Geek Squad

by Songyi Zhang

Geek squad—what a funny name! When I first encountered the name three years ago, I thought to myself who were these geeks driving a black-and-white Volkswagen Bug on the street. I was attracted by the cute car as much as the name.

When it comes to repairing computers, America is nowhere as convenient as in China. It is difficult for me to find credible independent repairman in America. Basically, if you want good service, you have to go to a big electronic merchant like Best Buy. I know the American labor is ten times more expensive than Chinese labor. But to keep my peace of mind I have to turn to Best Buy to solve the recent breakdown of my laptop. There I had my first experience with Geek Squad service.

It took me a week—longer than what Geek Squad had promised—to get my laptop fixed. Just tracking the status of the repair was a nuisance. I could not get the updates on the Internet. Nor could I talk to a representative on the phone regarding the problem. Eventually I had to visit the store for a face-to-face inquiry. That seemed to be the most effective means. I learned that my laptop was fixed the day before and nobody bothered to notify me. Great!

I thought that would be the end of my association with Geek Squad. But not yet. A few days ago my laptop had some glitches. I remembered I had signed up the Geek Squad protection plan which allowed me to resort to them online. So I gave it a try and connected with a technician named Russell K.. We exchanged instant messages through a conversation box on the screen. Then Russell began to remotely control my laptop. I had no idea how he did it but I could see the cursor was moving on the desktop, as if it was commanded by an invisible man. The whole process fascinated me.

In half an hour, my laptop was in good shape again. My online experience with Geek Squad was utterly different from my previous time in the store. It was more efficient and effective than expected. Is this how Best Buy tries to attract the customers by providing good online service? The company is under some stress in recent years. The prospective customers would rather scan the store prices on their smartphones and iPhones. They eventually purchase the same item online at a cheaper price.

New technology changes traditional shopping methods, as it has changed traditional customer service.


Effects of Online Schooling on Educational Productivity

by Estelle Shumann

The ability to leverage the internet for classroom learning has had a marked effect on education, but in most cases the technology is growing faster than results can be collected or aggregated. The popularity of online schooling, be it for a high school language course or an entire college degree, is very clearly on the rise. There is a great demand for the online platform’s flexibility, as well as its significant cost savings. The flip-side of that coin is actual learning, however. If students are not as productive in the virtual classroom as they are in person, some of the program fundamentals will need to be reconsidered.

Education in the U.S. is governed at the state level. While this allows states to tailor curricula and school district specifications to their own populations, it also makes aggregating outcomes something of a challenging endeavor. The variance in online program structures and goals as so far prevented a comprehensive, factual study of whether online education in grades K -12 is producing the same outcomes as the traditional classroom does. Each state rates student performance differently, and no two online programs are identical.

Still, it is clear that interest and investment in online education is growing rapidly. By July 2005, 21 states had statewide online learning programs, and cyber level or district-level online programs operated in every state. Those numbers are continuing to grow.

Estimates are that, by the end of the 2010-2011 school year, more than 1.5 million students had taken at least one online course or course supplement. Providers of these online courses include public school districts singly or in combination with other districts; newly established state virtual schools; private providers; and post-secondary institutions. Students are using the programs to interact with teachers and other students online, as well as to participate in interactive exercises. Alabama, Florida and Michigan are among the states that have made online learning part of the standard high school graduation requirements.

The reasons for the rush to online learning are as varied as the students, but two of the most important factors are cost and flexibility. The Southern Regional Educational Board estimates that 70-80% of the cost of traditional instruction goes directly to supporting personnel. Students are also limited to learning within set school hours, or when their teachers are free. With taxpayers demanding better outcomes for less money, the pressure is on for educators to find creative ways to teach everyone and save money while doing so.

Reports provided in Wisconsin and Florida, two states that have led the country in online experiments, found that interactive, internet-based learning environments produced better results than traditional classroom–and did so at a lower per-pupil cost than the state average. Researchers urge a cautious interpretation of these results because of a lack of statistical controls, but nevertheless the overall message is encouraging.

Despite the differences in programming and assessment, some facts about online education remain consistent from place to place:The “try-this-out” nature of online education is crucial. Given student differences in background and learning ability, experimenting with educational delivery is usually a must. This means that the online educational platform is dynamic, and is able to quickly adapt to perceived problems or weaknesses.
Online learning gives educators one more method of teaching, and broadens the ways through which knowledge is imparted. Teachers frequently learn from each other when it comes to class structuring and online curriculum-building. In many ways, this “spreads the wealth” to poor and rural parts of the country, where developmental resources are lacking. A school need not have a big budget for innovation if it can piggyback off of lessons learned at more privileged schools.
It is fair to infer that cash-strapped states are seeing some advantage to online education, as every state in the country uses some type of virtual model in at least some of its school districts. Not every state operates a fully virtual high school, but all offer at least some online components that can complement more traditional schooling.

In the absence of research reports that apply to the whole country, educators and political leaders should look to particularly successful models to see what they are doing right. In New York City, for instance, the School of One–a sanctioned online summer school–has been operating for several years. The school’s longevity has allowed for a number of modifications and updates, both to technology and pedagogy. The School of One model offers a blended approach to learning which takes into account student differences and studies how students learn best. School officials survey students to understand each one.

Researchers’ work is paying off. “Particularly in New York City, where students arrive at our schools from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, with different skill sets and skill levels, we must offer students instruction that meets their individual needs,” school chancellor Joel Klein told the New York City Department of Education. The digital space has in many ways made the school’s success popular. “The world has changed dramatically over the past century, and using technology to expand learning opportunities for students is both necessary and promising,” School of One founder Joel Rose said.

Anecdotal reports indicate that educators in all 50 states are trying to find innovative ways to educate a diverse population. These experiments deserve public support.


Book Review: True Faith by Ira Sadoff

True Faith: Poems

Ira Sadoff
BOA Editions. 2012

reviewed by Mike Walker

In Ira Sadoff’s new book of poetry, the title poem starts “true faith belongs to the truly unstable”, and from there, it’s a rolling ride through the American landscape, language, the questions of faith and what that word “faith” even means. Sadoff, a veteran American poet of Russian Jewish ancestry, has long been hailed by critics for his astute and complex use of language, and he embarks on a quest in this volume to explore language further yet also to use it as an instrument to navigate questions of culture and religion in often uncomfortable, cunning, and in the end, remarkable, ways. “They love ideas in Virginia”, Sadoff tells us, despite less-flattering things he also has to say about that same state, and people in other locales garner both his praise and criticism, too. Madrid earns a poem and America has not one, but two, plus a few others that could be entitled “America” as well. Sadoff’s not fully cynical but always, in the very best of ways, fully questioning and his desire to learn overshadows any view one may form that he pokes fun at his topics here and there: he’s out with not only the best of intentions, but the sheer ability to make good on them, and comes home like Lewis and Clark with treasures to show and tell from the greatest of journeys across land and stream. In the end, even his poems set overseas are flawlessly American.

It takes the multi-blood American mind to produce these words, and in converse, it takes the blood of other shores to make one so American. The Jewish aspects, the Russian aspects, the noble storyteller tradition in both those loci, the great sense of poetics of place and nuances of culture in these conventions come forth fully formed from Sadoff’s pen. He writes as an American, but he writes just as much looking in from outside, seeing things anew, and jumping from car to notepad to jot it all down. Thus, even when he approaches what might in a less-skilled poet’s hands seem trite, he makes it both sincere and novel—unique even—in his view of it. Anna Akhmatova was much the same: when she took that train from Saint Petersburg to Tashkent under the worst of conditions, she still came out afresh in a city designed to delight—even under less than the best of circumstances. When the Russians (or Russian-Americans, or Russian-Jews, or looking back far enough even the Slavs of the Kievan Rus) write of home, they write in a chatty, forward, nostalgic manner but when they get out of town, over the mountain, to the places they’ve only seen in postcards, something else comes to life and it’s an ability to score down the heartbeat of the new place, the visited place, the moment as a tourist is at once turned into the words just spoken from lips to ear and yet also words carved into stone. Their words are immediate, real, and honest, but also strong, robust, and lasting.

Sadoff is no less demanding nor any less forthcoming when it comes his own life:

My first roses brought me to my senses.
All my furies, I launched them like paper boats
in the algaed pond behind my house.

This is the onset of his poem “My First Roses” and sums up a lot of the type of introspective writing he provides in this book. The topical matter in such poems is not surprising—it’s the same old loves found and lost, the medical queries, reflections on the arts, all the stuff we get from poets who have been in the game a few decades already—yet the results with Sadoff can be astounding, as if Monet was sent out to paint your cousin’s cattle in the field. Furies, we do not often expect in poems with “roses” in their titles. Nor do we picture them oft-launched like so many paper boats, but oh, perhaps we should all the more often.

To get even more to the core of it, Sadoff himself outlines a short thesis of what he attempts to do in his poetry in his poem “Self-Portrait”:

I think I want everyone and everything to be loved so much
I get dour, chastising, dark, and sometimes hate
so much I can’t go for a stroll without recycling the moment

Wow. While Sadoff speaks certainly for himself, does he not also speak at least in part for many other poets and writers in general? Or even, artists in general? The frustration he has is far from unique, but his ability to narrow it down into something so understandable is a rare talent. Sadoff has picked up the role of the chronicle-writer—that role taken up by Isaac Bashevis Singer and many before him even, the role that requires a near-scientific ability to record the topography of both place and emotion, but also the discerning nature to make something more of it than a narrow historiography. This is a man keenly aware of his surroundings, who “for beauty keeps a ceramic swan” given to him as a child by a favorite auntie. He is keeping other things for beauty in his verse, too.

The scope of Sadoff’s work is as impressive as its depth: the same man who writes in his poem “In a Southern Climate” about the sociogeography of both Bush politics and of Texas itself also crafted the sparse but engaging poem “Orphans”, which is about its obvious subject but much else, as well. The tenor of the poems and their form could be the work of two different yet contemporary poets, however, they are both the efforts of Sadoff and recent efforts at that.

Decipher me, we say to the wilderness.

Thus opens the poem “My Country” and provides another possible thesis for Sadoff’s goals in this book. He looks at the landscape and even though he often finds—and is rather distracted by—the interventions of human scars, he still is able to locate enough “wilderness” to produce a distinct, tactile, and robust landscape. It is this tactition in his words, a sense that seems directly carried from eye to pen, that defines Sadoff’s capable, dazzling, wordplay. Sadoff writes of the post-9/11 world as have many poets—especially American poets—in the past decade; however he writes of this time and its circumstances anew, unraveled and unencumbered of all the tropes of our contemporary days somehow.

On the cover of the book in hand, there is a beautiful photograph of a volcano in Iceland erupting in 2010, sending a huge ungainly plume of black ash and smoke skyward above the prim, bright farmhouses of an innocent hamlet. Running between the typography of the book’s title and the author’s name is the line—what’s known as the lead—of an EKG readout, a pulse running amok right between a work and its author. It’s a great little touch of graphic design that unites the composition of the cover, but it also stands as an icon for what this book is all about: the pulse of time through the body of society and land alike. Sadoff’s added another fine corpus to the standing library of views and vantages he’s provided over his lengthy career.


Pearl’s Harbor

by Publius

The high stakes state test, known as the End Of Course Test, was given a month before the end of the courses. Now students pretty much figure that school is over. Teachers, who bore the burden of testing, and all the threats and humiliation that went with it, also figure that school is over. So, we’ve entered the entertainment phase of the school year. I especially admire Mr. Halpern. Halpern is having his kids write movie reviews. On his desk is a stack of DVD’s like two feet high.

Which reminds me of “Pearl’s Harbor”. A couple of years ago, I was teaching history. I got to World War II, and remembered seeing a tape on Pearl Harbor. Right after I found the tape, I passed Mr. North’s room. It was just a few minutes until the next class. So North asks me if I’d like to check the tape, see if it’s the right one, see if it needs to be rewound and like that. He’s got a TV, with the VCR bit, right inside his room. His kids just finished a tape on The Depression. So I say OK, and he slides in the tape.

It’s porn. And I don’t mean some Saturday night Showtime a little T & A light porn. I mean “money shot” porn. I just flung my body across the TV screen, trying to hide it from the kids. North didn’t bother with the eject button. He just ripped the tape out of the machine, and to hell with the ripped fingernails. He made a show of publicly throwing the tape away, although I don’t think any of the kids saw it.

Which lead us to the best part of this escapade. Which of our colleagues made it? Our guess is that someone taped some porn, then taped “Pearl Harbor” over it, accidentally leaving a small section of porn still on the tape. My best guess was the Austins, a married couple that retired a few years ago. But, if the truth be known, it could have been any of us.

Speaking of sex, then there was the workshop with Margaret. The workshop was at the beginning of the year, and was, as is usual with academic workshops, inane.

So, in the last half-hour, we’re asked to make circles, and “Discuss a time when you were given instructions that were very frustrating.” Someone, at the next table, is discussing assembling a Christmas present. Someone, in my group, asks if anyone has a quaalude. Finally, Margaret says, in her deeply British accent, “Well, I’ll start. Last night, I couldn’t figure out whether the instructions called for batteries, or if I need a cord for my new vibrator. It was very frustrating.”

Carry-on Bags

by Songyi Zhang

Today, when you are about to board an American airliner, it may not be news to you that you have to prepare for two possibilities: one, the overhead bin above your seat is full and you have to stow your carry-on bag elsewhere. (Good luck if you can find room on the plane.) Two, the overhead bin is too small to fit your presumably within-the-size-limit carry-on luggage. You have tried many ways—horizontally, vertically, on the side, upside down, punching and squooshing—and even a flight attendant comes to assist you, but in vain. Your bag does not budge.

On my recent trip to and from China, I experienced and witnessed the same quandaries on a United flight. Since I am not disabled or a mother with babies, I have no advantage to board early. In fact, I boarded pretty late for my herd-class seat.

Compared to the Asian airliners, the overhead bins on the American planes are relatively higher. Perhaps the North Americans are really taller. So I can barely reach the latch on the overhead bin, let alone lifting up my 30-pound backpack. One time, I had to excuse myself for taking off my shoes and standing on the aisle seat. I then awkwardly lifted my backpack and pushed it into the overhead bin. But the other time I did not have such luck. Not only was my overhead bin partly full but my backpack had an awkward shape—bulky at the bottom and light at the top. Thank goodness a tall male passenger seating across from my seat offered me a helping hand. We saw a possible space in the compartment above him. So he delicately tucked my backpack from top to bottom and it worked. I was so thankful that I almost wanted to give him a big hug for my gratitude. But I noticed a long line of passengers waiting in the aisle. After I was seated, I saw a few more passengers having trouble stowing their carry-on bags. Sometimes it was not because a passenger had an oversized carry-on bag. It was because an early-bird passenger who had scattered all his belongings in the overhead bin. The compartment was far from fully used. That can really drive me mad. But you can’t do much about it except looking for new empty space for your carry-on luggage.

All in all, I think the frustration of traveling by air in America appears greater than that in China. I can check at least two pieces of luggage free on a Chinese airline. But the U.S. airlines charge for checked bags. The Chinese airlines themselves encourage passengers to check bags for safety concerns. But American airlines seem to have gone a bit far to make profits.

Before I might become a victim of a fallen piece of oversized carry-on luggage over my head, and before I waste so much time and energy on figuring out how to economically pack my suitcase so that to avoid paying extra baggage fees, it may be better-off for me to choose a non-American airline to travel next time.


The Geriatric Jews and My Colonoscopy Fantasy

by Frank Izaguirre

A lot happened to me this past year. I suffered from a distressing medical symptom, which meant I needed a colonoscopy. I was diagnosed with colon cancer. Part of my colon was removed and stapled back together.

But I’m excited because here in Pittsburgh May is coming. It’s the month when I go to Frick Park and bring my binoculars. There will be dozens of warblers in kaleidoscopic variety, their Spring plumage on full display, and each singing his own unique melody. But I’m at least equally excited to see many of my favorite Pittsburgh friends. All of them are older than me; my wonderful girlfriend and I will be the only ones under 40. One of the regulars frequently describes the group as too geriatric.

Another thing about the Frick Park group is that, because the park is in Squirrel Hill, many of my Frick birding friends are Jewish. Many have always lived in Squirrel Hill, unlike me – I’ve only been in Pittsburgh 3 years. One morning last May, after five solid hours of birding, one of them suggested we go to breakfast at Kazansky’s for the best latkes in town, and was completely crestfallen when another told him they’d closed down.

They tell good jokes. One has a thing for reciting dirty limericks. Another once flipped open his guidebook to the page with Wilson’s Warbler. “What bird is that?” he asked my girlfriend. She didn’t know. “It’s the Jewish Warbler,” he said smiling. One of Wilson’s Warbler’s diagnostic features is a round, black cap on its head.
I miss them, my geriatric Jewish friends. I’m not sick anymore. I want to see them. A few days ago I fantasized that as we all gather one morning in the parking lot at Frick, I’ll overhear one talk about how he has to go in for a colonoscopy, how nervous he is. “Don’t worry,” I’ll interrupt, secretly delighting in the hilarity of age reversal, “they’re not that bad.” They will all look at me with horror, because I am 26. And if I tell them I had cancer, then I’ll also tell them my joke: “The good thing about colonoscopies is they’re a two-for-one. The drugs get you pretty high.”

Then we will all bird until noon and go eat latkes because Smallman’s is still open. And I will pat my belly right near the spot where the scar from my surgery is and think to myself: birds, jokes, the month of May – there is no better way to heal.


State Test

by Publius

the kids just flunked
the state education test
a small flood runs down
a gutter to Walnut Street
the kids make boats from worksheets


Rubik’s Final

by Publius

My kids are all playing with Rubik’s Cubes, practicing for their final exam.

To make the school look good — since we probably won’t pass the state test — the school has decided to set the new world’s record for the most number of folks solving, within five minutes, Rubik’s Cube. So all the kids who take science and math, meaning mostly the whole school, will do the puzzle for the final. All at once.

There’s also weekly progress tests on the Cube. And homework on the Cube. All of which makes a big chunk of a semester grade based on the Cube.

But at least the school will be good at something.

As for the kids who are bad at Rubik’s Cube, the kids I identify with, let’s just say that mine is the only school whose lawn is littered with Rubik’s Cubes flung from various windows.

Breaths: Poems by Eleuterio Santiago-Díaz with prints by Yoshiko Shimano

Poems by Eleuterio Santiago-Díaz with prints by Yoshiko Shimano
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press

reviewed by Mike Walker

A difficult yet rewarding book, this.

Breaths, I will simply state at the onset, was a difficult book to read and review. Not “difficult” in the sense that the poetry was obtuse, long, or overtly complex—as is, in example, the work of Geoffery Hill or even a recent book I read by Richard Hilles. In fact, Santiago-Díaz’s poetry is in most instances simple in form, direct in content, and inviting to the reader. It is what I think most people who do not commonly read poetry would probably expect from a contemporary poet. The poems are short, they focus on aspects of life that you’d expect from a poet, and they could without exception stand alone in a literary journal without the additional support of their peers on the pages. Why then in fact this book made for difficult reading was its ease: often at first, I would read two or three of his poems and feel I had gained little, I’d learned nothing beyond what I would have expected to learn. A perfect example would be the opening lines of the poem “On Different Pages”:

At the dawn of sorrow,
I drop a tear
and sob.

Forgive me for saying this, but is this not the type of poetry we would expect from a decent student in a ninth-grade creative writing class in high school? If it opened a poem that was more ornate, more involved than the short “On Different Pages” is—if it became something more involved—then it might hold great import, but as-is, I was unimpressed. Yet, in other poems there were suggestions of greatness, obvious examples of well-crafted explorations. To understand, then, what is going on in this book it probably would help to understand the poet and his apparent reasons for undertaking these poems. Eleuterio Santiago-Díaz teaches literature and writing at the University of New Mexico, and is also an avid martial artist and student of Asian cultures and Eastern philosophy. He is also Puerto Rican and both his ethnic background and avocation of the martial arts come forth as crucial wellsprings for these poems and the trajectories they establish. To an extent, he is also a confessional poet though you would not mistake one of his poems for something by Sexton or Plath. Like fellow Puerto Rican author Rosario Ferré, he is writing about himself but also about someone else—he is with a very gentle hand establishing a mythos for us but seems concerned as to make its magic all but invisible to the untrained eye. This book contains reproductions of fine art prints by fellow University of New Mexico faculty member Yoshiko Shimano who draws on the lengthy tradition of Japanese print-making to produce sublime, sparse, yet beautiful black and white prints to book-end these poems and serve as waypoints through the various positions of thought encountered in Breaths.

When taken as a whole, this approach more than works and in fact produces a comprehensive, robust, feeling of a masterful work of writing. Some of the poems, alone, also accomplish this lofty goal, often bringing us to consider world affairs in a very personal and astute manner, as in the case of a poem about a Palestinian woman. That same tone I at first took as somewhat immature or incomplete comes forth with wisdom and an economy of language that serves its focus well when Santiago-Díaz applies it to interrogate difficult topics and ones that are latent with sorrow. At his very best, he establishes a bridge between a story-teller tradition and one that comes close to high journalism—capturing history alongside true emotion. Never do these poems become long or overly involved, and yes at times they do feel truncated, but in general their length is much to their advantage in that they allow us introspection without bogging us down in anything that removes our focus from the core of the writing. I can well imagine Santiago-Díaz in his role of professor, writing in the margins of student work “this is good, but could be shorter—edit, edit, edit” as such seems to be the approach he has himself taken in making these poems finished works that feel sturdy constructions despite their size.

In example of this economy, consider these lines:

Celestial blue mirrors the eyes
of crabs in red procession.
A dirty face at the edge of Earth
doubles the wild flower
on the side of the trail.

There is something majestic, something very natural but with a hint of mystery and nearly New Age-inspired awe-crafting in these lines. They also recall some of the finest lines of Borges, where literal meaning seems apparent yet is cloaked in poetry nonetheless. This is how Santiago-Díaz writes of nature—as if it is always a matter of origins.

When Santiago-Díaz considers his relationship with the Eastern influences that obviously have considerble meaning and weight in his life, he in general produces fine writing that is capable of placing us in the context he himself appreciates about Asian culture. There are exceptions, however: no less than three poems concern Santiago-Díaz’s marked feelings of grave offense at various people who either do not fully appreciate or simply don’t agree with his own outlook on practicing martial arts. A prospective student who asks to train with him but seems insincere, a rival instructor who provides unsolicited advice—these people apparently irked Santiago-Díaz enough that he doesn’t just tell a buddy about such encounters over a beer but writes poems about them and then finds merit in publishing those poems in this book. The problem is, these poems—especially the one entitled simply “Unsolicited Advice” about the crass rival sensei who has the gall to remark on Santiago-Díaz’s technique—are some of the weakest in the book. They read not as poems or even good prose pieces but instead as might a letter or email to a friend about the incidents. There’s a tone of “man, can you believe this dude? here’s what this joker said . . .” that I don’t think helps the reader better understand Santiago-Díaz’s involvement in the arts he practices or the depth and scope of the training he’s undertaken. I practice three martial arts myself and I very much have empathy for the feelings Santiago-Díaz expresses here—all of us who are serious about our training decry the strip-mall dojos and their fast belt promotions, their “little dragon” classes for kids that don’t stress enough discipline—but the poems come off too strongly as rants and do not interplay the desired emotions of frustration, offense, and dedication to hard work as they would need to in order to properly place the poems alongside the better work in this volume. To reach Santiago-Díaz’s level of praxis in the martial arts, yes, a great deal of dedication is required, however as he remarks of “the meaning of a belt”—the gravity of a rank and how all that work gets worn as a muted black sash to indicate the status of the student—I would like to remind him that in some arts, including two I practice, iaidō and kendō—belts are not even worn. The outer effect of “rank” is invisible and the merits of the student are seen via his performance of kata and nothing else. If his goal was to convey to the reader who isn’t a martial artist what we endure in our training, he only comes off as sounding of sour grapes whereas those who are his peers will know without these rants typed to page whereof he speaks.

In other examples however, Santiago-Díaz is able to weave his experiences as a martial artist into the narrative of his personal growth and world-view in a more masterful and cohesive manner, and many of the best poems in the book are obviously informed by his dedication in studying Aikido and his most lucent writing clearly shows a deep connection with the concept of Ki as expressed in Aikdo. I believe Morihei Ueshiba—Aikido’s founder—would be pleased with these poems. Even in the poems above that I did not care for, his honesty and pragmatism are apparent and informed by a life lived out the martial way. If there is a core thesis to the entire book, it seems to be one of subtle responses to the question of “how do we live—and chronicle—a life? what does the poet do with the intersections between outside realms and his own?”.

It is in this tenor that Santiago-Díaz is at his best, making the remote and political as personal as his own irritations at rude folks who visit the dojo where he trains. Making his reader feel that he’d hopped a plane and spent a year elsewhere to pick up on the nuances of someone’s life, of how sorrow affects someone, and to produce in a third of a page something very telling of that emotion. Once in college, a photography professor told me that if you have a photo that is unremarkable, print it large, because everything looks better big, grand, and impressive. The devotion of of a huge arena to a voice that is lacking in thoughts is much the same, as it can amplify that voice, however in converse, taking a difficult topic and illustrating it via a few choice lines when it deserves an entire book is a work only masters should attempt and it’s an approach that overall Santiago-Díaz carries off with flying colors. Where Santiago-Díaz’s lines seem simple—too simple, too easy, nearly immature—it is truly an aspect of studied economy he has employed with the greatest of widsom.

With no small irony I should note that while I expected my own interest in Japan and involvement in the Japanese martial arts to bring me a deeper understanding of Santiago-Díaz’s poems, it worked more against me perhaps than in my favor. Every reader is different, and given the nature of poetry, the bias of readers is probably a more complex issue than with fiction where we can with greater ease simply admit that genre plays into the game at a high degree and even the most experienced critic will probably be less than impressed with a high-quality fantasy or sci-fi work if he in general avoids these genre. I tend to seek out poetry that is composed of deep layers and multiple foci—after all, Jorie Graham is my favorite living poet. In Santiago-Díaz’s poems, with their focus on his Eastern influences, I was expecting more complete consideration of things like iki and sui, or the autumnal pathos unique to the idea of mono no aware, or the quiet drama of suwari-waza techniques in Aikido. Yet, if the poet had taken this route, his poems could have lacked for immediate grace and their appeal beyond the reader who already had an acute interest in the martial arts. As things stand, Breaths does contain very powerful references to what being a student of the martial arts is all about—the very title “Breaths” can be applied to kokyūnage in Aikido as much as the more obvious influences of yoga. While personal and while of serious gravitas and well-crafted form, this book seems set on being one that will attract many readers: unlike a book by Jorie Graham or Geoffery Hill, it is one you could give to a person who doesn’t read too much poetry and he or she would probably nonetheless very much enjoy it. Again, most of the poems are quite short and all are composed of topics and themes sure to generate ample interest on the part of the reader. For its part, the University of New Mexico Press did a stellar job of the graphic design and production values of this volume and it feels like a work of art to hold in the hands. Yoshiko Shimano’s prints add an additional aspect to the book that is not only most welcome but powerful in establishing the overall feel of the work at hand. My review copy I find myself treating as I would an original watercolor or limited-edition print instead of a typical book of poetry, moving it with both hands and careful to not leave it on the porch where the night brings in damp, cool, air. I felt it was special, unique, and meant just for me. Our poet—and his visual artist friend—must be thanked for providing a book able to work such magic, and the University of New Mexico Press also must be thanked for this enchantment.

Breaths is not without its faults, or at least, not without poems that I must question how the poet felt they lived up to the same standards as those of his best work provided here, yet that’s a complaint many a reviewer could voice about many a book. This volume with its lux paper and somber black and white prints sectioning it like a microtome into different mental geographies, is nonetheless something very special. It grows on you, and a book capable of such growth is worth a great deal to me because it invites the reader to consider it anew each time a page is lifted.


Dance Review: Blink by Gia T. Presents

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

It might be an oxymoron to say that Gia Cacalano is both a throwback and an innovator, quietly claiming her place on the Pittsburgh dance scene. But part of me was transported to Greenwich Village circa 1963 Saturday night, where the Judson Dance Theater met in rejection of modern dance restrictions of the time.

“BLINK,” a multimedia dance happening was performed at the Wood Street Galleries downtown and also brought a glimpse into the future. Gia T. Presents, Cacalano’s ensemble, performed in and around the gallery’s latest installation. “In Transit” largely used technology to transform the space with unusual light projection against the stark white floor and walls.

At Judson there weren’t any MacBooks involved, but the live atmospheric sound of Cacalano’s five musicians evoked a John Cage feel with their electronic beats, non-traditional instruments and interspersed moments of silence.

Both the music and the dance were entirely improvised. Although two of the dancers came in from out of town, only rehearsing with the ensemble for a few days, the cast came together brilliantly.

One highlight transpired when Vincent Cacialano (from Amsterdam and England), and Wendell Cooper (from New York) engaged in a powerful duet. The two men exploded through the space with the athleticism of a breakdancer and grace of a ballerina. Difficult to imagine? Picture them diving into the floor, pressing into handstands and leaping through the space without bravado or gimmicky tricks.

Ms. Cacalano and female counterpart, Jil Stifel, were equally mesmerizing. With intricate floor work and quick moments of partnering, the two sensed each other with the highly tuned focus of seasoned improvisors. Shadows raced across the ceiling like storm clouds over a black sky. Text and street sound layered the musical blend of percussion, horns and vibes.

When the four dancers came together, they seemed to be of the same body. Bathed in white, blue and fluroescent green light from the installation, they shared a whimsical, otherwordly quality. Like abstract visual art, the piece was open to the interpretation of each audience member. I saw elements of exploration and awakening in the rise and fall of their bodies and fluidity of their transitions.

Pittsburgh dancer, or “moving installation,” Allie Greene, bookended the evening by introducing the dancers and acknowledging their end. Costumed in bubble wrap, the silvery glow gave her a futuristic and omniscient feel.

“BLINK” succeeded in many ways. Cacalano chose an ensemble with equal skill and matching style, while managing to showcase each dancer’s individuality. The show had a performative quality that is oftentimes missing in improvisation. The ensemble proved that to execute dance spontaneously at a professional level, one’s skills and technique must be honed.

As an accomplished performer with a vintage feel, Cacalano brought to mind a venerable era in modern dance, with the promise to advance the future of this lesser known style.

A Mechanic Named Rusty

by Songyi Zhang

Now I understand why the car owners from my hometown, Guangzhou, whine and complain. They’re worried when they don’t have cars, but after they have cars, they’re even more worried. Living in a populated city, they think owning a car makes their lives more convenient than having to take the sardine-can buses, but in fact drivers are often cooped up in their cars in the traffic for hours.

My driving experience is a bit different. It’s not Pittsburgh’s traffic but the car maintenance that frets me. Owning a car is as much trouble as raising a pet.

A year ago, I bought a 2002 Chevy Cavalier with 116 thousand miles on it — big mistake. I used to think the car would be fine if I didn’t drive it too often. Not true. If a dog needs a daily walk, a car needs a daily ride. (It also helps to call it sweet names and stroke its snout — just like a dog.) Thanks to the treacherous winter weather in Pittsburgh, my car went into the garage for a checkup or repair nearly once a month. And I became one of the Pep Boys’ best customers, if not their best friend. In addition to the normal oil changes and yearly inspections, my car suffered from a flat tire and fuel pump damage. It also suffered from a problem in its immune system which caused it to wheeze and hiccup (I’m amazed at how much mechanical jargon I’ve learned in the past few months.).

Different from the Chinese auto mechanics who are usually young men in their late teens and early twenties, slender and industrious, American auto mechanics tend to be middle-aged men, gray-haired with retreating hairlines, standing behind the Pep Boys’ service counter with names like Hank, Bill, and Rusty embroidered on their blue shirts… (I’m very suspicious of any mechanic named Rusty. I can’t imagine this happening in China.) And despite working at Pep Boys, they’re certainly not boys, but they are sometimes peppy guys with potbellies.

Despite my long wait in the customer lounge, I never got used to the strong Pep Boys smell of tires and gasoline. The red front doors seem to separate two worlds—one with fresh air and traffic noise, the other with the strong chemical smell and pop muzak in the background. I hope Hank, Bill, and Rusty have a good health plan. They’re going to need it breathing this poisonous air every day, wheezing and hiccupping just like my car.

Of course in America, as in China, the customers who overpay for any service are the ones who haven’t done their homework. To make sure I’m not one of them, I download an owner’s manual from the Internet. I learn that the symbol which looks like an Aladdin’s lamp is called engine oil pressure. So that’s what I tell Rusty, my Pep Boys’ mechanic, . “Rusty,” I say confidently, using his name in a friendly American way, “I think it’s the engine oil pressure.” After a few hours of celebrating my triumph of talking like a professional American mechanic, I see Rusty who comes to visit me in the customer lounge. “Ma’am, it’s not the engine oil pressure that’s on, but the check engine light .” Rusty reads the analysis of my car’s problems and quotes a price. “Fine,” I say with a gulp, I have to agree to the cost before the repair can proceed. I may not trust a mechanic named Rusty, but who else can I turn to in my hour of need?

Heavy repair on a car is like major surgery on a human. Looking at the three-digit number on the receipt, I figure that the labor alone totals one third of the cost. American labor is expensive! From now on, I’ll have to pray not only for my own good health, but also for my car’s. I’ll also pray that Rusty changes his name.