Rise and Write

His ritual: wake up, light a match to a stick of sage, talk to the universe.“Please be with my wife on this day,” Michael Gills says, his arms raised in something like supplication. It’s 4:30 in the morning, and even the chickens in the darkened yard on University Street are asleep. “Please be with my daughter,” he says. And then the final plea: “Open me up.”

The craft of writing is mysterious. But it’s also simple arithmetic, so Gills goes back in the house and sits down at his typewriter. By the time the sun comes up over the Wasatch two hours later, he has two new pages; by the end of the workweek he’ll have 10. Do the math: if you keep that up for 15 weeks, you have 150 pages; keep that up for the next semester and you have the first draft of a novel.

Gills’s early morning writing ritual begins with sage and a supplication.

This is the gospel of rise-and-write that Gills, associate professor in the University of Utah’s honors program, preaches to his students in Honors 3850: Novel Writing Workshop, which requires them to write a 300-page book by the end of the year. It’s a novel novel requirement, because these students are undergraduates, not graduate students getting an MFA or doctorate in creative writing.

“As far as I know, there isn’t another class like this on Earth,” Gills says.

He takes on 10 undergrads a year, every two years. All of them must sign pledges that they, like their teacher, will commit to rising five days a week at 4:30 a.m. to write for two or three hours, from September to May. As Gills says in the class syllabus: “This class is not for the faint of heart.”

Despite the promised rigor, 40 students auditioned for the 2016–17 school year. To winnow down the number, Gills interviews each prospective student. He asks them about their lives and what they like, and if they say they like writing he’s more than a little suspicious, because writing is hard and lonely. Plus, surprisingly, he’s not looking for talent, because he believes talent is secondary. What he’s looking for is grit.

“Give me someone who has struggled,” he says. “Someone who has had to go out and seek their identity.”

“Anybody here missing a parent?”

It’s a Friday afternoon in the Honors Center, where Gills and his students are seated in a circle talking about the writer Flannery O’Connor, whose father died when she was 15. Gills raises his hand to answer his own question, then asks another: “Anybody here never met one of your parents?” He raises his hand again.

His point is this: writers often use their writing to plumb the depths of their own pain. His students, he notes later, may be young and often middle-class, but “they’ve still had wants, heartaches; they’ve told enormous lies. … My job is to tease that out, to get them to be real.”

Gills’s father, the one he never met, wasn’t so good on veracity or follow-through. Gills’s mother later married a truck driver, then divorced him, then married him three more times. Gills’s absent father and the complicated relationship with his sometimes abusive adoptive father are themes that run through his novels and short stories, as does the death of his brother in an automobile accident at age 19 on a country road, a shortcut Gills had shown him but wishes he hadn’t.

Sorrow and guilt—these are the staples of the kind of Southern writing Gills gravitates toward, books populated by flawed characters and rich details of working class lives.

Gills’s father hauled hogs; his mother once had a job stuffing lipsticks into plastic molds at the Maybelline factory. The family was evicted more than once, and lost everything when their rental burned down. Growing up, Gills says, he never knew anyone who owned a house. All of this happened in Arkansas, where Gills lived until he graduated from college.

“I don’t get up in the morning and say to myself, ‘I’m going to write me some redneck white trash fiction,’ ” he says. “It’s just what I know.”

He has a doctorate from the University of Utah (’97) and in 2012 was named “Distinguished Professor” at the U. But he still doesn’t feel at home in academia, he says. “In my mind, I’m still a poor kid from Arkansas… It’s just a miracle I’m not pouring concrete.”

The path out began with a typo. This was at the University of Arkansas, where Gills was a first-generation college student and had signed up for creative writing, figuring that he had come from a long line of people who liked to sit around and tell stories or lies or both.

His teacher was an eccentric writer named Lewis Nordan, who early in the semester asked the students to write a poem. Gills had never written a poem before, but when he turned in “Night Dreams in Logic Class,” Nordan pulled him aside and said, “Michael Gills, you’re the one we’ve been waiting for.” Nordan was impressed with Gills’s poetic imagery, in particular what he deemed “the best phallic symbol ever,” namely the words “the eyes of hoses shone from buckled straw.”

Never mind that what Gills had meant to type was “the eyes of horses.” What Nordan did next was march him over to the University of Arkansas Press, where the poet Miller Williams was equally enchanted by the poem and the “eyes of hoses,” and pretty soon, even though he was just a sophomore, Gills was invited to attend the Graduate Writing Program, where as an undergraduate he won both the graduate poetry prize and the graduate fiction prize. Before that, Gills says, the only thing he had ever been praised for was running fast with a football. Even though he ended up with only a 2.3 GPA (“which means I wouldn’t even be able to attend my own honors classes” at the University of Utah), he was accepted into every graduate writing program he applied to.

At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where Gills got his MFA, he studied under Fred Chappell, the novelist and short story writer who later became poet laureate of North Carolina. Today you won’t get very far into a conversation about writing with Gills without hearing about the wisdom of Fred Chappell. It was Chappell, in fact, who taught Gills how to attack the blank page at 4:30 every morning.

“Michael is one of the best and most intense writers I know,” says his mentor now, more than two decades later. Early on, Chappell says, he saw Gills’s gifts: “his clarity, his forcefulness of expression, his desire for honesty. … I still remember his short stories, even after all this time.”

Gills was accepted into the U’s creative writing doctoral program in 1993, arriving in Salt Lake in July and renting a house with a front porch that looked out toward the Oquirrhs. He couldn’t believe that he had landed in such a beautiful place, and before driving back east to pick up his wife, he penned a love letter to both the scenery and her, and placed it on the mantel. When he returned to Salt Lake three weeks later, excited for his wife to read his romantic thoughts, he discovered that someone had broken into the house, drunk all his beer, opened the letter and scrawled “Ha ha ha” on the bottom.

“That was my introduction to Utah literary criticism,” Gills deadpans.

The collection of short stories he wrote for his dissertation, Why I Lie, won the Utah Arts Council $5,000 publication prize. It was published by the University of Nevada Press in 2002, the same year it was judged the best literary debut by The Southern Review. Since then, Gills has seen the publication of The Death of Bonnie and Clyde and Other Stories; a collection of nonfiction essays called White Indians; the novel Go Love; and, last fall, a collection of short stories, The House Across From the Deaf School. Emergency Instructions, the sequel to Go Love, comes out this year.

For a while, in the midst of all this writing, he thought he had grown tired of Utah. So he got a teaching job at Arkansas Tech University, and bought a big house, two pastures, and a barn in the Ozarks. But then he started feeling claustrophobic, hemmed in by the poverty and the landscape, the heat and the ticks. So he moved back to Utah, where he can write about Arkansas from a distance.

Besides, he says, “You never see where you’re from better than when you’re somewhere else.”

What he learned from his mentor Fred Chappell: if the room you write in is a little chilly, the discomfort will keep you alert; if you get writer’s block, look out the window and write what you see; the first sentence of your story should go off like a pistol shot heard during a preacher’s too-long prayer; and you should always know what’s happening in seven directions at any given instant in the piece you’re writing: front, back, to each side, above, below, and within. Rich details, he says, are what keep a description or a scene from sounding hollow.

Next to Gills’s desk is a photo of his mother with a young Bill Clinton, taken when she was an “Arkansas Traveler” during his 1992 campaign for president.

Here are a few of the directions early one morning as Gills types: To his right, a picture taken on a Ferris wheel the day he, his wife, and daughter were stuck for 40 minutes above the Utah State Fair. To his left: a window his wife taps on as she heads out to work; “I love you!” Gills calls out. In front of him, the sky starting to lighten. Behind him, a photo of his mother with a young Bill Clinton, taken when she was an “Arkansas Traveler” during his 1992 campaign for president. By then she had worked her way up to be Support Services Manager with the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.

“My mother was an outgoing, fierce, beautiful woman,” says Gills, who has written about her—or someone sort of like her, living a very similar life—again and again in his books.

He writes his first drafts on an electric typewriter. This provides speed without the seduction of the Internet. Also, there’s not a “delete” key to tempt a man to strive for faultless prose.

Although his course is rigorous, Gills and his students share many lighthearted moments along the way.

“That’s where most people get stuck,” Gills says. “They get paralyzed by perfection.” He reminds his students that a rough draft can and should be rough—“Don’t sit down and try to write well,” he urges them—and that the important thing is to just keep going. But, of course, that’s just the first step.

Former student Paul Crenshaw, who now teaches at Elon University in North Carolina and has been anthologized three times in Best American Essays, was always impressed by Gills’s idea of letting a story “get tall”—the literal amassing of draft upon draft, piled up next to his desk. “Once a story got three or four feet tall,” Crenshaw says, quoting his mentor, “it might be getting close to a polished piece.”

“He pushed me to my breaking point and past it,” says Laurel Myler HBA’16, who was a student in the 2014–15 iteration of the Novel Writing Workshop. “He would always demand more of me.” But the hard work paid o: the novel she wrote in the class, titled City Ash and Desert Bones, was published last fall by Raw Dog Screaming Press.

Writing is hard, and that’s one of the five reasons he’s a writer, Gills says. The other four: it’s powerful, it’s free, it’s a great equalizer, and he can be his own boss. And he says he feels like “the luckiest man alive” to get paid to work with young writers discovering their own voices.

So, as always, he’s at his desk before dawn.

“Keats would dress as if he were going to meet his beloved,” Gills says, noting that the English poet would even put on perfume as he sat down to write. Gills wears flannel and lights a stick of sage. But the impulse is the same: treat writing with the respect it deserves. And keep typing.

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

Bridging Borders

Mae La, on the Thailand-Myanmar border, is sometimes called “the Club Med of refugee camps”—the sardonic point being that Mae La has reliable electricity and isn’t in the middle of a scorching desert. But like other refugees from Myanmar (aka Burma) who live in Thai camps, the residents of Mae La have essentially been stuck there. Some of them fled the country in the mid-1980s and have never been able to return; some were born in the camps and have never known any other home.

Rosemarie Hunter.

Rosemarie Hunter

Rosemarie Hunter, an associate professor in the University of Utah’s College of Social Work, and six U colleagues, visited Mae La for the first time in 2008. Before they set foot in the camp, they were cautioned by aid workers that the refugees would be helpless and hopeless.

But the residents, the Utahns soon discovered, had built a flourishing high school out of bamboo, and had set up shops, with items they had bought after paying off guards to let them sneak outside. Hunter saw the experience as illustrative, because too often, she says, “There’s a tendency to only see need and weakness.”

Hunter’s approach—the goal of all social work, she says—is the opposite: to discover a person’s or a community’s strengths. To see, for example, the ingenuity and resilience of the refugees, and then to build on those. To not so much “serve” as build partnerships.

That initial 2008 trip led to Bridging Borders, which takes U social work students to the Thai camps each summer for fieldwork and trainings. Just as crucial, Hunter says, is the fact that they also take along former residents of the camps who now live in Utah, cultural liaisons who bridge past and present, local and global.

Bridging Borders—an interdisciplinary partnership between the U’s Asia Center, College of Social Work, and Division of Occupational Therapy, —has also helped inform the way social workers and others interact with other refugees in Utah, and has led to several cutting-edge U projects: a study of urban refugees in Bangkok; an online social work course for refugees in Africa and Asia; and a Case Management Certificate course at the U for former refugees and immigrants who work with their own communities in Utah.

The social work term for all this is “capacity building,” but like most institutional lingo it’s a meager translation of the complex give-and-take necessary to create real change. Perhaps the best summary is Hunter’s own: “Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job.”

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On a muggy morning a few months ago, Hunter and several U social work colleagues set out for Ban Mai Nai Soi, one of the more remote refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border. The hour-long car ride was so hot and the road so rutted, Hunter recalls, that it felt like she was being tumbled in a clothes dryer.

When they got to the camp, to do a series of trainings with residents, the generator was broken and there was no electricity, so the group began with a community-building exercise using animal “spirit cards.” There was an overwhelming theme of freedom, Hunter says, with residents choosing birds and butterflies—the kind of creature who can come and go whenever it wants to.

That very same day, the United Nations released its most recent tally of the world’s refugees: 16.1 million people who have fled war, violence, and persecution to find shelter in some place that isn’t home. The numbers don’t include the migrations of 2016, nor the nearly 41 million displaced within their own countries, nor 5.2 million Palestinian refugees nor 3.2 million asylum seekers. Each minute in 2015, according to the UN refugee agency report, an average of 24 people were forced to flee their homes.

Syrians are the refugees who have captured our attention lately, but there are also hundreds of thousands of people worldwide languishing in refugee camps because of protracted conflicts in places like Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi, Congo, and the country that is called both Burma and Myanmar. (The Burmese military government officially changed the name of the country in 1989, but the U.S. State Department and many other countries and groups continue to call it Burma. To make matters even more confusing, although the adjective for Burma is “Burmese,” that actually refers only to the majority population, not the ethnic populations—the Karen, Karenni, Chin, and others—who fled Myanmar after decades of attacks and persecution by the country’s military. Although these refugees were finally eligible for resettlement in 2005, the camps are still home to some 120,000.)

To understand how the U got involved with camps like Ban Mai Nai Soi some 8,000 miles away, it helps first to understand two current university directions, one of them local and the other global.

Close to home, the U created the University Neighborhood Partnership in 2001. The idea was to offer the university’s academic resources to help Salt Lake’s west side communities, including communities of immigrant and refugee background, help themselves, while at the same time providing learning opportunities for U students. Hunter became UNP’s director in 2006 (and stepped down just last year). Her College of Social Work colleague Trinh Mai connected U faculty with the westside communities, including at the Hartland apartments in Glendale, at the time the largest concentration of new refugees in the state.

Because of this connection, it was to UNP that schools and community services turned in the mid-2000s as refugees from Myanmar began arriving in Salt Lake City. “’Who are these people?’” Mai remembers the agencies asking. The newcomers were labeled “Burmese,” but some had never been to Burma. How had living for so many years in a refugee camp shaped their goals, their day-to-day habits, and their sense of cultural identity?

In February 2008, Hunter and Yda Smith from the U’s Division of Occupational Therapy initiated a field study at Mae La. Over the next year after they returned, they did half-day trainings for 350 Utah teachers, case managers, and youth advocates—trainings that were applicable to other resettling communities as well. And, because they learned that the Karen and Karenni women loved to weave—but hadn’t been able to bring their back-strap looms with them when they resettled—Smith set about setting up looms at the Hartland apartments.

Bridging Borders also dovetails with the broader U global initiative to create students who are “international citizens.”

The College of Social Work is on the cutting edge of global outreach, says Caren Frost BA’82 PhD’95, director of the U’s Global Social Work initiative. The U is one of only nine universities in the U.S. that offer courses in global social work, and one of only two that offer a global social work “concentration,” she points out. The college also offers learning-abroad programs in Mongolia, Ghana, and Mexico, and soon will help launch the Center for Research on Migration & Refugee Integration, linking the global outreach to local communities once they immigrate or are resettled.

Frost calls Bridging Borders a “global interactive dialogue.” Like other social work global experiences, she tells students, “this isn’t about you going out and saving people. This is about you learning something.”

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The camps on the Thailand-Myanmar border are both spare and lush: clusters of simple bamboo shacks crowded onto forested Thai hillsides. Bamboo structures have always been a requirement, since the Thai government continues to think of the camps— some now 25 or 30 years old—as “temporary.”

Associate Professor Trinh Mai was herself once in a camp in Thailand, a decade before ethnic troubles escalated in Myanmar. In Vietnam, her mother had a law degree but to make ends meet sold sugar cane juice on the street after the war. The family was eventually resettled to Poteet, Texas, where Mai was the first Asian student anyone had ever laid eyes on. She arrived knowing no English.

Htwarreh Win

Htwarreh Win

“I think that feeling of being an outsider, not fully immersed in any culture but having a foot in several cultures, drew me to this work,” Mai says about her current efforts with Salt Lake communities of refugee background. “I live at the border of many cultures, and I float in and out. This gives me access to different ways of living and being in the world.”

At Ban Mai Nai Soi and other camps, Mai has conducted mental health trainings for camp residents who work with fellow residents struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

Training topics are chosen by the camp residents, and the learning is mutual, she says. “We bring this learning back to classrooms and communities here in the U.S.”

Each year, Bridging Borders also takes one or two former refugees from Myanmar back to the camps as “cultural liaisons” to interpret and give other trainings. This past summer, Htwarreh Win returned to Ban Mai Nai Soi, his first trip back since being resettled in 2009.

Win remembers sneaking out of Myanmar in 1995 with his uncle after his mother had died and his father disappeared. Win was 7, a barefoot child with swollen feet whom his uncle carried as they traveled for three nights to evade Burmese soldiers. In Ban Mai Nai Soi, where he lived for over 20 years, he knew little about the outside world.

In Salt Lake, Hunter says, “unfortunately, many would only describe him as a refugee,” a soft-spoken man who works at a meat packing plant. But Win has always wanted to be a teacher, and during the week at Ban Mai Nai Soi in June, he had a chance to lead a workshop with the camp’s Special Education teachers, and to talk with school staff about the importance of engaging parents in their children’s education.

“When he taught, he took command of the room,” Hunter recalls. “He is clearly a teacher, a leader of his community, an accomplished man.”

Win wove in the stories of the Karenni community in Salt Lake City, their challenges and their resiliency, and shared his insights about how these two communities continue to share many of the same visions for their children.

Individuals who are resettled often feel they are viewed as a sum of their deficits, Hunter notes. “And if people treat you that way long enough, that becomes your identity.” But when they travel back to the camps, she says, “I see them come into their own. I see them come back to Utah stronger,” and that contributes to the confidence of the larger community. For current camp residents, too, these visits are empowering, she says.

produce 2Hunter, whom everyone calls “Rosey”—a woman with a big and ready smile, and a demeanor that puts others at ease—loves the full circle of this local-global connection.

When she learned about the work of a nonprofit called Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, she set about creating a paraprofessional social work course for camp residents, entry-level Salt Lake-area social service workers with a refugee background, and those who work with urban refugees. To date there have been three graduating classes for a Case Management Certificate, following a nine-month course held at the U, as well as two online CMC cohorts in Thailand, Myanmar, and Africa.

The U College of Social Work, in conjunction with Salt Lake Community College, is also developing a path for camp residents to earn an online bachelor’s degree in social work, connected online with traditional students at the U, “so they’ll be learning from each other,” says Hunter. The program begins in Fall 2017 at SLCC and Fall 2018 at the U.

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With a new, pro-democracy government in control in Myanmar, Thai authorities say they are going to close the camps and repatriate the refugees. That sounds like a happy ending—but for the younger residents, the country is hardly home, and many of the older residents have no village, land, or job to return to in a country that is considered the poorest in Asia. They’re afraid, too, of the many landmines that still dot the countryside, and are distrustful of the army, one of the largest military forces in the world.

Aid organizations have now cut back rations and other resources in the camps, focusing their attention instead on setting up schools and clinics in Myanmar in preparation for repatriation. Malnutrition in the camps has increased, says Hunter, and the number of suicides last year was the highest ever.

There is clearly still much work to do, in the camps and beyond. Hunter is now working to bring collegiatelevel, online social work training to Myanmar, working with St. Aloysius Gonzaga Institute, a teacher training and English language school in the country’s Southern Shan state. “If we are successful,” says Hunter, “it would be the first undergraduate social work program in Myanmar.”

Another bridge across a border.

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

Web Extra: In the short feature article here, read about an inspiring related art projected coordinated by the College of Social Work. And learn more about the new Center for Research on Migration & Refugee Integration here.

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A Voice for Global Justice

One day in 2003, when Erika George was working at an international law firm in New York City, she got an unexpected phone call. She had put her name in the pool of applicants looking for teaching positions at U.S. law schools, specifying that she preferred schools in Chicago or New York. And now here on the phone was a professor named Mitchel Lasser, telling her she was exactly the kind of candidate his law school was looking for. She and Lasser talked for half an hour—about European trade law and a professor they had both had at Harvard—before he said the school would like to fly her to Salt Lake City for an interview.

“Why would you want to do that?” George asked, puzzled about the destination. And that’s when she learned that Lasser was calling not from Chicago or New York but from the University of Utah, where he was head of the S.J. Quinney College of Law’s hiring committee. She wonders, even now, if he conveniently forgot to mention the school’s name when she first picked up the phone.

Perhaps he knew that Utah might not be the first name that came to mind for a black woman interested in global justice.

“We were very keen to have her at the law school, desperate even,” remembers Tony Anghie, a professor of international law who was on the hiring committee that year. “She had done work in South African human rights, and had also worked with a major Wall Street law firm. Everyone was so impressed and engaged with her.”

George, in turn, was impressed with the U but had reservations about taking the job, so she talked it over with a mentor from her Harvard Law School days, who advised her: “If you have at least one person who is an intellectual soul mate there, that’s probably where you need to be.” George had already met two—Lasser and Anghie.

She’s been at the U for 13 years now. From her office, with its peaceful view of the foothills and her Goldendoodle, Mojo, sleeping contentedly in the corner, she has become a worldwide expert on human rights law and the abuses it tries to eliminate, a long list of miseries that includes child slavery and sex trafficking.

George is especially concerned about transnational corporations and the abuses that occur along their “supply chain”: how the candy bars and cell phones we buy might come to us at the expense of another human’s safety and freedom.

She hopes that her new book, Incorporating Rights, which will be published by Oxford University Press next fall, will provide a comprehensive look at these abuses, as well as the positive steps that some businesses have taken to correct them. Her premise is that business culture can change, lawyers can make a difference, and consumers can urge corporations— through boycott and “buy-cott”—to end practices that erode human dignity.

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Her hero growing up was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who as a chief counsel for the NAACP won the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case 16 years before she was born.

George and her sister, who is also a lawyer, were raised in South Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s. Their mother was an elementary school teacher who had grown up in segregated Louisiana; she met their father at the all-black Southern University in Baton Rouge, and both were civil rights activists. “Mom got arrested so many times, the story is that they couldn’t afford to bail her out one more time so they migrated north.”

There were two things George learned early on from her parents: education was crucial, and social justice was worth fighting for. And there was also a third strand to her childhood and adolescence, she says: “I had a tremendous case of wanderlust.”

Erika George circa age 4, when she developed a serious case of wanderlust.

Erika George circa age 4, when she developed a serious case of wanderlust.

“My very first trip was to the park by myself.” She guesses she was about 4. “I found a person to help me cross the street, and I talked to all the people in the park, mostly elderly people, and then someone helped me back across the street.” It’s easy to imagine what she was like: a little girl with a giant smile and an ability to put everyone at ease.

By the time she wandered back home, her mother was hysterical with worry. “But I had the best day ever,” she remembers. By the time she got to the University of Chicago in 1988, she had developed an interest in global politics. Her bachelor’s degree was followed by a master’s, also from the University of Chicago, in international relations. She wrote her thesis, a year before the Rwandan genocide, on the emergence of ethnic conflict in post-colonial societies. In 1994 she entered Harvard Law School, where she first discovered her passion for international human rights law—the perfect marriage, she says, of her other two passions: civil rights and the world.

“I did well in law school,” she says, “but I have shockingly high standards for myself.” Partway through her first year she got a B+ in one of her favorite classes; distraught and near tears, she went to the associate director of the school’s Human Rights Program, Kenyan-born Makau Mutua, to tell him she was going to drop out.

“He started laughing at me: ‘You think this is a challenge? Ha!’ It was sort of like, ‘I walked up Kilimanjaro backwards in the snow, and you’re upset about a grade?’ ” When he asked her where she would go if she left law school, and she couldn’t come up with an alternative, she went back to class. The next day she also wandered into her first yoga class, which began a lifelong interest in trying to find balance in her life. (She currently teaches a gentle restorative form of hatha yoga for the Body, Mind, Spirit Department at Snowbird’s Cliff Spa on Saturday mornings—except in the summers, when she retreats to Chicago to mentor law students and spend time with family and friends. And, too, she says, “the pool of potential life partners is more promising” there.)

“I did not enjoy law school,” she freely admits now, hoping that her candor will help current and future students who have lost confidence or are disillusioned by what she calls “the reduction of worth to a letter grade.” George attributes some of her own resilience to her law school mentor, Prof. Martha Minow, who is now dean of the Harvard Law School. George was her research assistant, and Minow remembers her as imaginative and mature. “And very clear about her concerns about the world.”

Minow, says George, helped her see that “the kinds of things that law school counts may not be the kinds of things that are most valuable.”

George fashioned a course of study at Harvard that included several research trips abroad, including a month in South Africa, and an internship with Human Rights Watch. There were also summer jobs and later full-time jobs at big international law firms in Chicago and New York.

“You know,” said her mother on a visit to one of those firms, “in a different generation you wouldn’t even have been able to clean the floors here.”

“And I knew she was right,” says George. “There’s kind of this sense of having privilege and opportunity that so many others didn’t, that so many people worked so hard for others to have. And that it’s important to do something with that.”

But she knew she didn’t want to work in corporate law for the rest of her life. She joined Human Rights Watch full time as a fellow in 1999, and researched and wrote a book called Scared at School: Sexual Violence Against Girls in South African Schools.

George has received international recognition for her book about sexual violence in South African schools.

George has received international recognition for her book about sexual violence in South African schools.

“In each of the three provinces visited,” wrote George, “we documented cases of rape, assault, and sexual harassment of girls, committed by both teachers and male students. Girls who encountered sexual violence at school were raped in school toilets, in empty classrooms and hallways, and in hostels and dormitories.” What she saw in South Africa, George says now, is that the girls “were learning how to be unequal.”

The book got the immediate attention of government leaders and the media in South Africa. George was invited to testify before a session of Parliament, and the country has since adopted laws and policies to address the problem.

But that doesn’t mean the problem disappeared. A 2014 follow-up study by the law schools of Cornell University and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa found that “sexual violence persists in South African schools with disquieting regularity,” and that abusive teachers “do not face meaningful consequences.”

Clearly, human rights advocacy is not for the impatient.

George teaches her students to use law as a means to justify much-needed policy reform.

George teaches her students to use law as a means to justify much-needed policy reform. (Photo by Dave Titensor)

George now teaches international human rights law, constitutional law, and international environmental law, often encouraging her students to tackle real-world problems. Last spring, she assigned her International Human Rights Law class to research and compile recommendations they then submitted to the World Bank, which is in the midst of revising its social and environmental policies.

She serves as co-chair of the law school’s Global Justice Committee, where she directs the Migrant Women Project. Earlier this year, she released a new research report on the project, “Prevention and Protection Partnerships: Empowerment through Rights Education,” co-authored with students. The study examines the plight of refugee and immigrant women in Utah who are victims of domestic violence.

Nubia Peña, a third-year student who worked on the study with Libby Park and Sheena Christman, calls George “an exceptional professor” who reinforced her desire to be “emotionally invested in the plights and rights of women and children, while using law on my side to justify policy reform.”

The report encourages local government agencies in Utah to better understand and employ the national U visa, which provides legal protection for battered women who may be in the country illegally.

George is eager for the report to have an impact rather than, as she says, “just sit on a shelf collecting dust.”

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The human rights movement—the idea that all humans should have the right to live a life free of torture and forced labor, a life where they have freedom of religion, expression, movement, a fair trial—took hold after the Holocaust. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It held countries accountable—but it said nothing about the actions of industries or individuals.

Nearly seven decades later, by some estimates at least 21 million people in the world are essentially slaves, and one-third of these are children. Some of these children have been kidnapped and forced to work in harsh conditions.

The cocoa industry is just one example of abuse and the uneven remedies that have tried to halt it—progress that is full of good intentions, weak follow-through, and layers of policy rhetoric. In 2010, representatives from Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, as well as the international chocolate and cocoa industry, signed a declaration to support an international protocol that would be a framework for accountability. But a 2014 Tulane University report found that while some hazardous activities performed by children in cocoa agriculture have decreased, others have actually increased, particularly the exposure to agrochemicals.

Despite the fact that some corporations have budgets larger than those of the states in which they operate, says George, their actions often occur “in a regulatory void.” A binding treaty that would hold them accountable has failed to gain traction, and it’s not clear whether such a treaty could be successfully monitored and enforced anyway. Instead, the U.N. has approved “Guiding Principles.”

George applauds recent British and California laws that require companies to report what they’re doing to combat human trafficking in their supply chains, and President Barack Obama’s executive order to do the same thing for items procured by the federal government. She applauds the work of groups like the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (“a radical rock star” group that includes investor nuns).

Trying to strike a balance between urgency and distance, George patiently advocates for change.

Trying to strike a balance between urgency and distance, George patiently advocates for change.

She hopes her new book will energize consumers and investors—the people who buy chocolates and laptops, T-shirts and stocks—to reward the businesses that are trying to improve their human rights records, and to punish those that aren’t. “I’m interested,” she says, “in how we leverage the power of many.”

Her academic papers tend to be dispassionate and footnote-heavy, using terms like norm-generating activities and operationalize. She is not out to shock with graphic examples, but to reach governmental policy makers, as well as corporate general counsels who might be able to change policy from within. She is after an “evolution in corporate consciousness,” she says.

George is both an advocate working for change, and a professor who has the luxury to step back and analyze. It’s a balance of urgency and distance that she hopes can make a difference. There are hundreds of human rights organizations in the world, all of them trying to undo the awful things human beings do to each other, most of them having limited success. Add to that the fact that international human rights can be a hard sell in America at a time of increasing global fears about terrorism and more focus at home on job growth and a shrinking middle class.

But George is a human rights lawyer. She’s used to the worst. And hopes for the best.

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

Why should it be so hard to die?

More than half a lifetime ago, before she was a renowned bioethicist—in fact before she had ever heard of the word “bioethicist”—Peggy Battin wrote a short story about a husband and wife who make a pact to end their own lives, together, when they get old.

It’s a beautiful, chilling story, and the questions it raises go far beyond what we are now only marginally willing to discuss in America. This isn’t about a physician writing a lethal prescription for a terminally ill patient. This is about what bioethicists call “preemptive suicide.” If you want a close-up look at the kind of unflinching ethical questions Margaret Pabst Battin thinks we should ponder, her story “Robeck” is not a bad place to start.

Continuum-DrBattin-AustenDiamondPhotography-AD2_0054Battin is Distinguished Professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of internal medicine in the Division of Medical Ethics and Humanities at the University of Utah. It was only after she moved to Utah in 1975 that she began to steer her career toward issues of death and dying, but in the short stories she wrote while still in graduate school, she had already begun to grapple with end-of-life issues, spurred in part by a question her own mother asked in the last, debilitating stages of cancer: “Why should it be so hard to die?”

In “Robeck,” the elderly wife—faced with the prospect of an even older age filled with “despair, decay, continuing loneliness”—still wants to follow through with the suicide pact she and her husband had made when they were younger. The husband—faced with the realization that dying as an abstract concept is not the same as actually dying—changes his mind.

“Robeck,” written in the 1970s, wasn’t published until 2005, when it appeared among the philosophical essays in Battin’s book Ending Life: Ethics and the Way We Die. On a November afternoon three years later, Battin’s husband, University of Utah English professor Brooke Hopkins, was riding his bike down City Creek Canyon and collided on a blind curve with another biker heading uphill.

Suddenly, like the characters in her short story, Battin came face to face with how complicated living and dying can be, much more complicated than even a philosopher can imagine.

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Here’s how she once opened a talk to a group called Compassion & Choices, which focuses on planning for end-oflife: by drawing a line that went straight across a chalkboard for a few inches then sloped relentlessly downward, dragging on and on until it thinly petered out. This, she told the group, is our typical life trajectory. In the modern world— with its ventilators and pacemakers, feeding tubes and chemotherapies—our deaths are often a slow decline, full of protracted suffering.

After Battin’s talk, a woman with ovarian cancer spoke up. She explained that she had done a dress rehearsal of her future death, using a method she had found on the Internet: Placing a turkey baster bag over her head. The practice run was awful, she said, so instead she had bought a gun.

The trajectory and the turkey baster bag: this, in some form or other, is the backdrop for current battles over physician-assisted suicide and other “right to die” legislation as we try to sort out our 21st-century deaths. It’s an issue that has become more pressing as technology has become even more advanced and the percentage of elderly people and health care costs rise.

Continuum-DrBattin-AustenDiamondPhotography-AD2_0233Battin has long been a proponent of “death with dignity” laws that give people some degree of autonomy in how and when they die. That’s what made her husband’s accident, as she says, “so overwhelmingly ironic”—because the accident left Hopkins paralyzed from the neck down, and the bioethicist who had championed the right to die had to let the husband she deeply loved make up his own mind about whether he wanted to go on living.

“I don’t think anybody said this to my face,” Battin says of people on the other side of the right-to-die issue, “but I’m sure they thought it: she deserves this, this will teach her.”

But Battin has not changed her view that people should have a choice in the manner and time of their own death. Instead, she says, what Hopkins’s ordeal taught her was that the choices are “much more complicated than I thought.”

During the nearly five years that Hopkins lived following his accident, Battin witnessed a series of vacillating emotions and experiences: his gratitude at being alive, his pleas to let his life be over, courses in great literature that he continued to teach from their home, moments of excruciating pain, moments of transcendence, and eventually his final decision that he couldn’t go on any longer. She realized firsthand that a severely restricted life can also have many moments of joy, and that a loving wife might in subtle ways encourage her husband to keep on living when he might want to die.

When, on the last day of July 2013, Hopkins finally asked his doctors to turn off the five technologies that were keeping him alive, Battin lay next to him as the ventilator was dialed down and his breathing eventually stopped.

“As hard as it was for me to have him make this choice to die, you have to respect it,” Battin says in her soft, measured voice. “That’s what it is to love somebody, to try to see it through their eyes.”

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How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb? It depends on how you define “change.”

Philosophers are notoriously parsers of language and logic, and this intellectual rigor is what first drew Battin to the discipline, from the very first class she took as an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College in 1959.

The first day of class, the professor walked in, sat on the edge of his desk, and said “You know, I look around at the world and I think, ‘all is water.’ ” He went on at great length and was very persuasive that water is the material substrate of everything, Battin remembers. At the next class, he walked in, sat on the desk, and said “You know, I think I was wrong. I think it’s air.” On the third day it was fire.

“What he produced,” Battin says, “was a skeptic. It was one of the best and most engaging intellectual lessons you could possibly have.”

After college, she worked, married, had a first child, and moved to California. Two weeks after the birth of their second child, in 1969, she entered the University of California, Irvine, to get her doctorate in philosophy—and, simultaneously, an MFA in creative writing.

She explains the dual degrees this way: “I liked the intellectual rigor of philosophy, but you can’t read Spinoza all day long. I liked the inventiveness of fiction, but you have to make it meaning-rich and rigorous; you can’t just feed on someone else’s struggles with their inner confusions.”

She sent her fiction to literary magazines and got lots of rejection letters. So, with typical moxie, she flew to New York and began the rounds of publishers and agents in person. At first she still had no luck. Then she called The New American Review (publisher of literary giants like Gabriel García Márquez and Sylvia Plath) and asked to speak to the editor.

“After a few minutes of silence, the voice on the other end of the phone said ‘Mr. Solotaroff will be happy to see you. He has four minutes,’ ” Battin recalls. Luckily, she was calling from the phone booth in the lobby. Later that year, M. Pabst Battin’s “Terminal Procedure” was published in The New American Review. And the next year it was published in Best American Short Stories 1976.

By then, Battin was divorced and living in Salt Lake City, hired by the University of Utah’s philosophy department for a one-year appointment. She had written her doctoral dissertation on Plato’s theory of art, and she thought she was headed toward a career focused on the ancient philosophers and aesthetics. But as a new, temporary hire, she was assigned to teach Intellectual Traditions of the West (ITW). One of the other new hires for ITW was Brooke Hopkins, who had joined the U after five years of teaching at Harvard.

And then, three things happened: she fell in love; she gradually began merging her prior literary interest in issues of death and dying with her academic pursuits; and she won a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for Independent Study and Research, one of just six in the country, for work on the ethics of suicide. Within a week of the award, her temporary job became tenure track. She would eventually win the U’s most prestigious award, the Rosenblatt Prize.

Continuum-DrBattin-AustenDiamondPhotography-AD2_0072“You know, people have been dying for a long time,” Battin deadpans. “And such a large percentage of them, too. So I’m not the first person who ever thought about death and dying.” But she was among the first, and the most prolific, thinkers in the emerging field of bioethics—a mash-up of theoretical ethics with the practicalities of day-to-day medicine and science.

Battin’s personality dovetailed with this practical approach. “She’s by no means an ideologue or inflexible,” says Arthur Caplan, founding director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University. “She’s always been a person who’s been tuned in to the specifics of a case.”

At the New York-based Hastings Center, which is often credited with starting the field of bioethics and where Battin is a Fellow, president Mildred Solomon describes her this way: “She has comprehensive talents you rarely see all in one mind.” Philosophers are well known for being analytical, Solomon says, and Battin is “deeply analytical.” But she is also able to see how logical arguments “play out in messy and emotionally rich human contexts. That’s very unusual.”

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If you could look inside Peggy Battin’s brain, perhaps it would look something like the inside of her house.

There are stacks of paper on each of her six desks (seven desks if you count the dining room table). On the stacks there are sticky notes, and there are sticky notes around every inch of the doorframe in the kitchen and inside each kitchen cabinet. Upstairs there are stacks of paper leading from one bedroom to another, a trail of research and pondering.

She keeps paper copies of every draft of everything she is writing or has written. In a stack on the windowsill is the 16th draft of a chapter she began in 1995; eventually it will be a book about the ethics of reproduction, tentatively titled Sex & Consequences.

“Sometimes I joke that what I really need is to move into an old motel,” she says, “so I could have a different room for each project.”

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The topics she has published about include: death and dying, age-rationing of medical care, ethical issues in organized religion, the ethics of religious refusal of medical treatment, drugs and justice, disability, aesthetics, and ethical issues about infectious diseases. That’s a total of 20 books authored, edited, or co-edited.

Battin’s latest book is The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources, published in the fall of 2015. It’s 720 pages in teeny type—but even that wasn’t enough to handle all the research amassed by Battin, her 46 consulting editors, and 27 research assistants. So she proposed a partnership between the book’s publisher, Oxford University Press, and the University of Utah’s Marriott Library in what became a first-of-its-kind publishing venture. While many books have associated digital archives, this is the first time QR codes have been embedded in each entry in the print edition, linking directly to expanded primary sources and interactive features online.

Battin didn’t set out to write such an exhaustive investigation of suicide. When she started the project four decades ago, she was simply filing away photocopies of interesting historical references. “You can’t just throw them away— they’re too interesting and too hard to get ahold of (this was, of course, pre-Internet)—so you put them in a file drawer,” and eventually the file drawer goes from ancient Egypt to the present. “And then you say, well, what about Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Islam? So now there are more file drawers. And then you say, what about these oral cultures that didn’t have written records, the Maya, the Aztec, the Inca?”

The book, notes Battin, “takes no sides” in these historical debates about suicide, instead presenting primary sources that give a variety of pros, cons, and neutral discussion on topics that include suicide as sin, suicide as heroic choice, physician aid in dying, Buddhist monks who immolate themselves to protest a war, and jihadists seeking martyrdom. The book, she argues, “challenges monolithic thinking about suicide.”

Battin has spent 39 years, off and on, working on this book, and even longer immersed in thoughts about death and dying. She has never been suicidal herself, she says, which makes it possible to devote so much time to thinking about what others might consider morbid topics.

She is, she says, an optimistic person. More than four decades after writing “Robeck”—which has now been turned into a play by Salt Lake City playwright Julie Jensen and will be produced by the Salt Lake Acting Company in the fall of 2016—she can imagine an America in which everyone “has a full range of choice about how they’d like their own deaths to go.”

Or, at least, “that such an outcome would in principle be possible.”

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

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Man in Motion

 

Before we talk about flying robots, we need to talk about food. It is 1977, and four-year-old Kam Leang is living with his family in southern Cambodia, forced out of the city and into the countryside by the Khmer Rouge. His father is often taken away to do something he doesn’t want to talk about when he gets home. And there is never enough to eat. His father fashions a mousetrap out of wire and wood, and every night he sets it. “I remember at two or three in the morning it going off,” Leang says. “And my brother and I were so excited.”  This was not about rodent control.

Leang at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979.

Leang at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979

Leang wonders now, nearly four decades later, if his early years had a bearing on his later career. He offers this theory: Perhaps, he says, being hungry all the time created an insatiable drive to always want more. Not more food or more stuff, but more projects and challenges and ideas. More problems to solve.

Leang is now a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah, and founder and director of the U’s DARC Lab. The initials stand for design, automation, robotics, and control, and Leang is passionate about all of them. He loves the idea of pushing a button and having a machine figure out what to do next. A better mousetrap, as it were; a mousetrap that seems to think for itself.

Which brings us now to flying robots, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, but more popularly known as drones.

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Drones raise a host of ethical and existential questions (including “Does our species really need Amazon to deliver us a package in 30 minutes?”). But drones also pose huge safety concerns, including how to keep them from colliding with airplanes and buildings and each other.

Humans can generally figure out how not to bump into things, as can dogs and fish, but getting a machine to figure it out is a lot harder. And that makes it just the kind of problem Leang likes to tackle with his graduate students.

Leang with his family during his youth.

Leang with his siblings during their youth

One afternoon last fall, to demonstrate some of the work Leang’s team is doing, doctoral student Xiang He launched a small, autonomous (that is to say, not remote-controlled) drone into the 8-by-8-by-8-foot netted cage in the DARC Lab. The copter hovered for a few seconds, as if it were contemplating what to do, and then began flying around the cage, buzzing as it went. Through multiple repetitions, He was trying to teach the drone how to make a perfect circle. “The precision is not as high as I’d like it to be,” Leang said as the drone did wobbly rotations around the cage. “We’re in the process of figuring  out why.”

Leang was a junior in mechanical engineering at the U in the 1990s when he made his own first rudimentary robot in Professor Sandy Meek’s mechatronics class. “I was sitting in the back of the class,” Leang remembers, “and he said ‘You guys are going to build a robot,’ and I thought, ‘I should drop this class right now.’ ”

Leang's first robot

Leang’s first robot

The assignment: build a small robot that can shoot a ball into a short basket equipped with a light bulb. Like other teams of students, Leang’s used light sensors to determine the location of the basket and figure out the angle of the throw, but his team designed a speedy robot that could get to the throw line first. His team won, and he suddenly knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Despite the fact that the “R” in DARC stands for robotics, however, Leang says he’s not a roboticist. “I’m the first to admit that. My expertise is control systems.”

Think of controls as the intelligence of a machine, the part that can regulate and manipulate all the variables that come its way. A thermostat is a kind of control system, albeit a very simple one with just one task: to figure out how to keep a room at a constant temperature. For a drone or a robotic arm, the control system is much more complicated: determining how to move itself or something else up and down and around, how to react to its surroundings, how to stay focused.

Leang went on to get a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the U in 1999, and then a doctorate at the University of Washington in 2004, working under former U professor Santosh Devasia. His doctoral work focused on control systems at the nano level, at sizes as small as atoms, not much bigger than a billionth of a meter.

Most of his work since graduating has been in nanopositioning, designing control systems that, for example, can move a probe or a tool with speed and precision onto areas that are so small they can’t be seen with a normal microscope. Along with graduate student William Nagel, Leang is currently collabo-rating with Boston University and startup company Molecular Vista Inc. to design a system with tiny probes that will be able to detect the stiffness of living cells, or “feel” a DNA strand.

Leang knows that his listeners’ eyes can glaze over when he uses terms like “nanopositioning.“ So he sometimes likens this work to being a crane operator. “That’s basically what I do, but on a different scale.”

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In Cambodia, Leang’s father ran a small family-owned convenience store in Battambang, which meant the family was engaged in the free-market economy. And, too, the family is ethnic Chinese—so they had two strikes against them in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge when Pol Pot took over Cambodia in 1975 and began a systematic genocide of what would eventually amount to more than a million people; another million are estimated to have died from starvation. Leang’s family was forced to leave Battambang and relocate to a small straw house in the countryside.

Leang working with DARC Lab graduate students (from left) Joseph Bourne BS’15 and Dejun Guo. (Photo by Dave Titensor).

Leang working with DARC Lab graduate students (from left) Joseph Bourne BS’15 and Dejun Guo. (Photo by Dave Titensor)

A memory: One day, his father and uncle find a light bulb and battery, and they wire it up to provide light after sundown; then a neighbor must have snitched on them, because soon, Khmer Rouge soldiers show up and make his parents get down on their knees at gunpoint. Leang remembers them begging for their lives, and he remembers himself screaming in terror.

Another memory: The family is walking toward the border of Thailand, fleeing Cambodia after Vietnam invaded in 1979. He is hungry and thirsty, and at some point, in an area where there are land mines, his father and uncle find a steel bowl and some muddy water tainted with blood. Leang still remembers the taste of that water.

After being in a refugee camp in Thailand for several months, the family’s name was drawn in the weekly lottery for a chance to emigrate to America. They were sponsored by the Don and Carl Borup families of Tremonton, and at first, Kam and his brother, sister, and mother lived in Don’s basement. (Their father had to stay behind for several months with their aunt, who was recovering from tuberculosis). At night, little Kam and his brother would sneak upstairs to raid the pantry and then hide the food under their beds. At school, where the brothers didn’t understand what anybody said, Kam frequently got “frowny faces” on his writing assignments.

As he grew up, Leang watched his father be resourceful: building furniture from scraps of wood, fashioning a fishing reel out of a soda can and some string. Soon he too was making things: rubber band shooters, bows and arrows, intricate origami. He customized the handlebars of his bike by cutting off the ends. He took the whole bike apart just to see how it worked.

Leang, an avid skier, on a recent ski vacation with his family.

Leang, an avid skier, on a recent ski vacation with his family.

In high school—by then the family had moved to California—he took trigonometry but spent most of the time sitting in the back of the room programming his calculator for poker and electronic Battleship. After high school, he enrolled in a junior college, intending to study art.

And then one day he went to see the academic counselor, and she said “Have you thought about engineering?” and he said “I don’t really know what that is.” The next semester, he enrolled in math and physics classes, and after two years of course work, he transferred to the University of Utah to study mechanical engineering. At least that’s the reason he told his parents, although it was skiing that lured him back to Utah. That first year at the U, he skied more than 100 days.

He still loves to ski, and he makes his own skis in his garage. Up until the time he and his wife, Allyson, had their third child this past summer, he skied at least once a month, year-round, for 141 straight months. His definition of skiing: “making at least a couple of turns with skis strapped to my feet, be it on snow, dirt, sand, rocks, or whatever slides.” As he explained on a website called turns-all-year.com, when asked what his worst ski trip was: “None that I can recall. They have all been fun, even in the rain.”

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Leang and his students are working on several drone projects, including one nicknamed the “flying nose” (official name: Autonomous Broad Spectrum Environmental Sentinel), a joint project between the U’s DARC Lab and Nevada Nanotech Systems Inc.

Nevada Nanotech is providing sensors that can detect chemicals in the air, and Leang’s lab is designing the autonomous aerial robot that can carry the sensors. The ultimate goal is to create a swarm of machines that can work together to find, say, bioterrorist toxins, and monitor how far an invisible plume has traveled.

Leang with doctoral student Jim Carrico, whose research focuses on 3-D printing of electroactive polymers to create soft robots. (Photo by Dave Titensor).

Leang with doctoral student Jim Carrico, whose research focuses on 3-D printing of electroactive polymers to create soft robots. (Photo by Dave Titensor)

The project has been awarded a $1 million grant from the U.S. Army to develop Phase II. The lab is also utilizing an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop ground and aerial robots that can be used as first responders in disasters. And the team is using a recently funded $3.8 million NSF grant to develop 3-D printing technology, spearheaded by doctoral student Jim Carrico, that can print robots from soft materials.

Leang is “very aggressive about seeking funding,” notes Professor Tim Ameel, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. This, along with Leang’s energy, enthusiasm, and past projects, made him the top candidate in the U’s hiring search in 2014, Ameel says, when the department sought to strengthen its robotics program. Leang left a similar but smaller program at the University of Nevada Reno.

The DARC Lab is just one of nearly a dozen robotics-related labs at the U that are working on everything from robot vacuum cleaners to virtual reality. The labs each have their own projects and lab spaces, but they also share a large space—the Utah Robotics Center—that currently houses a self-driving car, two robotic torsos, and a 25-by-25-by-25-foot netted cage where Leang’s graduate students can further test their drones.

Like the drones themselves, Leang is a man in motion, scurrying from one task to the next, as if always hungering for more.

“Every day,” he says, “I think of something new that I’d like to try.”

Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

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A Big Splash

 

O n the best afternoons, on his way home from elementary school in Salt Lake City, there would be snowbanks and sunshine, and snow melt that rushed down the hill on 1500 East. The boy would kneel down and start rearranging the dirty piles of snow, making spillways and sluices and dams that took the water this way and that (including into large puddles that cars had to maneuver around, but oh well).

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Mark Fuller

All of that was more than a half century ago. Still, all these years later, Mark Fuller is captivated by water and what he can make it do. “The closest thing the world has to a fountain genius” is the way The New Yorker described him a few years ago.

Fuller BS’76 and his team at WET in Sun Valley, California, are the creators of famous water features including the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas, the Olympic fountain at the 2014 Winter Games in Russia, and the largest fountain in the world, the 12-acre Dubai Fountain in the United Arab Emirates. This December, WET is adding two new water features in Dubai, including one at the Dubai Opera House, and several large projects in Asia that Fuller says he can’t talk about yet because he’s been sworn to secrecy.

It’s hard not to gush about what WET creates: the playful arcs and spouts that light up the night, the sensuous fans of water that look almost human as they sway and twirl, the jets that pulse to music and leap 50 stories into the air. As if the water was happy just being itself.

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Fuller built his first permanent water feature, a three-foot- by-nine-foot pond, in his parents’ tiny backyard in Sugar House when he was in junior high. That success (i.e. his mother was thrilled) was followed by his first fountain.

“The floor of my basement was covered with garden hoses,” remembers his mom, Faye. “His Dad would shake his head and say, ‘Do you think anything will come of this,’ ” referring to not just the mess but also his son’s passions. “And I said, ‘Of course it will.’ ”

That first fountain, created with his grandfather, was a long concrete planter box next to the house and was powered by an old washing machine pump. “Mark always wanted to embellish everything,” his mother says, recalling how the next step was to put in electric lights. Can’t be done, said a woman at some store they went to. “So of course Mark went ahead and did it. He made them out of tomato juice cans.”

The Dubai Fountain was created by WET in 2009-10 and is considered the world’s largest choreographed fountain system.

The Dubai Fountain was created by WET in 2009-10 and is considered the world’s largest choreographed fountain system.

By the time he got to Highland High School (class of ’69), Fuller says, he was a classic nerd, a slight young man who did not excel in sports—but who today, as an illustrious alum, has a spot of honor in Highland’s showcase cabinet that also celebrates its all-state jocks.

At the University of Utah, he was a civil engineering major but stayed an extra year so he could take all the classes that intrigued him. He was president of the exhibition ballroom dance team. One year, for the theater department’s outdoor production of Agamemnon, he made a fake-stone altar that shot out a giant ball of fire when he pushed a button on a wireless garage door opener.

Here’s what he told an audience this past spring when he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the U: Ever since he was nine years old, he wanted to work at Disneyland. “This is what it must be like to be God, to create worlds as you imagine them and have the technical ability to do so,” he remembers thinking. And right out of graduate school at Stanford University, he did in fact work at the theme park. But perhaps the real Disneyland in his life, he said, was the University of Utah—“the Disneyland of knowledge and wonder and the endless possibilities that can be realized through the rich and near boundless intellectual riches on this campus.”

Fuller took enough theater classes at the U to nearly get him a double degree. He was initially attracted to the theater because he thought he could meet some pretty actresses. But he stayed because he liked the technical side, inspired by Bill Barber, then technical director at Pioneer Memorial Theatre, and Ron Crosby, the theater’s set designer, and director Clyde Vinson.

Mark Fuller was a U engineering student during the 1970s.

Mark Fuller was a U engineering student during the 1970s.

“He was always very creative and persistent; he always came up with new ways to do things,” remembers U emeritus professor of physics and astronomy Haven Bergeson. Mostly, Fuller worked with Bergeson outside of class, spending time helping with cosmic ray experiments in the Silver King mine in Park City, and designing a thing they named Prometheus, an electrical device that flickered as if it were a flame.

But the pivotal moment at the U came one day in a civil engineering class. He was sitting at the back of the room with his friends Dave Ayer HBS’76 MAr’79 and Lee Sim BS’76, watching an audiovisual about fluid mechanics, when all of a sudden a man on the screen was talking about laminar flow: the ability, under the right circumstances, of water to flow in a solid, glass-like rod. Hey, said Fuller, maybe we could do our senior honors thesis on that. The typical topics, he says, were things like sewage treatment plant design and storm culverts, but what he wanted to do was create his own really cool fountain.

They ended up making a 10-by-20- foot, four-stream arcing fountain out of cylinders and screens and hundreds of soda straws they cut into tiny pieces. They convinced a friend’s father to contribute a few hundred dollars, and then later to install the finished product in the Conquistador Apartments on 3300 South, making it the unlikely home of the first permanent laminar flow fountain in the world. It was removed when the building was remodeled years later. Who knew the kid was going to become famous?

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Could there be a better name for a job than “Imagineer”? That was Fuller’s first job title after getting a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford in 1978; he was hired at Disney to develop rides at the California park and then create new works for the opening of the EPCOT Center in Florida. That’s when he came up with the Leapfrog Fountain outside the Journey into Imagination Pavilion.

“The one thing I think we recognized right away was that Mark was willing to take a chance,” recalls Marty Sklar, former president of Walt Disney Imagineering. “He wasn’t afraid of trying something nobody else had done before.” The Leapfrog Fountain used laminar flow, but instead of the water just moving in a solid, arcing rod, Fuller figured out how to make it jump from one spot to another.

After an offer from a Dallas developer to create a fountain at a new shopping center, and with work at EPCOT slowing down, Fuller and two of his colleagues, Melanie Simon and Alan Robinson, started WET (Water Entertainment Technology) in Los Angeles. But it was hard at first to convince other venues that a fountain would be worth their investment, and at one point they were so broke that 13 of Fuller’s credit cards had maxed out.

The problem was this: “Fountain” conjured up a bit of gurgling water that was often secondary to the statues and rocks around it. What Fuller, as CEO and chief cheerleader for WET, had to do was convince people that fountains could be playful and daring and emotional, and an asset to a building site—that fountains could in fact be a destination in themselves. Because water, he says, is “the world’s most magical substance.”

WET’s choreographed fountain at the City Creek Center mall in Salt Lake City debuted in spring 2012.

WET’s choreographed fountain at the City Creek Center mall in Salt Lake City debuted in spring 2012.

WET was the first to create the now ubiquitous fountains that spout up from pavement, and many of the innovations in fountain design that have followed. “I can say this humbly, I think,” says Fuller, “that modern fountains and their omnipresence are contributable to us.”

Everything changed for WET one day in 1995, with a phone call from Steve Wynn, who was creating the Bellagio Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas strip. Wynn’s landscape architect had seen the EPCOT Leapfrog Fountain and thought the two men should meet. The result was a $27 million contract to create what filmmaker Steven Spielberg later told Wynn was “the greatest single piece of public entertainment on Earth.”

Before the Fountains of Bellagio were officially opened to the public in 1998, there was a chain link fence around the lake, which meant people could peek in at the initial tests of the elaborate fountains. “The crowd was cheering and clapping,” Fuller remembers, “and Steve [Wynn] turned to me and said, ‘Do you realize there’s not a human performer out there?’ ”

Instead there were more than a hundred swaying streams and a thousand bursting jets of water, all precisely choreographed in time to music. (You can find many such displays on YouTube; one of the most spectacular is a nighttime fountain show choreographed to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at the fountain in Dubai.)

All this spectacle is achieved using WET-designed and manufactured water devices (“shooters”), plus nozzle-clad robotic arms (“oarsmen”) that can move the water in any direction. To create the oarsman, Fuller had to first visualize what shapes it might make, so he had one of his engineers don a raincoat and then hold a hose over his head while twirling around on a spinning office chair.

****

“He’s the Willy Wonka of water,” says Fuller’s personal trainer, Eric Fleishman. “I’ve rarely met someone who is consistently in such a bubbly mood.”

Fleishman, who mostly trains Hollywood actors and their families, including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, also oversees the free fitness programs at WET, with a list of classes that includes not just the usual yoga and aerobics but also boxing and ballroom dance. For those employees who tend to be more sedentary, Fuller sends trainers to their desks for workstation workouts.

WET is “a living museum of all the things I think are important,” he says. Employees get to take free classes in everything from physics to improv comedy, and work in a state-of-the-art space called “the Idea Playground.” The staff of 350 includes mechanical engineers, architects, animators, textile designers, graphic designers, choreographers, chemists, model builders, machinists, and optical engineers, who are all encouraged to brainstorm together.

U alum Mark Fuller makes a presentation about the Dubai Fountain’s design, in 2008.

U alum Mark Fuller makes a presentation about the Dubai Fountain’s design, in 2008.

Fuller owns more than 50 patents, but these days, he says, what he mostly does is “flit around pollinating” the ideas of his staff. One day not long ago, though, he was driving home to his wife and kids and had to pull over to the side of the road to write down five new ideas for an upcoming project in Shanghai.

“Make something that’s never been seen before,” Wynn told him when he hired him to create the Fountains of Bellagio 20 years ago, and the trick now is to keep doing that, to continually come up with something more surprising. Fuller’s fountains incorporate fire, and there is a water feature at the Las Vegas City Center that uses columns of ice that rise up, sculpted by tiny jets of water, and then submerge back into a black pool. But even the small projects are satisfying to create, Fuller says. “It’s not at all about the size. It’s about seeing people enchanted.”

The City Creek Center mall in downtown Salt Lake City has three WET fountains, including one in front of Nordstrom that performs small music-and-water shows and is entrancing but will probably never get a million views on YouTube. “This is my Norman Rockwell fountain,” Fuller says.

This is what he imagines: It’s Christmastime, a light snow is falling, and at dusk, some tired shoppers stand in front of the fountain with their packages. They see the water jumping up in the air, as if the water were a kid on a trampoline, and they smile.

Here’s maybe what it comes down to, all this inventing and choreographing and designing with water, he says: “I like making people feel more glad to be alive.”

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

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An Examined Life

 

The student arrives late, frazzled and out of breath, and takes a seat around the table. The topic today in Jack Newell’s graduate class in educational leadership is Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, a book that, on the surface, is about fly-fishing. When it’s her turn to speak about her favorite passages, the woman turns to an earmarked page, and then another, starts to speak, then stops. A minute goes by. She says nothing. Newell waits. Some of us fidget in our seats.

Finally the woman says, “We’re going through a process in our school district, a pretty major district improvement.” She’s a school administrator in the Salt Lake Valley, and she says she has just come from a meeting with a likeable employee who isn’t performing well. Newell leans slightly towards her. “How would you describe the feelings you’re experiencing?” he asks. She pauses and then realizes why a book about fly-fishing has brought her to tears—because, like the characters in the book, she finds herself face-to-face with the responsibilities and limitations of trying to help another person.

“Teaching with your mouth shut” is the way former students have described Newell’s classroom style. It always has been more about listening than lecturing, as students sort through moral quandaries and difficult ideas.

The buzz in America these days is all about STEM courses (those in science, technology, engineering, math), and Newell doesn’t underestimate the need for skilled workers. But he still holds out for an education that is broader and deeper than that. Too often now, education focuses on amassing credits, beefing up résumés, and getting through college as quickly as possible. But the ultimate goal should be this, he says: to become ethical, effective, and caring citizens, “so we can live in a society where blindly following our chosen ideologies and pursuing our self-interest isn’t good enough.”

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Newell is a professor emeritus of education at the University of Utah. When he arrived at the U in 1974, he was 35. He was hired to be dean of students but soon was appointed to a new post, dean of liberal education, charged with revamping the University’s graduation requirements.

For years, undergraduates had been required to take a somewhat random set of “general ed” courses in addition to courses in their majors. The new “liberal ed” program required a more focused selection of classes designed specifically to challenge students to become thinkers. That’s the premise behind the term “liberal education,” which of course is not how to become more like Nancy Pelosi but about teaching students, as current U Honors College Dean Sylvia Torti PhD’98 says, to “thrive in ambiguity and complexity.”

U professor emeritus Jack Newell teaches students in an Honors College course held at the Donna Garff Marriott Honors Residential Scholars Community.

University of Utah professor emeritus Jack Newell teaches students in an Honors College course held at the Donna Garff Marriott Honors Residential Scholars Community.

So Newell began searching the campus for professors “who had that glint in their eyes.” What he envisioned was an environment in which these passionate teachers would create captivating classes and feel they had a common purpose: “that we’re doing something really, really important, together, and it’s bigger than departmental assignments.” He invited them all over to his house once a month, because he wanted to create a community. “It felt like an oasis among the silos” of the U’s disparate departments, says David Chapman, a distinguished professor emeritus of geology and geophysics who taught in the Liberal Education Program.

In 1980, the program was named by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the 10 undergraduate programs nationwide that were worthy models for reforming liberal arts study. But the University and its levels of bureaucracy were growing, and some of the U deans wanted to channel funding and control of liberal education classes back to their own departments. After Newell left his deanship in 1990 to return to full-time teaching, the Liberal Education Program morphed into the U’s Office of Undergraduate Studies. Today, students can choose from more than 900 “gen ed” courses. Whether something has been lost depends on whom you ask.

Newell’s passion for “liberal education” began in his childhood home in rural Englewood, Ohio, where his father was a physician and his parents would talk around the dinner table with reverence about their former college professors. Still, Newell admits, as a child and teen he was more adventurous than studious. (“The Newells have very slow-maturing genes,” he says by way of explanation.) He preferred to daydream, or make a raft and float it down the river behind his house; at school, his grades were mediocre.

Pull Quote Fix 2In junior high, he became enchanted by the idea of Deep Springs College in the remote Sierra Nevadas of California, after a neighbor who was a student there came home with stories of the school’s improbable mix of scholars and cowboys. Newell, who had spent summers at his grandfather’s Colorado ranch, was already predisposed to the romance of the West. So, with his aptitude for science and a letter of recommendation from the local superintendent of schools, he applied and was accepted at Deep Springs.

Unless you’ve made it a point to investigate progressive American colleges, you might not have heard of Deep Springs. As Newell writes, it’s “the smallest, most remote, most selective, and certainly the most unusual liberal arts college in the world.” More than half the graduates have gone on to get doctorates.

Today the two-year college has, at most, 30 students. In the whole school. When Newell entered in 1956, there were 13. Located northwest of Death Valley, the college is housed on a working cattle ranch and alfalfa farm. Students milk the cows, bale the hay, and clean the toilets, as well as engage in intellectually strenuous course work. They also help choose the faculty, design the curriculum, and run the admissions process.

Physical isolation—the closest town (population 259) is 28 miles away over a high mountain pass, and even today the students have chosen not to have wi-fi access in their dorms—was crucial to the vision of the school’s founder, Lucien L. Nunn, who wanted to create a place that would foster both self-reliance and community spirit, and would produce “capable and sagacious leaders.”

L.L. Nunn was a quirky, theatrical, driven, complicated man. In Colorado, in 1891, he built the world’s first alternating current hydroelectric power plant for industrial use, taking energy from a stream downhill to his gold mine higher up the mountain, a feat that revolutionized industrial production worldwide. At Niagara Falls in New York, he built what at the time was the largest power plant in the world. In Utah, he built the Olmsted Power Plant in Provo Canyon, and in order to train enough able workers, he established an educational institute on the site. He also once owned a Ford dealership in Provo and developed the Federal Heights neighborhood in Salt Lake City. In 1917, he founded his own liberal arts college, Deep Springs, in California.

Newell has written a book about Nunn and the school—The Electric Edge of Academe: The Saga of Lucien L. Nunn and Deep Springs College—published this spring by the University of Utah Press. The book includes Newell’s firsthand account of his years as a student, young professor, and, from 1995 to 2004, the college’s president.

NewellCoverLike Deep Springs itself, Newell is both academic and practical-minded, obtaining a doctorate in educational leadership from Ohio State University but also working as a forest fire crewman and a mule packer during and after college. He encourages his students to branch out, too: “I plead with my students not to just take an internship somewhere, as good as those things are, but to use their college summers to go out and throw themselves into a different life and meet people they would otherwise not rub shoulders with.” It’s advice that often falls on deaf ears. “I can’t get their attention on this, partly because their parents are saying ‘résumé, résumé, résumé.’ ”

And you need to learn to write well, he tells his students. He requires them to keep journals about what they read and to connect those readings to their own life experiences. “Be yourself, be funny, be inspired, be irritated, be real!”

Newell has kept a journal since his first autumn as a student at Deep Springs, beginning with a passage that reads, “When I’m a parent and my kids go off to college, I want to ask them what they are reading in their classes, buy those books, and dive into them so we can talk about what is exciting to them.” His youthful exuberance diminished only slightly by the time his actual four children went off to college—he didn’t end up buying all those textbooks, but there were always spirited conversations, says his son Eric, who like his three sisters, ended up becoming an educator, too.

Jack met his wife, Linda King Newell, when both of them worked on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon one summer while she was an art education major at Utah State University and he was getting a master’s degree at Duke University. Linda is probably best known as the co-author, with Valeen Tippetts Avery, of the prize-winning but controversial 1984 biography of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith’s first wife, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith.

Newell himself has written more than 120 published articles and six books, served as editor of The Review of Higher Education, and with his wife was co-editor in the 1980s of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, an independent quarterly published by generally more liberal members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The articles about church history that the Newells published sometimes got them in hot water with LDS Church authorities, but he stands by them.

“Our tests for publishing became 1) Is the evidence unimpeachable? 2) Is the interpretation responsible? And 3) Is the issue important to a rounded understanding of the Mormon experience,” Newell wrote in a 2006 Dialogue essay that followed his spiritual journey as a Mormon convert who, as he says, eventually “moved beyond the religion over issues such as the squelching of dissent.”

Pull Quote 6Transparency and trust are keys to good leadership, he says. He notes that the best lesson he ever received about how to be a good leader came when he was 21 and working as foreman of a forest fire crew at Crater Lake in Oregon. It had been a rainy spring, and the fire danger was low, so the chief ranger assigned him to supervise the building of a boathouse—and then announced that he would not be back to check on their work until the end of the summer. Being trusted like that, Newell says, meant “we were not going to let him down.”

Katherine Chaddock PhD’94, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership at the University of South Carolina, says she felt the same way about Newell when she was taking his graduate courses at the U nearly 30 years ago. “You could tell he wanted to learn from you,” she says. And that led her to this realization: “You just didn’t want to bring someone like Jack a half-assed essay.”

****

Sometimes Newell asks his students to imagine the kind of newspaper story that might be written about them in the future, perhaps on the occasion of their retirement after a long career. The assignment is to write a story that captures not only what they were like but also what they stood for. Moral courage, moral authority, moral issues— these are themes that come up again and again in Newell’s classes.

So what would the news story about him say? Maybe it would note that he hardly ever wears a necktie, that he loves hiking and photography and canoeing, that some of his happiest moments are spent paddling his old red canoe on a quiet lake at dawn. But first and foremost, he says, he would like to be remembered as a teacher, someone who “has always been passionate about pushing people to think.”

Jack Newell enjoys hiking, photography, and canoeing and in his youth worked as a forest fire crewman.

Jack Newell enjoys hiking, photography, and canoeing and in his youth worked as a forest fire crewman.

For the nine years since his return to Utah from his presidency at Deep Springs, he has taught both at the U and in the Venture Course in the Humanities, a Utah Humanities Council program that provides college courses in philosophy, history, art history, and literature to low-income students. These days, he teaches two courses at the U: a graduate-level seminar on leadership in the School of Education, and a year-long undergraduate honors class whose subtitle is “Rediscovering Liberal Education.”

After a half century of teaching, this is what he still wants: to sit down with students, to throw out a question, to not shy away from what happens next. “Good teachers must ask students to examine their deepest beliefs and values,” he says. “None of us can ultimately live a full and good life, a committed life, without questioning what we believe and reaffirming as full-blown adults the commitments we wish to live by.”

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

Chapter and Verse

Let’s be honest: Many of us don’t read much poetry. We mean to, in the same way we mean to eat 10 servings of fruit and vegetables every day, which makes poetry kind of the collard greens of the literary world. And that makes Paisley Rekdal disappointed but also kind of relieved.

Rekdal teaches poetry at the University of Utah, where she is also director of the graduate Creative Writing Program. In poetry circles, she is well known and respected, the winner of prestigious prizes and fellowships (two Pushcarts, an Amy Lowell, and a Guggenheim, for starters). But prizes don’t necessarily translate into book sales or readers.

“I can tell you this,” Rekdal says, “every time I’ve done a reading and they say, ‘She’s published six books and she has a seventh on the way,’ someone will come up and say, ‘I’ve never heard of you. Really, I’ve never ever heard of you.’ ” Then she laughs and adds, “People are very happy to reinforce your obscurity.”

But there is also an upside to being on the sidelines of American consciousness, and of writing verse that a reader has to actually put some effort into.

Here’s how Rekdal summed it up in a blog entry titled “Why I Hate National Poetry Month”: “One of the things I love so much about poetry is how it walks that line between public speech and private utterance, and for me, I’ve always felt that there were certain things I couldn’t say if I knew they were being read widely.”

Yes, she admits, she has revealed all kinds of things about herself on her blog, in published essays, and in memoirs, “much to the horror of my family.” But the advantage of poetry is that “some of the darker things I might say, people won’t necessarily understand.”

“I’m not going to lie,” she says. “I think it’s a real bonus.” So here, perhaps, is Paisley Rekdal. Open. But also wary. A little afraid you might try to fit her into a box of your own design.

*****

Rekdal didn’t set out to be a poet. She thought she’d be a medieval scholar, and she received a master’s degree from the University of Toronto Centre for Medieval Studies. She liked the idea of braiding together disciplines such as history, art, theology, and music to study an obscure time. But after a while, she realized that what she really wanted to do was put everything she learned into a poem. “I was always connecting something in the medieval world to my life. And that doesn’t work very well in an academic paper.”

Five years later, she received a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan—because what might not work for a scholarly journal turned out to be perfect for the writing she has since become known for: a blend of research and memoir, facts and personal discovery, distance and emotional truth.

Paisley Rekdal, shown here in her office at the U, directs the University of Utah's Creative Writing Program, which is currently ranked fourth in the nation by Poets & Writers magazine.

Paisley Rekdal, shown here in her office at the U, directs the University of Utah’s Creative Writing Program, which is currently ranked fourth in the nation by Poets & Writers magazine.

Rekdal grew up in Seattle, “a girl so boringly middle class her parents hadn’t even divorced,” as she says in one of her poems. Her mother is Chinese, and her father’s family is Norwegian. As a child, “I was often confused as to who was Chinese and who was white,” she reports, although she was pretty sure TV anchorman Tom Brokaw was Chinese.

“Everyone was potentially Chinese, just as everyone was potentially white,” she explains in her braided memoir/ “fictive biography” Intimate: An American Family Photo Album. “Perhaps it was because the meaning of my own race changed according to my parents’ wishes, depending on which characteristics they wanted to emphasize. As if I was a photo beneath which the caption was being, continually, rewritten.”

Much of her writing is an attempt to sort out what identity and authenticity mean, using her own discomfort to shed light on larger questions of race, self, and change. Intimate, published in 2011, examines and reimagines the photographic quest of Edward Curtis to document Native Americans during the early decades of the 20th century. Rekdal believes that the photographer, in trying to “help” his subjects, insisted on a kind of cultural purity that no longer rang true.

Most people, she observes, inhabit that middle ground between how we understand ourselves and how others understand us. In her own life, she says, being biracial has been a way for her to literalize that divide. “Most of my life, people have tried to give me an identity. So unless I come up with a sense of my own identity and push back, I’ll be like Mae West, a bit of a cipher.”

Ah, Mae West. When Rekdal was a child she was obsessed with West, even dressing up as the bawdy performer for her elementary school talent show (a reference only the teachers got). Rekdal’s fifth volume of poetry, which will be published in 2016, includes “West: A Crown,” in which she explores her own fascination with the strong-willed, outrageous actress/playwright/sex symbol. Wonder Woman was also one of Rekdal’s favorites.

“I think both were early feminist icons, although as a child I didn’t have the language for that,” she says. “But West is a very complicated feminist symbol,” she points out—independent yet playing the same vixen role over and over, never breaking character, “never allowing that character to evolve emotionally or intellectually.”

“I’m interested in what happens when you inhabit a role and then get trapped in it,” Rekdal says. That interest also hits close to home. “Mae West presents a real terror for me as a working writer. Because I don’t want to be hitting one note and never get out of it.”

*****

So Rekdal likes to mix it up. Be a poet. But also a memoirist (her The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee was published 15 years ago, when she was just 28 years old). And a writer of nonfiction (she’s currently researching a book she prefers for now to keep under wraps). She also is a community archivist. In 2013, she launched a website called Mapping Salt Lake City, a community project based on Rebecca Solnit’s 2010 book Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Solnit’s book reinvents the traditional atlas, using the work of writers, artists, and photographers to explore a city through the eyes of its inhabitants.

A city isn’t Mae West, stuck in time, defined forever by one shtick. A city and its stories evolve, even if outsiders try to stuff that city into one small stereotype. Mapping Salt Lake City, a joint project between the University of Utah, Westminster College, and current and former residents, is a compilation about Salt Lake’s then and now, from known and unknown writers. A little sample of its quirky offerings: a poem about bargain shopping at a Deseret Industries store, by Utah poet Joel Long MFA’93; the tender thoughts of a returning Mormon missionary as he arrives at the airport baggage claim; a breathtaking memory of the old Chapman Branch Library by writer Ron Carlson BA’70 MA’72.

Often, says poet Jeffrey McDaniel, who teaches Rekdal’s books in his creative writing classes at Sarah Lawrence College, poets are known as free spirits, “but we stay in our genre, or even within one region in our genre, in a not-free-spirit way. Paisley crosses borders. That’s just an extension of who she is.” And, says McDaniel, “she’s one of the smartest people I know.”

Rekdal has lived in Salt Lake City for 11 years now, lured to the University of Utah’s faculty from the University of Wyoming. Living here, she says, has made her think more about the relationship between person and place, “and what it means to be part of a community that on the surface you don’t have anything in common with.”

The U’s doctoral Creative Writing Program she runs is ranked fourth in the nation by Poets & Writers magazine, based on job placements and prizes won, departmental reputation, and funding. Rekdal also teaches poetry (reading it, writing it), as well as creative nonfiction, at the graduate and undergraduate level.

Can creative writing be taught? “I believe it can, much in the way the basics of archery are,” Rekdal wrote in 2012 in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “I can instruct you on the purpose and characteristics of metaphor. I can train you to recognize (and excise) a cliché. I can educate you in traditional poetic form. … What I can’t do is teach you how to recognize in your own life what has the power and depth to translate into a poem versus what will become merely a charming anecdote to tell at a party.”

U professor Paisley Rekdal is now working on her fifth volume of poetry, scheduled for publication in 2016.

U professor Paisley Rekdal is now working on her fifth volume of poetry, scheduled for publication in 2016.

Rekdal’s own poems show “an incredible attentiveness to the world around her,” says Jennifer Chang, an assistant professor of creative writing and English at George Washington University. Chang first read Animal Eye, Rekdal’s 2012 poetry collection, when she was serving as a judge on a prize committee. “In a year with lots of strong books, her poems stood out,” says Chang. “Animal Eye at once invites you into the experience of creating language and pushes you to think about difficult subjects. It’s one of my favorite books in the past 10 years.”

Two of the poems in Animal Eye are long, 13 pages each, and showcase Rekdal’s ability, again, to braid together disparate elements. “Easter in Lisbon” is about a love affair that soured, the Rodney King beating, and the afternoon in 1991 when she unwittingly caused the escape of baby lemurs from their cage at the dismal Lisbon Zoo. “Wax” weaves together the French Revolution, her mother’s cancer, and Madame Tussaud.

Animal Eye ended up winning one prize (the UNT Rainer Maria Rilke Poetry Award) and being a finalist for two more (the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize and the Balcones Prize). If you’re a poet, you spend a lot of time sending out your collections in the hopes of winning a contest or getting a fellowship. Rekdal figures she is successful less than 5 percent of the time. But, having served as a judge herself, most recently for the National Book Award, she knows how random contests can be.

“The upside, and it’s a really big upside,” Rekdal says, “is you no longer personalize rejection.” Or, as she said in an interview posted on Poets & Writers, “I’ve learned how to brush off the rejection and continue to write within hours of a serious disappointment. Disappointment is, in fact, a great thing for a writer (if by ‘great’ we also mean getting kicked in the groin), since it forces you either to learn how to enjoy the writing process itself or give it up.”

For those of us who don’t pay attention to poetry prizes, though, (or the fact that her poems were included in the Best American Poetry collections in 2012 and 2013), certainly there can be no bigger honor than to be chosen by National Public Radio to be their “NewsPoet” of the month, invited to write a poem about the day’s news. Rekdal’s turn came in July 2012.

That meant sitting with the producers of All Things Considered as they planned the evening’s news show, then being put in a windowless room to come up with a poem. In two hours. That would be read to millions of listeners. It was a slow news day (one of her big fears), but she managed to craft a poem about a new medical app for the heart, rooftop missiles at the Olympics, and a building that was slowly sliding into a sinkhole. Writing the poem, she says, “was one of the scarier things I’ve ever done. It was a nail-biter, I won’t lie.”

*****

Rekdal is fond of making fun of herself. Here’s something she said about her name, in an interview with former Utah writer Matthew Batt PhD’06 on thenervousbreakdown.com: “I suspect my first poems took a bit longer to publish because who in his right mind would a) want to read about unicorns or b) feel comfortable advocating for anyone whose name evoked Hendrix-inspired air guitar sessions while stoned on cough syrup.”

And here’s a little impromptu standup she recounts now when asked about the phenomenon of The Poetry Reading. “There’s nothing more humbling,” she begins. “People fall asleep in front of you, people get up and leave the room while you’re speaking. People will text. People will tell you afterward how much they hate poetry but they like yours. They hate everything about what you do, but you’re the least offensive example of it. I’ve had people tell me how much older I look up close than far away. So, yeah, there’s nothing better than giving a poetry reading.” She’s pretty sure even her husband doesn’t read her poems. (Sean Myles is a computer programmer for Allstate who lives in the other side of the duplex they own. “I strongly recommend doing it this way,” she says of their living arrangements. “It’s the only way to stay married.”)

American entertainments train people to read and think narratively, expecting a beginning, middle, and end, she says. But a poem thinks in a different kind of way, in a lyric way that may move erratically through space and time, “and it sounds foreign to us,” she says.

She’s pretty sure poetry will survive anyway, if for no other reason than people need something to read at weddings and funerals, when poetry can help us navigate moments of intense emotion. As for herself, writing poetry “allows a kind of wildness that prose doesn’t,” she says. “To be honest, it feels like, if the soul could think, it would think in poetry.”

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

HAPPINESS

By Paisley Rekdal

I have been taught never to brag but now
I cannot help it: I keep
a beautiful garden, all abundance,
indiscriminate, pulling itself
from the stubborn earth: does it offend you
to watch me working in it,
touching my hands to the greening tips or
tearing the yellow stalks back, so wild
the living and the dead both
snap off in my hands?
The neighbor with his stuttering
fingers, the neighbor with his broken
love: each comes up my drive
to receive his pitying,
accustomed consolations, watches me
work in silence awhile, rises in anger,
walks back. Does it offend them to watch me
not mourning with them but working
fitfully, fruitlessly, working
the way the bees work, which is to say
by instinct alone, which looks like pleasure?
I can stand for hours among the sweet
narcissus, silent as a point of bone.
I can wait longer than sadness. I can wait longer
than your grief. It is such a small thing
to be proud of, a garden. Today
there were scrub jays, quail,
a woodpecker knocking at the white-
and- black shapes of trees, and someone’s lost rabbit
scratching under the barberry: is it
indiscriminate? Should it shrink back, wither,
and expurgate? Should I, too, not be loved?
It is only a little time, a little space.
Why not watch the grasses take up their colors in a rush
like a stream of kerosene being lit?
If I could not have made this garden beautiful
I wouldn’t understand your suffering,
nor care for each the same, inflamed way.
I would have to stay only like the bees,
beyond consciousness, beyond
self-reproach, fingers dug down hard
into stone, and growing nothing.
There is no end to ego,
with its museum of disappointments.
I want to take my neighbors into the garden
and show them: Here is consolation.
Here is your pity. Look how much seed it drops
around the sparrows as they fight.
It lives alongside their misery.
It glows each evening with a violent light.

“Happiness,” from Animal Eye by Paisley Rekdal. Copyright 2012. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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A Fine Line

If you run a regional theater in America, you can sometimes find yourself in trouble. Not trouble with a capital T that rhymes with P and stands for pool, because that would be The Music Man, which is always a safe bet. No, we’re talking about trouble that can make you lose season subscribers.

Which brings us to the stage of Pioneer Theatre Company at the University of Utah, where one afternoon this past fall artistic director Karen Azenberg sat fielding questions from a talkback audience that had just seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which Azenberg also directed. The funny, softhearted musical includes a song in which a middle-school speller bemoans his “unfortunate erection” as he waits his turn at the microphone. At PTC, though, a milder version of the song, this one called “My Unfortunate Distraction,” was used for all but two shows of the two-week run. “Why?” wondered an audience member in row D.

Azenberg smiled and jumped right in with a little lesson on the politics of theater. The musical’s lyricist, she explained, provided two versions of the script. So at PTC, where many season-ticket holders expect a tame theater experience, she mostly opted for the “distraction” version. Still, she pointed out, there were many audience members who felt just as strongly that Pioneer should have used the “less mild” version. Just the week before, in fact, a subscriber had called to say he was giving back all his future tickets in protest.

Now in her third season as artistic director of PTC, Azenberg knows that if you run a big theater in a place like Salt Lake City, sometimes you’re caught in the middle, trying to please everyone.

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Azenberg is a New Yorker to her core but is no stranger to American regional theater, having worked as a freelance choreographer and director for three decades in 28 states. When she heard that Pioneer Theatre Company’s artistic director Charles Morey would be retiring after a 25-year career, she put her name in the running, along with nearly 100 other applicants.

Azenberg was chosen in 2011 and officially took the reins the next summer. She was the unanimous choice, says Chris Lino, PTC’s managing director, who sat on the selection committee. Azenberg was well known to the PTC staff because she had been guest director and choreographer of Rent, Next to Normal, and Miss Saigon, and choreographer of the sell-out Les Miz in 2007.

Pioneer Theater Karen Azenberg

Karen Azenberg works with performers in a Pioneer Theatre Company rehearsal for The Rocky Horror Show.

“We knew how smart she was,” says Lino. “Plus she knew every director in the country, including the up-and-coming directors, and that was very attractive to us.” At the time, Azenberg was president of the board of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, the national union for her crafts. She currently serves on the advisory board and is also a board member of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, a launching pad for new musicals.

“A lot of the applicants, on paper you’d think this is your dream candidate,” Lino says. (Some, in fact, had worked as artistic directors at well-known theaters, and Azenberg had never run a theater of any size.) “But none of them matched what Karen brought to the table.”

David Ivers, artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, who directed One Man, Two Guvnors at PTC this year, describes Azenberg this way: “The thing that sets her apart is she has theater in her DNA. She has in her bones an innate understanding of how the theater world works”—including years of tagging along with her father.

Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg began his career as company manager for touring and Broadway shows, and later was producer of most of Neil Simon’s plays, as well as producer or general manager for blockbusters including Rent, George M!, and Sunday in the Park with George. Ten of the plays he has either produced or managed have won Tony Awards, and in 2012 Azenberg himself won a “Lifetime Achievement in Theatre” Tony.

Long before there were take-your-daughter-to-work days, Manny took little Karen to the theater (and also sometimes to watch him play softball with Robert Redford in the Broadway Show League). “You sit there,” her dad would instruct her, and so from a chair backstage she would watch the show behind the show.

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Pioneer Memorial Theatre is affiliated with the University of Utah’s College of Fine Arts.

“How I work here,” she says about her life now at PTC, “is how I perceive he worked; it’s my model.” That means dropping in every day to chat with scenic carpenters and the costume shop, and wanting to know all the details about lighting and sound boards and props. But Manny Azenberg told his daughter over and over: “Don’t go into theater.”

“As a kid,” she says, “this is how I translated ‘Don’t go into theater’: Don’t be an actor. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be a dancer!’” Of course she meant dancing in musical theater, and the showdown came when it was time to go to college.

“There were lots of tears, and me saying ‘I can’t just dance three times a week! I have to dance all day every day!’ ” She ended up majoring in dance at New York University, and she wonders now if her father’s opposition was a kind of test, to see if she had the drive to make it in a business that can be brutal.

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You might think that the daughter of a Broadway producer would have an easy entrée to Broadway. “Oh, no,” she says. “He hates nepotism… Dad’s theory is, anything you achieve, you achieve on your own.”

So he gave her a job answering phones in his office, which helped pay the bills as she auditioned for dance roles. In her early 20s, she got her first choreography job, in a summer stock theater in Connecticut. Then her work was noticed at a community theater in Manhattan, and from that came a chance to choreograph a revue at the Smithsonian, and that led to a gig choreographing Sweeney Todd at Michigan Opera Theatre, and the next year, at age 24, choreographing West Side Story.

But there were also plenty of dry periods. And this is where being Manny Azenberg’s daughter did get her a foot in the door. When one of his shows moved to Broadway and in a pinch they needed an assistant stage manager, they hired her because they knew she was adept at coordinating sound, lighting, and scene-change cues for performances. And from there came other offers, including Brighton Beach Memoirs and Master Harold and the Boys.

“Pay her minimum,” Manny insisted.

Her next big break came in 1989 when she was choreographing Guys and Dolls at Indiana Repertory Theatre. “You think like a director,” the artistic director told her, and the next year he offered her a job directing. “Like many things, I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ and so I did,” Azenberg remembers. “I was winging it.” Later, that same self-confidence led her to apply for the artistic director job at Pioneer Theatre Company.

The Utah job felt like a once-in-a-lifetime chance. But it also meant that her husband, Augie Mericola, would have to give up his job as head of props for the Broadway company of Wicked. And it meant uprooting their son and daughter, then 12 and 15. On the other hand, their home was an hour commute into Manhattan for Augie, and her job as a freelance choreographer and director meant being gone for long stretches of time. On the other other hand, her daughter hated the idea of moving so much that she offered to live in their car in the garage of their house. In the end, though, Utah won out.

“There are a lot of theaters in the U.S., but not of this size, with this kind of facility, with this kind of financial stability,” Azenberg explains.

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Like her favorite musicals, Azenberg is high-voltage and straightforward. “You always know where you stand with her, which is a rarity in the theater,” says the Shakespeare Festival’s Ivers. Adds PTC resident scenic designer George Maxwell: “She’s very precise, and she doesn’t give up until she gets what she wants.”

A person driven like that can sometimes get stressed out, of course. “I have a barometer of how stressed she is by her hair,” says PTC managing director Lino. “It has its own emotional life.”

PTC runs a “very lean ship,” says Lino. “Our peers—large middle-America theaters with at least a $4 million budget—all have larger budgets but don’t produce work as big as ours. A greater percentage of our operating budget goes into what you see on stage.” (The 932-seat theater is affiliated with the University of Utah’s College of Fine Arts but gets no direct funding from the U.) “Karen knows how to stick to a budget,” Lino adds, “because she instinctively prioritizes. Not every artistic director can also think like a producer.”

Azenberg travels back to New York seven or eight times a year, to do auditions for PTC shows (most hires are New York actors, although she also auditions in Salt Lake and hires a fair number of locals), and to see what’s new on Broadway and off—a requirement since she’s a Tony Awards voter. That also puts her in the loop for what new plays and musicals might be a good fit for PTC.

Pioneer Theater Karen Azenberg

Karen Azenberg recently started a new play-development reading series at Pioneer Theatre Company, called Play-by-Play.

In sheer volume of potential audience members, Pioneer’s biggest rival is Broadway Across America and the “Broadway-style” 2,500-seat mega-theater now under construction three miles away in downtown Salt Lake City. Here’s how Azenberg and Lino explain the difference between the two venues: The caliber of the actors is equal, but PTC’s stage design, costuming, and other crews are Utahns who pay Utah taxes; the tickets are less than half the price; and, says Azenberg, “our productions are staged for this theater and this cast, so everything is fresh for this production.” Of course, convincing Utahns to pick PTC over the tour is a hard sell, especially when the tour is Wicked or The Book of Mormon.

Would Pioneer Theatre Company ever stage the irreverent, award-winning Book of Mormon? The theater chose not to stage Tony Kushner’s Angels in America two decades ago. “There was no way we could do that in this theater, named after the pioneers, and not have a large part of our audience think we were attacking them,” Lino recalls. Azenberg says she figures that by the time the rights to The Book of Mormon become available for regional theaters, she’ll “be sitting in an old-age home somewhere.”

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Theater audiences in general are a graying lot. But the average age of season-ticket holders at PTC has dropped from 65 to 55 in the past 10 years, and from 55 to 45 for single-ticket sales—perhaps because, over the years, the shows have incrementally included newer works, not just the old chestnuts.

Azenberg strives for a balance in each theater season: mysteries and musicals, comedies and drama, familiar and surprising. “I like doing fun and good and eclectic theater,” she says. But she knows “not everyone is going to like everything.” Sometimes there are nasty letters and phone calls.

During her second season, some audience members called and wrote to say they had blanched at the interracial casting of Elf: The Musical. And there was a flap over a three-second gay kiss in the murder mystery Deathtrap. (Twenty years ago, PTC became one of the first big regional theaters to institute a “content advisory,” but to have warned the audience about this kiss would have been a plot spoiler, Azenberg says.) “I’m not producing these plays and musicals to offend people,” she adds. “I’m trying to cover as wide a range of content as possible.”

To reach newer audiences, Azenberg has also instituted “concert” performances (including the recent scaled-down version of the camp musical The Rocky Horror Show) and a new-play-development reading series, Play-by-Play—no sets, no costumes, just actors reading from scripts she has culled from the hundreds sent to her from playwrights across the United States.

She hopes Play-by-Play will draw a new Utah audience. But she also knows that new play development can boost Pioneer’s standing among actors, directors, and writers nationwide, as PTC launches world premieres that might have a chance of making their way to New York because of Azenberg’s connections. “When I arrived, Pioneer Theatre Company had a wonderful but quiet reputation—which is starting to change,” she says. “Now we are still wonderful, but a little more raucous.”

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City freelance journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.


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Stories in the Study of Light

University of Utah alum Stephen Wilk is a reader of footnotes, a collector of small details, a man who finds joy in what others might have overlooked. His professional specialty is lasers, but he also writes books that illuminate what he calls “optics esoterica”—those historical footnotes that shed light on scientific dead ends and the dead scientists who have never gotten their due.

His latest book, How the Ray Gun Got Its Zap, is a collection of essays on odd optics episodes that have fascinated him over the years. Wilk PhD’87 bemoans the fact that science is often taught in a shorthand that presents what he calls a “stilted view of history” in which the whole endeavor of scientific discovery seems effortless, flawless, and linear.

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U alum Stephen Wilk PhD’87 enjoys writing about forgotten footnotes in the history of science. (Photo by Jill R. Silvester)

The course of science includes long periods when no progress at all is made toward understanding a topic, and in some cases, a discovery is made only to be lost again, or credit is given to the wrong person, he writes. “All too often in the history of science the work of scientists past is glossed over. They become figures like prairie dogs, invisible until and unless they surface to grant their name to a formula or a principle or a constant.”

In his book, Wilk illustrates that point with the story of Francis Hopkinson and David Rittenhouse. One summer evening in 1785, Hopkinson— a lawyer, poet, and scientist, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence—sat outside his house holding a silk handkerchief up to his eyes. He looked through it toward a street lamp in the distance, and, as he had expected, the threads of the cloth looked magnified because the cloth was so close to his eyes.

What surprised him, though, was that when he moved the cloth to the right and left, the lines stayed put. So he took the matter to his friend Rittenhouse, an astronomer, who decided to tackle the question by performing experiments with tiny threads, 106 to the inch. Looking through the threads at an object in the distance, Rittenhouse could see four or five colored sets of bars on either side of the image. He then measured the angles the different colors made. His work, in essence, was a precursor to later experiments that definitively measured the wavelengths of the colors of light, but Rittenhouse’s discovery has long since been overlooked.

An account of that episode is among the essays gathered in How the Ray Gun Got Its Zap, published last October by Oxford University Press. Wilk’s path to writing the book traces back to 2000, when Oxford published his book Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, which looked for the origin of the snake-haired goddess’s eerie stare and found an answer in the stars—specifically the “variable stars” that seem to blink on and off, like an eye opening and shutting. (The book’s theories were later included in the History Channel’s The Story of the Medusa in 2009, and Wilk was one of the experts featured in the show.)

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Wilk’s latest book is a collection of essays on odd optics episodes that have fascinated him over the years. (Photo courtesy Oxford University Press)

Other pieces he had published in Scientific American, Weatherwise, and Parabola magazines also led to a monthly “Light Touch” column in Optics and Photonics News, the monthly news magazine of the Optical Society, a national scientific association dedicated to advancing the study of light. Wilk then expanded and compiled those articles into How the Ray Gun Got Its Zap, in the hopes of reaching a wider readership, and the publisher liked the idea.

“Is this story true?” or some variation of that question threads its way through the book. Did Sir Isaac Newton, for example, decide there were seven colors in the rainbow because seven is a mystical number, as many people have suggested? Aristotle had posited that there were three colors in the rainbow, other Greek philosophers said four, and Newton couldn’t decide at first between five and seven. Wilk contends Newton finally settled on seven because the succession of colors resembled the notes in a musical scale, and Newton became convinced that the ratio between colors corresponded to the ratio between do, re, mi, etc. So he added orange and indigo to the list.

Word lovers among Wilk’s readers will like the story of dord. For five years during the 1930s, Webster’s New International Dictionary listed the word, defined as density. Dord originated with a 3-by-5 card sent by the dictionary’s special editor for chemistry to the offices of G. and C. Merriam Company. It was intended as an update to the first edition entry on abbreviations, written as “D.” The card indicated that the abbreviation for density could also be abbreviated with a lowercase “d.” D or d. Dord,. The mistake was discovered in 1939.

The book also offers detailed explanations of everyday phenomena. There are chapters that explain why the sun—which, he notes, “is the very definition of white light”—appears yellow; why cats’ eyes are efficient retroreflectors; how pinhole glasses work for myopia; and of course the origin of the ray gun’s zap. Light rays don’t make a noise; infrared and ultraviolent light are as silent as visible light, and so are particle beams, gamma rays, and X-rays. The sound “zap” was coined in 1928 by science fiction writer Philip Francis Nowlan, in his story Armageddon 2419 A.D., with Anthony (in later serials known as “Buck”) Rogers as the main character and narrator.

Other chapters explore what Wilk calls “pop culture errors in optics.” Two examples: Many movies to the contrary, you can’t see light coming from a laser, because light travels too fast. And Piggy’s glasses in William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies couldn’t have started a fire, because lenses that correct for myopia are concave and won’t concentrate light the way a magnifying glass would.

The sound “zap” was coined in Philip Francis Nowlan’s 1928 story Armageddon 2419 A.D., published in Amazing Stories.

The sound “zap” was coined in Philip Francis Nowlan’s 1928 story Armageddon 2419 A.D., published in Amazing Stories.

How the Ray Gun Got Its Zap is conversational in tone and is aimed, Wilk says, toward a “general audience,” but he generously assumes that this audience has a strong background in science, especially optics. One chapter, for example, begins “If you’ve built or aligned a laser, you know how difficult the task of alignment can be.”

Wilk first became fascinated by light and color as a child. Growing up in New Jersey, just 45 minutes from Manhattan, he spent many happy Saturdays roaming through the Metropolitan Museum of Art on one end of Central Park and the Museum of Natural History on the other. He remembers one moment of optical discovery when he was in grade school: buying a prism at the Met and then looking through it at the Monets and Seurats as his parents took him through the galleries.

But children don’t need a fancy prism, Wilk reminds us. When he gives talks to children—a “hands-on-science” session for pre-teens at the yearly Arisia science fiction convention in Boston—he shows them ways they can do experiments with objects they can find around the house. The backsides of CDs and DVDs, for example, also refract light. Add a tube from a paper towel roll, and you can build your own spectrometer. He always tries to keep his explanations short. “My rule is: Keep it the length of a commercial.”

Wilk got his undergraduate degree in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he flirted with a career in geophysics but found the physics of light more fun. Still, he could sometimes be diverted: He was hoping to write his senior thesis on something related to spectroscopy but was convinced by a professor to instead measure the force and velocity of karate chops. “A lot of my life is dictated by what I stumble across,” Wilk says.

The thesis was unusual enough to be published in Scientific American, in the spring of 1979, and later in the American Journal of Physics. Then he was off to the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics to get a master’s degree, and then to the University of Utah in 1983 to study optics under physics professor Fritz Luty.

In the 1930s, a Webster’s dictionary included the word dord, which arose from an editor’s note on density.

In the 1930s, a Webster’s dictionary included the word dord, which arose from an editor’s note on density.

Wilk’s specialty was lasers, the intensely focused light beams that are now used in everything from surgery to computer printers. Wilk was drawn to the U by Luty’s work with “color center” laser mediums, essentially colored defects in otherwise clear, checkerboard-like crystals, that could amplify light. Wilk received his doctorate in 1987, and his thesis examined the behavior of cyanide ions doped onto a crystal lattice.

His former colleague Werner Gellermann PhD’81, who is now a research professor in the U’s Department of Physics, remembers that even as a doctoral student, Wilk was drawn to the stories behind the data. “He had a keen interest in hunting down these sometimes obscure references.” And those were the days, Gellermann points out, when there was no Internet to help in the search. “He loved to go to the library and dig up the history.”

Wilk loves (and writes) science fiction as well as science fact and met his wife, Jill Silvester, at the World Science Fiction convention in 1989. He especially loves Jules Verne, whom he calls the quintessential science fiction writer because Verne not only knew how to tell a good yarn but also based those yarns on real science.

David Rittenhouse, shown here in a portrait by American painter Charles Wilson Peale, was a Philadelphia scientist who did early experiments that were precursors to measuring the wavelengths of colors of light. (Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery)

David Rittenhouse, shown here in a portrait by American painter Charles Wilson Peale, was a Philadelphia scientist who did early experiments that were precursors to measuring the wavelengths of colors of light. (Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery)

After graduating from the U, Wilk left academic research for the optics industry. “I wanted to go into an area where my work might have more immediate applications,” he says, “and where the funding might be better.” What he hadn’t counted on were a series of industry layoffs because of cutbacks in defense grants.

He has worked at Boston-area labs Textron Systems, Optikos Corporation, and AOtec, where he has designed and built optical measuring devices for contact lenses, intraocular lenses, and imaging and analysis through catheters. He has also been a visiting professor of electro-optics at Tufts University. When he’s not doing optics, he writes full time.

He hopes, like his hero Verne, to bring science to the non-scientific, through story. “Education by stealth, as the BBC so succinctly put it,” Wilk says. And he hopes to remind us over and over what doing science is really like.

“People don’t like to talk about the failures,” he says, “and that’s unfortunate.” Or, as he writes in How the Ray Gun Got Its Zap: “There should be more coverage of the errors and false starts of science. They teach us how to pursue the truth, how to recognize a wrong turning when we find it, and hearten us when we feel that we have reached such a turning point ourselves.”

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based freelance journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

The Bionics Man

The Utah Electrode Array is a tiny little thing. Placed on a penny, it’s about the size of Lincoln’s face. Magnify it, though, and you can see a hundred needles reaching upwards like skyscrapers. The idea is this: Implant that array into the brain of a paralyzed person, and she’ll be able to move her arms and legs with nothing more than her thoughts. Implant the array in the brain of a blind man, and he’ll be able to see. This is pretty far-out stuff (headline writers often invoke the word “miracle”), but University of Utah professor Richard Normann is confident that his electrode array will help make all this happen.

Normann began thinking about the array in the mid-1980s, a few years after arriving at the University of Utah as a professor of bioengineering. He had been doing basic science research and was interested in how photoreceptors worked, but when he got to the U, there was a different bioengineering buzz on campus: artificial hearts and kidneys, and bioengineered eyes and ears. “I couldn’t find graduate students interested in basic research; I realized to survive, I had to put an applied spin on it,” Normann remembers with his characteristic candor. So he decided to tackle blindness.

At the time, he says, he was “a retina guy,” which was different from being what he calls “a brain guy.” But he knew that if scientists wanted to help blind people see, the answer lay in finding ways to communicate more effectively with the visual areas of the brain. The problem was that no one had figured out how to have a conversation with more than a few neurons at a time—and there are billions of neurons in the central nervous system, each firing off electrical signals in an effort to talk to each other. Picture a planet full of people chattering, in a language that’s hard for a newcomer to understand.

What exactly is it that neurons are saying in that micro-moment between the impulse to lift your hand and the actual lifting? What exactly is it that neurons are doing as they recreate a detailed visual perception of the outside world? And how do you begin to replicate that?

Richard Normann has been working on developing a way to allow blind people to

Richard Normann has been working on developing a way to allow blind people to “see” by implanting Utah Electrode Arrays in the visual cortex, and glasses with a camera would then send a wireless signal to the arrays. (Photo illustration courtesy Richard Normann)

Artificial vision researchers at the time, including William Dobelle at the University of Utah in the early 1970s, were stimulating small groups of neurons by placing electrodes on the surface of the visual cortex. With this method, they could get their volunteer subjects to see vague blobs of light. But activating the brain a few neurons at a time, says Normann, is like trying to watch a program on a high-definition TV and only being able to see a couple of pixels.

So, in the mid-’80s, Normann came up with the idea of rows of electrode needles that could penetrate a millimeter and a half into the brain and thus either listen to or excite many individual neurons at a time. For a long time, all he had was a drawing. Then, on a trip to Washington, D.C., in 1987 to attend a neuroscience conference, he wandered one afternoon over to the National Science Foundation and managed to get an impromptu meeting with a program manager. Normann drew a picture of the array and explained his idea. The program manager said, “If you can figure out how to build that, I’ll support you to the hilt.”

One of Normann’s favorite words is “serendipity.” A week or two after his meeting at the NSF, a bioengineering student walked into Normann’s office at the U looking for work. Patrick Campbell BS’85 MEn’88 PhD’90 had just been laid off from the artificial organ company Symbion, after it had moved its operations from Utah to Arizona. He’d been working on cochlear implant technology. Normann told him about the electrode array idea, and Campbell said he thought he could get it to work. Within a year, they had a simplified model.

The Utah Electrode Array has since inspired other, similar devices. But Normann’s design is currently the only one approved by the FDA for implantation in humans.

***

Like any scientist, Dick Normann likes to think about cause and effect. In his own life, there was, for example, the pinball machine. Normann’s father was an immigrant from Denmark, a poorly educated man who eventually owned a walnut farm in northern California but supported his family for many years with the pinball machines he owned and installed. That meant young Dick was the beneficiary of hundreds of little pinball parts from defunct machines, parts he used to make his own rudimentary switching circuits. He discovered that he loved “gadgeteering.”

After high school, he entered the University of California at Berkeley as an engineering major. “I’m ashamed to say I didn’t really know much about what an engineer did,” Normann recalls. “I didn’t have any academic role models in my life. There were no professional people in my family.” At Berkeley, he studied electrical engineering but liked physiology even more. Electrical engineering, he decided, “wasn’t about the great mysteries of life,” whereas “at every physiology lecture I attended, the professors were apologizing about what they didn’t know yet.”

Utah Electrode Arrays work by stimulating many neurons at a time. (Photo courtesy Richard Normann)

Utah Electrode Arrays work by stimulating many neurons at a time. (Photo courtesy Richard Normann)

He went on to get master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from Berkeley, with a physiological bent. After that, he spent five years at the National Institutes of Health, where he studied retinas, sometimes with a lively retinal anatomist, Helga Kolb, who worked in the lab across the hall. They soon married, and their plan, after the NIH, was to become professors in California, but the closest they could get geographically in 1979 was the University of Utah, where they both received academic appointments. Utah was just supposed to be a stop on the way, but soon the U and the state won them over. At a 70th birthday celebration/symposium held in Normann’s honor in February 2013, one former graduate student after another stood at the podium and showed pictures of river trips and mountain climbing with Dick and Helga: Here was Dick and his pop-up camper in Canyonlands, and Dick with a river raft, and Dick on skis.

Students and colleagues also listed what they had learned from him: Be persistent, dream big, don’t be afraid to fail or change course. Former student Shane Guillory MS’11 summed up Normann with an image: a photo of the Grand Jedi Master Yoda.

***

Normann had wanted to use the Utah Electrode Array to create sight, which meant implanting the array in people’s brains. But he says he soon realized that he needed to start in a part of the body “that people don’t feel so passionate about.” And, too, he realized the lab could get more bang for the buck by using the array in cases where more people needed help: amputees, people who were paralyzed, people who had lost bladder control.

Amputees were the easiest, because the nerves all the way from the brain to the surviving part of the limb were still intact. Normann and his grad students invented a variation of the electrode array—the Utah Slanted Electrode Array—with gradations of needle sizes that could successfully penetrate peripheral nerves. The researchers then could record the firings of nerve signals as the amputee thought about what it would be like to move the missing arm and hand. Then the scientists decoded those signals, figuring out which firing patterns were associated with each motion and creating a map of how a particular part of the brain and muscles spoke to each other. Normann and his students then passed electrical current back through the electrodes, using the signal patterns they had decoded, so that this time, a thought alone could move prosthetic fingers.

This paralyzed patient, at right, implanted with Richard Normann's Utah Electrode Array in a Brown University research study, was able to move a robotic arm with her thoughts. (Photo courtesy Braingate2.org)

This paralyzed patient, at right, implanted with Normann’s Utah Electrode Array in a Brown University research study, was able to move a robotic arm with her thoughts. (Photo courtesy Braingate2.org)

The next generation prosthetic hand will have sensors in the fingers, Normann says, allowing an amputee to be able to feel when the prosthesis touches something. It won’t be long, he says, before amputees will be able to have fine motor skills using artificial limbs. “It will have the same capabilities that this thing does,” he says, opening and closing his own hand. “Instead of feeling like a piece of hardware, they’ll be thinking of the prosthesis as them, as being an extension of them.”

The Utah Electrode Array has also been implanted in paralyzed volunteers, in labs at Brown and Harvard universities and the University of Pittsburgh. The array “is an engineering tour de force,” says John Donoghue, director of Brown’s Institute for Brain Science. “Dick has had a revolutionary effect on the way people study the brain.”

At first, Donoghue says, scientists weren’t even sure if a paralyzed person’s brain could send out signals for movement. But it turns out that, yes, the motor part of the brain still functions, as do the peripheral nervous system and musculature. One of his patients implanted with a Utah Electrode Array has learned, by intention alone, to manipulate a robotic arm to grab a coffee cup, bring it to her mouth, and drink from it.

Eventually, researchers expect that paralyzed people using the array and something like Brown University’s computerized BrainGate system will be able to move their own arms. Normann guesses this is still 10 years away, but says, “I’m pretty confident it will happen.” Clinical trials have proved successful on a stroke patient and a volunteer with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), as well. Also on the horizon: managing incontinence and erectile dysfunction, aiding people with spastic muscles to move effortlessly, and helping paralyzed people stand. (Walking unaided will be more problematic, Normann says, because it also involves balance.)

Eventually, the Utah Electrode Array may help some blind people see, by stimulating the same neurons that, in sighted individuals, would normally be stimulated by input from the retina. In German trials using another electrode array in retinal implants, blind volunteers were able to recognize simple objects and discriminate small words. In animal experiments at the U, Normann has sought to determine how much current is required to “see” an electrically induced spot of light. His aim with the visual research has been to eventually develop a way for a blind patient to be able to “see” images by wearing a special pair of glasses containing a video camera that would then send wireless electrical signals of the images to the implant in the visual cortex, so the patient could “see.”

***

In 2013, Normann was one of 15 neuroscience stars who were appointed to the National Institutes of Health’s new BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, whose aim is to map the brain for the first time and reveal how individual cells and complex neural circuits act and interact. He only mentions this in passing, in the same way he downplays being named a University of Utah Distinguished Professor in 2008. “I don’t regard myself as being a particularly clever person,” he says. “I’ve just had some good students.”

Richard Normann, who was named a University of Utah Distinguished Professor in 2008, has worked at the U since 1979. (Photo by August Miller)

Richard Normann, who was named a University of Utah Distinguished Professor in 2008, has worked at the U since 1979. (Photo by August Miller)

Other people might point out that his textbook Principles of Bioinstrumentation is now a classic in the field; that his “positive energy and vision are transformative,” as U Neural Plasticity Laboratory director Gregory Clark says; that Normann brought more than $22 million in research funds to the U; that he was a pioneer at the U in transfer of technology into profitable products.

The University of Utah is known now for its helpful commercialization environment (for several years, it has remained either No. 1 or 2 in the nation in number of spin-off companies created by its faculty). But in 1997, when Normann and Brian Hatt formed Bionic Technologies to market the array and other technology, “starting a company with the goal of sticking brain probes into humans was truly a bold move,” says U College of Engineering Dean Richard B. Brown PhD’85. (Bionic Technologies was later sold and then sold again, and now operates as Blackrock Microsystems, which continues to market and sell the Utah Electrode Array and Utah Slanted Electrode Array to researchers all over the world.) Normann says the experience with Bionic Technologies taught him that he had little aptitude for business: “I couldn’t wait to get back to the lab.”

This summer he is retiring, becoming a Professor Emeritus along with his wife. It’s time, at 71, to let younger professors use the University’s resources, he says. “I don’t want to be a burden on the system. I wish more of our faculty felt that way.”

But that doesn’t mean he won’t be driving down to the U several times a week from his home in Park City to observe experiments and offer ideas. He is eager, after all the years of preparation, to be a part of the future. “This really is the beginning of achieving my dream of helping people with disabilities,” he says. “I foresee in the next few years that the seeds we’ve planted will bear fruit. I’m really optimistic.”

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based freelance journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.


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Patient Moving Robotic Arm

Normann Speaking On His Work

A Pathway Through Books

When she was little, Alberta Comer was an enthusiastic reader in a house with no books, near a tiny Oklahoma town with no library. She read whatever she could find, including the weekly Stigler News- Sentinel. At six years old, she took to wading through the obituaries, having figured out that obituaries are a kind of story (even if the ending always comes before the rest of the plot).

She was smitten the first time she laid eyes on the county bookmobile. Her father had driven her a half hour down the dirt road that led from their house to the town of Keota, where the bookmobile was parked. Once she had climbed inside, she was dazzled. She had never seen or imagined such a place. Books from floor to ceiling! In alphabetical order by the name of the author! Looking back now, she figures the bookmobile was probably pretty small. “But at the time I had no idea so many books existed,” she says.

A half century later, still crazy about books and libraries, Comer is the new dean of the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library, where she oversees a 3.2 million-piece collection. Books brought the big, unimaginable world to Comer as a child. And it was the idea of managing and sorting books—of organizing knowledge so she could bring the world to other people—that led her to become a librarian, and eventually to this spot as head of, in her words, “one of the best libraries in the country.”

Comer comes to the U from Indiana State University, where since 2007 she was dean of the Cunningham Memorial Library, housed in a once-dreary building she worked hard to turn into a comfortable, lively place where students wanted to spend time.

“No new library building was constructed, no additional staff were hired, no new funds were allocated,” Comer explained in a 2011 paper titled “Redefining Relevancy in the Electronic Age: The Library as a Real Place.” Instead, the library staff, making incremental changes, repurposed what they already had and paid for it with existing dollars.

The Marriott Library’s Automated Retrieval Center allows high-density storage.

The Marriott Library’s Automated Retrieval Center allows high-density storage. (Photo by August Miller)

“Many are still in mourning that she left,” says Indiana State’s provost, Richard B. Williams. “She wasn’t just the dean of Library Services, she was a leader of our campus. …I’ve never met a more engaged dean.”

At the University of Utah, the search committee found Comer to be forward thinking, witty, and collaborative, says committee member Sylvia Torti PhD’98, dean of the U’s Honors College. Associate Librarian Alison Regan, another committee member, says she was struck by Comer’s “emotional intelligence that’s way off the scale.”

In the eastern Oklahoma area where Comer grew up, most people were farmers, including Comer’s parents. Her mother was Choctaw and her father Cherokee, and together they farmed vegetables. Both parents had been forced to drop out of school when they were little—her father to go to work, her mother because there was only one pair of shoes for two sisters.

In Comer’s house, there was no TV and no indoor toilet, and there were no siblings. A congenital condition required her to wear leg braces. Books became her companion and provided an entryway into a world populated by princesses and Louisa May Alcott’s four March sisters. Once a month, Comer’s father made the hour-long round-trip to take her to the bookmobile. She says she also spent a lot of time “listening to adults talk,” including the Choctaw stories her mother told, often about animals who behaved in human ways. Even now, says Comer, she can’t resist a good tale, and often finds herself listening to the stories of strangers who come up to her at the supermarket or in the airport.

comer edit 3

Prior to her new job at the U, Alberta Comer had been dean of Indiana State University’s library. (Photo by August Miller)

“Through reading, I met people who thought about things more deeply and broadly,” she says. “I remember sitting on a large rock, quite a ways from my house, reading A Lantern in Her Hand, the way the author talked about time as if it were tangible, and how it ‘slipped away.’ I was probably eight. I can remember sitting on that rock and wondering if time really would just slip away.”

Her high school didn’t have a library until a teacher decided to create one in a small storeroom and needed a student volunteer. “I was the one who was nerdy enough to want to do it,” Comer says. “I liked the sense of having things be orderly and easy to find. I liked having people come in and ask for something and being able to help them connect with the information.”

In those days, that meant looking on a bookshelf or opening an encyclopedia. Today, navigating the landscape of the digital age requires a guide who can machete her way through thickets of facts and opinions. “For so many years, libraries owned the information. We were the brokers,” Comer says. Now, information is everywhere, all the time, and libraries have had to reinvent themselves to keep up.

When she walked into the U’s Marriott Library on her first visit to the University, it was a bit like that initial glimpse of the bookmobile, she says: “I needed a jaw strap.” She was stunned by the inviting physical space and the number of students using the library. “Many libraries are designed so the architect can say ‘Look at my beautiful building,’ ” she says. “Library employee Chad Jones operates the automated retrieval machinery. But this library keeps the user in the forefront,” with its mix of quiet spaces and group study areas, big rooms and small reading nooks. Renovated between 2005 and 2009, the library now offers a café, panoramic views of the Salt Lake Valley, a “Knowledge Commons” full of computers, and a “Great Reading Room” equipped with white boards. Library users can take advantage of printing, scanning, and video editing support, as well as have access to hundreds of software programs and billions of research articles.

Still, Comer says, a cleverly designed building and a mountain of data wouldn’t have been enough to convince her to leave her home and her job and move halfway across the country to Utah, far from her two grown children and three grandchildren. “What convinced me to come was not the beautiful building but the people, because they put the students and faculty first.” It also didn’t hurt that both Comer and her husband, John, a retired geologist, have hiked in Utah for years and can’t wait to explore even more of the state.

That hiking is all part of a joy in motion that Comer discovered as an adult. Her parents had been told when she was a child that she would never walk unassisted unless her legs were broken and reset. Instead, they opted for the braces. Eventually, she was able to walk, and in 2003, she decided to take up running and now enjoys participating in local races. “I’m hoping to run some half-marathons here when I’ve adjusted to the altitude and to the landscape being uphill in both directions,” she says.

It has been a long journey from the bookmobile in Keota to the Marriott Library, which is one of only 108 research-intensive libraries in the United States and is known for its fabled Middle East collection, the third largest in the world, as well as its book arts program, its university press, and its three million archived photographs.

Library employee Chad Jones operates the automated retrieval machinery. (photo by August Miller)

Library employee Chad Jones operates the automated retrieval machinery. (Photo by August Miller)

Along the way, Comer got a bachelor’s degree in general studies and a master’s degree in library science from Indiana University, graduating in both cases with a 4.0 grade point average. She has worked in military libraries, a religious library, and public libraries, starting in the era of the card catalog. She remembers the thrill of being the one who got to carefully put the catalog rod back in place after new cards were added to a drawer.

She also remembers being on the staff of McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa in the 1980s when cataloguing became automated. As they carted off one of the card catalogs to the street, she says, a professor threw himself across it, as if it were a casket.

These days, at the U’s Marriott Library and on other campuses around the world, a student researching global warming, say, can have tens of thousands of Googleable articles to choose from, with Wikipedia always elbowing its way to the top. It’s the librarian’s job to help drill down to a manageable list of scholarly sources from reputable journals. So librarians are also teachers, helping students learn to both access and assess information. Those skills, says Comer, are ones students will use for the rest of their lives.

“In some of the staff’s working lifetime,” notes Greg Thompson, Marriott’s associate dean for special collections, “they’ve moved from passive, paper-based resources to cloud-held digital resources, and the thought pattern in the way you do that is enormously different,” a leap across “several Grand Canyons” of expertise, he says. “There is a constant need to train and keep staff and faculty current.”

Comer oversees a staff of 370 full-time and part-time employees, including 41 librarians. Many of the librarians have multiple graduate degrees, in fields ranging from the sciences to the humanities, as well as master’s degrees in library science. Among their many duties, the librarians also help faculty members write grants and create digital textbooks, a savings for students overwhelmed by the costs of standard textbooks.

The library often now buys e-books (a good e-version of a book, notes Associate Librarian Alfred Mowdood, head of Marriott’s research and information services, can search a full text in five seconds, open high-resolution paintings, and link to videos of experiments). The library also saves money and space by buying or printing some books on demand. Comer says that in the past, libraries would buy books “just in case.” Now, she notes, “It’s ‘just in time.’ ”

University of Utah library dean Alberta Comer and her husband, John Comer, with three of their grandchildren. (Photo by Kip May)

University of Utah library dean Alberta Comer and her husband, John Comer, with three of their grandchildren. (Photo by Kip May)

The Marriott Library also has been able to free up space by investing in a high-density storage and retrieval system. If you stand in the storage and retrieval area on the second floor of the library and gaze down, there are metal boxes stretching downwards for three and a half stories, a futuristic slot canyon of literature and information. Books are stored inside the boxes and are fetched by a large, yellow robotic device that can find and deliver a book within minutes.

All that high-density storage means that the library’s “collection footprint”— the area reserved for the books and materials that used to be a library’s essence—is only 25 percent of the building’s 500,000-plus square feet. Included in that 25 percent are 100,000 linear feet of Special Collections materials, items ranging from Mormon diaries to the memorabilia of Utah’s ski pioneers. Only a fraction of the materials have been digitized, because of cost limitations.

Comer remembers the days of card catalogs fondly, but she is not the kind of person who grieves for the simpler past. She embraces the digitizing, robotic-retrieving, print-on-demand present, and says she is ready for whatever comes next. She hopes to make the library more family-friendly but is still gathering data, she says, about other changes.

“I’m big on planning,” she says. “And I’m big on having participation across the library and campus. It will start with a lot of conversations.”

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based freelance journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

The Nonviolent Revolutionary

In late 2005, a law professor named Chibli Mallat announced that he was running for president of Lebanon. Since no one had ever actually mounted a presidential campaign and taken it to the public, people were by turns surprised, dismissive, energized, and bedazzled.

“Chibli Mallat is running for president of Lebanon, and I support him all the way,” gushed New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof as the campaign progressed. “[He is] exactly the new kind of leader that the Arab world needs.”

A few months later, though, Lebanon was at war with Israel, and the would-be election was history. But Mallat continued working behind the scenes for his ideals of nonviolent change. These days, he teaches in the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, where he is a Presidential Professor and “a unique combination of scholar and activist,” says Hiram Chodosh, former dean of the U’s law school.

“Intrinsically, he’s a scholar. But he’s driven at times into the public sphere because he cares so deeply about the conditions around him,” says Chodosh, who stepped down as dean earlier this year to become president of Claremont McKenna College in California.

Since 2007, Utah has been the safe haven where Mallat can teach, write, and direct Right to Nonviolence, an organization he founded with this mission: to advance constitutionalism, justice, and nonviolence across the Middle East. He still maintains a law office in Beirut that also houses and provides legal counsel for Amnesty International’s Middle East regional office, which he helped establish in 1999.

Chodosh calls Mallat “the leading expert on Middle Eastern law in the world,” but it is “aggressive nonviolence” that now captures Mallat’s intellectual and human rights passions, as well as his attentions as an author. He describes his latest book in progress, The Philosophy of Nonviolence, as “a manifesto for the Middle East nonviolent revolution.”

He holds onto his beliefs, even as the increasingly violent and sectarian war in Syria has spilled over into his native Lebanon.

“They say if you think you understand Lebanon, you haven’t been studying it long enough,” is the way former British ambassador Frances Guy described the beleaguered country that is Mallat’s first home. The sentiment is also sometimes expressed as “If you’re not confused by Lebanese politics, then the subject has not been explained to you properly.”

The small country is the most religiously diverse in the Middle East, a sectarian stew of Sunni and Shia Muslims, Maronite Catholics, and Druze. Lebanon is also home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian refugees and now an estimated million Syrians who have fled that country’s ongoing war. Sandwiched between Syria and Israel, and home during the 1970s to the Palestinian Liberation Organization and since then to Hezbollah, Lebanon has been the unlucky place where all these players have duked it out, aided at times by homegrown militias.

“My generation’s youth was stolen by violence, and I think that marked me a lot,” says Mallat, who was 15 years old when initial clashes between Palestinians and right-wing Christian Phalangists turned into a full-scale religious war.

Although some of his friends eventually joined the fighting, Mallat never did. “It might have been cowardice,” he says, but then he offers an alternate explanation by way of a story. During the early months of the war, the family’s house was robbed, and the only thing stolen was the gun he occasionally used to hunt birds. When he discovered this, he says, “in a way it was a great relief, and I couldn’t touch a gun afterwards, and certainly not to shoot a bird or anything else.”

He realized “sort of a sense of the ugliness of violence, even against poor birds, or perhaps especially against birds,” he says. “Retrospectively, I see the reaction that would guide my thinking, to take nonviolence as what I call now ‘the midwife of history’ more seriously.” (The phrase is pure Mallat: an unspoken literary reference to Karl Marx’s declaration that violent revolution has been the midwife of history.)

The Mallats were cultured and well-connected. His grandfather and uncle were celebrated poets; his father, a lawyer, served as a cabinet minister and first president of Lebanon’s constitutional court, and helped establish the first Arab human-rights organization.

 

Chibli Mallat answers questions at a news conference during his 2005-06 campaign for Lebanon’s presidency. (Photo courtesy Chibli Mallat)

Chibli Mallat answers questions at a news conference during his 2005-06 campaign for Lebanon’s presidency. (Photo courtesy Chibli Mallat)

When fighting intensified in Beirut in the mid-1970s, the family moved to its second home in the mountains. When the war followed them there, they moved to Paris. After Mallat’s mother and father returned to Beirut, he and his older sister stayed on in Paris to finish high school, living on their own. He remembers it as a difficult and thrilling time. “It was an extraordinary intellectual moment,” he says. “I learned so much that was mind-opening, of extraordinary dimension.” His introduction to the work of the great French philosophers particularly was a revelation.

During a lull in the civil war in the late 1970s, he moved back to Beirut to study law at the Université Saint-Joseph and, simultaneously, English literature at Lebanese American University. Then Israel invaded Lebanon, the pro-Israeli Lebanese president was assassinated, and nearby shelling shook the law school building during Mallat’s final exams. On a whim, he had already applied to a master’s program in international and comparative law at Georgetown University in the United States, and deteriorating conditions in Lebanon convinced him to attend. Seven years later, he also received a doctorate in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

By then, he was itching to take on some of the world’s most egregious dictators, not by force, but in the courts, through human-rights trials that eventually became his hallmark. “Dictatorship is a crime against humanity,” Mallat says. “Every dictator in the world should know that he is going to be tried.”

In London, he befriended many of Iraq’s exiled opposition leaders, helping found the International Committee for a Free Iraq in 1991, and later INDICT, a group that built a war crimes case against Saddam Hussein. A year before the United States invaded Iraq, Mallat helped launch the Democratic Iraq Initiative, calling for global pressure to force Saddam to step down, in lieu of an invasion.

The idea was to promote opposition leaders, cut off transportation routes for the country’s military and intelligence, pursue Saddam’s indictment for war crimes, and deploy human rights monitors during the transition that followed. The initiative “was very close to being implemented,” Mallat recollects. “It ended up with me meeting with [U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz in his office two weeks before the war and convincing him that the alternative [to invasion] was better.” In the end, of course—in part, Mallat says, because the Arab League wouldn’t go on record in favor of it—the initiative was dropped. “We would have gotten rid of Saddam with far less violence,” he says. “It would have been an extraordinary model of change in the Middle East.”

Justice, but without violence. Even when Saddam was tried in 2005 and 2006 for crimes against humanity, Mallat opposed the death penalty.

Picture Mallat in his office at the U’s law school: As he talks, he runs his fingers over a necklace of beads. They might be Muslim prayer beads. Or Catholic rosary beads. A man from Lebanon could be either of those religions or a dozen others. Actually, Mallat says with a smile, the beads are purely secular: Holding them helps him not bite his fingernails.

In a country rife with religious animosities, Mallat is pointedly nonsectarian. He was raised Maronite Catholic but, he says, “was never devout.” He is an expert on Muslim law and is admired among Shia Muslims for both his book about Iraqi cleric Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr and a successful lawsuit against Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi on behalf of Shia imam Musa al-Sadr, who disappeared in Libya in 1978. (The lawsuit verdict was a symbolic victory, since Gaddafi never traveled to Lebanon for the trial.) Mallat is also friends with principal members of the Syrian opposition, most of them Sunni, and is close to Lebanon Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

In addition to the high-profile cases against Saddam and Gaddafi, Mallat also was one of three lawyers to bring charges against former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The case against Sharon and several members of a Lebanese Christian militia group was tried in a Belgian court and prosecuted by Mallat on behalf of survivors of the 1982 massacre of at least 1,300 people in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor in 2003, but a change in Belgian law, disallowing such lawsuits unless they involved Belgian citizens, later prompted a Belgian appeals court to reject the lawsuit.

Chibli Mallat, who is pointedly nonsectarian, runs his fingers through beads to keep his hands busy. (Photo by Brian Nicholson)

Chibli Mallat, who is pointedly nonsectarian, runs his fingers through beads to keep his hands busy. (Photo by Brian Nicholson)

Rami Khouri, a syndicated columnist and director of a public policy institute at the American University of Beirut, calls Mallat “extremely bold and dynamic and courageous,” for his efforts such as the Sharon case. “Chibli has always been that person who challenges conventional thinking,” Khouri says.

In the mid-2000s, Mallat became a key figure in the movement known as the Cedar Revolution, a nonviolent attempt to overthrow both the nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon by Syria’s al-Assad family and the presidency of Syrian-backed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. On March 14, 2005—exactly a month after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (an assassination many blamed on Syria)—a million Lebanese (a quarter of the country’s population) marched peacefully through Beirut. Among the thousands of families waving flags were Mallat, his wife, Nayla Chalhoub Mallat, and their two sons.

Fourteen-thousand Syrian troops did indeed pull out a month later, but the opposition continued to complain that Syria still pulled the strings in Lebanon. Mallat’s unorthodox run for the presidency (in Lebanon, the president is chosen by the Parliament from a short list of sectarian and military leaders) was an attempt, as Mallat says, to “remove the dictator” and to set up a special tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination.

Trudi Hodges, executive director of Right to Nonviolence, says it was an innovative move. “He launched—really for the first time in the Middle East— this media-savvy and somewhat edgy campaign staffed by youths and others of all religions and political affiliations,” she says. “He developed a detailed platform and ran a modern, professional campaign, and encouraged other candidates to do the same.”

Mallat gave up his bid for the presidency in the summer of 2006 as Hezbollah attacked Israel (an attack Mallat had opposed). He then moved with his family to the United States, where he had secured a teaching job at Princeton University. He has since taught at Harvard and Yale universities, and the University of Virginia. He has also taught at Beirut Islamic University and is still on the faculty of Université Saint-Joseph.

At the University of Utah, in addition to teaching, he has been senior adviser to the Global Justice Project: Iraq, a legal think tank that has worked with the Iraqi government and judiciary to bring about legal reform. This year, he will direct the school’s Global Justice Think Tank with selected U law students. This past summer, he traveled to Libya, where he attended a conference aimed at reconciling Islamic law and international human-rights standards, and to Yemen, to help write that country’s constitution.

Most of his work, says Right to Nonviolence’s Hodges, “isn’t the type of work that necessarily captures the public imagination or garners headlines, but the impact may be far more reaching if one is advising on constitutional solutions, for example, or litigating a case of crimes against humanity that might serve as a precedent for later work.”

Nonviolence is an enigma, according to Mallat. “I find myself the philosophical disciple of Christ, whilst showing that Christ was wrong, as well,” he says. “Absolute nonviolence can only happen during a revolution.” After that, it’s necessary to adopt the rule of law—and the law, he says, “is inherently violent.” He points, for example, to its insistence on locking up (or sometimes even killing) criminals. It’s a point of view that may incense some readers, but Mallat says he is eager to have that debate.

At heart, he’s a philosopher. It is “philosophy, not law or any other discipline, which stands at the apex for those of us who seek in the same inevitable breath to understand and live their surrounding world as revolutionary change,” he writes in the introduction to his new book.

In between his trip to the Mideast and the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, Mallat spent most of his days working on the book, spreading out all his papers and reference books across the family’s dining room table for weeks on end.

He hopes the book will help the Middle East take the best of the Arab Spring and move forward. Of course, he says with the slightest grin, “everybody who writes a book thinks that it’s the one book that will change the course of human history.”

“It’s good to think that,” he adds. “So you put yourself to a high test.”

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based freelance journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.


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At Home in the Trees

Nalini Nadkarni, who describes herself as “a small brown woman,” has been pulled aside in airport security lines a couple dozen times as she has traveled the globe. For these special occasions, she has perfected what she calls her “Trees and Toiletries Lecture.”

As Transportation Security Administration agents rummage through her tote bag to make sure she’s not carrying any suspicious items, she begins her spiel. That lipstick? It gets its smooth texture from shea butter, derived from the seeds of a West African tree. The nail polish? Glossy because of tree fibers mixed with nitrocellulose. Those bandage strips? The adhesive on them comes from gum arabic, an exudate from trees belonging to the pea family.

She continues her lecture until the agents have finished searching—because even in the most unlikely situations, an alert scientist can always find an opportunity to talk about the topic she loves.

Nadkarni is a forest ecologist and, since the fall of 2011, the director of the University of Utah’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education. This is her mission now: to draw more K-12 teachers to science and math, to improve instruction on the college level, and to bring science and math to everyone else—to prisons and churches and halftime at Pac-12 football games.

The freedom to create such an ambitious center is what lured Nadkarni to the U, despite her initial reluctance. Utah, after all, is hardly the tropics, where she and her biologist husband, Jack Longino, have done the bulk of their field research. It’s not even the mossy, forested Pacific Northwest, where the couple had spent the previous two decades. Called “the queen of canopy research” by the National Geographic Society, Nadkarni is at home in the kind of lush foliage found hundreds of feet above the floor of the world’s rain and cloud forests. Utah, by comparison, is dry and sparse.

But in the summer of 2011, the couple packed up their labs and their furniture and moved to Salt Lake City, eager to start a new life at a research university dedicated to public outreach. In her office on the second floor of the University of Utah’s Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology Building, she installed two hanging swings. If you climb onto them, look out the big windows, and squint, it’s the next best thing to being in a tree.

Her passion for science began in the towering maples in her parents’ front yard in Bethesda, Maryland. The trees were Nalini’s oasis, a place where she could read and watch birds and dream of tying a spool of thread to a squirrel’s tail so she could measure its journey across the branches. As she writes in her 2008 book Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, “Those perches aloft were my refuge from the world of homework, parental directives, and the ground-bound humdrum of the everyday.”

Her mother had been raised an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, New York, and her father had been raised a Hindu in Thane, India. The family lived an Indian lifestyle in suburban Washington, D.C., sleeping on mats on the floor, eating without utensils, and subtly expecting more from Nalini’s three brothers than they did from her and her sister, she recollects. Trees were the place where Nalini could both escape and excel.

By the time she was nine years old, she figured she had learned something the rest of the world needed to know; so she wrote her first book, a hand-written, stapled tome called Be Among the Birds: My Guide to Climbing Trees.

Nalini Nadkarni, a forest ecologist, directs the University’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education.

Nalini Nadkarni, a forest ecologist, directs the University’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education.

By the time she entered college at Brown University in 1972, she was torn between careers in biology and dance. When she graduated, she wrangled two disparate internships: six months at the camp of a beetle taxonomist in Papua, New Guinea, followed by six months with a modern dance troupe in Paris. She came back home and drove a taxicab in Maryland while she sorted out her plans. She loved both science and dance—but science won out.

It was “the intellectual piece” that she found so enticing about field biology, she says. And the beetle taxonomist was 70 years old, proof that she’d be able to have a long career.

She enrolled in graduate school in the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources, and it was during her first summer’s field course—in the tropical forests of Costa Rica—that she found herself drawn to what was so tantalizingly out of reach, hundreds of feet above the dark under-story. How did plants live up in the forest canopy without connection to the soil, she wondered. Were there insects and animals that spent their whole lives up there?

Her instructors had no answers for her, because almost no one had been up in the canopy to study it. She itched to get up there herself, but, as she writes, “Most of these trees have unnervingly tall trunks, without lower branches, and can sport spines, biting insects, and the occasional lurking snake. The tree-climbing skills I had developed in the benevolent trees of my childhood were useless.”

Everything changed when she met a student who was applying mountain-climbing techniques to reach the highest treetops. Suddenly, literally and figuratively, her world opened up.

She came back to graduate school intent on researching the differences between the temperate rainforest canopy of Olympic National Park and the tropical cloud forest canopy of Costa Rica. But when she approached her grad committee with her enthusiastic plan, they balked, reminding her there was plenty still to be discovered on the ground. So Nadkarni applied for, and received, a $50,000 grant on her own.

The result was a first-ever study of these forests’ epiphytes, the canopy-dwelling plants—orchids, ferns, mosses—that cover every available trunk and branch of rain and cloud forest trees. Her discovery, a cover article in the prestigious journal Science when she was still a student, was that these epiphytes are able to trap nutrients from rainfall, eventually forming a rich mat of soil underneath them as they cling to the tree. She also discovered that trees develop aerial roots to absorb these nutrients from the mats.

She has spent her research career since then studying the canopy, helping to classify and categorize epiphytes, learning how they interact with the rest of the forest, and beginning to learn what effect humans are having on them.

The first time Longino saw Nadkarni, she was bouncing down a road in Costa Rica. He was a University of Texas graduate student studying ants in a remote field site in the lowlands and was part of a field excursion to the cloud forest. They both say it was love at first sight.

After a few days, he had to return to his field site, located a day or two away in one of the most remote places in Costa Rica, but they continued to see each other as often as they could. Once, when the bush plane didn’t come on time, Longino hiked 20 miles across the rain forest to catch a bus to another airport to catch a plane that would take him to the village bus that would take him to the rickety school bus that would finally get him to Nalini.

Nalini Nadkarni speaks to prisoners at the Stafford gallery with more photos. Creek Correction Center in Aberdeen, Washington. (Photo by Benj and Sarah Drummond)

Nalini Nadkarni speaks to prisoners at the Stafford gallery with more photos. Creek Correction Center in Aberdeen, Washington. (Photo by Benj and Sarah Drummond)

Later, after they were married, he named an ant after her, and later still named ants after their two children. Asked if Nalini’s ant is beautiful, Longino—who is now a professor of biology at the University of Utah and a well-known taxonomist—admits “you’d have to be an ant lover to call any ant beautiful.” But her ant is a canopy ant. “And it’s rare.”

He says his first impression of his wife is still true today: a woman with energy, earnestness, and charisma. “It’s almost an aura,” says Longino, who is not typically a man who gushes. “And there’s not a political bone in her body. The normal politics that go on in any kind of organization, she’s somehow above it all. There’s nothing self-serving about anything she does. I watch her give talks, and it’s like people are ready to give their lives over to her. It’s some kind of Nalini evangelism.”

The search committee for the U’s Center for Science and Math Education was similarly smitten by Nadkarni. “She has this infectious enthusiasm that’s really hard to ignore,” says U biology professor Don Feener. “Her skills at outreach I think are really built into her bones.” Plus, adds U Interim Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Hardman, “she’s one of the most respected plant biologists in the world.”

Nadkarni laments the widening gap between both nature and humans, and science and society. “People who do not have awareness or the understanding of the approach of science lack tools that can help them make good decisions about important issues such as human health and the environment,” she says. Science provides a way to take the glut of data and “interpret it wisely,” she says, “rather than basing decisions on religion or emotions, traditions or being swayed by political pressure.”

Most science researchers, though, “live in the country of Academia,” with their own customs and scientific language, she says. So she both encourages and instructs them on how to become “ambassadors” to the non-science community at large. Nadkarni herself has taken dancers, musicians, and Washington state legislators into the canopy, and has brought rap singers and urban youth together in the forest to make their own beats about trees.

Last year, she teamed up with the U’s Athletics Department to develop “Sports ’n Science,” a program designed to explain the science behind sports. During last fall’s football season, they launched their first home-game Jumbotron video, “The Science of the Punt,” featuring U math professor Peter Trapa and Ute punter Sean Sellwood discussing velocity vectors, angles, and psi. The video is now being shown at other Pac-12 schools.

And then, there is Treetop Barbie. Nadkarni first created the makeover of the iconic, perfectly coiffed fashionista in 1996. Students and volunteers round up the used dolls from thrift stores, dress them in climbing gear, binoculars and a hard hat, and sell them on the International Canopy Network website to raise funds for canopy research.

After an article about Treetop Barbie appeared in The New York Times in 2003, the doll’s manufacturer, Mattel, Inc. complained—until Nadkarni convinced them that 1) the money raised was for a good cause, and 2) she knows a lot of reporters.

Her most ambitious outreach has been to prisoners. In 2004, she began a collaboration with Dan Pacholke, then head of a small corrections center in Washington and now director of prisons for the state. Pacholke, who describes Nadkarni as “electric,” had already been interested in making the correctional facility more environmentally sustainable. With Nadkarni’s help, they were soon bringing in scientists to give lectures and hiring prisoners to compost, grow an organic garden, and raise endangered frogs, butterflies, and prairie plants to repopulate threatened ecosystems.

The prisoners were also hired to research the best ways to grow mosses— the same epiphytes that the floral industry was stripping illegally from the rain forest and that take multiple decades to regenerate in the wild.

Pacholke reports that these work opportunities have given the prisoners a sense of “meaning and purpose beyond themselves,” and although hard data on the program’s effect awaits long-term studies, indications are that the prisoners involved are less prone to act out.

With Washington’s Sustainability in Prisons Project as a model, Nadkarni this spring began the Utah Science in Prisons Project, with the goal of bringing science education, job training, conservation projects, and environmentally sustainable operations to correctional facilities in Utah. The project includes a lecture series at the Utah State Prison on science and math topics, featuring her colleagues from the U. Nadkarni has also been working with researchers and community partners who would like to involve prisoners in conservation research and restoration projects. And she is talking with prison authorities about developing sustainability projects at the correctional facilities.

She’s comfortable in front of prisoners and loggers, professors and TV cameras, but to see Nadkarni in her element, it’s best to watch a 1999 National Geographic special called Heroes of the High Frontier (a clip appears in her 2009 TED talk). There she is, outfitted with ropes and a harness, hoisting herself up an impossibly tall giant strangler fig in Costa Rica. Eager and free.

Fifty years after she began climbing the maple trees in her parents’ yard, this is what she still loves: the arms of a tree holding her, the mystery of nature about to unfold. She and Jack held their own private, unofficial wedding ceremony in a silk-cotton tree in Costa Rica. And someday, when she’s about to die, this is what she’ll want, she says: to be hoisted up into a tropical canopy and strapped to a tree branch, left to sway until she’s gone.

—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based freelance journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.


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Nadkarni on conserving the forest canopy:
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