Category Archives: nonfiction november


OLJ xanadu




On this last day of november and for our last post of nonfiction november, we are excited to share this piece by PR Griffis on Xanadu. Enjoy!


Xan·a·du   /ˈzanəˌdo͞o/   n.  a poem by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: an idyllic, exotic, or luxurious place.

xanadu 800px-Xanadu_on_Map_of_Asia




I was eight years old in 1980 when Xanadu, the film starring Olivia Newton John, was released. I don’t remember much of the film itself—something maybe about Greek goddesses come to life through a billboard and arriving in sunny Southern California to rollerskate. It seems like maybe there was an older gentleman who wore a yachting outfit, or maybe that was one of those B-list-star-filled episodes of CHiPs.


Two things are important to me where Xanadu, the film, is concerned. First, I was in love with Olivia Newton John, and had been since I saw Grease at the drive-in two years before. She might have been my first cinematic crush. Good girl, poodle-skirt, bobby socks, and saddle shoes Sandy, or teased hair, black leather, high spiky heels Sandy, either one. As with Bewitched, where Elizabeth Montgomery played both blonde housewife witch Samantha and Aquarian-age party-girl witch cousin Serena, it was only different flavors of the same thing, each impossibly lovely in its own way.

Second, the thing I remember best about Xanadu is the title song from the soundtrack, sung (natch) by Olivia Newton-John. This, of course, only a year or so before “Let’s Get Physical.” Which: yes, please.


I was surprised and saddened as a child to discover that Olivia Newton-John and Juice “Angel of the Morning” Newton weren’t related. I was particularly taken with female singers—Crystal Gayle, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn—especially of the crossover type, of which there were a plethora in the late 1970s.


“Xanadu,” the song is, if you’re not familiar with it, a dreamy disco tune, ONJ’s voice undulating beneath swirling veils of layered synth. It is also personally notable as the first instance I can recall of misapprehending lyrics. I was maybe twenty before I came to understand that what I had heard as testing me wasn’t right was actually destiny will arrive.


“Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from which Xanadu enters the western lexicon, is notable for beginning with the workmanlike slack-stress metrics of which junior high poetry unit horrors are made: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.


Coleridge claimed to have received the inspiration for “Kubla Khan” after reading Purchas, his Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation to the Present, which ponderously-titled book details the travels of Marco Polo, who is believed to have visited Xanadu, the summer palace of Kubla Khan, ruler of Mongolia and part of China, in the late 1200s.


Also notable: Coleridge had administered himself “an anodyne for a slight indisposition” (read: opiates) and fallen asleep for a few hours after reading Purchas. The poem, he claimed, came to him fully formed during this sleep.


So, after a three-hour dope nod, he roused and wrote “Kubla Khan” the place of stately pleasure domes, the place of sacred rivers running through caverns fathomless to man.


Did I first play Marco Polo at about this same time—eight or nine years old—or shortly after? When was it that I first assumed the role of blind explorer, navigating chest deep and unseen water, attempting to reach far-flung and ever-shifting ports of call?


Coleridge claimed to have been interrupted in the midst of his writing by a man on business from Porlock, the remainder of the poem evaporating, the phrase “a man on business from Porlock” now a synonym for interrupted genius.


Grease was my favorite movie when I was seven, in 1978; “Xanadu” was my favorite song in 1980, when I was nine. Somewhere in there was Charlie’s Angels. I was in love with Kate Jackson, Jacklyn Smith, and Farrah Fawcett, in that order. I knew, deep down, I was supposed to be in love with Farrah Fawcett, if for no other reason because she was married to the Six-Million-Dollar Man, Lee Majors. She was, during this time, Farrah Fawcett-Majors.


One has to imagine that transoceanic travel, travel east from Europe to Asia in general, must have been fairly dodgy if Columbus, some two hundred years after Marco Polo’s voyage, tried to establish a route by heading in the opposite direction. Travel of that sort at that time being akin to—maybe even more dangerous than, statistically speaking—the space travel of our own age. And certainly, the desire to boldy go where no man has gone before, the human yen for discovery—equal parts a pull of the unknown and a pushing away from the known, the ultimately unsatisfactory—is well documented throughout human history.


Zeitgeist, maybe, is nothing more than a convergence of arrangements from possibilities theretofore nonexistent or inaccessible. Marco Polo, certainly, enlarged the realm of possibilities through his travels to and return from Asia, as did the introduction of culture and technology represented by the Moorish conquest of Iberia. Would the transatlantic voyage of Christopher Columbus have been within the realm of possibility without these happenings? Is it coincidence that the reconquista of the last Moorish-held Iberian lands and Columbus’s voyage both occurred in 1492?


2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, three years before I was born, the year before men landed on the moon. Interestingly, Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” David Bowie’s “Star Man,” and Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love,” all of which take as their subject matter space travel, all came out in 1972. It’s as if these songs are the product of some Aquarian age that had as its focus some tenable objective correlative, a means by which we might transcend the bonds of space and time, some century after time and distance had been shattered by means of the telegraph and railroad, the means by which we might realize a place where we could make ourselves anew.


The Velvet Underground’s 1967 “I’m Waiting for the Man” is about scoring dope in Harlem, a venture much less dodgy than traipsing through Mongolia in the late 1200s, to say nothing of (a diminuendo, voices dying with a dying fall beneath the music from a farther room) rocketing into outer space.


When I was seven, my best friend Weldon and I used to take turns being Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors. His bed was an ocean, the sheets were the waves, and we would dive under the water and kiss open mouthed. Because we were only aping what we’d seen on TV, we didn’t know that there was supposed to be tongue involvement. I don’t remember either of us being concerned who was Lee Majors and who Farrah Fawcett-Majors.


In 1980, it was Xanadu and Olivia Newton John. By 1981, I wanted to see The Road Warrior more than I wanted anything. The next year, Conan the Barbarian came out, and I wanted to see that more than anything.


Does it reflect some grimmer reality in the national zeitgeist, this trending away from disco, from dancing, from musicals and magic? Or is it a graphing of the process by which a boy who saw no difference between playing with Barbies and GI Joe, a boy with no firmly fixed gender predilections, learned his place?


Travel, journey, being the primary means by which American narrative is given structure. If you are dissatisfied with your lot, move. Move from Europe to the Americas. The primary motivation of the Spanish foot soldiers who first came to the Americas—a journey from which they might not return—was the promise of land, of gold, of glory, all of which are ways of saying opportunity. Move. Move from the East to the Midwest, the South, the West. Move out onto the oceans and hunt white whales, move out onto the plains and hunt buffalo and first peoples and precious metals and one another.


And once even space and ocean have been thoroughly explored, begin in earnest the inner exploration, the exploration that does unto self what exploration did to the oceans and the west and the south and the east. Rocket off into inner space. Is it coincidence or convergence that syringes and Saturn rockets bear a striking resemblance to one another?


Xanadu, now, is a synonym for paradise. The final frontier, inner or outer. When we were twelve, my friend Robert and I rode our bicycles out into the country—white rock roads sectioning off ten-square-mile tracts of farmland—and found a low water crossing that emptied into a small pond. The idea of a place where water washed over the road and into a small limestone pond, wreathed round with willows, it was almost too much for the mind to bear. I decided that we would call it Xanadu. Because this is what we do with places that were already there when we arrived. We name them to suit us. We name them in keeping with the breadth of our understanding (see: The New World).


I didn’t know what to call the thing I discovered I could bring into being when I was nine or maybe ten, a year or two after we’d moved to a new and smaller town, where I was at first and for some years largely friendless. Call it The Man From Porlock. Call it Xanadu. Call it The Autoerotic Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Another kind of blind exploration, in any case, there in the dark of my bedroom. Marco. Polo.


How elegant the space station in 2001. How workmanlike, how quotidian, the International Space Station. How sad that our grasp for the stars has been shuffled off, that astronauts from the country who first put men on the moon now have to fly coach. How strange that some three short years after Kubrick realized his masterpiece of humanity’s uneasy relationship with technology, that technology became firmly means to end, just one more way to speak of distance, a means of metaphor.


The space program having, of course, its roots in the Nazi V2 rocket program, the same technology used to propel our most ardent aspirations towards the stars was wedded to one of the dirtiest moments in US history, another product of World War II. Little Boy, all grown up and become the ICBM, with something like 500 times the destructive force. Perhaps the fact that Russian and American scientists now work side-by-side in the ISS is a step towards the kind of utopian ideals embraced in, say, Star Trek.


Robert and I figured out later that the creek that supplied the water to Xanadu—our found and primeval paradise—ran through a cow pasture. Which meant that the water in Xanadu, in which we’d swum and splashed with such abandon, was chock-full of cow shit and all other manner of agricultural effluvia.


David Bowie, of course, released “Space Oddity” in 1969, the year after (and inspired by) Kubrick’s release of 2001: A Space Odyssey; “Space Oddity” introducing into the lexicon the figure of the lost astronaut Major Tom.


Odysseus, of course, being a Greek soldier who had a hell of a time getting home from the Trojan War.


In 1980, Bowie sings “Ashes to ashes, fun to funky/ We know Major Tom’s a junkie.”


Coleridge wrote to John Thelwall in 1797: “I should much wish, like the Indian Vishnu, to float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotus, & wake once in a million years for a few minutes… I can at times feel strong the beauties you describe… but more frequently all things appear little – all the knowledge that can be acquired child’s play – the universe itself – what but an immense heap of little things?


Time speeds up as we age. The hours before it is permissible to wake one’s parents on Christmas morning, the last few weeks of summer vacation, when no more swimming or playing or reading or sleeping will satisfy—sated with relaxation—these lasted lifetimes. Now, months pass in no time at all. The three and a half years I spent in the Army, the four years I spent in high school, these seemed like a million years. Everything—time, distance, suffering, joy—is relative, is how I understood Einstein’s theory. Who, for instance, is to say a three-hour dream of paradise is not one million years slept and awoken from?


Weldon was not the last guy I did stuff with. Into my early teens, I dated girls, and I experimented with boys. Girls were terrifying in their terra incognita, as boys were terrifying in their potential, should our experimentations become public knowledge. The small Texas town where I grew up having clearly defined boundaries, and fairly heinous standards and practices for people who transgressed them, I wasn’t certain enough in my orientation—a Kinsey Scale 2, say—to risk the potential for social and physical harm to act any further than I did on what was, in any case, more curiosity than identity.


A few years after Robert and I discovered Xanadu, we found an abandoned limestone quarry outside of town. There were a couple of places where the water was deep enough to jump off the ledges into the pools below. If you hit the bottom, though, it raised up purplish clouds that gave off an awful stink. After we’d been swimming there for awhile, we saw the rancher whose farm the quarry bordered dumping a wheelbarrow-full of horseshit into the water from just about the spot where we usually jumped.


I traded one identity for another, always, I think, wanting to feel safe. To feel accepted. Musicals for post-apocalypse, disco for metal, extroverted and nerdy for stoned and jockish, push-ups and sit-ups for things that worked faster and more reliably, gender-fluid for gender rigidly defined.


Growing up in an agrarian community in Central Texas, my youth was at least somewhat defined by small bodies of water and the presence of animal shit. That, and an uneasy relationship with gender, with White Male Power that probably defined—necessitated—my movements outward, onward. As with Marco Polo, as with the conquistadors, as with Lou Reed and David Bowie and Elton John, I had to move, pushed as much as pulled. I was defined by all of these, and that discovery of personal Xanadu—and what is paradise for us here on earth but a moment’s reprieve, one moment being all we have at any time—of a dozen different sorts, of personal erasure and continuous making anew.




Author PhotoPR Griffis lives and writes in Willimantic Connecticut with his wife, the writer Mika Taylor, and their dog, Petunia Von Scampers. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fuse, Diagram, Defunct, and Devil’s Lake. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel of as-yet-undetermined length, and sometimes attempts to Twitter: @PR_Griffis



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"Why You Can't Ring the Bell of 'High Striker,'" Popular Mechanics, 1935

“Why You Can’t Ring the Bell of ‘High Striker,'” Popular Mechanics, 1935


Banksy, Upper West Side, New York City

Banksy, Upper West Side, New York City


Today, in our fifth post of nonfiction november, we feature an essay by Raha Namy on the word whack. Enjoy!


whack  \hwak\  vb.  1:  to strike with a strong or resounding blow  2:  to cut with or as with a whack



You are in bed, in Denver. It is 18th of November, 2013, late at night. The lights are off and you are Viber messaging with him on your iphone. He is in his office, in Tehran, 28th of Aban 1392, morning. You send hugs and kisses and wish him a peaceful day. You tell him how much you appreciate his being supportive of you applying to the teaching position in Beirut, Lebanon. He sends you goodnight kisses.

You go on FB.  You respond to a friend’s message from Baltimore who is checking up on you to see how the edits for his translation of a TED talk on the subject of metaphors are going on. You have not even started yet, you text him. You need to get everything for the job application ready in less than a week.

The position begins at the beginning of the next academic year. You planned to stay in Denver and write and translate for another year, but the job is too appealing to just disregard. And you did not go looking for it; it came find you. A German-American friend, a colleague writer, who knows you enough to know what inspires you, texted you yesterday and said, “Do you know about this position?”

Still on FB, you get another message. The circle with the face of the friend in Tucson appears on the screen. You are to write something for the nonfiction month of The Dictionary Project. You stop yourself from immediately checking the message and continue on with the other conversation, all the while hoping for a word your ESL can handle. Even though you are a writer writing in English, the language is and will forever remain your second one.

You finally open the message box and read: “Hi. Your word, freshly bibliomanced, is: Whack.” You think, “What? What the hell does that mean?” You have a sense that it is a colloquial word, but you have no idea what to with it. You are sure you have never used it in any of your writings or in conversation. You continue to read:

“\hwak\  vb.  1:  to strike with a strong or resounding blow 2:  to cut with or as with a whack.”

That is not really helpful. You check your iphone’s Merriam-Webster app, then the iFarsi one. Now you can’t go to sleep. You get up and turn on the lights and your laptop. The New Oxford American Dictionary on your Apple tells you:


“whack |(h)wak| informal

verb [ with obj. ]

strike forcefully with a sharp blow: his attacker whacked him on the head | [ no obj. ] : she found a stick to whack at the branches.

• murder: he was whacked while sitting in his car.


1 a sharp or resounding blow.

2 a try or attempt: we decided to take a whack at spotting the decade’s trends.

3 Brit. a specified share of or contribution to something: motorists pay a fair whack for the use of the roads through taxes.


at a (or one ) whack at one time: he built twenty houses at one whack.

out of whack out of order; not working: all their calculations were out of whack.


whack off vulgar slang masturbate.


whacker noun

ORIGIN early 18th cent.: imitative, or perhaps an alteration of TWACK”


You check The Free Online Dictionary, use Google Translate, check the Urban Dictionary, the Aryanpour Online Persian Dictionary.

You then go to your bookshelf. You check your Little Oxford Thesaurus from 1998 and the word does not exist in there. You check your Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English from 1981 and the word does not exist in there. You check your Hezareh English-Persian Dictionary that is shedding more and more pages everyday. It reads:




You have no idea what you are going to do with the word. You have six days to write your essay, you tell yourself. Nothing will be resolved tonight. Go back to bed.

Sometime during the night you dream of a cemetery. In the distance a mass of black bodies moves slowly toward you. Puppets. Wooden. Much taller than humans. Women. Wrapped in black veils. Only their faces showing. They move as if being dragged on a hidden conveyor belt. You hear voices. From their direction. None of the mouths move. The voices ask, “What happened to our children?” The bodies move. The wind blows. “Where are our children?”

You wake up around 7:30 with a Viber message that reads, “Kisses. Wake up beauty.” You send a kiss back and write, “Have fun and say hi to everyone.” You know he is out with friends. You turn around in bed. You open the BBC page on your iphone. The first headline reads, “Lebanon blasts hit Iran’s embassy in Beirut.”


P.S. Three days later you send in your application documents for the teaching position in Beirut.



R. Namy is a freelance writer and translator. Wandering everywhere, she has given up on finding home anywhere.


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Aboard Le Mistral, France 1975/ Charles Harbutt

Aboard Le Mistral, France 1975/ Charles Harbutt



For our fourth post of nonfiction november, we are pleased to feature an essay on the symphonics and sorrow by Megan Kimble. Please enjoy!


sorrow  (särō),  n.  1.  distress caused by loss, affliction, disappointment, etc.; grief sadness or regret.  2.  a cause or occasion of grief or regret, as an affliction, a misfortune, or trouble:  His first sorrow was the book failure.  3.  the expression of grief, sadness, disappointment, or the like:  muffled sorrow.  –v.i.  4.  to feel sorrow; grieve.



At 7:25 p.m., Cory and I slide past the elderly couple occupying L9 and L10, respectively, and sink into L11 and L12. As we settle in, I realize: not only are we the last to arrive, we are also, it seems, the youngest—the only heads of brown in a sea of white and grey.

We have donned our finest and come to the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music concert to see the Vienna Piano Trio because Cory’s landlord, a board member of Friends, had offered Cory free tickets when he expressed interest. Why not? An excuse to dress up—a cultural outing rare for a Wednesday.

We settled in; we stopped our shuffling; I took one picture with my iPhone before folding under the consternated gaze of the woman to my right.

Bows on strings; arms askance, necks askew. A pounding piano, a scattering of keys. When the first movement ends, the musicians bow and leave the stage. Cory and I look at each other, confused; the rest of the audience, trained for this moment, claps. Thus beckoned, the musicians return to the stage and settled in for the second movement.

And with the second movement comes sorrow—it is unmistakable. When piano punctuates violin, when E flat major modulates C major, when the melody waits. The word likely wouldn’t have popped into my mind, save for this assignment. I would have simply thought, or said, or hovered on a thing called sadness.

In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, an elderly couple travels on a train together. They are sad because they will soon die; they are happy because they are together. “The sadness was form, the happiness content. Happiness filled the space of sadness.”

Of course, sorrow and sadness are not the same. Sorrow is that thing, whole—it is content and form. Sorrow depends on the two, the two in concert—a violin’s strings, plucked low; a piano’s key, hit high—wound together.

In Google Book’s Ngram Viewer—a searchable word frequency database—incidences of the word “sorrow” have fallen by nearly 75 percent since the early 1800s. Ngram has collected the “data” (words) from 5.2 million digitized books into a collective cultural archive of 500 billion words: the dictionary to end all dictionaries. (Although, it too, peaked in popularity, with a short burst of exuberantly analytical fame in late 2010.)

Perhaps it is because sorrow “implies a long term state,” writes Anna Wierzbicka in Emotions across Languages and Cultures. “Sorrow—but not unhappiness—suggests a degree of resignation…which lends sorrow its peculiar air of dignity.” Sorrow is sadness dressed in cocktail attire, waiting to be driven home after the piano concert. Resignation is a quality that ages well—that arrives with age—and so, perhaps, too, is sorrow. Sorrow is sadness without youth’s fight—without belief in difference, change, movement (a quality we sometimes call “naïve.”)

When violin punctures cello, when C major repeats, when the melody repeats, we are offered a glimpse of lightness, a way out from under the weight. Youth believes the glimpse will widen. Sorrow suggests lightness as the anomaly.

After the second movement, after the musicians repeat the inexplicable bow, exit, and return, the third movement ends in intermission. After intermission, the musicians settle in—they don’t leave the stage again.

I begin to think of age. Of what it might feel like when I am contained in a slower, older, greyer body. Sorrow sounds—looks, even—old. It leans forward, o lilting into w which leans into an echo. (Sorrow-o-o-o.) When I think of sorrow, I think of morrow—parting is such sweet. A soul laden with.

When we leave, Cory and I compare notes. How we are and how we were, then, submerged in sound. After intermission, we’d both leaned forward in our seats, chin in hand—the only ones in the room reaching towards the stage in such a stance. My body relaxed, forgot itself, and my mind had meandered from memory to memory, each tumble of notes pushing it in a different direction—up and down, dark into light, water wearing on smooth stones, questions of past, uncertainty of future.

If sorrow has gone out of style—in our culture, happiness is expected to exist without sadness’s bound—then perhaps for the same reason, the symphony has, too. I don’t think you are supposed to lean forward in your seat—to press against the low-pitched darkness, to believe—to hope—that when C major modulates E major that the higher of the two pitches will prevail.




mkphotoMegan Kimble lives in Tucson, where she works as the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona, a local foods magazine serving Tucson and the borderlands. She is a regular contributor to Los Angeles Times, and her articles and essays have appeared in High Country News, The Bellevue Literary Review, Sage Magazine, and Gulf Coast. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing nonfiction from the University of Arizona and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.


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Complex mathematics



For our third post of nonfiction november, we are excited to have a piece on algebra and adding up by Molly McCloy. Please enjoy!



sum  /səm/  noun  1.  a particular amount of money: “they could not afford such a sum”  2.  the total amount resulting from the addition of two or more numbers, amounts, or items: “the sum of two prime numbers”





I liked addition. I didn’t mind carrying. It was division I hated. And subtraction. And borrowing.

In seventh grade I watched this preppy girl with a blonde ponytail just stomp all over this lesbian math teacher who was wearing an ugly vinyl coat. “You are a homosexual, aren’t you? Just admit it,” said Blonde Ponytail.

“That word doesn’t mean anything. It just means ‘same sex,’” said the math teacher, but the whole class knew that Blonde Ponytail had rattled her nerves and would rule each of their verbal exchanges for the rest of the year. I quietly removed “lesbian math teacher in vinyl coat” from my list of possible career options.

I was too slow at math anyway. I wanted to study genetics because I loved my seventh-grade science teacher, Mr. F., who taught us about dominant and recessive genes and was kind to that girl who broke down crying during her oral report about chickens.

But the bad math and science teachers added up. Freshman science teacher Mr. P. had been committed to a mental institution because he heard voices that told him he was Elvis with God living in his knee. When Mr. P. returned to teaching, he immediately did an Elvis impersonation for the school talent show, jumpsuit and all

Sophomore Biology was a madhouse because Mr. L. who was bald and had a handlebar mustache like a strongman in the circus would take attendance and then retreat to his office for the rest of the class period while we stole graduated cylinders to make into bongs.

Mrs. B. was a sour old coot who had no sense of humor and I suffered with her for two years of algebra and one of geometry. Junior year I wanted to take a chemistry class because I’d heard that class had the one good science teacher in the whole school, but on the first day I shared a table with these guys who had sexually harassed my friend, so I dropped it for study hall. I took exactly one algebra class in college taught by a guy who always ate cheap chow mein in the window of the Kung Fu Noodle Shop.

Then in 2011, a local politician demeaned my community college teaching career by saying, “You still have to teach them how to write? That’s worthless. That’s for high school.”

I wanted to say, “And who are you, lady? Some hack playing dress-up-West-Wing?”

Instead I thought, “I want to finally take that chemistry class.” Everyone seemed so happy with the STEM people. They made all the money.

To take chemistry, I had to take a math class first. Certainly working a couple of math problems would be less painful than all those years adjunct-teaching writing courses for pennies on the dollar.

It had been 23 years, so my last math class was older than some of my fellow students.  On the first day, the teacher didn’t orchestrate all the complicated icebreakers used by English teachers. She finally mentioned her own name in the last ten minutes, just tossed it in as an afterthought.

On the second day, the Iraq War vet on my right asked, “Why does it smell like formaldehyde in the college cafeteria?” and the redhead guy on my left answered, “Homeless guy smoking PCP?” It was a feasible theory for the downtown campus, so all three of us laughed. I’d already found my people, two guys half my age.

Later that class the teacher was trying to make a joke about the old Kung Fu show on TV, but when she mentioned David Carradine, Redhead said, “What a way to die,” and I said, “Yeah, Michael Hutchence from INXS went the same way,” but the teacher said, “What was the Kung Fu nickname for a young student….yes, Grasshopper, when you can solve the quadratic equation, it will be time for you to go.”

That’s when I noticed the teacher was wearing a T-shirt with the words “Hairy Potter” underneath the image of a dog wearing the little Harry Potter glasses. What had I been thinking? Of course there would be no algebra class discussion on the topic of autoerotic asphyxiation.

After a few weeks I was really hating this kind of problem, ripped up my scratch paper, almost cried actual tears over it: “Solve for x,y, and z: 3/4x -5/2y-1/3z=-14; x+3/4y +7/2z=-26; 2x-3y-4z=-4.” Eventually I realized it was my sloppiness that was screwing me up. I crammed tiny numbers into corners of scratch paper. I couldn’t read my own handwriting.

Three days after Father’s Day, a Tucson police officer entered the classroom and called War Vet’s name. War Vet exited the room with the officer and whispered, “He’s probably here to tell me my father finally died.”

He came back five minutes later and said, “Yeah, my dad died.” I touched his arm. The girl in the next row touched his arm. Redhead touched his arm. Other classmates out of reach extended their arms as if in an effort to touch War Vet’s arm. War Vet stared straight ahead, seemingly unmoved. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t feel anything at all.” The teacher came back in and we solved for x, y, and z for the rest of the hour.

Towards the end of the term, a student who had been absent due to the birth of his child asked me to teach him how to solve a complex equation with plenty of exponents and negative exponents and four full equations stacked on top of each other in the form of fractions. As he watched, I executed this elaborate drawing, flip-flopping the fractions to divide, drawing arrows to little subsidiary equations I had to create, changing negative numbers to positives and positives to negatives. “There,” I said, “that’s how you do it.”

I received a reaction I hadn’t experienced since the stoner in the back row of my writing class at DeVry saluted that “We Real Cool” poem with a standing ovation. My classmate, the twenty-something new father, looked at me and said, “That was beautiful.”




578548_10151786765702913_1249793942_nTucson writer and Moth storytelling slam winner Molly McCloy has published work in Nerve, Swink, and Slate. Find out more at

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Here we are: post #2 of nonfiction november. The word is split and we are delighted to have a piece by Aisha Sabatini Sloan.


split (split),  v.t.  [SPLIT or obs. SPLITTED (-id), SPLITTING], [MD, splitten; akin to MHG. splizen; IE. base *(s)plei-, to split, crack],  1.  to separate, cut, or divide into two or more parts; cause to separate along the grain or length; break into layers.  2.  to break or tear apart by force; burst; rend.  3.  to divide into parts or shares; portion out: as, they split the cost of the trip.  4.  to cause (a group, political party, etc.) to separate into divisions or factions; disunite.  5.  in chemistry, a) to break (a molecule) into atoms; separate the components of.  b)  to produce nuclear fission in (at atom or atoms).  v.i.  1.  to separate or divide lengthwise into two or more parts; separate along the grain or length.  2.  to break or tear apart; burst; rend.  3.  to separate or break up through failure to agree, etc.  4.  [Colloq.], to divide something with another or others, each taking a share: as, winners split.  5.  [19th –c Slang], to inform on an accomplice; peach.  n.  1.  the act or process of splitting.  2. the result of spitting; specifically, a) a break; fissure; crack; tear.  b) a breach or division in a group, between persons, etc.  3.  a splinter; sliver.  4.  a single thickness of hide split horizontally.  5.  a flexible strip of wood used in basketmaking.  6.  a confection made of a split banana or other fruit with ice cream, nuts, sauces, whipped cream, etc.  7.  often pl.  the feat of spreading the legs apart until they lie flat on the floor, the body remaining upright.  8.  [Colloq.], a) a small bottle of carbonated water, wine, etc., half the usual size, often about six ounces. b) a drink or portion half the usual size. c) a half pint.  9.  [Slang], a share, as of loot or booty. 10.  in bowling, an arrangement of pins after the first bowl, so separated as to make a spare almost impossible.  adj.  1. divided or separated along the length or grain; broken into parts.  2.  sixteenths, and not in eighths: said of a quotation smaller than the normal trading unit.—SYN. see break.



That night, I watched a woman nudge her husband, who seemed to have broken his leg. He followed her gaze and looked with horror at a man nearby, who had two metal clamps sticking out of his neck. It was hard to tell if the clamps were supposed to be there, or if he’d been impaled. When the man with the broken leg was finally called and his wife wheeled him away, the man with the clamps looked at us and muttered, “That looked bad.” Hannah held her middle and I read to her from an article about Kanye and Kim.


The next day, on the emergency room’s TV screen, a CNN anchor reports on the typhoon in the Philippines, about a moment when “the dust died down.”


When I am not craning my neck to look at the television screen, I am trying to read Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Buddha. He left home when his son was born. The Buddha was worried that his attachment to the people he loved would bind him to a life of sorrow: “Some of the monks used to compare this kind of passion and craving for perishable things to a ‘dust’ which weighed the soul down and prevented it from soaring to the pinnacle of the universe.”


A scream from the children’s waiting room sounds just like a parrot, irritating the woman with a swollen neck. Months ago in my notebook, I wrote, “Limbo allows for enlightenment, but if you’re not prepared, you’ll experience it as projection of all your demons.”


Across from us, a woman laughs at her own confusion. The sound of a bottle falling in the vending machine was just like that of a body hitting the floor in a hallway or bathroom. After absorbing the shock of the sound, our eyes meet and we giggle, a moment I’ve been craving for hours. This atmosphere is vaguely competitive. People scan one another for injury as they wait for their names to be called. Before we gave up and left last night, we had been waiting for three and a half hours. Some people had been waiting for nine.


Hannah said it felt like her stomach was being sliced by knives. For three and a half hours, her face switched back and forth between the way the cartoon face looks at numbers nine and ten of the pain scale. And then, the knives stopped. Everybody has heard a story of a ruptured appendix: the sudden end of pain opening out into a body full of poison. So upon waking, we get dressed, pack a lunch, and come back.


CNN discusses what we have to worry about next. “Disease,” somebody says, “a secondary disaster.”


“Suppose,” the Buddha said, “I start to look for the unborn, the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, incorrupt and supreme freedom from this bondage?”


A nurse calls for a man who does not hear her. When she asks him point blank if he is who she’s looking for, he says yes. “Let me help you, my friend,” she says, her tone softening as she saunters behind his wheelchair and begins to push.


Earlier, CNN featured an interview with Sarah Palin. She was trying to explain why it wasn’t racist for her to use the word “slavery” to talk about Obama’s health care law. The night before in the ER, Hannah asked if she could help a woman with dyed red hair. She looked confused, facing the men’s bathroom with her temporary wheelchair and all her belongings on the floor. “I’m just trying to get away from the sound of Piers Morgan’s voice,” she said, as Hannah grabbed her purse and I picked up her steaming cup of hot chocolate, following her to the other side of the waiting room.


Now, they talk about women and children begging in the streets of the Philippines, though the streets are becoming increasingly dangerous. “That seems odd,” I say, looking at the footage of wood planks and discombobulated faces. “Everything is the street now,” Hannah says, finishing my thought.


Armstrong writes, “Adam and Eve lived in harmony, unaware of their sexual difference or of the distinction between good and evil. It is a unity that is impossible for us to imagine in our more fragmented existence, but in almost every culture, the myth of this primal concord showed that human beings continued to yearn for a peace and wholeness that they felt to be the proper state of humanity.”


We all gaze at the ultrasound together. It looks like we’re looking up through the ocean at the water’s surface. “Some see monsters, some see animals,” the sonographer laughs. “I only see organs.” She has an Eastern European accent. It makes me anxious to look at all these murky, unidentifiable shapes, so I sit down and hide from the screen behind the sonographer’s body.


“How long did it take you to you get used to the sound of screaming?” I ask the woman who pushes Hannah’s stretcher from one room to the other. She responds, unphased, “I have two kids, so.”


Outside, there are cop cars. I think of the little boy who was staring at us the night before. He had come in with a family flanked by policemen. He and his sister were left alone in the waiting room for close to an hour while their family disappeared behind closed doors. All of the sudden, the children stood up from their seats. As if on cue, the double doors opened. Two adults came to retrieve them.


As I drive to the Vietnamese restaurant for our dinner, it feels later than it is. I feel nostalgic for the ER now, and hurry to get back to it.


While I am not in the room, the doctor comes to check in on Hannah, and takes a phone call about another patient. “The bullet went in his back and came out of his neck,” she reports when I return.


I live across the street from the hospital, and often bike through the emergency room’s parking lot on my way home from work. Each time, I think with a commuter’s impatience about how long someone is pausing at the stop sign, sometimes shouting out loud.


Today at work, I was nicer to my students. Not on purpose, but out of exhaustion or surrender. As I traveled through the ER’s parking lot, peering into the newly arrived ambulances, I experienced the space anew. As a point of fracture. Something swollen. A kind of seam.




aishaAisha Sabatini Sloan grew up in an apartment building five miles from the ocean. Because the blue condo at the end of the block with porthole style windows was built around the same time that she was born, she always assumed she was going to be given one of the apartments for free.



And a little something extra: here is an oddly appropriate Volvo Ad–featuring Jean Claude Van Damme, two semis, and a soundtrack of Enya–that just came out this week:


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Nimbus II, Berndnaut Smilde

Nimbus II, Berndnaut Smilde


I’m so pleased to be starting our nonfiction november with an essay by Mika Taylor.  Enjoy!


eu·di·om·e·ter  (yü-dē-ˈä-mə-tər) n.  [Gr.  eudios, clear, fair (eu-, good + dios, genit. of Zeus, god of the sky) + meier].  1.  originally, an instrument for measuring the amount of oxygen in the air.  2.  an instrument for measuring and analyzing gases.


I pictured a machine – some complex contraption with tubes and knobs and glass spirals. It measures the air. Air is everywhere. It measures the everywhere.


In reality, it isn’t much – a simple apparatus – an upside-down test tube with numbers on the side, its mouth end submerged in water, a pipe leading from another closed tube in which something (anything) combusts. Arrows point the gas up and out the pipe, under the water and into this numbered tube, pop, pop, pop, floating to the top, and displacing what it can. Once the material is burned, the gasses released, there is a number, an exact measurement that those far better with numbers and chemicals and processes than I, will use somehow.


I don’t know how much gas there is in in a penny or a pound cake. I don’t know how much gas there is this room right now or on the planet or in myself. If I did know, that knowledge wouldn’t matter. I cannot change the number. I don’t think it would change me. These things exist. They are measured. Is there comfort in knowing that they can be quantified, and that others are doing that job? Perhaps.


There are so many things I would measure if only I could construct the right network of tubes and beakers and Bunsen burners. But I do not have the expertise. I measure and order and quantify what I can with words, not numbers – parsing language to better explain all I see and feel. But life is not exact. Life is complicated and long. There is beauty and pain. There is beauty in pain. I try to find order, but with words there is so much slippage. What I mean, and what I say, and what you read, and what you understand, are all different, all variable.


Even for this simple apparatus, the word is layered, its meanings multiple. The root, eudios, means clear and fair and good, and of the sky. This device was invented to measure the “goodness of the air”. It now just measures quantities of gasses. “Goodness” must have been too soft a term for modern thinkers. The inventors though, the namers of this particular tool called on Zeus, god of the sky, as if they were looking to measure something more in those tiny bubbles, something profound, and eternal, and real.


It’s time for someone to invent a machine to measure me. Centrifuge my cells. Boil my blood. Quantify and qualify. Be precise. Tell me my weight, my height, my bone density. Tell me how much is water and muscle and fat. What gasses are in my system? In what amounts? Tell me my IQ and income level and the number of descendants I will leave behind. What is my life expectancy? What can I expect from life? Numbers of years and days are not enough. Time changes. It opens up in front of me and disappears as I pass through it. Years go by and time is always now.


Tell me how much I have lived – how much more there is. Give me a precise calculation of everything I have gone through so far. I want an exact measurement of what is to come. How much more love do I get? How many more ideas can I have? How often will I laugh and cry and change my mind? How deeply will I feel each particular loss that sits unknown in front of me? How hard will it be from now on?




Mika Mika Taylor lives in Willimantic, Connecticut (aka Romantic Willimantic, aka Heroin Town USA, aka Thread City, aka Vulture Town) with her writer husband, PR Griffis and Petunia, their crime-solving dog. Her work has appeared in (or is forthcoming from) The Southern Review, Guernica, Hobart, The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, and Diagram.

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nonfiction november

united states #24, Patricia Carr Morgan

united states #24, Patricia Carr Morgan (includes appropriated image from the film The Searchers)



Dear Dictionary Project folks,

It is time for our second annual nonfiction november. This month, six different writers will be writing essays to words bibliomanced for them. Each of them has one week from the time they receive the word to write their essay. The word they receive at random is a constraint. The time they have to write is a constraint. The question may arise: is it enough? will I be able to? is it enough?

Is anything ever enough?

Over the years, I have fallen in love with constraints. To me, constraints mean spaciousness. The blank page or blank screen looms ominous when you have no idea where to begin. When a beginning is offered, no matter what beginning it is, that is one less thing to think about. You have a place to start. You have been given one. And so you start there.

Yesterday, I took my students to an exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art by photographer Patricia Carr Morgan entitled: “Reality is a good likeness.” A likeness: “the fact or quality of being alike; resemblance.” In her artist statement at the beginning of the exhibit Carr Morgan starts with an oath: “I swear to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Then, in recounting personal memories and explaining their impact on her work—seeing a familiar piece of floral fabric hanging in a tree on returning home from junior high and thinking, that’s odd, before seeing the “charred skeleton” of her burned down home behind—she slowly begins to thwart that oath by revealing what she means by truth. The lines between reality and likeness are blurred, in her words and in her images, which rely heavily on juxtaposition to explore American cultural myths. She delves into film noir, the wild west, county fairs. She places a movie camera at the forefront of an image of a woman looking through a camera in the film “Peeping Tom” so that the watcher becomes the watched. She superimposes the large black and white image of the sheriff from “High Noon” who fills the walls of an empty courtroom. She makes a diptych of two images rich with violets and light pinks and white. The two images? One: a bucket of zinnias. The other: a woman in a purple shirt removing the innards of a butchered cow.

Reality is a good likeness.

I asked my students questions: what has the most dominance in this photograph? to what in the image is the photographer directing our eyes? is there contrast? what is the angle? what do we think is happening beyond the frame?

Constraints can give us freedom by providing boundaries to work inside. Nonfiction can run right up to the edge of fantasy. There is so much possibility in what we can create. Perhaps we are not frightened by our limits but by the limitless of it all. Expansion and opening. Constriction and shutting. Are these enemies or cohorts in the artistic process?

The beginning is what we have. What’s real is what we have. Let’s start here. It is enough.



your fellow logophile




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It’s the last day in November and so today we host our last essay in our first nonfiction november at the dictionary project. We are so pleased to have guest writer Nishta Mehra. Nishta writes a wonderful blog about food and life featuring both stellar recipes and poignant essays. Enjoy her writing here and check out her blog for more.



ring·neck·ed, (riŋ-ˌnekt) adj.  having a distinctive colored stripe or stripes around the neck, as certain animals and birds.



My Doc Martens are a holdover from what my partner Jill lovingly refers to as my “Baby Dyke” years.  They are one of the few extant remnants from this phase, along with memorized song lyrics to many, many Indigo Girls songs and a few very dear friends.

The boots are so objectively ugly—mud brown and clunky—that it must have physically pained my mother to spend money on them the year I asked for and received them for Christmas.  I was not particularly tough, badass, or butch, but those Doc Martens made me feel like I was, a little bit. They were not the norm at my very genteel and preppy all-girls’ school in Memphis, Tennessee, but they weren’t all that noticeably different, either; it’s not like I went after purple patent leather or boots that laced up to the thigh.  My boots were quietly defiant, marking me part of some alternative club the same way that the shoes’ very soles stamped a brand imprint into soft ground.

I don’t know why I saved my Docs; I stopped wearing them a long time ago.  Perhaps they seemed too significant, too sturdy, too potentially utilitarian to get rid of.  Or perhaps I was too nostalgic for those coming out years, my earnest, angsty youth.  But kept them I did, unable to throw them out or give them away each time I packed up my dorm room or apartment closet.



They come in handy the first time I go dove hunting with Jill.  It is early in our relationship, maybe the second year.  We are living together but still exploring each other actively, floating into new corners of experience like kids in bumper cars: meeting parents, learning quirks and proclivities, sharing passions.  For this afternoon, she dresses me in an old pair of her heavy canvas camouflage pants and a soft t-shirt (also camo), but is at a loss with what to do with my feet, for hers are much smaller than mine and I will not fit into any of her old boots.  Suddenly I remember my Doc Martens, long neglected and relegated to the bottom of the closet.

“Perfect,” she says as I lace them up, feet remembering just how much these damn things weigh.  I stand and examine myself in the mirror; it is the first time I have ever worn camo in my life.  I look like some alternate version of myself, still not particularly tough, badass, or butch, but feeling more the part than usual.

In the field, I follow behind Jill, treading my way through knee-high brush, grateful for the secure footing of my clod-hopper boots.  She has a gun slung over one shoulder and a folding stool over the other; I carry my own stool, a small, round cooler filled with water, and my journal.  We set up underneath a modest clump of trees and wait.



It’s important to note that Jill hunts for meat, not trophies; everything she kills we eat.  She grew up inhabiting a world that I only read about in books: Where the Red Fern Grows, My Side of the Mountain, and Rascal, stories where the main characters are self-sufficient children deeply connected to the outdoors.  They, like Jill, know the names of animals and plants, are comfortable with silence, have instinctive skills for survival, and are not afraid of much.

Jill shot her first gun at age five.  Her family grew or hunted pretty much everything they ate, skinning and cleaning and canning and preserving, using all parts of the animals they killed—not because it was romantic, but because they needed to.  Because that’s what you did.  Because it was a sin to let a once-living thing go to waste.



I did not grow up around guns, and the proximity of Jill’s shotgun, though I know the safety is on and she is extraordinarily careful, makes me a little jumpy.  In the yellow-brown field around us, bugs and mockingbirds skitter, backgrounded by blue sky.  Our attention is focused on a small watering hole some twenty-five yards away, the hope being that it will draw some thirsty doves on this hot afternoon.

I do not know what to expect, how I will feel about watching the woman I love kill things.  Though a meat eater myself, I came into our relationship with a bias against hunters, a lazy understanding that the sport was necessarily cruel and thoughtless, when for Jill it is quite the opposite.  She hunts to take an active part in the project of feeding herself, instead of shying away from the reality of the death that comes when one creature eats another.  She hunts because she is not a hypocrite, and she is not willing to be a vegetarian.  She hunts to plug her being into the greater cosmos of living things, the wild, cruel, and wondrous food chain into which we are all born.

“Hunting is the only religion I practice,” she told me when we first met, and so I am out here to see it for myself.

After about an hour of waiting, a pair of grey-brown, ring-necked birds appear on the scene and Jill manages to get them both as they come in to land, one smooth motion of lifting the gun’s stock to her cheek and its end into her shoulder.  The sound from the blasts echoes across the field, scattering more distant birds.  Jill locates the discarded shotgun casings on the ground around us and holds one up for me and instructs me to inhale: the sharp, acrid scent of spent gunpowder fills my nose.  “I love that smell,” she says.

We walk over to retrieve the birds before we lose sight of where they fell, their small eyes glazed over and spots of crimson blooming in their breasts.  I have never held a just-dead thing, so recently alive that it is warm and liquid under the surface.  Death has transformed them, making them more lovely and remarkable than they were in life, a kind of reverse benediction.  Before slipping them into her game bag, Jill puts each bird close to her face and whispers thanks for its life.

“You lived wild and free until you died,” she tells a dove, tracing the distinctive dark black ring around its neck with her finger.  “Not in a cage or a pen.”

At sunset, the hunting is done and Jill lays her six birds on the tailgate of the truck.  With skilled fingers and a pair of hunting shears, she cleans their soft bodies, first plucking their feathers, which float out into the air like soft snow for other birds and field mice to use for their nests and burrows.  Then she clips the heads, feet, wings, and removes the glistening innards, tossing it all out onto the ground as an offering of dinner for the creatures that live nearby.  Finally, what’s left are a naked row of breasts and legs, our dinner.

We cook the ring-necks just a few hours later, their flesh meeting flame on the grill,  eating with our hands, taking their bodies into our own for nourishment and pleasure.





black-white-on-benchNishta Mehra is a writer, middle school English teacher, and enthusiastic home cook who blogs about food and life at  Her first book, a collection of essays entitled The Pomegranate King, is forthcoming in early 2013.  She lives in a suburb of Houston, Texas with her partner, Jill Carroll, and their four-and-a-half month old son, Shiv.


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Bones of Magalonyx Jeffersoni, James Akin after a chalk drawing by W.S. Jacobs.



Fittingly, our third post for nonfiction november is for the word third. B.J. Hollars offers his interpretation below. I first became familiar with B.J.’s writing when I wrote a review of his book Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America. There and here, I appreciate his attentiveness to history, all of history, and the complicated dynamics existing within people in positions of power.


1third  (thərd)  adj :  next after second  —  third or third·ly  adv.



The Third


He was the third, but he was also the first.

The first to press ink to parchment and remind men they were equal.

The first to inform a king across a sea of his irrelevance.

Declarations were made, charges levied, but Thomas Jefferson—seemingly so concerned with the future of a democracy—was concerned also with the mysterious bones unearthed in a Virginian cave.

He was the third, but he was also the first to hold those bones and think: I hold in my hands a monster.

And he was the first to build those bones into a pride of giant lions thundering across the American landscape.

He was the first to designate a room in his White House for bones.

The first to fill the hallways with the corpses of unknown creatures.

I will authorize the Louisiana Purchase, he thought, and then I will return to the bones.

He was the first to fight the French on their theory of degeneracy, which claimed Old World creatures superior to the third-ranked runts born of American soil.

And as a result, he was the first to order the slaughter and transportation of a monstrous moose to prove to the French that America’s beasts were born better.


He was also the first to get it wrong.

The first to dream too hard for too long and make a monster out of a megalonyx.

The first to hold those brittle bones in his hands and think he had a beast.

He did not.

(What he had was a giant sloth).

But Jefferson had dreamed a creature into creation he called “Great-claw,” and though the giant lion did not exist, when Jefferson held those bones in the East Room of the White House, he confused a monster for a miracle.

This from the man who once confused “all men are created equal” with “all white men.”

Who wrote of “unalienable Rights” (but only if you were white).

He was the third to overlook these contradictions.

The third to sound the call for liberty, while fitting shackles to feet and fists.

What he needed, Jefferson knew, was a monster bigger than the one he’d helped create.

A giant lion, he thought, will surely eat this wolf.   

Slavery, Jefferson once claimed, was like holding a wolf by the ear.  And though he held tight to that wolf, he knew not how to release it.

Jefferson also held tight to his giant lion, and though science could not support the stature of the creature, he believed in it all the same.

He believed because he needed to.

Because America needed a giant lion to ensure its dominance.  Because trade routes were at stake, and we could not be not be seen as degenerate.

He was not the first or the second to make a mistake, but the third.  And his mistake was perpetuated by the fourth and the fifth, and on and on until the sixteenth took Jefferson’s declaration as truth and ordered emancipation.

The sixteenth released the wolf’s ear and the wolf killed many people.  Boys in blues and grays poured down hills and soaked into the land as if this, too, was not proof of degeneracy.

The wolf, sometimes, took the form of a gun or a bayonet or dysentery, but mostly it just remained a shadow.

When we speak of the wolf and the giant lion, only one ever existed.

But when America needed a monster, Jefferson held firm—one hand tight on the ear of an impossible wolf, the other on an impossible claw.




B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America—the 2012 recipient of the Society of Midland Author’s Award—and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa forthcoming in 2013. His short story collection, Sightings is forthcoming next year from Indiana University Press. He teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.


This word and definition was taken from a 2004 copy of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

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We are continuing with nonfiction november here at the dictionary project, and I’m so pleased to share with you today the words of Karinya Funsett-Topping. There is so much to appreciate in Karinya’s writing, but I think what I admire most is the way her wit and humor serve to enhance the poignancy and depth of all that she chooses to write about. Please enjoy her piece on lumpy.

lump·y  (ˈləmpē),  adj.  [LUMPIER, LUMPIEST1.  full of lumps: as, lumpy pudding.  2.  covered with lumps; having an uneven surface.  3.  rough: said of water.  4.  like a lump; heavy; clumsy.

“Losing both of your parents when you were just a child – how was that for you?” –asked, mid pap smear, by a health care professional. 
The nurse practitioner with frizzy red hair and a last name that sounds like a first name uses both hands to palpate my chest as I stare at the inspirational images tacked up beside the exam table. There’s a woman lacing up tennis shoes, a bald head, lots of pink ribbons, a race number from a marathon. I look at them and think to myself, as I often do, Do not cry. Do not cry.
“In dense breasts, some lumpiness is to be expected,” she says, fingers still moving in the clockwise motion that all the self-exam guidelines suggest. “Soft lumps are usually fine.”
I nod. I do that uncomfortable half smile one does when there’s not really anything to smile about.
“Think about homemade mashed potatoes,” she says. “If you’re checking yourself and you feel something other than a potato lump – like a hard pea that got mixed in there – then that’s when you should worry. That’s when to call us.”
I saw her a few more times at the university’s campus health center over the course of my undergrad & grad school years. I heard the mashed potato analogy most often, but sometimes she mixed it up: one year I was advised that it was fine if my breasts felt like oatmeal, but I should watch out for the raisins.

I was eight when my mom came home with her breast cancer diagnosis. I might have been seven, or nine: at this point there is no one with a reliable memory left to ask. Whenever it was, she was too young to have her concerns taken seriously, and by the time her illness received a name, it was too late. No longer just dealing with a lump, she tried it all. There was the surgery that removed the offending tissue and replaced it with an implant that caused her almost as much pain as the cancer itself.  (“I’m sorry,” I remember her saying as we left the office after her post-surgery check-up. I had stood in the corner as the doctor unwrapped her; green and yellow bruises and stitches, the incision site still fresh and raw.  “You probably shouldn’t have seen that.”) There were chemotherapy sessions where we sat in a big room with other sick people and half watched hockey games on the television (we hated hockey) and there was the aftermath at home when the basement was the one safe refuge from the sounds of my mother throwing-up in the sink. There were the radiation treatments and technicians in lead aprons and that big built-into-the-floor scale at the nurses station that both intrigued and terrified me (I was not a small child) with the numbers it displayed. There were special diets that came and went, when eating was an option for her at all (a plum upon waking, then nothing else for at least an hour). There were frequent trips in the family station wagon to the local natural health store, which resulted in an entire kitchen cabinet being devoted to shelf after shelf of vitamins, teas, and shark cartilage capsules (contrary to the pop-medicine wisdom of the early 1990s, sharks do, in fact, get cancer).  And finally, there were the doctor-prescribed pills that were burning through our savings account and not doing a damn thing else.
Sometimes thinking about my parents (my father would succumb to cancer too, a few years after my mother did) is like watching a movie without the sound. The images are vivid. The cinematography is great. The actors are beautiful, even when their hair has fallen out and their costumes hang off their skeletal frames. But there’s no sound, and no director’s commentary available to explain the causes or motivations, or to address the why her? question that will linger on, unanswered, forever.
The doctors said my mom’s tumor had been in there, growing, for years before there was a noticeable lump; probably even while she was breastfeeding my younger sister. Some days, I look down at my son as he sleepily nurses and silently plea to my chest, please do not betray me.

I am always watching out for raisins.

Karinya Funsett-Topping has been, at various points, a book reviewer, bookseller, arts desk writer for a newspaper, literary journal editor, and chief bedtime story reader. She graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Creative Writing (fiction and nonfiction) in 2005 and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction in May of 2008, both from the University of Arizona. She now works as an editor and lives in Michigan with her husband and two children. She really isn’t always as serious as this piece makes her seem.

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