Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Have I mentioned I like being an aunt? She's looking like a little girl more than a baby every day ...

Come Sunday

Coming from a Sabbatarian background myself, I was interested to read The Atlantic's take on a new book titled The Sabbath World, by Judith Shulevitz. The idea is that a community-implemented, set-aside time of rest--not as a result of divine mandate but simply because it's a good thing civically--would have "social, pragmatic and spiritual utility" in today's harried, disconnected world.

My English 1010 students have been discussing an extended excerpt from Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, and many of them are convinced that Putnam is right in his assessment of America's civic health (he argues that it's on the decline). Individualism, most of my students believe, has completely overrun collective, communal concerns. I'll have to alert them to Shulevitz's book as one good idea for how to stem this trend. But, as the Atlantic review asks, how practical/feasible is it, really, to think of re-instituting Sabbath practices?

European societies appear less stressed and rat-race like. Afternoon naps, 30-or-so-hour work weeks, etc. Are these practices the result of workplace and community policies or something deeper in the cultural soul? My guess is that it's the latter.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Much more than a proofreader

I'd heard that President Obama writes at least some of his speeches, and this photo confirms his skills as a thinker, writer, editor and orator:

That's not proofreading. That's some expert wordsmithing there.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Getting there

So, I know there's no need whatsoever for a thesis project to have a cover, but I had some fun putting this together today. As I'm making final changes and additions to my novella-length essay, it's nice to imagine it with a cover of some sort. I have a printout of it sitting on the desk to inspire me to finish well.

(The picture is of Prim Point lighthouse on Prince Edward Island where I got to camp out for a week of thesis writing last fall. It's a beautiful place, full of sea, steeple, rock, wind. Go in the off season, when it's quiet and all your own. Just remember to bring a coat.)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Three writers in one evening

Tomorrow's Emerging Writers Symposium here in Laramie features Gaby Calvocoressi (poetry), Glen Pourciau (fiction) and Nicole Walker (nonfiction and poetry). I'm curious to ask Nicole if she prefers one genre to the other. Reading some of her poems and a couple essays this week, she seems to be a wiz with both. I'll be introducing her tomorrow night at the reading at Second Story Books.

My favorite lines of hers so far? From a prose poem in her book This Noisy Egg: "Both my grandmothers collect birds. The one, the one with the foil, collects the cardboard-sculpted, mantle-shaped polyester kind. My other grandma--stale bread folded in her pocket--and a long walk from her house to the park. She keeps birds inside her coat. She opens the bread sack and out come symphonies of ducks."

Loquacious sleeper

Zzz ... I'd heard people talk in their sleep now and then, but I'd never been privy to truly eloquent speech from a dreamer until this week, when Alisa (roomie) burst into the following monologue:

"Hahahahaha, that's awkward. Those used to happen to me all the time. Oh, who am I kidding?! That still happens to me."

Witnessing her rem-cycled conversation as I came in the bedroom, long after she'd already hit the sack, was an event I will cherish years from now.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Frustrating inertia on "don't ask, don't tell"

I wasn't aware just how many service members have been impacted by the law put in place in 1993 requiring gays in the military to hide their sexual orientation. More than 13,000 members have been discharged as a result of the law--11,000 of them since 1997 according to The Huffington Post. The law has yet to be repealed, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates just announced new rules that are a positive first step.

Gates said that the changes, which basically put higher-ranking officials in charge of cases and make it tougher to bring allegations against someone, will provide "a greater measure of common sense and common decency" for handling situations related to the gay ban. And it looks like a full repeal of the ban may be on the horizon. Yet many officials and politicians worry that a big change to the policy "might undermine military cohesion and effectiveness" even if they agree that "don't ask, don't tell" is problematic.

And I find that pretty frustrating. In a realm marked by sexism and sexual abuse, the military has bigger fish to fret over. One in three women in the military experience sexual assault. One in three. And the penalties for the few perpetrators caught are often ridiculously minor in comparison to the crimes.

What if we worked a little harder on minimizing violence and intimidation and things instead of accommodating homophobia?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A good song ...

... one that makes me want to get up and clog and hug the people I love, is Mitch & Mickey's "When You're Next To Me" from A Mighty Wind. Give it a listen at

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Today's vote

I'm hoping it really happens today ...

"I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber." -President Obama

Friday, March 19, 2010

A seriously befuddling and beautiful film

Both Joe (my boyfriend) and I wish one of us had written Dana Stevens' review of A Serious Man for Slate. This latest of the Coen films I take to be a replaying of the dilemmas hashed out and never really resolved in the book of Job. Stevens' commentary gets at this, noting that the Coens are "as unforthcoming with their secrets as God is to poor Larry," the movie's protagonist. It's not a film to go into expecting to understand it, but it is a film well worth seeing. And I kind of loved the inscrutability of it, the way in which A Serious Man embodies Larry's growing sense of randomness about his misfortunes."Larry has always considered himself a good man," Stevens writes, "but this convergence of ill fortune throws him into a spiritual crisis. He tries to consult with three rabbis. The youngest (Simon Hellberg) can offer only chipper platitudes, the second (George Wyner) recounts an oft-told and apparently pointless story he calls 'The Goy's Teeth,' and the third, the ancient and venerated Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), refuses to see him."

I think we need these stories, stories told with a sense of perplexity, fate and humor that reflects our efforts to make sense of life.

Insects as vaccines

My personal impressions of and interactions with bugs have almost always been negative, but the reasons for this unfortunate nature of our relationship are not limited to general squeamishness and fear on my part. At least that's what I'm gleaning from Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War by Jeffrey Lockwood, my thesis chair.

I have far yet to go in the book, but already Lockwood's case is sensitizing me to the ways in which insects and the minor or major pestilences they carry with them have captured human imagination from ancient times until now. In a section exploring the role of insects in Old Testament history and theology, Lockwood notes that Yawheh was "perceived as an entomologically astute deity" and that what he needed "was nature's arsenal--blights that aroused a deep sense of mystery and fear. Winning a war by 'shock and awe' would render a conquered foe psychologically beaten and culturally disheartened" (11). Lockwood goes on to detail the prominent role of insects in the plagues that are recorded to have come upon the land of Egypt in the story of the Exodus. Six of the ten plagues, he argues, employed insects (ranging from gnats to flies to locusts) as combatants.

So my dislike of these critters is not unique. I am drawing on full-bodied cultural memory when I slap at mosquitoes, when I gag in panic after breathing in a cloud of gnats during a summer jog by the river, when I can't concentrate or sleep after seeing a spider (I know, not an insect technically, but still) in my room and then losing track of it by the time I return from the bathroom with a tissue or two (or three, to cushion the awful crunch of my intended killing).

But there are other ways to think about bugs, to think about them in more positive terms. On an emotional level, stories like Charlotte's Web remind me of their valuable place in the biological world--and that most of them, individually, really aren't as sinister, as bent on my destruction or disease, as I imagine them to be.

On a whole different level, what if we think about them not as the messengers of pestilence but as a means of promoting health? That seems to be what a researcher from a university in Japan is up to, according to CNN. He led a project that has successfully altered a certain species of mosquito so that it carries a vaccination for malaria within its saliva rather than the disease itself. At least in lab mice, the mosquito's bites resulted in a transfer of the vaccine to the host. Wow.

But given our sensitive relationship to the insect world, are we prepared for such switches of perspective? Apparently the researchers "admit that there are barriers to using this form of vaccination in the wild, including issues of controlling dosage, 'medical safety issues' and the 'issues of public acceptance to [the] release of transgenic mosquitoes.'"

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Some grand prose I wish I'd written

This is from Brad Watson's novel, The Heaven of Mercury ...

"On her deathbed he'd been there, holding her hand. She'd looked at him, her red-rimmed eyes brimming with tears. -You ruined my life, she said in her strained and halting voice. He'd only nodded, squeezed and patted her hand. And later that night, she'd passed on. That was just Avis, she'd needed to say it. He never for a moment thought that, in her heart, she believed it was all that simple."

I like being an aunt.

That's my piano-prodigy niece with my sister. And here's a video my nephew made on his own to thank Grandma for a gift ...

Friday, March 12, 2010


Just ran across an interesting, extended article by Andrew Sullivan in a late 2008 issue of The Atlantic titled Why I Blog. His description of the nature of the blog sounds in some ways much like essayist John D'Agata's fresh definitions of the essay form.

D'Agata (who visited UW last Thursday and Friday) talks about the essay as an attempt, an experiment, or, as he particularly describes what he calls the lyric essay in his Next American Essay anthology, "a kind of logic that wants to sing." Sullivan's terms for blogs aren't exactly the same, but the sense of unfinished-ness, of uncertainty and leap-taking, is similar. Sullivan writes of the blog phenomenon, "Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy." D'Agata emphasized during Q+A after last week's reading that in attempting to address the questions it sets out exploring, a true essay is less likely to arrive at clear answers than embody a measure of "clarity" regarding the subject at hand.

Both forms -- essay and blog -- seem comfortable with imperfection and complication. And both authors (Sullivan and D'Agata) are in the position of shaping and heralding the characteristics of these modern forms of written communication. But Sullivan and D'Agata also understand that these contemporary compositional trends are not so new as they may seem. D'Agata dedicates much discussion (in his essay anthologies) to the long-lived tradition of "essaying," as he puts it. And Sullivan roots the idea of blogging in this tradition as well, pointing to Montaigne as a kind of blogger: "Montaigne was living his skepticism, daring to show how a writer evolves, changes his mind, learns new things, shifts perspectives, grows older--and that this, far from being something that needs to be hidden behind a veneer of unchanging authority, can become a virtue ..."

Entertaining angels of a sort

There's a lovely new tavern by Sweet Melissa's in downtown Laramie, and members of the MFA bid farewell to visiting writer Edward P. Jones (The Known World) there this afternoon. Jones was with us for a month giving readings, interviews, workshops and manuscript consultations.

Jones is the last of three eminent guests to the MFA during the 2009-2010 term, and each of them have been wonderful to speak and work with. I've gleaned helpful techniques from the sentence-level style of poet Claudia Rankine's work (Don't Let Me Be Lonely), and I'm interested in her attention to what may appear at first, or to less focused faculties, to be ordinary or unremarkable.

Earlier this spring renowned journalist Philip Gourevitch visited UW for two weeks, and I'm very much in awe of his work, particularly We Write to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. One particular suggestion he provided while discussing a segment of my own work was, "You're in a position to imagine sympathetically this faith community [that you're leaving]." This concern for an accurate, understanding portrayal of the complex people and events involved in a conflict (whether it be a large-scale conflict such as the Rwandan genocide or a minute, more personal one like a crisis of religious faith) is increasingly important to me, and it was good to hear Gourevitch reinforce this concern. I'm going to miss these opportunities after I leave the MFA in a couple months.