented like Matthew Shenoda, reduce the Middle East to the trite and expected tents, camels, pyramids, et cetera. We have read the novels and seen the movies scripted from the nearly ten years of two American wars in the region. The artists and journalists have not for a moment lost any time on bringing us the Middle East, the Arab plight, the complicated questions at hand, but too often we get the same images over and over again, and they fail to be inclusive of the great diversity of the region. Not here, though, not with Nye.

I would recommend Nye’s book to anyone who enjoys contemporary poetry—not only are her topics timely and pithy, her poetics are overall top-notch and there’s a lot to love about her style of writing. She not only finds the perfect balance between personal narrative and universal experience, but she also conveys a sense of chaotic vastness, a feeling of looking out across tarmac, across sand, airplanes leaving for other cities, people you may never meet again. She brings that feeling of walking through a crowded bazaar or airport terminal in a hurry yet with the yearning to stay a bit longer, even if to only look at something in a shop window for a minute more. She sees so much—how many Americans are as well-traveled as her and with her benefit of a nuanced cultural understanding of place?—yet she also seems in so many instances in this book to run off the page before all can be said. I would especially recommend this book to any graduate student or young policy planner or area specialist trying to learn more about Middle Eastern culture and polity, to read it before bed like a tonic just after reading more dry and static non-fiction works on the same topic. Nye brings the solace of human understanding to these complex considerations. Listen to an album by the great Algerian songstress Warda or one by the contemporary Turkish pop star Gülben Ergen while reading this, surround yourself with the intricacy of the Middle East. “I don’t know if my father can hear me. But it is important to pretend he can.” Thus opens this book, and Nye’s personal journey recorded here. I believe he hears her, and I understand the importance in any case of pretending he can. In another poem, the aforementioned “Member of the Tribe” she tells us that “tribes are like tape recorders” and probably they are, but so is this book: lovely, introspective, personal yet universal—through it all, you feel as you have shared in a valid and honest record of a family and an extended culture.

_____

Victims of Victims V

by Elizabeth Kirschner

“Bedtime girls,” says my father who is tall, lean, elegant and ugly, a stranger to my heart. Because I am a dutiful daughter, I have already taken on the vocation of devotion, want to light votive candles for both my parents, there on the breakfast bar where the liquor bottles glint like idols. 

“Yes, I’m tired,” I say before turning down the hallway to my room to don the flannel nightgown with the snowmen on it, the one I wore as a child while dancing my ballerina dance before the mirror above my bureau. It just comes down to my elbows and knees now, but still I dance my ballerina dance while longing to leap out of a room cold as a tomb. 

I curl up in bed, listen to my mother come down the hallway while hitting the walls like a sack of potatoes. Her door hisses closed. “Goodnight, Mom,” I call out but all I hear in return are her gnarled words, “Not now, Bill” before she sinks like a frigid fish in frigid water into frigid sleep. I follow suit and darkness occupies the house like a lowly tenant or a sentry scanning a killing field.

_____