30 March 2018

Charting course

Kids, I know, go through "what do you want to do when you grow up"s on a pretty frequent basis. Or at least I did. I definitely wanted to be an astronaut (of course) at one point in middle school but I was told that was unobtainable in the kind of shape I was in.

My favorite high school teacher was Jim Downie. Mr. Downie was old, well-read, single, well-traveled, and very dry. He knew his stuff, and his stuff was depression. He knew exactly how to time a lesson on Anton Chekhov so that he said something like, "And life really is meaningless," and then the bell would ring. On one such occasion, I realized, I want to do this.

So I was an English education major in college. I had some good teachers, but to be honest, nothing doesn't prepare you to teach like an education degree. Or at least it didn't prepare me, as someone who can really only learn how to do things by doing them. But it did teach me that I was pretty certain I didn't want to teach high school after all.

In retrospect this seems like a big decision, but to be honest, I don't remember much about it. But I do have a way of learning what I thought at the time, which is to say I read some posts on my old LiveJournal.* This change of heart kind of comes up as an aside in a post about my attempts to file the bureaucratic requirements of graduating with an ed degree but not student teaching:
I learned that graduating without student teaching is actually a routine thing for education majors who undergo a change of heart. Not student teaching means you don't get your teaching license when you graduate-- but that tied into my other recent revelation, which was that I don't think teaching high school is what I want to do with my life. What I've learned about the profession over the past year or so has shown me that it's not the environment I want, it's not the sort of teaching I want to do. I think of high school as being like St. X†--and high schools are by and large, not like St. X.

I'm not entirely sure what I want to do, but I think graduate school is my best option for now. I might go on for a doctorate and do the whole professor thing--I think that would be neat--but I'm not entirely sure.
I'm writing this post because of one of the New York Times writing prompts I like to do on occasion. This one is about what you would do to land your "dream job." It turns out that to get my dream job, I was willing to stay in school for another eight years, make very little money, write a dissertation, work long and weird hours, and move anywhere in the country whether I wanted to live there or not. I was talking about this with one of my classes the other day (they're chatty folks), and they were like, "Geeze, you did all that!" Somehow the AP test had also come up, and I'd mentioned my scores on AP Bio and AP Calculus BC, and one student was like, "You could have been an engineer or the other kind of doctor!"

And, I mean, I guess I could have? Except, like, why would I? I never had a desire to do these things; my dream, such as it was, has been to teach English and to write. My students asked me when I decided to become a professor, and I was like, "Hm, that's a good question." I was actually surprised to see just now that I was explicitly toying with it when I was a senior in college, because my memory is that grad school was more of a convenient holding pattern than anything else. I did my M.A., and was like, "Well, this is good," and so I went on for the Ph.D., and once you've got that, what can you do other than be a professor?

To accomplish it, though, I had to work harder than I've ever worked at anything in my life. I like to say that I've always been an "achiever"-- underachievers are lazy, overachievers are doing too much. I just do what you need to do to achieve. But in graduate school the bar for achievement became way high! So I guess I was willing to do a lot to get my dream job.

Or, you know, do a lot to not get my dream job, as often happens to Ph.D.s. And, let's be clear, I'm in a good job now but it's actually not my dream job, either. Gotta figure out how to get on that tenure track!

I wrote that LiveJournal post in September 2006. Eleven years later, I finally achieved that desire. I guess it is "neat."

#444: What investment are you willing to make to get your dream job?

* I also learned that I was smug and boring as a college student. No wonder I didn't have any friends. Man, my blog was terrible.

† You might infer from context that this was the high school I went to.

29 March 2018

Review: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

A couple reviews up at USF of various and sundry audio productions: David Warner stars in King Lear, and Peter Davison stars as King of the Time Lords.

Mass market paperback, 456 pages
Published 2008 (originally 1924)
Previously read January 2013
Acquired June 2014
Reread September 2014
Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

When I was assigned to teach the Modern Novel, I almost instantly knew that not only did I want to teach Arrowsmith, but that I wanted to teach it first, even if some of the other novels I was teaching preceded it in publication. I'll explain why, but perhaps the long way round. (Arrowsmith does everything the long way round.)

It's often helpful when reading works of fiction to find those metafictional moments where they talk about other works of fiction, because what the fiction says about other fictions should tell you something about what it thinks fiction should be doing, and thus what itself is doing. If a character in a sci-fi story says all those sci-fi stories you've read are unrealistic in that they depict ventilation ducts people can crawl through, you'll know this sci-fi story is depicting itself as more realistic. Arrowsmith does this with a comment about novels about truth-seekers:
[M]ost people who call themselves “truth-seekers” […] did not so much desire to find Truth as to cure their mental itch. In novels, these truth-seekers quested the “secret of life” in laboratories which did not seem to be provided with Bunsen burners or reagents; or they went, at great expense and with much discomfort from hot trains and undesirable snakes, to Himalayan monasteries, to learn from unaseptic sages that the Mind can do all sorts of edifying things if one will but spend thirty or forty years in eating rice and gazing on one’s navel. (271)
So from this I think we can see that Arrowsmith is a novel about people questing after truth, but one that positions itself as taking place in the "real world," not some abstruse fantasy. Martin Arrowsmith is a man seeking truth, but he does so in a world that is provided with Bunsen burners and reagents. I don't know enough about science to know if Lewis actually gets the practicalities right, but it definitely comes across as realistic-- or, perhaps, realist.

George Levine's monograph Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England has been a strong influence on how I understand the realist novel; he examines a range of novels, biographies, and memoirs about how people interact with the world scientifically, but in the middle of it all, he has this great statement about realism:
[T]he practice of realism itself, and critical demands for truthfulness, suggest how central to the Victorian novel was the enterprise of knowledge seeking and truth telling, how often plots turn on the power of protagonists to develop the proper temper and state of mind to allow realistic confrontation with the “object”—what one might see as acquisition the proper “method.” One can only achieve truth through objectivity; one can only be objective by virtue of the moral strength of self-restraint. (149)
This rings true for me-- so many Elizabeth Gaskell novels, for example, are about their protagonists learning to see or communicate what actually happened; this could describe Mary Barton, North and South, and Wives and Daughters. You could argue similar things about George Eliot, I expect. But Levine's idea doesn't only fit the Victorian realist novel; even if modernism was taking off in 1924 (A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man was eight years old; Mrs. Dalloway was one year away), over in America, Sinclair Lewis was still practicing realism.

Arrowsmith really resonates with Levine's statement above. It is a novel about a man trying to find the proper "method": does he have a good way of seeking knowledge and telling truth? The novel might contain a number of experiments, but the novel itself is an experiment in seeing if a particular method works, or if it fails, or what alternatives might exists, or what modifications might need to be made.

This really comes through in one of Martin's conversations with his mentor, Gottlieb. In class, I made my students work through a whole long speech of Gottlieb's where he lays out not just what a scientist should do, but how they should be. I'll be kinder to you lot and just give you a single excerpt:
He [the scientist] must be heartless. He lives in a cold, clear light. Yes dis is a funny t’ing: really, in private, he is not cold nor heartless—so much less cold than the Professional Optimists. The world has always been ruled by the Philanthropists: by the doctors that want to use therapeutic methods they do not understand, by the soldiers that want something to defend their country against, by the preachers that yearn to make everybody listen to them, by the kind manufacturers that love their workers, by the eloquent statesmen and soft-hearted authors—and see once what a fine mess of hell they haf made of the world! Maybe now it is time for the scientist, who works and searches and never goes around howling how he loves everybody! (279)
As you can see, Gottlieb's conception of science extends beyond the laboratory. If science is a way of thinking and being in the world, you can't just turn it off. Your heartlessness will extend into society itself. Gottlieb sees this as a positive-- the scientist will do a better job than all the other people who claim authority over society.

Earlier, I said the novel itself was an experiment, and this accords with something Levine says about the texts he's working with, where the "method" being tested is the scientific, objective one (much like in Arrowsmith):
All these novels implicitly question, more or less critically, the ideal of self-denial in pursuit of objectivity, as that ideal impinges on the lives of real people living in the material world.
     Each of them is sensitive to the difficulties of truth—its disguises and elusiveness and dangers. […] The novels frequently build their plots around the problems caused by the body and the passions in gaining access to the truth, except that, as novels, they can never dismiss the body as trivial or irrelevant. (150-51)
 Arrowsmith is very much a novel about "real people living in the material world" (that it is too material a world is clearly Lewis's concern) and the body is not trivial or irrelevant-- the body is actually at the heart of what is my favorite part of Arrowsmith, Martin's in-the-field testing of both science and his scientific ideals. Gottlieb says the scientist must be heartless to guide society, and Martin tries to put that heartlessness into action when he goes to St. Hubert to try to rid it of the plague with his new medical discovery.

This novel is always good, but this is the part where I think it gets really good. As Martin tries to stick to his ideals in the face of the realities of the world, the book gets genuinely moving and tragic. Gottlieb might want Martin to dismiss the body as trivial or irrelevant, might want him to be heartless and so do more for society than all those with "heart," but in the end Martin's ideals collapse and he has to come to grips with the awful tragedy of how the world works.

It's a great example of the realist novel at its best, and that made it a great book to lead my class off with. The whole twentieth-century trajectory of the novel is arguably about rebelling against the kinds of things Arrowsmith does here, but I love it anyway.

27 March 2018

Review: The Transformers: Windblade by Mairghread Scott and Sarah Stone

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2014 (contents: 2014)
Acquired October 2016
Read July 2017
The Transformers: Windblade

Written by Mairghread Scott
Art by Sarah Stone
Letters by Chris Mowry

Windblade first appeared in Dark Cybertron, as a female Transformer from a lost colony who ended up throwing in her lot with the Autobots. A Cityspeaker, Windblade is now the representative of the Titan Metroplex, where the majority of Cybertronians are now living following the devastating events of Dark Cybertron. Windblade actually feels more like a continuation of the first five volumes of Robots in Disguise than Robots in Disguise, Volume 6 did. Aside from Windblade and her friend Chromia, all the main characters of Windblade were characters in Robots in Disguise up until that series relocated to Earth, and the concerns of Windblade are much more like that of volume 1-5 of Robots in Disguise. That is to say, this is about Starscream, Ironhide, Blurr, Waspinator, Rattrap, and others on a rebuilding Cybertron trying to move beyond war.

I appreciate that Ironhide still has a home, series-wise.
from The Transformers: Windblade vol. 1 #2

The high point of the book is Sarah Stone's painted art, which is gorgeous and unusual for a Transformers book, but much more dynamic and lively than Livio Ramondelli's painted Transformers art. Stone does a good job capturing personality and dynamism, and the characters have distinct, interesting designs. Mairghread Scott does a good job with characterization, too, populating her story with a number of distinct, memorable people-- I particularly liked the regulars at Blurr's bar.

I appreciate the inclusion of the Beast Machines Tankor and the explanation of how he fits with IDW's other Tankor.
from The Transformers: Windblade vol. 1 #1

The story itself is a little disappointing. Big things happen, but feel underdeveloped: someone tries to kill Windblade, but it doesn't quite seem as dramatic as it ought. If Windblade really does think Starscream is trying to kill her, I'm not sure that the actions she takes make a lot of sense. You'd think she'd do more than muse suspiciously. And the ending revelation of who is responsible is kind of weird, in that it makes someone into a horrible person beyond plausibility, and I don't like the way that person's deeds are dealt with. Also, the end indicates that Windblade's conflict over her two worlds was supposed to be a driver of the book, but I don't think it entirely sold that throughout.

A beautiful moment, but it doesn't entirely feel earned.
from The Transformers: Windblade vol. 1 #4

Still, I enjoyed reading this moment to moment even if the story as a whole left me cold. Good characters, good art, good jokes, and as there are future installments of Windblade to come, I can see how this could potentially improve into something great.

Next Week: Meanwhile, in space... time travel shenanigans run amok in More than Meets the Eye!

26 March 2018

Review: Star Trek: Discovery: Drastic Measures by Dayton Ward

Trade paperback, 391 pages
Published 2018

Acquired February 2018
Read March 2018
Star Trek: Discovery: Drastic Measures
by Dayton Ward

The second Discovery tie-in novel is also a prequel, set ten years before the series proper, and featuring slightly younger versions of Philippa Georgiou and Gabriel Lorca-- importantly, this is a Lorca we haven't actually seen before, so to speak. The novel is set during the Tarsus IV massacre, which forms the backstory to the original series episode "The Conscience of the King." Lorca is stationed on Tarsus IV, while Georgiou is on one of the relief vessels. The tying in of the new to the old seems to be a staple of these Discovery novels, and here it works well.

Dayton Ward weaves the various (sometime hard to understand) hints about the massacre into a coherent whole. The book especially shines in its depiction of Kodos himself; I expected the book to cheat on him, to depict him as a hypocrite as stories like this often do. That is, after all, the easy way out. Make a monster into a hypocrite, and you can reject him with ease. But Ward makes Kodos into a patriot and a true believer, a man who really does think he's doing the right thing in a time of crisis. I found the glimpses into his mind and into his followers, fascinating.

Lorca is the novel's real focus, and the man who emerges is the man who might guess Lorca was based on the first season of Discovery. He's tough when the situation calls for it, but Ward uses one of those fortune cookies he occasionally dispensed on the show to anchor the moral core of the character, one that we didn't see on screen. Georgiou comes across as more generic, unfortunately; the show makes her into a woman who sticks to her principles even when that might be risky, and one who fervently believes in the values of the Federation. Putting a personality like that into a situation like Tarsus might resonate, but she's just kind of a typical leader character most of the time.

Sometimes Ward can be a slow writer, and there are signs of that here (I think the backstory of migration to Tarsus IV is explained to us three times in the first fifty pages), but most of the book moves at a fair clip, and it was an enjoyable read.

(dat epilog tho!)

23 March 2018

The Vistas of Philadelphia: NCSA 2018

Last year, when I went to the Nineteenth-Century Studies Association annual conference, I blogged, "It was my first time going to that conference, and my first time going to any conference in almost a year. Something that I want to change but haven't yet managed is that I almost never repeat conferences-- there are a lot of conferences I've just gone to one meeting of." Well, I finally did it, because I went to NCSA two years in a row!

It was nice. It's a pretty friendly conference, I think, small enough that you run into the same people repeatedly, and the whole thing has a sense of cohesion and coherence. (I was not a fan of the sprawling Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, nor even of the Northeast Modern Language Association, which both feel big and alienating.) It's nice to run into someone you met last year-- they're like, Oh, how are you!? and then you have a person to grab dinner with, even if last year you just had a fifteen-minute conversation with them in the airport! Plus going with some old grad school friends helped, since you were quickly introduced to people they knew, too. Lots of friendly folk about on the whole.

I didn't take many photos...
but I did get one of this book from the
Union League's library.
Opening reception was at the Union League of Philadelphia, which was swank.

NCSA is interdisciplinary, drawing in English studies folks, but also history, languages (especially French for some reason?), architecture, and art. Sometimes this doesn't work, sometimes it does. My paper was on The Time Machine, culminating and polishing thoughts begun on this blog here and here, discussing how the novel refutes our attempts to read a story into the progress of history. Well, one of the other people on my panel was a French graduate student talking about nineteenth-century exhibitions that attempt to read a story into the progress of history! Nice!

NCSA was held in Philadelphia this year. I don't know if it always happens, but it happened both last year and this, that the keynote dealt with the nineteenth-history of the city in which the conference was being held. This year's came from an art professor who's studied the public parks of Philadelphia. It's a great move, establishing the relevance of nineteenth-century studies for the spaces we move in today.

Next year it's in Kansas City. Maybe I can rack up the same conference three years in a row!

22 March 2018

Review: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings by George Eliot

Trade paperback, 505 pages
Published 1990 (contents: 1846-79)
Acquired August 2015

Read May 2017
Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings by George Eliot
edited by A. S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren
Wit, acumen, imagination, feeling as distinguished from sensation, reason as a subjective faculty, – all these so-called powers of the soul, are powers of humanity, not of man as an individual; they are products of culture, products of human society. [...] To ask a question and to answer, are the first acts of thought. Thought originally demands two. It is not until man has reached an advanced stage of culture that he can double himself, so as to play the part of another within himself. (462)
This volume collects a variety of writing by George Eliot, from across four decades: her journals, reviews of a diverse range of books, letters, poems, and translations. The editors, A. S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren, seem to have a particular interest in areas where Eliot expresses her opinions on the importance/function of art, and on the role of women. Eliot was a smart, witty woman, and so of course, her essays make for smart, witty reading. Some of what's collected here, the most famous stuff, I'd already read in Nathan Sheppard's The Essays of "George Eliot", so I skipped over that material, but that still left a lot of good stuff.

Parts of particular interest include her 1866-70 correspondence with Frederic Harrison, which may have inspired Middlemarch (1871-72); he asked her to write about a utopian village run by scientist to demonstrate the power of Positivism, and she replied that "æsthetic teaching is the highest of all teaching because it deals with life in its highest complexity. But if it ceases to be purely æsthetic – if it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram – it becomes the most offensive of all teaching" (248). If Middlemarch is anything, it is anti-utopian, but it definitely deals with "life in its highest complexity," as indeed do all of her works-- yet they still all engage in "æsthetic teaching" too.

Review-wise, I particularly got something out of those of R. W. Mackay's The Progress of Intellect (1851),* where she sifts out some of what there is to like about Positivism; of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister (1855), where she argues under what circumstances a book depicting immorality can still promote morality, concluding that in overtly moral novels, "The emotion of satisfaction which a reader feels when the villain of the book dies of some hideous disease, or is crushed by a railway train, is no more essentially moral than the satisfaction which used to be felt in whipping culprits at the cart-tail" (308); of Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! (1855), where she decries how Kinglsey lets his fiction be taken over by his shoddy moralizing; and of John Ruskin's Modern Painters (1856), where you can see some of her own theory of art emerge, being developed (one presumes) on its way to its fullest statement in Adam Bede (1859).

The translations (I've quoted from her 1854 translation of Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity above) are also worthy inclusions; they come from early in her career, and you can see how they would influence both her theories of art and knowledge and her fiction, especially (as always) Middlemarch.

* All dates given are those of her review, not the reviewed book's publication.

20 March 2018

Review: The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 6 by John Barber, Andrew Griffith, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2014 (contents: 2014)
Acquired March 2015
Read July 2017
The Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Volume 6

Written by John Barber
Art by Andrew Griffith
Flashback Art by Guido Guidi, Brendan Cahill, and Casey W. Coller
Colors by Josh Perez

Flashback Colors by Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long

I guess that what I have to admit is that I actually don't find the original premise of The Transformers terribly compelling in most of its iterations. Like, Transformers in giant space epics: awesome, but Transformers hiding on Earth from humans who can't tell the moral difference between Autobots and Decepticons: tedious. Furman put a nice new spin on it in Infiltration, but most of the time, I get tired of the Autobots having to plan their actions around really dumb humans, like in the 1980s cartoon, or in Bob Budiansky's G1 stories.

Unfortunately, this volume of Robots in Disguise resets the series premise. No longer is it about rebuilding on Cybertron after the end of the Autobot/Decepticon war, but now it's about Autobots and Decepticons back at it, fighting on Earth while looking for... I've already forgotten. Some kind of maguffin. Alpha Trion? Something something combiners? Humans are working with Decepticons now because the Decepticons told them that Megatron (who led the Decepticons when they massacred one billion humans back during All Hail Megatron) is an Autobot now. Does it even make sense that humanity would just take Galvatron's say-so on this? The Decepticons on Earth are a combination of true believers (like Soundwave, who, I'm coming to like) and exploitative cynics (Galvatron, whom it seems implausible that no one sees through). Also part of the problem is that artists hired for their effectiveness at drawing robots are often not great at drawing human beings.

Oh, this genocidal robot showed me a hologram. I bet he can be trusted!
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #29 (art by Guido Guidi)

Oh, and geeze, there's just so much manipulative Prowl stuff it gets tedious. I'm tired of Prowl by this point. Optimus Prime can't be the Greatest Leader of All Time if he can't rein Prown in effectively.

Actual consequences will stop him from doing the wrong thing so much. Instead, you make him Deputy Leader!?
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol 1 #32 (art by Andrew Griffith)

I do really love Thundercracker, the Decepticon who's gone native (to the extent that a Transformer can go native, I guess), binge-watching DVDs and writing screenplays of his own:
I should note that her name is "Susan Journeyer," which is on-the-nose-- but then of course most Transformer names are incredibly on-the-nose.
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #28 (art by Andrew Griffith)

I mean, it's not terrible; Barber and Griffith never fall below baseline competence. But it is pretty far from what interests me about Transformers.

Next Week: Meanwhile, on Cybertron... dark forces are moving against Windblade!

19 March 2018

Review: The Mighty Thor, Vol. 5 by Walter Simonson

Comic trade paperback, 208 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 1987)

Acquired December 2015
Read January 2018
The Mighty Thor, Vol.5

Writer & Artist: Walter Simonson
Artist: Sal Buscema 
Inking: Sal Buscema & Joe Sinnott
Remastered Coloring: Steve Oliff
Letterer: John Workman & Bob Pinaha

I found vols. 3-4 of Walter Simonson's run on Thor less interesting than vols. 1-2 (Frog Thor story aside, obvs), so I was a little worried going into vol. 5, but Simonson definitely turns it around, bringing things to an excellent and appropriate climax.

Sort of. Some comics creators tell one long story, but Simonson pursues a style of serialization that I prefer, where each story has some small hint or component that sets up the next story, so that the whole thing reads continuously, but the story being told at the beginning is not the story being told by the end. Like, way back in vol. 1 the whole thing started with Beta Ray Bill taking Thor's hammer. But in a series of natural progressions we're now reading about a Thor cursed by Hela (the goddess of death, and Thor's niece, not his sister like in Thor: Ragnarok) to experience great weakness but never die. And meanwhile Balder is ruling Asgard, and there are some human orphans from Midgard* being integrated into Volstagg's family.

The opening stories are okay, but things really come to life when Thor forges himself a new suit of armor to deal with his increasingly frail body, leading to this melodramatic showdown with the Frost Giants:
No one ever accused him of modesty.
from Thor vol. 1 #378 (art by Sal Buscema)

I love it when Thor shouts about how awesome he is.

In retribution, the Frost Giants try to send Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent (a giant dragon... also Loki's child???), after Thor, but end up sending comedy dragon Fin Fang Foom after him instead. Before they fight, Thor and Fin Fang Foom have a nice chat in a Brooklyn park:
I appreciate a philosoraptor.
from Thor vol. 1 #379 (art by Sal Buscema)

Fin Fang Foom is an erudite, honorable opponent, who ruminates on his relationship with humanity, and even lets Thor fight him in the wilderness so no bystanders will be hurt. It's a great little story featuring a great villain...

...who actually turns to be the Midgard Serpent after all!

from Thor vol. 1 #380 (art by Walter Simonson & Sal Buscema)

Simsonson comes back to the penciller's chair one last time during his run, drawing the issue where Thor fights Jormungan, and it is a tour-de-force. I mean, Simonson is always great on art, but here he excels himself: each page is its own panel. Sometimes this can be a cheap move (I wasn't too into it in The Death of Superman), but here it gives the fight weight and grandeur.

And its consquences are great, too: Thor become nothing but a pulp in a suit of armor, but he cannot die! Then the Destroyer turns up and all sorts of shenanigans ensue.

The run does feel slightly curtailed: Thor's supporting cast in New York City don't appear in this volume at all, for example, and there's a subplot about poison in Asgard that goes underexplained. Bu overall Simonson goes out almost as strong as he came in. I loved reading this imagining Chris Hemsworth doing the voices, and I look forward to tracking down more Thor comics.

* Earth.

16 March 2018

Is Thomas Hardy Responsible for the Word "Cliffhanger"?

The prototypical Victorian cliff
William Dyce's Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858
Previously I blogged about Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes. Like many Victorian novels, A Pair of Blue Eyes was serialized; it appeared in installments in numbers of Tinsley's Magazine across 1872 and 1873. One installment ends with Henry Knight, one of the principal characters, stumbling down a cliff. I apologize for a lengthy quotation; Knight has just saved a girl, Elfride from tumbling down too, but is losing his grip:
Between the turf-covered slope and the gigantic perpendicular rock intervened a weather-worn series of jagged edges, forming a face yet steeper than the former slope. As he slowly slid inch by inch upon these, Knight made a last desperate dash at the lowest tuft of vegetation – the last outlying knot of starved herbage ere the rock appeared in all its bareness. It arrested his further descent. Knight was now literally suspended by his arms; but the incline of the brow being what engineers would call about a quarter in one, it was sufficient to relieve his arms of a portion of his weight, but was very far from offering an adequately flat face to support him.
     In spite of this dreadful tension of body and mind, Knight found time for a moment of thankfulness. Elfride was safe.
     She lay on her side above him – her fingers clasped. Seeing him again steady, she jumped upon her feet.
     ‘Now, if I can only save you by running for help!’ she cried. ‘Oh, I would have died instead! Why did you try so hard to deliver me?’ And she turned away wildly to run for assistance.
     ‘Elfride, how long will it take you to run to Endelstow and back?’
     ‘Three-quarters of an hour.’
     ‘That won’t do; my hands will not hold out ten minutes. And is there nobody nearer?’
     ‘No; unless a chance passer may happen to be.’
     ‘He would have nothing with him that could save me. Is there a pole or stick of any kind on the common?’
     She gazed around. The common was bare of everything but heather and grass.
     A minute – perhaps more time – was passed in mute thought by both. On a sudden the blank and helpless agony left her face. She vanished over the bank from his sight.
     Knight felt himself in the presence of a personalized loneliness.
And boom! You'll have to wait a month to read how that one resolves.

If you read a lot of Victorian novels, you'll know they're rarely so, well, cliffhangery in their serialization. Usually, they just kind of stop where one would stop any chapter while writing a novel. Wilkie Collins is probably the only Victorian novelist who bothers to have cliffhangers-- some of the ones in The Woman in White will knock you over.

As you can see above, this cliffhanger is surprisingly literal, the most literal cliffhanger I can think of other than the bit in the Doctor Who serial Dragonfire where the Doctor climbs down a cliff for no readily apparent reason, gets stuck, and then the theme music comes in. A lot of articles out there assert that it is thanks to Thomas Hardy and A Pair of Blue Eyes that we thus have the word "cliffhanger":
  • "The literary term, 'cliffhanger', derives most likely from Thomas Hardy's serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes." (The Victorian Web)
  • "Yet the iconic cliffhanger derives not from Dickens but from 'A Pair of Blue Eyes,' a little-known novel by Thomas Hardy..." (The New Yorker)
  • "The term that we use to describe Scheherazade’s trick was in fact coined in response to a novel by Thomas Hardy." (BBC*)
  • "Cliffhangers themselves (the term arose from Thomas Hardy and his preference for unsubtle plot twists) are time-honored narrative devices..." (The Atlantic
These are hopefully all sources that do their research, but I am skeptical of the claim, because the word "cliffhanger" doesn't come into existence until around 1931, according to the OED, which cites an article about movie serials from Variety: "Probabilities are a serial based on the life of Buffalo Bill and a treasure island thriller. Henry McRae, in charge of the cliff hangers, is searching for story material." It cross-references "cliff-hanging," which was used slightly earlier in 1930, still in Variety: "Fitting..into the pattern is the revival of the serial, with Universal and Pathe leading the procession toward cliff-hanging heroines."

Google Ngram Search backs the OED up on this, with no hits for "cliffhanger," "cliff-hanger," or "cliff hanger" in the whole nineteenth century. Google Books's earliest hit is hard to figure out because it has a number of misdated items and books you can only see snippets of, but around 1937. And then it doesn't refer to the suspenseful ending the way we use it now, but to the whole adventure serial itself.

Access this chart yourself here.

It seems unlikely to me that movie industry insiders of the 1930s were thinking of Thomas Hardy's third Wessex novel and not the more melodramatic perils of their own stories. As far as I can tell from Google Books, the first person to link the origins of the term "cliffhanger" to Thomas Hardy was the literary critic and novelist David Lodge, who says this in his 1992 collection The Art of Fiction:
[A Pair of Blue Eyes] contains a classic scene of suspense.... The word ["suspense"] itself derives from the Latin word meaning "to hang", and there could hardly be a situation more productive of suspense than that of a man clinging by his finger-tips to the face of a cliff, unable to climb to safety – hence the generic term "cliffhanger". (14)
You'll note that if you read Lodge very literally, he doesn't actually say Hardy's novel led to the creation of the term-- he just says A Pair of Blue Eyes has a guy hanging off a cliff, and that the most suspenseful thing there is is hanging off a cliff, which gives us "cliffhanger." But it would be easy to read his discussion here and think A Pair of Blue Eyes gave us the word "cliffhanger." I can't decide if this is deliberately or negligently misleading.

Presumably it carried forward from there, making its way onto the Internet. The Victorian Web article cited above is dated to 26 April 2006; on 3 May 2007, the Wikipedia article "cliffhanger" was updated to include the fact that A Pair of Blue Eyes was the originator. That same edit added a lot of information about Wilkie Collins which has since been stripped away, but the Hardy anecdote remains in the article to this day. Far be it for me to suggest that journalists are lazy, but all my other citations above post-date that Wikipedia edit. I'm not the only person to be suspicious; Google Books revealed to me a book called Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes from Hollywood to Broadway that Have Changed the English Language (2017), whose author, Josh Chetwynd, says "it's unlikely his [Hardy's] original plot directly spawned the term" (44).

While it's pretty neat that Thomas Hardy's cliffhanger was in fact a literal "cliff hanger," and it makes for a nice anecdote, people are overstating the case when they credit Thomas Hardy or reaction to him as the source of the word. I blame David Lodge.

(Though the Hardy cliffhanger claim mostly seems to be restricted to popular venues, I did find it in a book published by Oxford University Press. Hopefully it doesn't keep reproducing throughout academia in error.)

* This article seems to think Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop was written in the 1900s, so we should be very doubtful about any of its assertions.

15 March 2018

Review: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

Hardcover, 428 pages
Published 1953 (originally 1924)
Acquired and read January 2013
Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

A friend told me that, based on my interests in science and scientists in literature, I had to read this book for my Ph.D. exams. Now, a 1925 American novel was more than a little bit outside my scope of British literature of the nineteenth century, but no one on my committee objected, and I put it on the list. (She also told me it takes place in a fictionalized version of my home city, Cincinnati, but Lewis's fictional state of Winnemac is partially carved out of northwest Ohio, which makes Toledo seem more likely.)

Well, I will tell you that I am glad I did, because the things that interest me about science and literature are all over Arrowsmith, with the added wrinkle of the differences wrought by the increased professionalization of science that happened between the 1890s and the 1920s. Martin Arrowsmith is torn between pure scientific aspiration and the commercial and financial necessities of everyday life in early twentieth century America. Martin sees being in the laboratory of his mentor Gottlieb as a form of prayer (27); Gottlieb is said to obey "mysterious and unreasoning compulsions of his science" (123); Gottlieb says that a scientific calling is "a tangle of very obscure emotions, like mysticism, or wanting to write poetry" (266); and Martin has the "one characteristic without which there can be no science: a wide-ranging, sniffing, snuffling, undignified, unself-dramatizing curiosity" (279). But these scientific values come into conflict with those of his peers, his superiors, his employers, his wife, basically everybody. I actually found Martin's continuing attempts to integrate his personal values with society's values quite moving by the end of the novel, because it's a struggle we all go through in our own way.

His problem is not that he wants one thing and society wants another, but that actually he wants two contradictory things. At one point Martin is on track for an incredible discovery, and he dreams of the personal benefit this will bring him:
He had visions of his name in journals and textbooks; of scientific meetings cheering him. He had been an unknown among the experts of the Institute, and now he pitied all of them. But when he was back at his bench the grandiose aspirations faded and he was the sniffing, snuffling beagle, the impersonal worker. Before him, supreme joy of the investigator, new mountain-passes of work opened, and in him was new power. (299)
Right in that short passage, you see him go from material aspirations to scientific ones. He wants the material benefits of successful inquiry, but he also just want to do the work, to feel like he's accessing prayer or something mystical like his mentor Gottlieb. The two desires are linked, of course, but not the same, and do not always align, and that is the tragedy of Martin Arrowsmith. I myself am not a scientist, of course, but the professionalization of curiosity may yet be my tragedy, and the tragedy of all of us.

13 March 2018

Review: The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 6 by James Roberts, Alex Milne, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2014 (contents: 2014)
Acquired March 2015
Read May 2017
The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 6

Written by James Roberts
Art by Alex Milne
Additional Art by Atilio Rojo
Additional Inks by Brian Shearer & John Wycough
Colors by Josh Burcham & Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long

This picks up six months after Dark Cybertron, and major changes have taken place on the Lost Light, the biggest one being the assignment of Megatron as co-captain. I'm of two minds about this. One the one hand, Megatron as captain provides possibilities, for both jokes:
I always like it when someone calls Rodimus out on his crap.
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #30 (art by Alex Milne)

...and for drama and character introspection:
Yeah, at least try to be good.
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #33 (art by Alex Milne and Brian Shearer & John Wycough)

But on the other hand, I find it implausible that a dictator and committer of genocide, whose five-million year reign of terror makes any human monster look like someone who was at most mildly rude, would be accepted aboard the Lost Light (or anywhere in Autobot society) under any circumstances. It's like once World War II ended they made Hitler captain of an American aircraft carrier and everyone acted like it was a minor inconvenience, only a million times more unlikely. So, I like it and I don't like it at the same time.

Other than that, this is another solid volume of More than Meets the Eye, not the best, but definitely of the consistent quality that James Roberts and Alex Milne have maintained since volume 3. Having all of the crew except for those who joined after issue #1 vanish is a smart move to give some time to new characters; so far I like Nautica, the earnest ex-teacher, and the appearance of Ravage has some potential. Plus all the old characters get nice moments and promises of interesting developments, like what's happening with Tailgate and Cyclonus, or Rodimus, or Chromedome, or Brainwave, or, well almost everyone. Also this pays off some ongoing plot threads seeded so far back I'd forgotten about them, so thank goodness for the Transformers wiki! Dark Cybertron was a bit of a dull derailment, but More than Meets the Eye still knows how to make you laugh and make you cry. (No actual tears this time, just metaphorical ones.)

Gotta love a space chalkboard.
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #31 (art by Atilio Rojo)
Next Week: Meanwhile, on Earth... Optimus Prime returns as one of many Robots in Disguise!

12 March 2018

Review: The Mighty Thor, Vol. 4 by Walter Simonson

Comic trade paperback, 237 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 1986)

Acquired December 2015
Read August 2017
The Mighty Thor, Vol. 4

Writer & Artist: Walter Simonson
Artist: Sal Buscema 
Inking: Bob Wiacek & Al Milgrom, Geoff Isherwood, Bret Blevins
Remastered Coloring: Steve Oliff
Letterer: John Workman

Like vol. 3, this volume of The Mighty Thor is a mixed bag. Were vols. 1-2 Walter Simonson's peak? I only have one volume to go, so I guess I'll see. But this has some good stuff and some dull stuff. Definitely the highlight is the storyline where Loki turns Thor into a frog, and frog Thor then has an adventure in Central Park, rescuing a group of frogs from evil rats. It's pure comedic genius in some ways:
Best "translation" caption in comics?
from Thor vol. 1 #364 (art by Walter Simonson)

But it succeeds in its playing of the peril as completely straight. These are beings in trouble on Midgard,* and Thor will defend them, as is his duty.

Even as a frog, Thor gives the best pretentious speeches.
from Thor vol. 1 #364 (art by Walter Simonson)

And then, once he's able to lift Mjolnir, he goes from being a strong and large frog to being... THOR FROG!

from Thor vol. 1 #365 (art by Walter Simonson)

It's a masterful example of things you can do in the goofy-but-epic medium of the long-form superhero comic. I can only hope that we get to hear Chris Hemsworth voice this storyline on screen in Thor 4.

Other than that, Thor having to rescue Balder from evil crones in disguise is classic fairy tale stuff, and pretty enjoyable, and I also liked Thor returning to his "human" life on Midgard and befriending the very large family of his Italian foreman.

These kids are the greatest. And Thor is a terrible liar.
from Thor vol. 1 #373 (art by Sal Buscema)

But some stuff was less interesting: Malekith and Kurse aren't really good villains, so stuff revolving around them kind of bored me, and whatever was going on with mutants in the tunnels of New York was okay. And there's this weird story where a Judge Dredd rip-off comes from the future. It would work if it was completely goofy, but it gets pretty dark, and unlike with the frogs, the balance isn't quite hit right.

from Thor vol. 1 #371 (art by Sal Buscema & Bret Blevins)

Still, the volume was fun enough, and better than the third, I think. I just hope Simonson ends his acclaimed run on a high note.

* Earth.

09 March 2018

Sandwiches I Have Known

1. The Humble Cheese Sandwich
Honestly,  this one I found on the Internet kinda looks too nice.
I feel like I must have learned this from my dad, but a go-to snack of mine in my youth was the simple "cheese sandwich." Just slice off the end of a block of colby cheese (there was always one in the Mollmann fridge) and place on a piece of white bread and fold. Pure joy.

Dad was always trying to convert me to the "mustard sandwich" (a folded piece of white bread with mustard on it, duh), but I can't say this one ever really took. I'm also not sure it counts as a sandwich in the strict sense.

2-4. Peanut Butter and Jelly / Peanut Butter and Banana / Peanut Butter and Marshmallow
I assume I must have attempted banana and marshmallow.
When you're a packer in grade school, there's only so much your mother can or should do. As far I as I remembered, I ate a peanut butter and something sandwich every day of my grades 1-8 life. All that could or would change was the topping. Carefully controlled variety, an ethos that lives with me to this day.

Packing got me into trouble, though. When I was in the first grade, the rule at lunchtime at St. John the Baptist School was that everyone was seated in the order they arrived in the cafeteria. You didn't get to pick where you sat, you just arrived and were placed in the next available seat. Plus, we were lined up alphabetically before leaving the classroom, so you didn't even control your place in line. (The disadvantage of having an "M" last name is that even on days where the teacher realized she was giving those children lucky enough to be born with the last name of Baum a consistent unfair advantage and reversed the whole line, you were still dead in the middle.) But most students, upon arriving in the cafeteria, had to go through the line to get their food. Since I packed, I skipped over this-- and thus ended up seating amongst the second graders, who had already gone through the food line.

The second graders were nasty customers, able to use their advanced size and intelligence against my naïveté. One time they manipulated me into sticking a bottle of mustard up my nose. Another time, I told a no doubt amusing anecdote about my kid sister, who at the tender age of one, refused to eat meat. (This was before the long phase of her life where she only ate chicken nuggets, clearly.) She was a vegetarian, I explained. So, asked the second graders with malevolent grins, is your sister a virgin? Not really clear on the difference between the words vegetarian and virgin at the age of six, I answered in the affirmative so as to avoid looking ignorant. They thought this was quite amusing. I couldn't tell why.

All I really wanted to do was eat my peanut butter and something sandwich in peace. Thankfully, the next year, the lunch table policies were revised, and we were segregated by grade. So from then on, only my own classmates could prey on my naïveté. 

5. Peanut Butter and Pickle
There are a surprising number of hits on Google Image Search.
Once in middle school, I reasoned that if peanut butter went with so many other good things, it ought to go with pickles, too.

I don't recommend it, but I don't really discommend it either. You know that there are combinations of flavors that are so aptly described with the phrase "two great tastes that taste great together"? Chocolate and peanut butter, spinach and artichoke, kielbasa and sauerkraut, pineapple and ham. And then there are things that should never be mixed, like cheese and chocolate, strawberries and mustard, peanut butter and sausage. Well, peanut butter and pickles just don't even exist on the same dimensional plane to one another. The flavor combination is just there, inspiring neither like nor dislike. It simply is, like a Zen koan, and defies our attempts to understand it.

6-10. Arby's Five for Five
We were a family of five growing up, and so Arby's Five for Five deal, five roast beef sandwiches for $5, was a recurring favorite. Whenever the deal rotated in, the Mollmanns would be off to Arby's for one roast beef sandwich apiece, and some sides of curly fries. (And if you know the Mollmanns, you know we did not eat out much.) I still favor the humble Arby's roast beef sandwiches; no matter what weird things they put on their menu, I know that this will be the best fast food for any road trip. Obviously you get the cheese sauce and the Arby's sauce; anything else is unnecessary.

That said, like I mentioned, my kid sister had a limited palate, and this continued her entire childhood. She didn't even eat sandwiches at all until college. So when we got Arby's Five for Five, who was eating the fifth sandwich...?

11. Cold Scott
The Internet barely even remembers Scott Dining Hall now.
In my college years, I worked at Scott Dining Hall at Miami University. Scott was sort of a weirdly laid out place; it had two halves with the kitchen in the middle. Employees could go from one side to the other, but not customers. These two halves were known officially as "Ovations!" and "Encore Emporium" (you can bet your butt that I was assiduous about writing that exclamation point), but colloquially they were called "Hot Scott" and "Cold Scott." Hot Scott was the side with the woks and the pizza oven (it really did roast over there), while Cold Scott was the deli, the burgers, the salad bar, and the espresso bar.

The deli served three different kinds of sandwiches: normal sandwiches on bread, bagel sandwiches, and wraps. (The best, by the way, was turkey and cheese on rye with mayo, tomato, lettuce, red onion, and pickle.) I worked as cashier often, and depending on how competently the sandwich had been wrapped, it wasn't always possible to discern whether it was on bread or a bagel. So I would usually ask, "Is that a bagel sandwich or a sandwich sandwich?" People often looked at me a little weird when I did this, but I feel like repeating a word is a perfectly good clarifier (sometimes I distinguish between my students' short papers and my students' paper papers), and that a sandwich on bread is the ur form of the sandwich seems pretty obvious.

12. Hot Scott
I had to get these images off Google Street View.
The real action was on the other side of Scott Dining Hall, though, where there were the woks, and the pizza/sub oven. We did personal pan pizzas and toasted subs, and that was our most popular station by far. At lunch it was usually nuts, and staffing required one person on register, three people putting stuff into the oven, and two people taking out. More importantly, you needed to be organized and on top of things to work the oven side. Once I ascended to the vaunted position of student manager, I ended up working the oven side of Hot Scott at lunch Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for like two years.

You pretty much ended up seeing the same people every week, and some people are very reliable, always wanting the exact same thing on their sub or pizza once it comes out of the oven. I prided myself on my ability to remember exactly what these people wanted, putting it on their sub without them telling me, and calling their name once it was done. Among these was the legendary Garlic Salt Girl, who only ever wanted a sprinkling of garlic salt. There was like... a thing that evolved between me and her. I guess you would call it a flirtation? The full-time employee who worked the oven alongside me most days kept egging me on, but nothing ever happened.... except that on her birthday, her friends came early and gave me a card to give to her along with her order.

There was a lot of giggling.

Hot Scott played a much more significant role in my love life shortly thereafter, though, once I started dating Hayley. One time she came in and I made her my invention, the chicken cordon bleu calzone. Calzones weren't on the menu, but sometimes employees would make them for themselves using pizza dough. This one required liberating chicken fingers from a line over in Cold Scott, actually.

I'm told it was delicious. Hayley still tells this story, which is that she was eating it and someone else asked her what it was. I like to imagine Hayley was really snide as she replied, "I'm sorry, my boyfriend made this for me, and he's a manager here."

(Have I gotten off track? Is a calzone a sandwich?)

13. Reubens 
This actually is the Rein's one.
When I was in college, I would occasionally go to a bar called Steinkeller's, a German place. This was probably the first bar I ever enjoyed going to, and I discovered I liked three things there: stouts, fried calamari, and Reubens. Even though I'm German-American and so is the Reuben, I'd never had one before; the Mollmanns are pretty poor German-Americans in that they don't like sauerkraut. But obviously the Reuben is delicious.

When I moved to Connecticut, though, I began to fear that the good Reuben had forsaken me. At restaurant after restaurant-- restaurants that made otherwise dependable food!-- I would order a Reuben and be utterly disappointed.

Finally I found a good one; an Irish pub opened in my town, and their Irish Reuben turned out to be a thing of delight, the only good Reuben I'd ever encountered in Connecticut.

The weird thing is, though, that Connecticut is home to one of the best Jewish delis there is (supposedly, as I can't say I've been to a lot of Jewish delis), Rein's. But I don't think I ever actually got a Reuben there. I'm sure it would have been delicious. That place did have, though, the greatest pickles of all time, introducing me to the half-sour. A type of pickle sadly in short supply here in Florida, as far as I can tell.

14. The Perfect Grilled Cheese
In her semiautobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson compares the construction of identity to the construction of sandwiches, saying that she goes through life accumulating stories:
I can put these accounts together, and I will not have a seamless wonder but a sandwich laced with mustard of my own.
     The salt beef of civilisation rumbling around in the gut. Constipation was a great problem after the Second World War. Not enough roughage in the diet, too much refined food. If you always eat out you can never be sure what's going in, and received information is nobody's exercise.
     Rotten and rotting.
     Here is some advice: If you want to keep your own teeth, make your own sandwiches.... (95)
My preferred self-made sandwich is simple. People say the key to a perfect grilled cheese is mayo, but people are nuts. (I tried it; there's nothing wrong with it, but it doesn't do anything butter doesn't.) The thing to keep in mind is that cheese has a high specific heat, so if you cook your grilled cheese too high, the bread will cook but the cheese won't have melted yet. Low and slow is how you do it. Set the stove at like 2 or 3, and do the crossword puzzle while you wait. All the perfect grilled cheese needs is patience.

15. The Monte Cristo
When I was a neophyte in graduate school, I was forcibly befriended by one Andrew Grubb. One of his favorite things to do was call me and tell me we were going to the Vernon Diner, a 24/7 diner about five minutes from my apartment.

It was there that I had my first contact with the Monte Cristo, a ham-turkey-and-cheese sandwich served on pieces of French toast. He ordered it the first time I went there with him; the waitress asked, Do you want maple syrup on the side? You bet he did. The next time we went I had to have it. It's delectable, the perfect combination of savory and sweet. When we still lived in Connecticut, my wife claimed that the Vernon Diner was my favorite restaurant. I don't know if that's true, but they definitely served my favorite sandwich.

I went back the first time in a long while for a celebratory dinner post-defense, and discovered that the Monte Cristo wasn't on the the menu. My world shook. Thankfully, the waitress said they could make me one anyway. I just checked the menu on-line; the public outrage must have been too much because it's back on it. Some things have to change (it has been eight years since Andrew Grubb called me on a Saturday night asking if wanted a Monte Cristo with waffle fries), but some things ought not to.

16. The Dagwood
If only, UConn. If only.
At UConn, I became an aficionado of the premade sandwiches served in the school cafés. The best was the Dagwood: salami, ham, pepperoni, turkey on rye. Like a lot of things I like, it involves a lot of flavors all at once. The name comes from the comic strip Blondie (1930-present), where the main character Dagwood has a propensity for giant sandwiches. The weird thing is that there is actually a restaurant chain called Blondie's that sells Dagwoods. What's weird about it is that this chain doesn't date to 1956 like you might expect, but 2005. Like, who in 2005 thought the ossified staple of the newspaper comic page Blondie was the thing to anchor one's restaurant chain on, some fifty years after it ceased to have any cultural relevance? Or were they marketing exclusively to sixty-year-olds? Apparently, some of the franchisees sued the franchise for fraud, claiming they misrepresented the Blondie's brand, but I'd say that if you thought the Blondie brand was worth the $346,000 investment it cost to open a new store, the only person defrauding you was you.

17. Crusty Grilled Cheese
I couldn't find any pictures that looked quite right, tbh.
My grilled cheese sandwich is perfect, but I do occasionally bypass it and make this recipe I found somewhere on the Internet:
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
3 tbsp. butter, softened
1 dash garlic powder
good bread (little, like a baguette)
good sliced cheese
sliced deli ham
fresh basil

1. mix Parmesan, softened butter, and garlic powder
2. build sandwiches: 1 slice of cheese per sandwich, 1 slice of ham, 1 slice of tomato, 1 basil leaf
3. butter outside and cook on medium heat
You get an amazing crust. Two of those with a bowl of tomato soup is an excellent meal.

One time I made these; a couple days later I had an idea. I made some scrambled eggs, and then put the eggs and a slice of cheese between two slices of rye bread, which I slathered with the leftover butter mixture. The crusty grilled egg and cheese sandwich was delicious. A couple hours later I was in excruciating pain, convinced I was either allergic to eggs or experiencing a heart attack. Hayley rushed me to the emergency room, and that's when we discovered that I had gallstones, and would have to lay off the fat, since eating fat causes the gallbladder to deflate as it releases bile, making it easier for a gallstone to block the bile duct.

Risk factors for gallstones are known as the four F's: fat, female, family, and forty. I used to tell people that one out of four wasn't bad, but then-- several months after this whole saga-- my father told me that all of his sisters and his mothers had had gallstones too.

This was a Sunday. By Tuesday, when I taught, I was still sore. I told my students the reason I was less animated than usual was because of this experience.

Was it worth it? they asked. Was the sandwich that good?

No, I said. No sandwich was that good.

18. Tofu Banh Mi 
Actually, it was pretty good.
Surgery was a possibility for me-- remove the gallbadder, remove the problem-- but it was also possible to moderate my diet. Since the surgery would wipe out a week, I opted to postpone it at least until the semester was over, and I ate low-fat. Lots of turkey, lots of rice, lots of broth, lots of Greek yoghurt. It was pretty delightful. I did lose weight, which was the first thing my mother commented on when she next saw me.

Things were fine. Occasionally, I thought I felt pain coming on and downed a vicodin, but nothing really seemed to happen.

One weekend I went to the local juicery (Willimantic, Connecticut, has inexplicably sustained an artisinal juice place for almost three years now, and it's not just an artisinal juice place, but the kind of place that calls sandwiches "handholds" for some reason) to catch up on grading, and I ordered a coffee and a tofu banh mi. A couple hours later, I began to experience pain. I hightailed it out of there and went home and lay down. I took my vicodin, and tried homespun Internet remedies like apple cider vinegar. (That was disgusting.) Nothing worked and it kept getting worse. I needed a heating pad, but it was August in Connecticut in an apartment without air conditioning, so who the hell wanted to use a heating pad? And Hayley was across the country in Ohio, and she had the car. I called her to complain, and she ended up calling a friend to come and get me and take me to the hospital.

I complained to the doctor that I had been eating low fat, not cheating at all, and that it was a tofu banh mi that had done me in. It wasn't fair! He agreed it wasn't fair. I signed up for the surgery.

What I later discovered is that if you have gallstones, you should also avoid coffee. Coffee reduces the risk of gallstones but it also causes contraction of the gallbladder. (This is the same reason coffee makes you poop.) But of course in the in-and-out minimum-assistance-possible routine of the ER, no one ever told me this. It would have been nice to know. I don't know if I could have done without coffee, but at least I could have been making an informed decision.

Even though I know it wasn't the banh mi's fault, whenever I see one on a menu, I can't quite bring myself to order it.