Thursday, July 12, 2018

"The Ethics Of Poker"

What are the odds that a Chico State University student would graduate with a degree in philosophy and then go on to become a philosophy professor at McNeese State University at Lake Charles, Louisiana? Maybe it was always in the cards for that to happen to Todd Furman, who seems to have a special interest in no-limit Texas Hold'em.

That's evident in Furman's book, "The Ethics Of Poker" ($29.95 in paperback from McFarland; also for Amazon Kindle). It's a witty discussion, packed with thought experiments, of some of the issues of right and wrong raised by the game itself. (It's a reflection on sinning, not winning.)

For poker neophytes, Furman offers an extensive glossary of both poker and philosophical terms (including "Bad Beat Jackpot" and "Veil of Ignorance"), a section on the rules of Texas Hold'em, and a ranking of hands (from Royal Flush to One Pair). 

Here and there he loves to talk the talk: "With everyone's attention focused on him, Mike shuffles, cuts the cards, and deals one more hand face down. Turning over his cards, Mike has Pocket-Rockets; the next hand is Cowboys, followed by Siegfried and Roy, and so on. Mike is a mechanic."

But once you know that a "mechanic" is a slight-of-hand artist, it's clear that the other players would not exactly congratulate Mike on his no-holds-barred skill but rather insist that Mike had acted immorally and demand their money back. See? Setting the formal rules of the game aside, poker raises a host of issues, such as whether it's morally acceptable to play with someone who's drunk, or play with a compulsive gambler.

The book is divided into three sections. The first considers the morality of poker itself and how much harm it causes society (maybe a lot, but less than alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, which are also legal). The second deals with actions within the game (such as informed consent--what if the table stakes game turns out to be open stakes?). The third is how casinos ought to operate (so the taxes they pay should reflect actual costs to society, such as "additional crime and bankruptcies").

Will readers learn something? It's a safe bet.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

"The Trumpeter's New Clothes"

Paradise blogger Robyn Alana Engel's satirical retelling of "The Emperor's New Clothes" comes with a warning: "Not for those who lean Orange."

There's an intriguing personage at the center of her word play. "From Queens arose a King," we're told. "Golden towers housed his bling./ Dim of wit and rich in wealth,/ he told crazed tales about himself/ … A shameless trumpeter was he." 

Effervescently illustrated by Paradise's own Steve Ferchaud (with the cover design by Bryan Pedas), "The Trumpeter's New Clothes" ($12.99 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle, with more at tells the story of "a huge bellied brute ... colored orange, just like the fruit." 

Folks in the kingdom can't stand his soulless trumpeting. "He punished people with brown skin/ and those who didn't worship him./ He broke up families, taxed the poor;/ stole from the ill and old,/ and many more."

As a sign in one of the illustrations shows, he spends much time at his MeLargeEgo Country Club--and there the golfing double entendres begin: "He did work hard, I might say,/ at carving-out large times to play./ One of the King's most favored/ things of all/ was to swing/ long rods at tiny balls."

The plot thickens when, in Putinontheritz Land, "Rushing Brides strategized/ a sly get-rich plan/ to trick and deceive/ the bigly orange man," offering the King a magical "see-through orange jumpsuit" sure to improve his game and attract damsels by the dozen. Of course, there is no actual garment, but that doesn't stop the King. "He debuted his new jumpsuit/ all around town,/ like a naked parade/ of one proud circus clown."

Then, after a tragic school shooting, one courageous teenager points out that the King is not only not wearing any clothes, but he has failed to protect the kingdom. Millions of others join the school kids and the King, downcast, is no longer the center of attention. But not for long.

"'Watch me!' said the King,/ needy as could be./ 'I'm a covfefé cannot ball.'/ He squeezed into a bigly cannon./ 'Look-see! Look at me!'" But no one did.

Engel's goal? To let the chip shots fall where they may.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

"Reassurance In Negative Space"

Elizabyth Hiscox is Director of the Contemporary Writer Series at Western State Colorado University which "brings emerging and established literary artists to campus and community venues." A Chico State University grad, her new collection of poems uses word sounds and typography to push the boundaries of meaning. 

"Reassurance In Negative Space" ($19.95 in paperback from Word Galaxy Press; also for Amazon Kindle) takes on everything, from Camembert to her mother's fatal illness, with sly humor that challenges readers to think and rethink what she has written.

Some lines are playful: "Tabs on beer are canned laughter here" (from "Cheval de Frise and Gone-Sweetness at the All-Inclusive"); "I've begun to notice the infidelities/ of drainage ditches at dusk" (from "The Complex of the Yolk Base"); and "no one sees the mime holding the banana until it is peeled" (from "A Poem with Three Lines from One Night in Portland").

A prose poem, "Fourteen Minutes Too Late for the Cheese Counter," starts this way: "And though I've loved many, each in their turn, the fact of a man is not the same as a really good Camembert and never will be."

In "To Older Cold," the poet evokes a memory: "Snow covers half my childhood./ It arrived in haste. It sank school days/ on battery-operated radios,/ storm shadows huddled electricity,/ and windowsills succumbed often, and at speed." 

The "Sonnet to Room 411b" turns poignant and may evoke a memory of our own: "Hummingbird through the pane, sucking the Spanish roses/ and my eyes are the girl passing me in the hall.// 'Mother.' It makes your mouth call/ in the saying.// The ceiling fan becomes a turnstile for the anxious air/ and a well-intentioned bedside: crepe-paper flowers fading to/ fading, too."

Readers who have written poems or prose of their own, but who would like some guidance on self-publishing--from selecting covers to writing introductions--may be interested in an upcoming Chico workshop presented by the North State Writers Club. The workshop, facilitated by local author Thatcher Nalley, will be held July 15 from 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. at Oxford Suites. Advance registration is $95 for non-members, $65 for members, with more information at

Thursday, June 21, 2018


Chico State University grad Robert Grindy now teaches creative writing courses at Richland Community College in Decatur, Illinois. He has crafted a wonderfully convoluted murder mystery set in 1999 and centered on the fictional Kickapoo Community College located in a town sort of like Decatur. The story takes the central character, a cynical creative writing instructor at Kickapoo named Henry Streator, into a droll world of mayhem and murder.

In "Iced" ($15.95 in paperback from Livingston Press; also for Amazon Kindle) the not-very-likable Streator is on the verge of being fired, despite his tenured status. 

He's perpetually late to class, rude to colleagues and students alike, and now, "facing down the end of a decade, the end of the century, the end of his thirties just weeks away with his September birthday, what had he to show for the nineties? Ten years of shoveling … out … the Aegean stables of freshman composition. A failed marriage. No book."

Then one of his down-on-his-luck students, Tarvis Conner, brings him a plot idea for a story that features the murder of the town's prominent ethanol factory owner Frederick Gunther, head down in the thin ice of a nearby lake, skis up, legs in a V. A spark of interest kindles in Streator, especially since his Dean friend, Loren Locke, makes it clear that unless Streator gets a novel published, he is toast.

Conner dies in a freak car accident, and Streator, desperate, takes Conner's idea for his own. In a fit of creativity (and a change of "Gunther" to "Geddes"), he finishes the manuscript, gets an agent, and lands the book (and a big promised advance) with a small publisher. 

Streator quits his job at Kickapoo and prepares to fly to New York to sign the contract, when Gunther himself is found head down in the ice, with his skis on and legs in a V. It seems clear Conner knew beforehand this would happen, and Streator becomes detective, piecing together clues into a tapestry of deceit and destruction (he's almost killed in a freak car accident himself). And then he gets the surprise of his life.

Maybe the world is not as screwed up as he thought.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

"Ward Of The Court"

In 1989 Christopher Hall began his studies at the Northwestern University School of Dentistry in Chicago. He was twenty-two when he received his acceptance packet as he was completing four challenging years as a chemistry major at Chico State University ("I was happy to be done with all those meticulous labs").

He reminded himself that at Chico "I had received an excellent education. I had put myself on firm ground by earning my Bachelor of Science degree. I would always be able to take care of myself." Hall's memoir makes it clear that this was not a boast but rather a realization that such inner confidence had saved his life. 

"My dad had died when I was fourteen years old," he writes in "Ward Of The Court" ($5.99 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle). "Sometime during the first four years of my life, my father was imprisoned for killing a man. … My mother is a tragic figure; when my father was imprisoned … she turned to alcohol. …"

Born in Watts, at four Hall "was declared a ward of the court." He was placed in a foster home, "the beginning of a journey that would include two more foster homes, four boys’ homes, and multiple stints in three different Juvenile Hall facilities."

Something began growing inside Hall, some sense of future prospects. "I knew that to have a fighting chance I would have to attend college and get an education." His going to Chico State "lifted a huge burden off my shoulders. I had kept all this anxiety inside about the future beginning at about the age of fourteen."

Hall's story is told in matter-of-fact language. There are many schools, a failed marriage, a stint in the Army, and a move away from dentistry to his true love, family medicine. A poignant letter from his brother Wayne (serving life in prison), provides a startling contrast. Hall was thirty before his long-held goal began to come true. But it happened. It happened.

"I hope," he writes, "that at least one young person sitting out there in foster care, the juvenile justice system, or a boys’ or girls’ home will be inspired."

Thursday, June 07, 2018

"Broken: Tales Of A Titanium Cowgirl"

"We can all identify our own moment," writes Michelle Scully, "that blink of an eye drawing an indelible black Sharpie line between 'before' and what comes 'after." Her moment came in 2011 in a horse riding accident that broke her back and nearly crushed her spirit.

Scully, who has a Master's in Biology from Chico State University, lives with her family in Northern California where they are "part of a multi-generational family farming operation." Her harrowing story is recounted with grace, wit, and deep insight in "Broken: Tales Of A Titanium Cowgirl" ($18.95 in paperback from Spinning Sevens Press; also for Amazon Kindle). For more, visit

Taking her horse, "Wish," for an outing, "the wild backyard riding kid in me overwhelmed the budding horseman in me" and they began to lope, too fast. When a rabbit "bolted right through her legs," Wish shot "up into the air like a rocket and sideways, simultaneously." 

Scully flipped onto her back and hit hard. "I had heard a loud 'pop' when I hit the ground," she remembers, "and a wave of pain hit me like a hammer."

The pop? An "imploded first lumbar or L1 vertebrae which had disintegrated upon impact." It meant "removing one of my ribs and using it as the basis for a bone graft in a titanium bone cage which would be placed in the gap where my L1 used to be."

"I've been training myself to love my hardware, because without the technology and audacity that ever caused someone to try out such a complicated fix, I'd be screwed. Now I'm actually screwed together, but in a good way."

Would she ever ride again? "Could I accept my brokenness without raging against it?" There is, she learns, "a beauty in broken things." She senses God's sustaining love and also finds "hope through my abiding love for the majestic horse."

"It's easy to feel overcome and heavily burdened by the weight of our struggles, and I've found that having a stash of joy (and Cheetos) can help keep you afloat."

Dogs and frogs also have much to teach us, as does Scully's own story of courage, faith, and gratitude.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

"Melville Among The Philosophers"

A quarter century after Herman Melville published "Moby-Dick" he published a whale of a poem, some 18,000 lines, called "Clarel: A Poem And A Pilgrimage." It draws its inspiration in part on a trip Melville had made to Palestine which turned out to be wholly uninspiring.

Chico State University philosophy professor Troy Jollimore, a nationally-acclaimed poet himself, takes up "Clarel" as the first essay in "Melville Among The Philosophers" ($100 in hardcover from Lexington Books; also for Amazon Kindle), edited by Corey McCall and Tom Nurmi, with an afterword by Cornel West. 

Melville frames philosophic questions in literary form, and the philosophers contributing to the volume view his work through the lenses of feminism, race, beauty, religious studies, and more.

Jollimore's study of Melville's epic is a model of clarity. "The poem," he writes, "describes a journey undertaken by its title character, a young divinity student who is attempting to find grounds for faith, in the company of a group of pilgrims who seem to represent diverse outlooks one might take on various disputed topics." 

The primary topic is the possibility of religious faith in the midst of nineteenth-century science, especially the work of Charles Darwin, which seemed to "disenchant" the universe, reducing it to mere mechanism.

For Clarel, coming upon a group of lepers, human nature expressed itself "In voiceless visagelessness" (the title of Jollimore's essay) waiting for a God who is all too silent.

Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne said that Melville "will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief." Clarel finds the land of Palestine desolate, an expression of Melville's own sense of God's hiddenness. What can one believe, and why?

Jollimore reads the poem through the lens of American pragmatist William James. For Melville belief must not be theoretical, dreamed up in the captain's cabin, but practical, connecting with life out on deck. Jollimore suggests that for Clarel, and Melville, "the notion of evidence ought itself to be understood not abstractly but in terms of lived experience: one discovers what can and ought to be believed not abstractly, but by living a human life."

Can intellect and spirit be reconciled? Clarel, and Melville, find no easy answers.