Foreword: True Confessions

In 2007, during the events surrounding the funeral of my mother, Betty Speer Morgan, who was one of my heroes, my brother and I shared childhood stories, including one that our mother herself had told us not that long before. When we were children—he about six, me three—we had driven her nuts with endless sibling bickering, breaking things and chasing each other around the house. One day, when one of us broke yet another china dish, she had had enough. She got so angry that she proceeded to throw the rest of her china, all of it, piece by piece, out the front door of the house. In the confessional mode, I then remembered that for three or four years after our family had moved to the small motel where we lived, and which we ran as a business, with both my brother and I renting rooms to soldiers and their families from Fort Chaffee, I had stolen money out of the cigar box that we used for a cash register—as much as a couple of dollars at a time to go to the movie or buy cokes. My brother was surprised and mildly shocked by this and expressed as much. Later, as we were driving past the place where the motel had stood, he asked if I had forgiven him for throwing me through the glass shower door. I told him that I hadn’t because I didn’t remember his doing it. “I did it three separate times,” he told me. “I felt guilty about it for years afterward.”

The World As It Is

I am someone who tries to live his life diplomatically. It’s a style I first adopted on the playgrounds and schoolyards of Ammendale, Maryland, and over the years I guess you could say it blossomed into a principle. In high school, I chose Model United Nations over debate and drama—the country, I felt, having exceeded its quota of talking heads and thespians—and I wrote my senior essay on the career of Washington Irving, who served as US ambassador to Spain in the 1840s. I backed my friends. I settled disputes. At eighteen, when my parents divorced, I did my best to negotiate a comprehensive deal regarding major holidays. This kind of thing isn’t easy, of course, which is why I’m not a diplomat, just a novice historian. And yet I believe in the basic credo: there can be honor in compromise.

The Hunter

The nurse and I had our faces covered by woolen scarves, gloved hands in our pockets, as we walked up the hill towards the RCMP station. I’d learned the hard way to cover up, after skin had begun to peel off my cheeks and forehead, even a thick layer of foundation not hiding the damage.

          I’d arrived on Baffin Island only two weeks prior, but the short November days were already getting to me. I often ran out of the clinic around noon for ten-minute breaks and stood bare faced towards the low-rising sun, watching the rainbow colours just below the surface of the still waters of the bay. The arctic wind slashed my cheeks at -40 ̊C until they turned pink. Soon they blistered, my skin peeling and pus staining my pillow.

          “Sorry to have called you so late,” the nurse, Carolyn, said.

          “It’s good that you called,” I said.

Motherland

June of that year was particularly hot, even for the high desert of southern Idaho. The sun glared down fiercely, and the cheatgrass on the hills below the basalt rimrocks all turned yellow earlier than usual, barbed heads nodding in the hot wind. The men who visited from the toothpaste branch of Galaxate Home Products said the mint crop should be good, but my father only said maybe. If you got your weeds, fertilizers, and bugs managed by the Fourth of July, then maybe.

Mookie and Me

The bleachers at this little alternative college are full of kids who are not Mookie’s typical demographic: hair dye, no shoes, many piercings, diverse, androgynous, every type of kid you can imagine, kids fluent in lifestyles that big parts of the country haven’t even learned to fear yet.

Mookie was built for the ignorant and boorish, but this school paid for the presentation, so here we go. I place his marker card on the stage. I retreat behind the curtain, chew my nails, sweat. I press the INITIATE button on the remote.

Happiness is a Moth

Less than 30 miles from Malibu, the nearly 3,000-acre site had been used since the late ’40s for the development of rocket engines. In the ’50s, Atomics International began to use the SSFL for the development of nuclear reactors.” Robert Kerbeck, “With No Cleanup Plan in Place, Santa Susana Field Lab Still Stokes Contamination Fears,” Los Angeles Magazine, December 4, 2019, https://www.lamag.com/citythinkblog/santa-susana-field-lab/.
“Boeing has conducted interim cleanup measures at Santa Susana while building the scientific basis for cleanup pending final regulatory approval.”—Boeing, “Frequently Asked Questions/What Has Boeing Done to Clean Up the Site So Far?” http://www.boeing.com/principles/environment/santa-susana/index.page (last consulted April 9, 2020).
There is no “why,” Miss Rodriguez. There is only “how.” From the clamor of our births to the silence of our deaths, all events arise through a calamitous
process that is known by one word, a curious word, a word that signifies the lip print on the glass, the mutation of the cell, the dragon’s flight, the unexpected touch of the hand, the brown bear of strength, and the life-blasting enigma of love. That word is “accident,” Miss Rodriguez. “Accident.”
Our poor planet flies through space on the wings of an accident, Miss Rodriguez.
I know this, because how else can I explain how my life has unfolded? I am the way I am because of an invisible wrinkle in my DNA as well as an intricacy
of untraceable errors made by malevolent men working in a secret laboratory. And also for no reason at all. I am here, now, with all my varieties of damage, because the galaxy is forged in a crucible of error. Yes, human existence is nothing more than an alembic of astonishments and catastrophes.

Poems: Teresa Ott

Trembling Was All Living, Living Was All Loving, Some One Was Then the Other One

In the amniotic gloss of the past, feathers floated to the surface, then flew

away. Jellyfish found poison and two dozen versions of beautiful.

Circulatory communication between the mother

and placenta in the human pregnancy is established by approximately 10–12 weeks.

Even limited eye contact can be oh, so sweet.

Poems: John Gallaher

Division (Architecture 5)

Let’s watch the process one more time. During the first stage of mitosis,

prophase, we see the classic chromosome structure. Notice the DNA

condensing. Outside, my neighbor is watering the new tree

they planted to replace the one they had to remove, and in both her and the tree,

microtubules are appearing and the nuclear membrane is breaking down.

So many places to go wrong: metaphase, when the chromosomes are aligned

at the center of the cell, or anaphase, as the chromosomes are moving apart.

Telophase is then marked by the appearance of new nuclear membranes.

And this is the end of mitosis. About 80 minutes, and two new cells

are ready to grow and perform their specialized functions.

A Series of Tubes

Although widely ridiculed for the statement, the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was right when he said, “The Internet is a series of tubes.” He was just off by a century.

          Starting in the mid to late nineteenth century, pneumatic tube postal services linked post–telegraph offices with each other in every major financial hub in the world, on every continent but Antarctica. As improbable as it seems, propelling messages through hundreds of kilometers of subterranean tubes and pipes was a good solution for delivering messages across a busy city jammed with carriages and motorcars. The first pneumatic post system opened in London in 1853; New York’s pneumatic post shuttled first-class mail across the Brooklyn Bridge till 1953, their postal workers called “rocketeers;” the Prague system was in operation till 2002. Paris’s Poste pneumatiquewas the most extensive, encompassing some 450 kilometers of tubes in 1945, and it wasn’t until 1984 that telephone service became reliable enough to merit shutting down the Poste Pneumatique. There were many more pneumatic postal systems in more than sixty cities around the globe.

Hans Christian Andersen: Cutting Out Fairy Tales

Hans Christian Andersen: Cutting Out Fairy Tales
In Andersen’s paper-cuts you see
His poetry!
A medley of diverting treasures
All done with scissors.
—Hans Christen Andersen, from a scrapbook made for a friend’s great-granddaughter
Hans Christen Andersen met Charles Dickens in 1847, when the two authors were at the height of their fame. Despite a language barrier, they discovered that they had a lot in common and forged an immediate friendship. Both had had childhoods of hardship and struggle but had transcended their origins by becoming internationally renowned authors. When Dickens invited Andersen to visit his family’s country home in Kent in 1856, the Danish author made the arduous journey to see his old friend. The timing of Dickens’s invitation couldn’t have been worse. He was exhausted from writing Little Dorrit, his marriage was ending, a close friend had just died, and he was rehearsing a play in London. Used to being fussed over, Andersen was a demanding houseguest, expecting his clothes to be laundered, his face shaved, and his meals produced punctually. Despite the strain of the visit, the children—“We have all sizes,” Dickens had written—were enchanted by the gawky, funny-looking Dane. Andersen returned their affection with evening entertainment around the family dinner table. Henry Dickens, who was eight years old at the time, recalled that Andersen communicated with his siblings through paper cutouts. With a large pair of ordinary scissors, he made “lovely little figures of sprites and elves, gnomes, fairies, and animals of all kinds, which might have stepped out of the pages of his books. These figures turned out to be quite delightful in their refinement and delicacy in design and touch.”