The Year of the Whale

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1.
I once had a professor who would read, every year, the same 10 books. He called them THE TEN. CandideSiddhartha, Screwtape Letters, and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were regulars; the others he’d swap out after a six- or seven-year run. Taken with this idea, I decided I, too, would do a yearly re-reading. The book would be Moby-Dick, and I would begin it each year on Christmas, the day the Pequod sets sail.

And so I did: 2017, 2018, and 2019. But last year I read it three times. In the winter of 2020, I read it with a student doing an independent study. She told a friend how great Moby-Dick is, and so the following spring he, too, wanted an independent study.  And then, in fall, I ran another independent study on Moby-Dick, this time with two students I met just a few months earlier when we were, as it turns out, building a whale.

2.
“Building a whale is a lot like building a deck.” So says biologist Rus Higley. “You can get all the parts at Home Depot, and there are a few tricks that, if you know them, make everything a hell of a lot easier.”

Higley knows the tricks. He built the gray whale skeleton hanging at Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center and the humpback skeleton in the Foss Waterway Seaport. And he helped me (an English professor) lead 158 volunteers in building the gray skeleton that now hangs at Seattle Pacific University.

The whale had washed up on Longbranch Beach, on the southern end of Washington’s Kitsap peninsula. She was a juvenile, 29 feet long, her ribs jutting out, skin over them as a blanket over knees. Her stomach, the necropsy would soon find, was empty. We towed the whale to Gig Harbor, where a ship crane hoisted her 16,000-pound carcass into a dump truck. At a nearby farm, our crew flensed her, retrieving her 250 bones and burying them in pile of horse shit, its enzymes and critters leaching the oil from her bones. Six months later, we exhumed them––now bone dry––brought them to campus, and put them on a roof to bleach in the sun. And then, in August, we began building.

3.
It’s a strange thing to spend so much time with a book over the course of a year. I think of Jean Giono. With his good friend Lucien Jacques, he translated Moby-Dick into French. “Long before I embarked on this project,” Giono says, speaking of that translation, “for at least five or six years, Melville’s book was my foreign companion.”

What does it mean for a book to be your foreign companion for nearly a decade? For Giono, it means walking alongside Ishmael, who, Giono writes, “would accompany me on my homeward path.” He explains:
I never had to take more than a few steps to catch up with him and, once the depths of the shadows were black, to become him. I would reach him with what felt like a single, longer stride. Then it was as though I’d entered inside his skin, my body clothed in his like an overcoat.
I can’t quite say that I, too, put on Ishmael like a jacket. But I can say that he, and Melville, through all those re-readings, have been my companions.

4.
Of all the work ahead of us, measuring the whale––our first task––seemed the simplest. We needed to know whether she’d fit in our 30-foot lobby. Higley told me to bring a rope to the beach, and I did, 200 feet of it. He laid one end in the notch between the whale’s flukes, and I stretched the rope across the corpse, trying to follow the backbone as best I could, the rope sliding off the knobby knuckles of this emaciated gray’s spine.

I then laid that rope on the beach, next to a maxed-out tape measure. “Nine hundred seven centimeters,” I called from the whale’s snout. “Twenty-nine feet, nine inches. She’ll fit.”

When I read the whale’s necropsy now, months later, I see that Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has her at 867 cm––nearly 16 inches shorter than the measurement Higley and I came up with.

That’s a big difference, and I’m not sure how to account for it, given that WDFW measured the same way Higley and I did, with a rope laid across the whale. For me, the discrepancy points to an even bigger question: can we ever really know how long a whale is?

A live whale, her tonnage buoyant in the ocean’s salty water, would never stay still long enough to measure. A dead whale rests on a beach, gravity pulling that weight down into the sand. Is a live whale the same length as a dead whale? I doubt it, that body disfigured, either slumped over and cowered by death, or stretched and bloated and distended by all those fermenting gasses. And which is a better representation of a whale’s length, a measurement running across the topography of its backbone, or as the crow flies, a taut line snout to tail, tangent to the highest knuckle of the spine? And if that beached whale lays not on its belly but on its side, its torso twisted such that its jaw faces the sky, unobstructed measurement impossible––what then?

5.
In the messiness of trying to determine a whale’s length, my companions offer some help. When he’s asked whether a whale’s spout is water or air, Ishmael responds, “My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all.” Water from air, the length of a whale—plain things as these are, they are not simple.

Later in the book, an imaginary interlocutor, frustrated with Ishmael’s exhaustive cetology, admonishes him to “have a care how you seize the privilege of Jonah alone.” But Ishmael, whaler that he is, is in a place to know, and I think that I, too, may be in a place to say something, having myself sat in the mouth of a gray whale, pushed up against her tongue, cutting away at the flesh holding her jaw, her throat behind my shoulder.

This imaginary opponent continues, saying that Jonah alone has “the privilege of discoursing upon the joists and beams; the rafters, ridge-pole, sleepers, and underpinnings, making up the frame-work of leviathan.” I’ve sat within that rib cage, lifted the ridge-pole spine as we tried to shift the orientation of the whole skeleton. I’ve handled all 518.3 pounds of her bones, matching growth plates to vertebrae, wedging nasal cavities into the cranium, rotating a pair of hips this way and that to discern, as best I can, their proper orientation. 

And just as Jonah alone has the right speak to the skeleton, Ishmael’s conversant argues, only Jonah can speak to the insides, “the tallow-vats, dairy rooms, butteries, and cheeseries in his bowels.” But these, too, I have held, have sliced away from the body, have seen strewn about a grassy field as the flensing crew cut, cut, cut away, looking for bones and discarding the rest. Her ovaries, the size of basketballs. Her eye, the size of a grapefruit. I placed that eye in a jar filled with cheap vodka, an all-purpose preservative until I could get back to the lab. Whale lice I pried from her flesh with my pocketknife, those, too, going in the vodka. I’ve stroked her broom-stiff hair, each strand an inch or two long, blonde, those near her blowhole reddened from the blood oozing from it.

6.
Ishmael’s response to this interrogation is to tell a story of when, on leave from another voyage, he found himself on an island housing an assembled sperm whale skeleton. He cuts himself a “green measuring-rod” and sets about measuring it. Once he’s done measuring, Ishmael tattoos the whale’s dimensions on his right arm. “There was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics,” he says.

In this moment, the extraordinary––these invaluable statistics––becomes markedly ordinary. Every time Ishmael looks down at that arm, at these numbers made flesh, he re-reads the whale, that whale, in all its mystery and majesty, becoming a bit more familiar with each glance encounter. And so it was through our own day-to-day work with these bones, the novelty of carrying a radius and ulna across the room soon wearing off, the strangeness of sorting ribs and the surreal act of threading vertebrae onto a two-inch metal pipe, this sacred work of handling another’s bones, the innermost part of a body, somehow becoming routine––routine as reading a book three times in a year. Each rereading invites me into Melville’s sentences. Those sentences have become my companion, a companion not unlike my whale, sentences I’ve only yet begun to learn to read, a whale whose length I never will.

The Syllabus of St. Benedict

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Last week, a friend and I were discussing Robert Frost’s jab that “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” My friend (a poet himself) elaborated: Anyone can go out to a parking lot with a couple of rackets and swat a ball around. It soon becomes boring, pointless, unchallenging—but paint some lines on the ground and things change. A game takes shape. I would add, though, that rules do more than just turn haphazard strokes into scored points. The rules provide a framework within which a person can begin becoming a tennis player.

The idea that rules—in poetry, on the tennis court, or in the classroom—are formative is nothing new. St. Benedict addressed this some 1,500 years ago. Writing in a monastery southeast of Rome, Benedict outlines the daily practices of his disciples. They will pray at these hours, they will read these scriptures at these times, they will devote themselves to these practices, they will turn away from these vices. By these practices, a person begins the process of becoming a monk.

Might we think of the course syllabus the same way, as a rule of practice that makes it possible to become something? I don’t want to put the comparison too far—students are not bound to a syllabus for life as monks are to a rule—yet the similarities between The Rule of St. Benedict and a syllabus are many: an ordering of time, an established routine, a common set of readings, a shared gathering place, a way of conducting the self in relation to others. Even though a student may discard a syllabus following finals week, it still gives guidance (as a rule does) for a novice seeking to enter a community.

Whether for a lifetime or a semester, this life together is marked by a practiced discipline—a telling word, given that in the academy we work within disciplines. We are disciplined into the particular ways of reading, writing, thinking, and being within a community of practice. It’s quite Aristotelian: “For the things which we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing: men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing the harp.” My wife’s paraphrase: Fake it till you make it. And so a student wanting to be a chemist begins doing the things chemists do: working with chemicals, measuring them, learning how to mix them, how to manipulate them. A student wants to be a historian, and so he begins doing the things historians do, visiting the archives to handle old manuscripts. Our daily rituals—like those Mason Currey profiles—are hardly inconsequential; they form us into a particular kind of person, the kind of person who does these particular things for these particular reasons to chase these particular goals.

I wonder, then, what a syllabus might look like that established a common life for the classroom. In one sense, all syllabi do this, but the syllabus I’m imagining would do so much more intentionally. We might call it a Benedictine syllabus. It would still list assignments, include a plagiarism policy, and tell students about the writing center and other campus resources. It would look familiar to other syllabi in word; in deed it would behave much differently.

Its motivations wouldn’t be punitive, nor would its use in the classroom. It would lay out the daily and weekly rituals of the class, ordering time and task so that all might dwell within that structured space and thrive. It would invite students to develop routines within which they can flourish. It would acknowledge that the classroom forms its students into a particular people, a people disciplined (in the best sense of the word) to engage the problems of their coursework, of their major, and of their communities. It would attend, first and foremost, to this formative work, and it would ask the hard question of who the classroom forms us to be. In practical terms, the syllabus might invite students to consider the practices that define their academic discipline, how these practices have evolved over time and what purposes they serve, how they differ from the practices of other disciplines, and how all these practices shape the student, both inside and beyond the classroom.

A syllabus—and rule—can, of course, run afoul. Poet and Benedictine Oblate Kathleen Norris notes that “there are fussy monastic rules that predate that of Benedict … in which fear and suspicion predominate, revealing an overwhelmingly negative view of both the world outside the monastery, and the motives of individuals within it.” I’ve seen syllabi like this, syllabi that assume each student is scheming, syllabi that list all the ways students have tried to undermine a course and the newly imposed penalties for each transgression. I’ve heard faculty tell their classes, “Don’t be the student who makes me add another line to the syllabus.” Here, the syllabus is defensive, a guard against chaos, a hedge against lawsuits. Benedict assumes this corruption, too, but there’s a big difference between Benedict’s rule and those others. As Norris says, Benedict’s rule is “relaxed and humane … more laissez-faire, much more trusting of individual discretion.” Benedict knows that his disciples can thrive within structure, and he gives them space to do so. “We intend to establish a school,” Benedict writes, “In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome”—which might be the best rule for writing a syllabus.

Why I Write Postcards

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In 2012 I began referring to myself, in jest, as a man of letters. (I was in graduate school studying English.)  My wife was quick to tell me that if I call myself a man of letters, I should be sending letters. Oh no, I assured her, a man of letters just reads and writes; he doesn’t necessarily have to send letters. But she was insistent that a man of letters should send letters, and so I resolved to send a postcard every Friday. I called it Postcard Friday.

Worried I’d write the same thing to the same people multiple times, I picked up a Moleskine to keep a log what I said and to whom. As I look at that log now, five and a half years into Postcard Friday, it tells me I’ve sent 880 postcards.  What started as one a week has grown into three, four, five. Whenever I am in a gas station, a bookstore, a museum, an airport newsstand, I buy postcards. They vary in quality—pen smears on the cheap ones—and my aesthetics have changed. I used to prefer the chintzy, tacky postcards with glitter and neon, the uglier the better. I saw them as ironic.  I am now more discerning: only good cardstock, only good pictures, preferably of maps or whales or bigfoot.

Just as formal poetry shapes what the poet can say, the space on the back of the card constrains how I write. There’s room for four or five good sentences, maybe six if I write small. (One friend solved the space problem by sending me two postcards, labeled “Part 1” and “Part 2.”) Since the back of a postcard is open to all, I figure my mail carrier may read it, as could anyone along its way, and once it reaches its destination, I can only assume the intended recipient won’t be the only one to read it. Other family members might; if it’s out on the coffee table, house guests too. This creates another problem writing a postcard: how to write something personal enough so the postcard isn’t fluff but not so personal as to be embarrassing when read by prying eyes.

My postcard writing has evolved from asking a series of questions to what I now think of as the snapshot postcard—a paragraph about the local barbershop, a few sentences about tasting aquavit at a Norwegian distillery, a story about sitting on the beach over the weekend. The snapshot shares a bit of life with the “wish you were here” implied. These snapshots are, of course, a fiction. They are constructed representations of life, not unlike a Facebook status update.  I think of Stanley Fish, who says that sentences “organize the world into manageable, and in some sense, artificial, units that can then be inhabited and manipulated.” These postcards do just that: they construct a world out of a few deliberate sentences, a world the writer inhabits, a world the writer manipulates. In that construction, they narrate a life.

Recipients respond a variety of ways.  I’ve seen my postcards hung on the fridge or placed in a frame. My neighbor from Pittsburgh emails every time he receives a postcard.  Some friends text in response. My parents will call. I find these responses fascinating because of the shift in medium: pen and paper get a response in pixels or over the phone, which then gets a response in pen and paper, and so on. On my desk, I have a shoebox of postcards received in response to the ones I’ve sent. In them, I can see the growing literacy of my cousin, who at first sent sentences transcribed by his mother. He soon was writing his sentences himself, though they’d only respond to the questions I’d asked him. Within a few years, he was proposing new topics of conversation in his responses, propelling our discussion forward himself. In the responses from my friends, my grandmother, my brothers, I read moments of great joy (“Today, Emily gave me a daughter. They are both sleeping for the moment. Her name is Lucienne”), moments of fear (“I got your news today. It makes a lot of other things seem smaller. Not unimportant, just smaller”), moments of rest (“I needed a little break from real life after the terrible election so I am taking a few days off and spending them in Cleveland”), and moments of inspiration (“I had the idea to write a children’s book called ‘Turk Moves to NYC’”). I receive envelopes stuffed with drawings from my nieces, notes written on the back of sheet music, a letter tied to a book the sender wants me to read. There’s a materiality in these responses. These objects have been put in an envelope by a set of hands, that envelope licked and carried to the mailbox and then carried across the country, thousands of miles, and set in my mailbox by another set of hands to then be opened by my hands. Even though the postcards and letters I receive and send say the same thing an email or text could, the physicality of the mail—the dirt on the postcard, the stamp from the post office, the waterlogged letter, the delay between correspondences—carries with it something that the digital simply can’t.

Last year, one of my students wrote a paper on Oona Frawley’s novel Flight, which tells of a Zimbabwean coming to Ireland in 2004. The main character, Sandrine, writes a lot of letters. My student explains: “Sandrine uses letters to explore her own feelings on immigration and to bridge the distance between her current and former lives.” There’s a sense, here, that writing a letter is way to maintain connections, a means to not lose touch. But there’s more; my student continues: “By writing physical letters that are able to travel where she no longer can, Sandrine’s letters—whether sent or unsent—become an embodied hope of return.” The letter travels where the writer cannot, and because of this, its physicality matters. The postcard traverses a distance, however far, and by traveling that distance, it embodies a hope of return.   By reaching from the present to a shared past, the postcard points to the future.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Scorebooks and Commonplace Books

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Last summer I taught myself to score baseball. Scoring entails keeping track of every pitch and every swing of the bat, every play and every out, creating a written record of the game as I’ve observed it. From this, I’ve learned that game-saving heroics are deceiving. Yes, the homerun is incredible, as are the triple play and the suicide squeeze, but these happen so rarely that to judge a game (that is, the contest at hand) by them is to misrepresent the Game (that is, Baseball). Yet another pitch. Yet another strike. Yet another base hit. Such plays aren’t often praised, but they compose a season and a career. The day-in and day-out, the uneventful, the trivial –– the “fundamentals” as the players and coaches say –– this is what fills my scorebook.

The same summer I began scorekeeping I also began keeping a commonplace book. Mine is a Moleskine in which I copy passages from writers whose prose I find instructive, compelling, whose syntax is a model for my own. I cull sentences from the likes of Kathleen Jamie, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Philip Hoare, Annie Dillard, William Coles. I gather their words into my commonplace book and spend time inside their sentences, inhabiting their syntax.

Each time I reach for my commonplace book, I think about my scorekeeping. Though the scorebook does occasionally record the spectacular, for the most part its method is antithetical to the commonplace book. One chronicles the monotonous; the other collects the exceptional.

I find myself gathering sentences by the same criteria Stanley Fish uses in How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. We’re both “always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away, that make you say, ‘Isn’t that something’ or ‘What a sentence!’” Fish likens such sentences to the highlight reel: “you know, the five greatest dunks, or the ten greatest catches, or the fifteen greatest touchdown runbacks.” As an example, Fish turns to John Updike on Ted Williams’s homerun in his final at-bat in Fenway Park: “It was in the books while it was still in the sky.” In Fish’s reading, Updike “confers mythical status on the moment before it is completed, before the ball actually goes out of the park” by teetering “in the books” and “in the sky” on either side of “while.”

“It was in the books while it was still in the sky” is in my own commonplace book, but now that I score baseball, I wonder about all the other sentences that neither Fish nor I pay attention to, the unavoidable tension between the sentences I copy into my commonplace book and the thousands upon thousands of sentences I’ve read that I don’t. This does not mean all those other sentences are strikeouts or passed balls or errors, but that not every sentence attempts to be (or even should be) a grand slam. Sometimes all a sentence needs to do is string together a few words with little fanfare –– sentences like these, taken from the same Updike piece chronicling Williams’s career:

The day was overcast, chill, and uninspirational.
The Boston team was the worst in twenty-seven seasons.
I arrived early.
The Orioles were hitting fungos on the field.
The dividing line came between the 1956 and the 1957 seasons.
Every true story has an anticlimax.

How am I –– scorekeeper and sentence collector –– to read these sentences? They do not dazzle; they accomplish no syntactic feats. Can they, too, be sentences that take my breath away, sentences that make me exclaim, “Isn’t that something” or “What a sentence!”?

Here’s “It was in the books while it was still in the sky” within its original paragraph:

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowed grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

With the judiciously placed “after his unsettling wait,” the first sentence forces readers, like the crowd at Fenway and like Williams, to wait for Fisher to deliver his pitch. There’s the efficient rhythm of “Fisher threw a third time, Williams swung again, and there it was.” The third sentence –– “The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure” –– is itself both long and smooth and quick as well as exposed, naked, just like Williams’s swing-and-a-miss. “The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field” piles on prepositional phrases, one atop another, to mimic the ball’s upward flight. Then there’s Updike’s semicolon in the final sentence, connecting the running Brandt to the ball’s descent, the crowd watching the two converge on the field and the reader seeing the same grammatically in the sentence.

But what about “He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed”? Understated, plain as it is, it is a sentence I could have written. I notice it only because of my scorekeeping, because I now watch for the mundane.

Such sentences do not announce themselves. They don’t find their way into commonplace books. And yet, these are the sentences that do the heavy lifting of writing, the sentences that compose a writer’s life. They provide the ordinary language against which the extra-ordinary resonates.

It is easy to look past sentences like “The batting cage was trundled away” in favor of sentences like “It was in the books while it was still in the sky,” sentences that are, as Fish says, “performances of a certain skill at the highest level.” And it is easy, too, to say “It was in the books while it was still in the sky” is a good sentence. It is much harder to say the same about “He glanced up at the press rows suspended above home plate.” Even harder to say why “The Sox won, 5-4” is a good sentence without resorting to clichés about clarity. And hardest of all: cultivating ways of reading and writing that value the work of ordinary language, that bring the scorebook to bear upon the commonplace book.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.