Weeble Christmas, 1973

by Nola Garrett

Since Pittsburgh’s Light up Night (the beginning of Christmas shopping season) began in mid-November, from my condo’s windows each evening I can see Point State Park’s stylized versions of huge white-lit snowflakes and blue-lit Christmas trees. I suppose the blue-lit trees are meant to be a secular compromise or maybe a nod to both Hanukkah and Advent’s colors. Mostly, the blue trees remind me of the popular song, “Blue Christmas” sung by Elvis Presley and my Christmas of 1973.

During the summer of 1973, one dark June night my first husband in a drunken rage attempted to strangle me. As I found myself struggling for breath, I nearly gave up until I remembered my two blond toddler sons sleeping in the adjoining bedroom. For the first time in more than a decade, I prayed. Then, I realized that both my husband’s hands were occupied, and I reached down, grabbed his balls, squeezed as hard and long as I could with what I believed would be my last breath. He let go, fell to the floor writhing in pain. Wearing nothing except a nightgown, I ran out of the apartment I had rented six weeks earlier for myself and our two toddler sons. I dashed barefoot across the parking lot to a woman friend’s apartment, pounded on her door ’til she let me in, called the police, and wept in terror because my children were still back there alone with him.

The police arrived within less than 10 minutes, interviewed me, and arranged that as soon as they could get him out of my apartment that I could re-enter and be with my sons. I don’t know how those two small town cops managed to get my husband to leave and to arrest him for assault, but within ten minutes they had him loaded in their squad car, and I spent the rest of that night with my sleeping sons.

The next day at the local magistrate’s office when I appeared for the preliminary hearing, my neck now bruised red and black with the imprints of my husband’s hands, the magistrate attempted to persuade me to return to my husband’s house and to drop the assault charges.

I declined. In fact, the following day in my newly acquired attorney’s office, I signed the documents to divorce my husband and to have the papers served at the magistrate’s office after his final assault hearing simply because I knew my husband would likely be present.

What I didn’t know at that time was how uncommon my actions were that day.

It’s taken me 40 years to understand and accept emotionally and intellectually what I accomplished out of sheer terror and ignorance.

Last Thursday morning, December 12, 2013, as I ate my usual breakfast of toast, grapefruit sections, one hard boiled egg, and instant coffee made with skim milk, I read in the front section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “Pittsburgh police officers responding to calls of domestic violence must offer the suspected victims an 11-question survey aimed at predicting the likelihood that they will be killed by their partners.” Here are the questions:

1. Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?
2. Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children?
3. Do you think he/she might try to kill you?
4. Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?
5. Has he/she ever tried to choke you?
6. Is he/she violently or constantly jealous or does he/she control most of your daily activities?
7. Have you left him/her or separated after living together or being married?
8. Is he/she unemployed?
9. Has he/she ever tried to kill himself/herself?
10. Do you have a child that he/she knows is not his/hers?
11. Does he/she follow or spy on you or leave you threatening messages?

Concerning my first husband, except for questions 8, 9, and 10, I had to answer yes to the rest. Breakfast last Thursday ceased to be its usual pleasure as I remembered why I had to answer yes to question 11.

After I began the divorce I moved to a second floor apartment to feel safer, but one day that fall I came home to find at my entrance hall door two overflowing boxes of Christmas tree decorations—strings of blue lights and cartons of silver and blue balls—I immediately recognized as the ones my husband had insisted that we buy for our first married Christmas. Though a blue color scheme hadn’t been my concept for an family tree, to save the peace, I didn’t attempt a compromise. Only a few months into that marriage, I already knew my taste didn’t matter. So, I picked up those boxes, carried them to the apartment complex dumpster. Later from my kitchen window, I watched several neighbors happily salvaging those blue decorations.

That fall though I was a tenured Assistant Professor money was tight. Setting up a new household, while paying for child care and legal help is never cheap. And, I had chosen to forego child support to eliminate my husband’s contact and visitation as a way to protect my children and me. A choice I have never regretted. However, when December arrived, of course, I had no Christmas tree decorations, but I did have a three year old and an 18 month old who deserved their own family Christmas.

The television toy ads that year were filled with visions of Weebles, weighted, round-bottomed wood and plastic clothed “people” that just fit the hands and imaginations of my sons. Around October I bought them each a small set of four that they played with constantly, all the while even the 18 month old could chant their TV motto–Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down! They slept with Weebles. They carried them to the car. They lined them up on the supper table beside their plates. Sometimes they purposely knocked them down, then laughed so hard they fell down. Who says toddlers don’t get irony?

Mid-December, I bought a small metal tree stand, a fresh five foot Scotch pine, two strings of multi-colored lights, one box of fake icicles, a gold-foil star topper, a spool of red, heavy thread, two bags of fresh cranberries, a bag of popping corn, a small box of ornament hooks, and six sets of Weebles. My brother, Jerry, helped me set up the tree in the holder, then carefully rough-housed with my sons which began a dear, deep relationship with them that still lasts 40 years later. By Sunday night with everyone’s help, we had strung the freshly popped popcorn kernels sort of alternating with the cranberries and kind of draped the result amid the lights. I managed to refashion the hooks around the 24 Weebles’s neckless necks, and after everyone threw icicles pretty much all over the pine, we had a real Christmas tree. Later that week, my mother gave us two tiny gold-sprayed clothes- pin mounted bird’s nests containing three even tinier red foil eggs, each guarded by a blue bird. Initially, I made the mistake of placing the nests too high on the tree which I quickly corrected the next morning when I was awakened by the cries of my three year old who had fallen off the chair he had dragged near the tree so he could look into the nests, but instead fell into the tree. Interestingly, neither boy removed the Weebles from the tree or if they did, I don’t remember or didn’t care.

Neither do I remember what Santa brought my sons that Christmas morning. What I do remember is sitting in the same rocking chair I used to sit in while I nursed both my babies, and my drinking a cup of English Breakfast tea while both my little boys played with their new toys, and the first feeling of peace and contentment that I had felt for more than two years. Also, I remember my three year old sadly asking why Santa forgot to give me a present. Next year, 1974, I made sure to buy myself a red leather wallet, wrapped it, and placed it under the tree for “Mom” even though I already had the gift of my two sons.

Professional Development

by Publius

I asked Andrew how he felt after yesterday’s professional development.

“It wasn’t epically soul crushing.” Andrew is a nice guy. This, it must be noted, was his idea of something good to say.

That said, we spent the entire day at a faculty meeting pondering the following question. “How does the ability to read complex texts relate to the student’s potential for college and career success?” Andrew keeps a list of the top ten “soul crushing” workshops he’s attended. It’s chilling to consider that this one didn’t make the list.

I usually write poetry at these things. It looks like I’m taking notes.

7:45 Roosevelt High

for ND

it’s been a dark dawn and at the last minute
Arianna grades the long student

she smells the stale ink
and something akin to her mother’s old
age home

her sweater smells of Tide
and chalk she rubbed off the board
she’s been beat for an hour and a witness

to nothing but D’s and lipstick
that smeared on her cuff
a yellow bus crunches low gear

and this is how she begins
nervous over her bell
shaped curve

and the next unit
which she promises
everyone will love


The Night Before Christmas…

by Jim Coppoc

‘Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse

When Clement Clarke Moore wrote this poem in 1823—a poem once called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American1”—he published it anonymously. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the versified story of Christmas that gave America a good portion of its holiday folklore, was intended to be a gift. A contribution. A retelling and reshaping of many old tales into one unified narrative for the ages.

Or, in another history, Professor Moore was an erudite and serious academic, and was worried that such a light-hearted piece would reflect poorly on him in the academic culture of the time. Apparently, 190 years hasn’t changed all that much.

In either history, Moore only acknowledged authorship when his children, who loved the poem, requested he include it in his 1844 anthology.

However the poem came to be, I grew up with it, and likely so did you. My father. A third grade play. Disney. All the silly parodies we’ve heard over the years. Again and again—at home, at school, on TV, everywhere—we heard and saw version after version after version of this poem until it became part of us.

And this is the power of poetry.

To paraphrase Karl Kroeber, one of my favorite experts in the oral tradition, stories like this—the ones that really sink in—are at the root of how we learn culture, and they operate by what I’ve come to call Kroeber’s “3 Rs”: Repeat, Revise, Retain.

The repetition part is obvious. Most Americans have heard this story so many times that they can (and do) recite it out loud at some point in the holiday season at least once—especially those of us with children to raise.

The revision part might be a little more subtle, but one of the key features of this story is that it is not new. According to legend, Moore borrowed the image of St. Nicholas and the names of the reindeer, blended them with various cultural traditions, and threw in his own musings from a sleigh ride on a snowy day. Even the jolly figure of St. Nicholas was taken from a Dutch handyman of Moore’s acquaintance.

Even after Moore put all this together and codified it in verse, though, the poem continued to grow and change. It has been published under several titles and in many variations. It has been told and retold both orally and in-person, and in all our culture’s many evolving media. The surface details change, but the underlying themes that have to do with the spirit of the holiday remain intact. What anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss call the “deep structure” of the narrative has continued unbroken through generation after generation of Americans for almost two centuries.

And so we retain this little piece of culture—this story of the holidays. We shape our experience and that of our children around it. We keep the chain of culture unbroken, and forge our own links every year.

If, as many cultures believe, the world is made of stories, it’s fitting at this time of year to stop and reflect on the many stories that bind us together and keep us in community. That teach us how to see the world and how to be in the world. That make us human, and give us family, community, country and culture.

And while you’re reflecting, don’t forget to take a moment to open yourselves to the wonder of Christmas and share these beautiful, light-hearted verses with your children—the next link to be forged.

And next year—to embrace the pluralism of the Great American Story—remind me to tell you another story I know about a few brave Maccabees, or the Nguzu Saba of Kwanzaa, or the child of a carpenter and a faithful Jewish maiden, born in a manger in Bethlehem…

1Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, from their 1999 book, Gotham: A History of New York City.

Book Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

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The Other Typist
by Suzanne Rindell
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2013

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Unreliable narrators cause readers to question their own methods of perceptions, particularly when recognizing logical cause and effect. As if to prove this, in Suzanne Rindell’s debut novel, The Other Typist, she takes a character with untapped potential for mental instability and places her in a unique and extreme situation. The book is fascinating, sensual, and sensational. It takes a prudish, conceited, and hypocritical nobody and plunges her into the chaotic world of speakeasies and bootlegged liquor—in the middle of a downtown New York City police precinct.

Rose is drab and predictable. She begins the story in 1923 as a New York City precinct’s typist who lives in a boarding house with other young women. She is intellectual but not social and often silently derides her roommate’s actions as silly, rehearsed, and selfish. As far as readers know, Rose was raised in an orphanage. Because of this, she follows rules, schedules, manners, and etiquette to the letter. Through Rose, Rindell writes:

“In the absence of flesh-and-blood equivalents, over the years I’ve taken a series of rules to serve as my mother, my father, my siblings, even my lovers…. Rules kept me safe. In keeping the rules dear to me, I could always be certain the nuns would clothe and feed me, the typing school would place in me in a job, and the precinct would employ me…. The thing about rules is that when you break one, it is only a matter of time before you break more, and the severe architecture that once protected you is destined to come crashing down about your ears.”

That governing foundation crumbles when Odalie appears. If this name makes readers whistle “Oodalalee” from Disney’s Robin Hood or “Vol der ee, vol der rah” from a post-World War II German song “The Happy Wanderer,” it isn’t a coincidence. Even Rindell writes through Rose’s perspective, “…the name of that latter individual play[ed] musically in my head, tripping along to the pace of my own steps like a child’s song: Oh-dah-lee, Oh-dah-lee, Oh-dah-lee…

On the first day Odalie is in the precinct, she drops a jeweled broach, which Rose claims to have been a purposeful act to catch her attention and pull her into Odalie’s persuasive schemes. As the story continues, Rose becomes obsessed with the enchanting new girl whom everyone adores. Eventually, the two become friends and Rose moves into Odalie’s extravagant hotel room. Odalie then takes Rose on a late-night adventure to a wig shop, where a secret door opens to invite them into the glitzy, dazzling world of speakeasies. Rindell, during her acknowledgements, claims that she drew inspiration of this era from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and it is here readers first see similarities between the two stories: a quiet neighbor commingles with a mysterious personage who follows a grand but ultimately unstable lifestyle.

Astute readers will also recognize that the writing bears a strong resemblance to a legal confession, as if Rose were typing her own story for the court to read. Rindell reveals the truth in teasing snippets: “I can only say I did it for the love of her, though the doctor I am seeing now hardly accepts that answer. Of course, ever since the incident, the newspapers have painted Odalie as the victim…but of course, if I am to tell it all in order, as I keep promising to do, there are other things I must tell first,” and “I’ve already mentioned my doctor’s encouragement that I explain my actions with an emphasis on chronology.” It is only after a devastating climax that readers are finally given the full account of events.

Here, then, is a second similarity to The Great Gatsby: the overall arc of the plot, but with a twist. Rose doesn’t just represent neighborly Nick Carraway from Gatsby; she represents Jay Gatsby as well because she adopts his glamorous but questionable lifestyle. Readers watch, helpless, as Rose is taken along a dubious but extravagant ride with many events that make her suspect her own safety and Odalie’s authenticity. But she remains faithfully by Odalie’s side and learns from her until Rose’s life and memories are turned upside down. Through Rose, Rindell writes, “The advantage of hindsight, of course, is that one finally sees the sequence of things, the little turning points that add up to a final resultant direction.”

The novel’s first-person narration locks readers in Rose’s mind and personality. Toward the final chapters, when her world no longer makes sense, the readers’ perceptions also become suspect. Up until that point, they agreed with each of her experiences. Her progression and attempts to understand are both well-paced and fascinating. Readers will not only want to know what happened to her, but how she went from a quiet, stuffy prude to a committed woman. And like a bad batch of absinthe or bathtub gin, they may not emerge unchanged from the blinding and disorienting story.

Suzanne Rindell is a doctoral student in American modernist literature at Rice University. She lives in New York City and is currently working on a second novel.

Dance Review: Objects of Desire By Continuum Dance Theater

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For the past nine months, Sarah Parker, Artistic Director of Continuum Dance Theater, has been working on her latest evening length work, as part of the New Hazlett’s CSA (Community Supported Art) series.

Saturday night, for one show only, “Objects of Desire” premiered at the theater. The choreography came from Parker’s musing on the subject of desire, and what people truly want in life.

While the choreographic process is often limited to behind closed doors, Parker and her company went straight into the community to create the piece. In several free open rehearsals, at places like the Fairmont Hotel, a juice bar, and the Kaufmann Center, they presented works-in-progress, and asked audiences to answer three questions. What have you desired in the past? What do you desire now? What do you desire for the future?

Dancer, Jess Marino, said the answers ranged from superficial to deep. A preschooler said he wanted a briefcase, and an elderly woman said she wished for good health. The company sorted through hundreds of answers and pulled out a few commonalities they then used to create the dance. Some themes included money, power, materialism and relationships.

The fifty-minute narrative centered around dancer, Michelle Skeirik, with the four other company members representing Skeirik’s desires. To begin, each dancer entered from different parts of the theater – the stage, the balcony and the audience. The set was quite elaborate, and included household objects like couches, chairs, shelves, a desk and a full-length mirror. We felt as if we were in Skeirik’s home.

In each section, the dancers explored different “objects” they desired. Parker wanted the choreography to feel like a movie. Her hope was that the audience would understand each theme clearly, so she used props as literal representations.

Piggybanks were tossed back and forth between each dancer in an exploration of money and power. The movement was bound and aggressive, fast and feverish, and gave the feeling of cut-throat attitudes and ultimate desperation.

The performers donned fur coats and pearls for a section about materialism. A woman they saw at the Fairmont hotel, dressed in fancy attire and head held high, inspired the movement. With tongue and cheek attitudes, the performers primped and posed, as if modeling their goods. Eventually, the pearls became heavy in their hands, weighting them down.

The most beautiful and poignant moment happened under low lights and in front of two tall mirrors. Heather Jacobs performed a solo to the haunting voice of Israeli singer-songwriter, Asaf Avidan. Jacobs’ movement was light, yet melancholic. Eventually, Skeirik joined her in a duet of conflict that shed light on the struggle of relationships. Skeirik became entangled in a bouquet of balloons until Jacobs finally freed her.

The lights came up slowly, revealing Jess Marino covered in a pile of bras that represented sex and sexuality. She and each dancer performed the section in seductive tops, weaving through the space in magnetic solos, whispered duets and partnered groups.

In the end, none of the objects held the same importance as they did at the beginning. Skeirik hesitantly tucked everything into a box, peering in for a few final glimpses of the objects she once desired. Again, Asaf Avidan’s voice filled the theater with lyrics about becoming old and the potential to share stories of a time passed. Skeirik finally closed the box and walked away as the lights faded.

Parker’s choreography exposed the superficial desires we all have at different times in our lives. But in the end, she reminded us the objects we crave may be meaningless on our path to true happiness.

The Unfairness of Life

by Publius

Best quote of the day from a high school kid:

“I don’t know why she gave me an F. She got nothin’ to complain about. I never do nothin’ in that class.”


Book Review: The Old Priest: Stories by Anthony Wallace

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The Old Priest: Stories
by Anthony Wallace
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
Hardback: $24.95

Reviewed by Mike Walker

The work of a critic—be it one of literature, visual art, dance, or music or anything creative—is vexing in the sense that you have to so often set aside to a degree personal opinion while fully retaining your command of everything that opinion has ever taught you. I was speaking with a friend who is a graduate student in historical keyboards (he plays the clavichord, mainly) and was awestruck by how many very well-regarded, canonical, classical composers he totally dislikes and avoids insofar as possible. Most are Russian romantics so thankfully for him, he will never have to play their works since they post-date his own instrument. I started thinking though, what composers do I most dislike? Or for that matter, what authors? Which playwrights? And what if my friend had to review a concert of Medtner’s piano works or I had to write about a poet whom I simply do not care for at all? What then? Can it be done, can we really set aside what we “like” and instead focus on what we know about the genre at hand, the technique and the craft?

Anthony Wallace’s book of short stories, The Old Priest, allowed me to test this question out first-hand. It is not the type of literature I enjoy: I have seen much of this before in contemporary American writers of fiction, especially those in the MFA-centric circles. You find stories like those collected here in each and every literary journal every single month—stories of regret, stories of love gone wrong and characters either haunted forever by it or not able to set it right somehow—these stories of sex, drink, and loss. Stories of people who have a lot less to complain about than they think, so complain they certainly do, and how. Stories that are, I suppose, supposed to reflect the real and now of America? Moreover, I’m not big on New Jersey, or casinos, or people in bars being sad or lost as my bar experience is more one of watching some football (soccer, that is) or a good NBA game and having some fun—yes, wonder of wonders, you can have fun when you hang out with and drink with people! You can even have fun going to church, I suppose. But people don’t do that in the type of short stories we encounter far too often: they just have to have problems and those problems, beyond being simply sources of conflict to further the plot, often are very problematic in and of themselves.

So this isn’t my type of fiction. It’s painted in muted colors, it doesn’t take you away but instead locks you into a world where you, yeah, feel somewhat sorry for the sad saps who dwell within it, but you’ve met their cousins before in other stories and it seems quite much a matter just of more of the same. As I state all this, though, I realize it’s my view, it’s my personal feelings and it extends into other areas—how I dislike Vegas because of how fake it is, how it tries to broker fun, scandal, and an all-inclusive experience to ho-hum middle-aged folks who after the party go back to being tax accountants in some small town or simple suburb. I’m someone who would rather be skateboarding or BASE jumping than in Vegas; I’d rather have the world writ large and real than seeing the world writ small and covered with glitter. (I don’t like Disney much, either, in case you wondered.) So, when I encounter a book like The Old Priest, it’s not a book I would put first in the pile of those I really want to read. It just isn’t me. But is it good, even if it’s not what appeals to me? I don’t like a lot of hip-hop, either, but I can tell you what’s “good” regardless and probably be pretty much on the same trajectory as someone who loves hip-hop and knows it well. I’ll try to do that for Wallace’s book.

The title story, which opens this short collection, actually really shines. There is, of course, an “old priest” but the twists and turns taken from there on out are exceptional. There’s no shortage of magical realism—which isn’t an easy ploy to place in a short story, but really one where you have to know exactly what you’re up to for it to work, yet here it works fluently. The problem is, the opening story is probably the best of the lot, and yet it has exactly what it needs to keep you interested whereas much of what follows are long on grit, spite, and sorrow but lack the compelling magic (in every sense) of the opening tale. Wallace is skilled, to be sure—very skilled: great sense of dialog, the ability to craft characters who seem as seriously flawed as he wants us to see them (no easy trick, that) and the ability to put together some plots that are highly innovative. The problem for me too often though in these stories is that the characters have arrived at their lot in life mainly through their own very unwise (and oft-repeated) actions. You cannot feel sorry very long for adults who repeat their mistakes as if trying to make a cross-stitch of them. When you look at the greatest writers the world over who provided us with characters deeply flawed and long-suffering, and I mean writers like Mario Vargas Llosa or Roger Martin du Gard, you find that the characters themselves—no matter their problems—are enriched in some manner, filled in some manner with color, with emotion that draws you into their world and even probably their plights. When you have the type of characters that often Wallace offers—such as a couple on vacation in New Mexico despite their bitter, seemingly set-to-end, relationship—they read like second-rate versions of Bret Easton Ellis characters, right down to the cocaine and legacy of over-the-top 80s parties. They’re not easy to care about, and it serves them right to be listening to a hotel flamenco guitarist in an expectedly touristy variant of a New Mexico experience. There just seems to be a lot of missed opportunities here to better develop the characters and really explore their settings, but that probably was not what the author wanted to express: it appears his main intent is to show how inner turmoil predicated on past experiences haunts people—or can haunt people, if they only let it. He meets that task well enough, but it’s just not something as a reader that has much gravity for me: despite the magical realism, despite the efforts to illustrate characters overcoming obstacles, it all seems so basic and expected most of the time.

But then, I must confess again I’m not a fan of Jersey—at least not this stereotype of Jersey, and no matter the detail, the skill Wallace has to mention the sound of the oil furnace cutting on and so forth, I still feel like he’s dealing cards from a pack of stereotypes too often. I have a friend from Jersey and his tales of urban blight, corruption, and portly wannabe Sinatras in Atlantic City bore me, too. Wallace may concern himself with subjects I don’t care for, and that’s fine—I’m sure there is an ample readership for his fiction, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed at all in the quality of what he offers. I noted that the story “The Old Priest” itself was one of the best, certainly probably my personal favorite. Perhaps reading it first was also an issue for me as it set me up for certain expectations in the rest of the stories in the book. Alas, most of those other stories just didn’t measure up in terms of plot nor the really fascinating narrative elements the author provides in “The Old Priest” (which, in the interest of not giving too much away, I will not elaborate upon, except to say that so many good and bad stereotypes and concepts of Catholicism and priesthood come to a very surprising . . . if not “end”, at least “transformation” here). Wallace has his hand on the pulse of the aspects of New Jersey life (and by extension, aspects of American life that seem connected to the Garden State somehow) and he is able to make these connections shine in places, but there is a recurrent issue of him either seeming to try a bit too hard (the example above of rehashing the torrid times of someone’s former lover comes to mind—why? It’s not germane to the story at hand, seems trashy, tabloid, and just distracts) or else he doesn’t turn the story into what it could be—often a fault of a lack of length rather than his writing.

In his story “The Unexamined Life”, much like “The Old Priest” before it, Wallace finally comes close to winning me over. I’ve already at this point in the book resigned myself to the fact the story will concern either sex, drugs, or errr, blackjack, and not with beautiful people, not with a hint of gloss and diamond sheen, but with a dinge of dross. You know when James Joyce described that green-black color, that faded color, that combination of Irish coal dust and simple grit in “The Sisters” in Dubliners? Yeah, that color seems to seep through the lines in much of Wallace’s prose, but it’s there by clear design. Wallace has his topics he wants to address, he has settings and characters that inspire him even if as one reader in a vast spectrum of readers, they often fail to interest me all that much. So, in “The Unexamined Life” we do have a porn shop, we do have . . . how can I say this? We have lives that are based around the basics that on some level form the everyday foundations of most of our lives. We have the desires that motivate the human race and these are well-rendered; in this story, and I mean this as the highest of praise, Wallace reminds me of one of my all-time favorite short-story authors, the great Maeve Brennan. The shadow of Joyce is also here and the influences of many other authors turn up in places. Once again, Wallace is a craftsman of the very highest order, but throughout most of this collection can’t seem to draw me—or I cannot seem to allow myself to walk through the door. Again, the first story of the collection set my expectations high and in a certain direction so perhaps I’m looking West when I should be East or something, but I expected more of the Angela Carter type of magic that we have at the onset to be carried forward, and I didn’t locate that in most of the other stories.

I would recommend this book to someone who scans this review and finds mention of subjects, of types of characters, that reader finds of interest. I do not mean to be unkind—not because I fear such for I don’t and as a reviewer know I will encounter books where I will feel fully justified in being very critical—but because I do believe in and admire Wallace’s work. I find it frustrating that at points his characters are not likeable, for as human as they are, as flawed, I don’t pity them or cheer them on as I would, say, a Dawn Powell or Carson McCuller’s character. The is my greatest criticism here, but there is no doubt the man can write and that also he is keenly able to construct worlds—cut from the fresh, damp, unkind cloth of reality—that seem very life-like, very able in his descriptions to come to life. It’s just not a place I wish to explore further in most of the stories. For some readers, I have no doubt it will be though and that this may be one of their favorite books of the year.

The New Kid

by Publius

There’s a rule. Whatever goes on the very first form of the very first day, that’s what you’re stuck with all year long. Misspell your first name, and that’s who you are all year.

4th period and I have my really bright kids, my honors class. I’m in Room 205, but, right at the beginning of the year, the very first form of the year put me down as Room 206. That’s Bob Spire’s room, a nice guy, special ed., went to Northwestern. I know where my classroom is, and he knows where his special ed. room is, so the room number mess-up doesn’t make much difference.

Or at least it doesn’t make much difference to me and Spire.

Some kids care. Like today. This new kid transfers into Dr. Publius’ 4th period honors class. So they sent him to Spire’s special ed. room. As the new kid takes-in Spire’s special ed. room, what he presumes to be a super-smart class, he’s thinking that this is going to be a really long four years. Spire is having them do a worksheet, “They’re, Their, and There”. The class is getting excited about the new crayons.

Meanwhile, I’ve got some new special ed. kid working on Christopher Marlowe’s “Tragical History Of Dr. Faustus”.


by John Samuel Tieman

It occurs to me that this Saturday will mark forty-three years since I got out of The Nam. Forty-three years. On December 7th, 1970, I was only twenty years old. They say the military takes a boy, and turns him into a man. In truth, by the time I got out of the army, I had gone from being an innocent to being a very traumatized late adolescent.

I used to wish I could just forget the war. Like when I left The Nam, I threw away all my photographs, thinking that would help me forget. (This is where you ask, “How’s that going so far?”) But I came to realize, with the help of therapy, that the war will always be with me, always, like a story for which I am searching for a resolution I know, even now, I will never write.

in this dream

there is food and water
and no barrier reef, only shore

this woman is my wife
the compass close enough

the uncertain current I understand
and I feel strangely safe sailing long after dark

still alive days after the disaster
everything I need within reach

Book Review: Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River and The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation

Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River, Edited by Helen Ruggieri & Linda Underhill, Mayapple Press, 2013, $19.95.

The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation, Photographs by Jim Schafer, Text by Mike Sajna, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, $90.00.

Reviewed by Nola Garrett

Every morning from my condo’s dining room window, the Allegheny River looks different. Not that the river has escaped its concrete banks nor has the river ceased to flow under Pittsburgh’s three sister bridges, but the river’s surface changes color—brown, green, ice white, patent leather black at night—shines, glowers—rises, falls, freezes, carries craft of myriad sizes including tree trunks; acquires windswept paths during rain, and even appears to flow upriver as far as the 6th Street Bridge when the west wind blows. Also, every morning here near the Allegheny’s confluence into the Ohio, I think about where it has been and that a great deal of its water has been part of French Creek and the rock-filled crick that winds through Mill Village, PA, the small Erie County town where I lived as a child. And, I feel at home.

While I soon learned the geography of where the creeks of my childhood went down stream, what I found most interesting was where they came from. I still remember the summer day I finished 3rd grade, carrying my shoes, slipping on the mossy rocks, wading upstream, crossing back and forth to better footing to find the source of our town’s crick. I was surprised how quickly my crick narrowed and how ordinary the trickle seemed that emerged from a hillside spring not very far from my elementary school. I felt as if I had discovered a wonderful secret. Years later after I graduated from college and owned a car, I drove to a few untended acres owned by the Western Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy near Chautauqua just across the New York State line to the equally ordinary, but mysterious source of French Creek. I remember how quiet I felt.

Frankly, I loved French Creek—still do—and it never crossed my mind that anyone wouldn’t until I until I met my college roommate, Turzah Atwell, who firmly told me she hated French Creek. Turzah was from Franklin, PA, where French Creek joins the Allegheny River. Every spring when the ice went out, French Creek flooded her out of her home. That year’s flood was the cause of Turzah’s catching pneumonia. She told me about how she felt struggling for breath, how filled with fear she might die she was. While Turzah was a good roommate, I did come to understand that Turzah could hold a powerful grudge. That’s when I rethought what I had always found wonderfully exciting about French Creek—its floods. Mill Village sits about fifty feet above the French Creek flood plain we called “the flats,” which during my childhood regularly flooded hundreds of acres of marvelously fertile potato fields. The floods’ wild drama closed roads while leaving ice chunks as large as pickup trucks and doing the good work of depositing silt upon the fields. Maybe that wasn’t the only way to think of French Creek or for that matter the Allegheny River.

I think that encounter with Turzah was when I first glimpsed the power of rivers beyond personal attachment. I’ve been reckoning differently ever since. Rivers course through public health, religion, geology, anthropology, history, politics, economics, engineering, music, poetry and prose. Our rivers belong to us, and at the same time rivers own us body and mind and soul. Here in Western Pennsylvania we have found the Allegheny to be a worthy opponent. We’ve tamed its floods, its meanders and bars with locks, dams, and concrete walls; so that here in Pittsburgh while I’m walking along the sidewalks around The Point, sometimes I feel as if I’m visiting a river zoo.

So, here in this blog—my anti-book—I commend to you, my readers—screen to screen—two books dealing with the Allegheny River in opposite ways.

Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River is a new anthology of poetry including a few pieces of creative non-fiction and a bonus CD of songs and poems featuring Pete Seeger, Peter LaFarge, Jerome Rothenberg and the Allegheny Valley Singers. The order of the book moves from the Allegheny River’s source and its early Indian history to Pittsburgh seen from the perspective of contemporary Pittsburgh poets such as Ed Ochester and Julia Spicher Kasdorf. Of course, this book consisting of poetry and songs means personal attachment of all sorts will be explored, but as you read these poems remember the phrase, “the personal is political” and you’ll find more variety of knowledge than you might expect.

I particularly liked this anthology’s second poem by David Budbill spoken from an Indian’s point of view:


Shotetsu saw the wind ripple the surface
of a stream as it flowed through a meadow.

He also saw the wrinkles of his own old face
reflected on the surface of the stream.

This brief poem certainly tells us a lot about how viewing a river’s source affects us in timeless and all-inclusive ways. Several pages later, Philip Terman, who teaches at Clarion University, writes a poem titled “River of Many Names” four pages long in five sections that I found equally moving. Here’s a taste from the first section:

We could fish until we grow old,
or simply stare like we were wise
and gather together the experiences
of our many selves.

We could pray in droughts for its rising,
in floods for its holding back.

Near the end of this collection are two poems by Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Westmoreland” and “The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh.” Though each of these poems could stand alone, this pair of poems in terms of this anthology need each other. “Westmoreland” ends

…. Was it much worse than any place

we could have grown up? Or like all the Hawthorne they forced
us to read in 11th grade, was Westmoreland County wasted
on us, so young, all we could learn was to hate it.

“The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh” begins

Now I see the statue at the traffic circle is not
a talk between Satan and some poor lady who
doesn’t know her dress has fallen past her waist.

and then takes us through the Fort Pitt tunnel and over the rivers to Phipps Conservatory and a tour of Pittsburgh ending with this observation:

Amazing to finally see humanity figured
as a careless woman, singing: great to see Earth
as a goaty man, such a relief to find this bald

fact cast in bronze….

These poems are not Huckleberry Finn floating down the Mississippi; these poems speak to us about how it feels to live our lives in the long valley of our river, The Allegheny. Even if you don’t listen to the CD, I think you’ll find this book to be a lovely bargain for a long, long time.

Ninety dollars is a lot to pay for any book, even if it is a gorgeous, well written, beautifully photographed, entertaining coffee table book about everything you ever wanted to know about the Allegheny River, but The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation is worth it! Of course, there are other legal ways to read this 1992 book. You could check it out of a library. You could put it on your Christmas list. You could buy it used on amazon.com like I did.

This collection of photographs by Jim Schafer came first. Then Jim found Mike Sajna writing for Pittsburgh Magazine and convinced him to take dozens of research trips up and down the Allegheny River with him to write a series of essays to give words to his pictures so his photographs could find a publisher. Not the way most books get written or published. This book begins in Pittsburgh and ends on a hill in Potter County on the Barnett Brothers potato farm. Turns out this is no ordinary hill. It’s a hill known as “the triple divide…marks the divide between the waters draining west into the Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico; north along the Genesee River to Lake Ontario and the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and east down Pine Creek to the Susquehana River and the Chesapeake Bay….a single point where, if one spilled a bucket of water, some of the water would flow toward Newfoundland, some toward Norfolk, and the rest toward New Orleans.” Accompanying this marvelous information are two full page color photos of the hill top water and a quarter page photo of the Barnett Brothers potato farm sign. I feel as if I have already gone there, but I know that sometime this coming summer, I’ll drive there to see for myself. That’s the kind of power this book has.

Even though I’ve given away the ending, the rest of the book is just as good. If you’d ever wondered why the first Allegheny River lock in Pittsburgh begins with Lock #2, this is your book. If you’d like to know the details of the 1939 St. Patrick’s Day flood, you need this book. Same thing for the “Barrel Flood” on the same day in 1865. And if you’d like to read about the most horrible thing that has ever happened on the present site of Heinz Field, July 9, 1755, you’ll wonder if it’s the inspiration for the Steelers’ defensive line. And, there’s a long excerpt from Peter Oresick’s poems, Definitions, “After the Deindustrialization of America, My Father Enters Television Repair” as part of a chapter dealing Ford City during the 1980’s and 90’s. Interested in fishing—read this book. Indian Treaties? George Washington? Gypsy Moths effect of the river? Creation myths? Ida Tarbell? Money and Washington politics and the height of Pittsburgh’s bridges? Besides, there are ancient drawings and/or photographs illustrating just about everything else about ourselves and the Allegheny River.


By John Samuel Tieman

in a parking lot
I spot an acorn falling
from nothing at all

I used to live in Mexico City. About 1984 or 1985, I went to Tepeyac on December the 12th, the Feast Of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Tepeyac, which is now a part of Mexico City, is the hill where Our Lady appeared to St. Juan Diego.

Never before nor since have I experienced religious ritual with quite this combination of the devotional and the bizarre. Jugglers. Bishops. Fire breathers. Deacons and nuns. Aztec dancers in feathered headdresses yards across. Someone is reciting a litany. Union workers carry a banner, “The Sewer Workers Of Azcapotzalco Salute La Virgencita”. It’s like a circus, only with rosaries.

Just outside the shrine, within sight of Juan Diego’s tilma, the great relic, there’s a commotion. Right next to me, the crowd parts for a woman, a peasant who has crawled on her knees all the way from Cuernavaca, maybe one-hundred miles. Her son is assisting her. I ask the son, “What is her prayer?” And he answers, all of this is in Spanish, “The chicken.” That’s when I notice the bird in her arms. Her son explains, “Her prayer is for more eggs.”

Beside me, slightly out of sight of the son, smartly dressed young man, educated no doubt, rolled his eyes and spits the word, “Naco.” “Peasant.” As for me, I’d give my decades of education for one-tenth of that peasant’s faith.

when I was a child
I wrote a note to myself
on how to find faith
I’ve since traveled the world
in search of that note on faith


C-Melody Sax

by John Samuel Tieman

Gus McCrae of Lonesome Dove says, “The older the violin, the sweeter the music.”

But I like to think of myself as an old C-melody sax. That’s an actual name, by the way, C-melody saxophone. A lovely name, when I think of it, with a lovely sound.