2004 American Best Essay

Essays - Autumn 2004

Joyas Voladoras


Brian Doyle, who died on May 27, considers the capacity of the heart—including his own. Rest in peace.

Andrew E. Russell/Flickr

By Brian Doyle

June 12, 2012



Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas voladoras, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them whirring and zooming and nectaring in hummer time zones nine times removed from ours, their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear if we pressed our elephantine ears to their infinitesimal chests.

Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be. Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmet-crests and booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant’s fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.

Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles—anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.

The biggest heart in the world is inside the blue whale. It weighs more than seven tons. It’s as big as a room. It is a room, with four chambers. A child could walk around it, head high, bending only to step through the valves. The valves are as big as the swinging doors in a saloon. This house of a heart drives a creature a hundred feet long. When this creature is born it is twenty feet long and weighs four tons. It is waaaaay bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day, and when it is seven or eight years old it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs and arts of the blue whale. There are perhaps ten thousand blue whales in the world, living in every ocean on earth, and of the largest animal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries, their piercing yearning tongue, can be heard underwater for miles and miles.

Mammals and birds have hearts with four chambers. Reptiles and turtles have hearts with three chambers. Fish have hearts with two chambers. Insects and mollusks have hearts with one chamber. Worms have hearts with one chamber, although they may have as many as eleven single-chambered hearts. Unicellular bacteria have no hearts at all; but even they have fluid eternally in motion, washing from one side of the cell to the other, swirling and whirling. No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

Brian Doyle , an essayist and novelist, died on May 27. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.

I’m 42 years old, and have considered myself a writer since—well, since I could write. As an essayist, though, I’m really still a baby. When I decided five or so years ago to start calling myself one, I determined to figure out what the word “essay” entailed. Long story short—this review isn’t about me, after all—part of this fieldwork was reading each volume of The Best American Essays, beginning with 2010 and working my way backward (and forward since then) and writing my reactions to each essay—summarizing content, noting what it did formally, reacting personally, whatever felt most honest and personal in my understanding of each essay as representative of my developing understanding of The Essay.

As I made my way backward through volumes, I started also asking bigger questions about the volumes themselves as anthologies. More and more, I found myself thinking of any volume of BAE not as the best American essays of a given year, but as a glimpse into one essayist’s, the guest editor’s, conception of what an essay is. 

The 2004 volume of The Best American Essays is one of my favorites, but it probably wouldn’t have been my first choice to review for this advent. It would have been interesting to note the irony that my two least favorite volumes—2007 and 2010—were edited by two of my favorite nonfiction writers, David Foster Wallace and Christopher Hitchens, and that both volumes were published the year before their respective too-early deaths. Or the personal, memoir-driven 2011 and 2013 volumes edited by Edwidge Danticat and Cheryl Strayed. Or Mary Oliver’s 2009 volume, maybe my favorite of them all, the essays of which seem to have been selected mostly for other writers to read.

Alas, my choices were limited to what was left after the heavy hitters had left the table: 1993, 1994, 2004, and 2006. Ok, confession: I’m still on 1998 in my backward timeline continuum, which leaves me unqualified to judge 1993 and 1994. And I could have just as happily done 2006; Lauren Slater’s editorial vision is distinctive, favoring grief narratives and intensively personal essays, and her introduction uses her own personal-but-research-driven psychological work Opening Skinner’s Box and its ensuing negative reception by many clinical psychologists as a case study in the malleability of truth. 

Then I reread Louis Menand’s introduction to the 2004 edition, and I became more cognizant of something I’d always suspected: This volume, more than any other, had so many essays that instructed me on what an essay is, or can be. With this in mind, here are my Top 5 Things I learned About Essaying from BAE2004, in the order I rediscover them. 

1. Writing essays is more like singing than speaking

It’s probably fitting to start with Menand’s introduction, which like many of the BAE introductions is an essay itself, and is here subtitled “Voices.” I still today use a simple but rich analogy in which Menand compares writing to speaking: “As a medium, writing is a million times weaker than speech. It’s a hieroglyph competing with a symphony.” Also: “What writers hear, when they are trying to write, is something more like singing than speaking…What you are trying to do when you write is transpose the yakking into verbal music; and the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice. It is your singing voice—except that it comes out as writing.” I could actually do a Top Ten quotes from Louis Menand’s BAE2004 introduction, but I have a deadline to keep here. Let it just suffice to say that I found a lot to love.

2. Essay writers always seem to be running late

Also in his introduction, Menand says, “Writers are people for whom l’esprit de l’escalier is a recurrent experience: they are always thinking of the perfect riposte when the moment for saying it has already passed.” The first essay in the collection, published a half-century after James Agee’s death in Oxford American, is Agee’s riposte both to a now-unknown popular magazine’s coverage of the 1943 Detroit Race Riots, but more personally and more importantly to a group of drunk racist southern sailors and soldiers he overheard on an 86th Street bus who were on their way to fight against Hitler’s army. The real riposte, though, comes from an elderly black woman sharing the bus: “Ain’t your skin that make the difference, it’s how you feel inside. Ought to be ashamed. Just might bout’s well be Hitluh, as a white man from the South. Wearing a sailor’s uniform. Fighting for your country. Ought to be ashamed.” Agee then relates his own shame at not doing any of the things he thought about doing (he was, after all, drunk himself at the time). In the last sentence of the essay, not published until more than 75 years later, he says simply, “So now I am telling it to you.”

3. There seems to be a rich, diverse subgenre of Essays Of and About the Infirm, and this volume has some representative selections

Maybe not to the extent of the 2006 volume, which sometimes seems to be composed entirely of this subgenre, but some gems nonetheless. There is of course the annual Oliver Sacks BAE selection (which, sadly, will end this year—RIP, Dr. Sacks), a hybrid essay comprising a collection of reviews of memoirs by the blind, some quantitative research and anecdotal evidence from friends and patients of his, and some personal essaying of his own experiments in college with amphetamines and the heightened sense they gave his own “mind’s eye.” A triad of other essays—Laura Hillenbrand’s “A Sudden Illness,” Mark Slouka’s “Arrow and Wound,” and Gerald Stern’s “Bullet in My Neck”—chronicle their respective authors’ experiences with chronic fatigue syndrome, a witnessed suicide, and, well, a bullet in the neck. All three essayists find their own ways of divulging their material. Hillenbrand, most famous for writing Seabiscuit, rarely meditates on any given moment or clothes her subject in metaphor or symbolism, except for a deer caught in the headlights of a car she was in right before her symptoms started, which she sometimes imagines killed her and sent her to this hell. Both Slouka and Stern relate near-death experiences by drawing historical, personal, and literary parallels, Stern bringing in Bruno Schulz’s brutal, cowardly murder by a German officer after painting said officer’s children’s nursery, Yeats’s poetry, and Mann’s Dr. Faustus, while Slouka links Dostoyevsky’s mock-execution in 1849 and Prague poet laureate Jaroslav Seifert’s near-execution by Germans in 1945 to his own experience.

4. Essayists find meaning in lists. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d already gotten to Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My ‘80s” before reading it in this volume. In fact, of all the BAE pieces I’ve read so far, I already knew this one (and possibly David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” from BAE 2005) the best. I consider it part of a sub- (perhaps counter-) genre that I call the list-essay, which would also include Leonard Michaels’ “In the Fifties" (coincidentally, the next essay in this anthology is Michaels’ “My Yiddish,” one of his last written pieces before his death in 2005), Kitty Burns Florey’s “”Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog” (BAE 2005), Michele Morano’s “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood” (BAE 2006), Sue Allison’s “Taking a Reading” (BAE 2009), Hilton Als’ “Buddy Ebsen” (BAE 2011), Angela Morales’s “The Girls in My Town” (BAE 2013), and Mary Gordon’s “On Enmity” (BAE 2014). The most foundational “rule” of the form, as I see it, is that image, aphorism, and anecdote, when separated and listed, assume a new artistic depth that they wouldn’t have in the analog context of a linear narrative or argument. Also, in isolating and listing all these things, I believe a richer meaning rises out of the simple accumulation of facts and impressions—in reducing oneself to a simple list, the writer transcends his or her own self-conceptions and becomes a rich framework of accumulated details. In “My ‘80s,” for example, Koestenbaum uses the word “AIDS” six different times, in completely different contexts; only once does he mention that AIDS is one “of the salient features of our ‘80s,” and even then he doesn’t really need to, as he’s already implied it through the accumulated mention. Or perhaps more cleverly, in the last paragraph he mentions the word “boat” in relation to himself seven times, then says, “How many times must I repeat the word ‘boat’ to convince you that in the ‘80s I was a small boat with a minor mission and a fear of sinking? The boat did not sink.”

5. Polemics can be fun! 

Christopher Hitchens, in his introduction to BAE 2010, decried the dearth of good polemic essays in that year’s work; I tend to decry the dearth of good polemic essays in the world at large. They seem to be everywhere—mainstream news, blogs, student work—and they tend to bore the shit out of me. One side of anything just never seems to be enough. But every now and then a Best American Essay of the polemic persuasion (so to speak) does more than take a side, or takes more than one side, or something like that. Take, for example, Rick Moody’s “Against Cool.” Like Mark Greif’s “Against Exercise” from BAE 2005, Moody uses the polemic form implicit in the title as a false signifier—what they’re both taking to task isn’t a specific segment of American culture that may disagree with them, but American culture itself. Neither seems like an argument, but rather like a well-researched plea for circumspection. A trope I see running through the entirety of Moody’s essay is that cool is innately rebellious, but not just rebellious—the cool are above authority. That, I think, is the inevitable downfall of cool in American popular culture, and the crux of Moody's plot arc of cool—this conception of life is innately false. But the last two pages are when Moody gets to his more hopeful argument (perhaps) that all these things can be left behind and we can start over, if we just abandon this endlessly overused word cool and start anew. He suggests some alternatives, then concludes, “But this job is best left to you, users of the American tongue. Seize control of your splendid language. Work your alchemical mumbo-jumbo. Mix up your slang. Blow your innumerable horns. Play well. Play with feeling.”

I’m stopping myself now, though I haven’t even gotten to the intrigue of having essays by power couple Kathryn Chetkovich and Jonathan Franzen—the former of whom even writes about the latter—or the way Luc Sante extends the ruminations of Fitzgerald’s “My Lost City” on NYC’s (and their own) continual cycles of rise and fall and rise again and fall again. 

Thinking of these cycles, I find myself applying this paradigm to the essay, which like a city is a composite of millions of voices, personalities, perspectives, imaginations, and intellects. Every volume of The Best American Essays is like an annual report on the state of the city, or a report from a fellow traveler, much like Calvino’s fictionalized Marco Polo in Invisible Cities, whose words here can be applied to the city or the essay:

For these ports I could not draw a route on the map or set a date for the landing. At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glimpse of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.

John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. He’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them, which he tends now to collect under the generic term “essay.” His work has been published in Atlas and Alice, The Weeklings, The Normal School, The Austin Review, DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, and McSweeney’s. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a recent Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts, and teaches writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at NotThatJohnProctor.com/.

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