Monthly Archives: April 2017

‘Paradise Lost': How The Apple Became The Forbidden Fruit


Left: Title page of the first edition of Paradise Lost (1667). Right: William Blake, The Temptation and Fall of Eve, 1808 (illustration of Milton’s Paradise Lost)



Wikipedia

This month marks 350 years since John Milton sold his publisher the copyright of Paradise Lost for the sum of five pounds.

His great work dramatizes the oldest story in the Bible, whose principal characters we know only too well: God, Adam, Eve, Satan in the form of a talking snake — and an apple.

Except, of course, that Genesis never names the apple but simply refers to “the fruit.” To quote from the King James Bible:

And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'”

“Fruit” is also the word Milton employs in the poem’s sonorous opening lines:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe

But in the course of his over-10,000-line poem, Milton names the fruit twice, explicitly calling it an apple. So how did the apple become the guilty fruit that brought death into this world and all our woe?

The short and unexpected answer is: a Latin pun.

In order to explain, we have to go all the way back to the fourth century A.D., when Pope Damasus ordered his leading scholar of scripture, Jerome, to translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin. Jerome’s path-breaking, 15-year project, which resulted in the canonical Vulgate, used the Latin spoken by the common man. As it turned out, the Latin words for evil and apple are the same: malus.

In the Hebrew Bible, a generic term, peri, is used for the fruit hanging from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, explains Robert Appelbaum, who discusses the biblical provenance of the apple in his book Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections.

“Peri could be absolutely any fruit,” he says. “Rabbinic commentators variously characterized it as a fig, a pomegranate, a grape, an apricot, a citron, or even wheat. Some commentators even thought of the forbidden fruit as a kind of wine, intoxicating to drink.”

A detail of Michelangelo’s fresco in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel depicting the Fall of Man and expulsion from the Garden of Eden



Wikipedia

When Jerome was translating the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” the word malus snaked in. A brilliant but controversial theologian, Jerome was known for his hot temper, but he obviously also had a rather cool sense of humor.

“Jerome had several options,” says Appelbaum, a professor of English literature at Sweden’s Uppsala University. “But he hit upon the idea of translating peri as malus, which in Latin has two very different meanings. As an adjective, malus means bad or evil. As a noun it seems to means an apple, in our own sense of the word, coming from the very common tree now known officially as the Malus pumila. So Jerome came up with a very good pun.”

The story doesn’t end there. “To complicate things even more,” says Appelbaum, “the word malus in Jerome’s time, and for a long time after, could refer to any fleshy seed-bearing fruit. A pear was a kind of malus. So was the fig, the peach, and so forth.”

Which explains why Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco features a serpent coiled around a fig tree. But the apple began to dominate Fall artworks in Europe after the German artist Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1504 engraving depicted the First Couple counterpoised beside an apple tree. It became a template for future artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose luminous Adam and Eve painting is hung with apples that glow like rubies.

Eve giving Adam the forbidden fruit, by Lucas Cranach the Elder.



Wikipedia

Milton, then, was only following cultural tradition. But he was a renowned Cambridge intellectual fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, who served as secretary for foreign tongues to Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth. If anyone was aware of the malus pun, it would be him. And yet he chose to run it with it. Why?

Appelbaum says that Milton’s use of the term “apple” was ambiguous. “Even in Milton’s time the word had two meanings: either what was our common apple, or, again, any fleshy seed-bearing fruit. Milton probably had in mind an ambiguously named object with a variety of connotations as well as denotations, most but not all of them associating the idea of the apple with a kind of innocence, though also with a kind of intoxication, since hard apple cider was a common English drink.”

It was only later readers of Milton, says Appelbaum, who thought of “apple” as “apple” and not any seed-bearing fruit. For them, the forbidden fruit became synonymous with the malus pumila. As a widely read canonical work, Paradise Lost was influential in cementing the role of apple in the Fall story.

But whether the forbidden fruit was an apple, fig, peach, pomegranate or something completely different, it is worth revisiting the temptation scene in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, both as an homage to Milton (who composed his masterpiece when he was blind, impoverished and in the doghouse for his regicidal politics) and simply to savor the sublime beauty of the language. Thomas Jefferson loved this poem. With its superfood dietary advice, celebration of the ‘self-help is the best help’ ideal, and presence of a snake-oil salesman, Paradise Lost is a quintessentially American story, although composed more than a century before the United States was founded.

What makes the temptation scene so absorbing and enjoyable is that, although written in archaic English, it is speckled with mundane details that make the reader stop in surprise.

Take, for instance, the serpent’s impeccably timed gustatory seduction. It takes place not at any old time of the day but at lunchtime:

Mean while the hour of Noon drew on, and wak’d/ An eager appetite.”

What a canny and charmingly human detail. Milton builds on it by lingeringly conjuring the aroma of apples, knowing full well that an “ambrosial smell” can madden an empty stomach to action. The fruit’s “savorie odour,” rhapsodizes the snake, is more pleasing to the senses than the scent of the teats of an ewe or goat dropping with unsuckled milk at evening. Today’s Food Network impresarios, with their overblown praise and frantic similes, couldn’t dream up anything close to that peculiarly sensuous comparison.

It is easy to imagine the scene. Eve, curious, credulous and peckish, gazes longingly at the contraband “Ruddie and Gold” fruit while the unctuous snake-oil salesman murmurs his encouragement. Initially, she hangs back, suspicious of his “overpraising.” But soon she begins to cave: How can a fruit so “Fair to the Eye, inviting to the Taste,” be evil? Surely it is the opposite, its “sciental sap” must be the source of divine knowledge. The serpent must speak true.

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour

Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat:

Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat

Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,

That all was lost.

But Eve is insensible to the cosmic disappointment her lunch has caused. Sated and intoxicated as if with wine, she bows low before “O Sovran, vertuous, precious of all Trees,” and hurries forth with “a bough of fairest fruit” to her beloved Adam, that he too might eat and aspire to godhead. Their shared meal, foreshadowed as it is by expulsion and doom, is a moving and poignant tableau of marital bliss.

Meanwhile, the serpent, its mission accomplished, slinks into the gloom. Satan heads eagerly toward a gathering of fellow devils, where he boasts that the Fall of Man has been wrought by something as ridiculous as “an apple.”

Except that it was a fig or a peach or a pear. An ancient Roman punned – and the apple myth was born.

Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.

‘Paradise Lost': How The Apple Became The Forbidden Fruit


Left: Title page of the first edition of Paradise Lost (1667). Right: William Blake, The Temptation and Fall of Eve, 1808 (illustration of Milton’s Paradise Lost)



Wikipedia

This month marks 350 years since John Milton sold his publisher the copyright of Paradise Lost for the sum of five pounds.

His great work dramatizes the oldest story in the Bible, whose principal characters we know only too well: God, Adam, Eve, Satan in the form of a talking snake — and an apple.

Except, of course, that Genesis never names the apple but simply refers to “the fruit.” To quote from the King James Bible:

And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'”

“Fruit” is also the word Milton employs in the poem’s sonorous opening lines:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe

But in the course of his over-10,000-line poem, Milton names the fruit twice, explicitly calling it an apple. So how did the apple become the guilty fruit that brought death into this world and all our woe?

The short and unexpected answer is: a Latin pun.

In order to explain, we have to go all the way back to the fourth century A.D., when Pope Damasus ordered his leading scholar of scripture, Jerome, to translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin. Jerome’s path-breaking, 15-year project, which resulted in the canonical Vulgate, used the Latin spoken by the common man. As it turned out, the Latin words for evil and apple are the same: malus.

In the Hebrew Bible, a generic term, peri, is used for the fruit hanging from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, explains Robert Applebaum, who discusses the biblical provenance of the apple in his book Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections.

“Peri could be absolutely any fruit,” he says. “Rabbinic commentators variously characterized it as a fig, a pomegranate, a grape, an apricot, a citron, or even wheat. Some commentators even thought of the forbidden fruit as a kind of wine, intoxicating to drink.”

A detail of Michelangelo’s fresco in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel depicting the Fall of Man and expulsion from the Garden of Eden



Wikipedia

When Jerome was translating the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” the word malus snaked in. A brilliant but controversial theologian, Jerome was known for his hot temper, but he obviously also had a rather cool sense of humor.

“Jerome had several options,” says Applebaum, a professor of English literature at Sweden’s Uppsala University. “But he hit upon the idea of translating peri as malus, which in Latin has two very different meanings. As an adjective, malus means bad or evil. As a noun it seems to means an apple, in our own sense of the word, coming from the very common tree now known officially as the Malus pumila. So Jerome came up with a very good pun.”

The story doesn’t end there. “To complicate things even more,” says Applebaum, “the word malus in Jerome’s time, and for a long time after, could refer to any fleshy seed-bearing fruit. A pear was a kind of malus. So was the fig, the peach, and so forth.”

Which explains why Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco features a serpent coiled around a fig tree. But the apple began to dominate Fall artworks in Europe after the German artist Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1504 engraving depicted the First Couple counterpoised beside an apple tree. It became a template for future artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose luminous Adam and Eve painting is hung with apples that glow like rubies.

Eve giving Adam the forbidden fruit, by Lucas Cranach the Elder.



Wikipedia

Milton, then, was only following cultural tradition. But he was a renowned Cambridge intellectual fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, who served as secretary for foreign tongues to Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth. If anyone was aware of the malus pun, it would be him. And yet he chose to run it with it. Why?

Applebaum says that Milton’s use of the term “apple” was ambiguous. “Even in Milton’s time the word had two meanings: either what was our common apple, or, again, any fleshy seed-bearing fruit. Milton probably had in mind an ambiguously named object with a variety of connotations as well as denotations, most but not all of them associating the idea of the apple with a kind of innocence, though also with a kind of intoxication, since hard apple cider was a common English drink.”

It was only later readers of Milton, says Applebaum, who thought of “apple” as “apple” and not any seed-bearing fruit. For them, the forbidden fruit became synonymous with the malus pumila. As a widely read canonical work, Paradise Lost was influential in cementing the role of apple in the Fall story.

But whether the forbidden fruit was an apple, fig, peach, pomegranate or something completely different, it is worth revisiting the temptation scene in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, both as an homage to Milton (who composed his masterpiece when he was blind, impoverished and in the doghouse for his regicidal politics) and simply to savor the sublime beauty of the language. Thomas Jefferson loved this poem. With its superfood dietary advice, celebration of the ‘self-help is the best help’ ideal, and presence of a snake-oil salesman, Paradise Lost is a quintessentially American story, although composed more than a century before the United States was founded.

What makes the temptation scene so absorbing and enjoyable is that, although written in archaic English, it is speckled with mundane details that make the reader stop in surprise.

Take, for instance, the serpent’s impeccably timed gustatory seduction. It takes place not at any old time of the day but at lunchtime:

Mean while the hour of Noon drew on, and wak’d/ An eager appetite.”

What a canny and charmingly human detail. Milton builds on it by lingeringly conjuring the aroma of apples, knowing full well that an “ambrosial smell” can madden an empty stomach to action. The fruit’s “savorie odour,” rhapsodizes the snake, is more pleasing to the senses than the scent of the teats of an ewe or goat dropping with unsuckled milk at evening. Today’s Food Network impresarios, with their overblown praise and frantic similes, couldn’t dream up anything close to that peculiarly sensuous comparison.

It is easy to imagine the scene. Eve, curious, credulous and peckish, gazes longingly at the contraband “Ruddie and Gold” fruit while the unctuous snake-oil salesman murmurs his encouragement. Initially, she hangs back, suspicious of his “overpraising.” But soon she begins to cave: How can a fruit so “Fair to the Eye, inviting to the Taste,” be evil? Surely it is the opposite, its “sciental sap” must be the source of divine knowledge. The serpent must speak true.

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour

Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat:

Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat

Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,

That all was lost.

But Eve is insensible to the cosmic disappointment her lunch has caused. Sated and intoxicated as if with wine, she bows low before “O Sovran, vertuous, precious of all Trees,” and hurries forth with “a bough of fairest fruit” to her beloved Adam, that he too might eat and aspire to godhead. Their shared meal, foreshadowed as it is by expulsion and doom, is a moving and poignant tableau of marital bliss.

Meanwhile, the serpent, its mission accomplished, slinks into the gloom. Satan heads eagerly toward a gathering of fellow devils, where he boasts that the Fall of Man has been wrought by something as ridiculous as “an apple.”

Except that it was a fig or a peach or a pear. An ancient Roman punned – and the apple myth was born.

Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.

These Short Films Shine A Spotlight On Sexual Harassment


Emmy Rossum and Harry Lennix in “The Politician,” one of the short films in the series #ThatsHarassment.

Victoria Stevens/Dark Harbor Stories/Milk


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Victoria Stevens/Dark Harbor Stories/Milk

Emmy Rossum and Harry Lennix in “The Politician,” one of the short films in the series #ThatsHarassment.

Victoria Stevens/Dark Harbor Stories/Milk

A male boss brushes up against his female employee. Off the record, a male politician makes suggestive remarks to a female reporter. These are just a couple of examples of sexual harassment that may be all too familiar to some career women.

Producers Sigal Avin, David Schwimmer and Mazdack Rassi have just released a series of short films about the issue, called #ThatsHarassment. Each film begins with the headline “based on a real incident” — like the episode “The Co-Worker,” which takes place at a bar, as a man gropes his female colleague while acting out an infamous comment made on tape by Donald Trump.

“I created this in Israel before it came here to the States,” Avin says. “I was reading about a lot of sexual harassment in Israel as in the States. And I started asking myself, what is sexual harassment? And I thought, we hear about it all the time, and we read about it all the time, but we never actually see what it is.”

Interview Highlights

On personal experiences with harassment

Avin: I was a young playwright, and I went to speak to an actor who was a pretty big star back then, and I had known him — we’d worked, and he was always kind of a really cool guy, always funny, and we were at his place talking about the play, I went to the restroom, and when I came back … he exposed himself. The dialogue that he used is the same dialogue that the actor uses. … It took me a couple of years to realize that was sexual harassment — I mean, I thought, this is a weird guy, I just want to get out of here, that was kind of humiliating. It took me a while to understand that he was using his power, and everything behind that.

On the goal of the films

Schwimmer: Everyone is so used to violent sex crime being portrayed in the media, in television and film — you know, the guy hiding behind the bushes, jumping out at you, grabbing and attacking. But this kind of crime happens with such frequency, on a daily basis, to most women if not all women — where there’s any kind of imbalance of power, and often at work. I think one of the goals for us was to really show it. There’s something about the power of actually seeing it, for victims — it’s by seeing it happen that they realize, oh, that was sexual harassment. It wasn’t just me.

On what the filmmakers want men to understand

Schwimmer: We really don’t feel this is a quote-unquote women’s issue. This is a human issue, and as a man, every woman in my life, with the exception of my almost 6-year-old daughter — thank god — has been subjected to sexual harassment. My mother, my sister, my wife, my colleagues, my friends. So I think for men, some of the films which are less overt than, say, the one I’m acting in, where I actually grab and kiss an employee as her boss … we’re hoping that by showing these and having a conversation, that men will become more aware, and they will work to protect their colleagues, and their wives, and their daughters.

‘I’d Die For You’ Gives A Glimpse Into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Writing Life


Writing good fiction is hard, and doesn’t necessarily get easier with practice. Some writers improve over time, others burn brightly but flame out early. Case in point: F. Scott Fitzgerald, who produced most of his best work — This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tales of the Jazz Age — in his 20s.

The 18 “lost stories” in I’d Die For You — all previously unpublished or uncollected — provide a sobering example of how difficult it is to deliver the goods when life is going against you. Most were written in the 1930s, the last decade of Fitzgerald’s life, when his wife Zelda was expensively institutionalized after her mental breakdown, and he was beleaguered by financial pressures, alcoholism, and failing health. Fitzgerald’s star had lost its shine, and his stories channel his desperation.

Many were rejected by the author’s formerly reliable cash cows, The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. Some were lost for years in archives, but others were put aside as lost causes. Fitzgerald often balked at editors’ suggestions for cuts or re-writes, preferring instead to move on to what he hoped would be more lucrative hack work in Hollywood.

The value of this book, nimbly edited by Anne Margaret Daniel, lies not so much in its assembled stories, fragments, and movie scenarios as in her fascinating literary sleuthing and fine scholarship. Augmented by typescript pages, snapshots of Fitzgerald (including one of him mugging in a photo booth), and multiple stabs at the same story, I’d Die For You is a treasure trove for Fitzgerald enthusiasts, scholars, and aspiring writers.

Daniel acknowledges up front that the “quality is uneven, and Fitzgerald himself knew this, as is evident from his correspondence.” Under pressure to continue producing what editors had come to expect from him — upbeat dazzlers — he dashed off stories that, Daniel writes, “feel hasty and flawed.” Readers during the Depression wanted cheer, not bleak, dark tales about suicide and mental illness. In a letter to Zelda in April 1940, just eight months before his death from a heart attack at age 44, Fitzgerald wrote sadly, “my God I am a forgotten man.”

Still, there are flashes of brilliance. The earliest story, “The I.O.U.,” written in 1920, is a funny satire of the publishing business. Its narrator, a craven publisher, describes his literary mandate in a — long, young, and old: “I accept long novels about young love written by old maids in South Dakota.” When challenged about the veracity of one of his books, the publisher equivocates hilariously, “Non-fiction is a form of literature that lies half-way between fiction and fact.” Although unpublished in Fitzgerald’s lifetime, Yale University paid $194,500 in 2012 for the manuscript, and The New Yorker ran “I.O.U.” this past March — both way too late, alas, to help poor Scott.

Many of these stories feature strong, resourceful female characters, including nurses stuck in subservient roles and flirtatious young women seeking eligible men. In “Offside Play,” a 1937 attempt to the vivacity of his earlier collegiate work, a young woman is drawn to a questionable Yale football star after her fiancé lets her down. A classic Fitzgerald line: “She was plagued by her bright unused beauty.” One can only imagine the author’s reaction to the Saturday Evening Post’s rejection: “They say it lacks the warmth of your best work and it hasn’t the ‘incandescent’ quality your readers expect,” his agent reported.

“Thumbs Up” and “Dentist Appointment” offer two intriguingly different versions of a story about a man strung up by his thumbs during the Civil War — a tale which had its roots in Fitzgerald family lore. In both versions, feisty young Josie Pilgrim, traveling south with her dentist brother towards the end of the war, furtively cuts down a Virginian who’s suffered this brutal punishment. In “Thumbs Up,” she meets the maimed Virginian again in Paris, where they become involved in a ludicrous plot to save a French empress. In the second, shorter version, their paths cross in St. Paul in another ridiculous scheme involving Native Americans. Fitzgerald’s description of his Minnesota hometown in 1866 is a high point: “The rude town was like a great fish just hauled out of the Mississippi and still leaping and squirming on the bank.”

Many of these stories are marred by painfully cloying endings. In his eagerness for movie deals, Fitzgerald cranked out action-packed scenarios that awkwardly channel elements of 1930s screwball comedies and corny Charlie Chaplinesque love stories about tramps and waifs. But while none emit the sparkle of classics like “The Cut-Glass Bowl,” even the least successful of these tales provide an invaluable glimpse into a brilliant but struggling writer’s process.

A Trauma Nurse Reflects On ‘Compassion Fatigue’


gif

Sometimes, even professionally compassionate people get tired.

Kristin Laurel, a flight nurse from Waconia, Minn., has worked in trauma units for over two decades. The daily exposure to distressing situations can sometimes result in compassion fatigue.

“Some calls get to you, no matter who you are,” she says.

That burnout is what Laurel says she was trying to understand when she wrote her semi-autobiographical poem, Afflicted. The poem delves into the night shift of an emergency room nurse in Minneapolis, weaving together stories of patients who are homeless, addicted to drugs or victims of homicide.

Ten years ago, Laurel took a writing workshop in Minneapolis and earned a two-year fellowship that introduced her to the world of contemporary poetry. She found that, unlike other forms of writing, poetry had an efficiency and raw honesty that made it a fitting outlet for her observations as a trauma nurse.

Laurel published her first collection of poems, Giving Them All Away, after winning the Sinclair Prize for poetry in 2011.

She says that writing allowed her to acknowledge her darker experiences in the ER while also taking care of herself.

“It’s a way of letting go,” she says, especially of patients who die. “I acknowledge their life as well as let go of my grief. There’s definitely power and healing in that.”

Afflicted

Kristin Laurel

It is the night shift, and most of Minneapolis does not know

that tonight a drunk man rolled onto the broken ice

and fell through the Mississippi.

He lies sheltered and warm in the morgue, unidentified.

Behind a dumpster by the Metrodome

a mother blows smoke up to the stars;

she flicks sparks with a lighter

and inside her pipe, a rock of crack glows

before it crumbles into ash

and is taken by the wind.

Another mother waits up for her son;

he was shot in the chest, then pushed out of a fleeing car.

He bleeds on black pavement, exhaust fumes hover over him.

Through the back doors of the ER

medics dump off the indigent

and black-booted cops track in salt and sand.

We are all misplaced.

An Indian brave

is just plain drunk;

the white paint on his cheeks and nose

is from huffing paint.

He is snoring off his stupor

from drinking bottles of Listerine

(the poor man’s liquor).

It’s so easy to judge

but we are all broken, in one way or another;

The officer was just trying to clean up the streets

keep his back seat sanitary

when he picked up another filthy drunk

and shoved him into the trunk of his squad car.

The young nurse was conned

into being callous;

It only took being spit at, being called a bitch

and one punch to the face, to learn to be gruff

and keep them all cuffed to the bed:

She takes off soiled jeans,

uncovers scraps of a shredded newspaper

the homeless man’s underpants (pissed-on words).

A grimy, tattered shirt is stuck to his chest,

she peels it off, holding her breath, while

flakes of dead skin detach into the air.

In one more hour it will be daybreak.

She will go home to her clean house,

her white down comforter on a pillow-topped bed.

But, she knows,

there is an affliction in the air.

Even the snowflakes fall like ash.

She washes her hands.

April is National Poetry Month, and Shots is exploring medicine in poetry through the words of doctors, patients and health care workers. The series is a collaboration with Pulse: Voices Through The Heart Of Medicine, a platform that publishes personal stories of illness and healing.

A Trauma Nurse Reflects On ‘Compassion Fatigue’


gif

Sometimes, even professionally compassionate people get tired.

Kristin Laurel, a flight nurse from Waconia, Minn., has worked in trauma units for over two decades. The daily exposure to distressing situations can sometimes result in compassion fatigue.

“Some calls get to you, no matter who you are,” she says.

That burnout is what Laurel says she was trying to understand when she wrote her semi-autobiographical poem, Afflicted. The poem delves into the night shift of an emergency room nurse in Minneapolis, weaving together stories of patients who are homeless, addicted to drugs or victims of homicide.

Ten years ago, Laurel took a writing workshop in Minneapolis and earned a two-year fellowship that introduced her to the world of contemporary poetry. She found that, unlike other forms of writing, poetry had an efficiency and raw honesty that made it a fitting outlet for her observations as a trauma nurse.

Laurel published her first collection of poems, Giving Them All Away, after winning the Sinclair Prize for poetry in 2011.

She says that writing allowed her to acknowledge her darker experiences in the ER while also taking care of herself.

“It’s a way of letting go,” she says, especially of patients who die. “I acknowledge their life as well as let go of my grief. There’s definitely power and healing in that.”

Afflicted

Kristin Laurel

It is the night shift, and most of Minneapolis does not know

that tonight a drunk man rolled onto the broken ice

and fell through the Mississippi.

He lies sheltered and warm in the morgue, unidentified.

Behind a dumpster by the Metrodome

a mother blows smoke up to the stars;

she flicks sparks with a lighter

and inside her pipe, a rock of crack glows

before it crumbles into ash

and is taken by the wind.

Another mother waits up for her son;

he was shot in the chest, then pushed out of a fleeing car.

He bleeds on black pavement, exhaust fumes hover over him.

Through the back doors of the ER

medics dump off the indigent

and black-booted cops track in salt and sand.

We are all misplaced.

An Indian brave

is just plain drunk;

the white paint on his cheeks and nose

is from huffing paint.

He is snoring off his stupor

from drinking bottles of Listerine

(the poor man’s liquor).

It’s so easy to judge

but we are all broken, in one way or another;

The officer was just trying to clean up the streets

keep his back seat sanitary

when he picked up another filthy drunk

and shoved him into the trunk of his squad car.

The young nurse was conned

into being callous;

It only took being spit at, being called a bitch

and one punch to the face, to learn to be gruff

and keep them all cuffed to the bed:

She takes off soiled jeans,

uncovers scraps of a shredded newspaper

the homeless man’s underpants (pissed-on words).

A grimy, tattered shirt is stuck to his chest,

she peels it off, holding her breath, while

flakes of dead skin detach into the air.

In one more hour it will be daybreak.

She will go home to her clean house,

her white down comforter on a pillow-topped bed.

But, she knows,

there is an affliction in the air.

Even the snowflakes fall like ash.

She washes her hands.

April is National Poetry Month, and Shots is exploring medicine in poetry through the words of doctors, patients and health care workers. The series is a collaboration with Pulse: Voices Through The Heart Of Medicine, a platform that publishes personal stories of illness and healing.

Not My Job: We Quiz A Retired CIA Analyst On Briefs (The Underwear)




PETER SAGAL, HOST:

And now the game where we ask smart people about dumb things. It’s called Not My Job. Back in 2003, when the U.S. Army captured Saddam Hussein, they had to interrogate him, so they sent a CIA analyst who had basically studied Hussein for his entire professional life. That man, John Nixon, now retired, has written a book about Hussein and his other adventures in the spy trade. He joins us now. John Nixon, welcome to WAIT WAIT… DON’T TELL ME.

JOHN NIXON: Oh, thank you so much.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Thank you. So always curious about life in the CIA. When were you first recruited and taught to kill?

NIXON: (Laughter) Well, I was first recruited in ’97. And I had to go through a very stringent background check, and I made it through. And it was just – it was nine months of hell.

SAGAL: Really? So you – I mean, I always imagine that when the CIA contacts you they do it like in the spy movies where you come home and there’s a beautiful woman in your apartment and she says, we’ve been watching you.

NIXON: (Laughter) Oh, I wish it were like that.

SAGAL: No.

NIXON: But no, it was more like I got a call one day and said, would you like to come in for an interview? And I said, of course. And…

SAGAL: Well, that’s boring. Come up with a better story.

NIXON: I can’t.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Now, you talked about this background check for nine months. Did they find anything embarrassing about you that you didn’t know anybody would ever find out?

NIXON: No, I – to be honest with you I did find one thing. I had been engaged years ago to this girl who turned out to be a complete psychopath.

AMY DICKINSON: Natasha.

NIXON: And she ended up…

(LAUGHTER)

NIXON: My investigator said, do you own a home in New York? And I said no. And he said, well, according to our documents here you do. And it turns out she forged my signature on…

SAGAL: Wow.

NIXON: And that’s how I found out about it.

SAGAL: Well, how convenient that you then were in a position to have her killed. That’s awesome.

(LAUGHTER)

NIXON: The thing is that the investigator said, well, you know, she’s paid off the home, so it’s probably helped your credit rating.

SAGAL: There you go.

DICKINSON: (Laughter).

SAGAL: So is it true that your job – you were assigned – this was ’97, this was not that long before the war – that you were assigned to Saddam Hussein? That was your job? We want you to study up on Hussein?

NIXON: Yeah. Well, I had studied him in graduate school at Georgetown. And, you know, he was a very intense figure, and I was always interested in him. And I spent a good three years directly working on him, and then I started working on Iran. But I always kept up to speed on the information on Saddam even when I was working on Iran because in order to understand Iran you also have to understand Iraq and vice versa.

SAGAL: Sure. Well, absolutely. I know that.

(LAUGHTER)

DICKINSON: Can I ask a question?

SAGAL: Yeah.

DICKINSON: So, John, I went to school also in D.C. And I went to school with a lot of people whose parents were I believed with the CIA. And they usually said – they lived in Northern Virginia, and they usually said that their parents worked in import-export.

SAGAL: Oh, really, like James Bond? They used the same line?

DICKINSON: They just always said my parents work in import-export. And so, like, did you have a cover job once you were sort of fully in?

NIXON: No. Well, I was an overt employee, so I – whenever I was here in the States if people asked me who I worked for for the most part I would say I work for the CIA because I was not doing – I was not a covert employee. That’s a different case altogether.

SAGAL: So were you single at this time?

NIXON: Yes, I was single. But, you know, I had a very steady girlfriend who eventually became my wife.

SAGAL: Oh, that’s nice because I was going to ask would it be like dating when you’re in the CIA. Do chicks dig that, basically?

NIXON: It’s not (laughter) – it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

TOM BODETT: Really? So there’s a – second date is like, so let me tell you about this background check you’re going to have.

SAGAL: Yeah.

DICKINSON: Yeah, really.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So there’s a lot to cover. So you were sent to Iraq to find Saddam Hussein or to interrogate him once he was found?

NIXON: Well, both. Initially I was to help the special forces find him. And so I did – I interfaced with the special forces and, you know, tried to kind of come up with ideas for how we could look for him. And eventually we found him. And then…

SAGAL: Did you help find him? You were like, you know, Saddam Hussein, he likes holes in the ground.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So finally they find him and they send you in to interrogate him. What was it like meeting the guy, this tyrant, this world figure who you had studied for so many years?

NIXON: It was intense. It was – he was everything I thought he was. And I felt comfortable talking to him, but, you know, he had enormous charisma and he could really work a crowd. And I remember the first couple of times I met with him I was like – he was charming. He was self-deprecating. He was polite.

SAGAL: Wait a minute. Saddam…

DICKINSON: Wait, he had…

SAGAL: Wait a minute. Slow down. Saddam Hussein was self-deprecating? He was like, oh, no, I didn’t kill that many people. Come on. What – what do you mean self…

ROY BLOUNT JR.: You sure you got the right guy?

SAGAL: Really?

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Is it true – we have heard this from people who know you – that you’re good at doing impressions? Is this true?

NIXON: Oh, well, yeah, no – yeah. Yeah.

SAGAL: All right, well, now you’ve said it, so you have to do it.

NIXON: Oh, well, OK. Well, I’ll do Clinton first, OK?

SAGAL: Do Clinton. Do Clinton.

NIXON: You know, one is – well, my favorite phrase is like, (imitating accent) I did it. I did it for the most selfish of reasons.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right, who else you got in there?

NIXON: The other one is Bush. It’s like he had this unique way of, like, painting you into a corner when he talked to you. (Imitating accent) Well, the man’s a dictator, isn’t he? I mean, the man’s a thug. Don’t you agree with me?

SAGAL: Hey…

DICKINSON: Can I ask a quick – sorry.

SAGAL: Sure. Go ahead, Amy.

DICKINSON: Did George Bush have this button on his desk where he could push it and get a Coke?

NIXON: Oh, my God (laughter). No, he didn’t need a button because there was always, like, a White House steward at the ready with a whole tray of Cokes.

DICKINSON: Oh, awesome.

SAGAL: Really?

NIXON: Like, one time they delivered Coke Zero instead of Diet Coke.

SAGAL: Oh, no.

NIXON: Totally flipped.

(LAUGHTER)

DICKINSON: (Laughter) No.

SAGAL: Wait a minute, you’re saying – so the president of the United States, the leader of the free world, flipped out because they delivered the wrong brand of low-calorie Coca-Cola?

DICKINSON: He’s like a sorority sister, really.

SAGAL: Yeah.

DICKINSON: Yeah. That’s amazing.

SAGAL: Well, John Nixon, we are delighted to talk to you. And we have invited you, as we do with all our guests, to play a game, which this time we are calling…

BILL KURTIS: Debriefer, meet the briefs.

NIXON: (Laughter).

DICKINSON: Oh, no.

SAGAL: So you debriefed the president, but what do you know about briefs – that is, underwear?

DICKINSON: Oh, no.

BODETT: Did you know what you were getting into…

SAGAL: Yeah, he’s CIA, but he didn’t see that coming.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: We’re going to ask you three questions about briefs. Get two right, you’ll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl Kasell’s voice on their voicemail. Bill, who is John Nixon playing for?

KURTIS: Aaron Davidson of Eugene, Ore.

SAGAL: All right.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Mr. Davidson apparently is here.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Thanks for making the trip. All right, ready to play, John?

NIXON: Yeah.

SAGAL: Here is your first question. Some organizations have instituted strict rules about briefs, as in which of these – A, Major League Baseball umpires are required to wear black briefs in case they split their pants squatting like that; B, a school board in Florida has banned the new trend of wearing an extra-large pair of underpants over regular underpants as pants; C, employees at Fruit of the Loom headquarters are required to wear Fruit of the Loom underwear at all times and are subject to random checks?

(LAUGHTER)

NIXON: I would say all of the above, but I’m going to – I’m going to go with B.

SAGAL: You’re going to go with B, the school board of Florida has banned the use of wearing underpants over your underpants as pants? It’s actually Major League Baseball umpires.

NIXON: Oh.

SAGAL: Think about it. How embarrassing would it be for the dignity of the game if an umpire were to squat there behind home plate (imitating pants ripping)? All right, here is your next question, John. There’s still two more chances. There are some places where you’re absolutely not allowed to wear briefs, as in which of these – A, surprisingly, the Constitution requires that all Supreme Court justices go commando under their robes…

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: …B, on spacewalks because NASA is conducting a 30-year-old study on supported human junk and zero grav…

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: …Or C, in official ferret legging contests? That’s the British sport where they put ferrets in competitors’ pants and see who can stand it the longest.

NIXON: (Laughter) You got me on this one. I’ll go with C.

SAGAL: You’re right, ferret legging.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL, APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: I believe it’s now an extinct sport. They no longer play it. But in the days you used to put ferrets down your pants and underwear was seen as cheating. Well, this is exciting for John because he’s got one right with one to go. If you get this you win. In 1993, scientists wanted to test the impact of briefs versus boxers on male fertility. How did they conduct these tests? A, they made tiny briefs and boxes for lab rats and observed the effects…

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: …B, they studied the social habits at a bar of 100 men wearing both and recorded how many in each group went home alone…

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: …Or C, they performed a 10-year study on a pair of identical twins, one who wore only boxers and the other only briefs?

NIXON: Again, I’m going to try C.

SAGAL: That’s your choice?

NIXON: Yeah.

SAGAL: No I’m afraid it was actually the rats.

DICKINSON: No. No. (Laughter) No.

SAGAL: They made…

DICKINSON: Stop it. That is not real.

SAGAL: They made little rat boxers…

DICKINSON: (Laughter) No.

SAGAL: …Little rat briefs, I’m sure in a nice array of patterns and plaids, solid colors. And then they – after letting the rats run around and do what rats do, they would test the rats’ fertility.

DICKINSON: Stop it.

SAGAL: It’s true. Bill, how did CIA analyst John Nixon do on our quiz?

KURTIS: We love your imagination, John, so we want you to go home a winner. Thanks for playing.

SAGAL: All right, hold on, I’ll ask you this question – which was more fun, interrogating Saddam Hussein or talking to us?

NIXON: That’s a tough one.

SAGAL: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

BODETT: Say C.

SAGAL: We don’t have his charm. John Nixon’s book is “Debriefing The President: The Interrogation Of Saddam Hussein.” John Nixon, thank you so much for playing with us.

(APPLAUSE)

BODETT: Thank you, sir.

SAGAL: Bye-bye, now.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALPH REBEL’S “JAMES BOND”)

SAGAL: In just a minute, nothing comes between Bill and his Calvins in our Listener Limerick Challenge game. Call 1-888-WAITWAIT to join us on the air. We’ll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT… DON’T TELL ME from NPR.

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Is Facebook Real Life Or Is It Just Fantasy?


Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer “radical empathy” and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

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Today the Sugars tackle two separate problems related to how we use the Internet in modern relationships. First, a woman is having an “emotional affair” with a former college friend through messages on Facebook. The problem is, both her and the college friend are married. Should she leave her husband for this man, or is she just “living a lie online”?

In the second letter, a woman is endlessly comparing herself to her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend — which is made easily possible through Instagram and Facebook. How do you stop when it’s so easy to do?

Dear Sugars,

In January, an old college friend reached out to me out of the blue. I had not spoken to him or seen him for over 20 years. Back in college, we were nothing more than acquaintances with mutual friends. So when he reached out to me via Facebook message, I was kind of shocked.

Since January, we have spoken almost every day while at work. We are both married, him for five years, me for 17. He has no children, I have two. The bulk of our conversations have been very sexual in context, sometimes downright hot and heavy. We have exchanged a few explicit photos as well. During our conversations, I suddenly became alive again. I felt energized that someone I have not seen or spoken to for over 20 years is telling me he wants me. He said his biggest regret from college was not pursuing a relationship with me. What 42-year-old woman wouldn’t like that little spring in her step from something like this? There was even one message where he told me he loved me and he had real feelings for me. I said the same to him.

One of our last messages this week was unbelievable. He told me I was so cute and funny and how he cared for me. I felt like I was on cloud nine. The following day we had a very short exchange, and I reached out to him that night to ask him a question. Turns out that was a bad thing, as he and his wife were looking at something on Facebook at that moment. He said he told her I was an old college friend, which isn’t a lie. But she doesn’t know the extent of our relationship.

One thing I need to mention is that, this time last year, my husband and I were on the verge of divorce. I found out he had cheated on me. We went through therapy, and are in a much better place now. I love my husband with all my heart, and he is the father of our kids. But am I in love with him is the bigger question. I am not confident I can have the same hot and heavy conversations and fantasies with my husband as I do with my college friend.

My college friend today told me that he cannot have “issues” with his wife and needs to tone things down with me. I feel distraught. I have strong feelings for him. I feel like a teenager who just broke up with her boyfriend, even though I know I shouldn’t. My parting words to my friend today were, “I guess I’ll talk to you whenever.” His response back was, “We’ll talk.”

I just don’t know what to do. I am living in this fantasy world that isn’t reality, but it has turned my world upside down. I have had visions of us leaving our spouses and being together. I am now left dealing with the self-inflicted ramifications of this long-distance, Facebook message love affair. How dumb, I think to myself.

Dear Sugars, what do you think of this mess I have gotten into?

Signed,

Torn

Steve: The Internet is just a tool, but the reason we seek attention from others is because there’s some underlying sense of deprivation. Torn, what you’re telling us is you felt dead in your marriage, and this online flirtation made you alive again. Having kids and complicated lives wears you out. But this is a fantasy world, and it is extraordinarily destructive to your life, to the relationship you have with your husband, and to the family that you have built. You need to address the real issue in your relationship, which is that you need to feel alive again.

Cheryl: Part of being in a long-term, monogamous relationship is, you don’t have the thrill of checking Facebook and having some guy you knew 20 years ago telling you that you’re awesome. It feels like a high. The digital world makes possible instances where someone from your past resurfaces, and you believe yourself to be in love with somebody who you don’t have to contend with in any real-world way. It is a fantasy that’s destructive, but it can be instructive. Maybe your needs can’t be met anymore by your marriage. But the best thing is to find out if that is the case, to forget about this online relationship, and to deal with your life.

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Follow the Sugars on Twitter @dearsugarradio.

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Steve: Where relationships go wrong is when couples do not talk to one another about what’s going on in their lives. That is your job now, Torn. You need to let your husband know, “I have been engaged in this emotional affair, and it hasn’t gone anywhere physical, but here’s how it makes me feel.”

Cheryl: Torn, there’s no way around the fact that you are living a lie online, damaging not just your marriage and your life, but also his. Deceit, fantasy, and betraying the people closest to us never leads us to where we want to be in our lives.

Dear Sugars,

I have been with my sexy, funny, creative and wonderfully ambitious partner for five years. After a few years of some extreme ups and downs in the beginning, I can say that we are very happy and have both loved building our life together. Despite my contentment and hope for the future, I find myself chasing after the woman he was with before me via the Web. I look at her Facebook and Instagram profiles multiple times per day. I find myself wanting to emulate her looks and lifestyle (as much as anyone can perceive online), and the resulting jealousy and discomfort sometimes influences my behavior in terms of how I craft my appearance.

The funny thing about this habit is that I do not know this woman, and I never did. We had seen each other on brief occasions while my partner and I were just friends. No matter how many times I have told myself that what she, like everyone else, posts online is often a teeny, tiny fraction of an individual’s happiest times in life, I still cannot help checking up on this woman and finding myself envious of her in a variety of ways.

My partner was with this woman when we began seeing each other covertly. They soon broke up, and we have been together ever since. Does my continual chasing after this woman online mean that I still have something left to resolve about his betrayal of her? Or is she simply an easy target for my own insecurity? My heart is broken because I have compared myself so much to this woman over time that I fear I am losing my true sense of self in the process. How can I let go of these feelings of inadequacy and these impulses to find out what she is up to?

Yours,

Struggling to Find Self

Cheryl: I think that this woman is an easy target for these feelings of inadequacy and jealousy, and I also think it’s no small coincidence that Struggling to Find Self was the other woman.

Steve: The psychological equation is, “I took away this man from this woman. I know that wasn’t the right thing to do, and I feel guilty about it. So as punishment for that guilt, I will actually figure out what it is like to be in her shoes.” You are obsessed with this woman, and that is going to drive you crazy.

That means you have to stop, but you will only stop once you start to answer the questions of why you’re doing this. What do the fantasies of this woman’s life represent to you? People have the tendency to say, social media is meaningless and just a distraction. That’s not true. Anything we become obsessed with has deep meaning.

Cheryl: It’s connected to the fact that girls and women in this culture are taught to measure themselves against each other. There’s no question that a piece of this is about that competition. And of course, there is no healthy equation you can make when you compare yourself to the people your lover used to love. Sometimes the answer is just as simple as saying, “I’m not going to do this today.” You need to say no to yourself, and you’ll be the better for it.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear from more people struggling with relationships and the Internet.

Have a question for the Sugars? Email dearsugarradio@gmail.com and it may be answered on a future episode.

You can also listen to Dear Sugar Radio on iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite podcast app.

Reading The Game: Stardew Valley


Life in 16 bits — complete with chickens and monsters — in Stardew Valley.

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Life in 16 bits — complete with chickens and monsters — in Stardew Valley.

ConcernedApe

For years now, some of the best, wildest, most moving or revealing stories we’ve been telling ourselves have come not from books, movies or TV, but from video games. So we’re running an occasional series, Reading The Game, in which we take a look at some of these games from a literary perspective.

It was my daughter Parker who picked up Stardew Valley first. She’s 13, smart, beautiful, furious, funny, clumsy as a newborn giraffe. She loves videogames the way I love videogames, but loves none of the videogames I love — not the shooty ones or the dark ones or the violent ones.

Stardew Valley is something different. The game is essentially a farming simulator — you grow crops and sell them, tend animals and make cheese from their milk or mayonnaise from their eggs. You fish sometimes, talk to the people who live in town, deal with the magical apple monsters who have taken over the town’s community center and demand tribute in the form of a hundred small quests. It exists like an indie re-incarnation of Harvest Moon, the game which introduced the world to farming sims in the 1990’s, and there’s an entire generation of gamers who love it unreservedly just for that — for being a polished new version of something they loved like crazy-go-nuts back in the day — but on the surface, it’s a game that doesn’t seem to have a lot going on.

It drove me crazy the way Parker played. I would watch from the couch as she wandered aimlessly around her small, cluttered house or doodled around her asymmetrical mess of a farm — her movements a kind of digital Brownian motion born of a hundred distractions. She would water two or three plants, then run off to chase her dog, come back, water a little more, go look at butterflies or just leave. Go off onto the paths that run between her Kawaii Farm and Pelican Town a couple screens away to pick flowers, talk to people or poke through their trash cans.

“Parker,” I said to her, frustration putting an edge on my words. “What are you doing?”

And she looked up at me and said, “Just playing. You want to try?”

So I did. I made a farm of my own — Butcher Holler — and the two of us played side-by-side for two in-game years. The core of Stardew Valley’s story is simple: You are an office drone, just tappy-tapping away at your computer day after day, year after year until, finally, it all becomes too much. You walk away, get on a bus and travel to the farm that your grandpa left to you years ago in Stardew Valley.

And look, I’ve had my fair share of cubicles. I know that urge to pack it all up and move on. I took Grandpa’s offer seriously. He’d left me a farm, but it was a disaster. And it was up to me to whip it into shape.

So I cleared the land. I tilled the soil. I figured out which seeds had the highest return on investment and planted them in neat rows for easy watering. Parker, meanwhile, tended a tiny patch of strawberries and collected flowers. She went down to the beach and picked up shells, but refused to fish even though it was the most effective method for earning money in the early weeks of the game. She showed me the sewer where the monster lives, and the mines which were full of treasure. She didn’t like going down into the mines because she’d freak out whenever something attacked her and, also, she’d lost her sword somewhere, or sold it, or given it away.

So instead, she followed behind the children, Jas and Vincent, and told me how Jas’s parents were both dead. How Penny teaches them at the museum because there’s no school in Pelican Town and how Alex, the jock, is a lot sadder than he seems because his father was an abusive drunk and his mom died, and now he lives with his grandparents but doesn’t like to talk about it. I asked her how she knew all this and she told me, “I talk to them.”

In winter nothing grows, so I ground my way through the mines, clearing them level by level, while Parker redecorated her house and made friends with mopey Abigail with the purple hair and a wizard who lived in the forest. Spring came again. My farm was large. The chests in my house were overflowing with gold ore and rubies from the mine. One afternoon I called Parker over to show her how much you can make on a good haul of melons and corn. “See?” I said. “Look at that. That’s one day’s work.”

And she scoffed. “Sure,” she said, “but who loves you?”

Relationships in Stardew Valley are expressed in bars full of hearts. I had two with Linus, the homeless guy who lived in a tent on the way to the mines and who I would occasionally give food to. Most of the other people in Pelican Town probably didn’t even know my name.

Then Parker loaded up her game. Pulled up her social screen. It was overflowing with hearts. Everyone loved her.

Stardew Valley’s story gives you only what you want from it. What you get out of the experience depends heavily on what baggage you’re carrying when you first climb on that bus and take the long ride to the coast.

Our games tell two very different stories: Hers is a tiny soap opera full of love, tragedy and sewer monsters; mine a how-to manual on maximizing profit in a small farming community. For me Stardew Valley is a game of control — of small goals and constantly accruing rewards. It is about the comfort of simplicity and repetition, season following season and harvest following harvest. It is not without story the way I play it, but my version of it is a singular story, about a man who walked away from the modern world and came to his grandpa’s farm in a town with only four TV channels.

Parker comes to it differently. She is a 13-year-old girl, the between-iest thing in the world. And for her, Stardew Valley is a life simulator — a pixelated, primary-colored safe space where she gets to practice being a grown up. Here, she can turn her coddled pet chickens off for the night when tending to them becomes a drag, and make connections with people who are bound and bordered by the parameters of a game that is so much easier to understand than the lawless chaos of the real teenage world. She knows secrets about Stardew Valley that I never will, because to her, it’s a map to a world she is just beginning to understand, while for me, it’s a spreadsheet of a system I understood all too well.

Neither way of playing is right. Neither one is wrong. It’s just life, rendered in 16 bits and full of chickens and monsters. And it never ends. Every season gives you a new chance to start over. To do things differently.

Which, wizards and sewer monsters aside, is maybe the most magical thing about it.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, videogames, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

‘Obit’ Follows The ‘Times’ Team Charged With Turning Lives Into History


“Literally I show up in the morning and I say, ‘Who’s dead?'” obit writer Bruce Weber explains in the film. “And somebody puts a folder on my desk and that’s … what I do that day.” Weber took a buyout from The New York Times in 2016.

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“Literally I show up in the morning and I say, ‘Who’s dead?'” obit writer Bruce Weber explains in the film. “And somebody puts a folder on my desk and that’s … what I do that day.” Weber took a buyout from The New York Times in 2016.

Courtesy of Kino Lorber

If you’re the kind of person who opens the paper in the morning and goes straight to the obituaries, we’ve got good news for you: There’s a new documentary out this week that follows the staff writers of the New York Times obituary desk. It’s called Obit.

To be clear, this is something I know a bit about. Reporting obits are a big part of my job on the arts desk at NPR. Unlike the Times, NPR lacks a dedicated obits desk, and my colleagues and I were frankly envious when we watched the documentary and learned that the Times has five full-time obit writers, including, at the time, Bruce Weber (who stepped down from the obits desk in 2016) and Margalit Fox, who spoke to the pressure of writing obits on deadline.

“Starting the day getting a name you’ve never heard of, knowing that you are going to have to have command of this person’s life, work and historical significance in under seven hours — it is equal parts exhilaration and terror,” Fox says in the film.

Documentarian Vanessa Gould spent six days filming the obit writers as they did their jobs. “I was surprised at how grueling the work is,” Gould says. “I think the reporting process was just continually fascinating to me, given how many facets it has.”

The person who polishes those facets is editor Bill McDonald. He came to the obits desk in 2006 after editing the Arts & Leisure pages and national news. He tells NPR that obits are “more sedentary, more scholarly, you might say. It’s deep research.”

The Times obits desk was once known as a dead-end, so to speak. It was a pasture — or a punishment. But McDonald says obits have recently gained more respect, perhaps in part because of number of aging baby boomers. But obits have also become a place where writers can compose something that feels like a tiny novel. Take Margalit Fox’s swashbuckling obit for John Fairfax, who crossed the Atlantic and Pacific in a rowboat. It begins:

In 1969, after six months alone on the Atlantic battling storms, sharks and encroaching madness, John Fairfax, who died this month at 74, became the first lone oarsman in recorded history to traverse any ocean. …

Footloose and handsome, he was a flesh-and-blood character out of Graham Greene, with more than a dash of Hemingway and Ian Fleming shaken in.

At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle.

At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar. Afterward he was apprenticed to a pirate. To please his mother, who did not take kindly to his being a pirate, he briefly managed a mink farm, one of the few truly dull entries on his otherwise crackling résumé, which lately included a career as a professional gambler.

Obituaries serve a function even bigger than the larger-than-life people who tend to inhabit them, says Bill McDonald. In a culture that struggles with talking — and thinking — about death, McDonald says obituaries are a secular ritual. “A lot of people almost don’t feel that the death has been fully celebrated, acknowledged, unless there’s an obituary to go with it, as if to give that person a certain amount of immortality.”

So maybe that explains why many of us like reading obits. Margalit Fox enjoys writing them. People often assume her job is morbid, but in the documentary she nailed why it’s not. “It’s counterintuitive, ironic even, but obits have next to nothing to do with death, and in fact absolutely to do with the life,” she said.

Newspapers are dedicated to the day’s events, but obits are about history. “If you think about one of the slang ways if saying that somebody’s died, we say, ‘He’s history,’ ” Fox explained. “And what an obit actually does, which I find very compelling and very moving, is it captures that person at the precise point that he or she becomes history.”