Author: Cheryl

Truth will out—or not

I’m writing this on the eve of a conference I’m going to, The Latest in Longform: The Berkeley Narrative Journalism Conference. I didn’t have to think twice when I signed up for it a few months ago—what’s not to like about a day of discussing the state of literary nonfiction with a bunch of heavy-hitters in the field? I’m as excited about it as I ever was, but I’m going there tomorrow with a specific concern lurking in the back of my mind. What is truth in nonfiction, and how do we know we’ve found it?

I’m wondering this in the context of two recent events, one large-scale and one personal. The large-scale one is the death knell being sounded for National Geographic by its new owner, Rubert Murdoch. Among the many exalted, dedicated journalists who have been handed pink slips, some are fact-checkers—those unappreciated, hardworking ferret-outers of the truth, gifted in the areas of persistence and patience. This would be bad news in any circumstance, but in a world in which anonymous persons can spout ignorant, inaccurate, biased opinions—and worse, present them as facts—without providing a shred of evidence that there’s any validity to them, losing even a single fact-checker means less likelihood that, as Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, truth will out.

Photo of Launcelot Gobbo in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE from

The personal event was my fact-checking of a story written by a good journalist. Thinking I simply needed to clarify a few things, I called the person who’d been interviewed; in the course of our conversation I found that there were more inaccuracies than I’d thought. Had the piece been written by a novice, or a sloppy writer, I might have chalked the inaccuracies up to writer error. And I wish I could. What’s more worrisome than a sloppy writer who will be “saved” by a good editor and fact-checker is the suspicion that the writer and I heard different things from the source—not necessarily because the source said different things, though that’s possible. And certainly we know that memories can be faulty and fleeting. What’s worrisome is how much of what the source said might be interpreted differently by writer and fact-checker—and why should it stop there? If the Writer heard A, and Fact-Checker #1 heard B, then might not Fact-Checker #2 hear C? Does that mean Fact-Checker #3 should be deployed, and what if that person validates some of what Fact-Checker #1 found and some of what Fact-Checker #2 found. How many fact-checkers (and time and money) does it take to get at the truths contained in a single story? Now magnify that by the uncountable pieces of information that screech by our eyes and ears every day. How can we possibly keep up?

The state of the planet depends on the decisions we humans make, and these decisions are tough enough even when we have a fine array of facts to consider. It’s crazy-making to think that these decisions are being made in the absence—or near absence—of truth.

What does this mean? I have no answers for you. Maybe I’ll find some tomorrow.


I heard some sad news recently: a brilliant man has closed his acupuncture practice due to illness. The loss of his genius as a healing artist is profound, and I grieve for that, and for the fact that he likely is suffering. It’s possible that death isn’t far off. This man—I’ll call him Dr. A—has the kind of genius that to me sets him apart from the merely super-intelligent; his mind seems to function on a different plane. His quirky sense of humor, his intuition, his nonchalant utterings of “Oh, I can fix that”—all things I remember vividly, though my main interaction with him took place 25 years ago.

What I’m realizing, though, in thinking about this man, is how he opened my eyes to a way of thinking I’d had no exposure to as a child and young woman. I grew up in a household where conventional thinking reigned. Illness sent you to doctors who practiced Western medicine; there were no other options. It seems odd to me now, since my family’s lineage can be traced to uneducated people in tiny villages in Italy who laid bricks and mended nets and worked wood or the land, that these people who probably were superstitious and very close to the natural world did not pass on what I imagine would have been a more fluid sense of existence. Perhaps they did, and my branch of the family somehow missed out on it. But it wasn’t until my first acupuncture treatment that I learned that Western medicine doesn’t have all the answers and that there are other ways of perceiving and thinking about the world than the ones I grew up with. I don’t mean different opinions, political bents, religious beliefs—I mean different ideas about the nature and potential of the human mind and body.

Dr. A is very much on my mind, but I take heart in the words my new doctor said to me yesterday. Listening to my pulses, he asked, “Do you practice any kind of art?”

“I write,” I said.

“It would be good if you could make more room in your life for art.”

I looked at him, startled. It’s the kind of thing Dr. A would have said.

Everything is and is not

Pondering this passage from Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, page 151:

He picked a dish up off the the altar—the gesture was meant to seem casual, but it was full of dramatic flourish. Look at this dish right here, he said. Will this be here in a million years? No. So it is here. But it is not here. You know about atoms? Kukai thought about atoms long before we were able to see them. If we had a thread that was thin enough, we could thread it through the cup and it would go out the other side. And so the cup is here, but it is not here. If enough time were to go by, the cup would not be here, but if we were to look for its atoms, we would find them scattered around the universe, which means the cup would be everywhere. And in the same way, the Buddha is everywhere. The point of Shingon is not to be nothing, but to understand that everything is and is not actually concrete. That’s it.

Matt Black’s black-and-white world

Last night I attended Pop-Up Magazine, not quite knowing what to expect other than storytelling. That was good enough for me. And the event delivered—stories spoken, animated, sung, and conveyed through images both moving and still. An evening of entertainment, yes, with all the delight of the unexpected and a range of topics that included race, relationships, magic, burglary, world records, and Janis Joplin. But what stuck with me was a grim story of poverty and an 18,000-mile journey to capture it.

Matt Black stood at the mic and spoke softly, an understated presence that set the right tone for the stunning images splashed on the screen behind him. His words were compelling, his photos the kind of images you can’t tear your gaze from. Traveling through small towns ringing the United States, along the Mexican border through Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and California’s parched Central Valley (Black’s home), he photographed millions of people living in desperate circumstances. And in documenting them, he gives these worn people and exhausted places a luminescent beauty. Graininess, off-kilter composition, and extremes in contrast are among his storytelling tools, and they are the bringers of beauty. But what shines through are the people themselves, the people who suffer in these places of disregard, and Black’s compassion for them.

I don’t know how Black’s work has escaped me until now; he’s well published. But I’ve seen his photographs now, and I won’t forget them. A hand laid over a fence post, gnarled to the point of inhumanness; a dust storm rising from the earth like a dancer—and the faces, always the faces, with eyes that gaze into the lens with a single message: look at what this world has become.

Look here.

Blackboard vs Blackout

Reposted from 10/19/14

Recently, I read Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom by Lewis Buzbee, and now I’m obligated to write about it—because my teacher told me to. OK, not exactly. But in the book, Lewis asks questions of his readers; he wants to know what experiences they shared, or didn’t share, with him. And since Lewis was one of my instructors when I was in grad school, and since I usually scored well in the “follows directions” category on my elementary school report cards, I reacted to his request like my conscientious kid-self did to homework assignments. I’d do what was asked.

Lewis went through elementary and secondary school during California’s educational golden age. He has glowing memories of schools that were designed to help children learn, absorb what they learned, apply what they learned; memories of teachers who made a difference, who gave infinitely of their time and knowledge and wisdom, who actually saved him when he was a teenager teetering on the edge. The emotion he conveys in the book has a warm tint to it. I envy that.

My memories of school? A tad different. Please take out a piece of construction paper and your crayons.

Scene 1: a suburban private kindergarten (nope, Virginia didn’t think public school needed to start until first grade) with a big garden, one big room with high windows and a black-and-green tile floor and a trough-like sink and clay and Play-Doh and cardboard bricks and a piano. And my first boyfriend, Vince Antonioli, who made it into a Life magazine spread at our white-cap-and-gown graduation by blowing a gigantic bubble at the exact moment a photographer captured him receiving his diploma. (My mother didn’t allow me to chew bubble gum, but we won’t go there.)

Paper and crayons ready? Draw a little house that looks happy. Draw it close to the left edge of the paper. It was a happy place, so put a rainbow over it. There. Kindergarten love.

Scene 2: Near the right edge of the paper (leave some room, please) draw a colonial-looking building. Brick, please, with a wall around it. Decorate it with the masks of the theater. This was college, of which I remember not much that didn’t happen within the walls of the theater department. And what happened there was much joy and heartache and offstage drama, like getting dumped by my boyfriend for a gorgeous blonde (I do believe it was Valentine’s Day) and falling in love with a married man and wearing a white, pearl-strung bikini and a feather headdress and fishnets as a showgirl (aka Cloud) in a musical version of Aristophanes’ play The Clouds. As for my classes, I loved Shakespeare and directing and voice and modern dance, but I got the first D of my life in European history (pure kindness on the professor’s part), barely survived a survey course in art history, and had to drop my Italian class because the prof wouldn’t stop hitting on me. I’d say the good outweighed the bad, but college was a pretty mixed bag. Hold the rainbow.

Now for Scene 3. On the far right edge of the paper, next to the college, draw a big yellow building with a church next to it. Two bell towers on the church, please. No rainbow; we’re too old for that, because this is grad school. Oh, what the hell. Add some smiley faces. Add a red cross too, because I began that program in a pretty damaged state, and along with making me a better writer, it helped me heal.

Now color in the space between the buildings in black crayon, as heavy and shiny as you can make it. Go ahead, lay it on thick. That void is the rest of my education. Yeah, I learned stuff, but I don’t remember that much of it, and most of what I do remember is not good. Like getting glasses in second grade. Like being five-foot-six in fifth grade (taller than any boy in the school) and given the nickname “Jolly Green Giant.” Like being expected to be a brain because I was my brother’s sister. Like being good at things I didn’t care about and not particularly good at the ones I desperately wanted to excel in. Like struggling with math, getting tutored, and then being pushed into an advanced class I wasn’t ready for. Like going to the prom with a boy I knew was gay.

But it’s not all bad. I have fond memories of spending significant amounts of time in the cloakroom (yes, that’s what we called it, which proves I’m old) in elementary school, where the smell of wet wool and muddy rubber boots and baloney sandwiches was overpowering, but I didn’t mind. I was sent there for talking in class (usually to Larry what’s-his-name, as I recall; he was pretty cute), but it didn’t shut me up; I’d keep mouthing words and semaphoring to whoever was within range.

I remember the annual book fair, and the thrill of perusing table after table piled with books. Lucky me—my parents were generous. (The book that sticks in my mind? Misty of Chincoteague, in picture-book format. I read it until the cover fell off, and then some.) I remember the Scholastic book club, cheesy little paperbacks that got handed out to us in class. God, I loved those books. I remember the Fall Festival. I remember Madame Slack, who theoretically was teaching us French via TV.

I remember nothing of junior high except the chemistry lab, the scene of nightmares. Oh, how I envy Lewis and his Physics for Poets class.

In Blackboard Lewis says that each of us carries an image of school with a capital S. For me, it’s that kindergarten where we sat on the green tiles when it was time to sing, and where I ran to the far reaches of the garden every day to a tiny playhouse barely big enough for one child. From the playhouse to the cloakroom to the college-theater stage to the grad school classrooms that fed me so much of what I needed—I guess along the way I got a good education. And some of it was schooling.