Apr 032011
 

 

Wanna Groom?

A Review of  Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

By Darryl Whetter



Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Harper
416 pp.
$25.99
ISBN 9780061707803

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. & Cacilda Jethá, M.D. (from sexatdawn.com)

John Gardner’s lovely On Becoming a Novelist claims that readers have two big incentives to get through long blocks of prose: story and/or argument. In Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan (PhD) and Cacilda Jethá (MD) offer a little of the former and plenty of the latter. With kilos of scientific homework, not home-wrecking confessions, they tell the polyamorous story of human evolution as an argument for contemporary tolerance for open relationships and other strategies for more sexual-social-spiritual contentment and less work for divorce lawyers.

Those of us who teach know that few lessons are as powerful as Thomas Kuhn’s revelatory paradigm shift. Ryan and Jethá start their polyamorous argument in a double bind: Western culture has been so thoroughly and punitively mired in the monogamy paradigm that even the scientists (from Darwin to Stephen Jay Gould) who should be helping create an accurate reflection of open human sexuality often misinterpret, misrepresent or misguide us with physiological and historical evidence that should be a clear argument for some divisions of sex, love and family. To their credit, Ryan and Jethá (a couple) turn this challenge into a key opportunity for this measured, informed account of human sexual mutability. This wake of human intellectual development and the social management of knowledge (plus 65 pages of notes and references) make Sex at Dawn much more than a martini-soaked argument for a key party.

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Apr 022011
 

Kate Reuther is a former student of mine, a lovely writer. Between packets we used to exchange childcare horror stories, taking comfort in being wry and witty about stress and everyday domestic catastrophe. All our children seemed to have survived, so it can’t have been that bad. Now I just remember the camaraderie of those emails. This is an atypical “What it’s like living here” piece. It’s what Kate calls (apparently this is a new word, perhaps not an entirely new form) a charticle. Apparently, she tells me, there are also listicles, although I haven’t seen one yet. Kate is one of those rare creatures who enjoys teaching middle school.  She is a graduate of Yale and the Vermont College MFA in Fiction program.  Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Madison Review, Brain Child, Salamander, and The Ledge.  A life-long New Yorker, she lives in Washington Heights with her husband and two boys.

dg

 

 

REASONS TO GO REASONS TO STAY
To live here is to constantly question my own sanity and I have lived here my entire life. It’s not possible to leave anymore.  I am permanently warped.  I am ruined for anywhere else.
The subway — the pee-soaked man sharing my bench, the garbage heat, the windy grit in my eyes, the milky plaster leaks, the rat tunnels, the crush of sticky skin,  the “Fuck you looking at?” The subway — ancient engine of democracy and speed, dog-eared paperbacks, roving Mariachis, warm stranger’s shoulder, rocking me home after three gin and tonics.
I worry about the children, what this soot and hurry and perpetual tightness are doing to their brains.  When they want to run, they run in a circle through the kitchen, past the table, past the television, and back into the kitchen.  “Light feet!” I yell.  They do not know what it’s like to run under an emerald canopy, or through a field, wheat without end, opening and opening and opening…. There are no children running through fields in the countryside.  There are children playing Halo in finished basements.  There are children drinking Malibu rum in the backseats of Dodge Durangos.   There are children smoking Marlboro Lights in Chick-fil-A parking lots.  There are children texting each other: MEET U @ MANIC PANIC.  My boys are better off.
Green — When I unexpectedly find myself before a windowpane of trees or an undulating mountain range or even just a square of lawn, the clamp inside my chest eases open.  Right now the only green I see are desiccated Christmas trees planted in dirty snow banks. I get my green in concentrated doses, Central Park doses, friend’s sister’s East Hampton’s house for the weekend doses.  And I appreciate green more this way, sighing like a character from a musical when the wind plays with with the winking leaves in the afternoon sun.  If I lived with trees all the time, they would look like work, like a mess to dig out of gutters, all wet and black and rotten.
The possibility, no probability, of a washer and dryer inside my own home. My parents failed to get out. When my mom got pregnant, they bought a house at the end of a dirt road inside a primordial pine forest in Warren, N.J.  Every morning, my mother would waddle along my father’s crunchy tire tracks, sighing tearily in the shards of sunlight.  No neighbors.  She would have liked to make her excursion into a loop-walk rather than an out-and-back but the intersecting pavement was miles away and the woods were featureless, like black crosshatches.  No elves.  My mother walked until she reached the splintery remains of an orange plastic cone, abandoned in the run-off ditch, then she turned around, walked back to the house, and got back into bed.
The endless schlep – sweating inside of a matted, down coat, lugging a stroller up a metal staircase, bags banging my shins, bags bruising my hips, bags inside of bags in case I buy something and I need another bag.  Sometimes I turn the bags upside down in the front hall of our apartment and litter the carpet with my burden: one mitten, a travel size bottle of Purell, a Ziploc bag of baby-wipes, a half-knitted scarf, an uncapped Cherry Chapstick, an aluminum water bottle (the earth!), a Ziploc bag of Pirate Booty, a Lawrence Block mystery, two chewed pieces of gum, a Lego alligator, a Ziploc bag of apple slices (brown), a plastic water bottle (the earth!), a wooden J train.  If I lived elsewhere, I would leave it all in my car. Where is “elsewhere” anyway?  Not Westchester or Long Island or Connecticut – I’d be bored out of my mind.  Not DC – bunch of wonks.  Not LA – traffic.  Yes, there is a middle, a big ocean-less middle, I’d get lost driving from the placeless place to placeless place to my women’s book club at Panera Bread.  I need my feet on a grid, landmarks in the sky.  And fuck Boston.
Scott – He is always so bruised, hunched, angry, disappointed, TIRED.  If he can’t make it here, there is something wrong with this place. Scott – He likes his supergeek job, his Muay Thai muscles, his Banh Mi bread, his collaborators from the land of jazz and gin.  Scott is digging into the city wearing purple Air Force Ones.
People are jealous because I pay only $317 a month to park my car in a garage. “New York City. Just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers and everything.”
Adventure!! A new color to the sky, new minerals in the tap water, new slang for soda pop and sandwiches, new tax codes, new friendly debates about the best route home. I’d still be the same anxious, angry person, only disoriented, lonely, and hungry.
It will happen again. It happens everywhere.
My sons running naked on a beach. When I find a local like me, I want to run my tongue up under his jaw line, taste the brack of blacktop and cloudy hot dog water.  “Do you remember ‘The G-Spot Deli’ on 86th and Amsterdam?”  “Yeah, what were they thinking?”
My mother said, “Never hang your purse from the hook on the back of the toilet stall door; robbers will reach over and snatch it while you have your pants down.” My mother said, “If you feel scared, go where there are people.”
There’s no nobility in pointless suffering.  Arrogance is a lousy reward. When I look at the sun through my closed eyelids, I see a ridge of red skyline.  I think it’s the West Side, as viewed from the reservoir, my fingers gripping the old chain link, my thighs pink and goose-bumped in the February cold.
Bruce Ratner Mariano Rivera
A porch, preferably a wraparound porch, with a pink jasmine bush, a string hammock and a weathered red stool we use as a table for iced tea.  Glass pitcher.  Plenty of ice. How much space do human animals really need?  Isn’t this better?  Isn’t this enough?
I could spend my whole life debating this and never leave. I could never leave.

 

Apr 012011
 

 

Sometimes I imagine getting a verbal ass-whoopin’ from Edward Abbey.  I find it best to picture him half-naked and sunburned, next to some beat-up pick-up truck parked precariously halfway off the side of a gravel road.  There’s not a single tree in sight.  His beard is dusty and his thick hair snarled from a days-long sojourn down by some unnamed creek in a copse of cottonwoods.  I detect the faint smells of bacon and tobacco, with a touch of permeating campfire smokiness.

As I sit there in my shiny black Jetta, prescription sunglasses on my face and REI gear in the trunk and backseat, I listen attentively to the tirade.  Maybe I get one like this, from near the end of Abbey’s most famous work, Desert Solitaire (1968):

Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood!  Why not?  Jesus Christ… roll that window down!  You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it….  Turn that motor off.  Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins, take off your brassiere and get some hot sun on your old wrinkled dugs!

Despite the fact that I don’t have “dugs” or varicose veins (yet), and even though I like to consider myself just a smidge closer to nature than most of the folks Abbey rails about in Desert Solitaire, I need this kind of dressing down from time to time.  I may not agree completely with everything Abbey wrote, but he was mostly right—abrasive, but mostly right.  That delicate, tenuous, and sometimes counterproductive balance is the hallmark of Abbey’s life and writings.

Desert Solitaire centers on Abbey’s several summers as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument.  When it was published in 1968, Abbey had already written three novels, but this was his first foray into nonfiction.  It firmly established him as a cult figure among environmentalists with a radical streak, and was followed by more than fifteen other works, including, most notably, the 1975 novel The Monkeywrench Gang.  His writing is often credited with inspiring a new wave of 1980s environmental groups that took the battle for nature from the courtroom and hearing room (a la the Sierra Club) to the treetops and logging roads and dams (a la Earth First!).

Desert Solitaire is an early hint at this kind of activism.  One evening, after being visited at his dilapidated ranger’s trailer by a survey crew marking a new paved road into Arches, Abbey walks out into the desert and removes all the surveying stakes and flags.  But that is the single act of civil disobedience he performs in the book.  Of course he dreams of blowing up the Glen Canyon Dam when he reaches the end of his rafting trip down the then-unimpounded Colorado River, but most often Abbey focuses on the simple pleasures of being outside.

In many passages his rants become paeans.  Pieces of petrified wood are “agatized rainbows in rock.” Rainstorms come down “not softly not gently, with no quality of mercy but like heavy water in buckets…drumming on my hat like hailstones and running in a waterfall off the brim.” Ample praise is reserved for the humble campfire:

One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West.

And the noontime sun is:

like a drug.  The light is psychadelic, the dry electric air narcotic.

The book as a whole dances in a point-counterpoint between the beauty of nature and the threats brought by humans, specifically by the United States Government and the National Park Service.  In the chapter entitled “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” Abbey rails against improvements—roads, visitor centers, etc.—being made in what he feels should be mostly inaccessible, immersion-in-nature sanctuaries.

Why is the Park Service generally so anxious to accommodate…the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner of the national parks?

These improvements, underway during Abbey’s Arches summers in the late 1950s, were collectively known as Mission 66, a massive National Parks infrastructure program spearheaded by landscape architect and Park Service Director Conrad Wirth.  The goal was to improve visitor knowledge of and access to the parks in time for the 50th anniversary of the service, in 1966.  Mission 66 did change the face of the parks, from the mostly rustic, dirt-road, wood-and-stone character which Abbey experienced at Arches to the full-service, restrooms-and-vending machines vibe at the main visitor centers today.  The Park Service’s chief landscape architect Thomas Chalmers Vint pushed for contemporary design in the parks—a legacy that includes the spiraling, concrete, seemingly Jetsons-inspired Clingman’s Dome observation tower in Smoky Mountain National Park and the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Studio and sporting an abstract bas-relief metal skin.

Abbey was dead-on prophetic with some of his specific fears, as listed in Desert Solitaire.  The geological formation called the Waterpocket Fold was incorporated into Capitol Reef National Park in 1970 (though it remains roadless, so whether its incorporation is a bad thing can be debated). Glen Canyon Dam did flood Cataract Canyon, create the rapidly silting Lake Powell, and make Rainbow Arch easily accessible to the motorboating masses.  And yes, the surveyors did reset their stakes and pave the road into Arches National Monument (which became a full-fledged National Park in 1971).

I once took an Abbey-lite but still slightly ill-advised hike off the end of that paved Arches road, in the heat of midday with very little water.  I was there from Indiana with college landscape architecture classmates.  We parked at the Devils Garden Trailhead and hiked out to Landscape Arch.  Stunned by the impossibility of the rock vaulting through the hot air, my friend Mark and I decided to head farther out along the trail.  Our colleagues returned to the vans to relax.  It was about 3 miles one way to Double O Arch and we had a few hours. On that quick hike we experienced the complete isolation and stillness and thirst and sun-scorch that Abbey describes throughout Desert Solitaire.

And here we come back to the almost-right-ness—for me—of Edward Abbey.  The Mission 66 version of the National Parks is the one I grew up with.  For five summers in high school and college, I would arrive with my church youth group at the Wrightian Beaver Creek Visitor Center to plan our hikes for the week.  In college, I climbed the Clingman’s Dome tower with a few close friends escaping the flatness of Indiana.  In every case (including my Arches hike), I watched people sort themselves by desire and ability.  Some, yes, would stay in their cars, as Abbey says, “like sardines in a can,” while others would venture a few miles on the well-trodden paths, while still others would heft their packs and disappear for a week, or more.

In fact, I studied landscape architecture, initially, because I wanted to design National Parks.  Though now I design different things, I still feel strongly that everyone should be able to access nature.  So, though I agree with Abbey that we shouldn’t pave over the parks and wilderness areas, I also believe that giving people encounters with nature is important to the eventual preservation of wilderness.  If Thoreau said, famously, and if Abbey echoes that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” then I say: in education and experience is the preservation of wildness.

And Abbey would be happy to know that the Park Service has begun managing even larger crowds by (gasp!) restricting automobile access.  Most of the Grand Canyon’s south rim road is closed to private vehicles, and portions of Yosemite Valley are also bike and bus only.  Abbey suggests these specific ideas in his “Polemic” chapter.

As to Abbey’s context in the mid-century environmental movement (and the other writers profiled in this series of essays), Desert Solitaire came out the same year the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed, and four years after the Wilderness Act.  Both of these laws preserve, as roadless and undeveloped, certain American land- and water-scapes, including many of the rivers Abbey lists in his book as under threat.  Abbey arrived on the heels of Loren Eiseley (from whom he could not be more different—in demeanor and prose style), Rachel Carson, and Joseph Wood Krutch (whom Abbey admired greatly and was the last person to formally interview). Abbey is regularly referred to as the “desert Thoreau,” but comparisons to John Muir are more apt.  Both men are associated closely with the National Parks (Muir with their inception in the late 1800s and Abbey with their ongoing preservation in the face of development in the 1950s and 1960s) and both were profoundly affected by their failures to stave off dam construction (Muir with Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley and Abbey with Glen Canyon). This latter similarity is brought to light in the recent essay collection Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland, a slightly later, along with Wendell Berry, contemporary of Abbey’s.

Perhaps most notable in this context is Abbey’s activism, or rather his tacit support of extreme environmentalism.  He associated with Earth First!, the group that pioneered the tree-sit and once unrolled a massive image of a crack down the face of the Glen Canyon Dam. This direct-action aspect of the environmental movement still makes occasional headlines today, as activists harass whaling boats and blockade logging roads.  In fact, Abbey’s very prose reinforces this in-your-face stance.  Desert Solitaire, like Muir’s writings but unlike Thoreau’s and Eiseley’s, speaks directly to the reader (see the example at the top of this essay), often with provocative language deliberately designed to incite feelings of some kind.

As I write this, a long Minnesota winter—the longest winter I can remember—is (hopefully) melting into the rivers.  In addition to reading Desert Solitaire, I recently watched, thanks to Oscar buzz, the movie 127 Hours, which traces Aron Ralston’s famous desert ordeal (days spent trapped in a canyon; amputation of his arm with a pocketknife), a story more intense but remarkably similar to Abbey’s experience in the chapter called “Havasu.”  I also watched, thanks to my toddler son’s tastes, the animated movie Cars, about a sleek modern racecar stuck in a small Route 66 desert town bypassed by Interstate 40 (“see how the old road moves with the land,” says Sally Carrera, the lady Porsche soured on big-city life, “while the interstate cuts right through”).  These three stories juxtaposed evocatively with each other and contrasted with the horrid weather outside.

I realized I was in a rut.  Previously so diligent about getting my son Ethan outside no matter the weather, I had begun hustling him to the car in the morning for the drive to day care, then into the house at the end of the day.  I had initiated Friday night movie night instead of moonlight walks around the lake.  I was moving into my “sardine can” and taking my son with me.

On the whole, Abbey is farther into the wilderness world (and the extremist world) than I am.  Nevertheless, I like to be lectured by him, from time to time, in my mind’s-eye, as it is always beneficial to be ranted at by someone who doesn’t exactly share your beliefs—someone who can catch your interest with some common feeling, then challenge you.

Desert Solitaire is entertaining and beautiful front to back, both during the natural history descriptions and during the rants.  It gives me the inspiration to get outside, right along with the requisite kick in the pants.  From now on, when I find myself driving too much, sitting inside too much, or standing by while commercial interests encroach on the limited wilderness we have left, I’ll conjure Desert Ed.  I’ll picture myself at the side of some nowhere road, with Ethan strapped into his expensive car seat and Edward Abbey boring his eyes into mine, saying something like:

How dare you imprison your little children in your goddamned upholstered horseless hearse?  Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! Like women! Like human beings! And walk—walk—WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!

Proceed to the next essay, Edward Hoagland, who, 40 years after his seminal The Courage of Turtles, has just published his 21st book: a melancholy essay collection called Sex and the River Styx), or return to the Table of Contents.

—Adam Regn Arvidson

Mar 312011
 

On the Hunt for Elusive Literary Game: the Premio Bagutta, Italy’s Oldest Literary Prize

by Natalia Sarkissian




Last Friday night my husband and I took a cab to downtown Milan. I’d invited him out to dinner at Il Bagutta, but it was a working dinner. Once again I had my Numéro Cinq press tags clinking around my neck and was hot on the trail of Italian literati. Because Il Bagutta is where the Premio Bagutta, the oldest Italian literary prize was established in 1926 (and first awarded in 1927) and ever since, Il Bagutta has been frequented by the crème de la crème de la crème.

“Please hurry,” I said to the driver, checking my watch. We were already late for our 9 pm reservation. What if the maitre gave our table away and we couldn’t get in and observe the literati wining and dining? What would I say to my editor at Numéro Cinq who was waiting with bated breath for this insider’s view?

“It’s on Via Bagutta, off San Babila,” I added when the cabbie began thumbing through his map of Milan. “Between Via della Spiga and Via Montenapoleone.”

“Relax,” said Mauro, grabbing my hand. “We’ll get there when we get there.”

I sighed and sank back into the plaid seating. Mauro can be so Italian about being on time at times.

As we sat in a traffic jam on flashy Corso Buenos Aires and then inched along stately Corso Venezia, I inhaled and told him about Paris and compared it to Milan.

Back in the twenties and thirties famous Parisian cafés like Le DomeLa Rotonde and La Coupole had seen literary giants—Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir—come and go. In his memoir, a Moveable Feast, Hemingway describes the atmosphere, when he was young and penniless, drinking in the company of Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford.  Likewise, Milan’s Il Bagutta, established at approximately the same time as its Parisian counterparts, offered good food, good wine and attracted home-grown Italian talents of stature; one of its first artistic patrons was Riccardo Bacchelli (a prolific novelist, essayist, playwright and librettist) who, in 1926, rounded up a group of gifted friends one night for dinner. Together they started the Bagutta literary prize at the spur of the moment. Later, Dino Buzzati, Mario Soldati, Ingrid Bergman, Lucia Bosé (Miss Italia 1947), Arturo Toscanini, Sandro Pertini (President of the Italian Republic 1978-1985) and other legends flocked to the restaurant.

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Mar 302011
 

Blind Spots

by Richard Farrell

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by statesmen and philosophers and divines.  If you would be a man, speak today what you think today in words as hard as cannon-balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

My car has a factory-installed blind spot detector, a system that the manufacturer, Volvo, calls BLIS, or Blind Spot Illumination System.  (The actual device, fortunately, works better than the acronym.) It consists of a camera mounted below the mirror that is wired to a tiny orange light inside the car.  The dime-sized, triangular light illuminates when another vehicle is moving somewhere in my car’s blind spot.  I’ve grown quite fond of BLIS, quite accustomed to the orange glow, especially in the dizzying commutes on Southern California freeways.  It’s a helpful aid.  A cheat, if you will, a machine doing the vigilant work that the driver is supposed to do. With only a quick glance at the side mirrors, my peripheral vision catches the orange light and I know that something lurks in those hidden spaces.

I wonder what it would be like to install an automated blind spot detector on myself, BLIS for the soul, illuminating the parts I fail to see.  What would such a device show?  Would it light up when my hot temper flares, or when I’m impatient with my kids or insincere with my wife?   Perhaps it would reveal  buried things about my desires, expose my snap judgments toward other people, or render visible my hidden fears and anxieties.  How embarrassing it would be to have at a party, in a room full of strangers, glowing as a boorish lawyer droned on about his wonderful job, or lighting up like Rudolph’s nose on Christmas Eve as a pretty woman crossed the room. But if I’m already aware of these shortcomings, even in brief, then maybe that’s not what this blind spot detector would do at all. Maybe it would only flash on when least expected, revealing aspects of myself I can’t see, or don’t want to.  How often would that little orange light glow?

For a good portion of my adult life, I’ve turned to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great nineteenth century American transcendentalist writer, whenever my vision gets cluttered .  When I wonder about the world and my place in it, his writings have a restorative effect on me. I own this wonderful, worn paperback book, Self Reliance: The Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson as Inspiration for Daily Living.    It’s a condensed version of Emerson’s essays edited by Richard Whelan.  My copy is almost twenty years old, the cover worn to a sun-bleached smoothness, the pages gently yellowed. A small part of me is ashamed that I turn to this much-abridged, ‘best-of’ version of Emerson’s work rather than reading the whole text, but the Whelan book has been with me since I was a young man more prone to short cuts and self-help aisles in the bookstore. I’ve underlined and starred dozens of the pages. In many ways, the book has been a trusted companion for most of my adulthood.

The voices which we hear in solitude grow faint and inaudible as we enter the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members, Emerson writes, always speaking directly to my heart, always illuminating the dark corners of my introverted being.  He may ignore the danger of his philosophy, that tendency toward self-righteous solitude and mild paranoia that self-reliance can engender, but he reassures me.  This world can be a transcendent place.

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Mar 292011
 

Here’s a gorgeous yet chilling excerpt from Keith Maillard’s creative nonfiction book, Fatherless. Keith was five when his father went to work at the Hanford nuclear plant in Richland, Washington, on the Columbia River. Originally part of the Manhattan Project (nuclear material for the bombs Fat Man and Little Boy dropped on Japan came from its reactors), Hanford grew rapidly during the Cold War. Now it is mostly “decommissioned” although vast environmental damage remains. Keith’s memoir is chilling in part because of the very ordinariness of domestic life within the immense and hugely dangerous nuclear manufacturing community but also because, to a large extent, not much has changed—the illustration of the fast breeder reactor bearing Keith’s father’s signature below is eerily like the many plant drawings the press has been using to explain the current nuclear plant disaster in Japan. All of this is aside from the poignant recreation herein of Keith’s search, as a grown man many years later, for the estranged father he never knew. Keith Maillard was born and raised in West Virginia. Currently the Chair of the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, he is the author of thirteen extraordinary novels and one poetry collection. Many thanks to our mutual  friend, Lynne Quarmby, for bringing Keith to the NC fold.

dg

Richland,

By Keith Maillard

My father began working at the Hanford nuclear plant in 1947, the year I turned five. He pasted into his scrapbook only one reference to his official work—a pen and ink drawing so anomalous that it jumped right off the page. He’d made a clear, simple, easy-to-understand drawing of a “LIQUID METAL FAST BREEDER REACTOR (LMFBR),” labeled all of its parts, and signed it “E. C. Maillard.”

Within his first year in Richland, Gene Maillard had clearly established himself as the number one song-and-dance man in town. In 1948, while living in a dormitory room and composing on a “collapsible” organ, he wrote “Our Richland,” a song that told the story of the building of the “atomic city,” a song approved by the General Electric Company suggestion department.

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Mar 282011
 

Okay, brace yourselves. The dog has cancer of the penis. The dog’s name is Scruffles. (The goat in the photo is not in the story.) There is a mythic carnival ride called the Wonder Wheel. A friend runs over a woman’s leg while driving drunk and ends up in an L.A. jail. Rip Van Winkle is here. And those mushrooms. Trinie Dalton is a new friend and colleague on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s terrific. She gets the conventional short story by the neck and gives it a shake. She has written and/or edited five books, and her fiction includes Wide Eyed (Akashic), Sweet Tomb (Madras Press), and the forthcoming Baby Geisha (Two Dollar Radio). “Escape Mushroom Style” will be in Baby Geisha and was previously published in the #6 issue of an Australian journal called The Lifted Brow.

dg

Escape Mushroom Style

By Trinie Dalton

The animal hospital looked out upon the Wonder Wheel, an antique ferris wheel constructed of enough metal to build four skyscrapers. Plate glass windows in the waiting room gave the office, where Scruffles and I awaited a meeting with a soft tissue surgeon, an airy feel. But carnival views don’t make cancer fun. I stroked Scruffles, panting at my side with a golf ball-sized tumor hanging off his dong. Snake skinned ladies, men with gorilla wives, fire-breathers, poodles riding tricycles, elephantitis—it had all gone down here on Coney Island. Penis tumors were probably old hat. Made sense that a polluted beach would be a mutant culture hub. The world’s oldest roller coaster loomed three blocks away. Was this vet going to be Siamese twins? Suddenly, it was moronic instead of ironic that I had considered administering dog cancer treatment at a facility bordering a decrepit amusement park. It was more moronic that I lived nearby.

“Scruffles?” I asked, scratching his woolly, red left ear. “Will you feel like a freak if we operate?”

Scruffles wagged his tail. Any question involving upped intonation at the end of the phrase produces in him a hope for fish.

I kept this appointment because I needed a surgeon’s opinion.

The receptionist called us in. The doctor was not a Siamese twin but rather an emaciated man whose head reminded me of a calavera azucar, a Day of the Dead sugar skull. He groped my dog in a twitchy way and recommended something horrible.

“I’m not removing anything except the tumor,” I vowed, petting Scruffles as I committed to keeping his body intact.

“He’ll die,” the surgeon said. Who was he to issue the death sentence?

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