The Furious Gazelle

Literary as hell.

Tag: essay (page 1 of 5)

The Art of the Modifier, by Laura Iodice

“What is a Swamp?”
“A swamp is a type of freshwater wetland that has spongy, muddy land and a lot of water. Many trees and shrubs grow in swamps.”

I sit in our fourth grade classroom’s back row, the class where Sister Mary Bridget, Grammar Nazi and Queen of Land and Water Forms, rules not with an iron fist, but with a rigid pointer. Though a capable student, I rue the day my name appears on her class roster, as her reputation for brutally drilling her students on grammatical and geographic structures terrifies even the most conscientious among us. Structure is what Sister Mary Bridget does best. She begins with structured rows, arranged not according to one’s last name, but according to one’s report card average. Those who score the lowest grades sit closest to the teacher’s desk, within easy reach of her pointer’s tip. Thankfully, I’m seated way in the back nearest the coat closet, a cherished location for both for its obscurity and its expedience. Last seated are first to retrieve their jackets when the final bell rings!

Even from my ironically privileged position, though, I’m not inure to the relentless taunting that those in the front seats endure. Those least likely to dutifully replicate Sister’s blackboard models of perfectly structured sentence diagrams. Those least likely to produce neatly pleated composition book pages containing perfectly scripted definitions of her vaulted land and water forms, ten times over. Those least likely or perhaps least able to comply with her relentless demands for repetition, driven by her zealous conviction that the more often something is said or written, the better it will be remembered.

“Repeat after me,” she ruthlessly chants in a nasal monotone, as she marches between our aisles, her rosary beads swishing against her flowing black gown, her rubber soled oxfords squeaking against the floor tiles.

We rely only on our ears to alert us to Sister’s imminent approach while we affix our eyes to our notebook-scrawled definitions and collectively mimic her intonations: “What is a Swamp?”

“A swamp is a type of freshwater wetland that has spongy, muddy land and a lot of water. Many trees and shrubs grow in swamps.”

“Right, class. Now again…”

Realizing that only perfection will satisfy our teacher, those in the back who find reading easy and elocution painless try our best to compensate for the voices up front who invariably lag behind as they trudge through the words on the page like a swimmer through quicksand. Even while overcompensating, though, we resign ourselves to the moment when one of them will be singled out and forced to stand, face the class, and repeat the phrase as a solo performance, without the benefit of scribbled notes.

I cringe while reciting, knowing that we may forestall, but we can’t avoid the inevitable. It’s only only a matter of time before Larry fumbles his recitation and winds up seated in a garbage pail up front, a stack of uncovered text books (yet another blight on Larry’s soul) stacked in a pile that weighs down his outstretched arms. Poor Larry. To this day, I wonder if he’s figured out the difference between a swamp and a peninsula. Or how to diagram either definition. Or why it matters.

Truthfully, for years, both seemed superfluous to me. Not now, though. Now, when I read the morning news, I realize that despite her penchant for perfection and her ruthless teaching practices, Sister Mary Bridget may have been on to something. In fact, her lessons in geography and grammar may even have proved prescient. I knew little, then, about how useful both would become during my present life, as I desperately attempt to fathom why our deeply flawed, bombastic president holds such sway among his base. I’m not psychic, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Larry voted for Trump and still adores him.

Why? It all comes back to land and water forms and the diagrammed sentence. No, not the four-year sentence many of us are enduring since the Russians co-opted our last presidential election. I’m speaking of the sentence that strategically locates modifiers to accentuate otherwise nondescript nouns. Nouns like swamp. And wall. Nouns that become much more codified when accompanied by seemingly trivial articles: swamp becomes “the” swamp; wall becomes “a” wall. Both are rhetorically strategic distinctions, but also rhetorically suspect. Once swamp becomes exclusive, as in “ the” swamp, most assume it is a specific, fixed target, a destination to be definitively appropriated and conquered. And “a” wall? Its very obscurity ascribes an omniscient animistic quality to a finite material object. Ah, but Sister Mary Bridget would never be fooled by either. She knew then, and her students who paid attention also know that “A swamp is a type of freshwater wetland that has spongy, muddy land and a lot of water. Many trees and shrubs grow in swamps.”

Swamps can’t be definitively drained and they certainly can’t be securely built upon once they’re supposedly conquered. You don’t need to take my word for this; just consider the Everglades if you need a current example of faulty attempts and unintended consequences. As wetlands, swamps are slippery land sources. They’re “spongy,” elusive. They’re also muddy, their contents, obscure. Still, they’re “freshwater” sites, indicating purity, despite their spongy, muddy consistencies. And swamps contain many trees and shrubs, a multitudinous diversity. Simply draining “the” swamp does not preclude or prevent others from emerging and thriving. Anyone who knows her land and water forms and understands the art of the modifier is easily able to recognize a rhetorical lie when it’s uttered. And this one is utterly ridiculous! (Pun intended.)

Draining “the” swamp to eliminate undesirables would be no more effective than building “a” wall for the same purpose. Promising to build “a” wall as protection is fallacious, at best. And prevaricating over other modifiers, such as steel, brick, reinforced, barb-wired, does nothing to authenticate the endeavor. Those of us who know our land and water forms know well that walls are not among them. Walls are manmade, and as such, unnatural. What happens when you construct a wall as an impediment to nature? Nature responds. Wall can do little to ensure safety because nature is all encompassing and cannot be contained merely by a manmade structural device intended to obstruct.

If this obstruction were completely enveloping and unbreachable, it would be modified as the wall, a comprehensive, impenetrable presence. A wall, though, is an inadequate material mass when pitted against forces of nature, one such force being the human heart and its passionate pursuit of freedom. “Where’s there’s a wall,” the passionate of heart might say, “There’s a way.” And the way usually takes the form of yet another modifier, whether it is over, under, around or through.

Devoted students of grammar and geography understand this, so why don’t others?

This brings us to the problem's root

Not all of us are inclined toward structured academic disciplines such as geography or grammar. Some are more responsive to emotional appeals; others, to cautionary admonishments; still others, to hyperbolic promises that mimic our grandiose notion of “The American Dream,” the most hyperbolic, idyllic fantasy of all, the dream many believe has been damaged, but is still reparable if we drain the swamp and build a wall. Ah, those instigative modifiers To dream is laudable, but to limit the dream to a definitive version (“The”) and to brand and commoditize it as exclusively “American” just perpetuates the myth that residency equates with ownership, while distracting us from the practical reality that dreams, by their very nature, are illusory aspirations. As for the dubious notion of ownership? Who among us is not just passing through the earth we presume to inhabit? It would be much more honest to admit that we are guests on this land who often overstay our welcome or abuse our host’s generosity and benevolence.
It’s no surprise that Sister Mary Bridget’s less academically curious or disciplined students would rely on the accuracy of modifiers, seizing on basic grammatical rules while ignoring their contextual limitations. Humans are habitual creatures. We may not remember what we’ve learned, but we remember well how it felt while we were learning, and fear and shame are powerful motivators. To be forced to sit at the head of the class so that others might bear witness to one’s supposed laziness or ignorance is motivation enough for now-grown classroom outliers who often grow into agitators, clowns or bullies to champion hyperbolic, bombastic, anti-intellectual rants, especially when they’re bolstered by another powerful motivating force, monetary success accrued as a result of predatory behavior.
I’m not claiming that all Trump supporters wear this brand, only that those who do so learned their lessons early and well. They learned to embrace rigidity and authority, even while scorning the system that taught them to comply. They learned to admire bold modifiers, whether they be glittering adornments or inflated words, as these equate with success. Most especially, they learned to vote not necessarily in their own image, but in the image of the dream they believe has been taken from them by those looking for a seat in their classroom; those willing to take any seat, even if it’s right in front of the teacher’s desk. Even if it means daily humiliation. Even if it means living on the poverty line in an unfamiliar land, among people who speak an indecipherable language.
These newly arrived assumed interlopers may not know the definition of swamp, the composition of walls or the relative value of articles used to modify either, but they do know that language matters, even if it’s not their own. And they know enough to avoid dwelling in empty swamps with the snakes who drain them or relying too heavily on a wall that’s bound to crumble. That’s why they come to America, the land of “The” dream that never dies. Isn’t this elusive, unachievable quality the stuff that dreams are made of, after all?
These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

William Shakespeare. The Tempest, Act V, Sc. 1.

“Submissive New World,” an essay by Bill Carr

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

In the foreseeable future, the Turing test, which measures the ability of humans to determine if an unseen communicator is a human or a computer, will undoubtedly undergo a significant enhancement: a test to see if a computer can determine whether the unseen communicator is a human or another computer. Continue reading

“The Blenderizing of the American Family” by May Wescott

Divorce is final and clean on paper.  But when there are kids involved, no judge in the world has the power to sever the bonds between two people who have entwined DNA walking around as a constant reminder that, despite the formality of the notarized seal on the decree, they will never really be divorced from each other

“Blended” is the fictitious term we use to describe families created out of the ragged stump of divorce.

When you make a cake, you “blend” the ingredients. It’s such a gentle process that you can do it easily with the rounded edges of a wooden spoon. Methodical, harmonious, smooth strokes of the spoon combine the disparate elements into a tranquil, pliable batter. Continue reading

“Barbie’s Going to Hell,” an essay by Bethany Hunter

Jenny lived across the street and down three houses. Precocious, with white blonde hair in a bowl cut and a tendency to run around the neighborhood in her swimsuit, she was the first friend I had when we moved in.

My father was a fundamentalist evangelist and along with my mother, we had been traveling around the country in our big 1983 burgundy Buick, state to state, church to church, revivals, tent meetings and summer camps for the last seven and a half years. After years of pleading from my mother for a home of our own and empty promises from my father, he had finally found a church to pastor and we were going to “settle down.” The church was in a Phoenix suburb and had a small, struggling congregation that needed Jesus as much as they needed jobs and money to pay bills that were due last month. With little more than a pittance, a rental house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, a front and backyard, as well as the long promised formal dining room, was found for us fifteen miles away in a largely Mormon part of town. As a homeschooled, only child whose friendships came on visiting preacher’s kid status and the backseat of the Buick that was the most permanent personal space I had, the move to a house in a neighborhood with an elementary school around the corner was new, exciting and often a culture shock.

Jenny’s family was what my mother called “rough around the edges”, but Jenny was friendly and curious and no cold shoulder from my mother seemed to discourage her interest in me. We walked the two blocks to school together in the mornings and rode our banana seat bikes around the neighborhood in the afternoons. Roughly the same age and in the same class at school, the thing that really cemented our friendship was a love of Barbie dolls. Barbie, Ken and her friends were my favorite, though they were generally given different monikers and often after various pastor’s wives or children I had liked best; small and compact, they were easy to pack up and play with in the backseat of the car. Barbie’s long hair, big breasts, tiny waist, plenty of dresses made out of my father’s old ties and tiny plastic high heels made her the perfect wife, mother and lover of Jesus in all the scenarios that I placed her. I was never aware that Barbie had a dream house or career aspirations. My Barbie had been baptized in the bathroom sink in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of her sins and cooked dinner for her family before going to church three times a week. Jenny’s Barbie dolls moved in different circles; they wore mini skirts, some cut their hair off and drove Corvettes. Regardless of our respective Barbie’s differences, Jenny and I loved to bring our haul together and spent countless hours in our imaginary worlds with them. Continue reading

2018 Spring Contest Winner: “Emily’s Garden” by Brandon Hansen

I knelt in Emily’s garden for the first time years ago, just as her and her sister, Stephanie, were moving into their new apartment – the first floor of a duplex, a beautiful place, close enough to Lake Superior to smell the water, to feel its chill on the wind as it snuck between the latticed streets, the lavish houses downtown, where Emily said it was a miracle, really, to have found the place at all.

Emily pointed to bare patches of soil in the garden, dry, pockmarked with withered grasses from transplanted seeds carried in the cheeks of, I’m sure, chipmunks and gray squirrels, who laid down roots and forgot them there. Emily tells me there’ll be a rosebush, a something-colorful here, something-tall there. I tell her I can’t wait to see it.

On the porch, Stephanie talked to my brother, Nicky, who’s three years younger than me, five years younger than the sisters. They’re both smiling, and the sun pours down on all four of us, and I remember thinking that I felt so lucky, then.

I first met Emily and Stephanie as a flash in my vision, really, two shapes against the blizzard outside who stepped through the doors of the University Center I was situated in, where I was advertising Windows 8, standing next to a high-table, holding a tablet “thin as a dinner plate!” and “very fast!” and “has Paint!” Or something like that. I needed Christmas money, needed money to make it home, and as I whispered to Emily and Stephanie, snow swirling on the linoleum floors from the door they opened to come inside and escape the blizzard, I didn’t really feel very passionate about Windows 8. I gave them free sunglasses and book bags, and we drew flowers on the “innovative touch-screen!” of the tablets, while I told them about none of the features, except for all of the colors you could make if you slid your finger like “this” or “that” on the gradient. Continue reading

2018 Spring Contest Finalist: “August, 1938” by Allison Brice

railroad crossing

At some point in the stickiness of last summer while I was detoxing from my psych meds, I got very scared and very sad for no reason and locked myself in my closet. (Ironically enough I had come out of the closet years ago; at the time I didn’t find it that funny, but these days I think it’s hysterical.) I assume that some primal part of me longed for the days of being swaddled as a baby while my brain was dry-heaving itself to death, so I found a nice dark corner behind my winter coats and novelty Harry Potter robes and stayed there sobbing for an hour. Eventually I came out and wrote a poem about it. A week later I took my last dose. Continue reading

“Endings,” an essay by Pamela S. Carter

Sometimes I see scenes from my life like a long, disjointed movie on which the credits should have rolled hours ago. But it just keeps going, at least for now. Still, my lifetime, like the life cycles of the ash trees in my backyard, is finite. My trees, although a year or two younger than I am, are at the end of their life cycles, according to an arborist who came out to determine why they looked so poorly this fall. He recommends cutting them down and replacing them with young catalpa trees, but I am torn. It will take years for the new trees to provide the shade the old ones do now, and I don’t want to leave my son John, who will inherit this house, with the cost and worry of taking down the ash trees. The trees are living beings but not sentient, as far as I know, so I assume they have no sense of their impending end of days.

Damn those trees. Until this fall I always took them—and their shade—for granted. I even planted a garden of shade-loving plants beneath the shelter created by the giant canopy of the tree on the north side of the house. But then I believed Paul, my third husband and the love of my life, would live forever. He certainly seemed invincible. In his sixties he had low blood pressure, even lower cholesterol, and the sex drive of a teenager. He shoveled snow, raked leaves, kept the yard weeded, and built every stick of furniture in our house—right up till he developed a pain in his right upper abdominal cavity in the spring of 2014. He went to the doctor in July, spent the summer months undergoing tests, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in late October, and died in the predawn darkness of November 7, 2014. It happened too fast for me to comprehend. Continue reading

“Why I Hate Spring, or How I Almost Hung Myself but Went to the Nervous Hospital Instead,” by Dr. Patrick Dobson

 

About five years ago, I went to the mental hospital. I was going to hang myself. Just as I was choosing the rope, I experienced an epiphany. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea, at least, not as good as I thought it was.

Springtime was on me. The season has always been difficult. As days get longer and the light more intense, I get more and more depressed. I find myself crying, seemingly just for the hell of it. Feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness grow. I stay in bed longer and sleep during odd times of the day. Fatigue plagues me.

Soon, usually by the beginning of March, the world looks and feels dead to me. I see the flowers and the trees busting into green. I hear the birds and see the rabbits. Beauty is all around and I have no connection to it. I isolate myself. Thoughts of suicide and of absconding from home haunt me. A pall hangs over me. I know I should be doing things but cannot find the energy or ambition to undertake them. All sounds are too loud. Activity around me, any activity, grates on me like sandpaper on raw nerves. Continue reading

“If the Shoe Fits . . .,” an essay by Mary Street

I have a fatal attraction to shoes. For a brief period, in my early adulthood, I strayed into a certain leather handbag attraction, but I never lost my lust for shoes.

A deep leather handbag, one that can hold a toaster comfortably, gave me a sense of completeness. What can go wrong in my world when I’ve got everything I need slung over my shoulder? Eventually the price of a good leather handbag exceeded my budget, and, like bitter lovers, we broke up.

Shoes have always captured my attention, with an urgent whisper saying You must have me! I was five years old the first time it happened. I begged for a pair of shoes like the older girl next door was wearing. “Can I have a pair of Beverly shoes?” I whined. They were red canvas espadrilles with long laces that entwined up Beverly’s ankles. To my five year old eyes they were riveting. Continue reading

“An Urban Legend,” an essay by Susanna Man

The bus headed for Cluj splashes in the puddle as it rolls in to the station in Gheorgheni, Romania on Friday at two pm. My heart jumps. I climb the few steps, hand the money to the driver and tell him to drop me off at the brewery, opposite the University of Veterinary Medicine and Agricultural Studies in Cluj. I squeeze my small backpack in the narrow alley between the rows of seats and look for an empty one. I find two vacant seats together, throw my backpack beside me and sink into the plush covering.

The bus cradles me. I slip into sleep, far away from my week of teaching English as a foreign language to lanky pimple-faced boys and wannabe fashionista girls in Salamon Erno High School in my home town, Gheorgheni.

Cluj, the flashy, fancy, everyone’s favorite city, boasts the largest student population from all over Romania. I graduated from one of its universities, Babes-Bolyai in English and Hungarian literature. Leo, my boyfriend of two years, still studies in Cluj to become a veterinarian. We meet every two weeks. He visits his family in Gheorgheni once a month, and I travel to Cluj once a month. I look forward to this weekend. Continue reading

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