Essays

The Georgia Review, Fall/Winter 2018. “Enough.” An EXCERPT appears below.

Green Mountains Review, November 2016 (online; print February 2017): “Born Naked.”

The Manifest-Station, August 2016: “Love in the Time of Ebola.”

The Chattahoochee Review, Winter 2015/2016: (Is that a Plant Reaching for my Throat? Or Fig(ment)s of Imagination”).

Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Volume 16, Number 2, Fall 2015, (Transutopia).

Copper Nickel, Issue 20, Fall 2015, (A Tale of Two Rivers–winner of the Penelope Niven prize in creative nonfiction from the Salem College Center for Women Writers).

Better Magazine, Issue Five, Summer 2014,  (The Trouble with Looking).

The Bellingham Review, Issue 65, Fall 2012,  (“In the Arms of Morpheus“).

The Seneca Review, Volume 41, No. 2,  Fall 2011 (“Caution: The Moving Walkway is Ending“).

Gargoyle 57, Fall 2011 (“I’ll Make Room“). A notable in Best American Essays 2012.

An excerpt from “Enough,” published in the Georgia Review. The issue  can be purchased here: https://thegeorgiareview.com/product/fall-2018-winter-2018/

Enough

The Renaissance scientist Philip von Hohenheim wrote that “All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”

Nothing is without poison.

It’s enough to make you never leave your bed. Unless, of course, the mattress you’re lying on is toxic.

An alchemist and peripatetic physician of a mystical bent, one of von Hohenheim’s middle names was Bombastus. If many of his contemporaries thought he was full of hot air, it didn’t help that he called himself Paracelsus, “greater than Celsus,” author of the Roman encyclopedia De Medicina.

The dose at which something becomes poisonous varies by substance. Poisons are ranked based on their LD50—the amount per gram or kilogram of body weight that it takes to kill half of the exposed rats or mice in a given study.

The LD50 for ricin, the poison mailed to President Obama in 2013, depends on whether you’re eating it, inhaling it, or receiving it by injection. You have to eat one to twenty milligrams per kilo of bodyweight to die, but one-thousandth of that dose will kill you if inhaled or injected.

Paracelsus is called the father of toxicology, a discipline governed by this five-word distillation of his thinking: the dose makes the poison.

The LD50 for aspirin is two hundred milligrams per kilo of rat. There is no known LD50 for humans, but five hundred milligrams or one extra-strength aspirin per kilo is considered a lethal dose. If I wanted to end it all, I’d have to take more than half a bottle. What about the tap water I swallow the aspirin with? Its LD50 would depend on whether I live in Flint, Michigan or Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

From Paracelsus’ maxim, two corollaries emerged: as the dose increases, so does the substance’s potential for harm, and, for every toxin there is a threshold below which exposure is safe. For regulators charged with protecting the public, the “safe threshold” is a principle of faith.

I once listened to a young woman on the radio talk about her five-year relationship with an abusive boyfriend. She would leave him, he would apologize and commit to winning back her trust, she would return, and for weeks or even months, he would be the person she fell in love with.

Because of Paracelsus, the heart of a toxicologist beats like this— her EKG curving in a reverse ski slope:

Ricin is made from castor beans. If you chew seven or eight of them you’ll die, but oil made

from the crushed beans is a laxative “generally recognized as safe and effective” by the Food and Drug Administration. Castor oil, with its sonic hints of castigation, has been used for centuries to purge dissent. Colonial and fascist rulers learned the technique in childhood when their parents meted out spoonfuls for misbehavior—a viscous spanking.

Researchers are still trying to parse spanking’s effects on children. While its harms are known—it’s associated with aggression, low self-esteem, impaired cognitive ability and other negative outcomes—its benefits remain unproven. Parents who swear by it (“my parents spanked me and I turned out okay”) view corporal punishment like a drug: one small whack on the butt relieves anger and discourages—they believe—future outbreaks of misbehavior. But for a drug to be approved, it must be shown to be both safe and effective, and at what doses. The alternative is to think of spanking as an environmental toxin, present in varying degrees everywhere, with some to-be-determined safe threshold. Spanking’s opponents insist that with no evidence of benefit (for the child), spanking’s risks are too great. Love complicates risk-benefit analysis like nothing else. With hindsight, the woman on the radio would probably say: if the risk of your partner giving you a black eye is one hundred percent, it is time to empty your drawers.

An excerpt from “Transutopia,” published in Fourth Genre:

 There is another world, but it is in this one.”  Paul Éluard

I.

In L. Frank Baum’s second book about Oz, a militia of young women armed with knitting needles storms the Emerald City. Their objective: to overthrow the Scarecrow who has governed Oz since the Wizard’s departure. “The Emerald City has been ruled by men long enough,” says General Jinjur.

As a seven-year-old girl, I adored this book, The Land of Oz.

While the female “Army of Revolt” ultimately surrenders and the men are freed once more from dishwashing, cooking, and taking care of babies, the events of the second-to-last chapter more than compensated for the army’s defeat. The young protagonist, Tip, who’d been a boy for 261 pages, finds out he’s really a girl, is transformed into Princess Ozma, and assumes the throne—all in the last twenty pages.

The vapor floated away; the atmosphere became clear again; a whiff of fresh air filled the tent, and the pink curtains of the couch trembled slightly, as if stirred from within. 

Glinda walked to the canopy and parted the silken hangings. Then she bent over the cushions, reached out her hand, and from the couch arose the form of a young girl, fresh and beautiful as a May morning…

An excerpt from “A Tale of Two Rivers,” published in Copper Nickel:

Washington has always been a tale of two rivers,  what you would call the white river and the black river. Jim Dougherty, Sierra Club

1.

Many who have written about Washington, D.C.—not as the nation’s capital but as a city and permanent home, my home—have used Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as a starting point. Whether side-by-side or nestled one inside the other, there are two Washingtons: a black one, the country’s first city with an African-American majority, and a white one, made up mostly of transplants.

I was born here, and I’m white. In the future, many more people will be able to say the same due to gentrification and the resulting black flight. It used to be that when acquaintances asked me where I was from, they assumed “Washington, D.C.” was short-hand for one of the Maryland or Virginia suburbs. And the ones who knew something about the geography, knew about Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Falls Church and McLean, would ask: But where did you really grow up? 

2.

Like a lot of cities, Washington, D.C. has two rivers, but they are far from equal in stature. The Potomac River, which separates the city from Virginia and George Washington’s riverfront home, Mount Vernon, is the one Robert E. Lee crossed to invade the north. Four hundred and five miles long, it is the “Nation’s River” and like the Mississippi, it is an “American heritage river.”

An excerpt from “The Trouble with Looking,” which you can read, listen to, or watch Brandel read in its entirety here:

I’m the only one in the advanced lung disease and transplant center who is not barrel-chested, wearing a mask over my nose and mouth, or carrying an oxygen tank. Many of the patients have emphysema, which gets worse over time and can’t be cured. When I perform the six-minute walking test, the nurse marvels at my ability to speed-walk the hospital corridor, turning on my heels and returning at the same pace at which I started. On a scale of 1 to 10, how is your breathing now, she asks every second or third “lap.” I shrug my shoulders and say, 10? When I finish, she removes the band from my temples and the clips from my body, and tells me my oxygen is 100%. The center has never had a patient like me, so able and healthy at fifty-two.

So, how did I get here?

I spit into a test tube at home and mailed it to a company that tests your genes for $299. The test tells you if you are at elevated risk for or are a carrier of certain diseases, predicts how you would respond to common treatments like blood thinners, and whether you have, say, native Americans or Vikings in your bloodline.

From my spit, I learned that my DNA is 3.1% Neanderthal, I am distantly related to Katie Couric, and I am what my future support group calls an “Alpha.”

An excerpt from “In the Arms of Morpheus,” published in the Bellingham Review:

“Trench…tunnel…tongue…tumor,” my mother says, her brain descending the rungs of a ladder until touching ground at “cough syrup.” “I haven’t taken my cough syrup yet.” The dog is on the bed, sidling up to her, looking for a rub. Her hand levitates over his belly, fingers occasionally touching down as she stares straight ahead. The curved nails partially cover her finger tips, which are round as spring onions. This is called “clubbing,” and this is why she can’t type or sign checks.

______________________

She is holding court in bed, wearing a pajama top and a diaper. She did not turn away these visitors bearing Malbec, who crossed the country to see her—much  as she might have liked to. Many days when her best friend phones her, she looks at the caller i.d. and lets it ring.   The steroids have plumped her cheeks but her lower half has been whittled from lying in bed. Her legs—right ankle resting on bent left knee—are concentration camp thin. She is eating, almost supine (“it worked for the Romans”), soft French cheese with her fingers.  With the other hand, she waves her wine glass, crying, “I’m in the arms of Morpheus!”

Son of sleep, maker
of forms, eraser
who replaces one image
with another
inaseamlesstransition
Imagine imago, but also
the study of structure,
words, molecules, stories:
an ebony bed, a cave
burning with flowers,
the wilted elm where dreams
hang
like golden pupa.

An excerpt from “Caution: the Moving Walkway is Ending,” from the Seneca Review (print only):

I.

My biostatistics professor, Molly Parks, who subscribes to Hadassah magazine and remembers doing multiple regressions by hand, is standing in front of 60 of us, waving a small booklet.  “This,” she says, stabbing The Vital Statistics of New York City with her index finger, wig askew, “is better than fiction.”

And it was. There was something holy about its unrelenting reckoning: births, marriages, and deaths. Death by borough, by age, by birthplace, race, and cause.  Every class, we opened this booklet, with its Years of Potential Life Lost, and learned to quantify the unquantifiable.

II.

I am sitting beside a floor-to-ceiling window. A heavy curtain covers all but the bottom of it where the bare glass frames a pair of legs.  They are my mother’s stockinged calves, size 5 Ferragamo shoes, with a triple A heel. She is standing at the front door knocking or maybe she’s ringing the bell. It isn’t my house; it’s simply where I happen to be.  I don’t hear a thing. Next to her, I see a raccoon on his hind legs, also waiting. He turns his masked face to me.

That dream ends, and in the next one I am staring at a computer screen, clicking on an icon labeled “the dream before this one,” but nothing opens.

As my mother’s weight drops, her balance fails, and the coughing worsens, she becomes increasingly housebound. She spends most of her time in bed, watching television without sound. She doesn’t want to disturb her neighbors, or more likely she is trying to teach by example the college kids in the apartment upstairs. Some nights, in spite of the codeine cough syrup, in spite of the prescription sleeping pills, she lies awake staring at the invisible cardiogram of bass on her ceiling. After an hour, she will knock on it with a broom handle. Then she will climb back into bed, out of breath and wait.

Her appetite is gone, and it hurts to swallow. On TV, she watches the cooks—the barefoot one, the naked one, the 30-minute one, the white one named Brown. And from the 33 square feet of real estate she knows best, she watches the house hunters. 

Homeostasis: The ability of a cell or the body to seek and maintain a condition of equilibrium or stability within its internal environmentwhen dealing with external changes. 

An excerpt from “I’ll Make Room,” published in Gargoyle (print only):

I.

OK, so Bill and I are at Norman Mailer’s summer place in Provincetown a couple of months after the end of his and Jimmy Breslin’s campaign for mayor of New York and there’s a bunch of more polite-type people and we’re having dinner at a big dining table but Bill’s been drinking and he’s pretty drunk and he’s talking about having sired many children (did you ever hear about the twins that he supposedly had with Suki?) and people around the table are kinda shocked and arguing with him (a ridiculous waste of energy) and one woman, who apparently was big on the overpopulation issue, wags her finger at him and says, “How can you be so irresponsible?  What are you going to do when there’s no more room?”  And your dad lifts himself expansively and spreads his arms wide and says, “I’ll make room.”

Ron is the first of the 11 children my father boasted of having. At least we think he is.  In seven days, I am going to meet my brother for the first time.

He’s my half-brother: he is one sock, an empty moon, my B side. Add us up, one plus one, and we make three: one father and two mothers.

But he is the only brother I have. Ron is a jazz musician and composer, and I’m listening to one of his CDs right now: Photograph.   In photos, and he has heard this from others, including a stranger in a North Carolina post office, he looks like our father. He looks like Bill Walker, if Bill had lived long enough to have gray hair, put a daughter through college, or learn complacency.

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