Microbivalves–Nicole Walker

In honor of the trip many of us will be making to the Pacific Northwest this week:

I knew oyster farmer who lived on the Puget Sound. He had so many oysterbeds that he could barely see the ocean floor at all. Who needs the ocean floor when you have stacks of opaline shells tucking the whole fecund ocean between their halves? The oyster farmer offered me an oyster. No lemon. No mignonette. No Tabasco. The whole point of being an oyster farmer is that you don’t need anything else. You can survive on the protein of oysters. The world could fall away and you would still have a house, a beach, a vocation, a dinner, and a moneymaker. Not everyone can grow oysters. Most people can’t even open them. He is a gifted farmer. He knows how to seed the oysters directly in the sway of currents to bring the sweetest water, the most succulent plankton and algae passers-by. Oysters are the great filters of the ocean. The farmer does what he can to make sure the algae and the plankton swing by the beds abundantly or the oyster might turn to eating plastic and heavy metals and all the coffee Seattle drains into the Sound.

Palmed in the oyster farmer’s hand, the oyster cinches shut. But he is a gifted farmer and a gifted metaphor-maker. He turns rock into sustenance. One knife jab and the hard shell turned to pulsing organ. Sexy oyster. All the genitals in one. Lick me, it seemed to say, so I did.  The oyster tasted as shiny as the sun, which is why they grow in the sea in Seattle—Seattlers like to keep the sun underground. Save it for a rainy day.

But this oyster was one of the last oysters, rain or shine. The farmer could not make a filter for the filters. The tides were turning red. The oyster industry was in collapse. As carbon dioxide warmed the skies, it also changed the chemical make-up of the ocean. The ocean went from Tang to LimeAid and there was not a mollusk in the world who preferred sour over sweet. Not a Kumomoto or a Sweetwater. Not a Hood Canal or a Fanny Bay. The names themselves suggested doughnut and apple pie, ice cream and caramel. You once put lemons on an oyster as a counterpoint. Now all you have is point point point, make a point. Blue point oysters. A redundancy. As redundant as the farmer who walks along the beach, stares out across the water and sees the bottom of the vinegary, sexless ocean just fine.

In Praise of Quotation–Patrick Madden

Twice in recent months the ghost of William Hazlitt has visited me. The first time, while I was in the shower, a stray phrase suddenly seized my attention: “seeing all this as I do…” I couldn’t quite attach it to a source yet, nor to a reason, but I recognized its importance and held on by mumbling it repeatedly as I rinsed and dried off and got dressed, so that by the time I got downstairs for breakfast, I recognized it as a key phrase in the rumbling crescendo of “On the Pleasure of Hating.” But why had it come to me? To round out an essay I was writing, I realized. The essay was about love, particularly my love for Karina, and the improbability of our ever meeting. It was also about our children, then all prime-number aged (1, 2, 5, 7, 11, 13), and the improbability of them ever being born, much less being born in an order that would briefly become such a mathematically interesting pattern. And it was about the Law of Large Numbers and/or Confirmation Bias, which would declare such idle speculations moot. Hazlitt’s phrase would speak for my feeling that although I recognize that miracles like my marriage and family are statistically inevitable given such vast numbers of people and interactions, I hold to a quasi-magical worldview. “Seeing all this as I do…” It fit perfectly.

When I looked it up, for context, I read surrounding the phrase,

What chance is there of the success of real passion? What certainty of its continuance? Seeing all this as I do, and unravelling the web of human life into its various threads…

This, too, fit my essay, as if written precisely for me. I offered a quick prayer of thanks to the old Romantic.

Which may be why he visited me again, just the other day, as I drove to work. “The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it,” he whispered. “What?” I said aloud, not quite sure I’d heard correctly. “The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it,” he repeated, and this time I recognized his voice, even knew that he was quoting “On the Pleasure of Hating” again, and that he was giving me a part of my essay on spit, which was really an essay on maturing into acceptance of others. Curiously, I found when I looked it up, he seemed to be inviting me to disagree with him. Whereas Hazlitt had argued that “We give up the external demonstration, the brute violence, but cannot part with the essence or principle of hostility,” I was convinced that we can. At least I had changed in some essential way that I no longer felt the same about a friend whom I had wronged, could not reconjure in myself those feelings of disappointment and rage.

I feel quite certain that Hazlitt was OK with that.

The practice of quoting wiser others is engrained in our consciousness from an early age, when we learn, essentially, that our own thoughts are worthless unless they have a point, and our points are invalid unless we back them up with proof from reputable sources. It’s no wonder that, apart from our dutiful classwork, we take a strong disliking to quotation. But essayists use quotation in essays not as ethos-ballast to stabilize arguments nor as linguistic decoration from a lost/loved prose style, but as invitation and conversation as well as humble recognition that we are all influenced, we all think through others’ thoughts, whether we admit it or not.

I must confess that I dedicate no inconsiderable portion of my time to other people’s thoughts. I dream away my life in others’ speculations. I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.

— Charles Lamb “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading”

What I mean is that essayists are mature enough to flaunt our indebtedness to others and we want to chat with them, to invite them into our essays as we would a comfortable friend “admitted behind the curtain [to sit] down with the writer in his gown and slippers” (Hazlitt again, from “On the Periodical Essayists”). We’ve long ago discarded the myth of originality as it’s so simplistically sold, and we believe ourselves blessed to be carrying on a centuries-old conversation, exploring the world through old ideas from new perspectives. We likely believe that whatever is well said by another is ours, or, if in a metaphorical mood, “The bees plunder the flowers here and there, but afterward they make of them honey, which is all theirs,” or, if feeling neither plagiaristic nor fanciful, then “We are as much informed of a writer’s genius by what he selects as by what he originates,” which I read years ago and stored in my mind as “We know a man as much by what he quotes as by what he writes.”

I thought it was Emerson, but wanted to confirm both wording and attribution, so I searched online, unsuccessfully plugging in various combinations, in and out of quotation marks, for nearly two hours. [A blight on quotation websites! which clutter search results and never ever attribute their sources!] Thus frustrated, I began to doubt my memory. The only hit came from a site that mashed together four different unattributed quotes on quotation, which I discovered as two from Montaigne, one from Emerson, and close enough to the one I had been seeking, which I could not find anywhere else. Thankfully, Todd the Fashioniste responded promptly to my email about his sources and revealed the original wording. It comes from a likely source, Emerson’s essay on “Quotation and Originality,” which I had open in another tab of my web browser. Had I simply read it, instead of scanning it then returning to my googling, I could have found my elusive quotation in half the time I spent not finding it. [But is this not symptomatic of our times? That we waste our thought in dead-end pursuits instead of reading?]

Of course, I’m not naïve. I recognize that the quotation-includers I’m referring to with my royal we are a small cadre of writers, and that many essays, for many reasons, eschew quotation altogether. So I guess I’m making a subtle argument, which I will now make explicit: We essayists should be proud of our long tradition, which is chock full of quotes, from Montaigne onward, and it would be excellent if we adopted the practice of quoting more often. If my own experience is indicative, then simply reading widely, immersing ourselves in old essays, will make the practice easier, as quotes present themselves almost unbidden whenever we’re dwelling in an essay, when our mind is trained, especially in idle moments, to mull over our subjects. Hazlitt haunts us. Emerson sends us off on a frustrating but ultimately fruitful chase, or perhaps he wishes he had phrased his idea more simply and he offers us a revision.

In any case, if we’re hoping to bend genre and perhaps our natural inclination is to make up some stuff without telling anybody and think that’s it, then maybe we could bend instead in this direction: see our essays as conversations with the past or with our contemporaries, move sideways through ideas in addition to moving forward through narrative. And if we can’t shake the impishness of pulling one over on our readers, perhaps we can do as Montaigne did (and David Shields has recently done, to great buzz, in Reality Hunger*):

[My borrowings] are all, or very nearly all, from such famous and ancient names that they seem to identify themselves enough without me.… I have sometimes deliberately not indicated the author, in order to hold in check the temerity of those hasty condemnations that are tossed at all sorts of writings…. I want them to give Plutarch a fillip on my nose and get burned insulting Seneca in me.

[While I’m at it, perhaps I can be of some practical use. Let me, then, explain my practice of quoting, which I base on many years of noticing how such things are typically done in essays, as well as many years of responding to anxious students who’ve been frightened into worrying more about their citation style than about their literary style. As we’ve just seen, Montaigne was intentionally sloppy with his sources, and his laxity has continued since, though with some tightenings. Basically, most essayists follow the spirit of the law, meaning that we give credit where credit’s due; we don’t pretend to own words we didn’t ourselves write. Here are four common methods for including quoted materials:

1)    Essayists often use block quote format to set off others’ words, usually integrating them wholly into our sentences, sometimes calling on them as counterbalance to our hasty conclusions. Many essayists block quote even short passages, far shorter than the four lines or whatever rule your teachers taught you. After a block quote, we usually give the author’s name, and sometimes the title of the work we’re quoting. Other times we give the author’s name within our own sentences. We almost never, unless forced by finicky editors, give MLA-type full citations of books with publishers’ names and cities and dates and page numbers.

2)    If we don’t block quote, we may subtly slip a quote into our sentences, using quotation marks and an author attribution, either in-line or in quick parenthesis after the quote (again without dates or page numbers).

3)    If the quote is widely known (“be excellent to each other,” for instance), we may simply offer it within quotation marks, to indicate that it’s someone else speaking, but avoid stating the obvious authorship.

4)    Or, if we’re feeling especially roguish, we may fully absorb quoted material, integrating it into our work without quotation marks and without attribution, supposing that certain readers will recognize its source and others will not notice or care. This, in my opinion, is best done in moderation (seldom, with short quotes), and always with a subtle wink, lest one be accused of plagiarism.]

* Funny story: During the Q&A after his keynote address to the NonfictioNOW crowd in Melbourne, Australia, in November 2012, Shields responded to a question about his refusal to cite his sources by saying that in the internet age, readers could easily look up any of the quotes he’d borrowed. To which I challenged that only recently I’d been trying to find an exact translation of Montaigne’s claim that “Every man contains within himself the entire human condition” [I was trying different approximations] and found my entire first page of Google results filled with bloggers [and even the New York Review of Books] attributing the quote directly to David Shields, with no mention of the Father of the Form. I found this disturbing, not so much because I felt Montaigne deserved the credit, but because I envisioned a whole generation roadblocked from discovering the first and greatest essayist (or others). To my recollection, Shields seemed a bit nonplussed. When he’d created Reality Hunger, his web searches got him easily to the original sources, and he seemed not to have considered the ripple effect of fans glutting the internet with faulty attributions.

Patrick Madden teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His first book, Quotidiana, won an Independent Publisher Book of the Year award, and his essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies. He’s completing his second book, Sublime Physick, and an anthology, with David Lazar, called After Montaigne: Contemporary Writers Cover the Essays. He curates an online anthology of classical essays (and other resources) at http://www.quotidiana.org.

How to Turn a Corner–Titi Nguyen

“Behind,” she says into the starched back of the chef’s white coat. Nobody has ever called her voice thin, but neither is it powerful enough to carry over the crack of rainbow chard hitting a hot-oiled pan. He knows not to step back until she passes.

At the top of grease-slicked stairs, “down.” She grasps the metal handrail and descends, gingerly. Her black Reeboks have skidded foot-lengths in this and other treacherous kitchens. Five minutes later, “up.” Her calls bounce off the white-tiled walls unheard.

All night she states her direction and location. The questions she faces at her desk on days off — where she’s located, where she’s headed, her intentions and trajectory—are uncomplicated here in the dining room and kitchen. For a waitress these aren’t figurative musings; where she is is where she’s standing and where she’s going is deliberate, clear. Efficient, too—no one walks to or from the kitchen empty-handed.

Position the plate so the chocolate tuile arches toward three o’clock. Today’s oysters are Hurricane Islands from New Brunswick, small and plump with lasting brine.

She looks at half-finished plates, gauges when last bites will be eaten. The lengthening seconds between each lift of the fork, the lustrous knife propped on its edge like a goddess in recline: signals for her to fire the next course.

Open-handed service. Serve to the left, clear from the right.

Between opening wine bottles tableside and marking guests with proper flatware, she scribbles lists onto her dupe pad: errands to run, e-mails needing attention, unfinished essays, submission deadlines. She looks up periodically, anticipating her guests’ needs. Before position three on table twenty empties her coupe glass, she’ll have caught the woman’s eye, whisked away the dead glassware, and set a fresh, cold cocktail in its place.

___

– Ask after guests warmly with a degree of detachment. Attentive service can slip easily into overbearing.

– Spend the first half of your subway ride studying menus, then switch to literature. You get so absorbed with stories, someone else’s stories, that you’ll miss your stop almost every week. Cross to the opposite platform for the next train back.

– Win the guest’s trust by recommending the cheaper bottle.

– Follow the dining room traffic rules: the right of way belongs to guests, followed by food, cleared plates, you. Ignore all this when the careless hostess quadruple-sits your section.

– Learn to unwire the cage off a champagne bottle. Press firmly with your thumb to keep pressure; the cork should not ricochet off a guest’s forehead. Perfect the quiet, pleasing dry hiss of bubbles releasing to avoid the ire of the sommelier.

– Nervously serve a celebratory dinner between a writer and her publicist, then Google them when you get home. Read her stories and marvel at his client list.

– Hunger affects people differently: some get quiet, some sullen or pushy, some angry. Know when to forgive diners for bad behavior.

– When in doubt, go with the cooler temperature. The chef can always re-fire the dish. Go too far and the meat will be ruined. Toss it. A chef’s anger is dry ice or skillet-hot—it burns.

– Take courage between the hours of 5:30 and 7:30. Things won’t get moving until eight o’clock. The waiting will underscore the slipping time, sparking desperation in you to flee and do what really nourishes you. Acknowledge the misery then move through it.

– Accept your low check average. You cannot push the $70 roast chicken for two just because the chef wants. Sell only what you believe in.

___

Seat 1: A small-boned girl with delicate features and brilliant skin. Spice-rubbed duck with braised salsify and haricot verts. Unhappy with the table the hostess presents, a deuce that sits too closely to a riotous five-top, she purses her lips, reins in her displeasure. I mark her for rare.

Seat 2: A boy as dainty as his date. He reads the menu aloud in a coaxing tone, changes his order to accommodate her. He will need a side of confidence, no extra charge.

Kale salad with shaved brussel sprouts, dried cranberries, and crispy shallots

—————————————Course 1——————————————————-

Black bass with hedgehog mushrooms

Mettle poured tableside (compliments)

__

“Hands.” We come with supplicating palms, open to receive the white porcelain plates, hot from the salamander, their delicate contents precisely placed by long-stemmed tweezers in the shaking hands of culinary boys. Watermelon radish thinned by mandolin. Knobby sunchokes roasted crisp. “Jesus fucking Christ.” The chef glares as a pile of pots and pans topple thunderously onto the floor at the wash station. Fat ochre tongues of creamy sea urchins stirred into saffron gnudi. We turn on our heels. “Walking,” we say.

The kitchen opens out to a service station where the computer terminal lives with coffee cups, French presses, extra bread and butter plates, and silverware. A sharp right turn from this small space leads into the dining room. “Corner,” we say at this bend to avoid collision. In the restaurant’s nascent days someone thought of hanging a mirror to expose this blind spot, but the wall remains an empty field. When food reviewers and bloggers drop by with leggy tripods and lenses zooming in on plump leaves of purslane or a caviar pearl, the functional things get forgotten. So corner settled in our lexicon the way that four-top, all day, 86, soigné, and crumb floated in our minds.

In my nightmares, I am weeded in a section the size of a cruise ship’s deck. A needy guest holds me hostage at his table while he flips through a blank menu. I watch my section fall apart—dead glassware everywhere, food dropping at unmarked tables, twenty credit cards to swipe on a failing POS system. Diners playing musical chairs. But sometimes I don’t have to be sleeping to feel dread of this job, what often feels like a vacuum of lost energy, time, mind.

But there are real pleasures here. A renowned and feared food critic, dining for the third time, is not so ogre-ish but kind. A distinguished poet, a Tuesday night regular, offers to read the bartender’s manuscript, accepting in return only a well-stirred old-fashioned, on the house. The Bengali busser with the terrific smile, a father himself, cradles fat babies while weary parents enjoy their appetizers.

In this space, the same answers to the same questions, the routine regularity, is tiresome, and yet there’s something to be said for the assured movements here, keeping me anchored in a way that the outside, especially my writing life, with all its nebula and unbounded freedoms, does not. A magazine article, a row of jagged cuticles, a television episode, my sister’s number flashing across the phone screen, the night’s dinner, the Internet, afternoon sun on parquet, a nap, dishes, drinks with a friend.

__

A busser taking a tray of dirty glasses to dish,

a delivery of amuse-bouches walking out,

a frenzied server diving for the freshly washed pile of oyster forks.

At that spot between the service station and the dining room, entering or leaving the kitchen, there is a brief moment before I turn that corner, in one direction or the other, when I don’t know what will greet me. The moment catches, passes quickly as I angle myself to pivot and announce to whoever may be listening – I am fast approaching.

Black Tea, Green Tea–Aaron Gilbreath

As an essayist who dabbles in journalism, I should know what essays are, but sometimes it’s hard to tell where they end and articles begin.

After pitching an idea to one of my favorite glossy magazines recently, an editor there suggested I contact another editor. “I’d emphasize as well that this is an essay in form rather than a straight reported story,” she said, “since I think we’d like to run more essay content.”

As thrilled as I was to see them making room for my preferred literary form, the story I sent wasn’t an essay. It was an article built around a profile. I reported on site, and no ‘I’ narrator appeared in it, but she seems to have classified it as ‘essay’ because it was narrative nonfiction. Of course, I didn’t mention that. I wanted them to publish the story. They could call it whatever they wanted, and maybe my assessment was wrong. Maybe it was an essay. This was an experienced journalist at an esteemed publication whose circulation probably totaled more than all the literary magazines I’d written for combined. She might have some unique perspective that I lacked. Which is to say, her comment left me questioning myself. Did I even know what I was writing half the time?

I don’t think about what my pieces are as much as what they say and how best to say it. Contacting magazines forces you to consider form – essay or article? Column or op-ed? Finished submission or pitchable idea to develop? – but labels have never been one of my central concerns. Writing isn’t mycology. It’s cooking to taste. Yet the exchange got me thinking. Then I quit caring about the distinction and moved on. What’s in a name? Everything and nothing. To me, that seemed like something Montaigne would say.

I’ve actually never read much Montaigne.

            (Of the great French essayist, author Nick Hornby wrote: “I had never read Montaigne before picking up [Sarah] Bakewell’s book [about Montaigne]. I knew only that he was a sixteen-century essayist, and that he had therefore willfully chosen not to interest me.” Hornby is an absorbing essayist himself, which goes against the notion that we must build our abilities on our knowledge of a form’s history.)

I should mention that I drink a lot of tea. That sounds like a non sequitor, but it’s meant as transition. I frequently fall back on tea as a metaphor lately. Eventually the habit will get old, but for now, it works.

When people ask me about the difference between an essay and article, I often say something along the lines of: “Articles convey information, where essays are more concerned with questioning than answering.” If I’m really feeling clear-headed and they seem interested, I’ll tell them: “Articles convey information, and some subscribe to the who, what, where, when, why approach to storytelling, while others employ narratives with scenes, characters and action. Essays can mix narrative and exposition, be first-, second- or third-person, contemplative, tangential, linear or nonlinear, and they aren’t compelled to inform readers as much as masticate and digest.” Few people want a dissertation. They want a quick definition, some basic understanding. I try to keep it simple, even though there’s no simple answer. (I often add, “Essays are definitely not anecdotes,” because that confusion drives me nuts.) I do the same at my dayjob at a tea shop.

“What’s the difference between black and green tea?” customers ask me. Rather than drown them with details about oxidation versus fermentation, the vagaries of caffeine content, varietals, taste and appellation, I just say: “On the spectrum of oxidation, greens are oxidized for less time than blacks, and that process gives blacks a stronger, less leafy flavor than greens.” That usually does the trick.

Like tea, much narrative nonfiction exists on a continuum. Sometimes the boundaries between forms are more gradations than distinctions. You can tell one piece is different from the piece one unit over, but you still can’t say exactly how. And that’s fine if it reads well.

What’s an essay? Maybe this? Maybe not. You tell me.

I sell tea for a living.