BASS 2014: Stephen O’Connor, “Next to Nothing” from Conjunctions #60

The Soros sisters’ eyes are the blue of lunar seas, their complexions cloud white, and their identical pageboys well-bottom black. The term “beautiful” has never been applied sincerely to either sister, though Ivy, the youngest by two years, might be deemed the better looking, because she has detectable cheekbones and a waist narrower than her hips. Isabel has very little in the way of body fat, but his square shaped from almost any angle. Even her face is square shaped. It’s been that way since birth.
… No one looks either sister in the eye as they approach along the solitary block of the town’s main street. No one raises hand, or says hello. But once the sisters have begun to recede in the opposite direction, all four heads turned to watch. Significant glances are exchanged, but not words. There’s no need.

Maybe I’m just tired of playing “Now figure out what this author is trying to do.” Maybe I’m just coasting out-of-gear after a tough MOOC season. Maybe I’m just regarding this story in the same way the sisters regard all of humanity, with analytical detachment bordering on disdain. But this one went by me.

That’s disappointing, because Stephen O’Connor wrote one of my all-time favorite selections from One Story; I liked it so much, in fact, I bought a copy of his collection, Here Comes Another Lesson, but, sadly, except for “Ziggurat” and the title story (which, truth be told, won me purely on the basis of its title) never got far with that, either. That happens, sometimes; a particular author just doesn’t click with a particular reader.

The Soros sisters are odd ducks, obviously, from the first paragraph. They seem as stripped of humanity as their eyes are stripped of color – more eye imagery! Lunar sea? I’ve never thought of the lunar seas as being pale blue, but grey (in photos) or off-white (in the sky). Lunacy?

Yet they’re successful, by most yardsticks, having both families and careers as, of all things, sociologists; I wonder if it’s telling that O’Connor, who teaches in the MFA program at Columbia, sets them in academia:

Isabel and Ivy’s natural tendency is to see human society as a pointlessly complex mechanical device of no use to anybody, and most likely broken. They know, however, that theirs is a minority opinion, and so, from a very early age, they have compared what people actually say and do to put it would be reasonable to say and do, hoping they might discover what it takes to feel at home in the world. These efforts – disappointing from the get-go and worse over time – nevertheless send out the sisters with certain intellectual habits that propel them through college, sociology graduate school, and into tenure-track jobs: Isabel at a university in Nebraska, Ivy, in Indiana.

Even their academic specialties are, well, nothing: the financial futures market “where traders make billions by buying and selling absolutely nothing,” and apocalyptic culture as a recognition that humankind’s passing will make no difference to universe.

It’s a story about nothing. Maybe that’s my problem; I never “got” Seinfeld, either.

The sisters spend their summers in the town where their parents – who seem relatively normal – now live, a different place from where they grew up, but home nonetheless. Perhaps the parents felt a need to move on after the girls had their own lives. It couldn’t be easy, raising kids who don’t quite understand what the big deal is all about. The sisters aren’t exactly popular in town: “They make the townspeople feel erased. They make the townspeople feel like a variety of wood louse.” I’ve known people like that.

A storm (more storm action!) brings on the climax of the story, yet I felt all along this was an extended character study of characters with no character – a full-color shoot of grayscale paper dolls. Maybe the point was how unmoved I was at the ending. Maybe the point of all literature is in recognizing its effect on us, and wondering about that: is it possible for people to be absent humanity? Does it make us less human, reduce our capacity to feel? Is it the humanity of others that in fact makes us human?

Nothing. Maybe that’s an appropriate reaction to a story about nothing.

Logical MOOC

logic 210Course: Introduction to Logic
School: Stanford via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Michael Genesereth, Eric Kao
 Logic is one of the oldest intellectual disciplines in human history. It dates back to the times of Aristotle; it has been studied through the centuries; and it is still a subject of active investigation today.
     This course is a basic introduction to Logic. It shows how to formalize information in form of logical sentences. It shows how to reason systematically with this information to produce all logical conclusions and only logical conclusions. And it examines logic technology and its applications – in mathematics, science, engineering, business, law, and so forth.
     The course differs from other introductory courses in Logic in two important ways. First of all, it teaches a novel theory of logic that improves accessibility while preserving rigor. Second, the material is laced with interactive demonstrations and exercises that suggest the many practical applications of the field.

I keep looking for some area of math that isn’t such a nightmare for me. Logic seemed a, mmmm-hm, logical choice: no numbers, and I greatly enjoyed the logic portion of Intro to Mathematical Thinking – so this should work out well, I should be able to do this!

Not so much, no.

The first three weeks went fine. Lecture videos introduced material, quizzes were very manageable, and the supplementary logic puzzles were fun. I was feeling pretty cocky: I got this.

Then week 4 hit.

Caution: steep drop-off. Mendelson. Fitch. Perfectly innocent-sounding common-sense sentences like “If by assuming φ we can infer ψ, then we can infer the sentence φ implies ψ” turned into vicious monsters laughing at me in the dark in nightmares. That’s what happens when you take a course given to Stanford computer science majors.

The exercises were designed to provide instant feedback. This is the first time I’ve seen a MOOC instructor up-front admit that there’s no way to prevent “cheating,” so why not take pedagogic advantage of what’s possible:

Finally, a few words about the online problems. First of all, you can submit your answers to any problem as often as you like, and the system will take your highest grade. Second, all problems provide immediate feedback. When you check a checkbox or make a selection from a menu or compete a proof, the system will tell you immediately whether the answer is correct, even BEFORE you submit your answers for grading. The upshot is that, for some problems, there is no reason not to get a perfect score.
         Yes, we realize that it is possible to “game” the system by dumbly trying all answers until you get the right one and then submitting that answer. However, this is already possible. There is nothing stopping you from signing up twice, getting the right answers from one account and using them in your other account. Besides, for many problems, mostly proofs, finding a correct answer is a challenge, and you will have to work hard to get that coveted green checkmark. And we do not reveal proofs until after the hard deadline.

This wasn’t as much of a giveaway as it seems. In fact, I flunked the course (yes, I flunked another math course, I’m on a roll now) because so many of the proofs eluded me. And, to be frank, the discussion boards were so loaded with “hints” that most of those, I might’ve been able to eke out as well. But call me crazy; I have a conscience, so I used the hints, sure, but if I couldn’t come up with something on my own, I didn’t submit the solution for points. I don’t see any particular advantage to “passing” these courses (other than ego, and I have little ego when it comes to math), so I’d rather have an accurate record of what I was able to do, should I try again some time. The instant feedback on the checkbox and multiple choice questions, on the other hand, was a great idea. Yes, I probably got a higher “score” than I would have otherwise, but it helped to clarify some points. I’m a little surprised they didn’t have ungraded homework questions with instant feedback, and then more traditional quiz questions, but I don’t teach MOOCs, I just take them.

Staff was very active on the boards – the TA was even available on Sunday evenings, time I tend to use a lot, and he was very helpful. Mike (funny, how some professors are so clearly Professors, and others are so clearly Mike) also did a lot of board-prowling, and while that has tremendous value in and of itself, I’m afraid I wasn’t able to understand his explanations any better than the original material being questioned.

However, there was Rachel.

If the proofs were monsters lurking in the dark, Rachel was the angel from heaven sent to show the way through the forest. A fellow student with some background in math and logic, she had a knack for explanation, and the patience to deal with troubled souls lined up for miles. I personally would have never gone past week 4 had it not been for Rachel. Many others felt the same way.

Plenty of supplementary material was available in the course. We had access to proof editors for each system, so we could work out simple examples or the samples in the lectures, to get the hang of how they worked. The entire syllabus was available in a single document, complete with formatted examples and diagrams, which are so important in a course like this. A set of extra resources was available for each week – tips on proofs, background and advanced materials. Several “logic puzzles” were provided for group discussion, each demonstrating some topic from the lectures; I’m afraid I was too mired in proofs to work on most of them, but I enjoyed the few I did.

Staff seemed quite restrained, somehow, but that may be because the humor was dry and ironic. The tip sheet on handling the Fitch proof editor was titled “Be-Fitched.” Michael picked up on my Stevie Smith reference when I signed a post, “Not Waving, But Drowning.” And, best of all: Box logic. I was probably the only student stupid enough to think this was an actual thing, like the Fitch editor or Relational Logic, so feverishly took notes and made diagrams. Then I “got” it. Coming right after Week 4, I needed a smile.

I was impressed with the instructor involvement, with their responsiveness to questions and problems, and with the resources provided; it’s not their fault I can’t think. And I will admit I’m not as well-prepared in mathematics as the typical Stanford student (how’s that for dry, ironic humor; I’m probably not as well-prepared in mathematics as the lawn at Stanford). I hope they follow through with the “boot camp” idea. There has to be some middle ground between week 3 and 4, between “I got this” and “Huh?” I’ll be taking the upcoming logic courses from University of Melbourne shortly, maybe that will help fill in the gaps, or maybe I just need to try again.

Some day. When I can handle the nightmares again.

Jeanne Holtzman: Almost Wanton (Red Bird Chapbooks 2014)

Angela hated the word horny. It sounded so crude. There must be a better way to describe the way she felt these days. Lascivious. Aflame. Maybe even wanton.

~~”Waiting for Mr. Goodman”

I’m always thrilled to see one of my former writing-and-reviewing comrades publish.

I spent some time in Zoetrope’s Flash Factory with Jeanne Holtzman; in fact, she’s one of only two Zoetrope people I’ve met in person (which is why I refer to her by her first name), since, by one of those bizarre coincidences, her daughter Molly lived in the same building as I do while she was a student at the Maine College of Art. The three of us went to a Steve Almond reading, in fact, and we ran into each other a few other times.

When she offered to send me a copy of her first published chapbook, I bought it myself, instead, since, well, I knew I wanted a copy but I didn’t want to feel like a leech once again. The hand-made book from Red Bird Chapbooks is lovely, with French flaps and bound with a delicate cord dangling enticingly from the spine. It’s something of a family project, as one of daughter Molly’s paintings serves as the cover art.

The first thing I did when the book arrived was look up “wanton”.

I was surprised: the initial meaning of the word was “undisciplined”. Of boys, “childishly cruel and unruly”. Of animals: “skittish, refractory”; also, “frisky, frolicsome”. Of color or music, “cheerful, exuberant”. Of money, “luxurious, extravagant”. Of plants, “abundant, prolific”. Of health: “robust, vigorous”. Of an act: “reckless, arbitrary”.

And of course, of a woman: “Lustful; not chaste; sexually promiscuous”.

It’s true that most of the stories revolve around sex, but there many sides to sex – curiosity, heartbreak, generosity, secrecy – and this collection gives us a tour of them all, as well as the less obvious kinds of wantonness. These are women – girls, in some cases – who color outside the lines of societal dictates, in thought or deed. Jeanne’s done something very interesting in the ordering of these fifteen flashes: they’re arranged by age of the main character, so we see how “wanton” changes over time, from pre-pubescence, with all the bewilderment that entails, to old age, with its wealth of experience.

These are stories that illuminate the possibilities of wantonness in ways I never could have imagined. Some of my favorites sorted by variety of wantonness:

Of a woman: Lustful; not chaste; sexually promiscuous

Teddy laughs like a machine gun.
~~ “Better than Chocolate”

Three stories – “I Know My Love Can Save The World” (on the 2012 Wigleaf Longlist for best online flash) and “Better than Chocolate” (which contains my favorite first line quoted above, so evocative), and “(Com)passion”, are indeed lustful, yet the wanton women involved are more interested in healing others – and perhaps, obliquely, the broken parts of themselves – through sex than in carnal pleasure. Is it not good, to help others? Who decides when some line has been crossed?

"Pink Ribbon" by demonrat

“Pink Ribbon” by demonrat

Of an act: reckless

The next day Ana came home to a mailbox stuffed with invitations. She heard voices inside them, calling to her. “Come join us Ana. You’re special now. You belong.”
~~ “One of Them”

Two stories about reactions to breast cancer show how restrictive society’s expectations have become: “Million Dollar Movie” brings to mind the unique relationship between best friends, and “One of Them” – the 2009 Whidbey Students Choice Award winner – made me wish I’d been at that meeting, so I could stand up and cheer at the recklessness.

Of Secret wantonness

He posts pictures of the two of them labeled Mr. and Mrs. Gummi. He’s gaining weight.”
~~”You Don’t Unfriend Them”

Most of my favorite stories fell in this category, a wantonness of mind or emotion, a wantonness no one but the wantonee knew about. Maybe the person sitting next to you, some stranger who passes by unnoticed, or the person who shares your life, is being secretly wanton, right now.

"Gummy Murder" by raynebowbear

“Gummy Murder” by raynebowbear

“You Don’t Unfriend Them” – published in Necessary Fiction as “You Don’t Defriend Them” (it took some time for Facebook lingo to settle down) is a story Zin Kenter recognized because – it was from Zin’s Flash Factory prompt: a flash in second person including Gummi bears and gruel. Yep, that’s Zin – and Jeanne turned it out.

“No Dysfunctional Lovers” and “Cry of the Loon Lodge” similarly feature women who let their wantonness remain in their thoughts.

And then there’s the title story, “Waiting for Mr. Goodman”, secret wantonness caught in the act. There’s a terrific “turn” in this story, right about when the g-string starts to chafe… but then, our fantasies rarely survive the transplant to reality.

I asked Jeanne what it feels like to have her collection published:

I’m not a particularly goal-oriented person and my one and only writing goal, really the only specific goal in my life, was to have a chapbook of my flash fiction published. I’m thrilled that Red Bird Chapbooks chose my manuscript. Evan Kingston was wonderful to work with and Dana Hoeschen was completely open to my cover suggestions. I’m so pleased with the hand sewn binding and beautiful physicality of the book and proud and tickled that my daughter’s art graces the cover!

Beautiful job, both of you – and congratulations!

BASS 2014: Joyce Carol Oates: “Mastiff” from TNY, 7/1/13

TNY art by Owen Freeman

TNY art by Owen Freeman

The woman hadn’t told the man much about her past. Not yet. And possibly wouldn’t. Her principle was Never reveal your weakness. Especially to strangers: this was essential. Technically, the woman and the man were “lovers,” but they were not yet intimate. You might say—the woman might have said—that they were still, fundamentally, strangers to each other.

One of the most interesting things about this story (available online) is also the most annoying to me: the use of “the man” and “the woman” instead of their names, which we know – Sam and Mariella. While it annoys me (just a personal quirk of mine; I recognize it’s a perfectly valid technique), I can appreciate the need for it here: these are two people who are not comfortable with intimacy. What is intimacy, after all, if not revealing your weakness, and understanding the weakness of another?

They’re a relatively new couple, she in her 40s, he in his 50s, though she doesn’t realize he’s that much older until late in the story. There’s a telling sign right there: how do you date someone for a few weeks, have sex with him, and not know how old he is? Typically there would be some curiosity, a few little hints about memories and past experiences, preferences, remarks that indicate someone was around during Camelot or Watergate or the disco years. She’s indicated she has deliberately not revealed much about her past, and it seems she hasn’t been that interested in his either. If that sounds like a rather stilted relationship, well, that’s exactly what they have, my mutual choice.

Until the dog bites.

Mariella has been anxious about the dog from the opening of the story, and that anxiety is well-transmitted to the reader through the text. The dog is described in distinctly sexual terms:

The woman stared at the animal, not twelve feet away, wheezing and panting. Its head was larger than hers, with a pronounced black muzzle, bulging glassy eyes. Its jaws were powerful and slack; its large, long tongue, as rosy-pink as a sexual organ, dripped slobber. The dog was pale-brindle-furred, with a deep chest, strong shoulders and legs, a taut tail. It must have weighed at least two hundred pounds. Its breathing was damply audible, unsettling.

I was afraid of the dog myself, after reading that.

Mariella and Simon encounter the dog on a hike, another of their less-than-intimate dates. They don’t seem to like each other that much, but they’re both trying to fall in love, because, well, it’s high time. The atmosphere of threat is so pronounced from the opening, I thought Simon was abducting her at one point, when he wanted to stay longer on the mountain trail than she did, when he forced her to drink their remaining water, when we learned of his irritation that she hadn’t brought her own water, that she’d worn the wrong shoes.

But the threat comes from the dog. The dog-owner, to be more precise; as JCO makes clear in her Page Turner interview, “In such situations, it is not ever an animal’s ‘fault’ — it is the dog-owner’s fault, of course.” That’s very true, but I’m sure she’ll get a lot of complaints anyway. She also wonders if the current mania for owning big, potentially vicious dogs is a way of showing off one’s power; she should read “A Full Service Shelter.” In this story, the dog owner is of course at fault, and runs off without taking any responsibility for the attack, without reporting it, leaving two injured people bleeding on a mountain trail. That’s close to hit-and-run.

In contrast, Simon plays protector general (Dan Madley at The Mookes and the Gripes calls him a “knight in shining armor”). I’m interested by the contrast between the two men, the one who is the actual threat, the one I perceived as a threat for a time – and whom Marielle perceives, with his impending intimacy, as a threat as well. She prefers conversations with people she’ll never see again. As it turns out, the man she’ll never see again is the one who is the actual threat, not only physically, but in that he intensifies the “imitation intimacy” she and Simon are playacting.

I’m also interested in the way JCO uses the point of view. We get into Simon’s head at times – his disdain of Mariella’s footwear, other disappointments – but she’s chosen to stay with Mariella once the attack starts. At times Simon is semi-conscious. This heightens the threat they face as a couple, ratcheting up the drama considerably, but I wonder if it’s also a good way to deny us access to his previously available thoughts. We don’t know if he is angry that Mariella got him into this (which she didn’t, of course; she did nothing to precipitate the attack), if he’s gratified that she’s caring for him, or if he wishes she’d go away.

Her caring for him – interesting phrase, “caring for him,” with its dual medical and psychological meanings – isn’t a straight line. This scene in the hospital, after Mariella (“the woman” in the text throughout, remember) creates a fascinating picture of her:

The woman was light-headed. Her hands and wrists began to burn. She heard her thin, plaintive voice, begging, “Don’t let him die!”
Looking around, she saw how others regarded her. A woman crazed with worry, fear. A woman whose voice was raised in panic. The sort of woman you pity even as you inch away from her.
She saw that her coarse-knit Scottish sweater—it had been one of her favorites—had been torn beyond repair.
In a fluorescent-lit rest room, her face in the mirror was blurred, like those faces on TV that are pixelated in order to disguise their identity. She was thinking of how the massive dog had thrown itself at her and how, astonishingly, the man had protected her. Did the man love her, then?

Here she goes from what seems like genuine concern for his well-being, to narcissistic analysis, in a heartbeat. Her self-absorption, once we get past the truly absurd concern under the circumstances over the damage to her sweater, has the flavor of insecurity: “Are people criticizing me? What does his behavior mean? What response is appropriate?” It’s interesting that her earlier self-identification as his fiancée had a more instinctive, non-analyzed quality; she said it without thinking, “Would this be appropriate?” but to establish a legitimate claim to concern, or perhaps, the unguarded expression of a subconscious wish. Or, in the words Mariella herself used earlier to describe their relationship, another “rehearsal of intimacy.”

The story ends as it began, with threat. I suspect she’ll be hearing that chuffing sound in many places – in bed underneath him, on her wedding day, when/if she holds her newborn baby for the first time, when she sends him off to kindergarten one future September, on your average dark and stormy night – for the rest of her life.

Addendum: This post was originally written in July 2013 when the story was published in TNY.

BASS 2014: Benjamin Nugent, “God” from Paris Review #206

We called her God because she wrote a poem about how Caleb Newton ejaculated prematurely the night she slept with him, and because she shared the poem with her friends.
         Caleb was the president of our fraternity. When he worked our booth in the dining hall he fund-raised a hundred dollars in an hour. He had the plaintive eyes and button nose of a child in a life-insurance commercial, the carriage of an armored soldier. He was not the most massive brother, but he was the most a man, the one who neither played video games nor rejoiced at videos in which people were injured. His inclination to help other brothers write papers and refine workouts bespoke a capacity for fatherhood. I had seen his genitals, in the locker room after lacrosse, and they reminded me of a Volvo sedan in that they were unspectacular but shaped so as to imply solidity and soundness. One morning when we were all writhing on the couches, hung over, he emerged from the bathroom in a towel, attended by a cloud of steam. We agreed that the sight of his body alleviated our symptoms.
          “If you use a towel right after Newton uses it, your life expectancy is extended ten years,” said Stacks Animal.
          “If a man kisses Newton, he’ll turn into a beautiful woman,” I said, and everyone stared at me, because it was a too-imaginative joke.

I’ve never understand the Greek system. One of the reasons I didn’t want to go to college immediately after high school was that sororities seemed like one more way to not fit in, and the kinds of what would today be called Young Adult fiction I’d read made it sound like college was all about sororities. When, after ten years of night classes all over Boston, I spent a couple of full-time years finishing a degree and starting grad school, I went to a commuter branch of a state university, which had no sororities or fraternities. So aside from movies and books, fraternities are as foreign to me as the Korowai tribe in New Guinea. Given the way frat boys make the news these days – hazing, cheating, violence – I’m fine with that.

Just so you know where I’m coming from.

However, just as a writer’s job is to provide what volume guest editor Jennifer Egan calls “transport into alternate worlds,” it’s the reader’s job to permit that transportation, sometimes by looking underneath the purported setting – be it a fraternity or New Guinea – into what it is to be human. And what is more human than discovering the consequences of flying too close to the sun? Or wanting what we cannot have? It’s the story’s job, whatever the setting, to show us what makes people alike. And different.

The three main characters of this story are all like in being different.

Caleb is different in his perfection, and in his mild-mannered acceptance of that perfection and his ability to be who he is no matter what the expectations of anyone else. It’s a trait the narrator – his frat name is Oprah, because “there were books in my room and I asked questions” – probably admires even more about Caleb than his Volvo-esque genitals (which is such good imagery, I just had to repeat it). Oprah started out for me as an observational narrator, because the person I found most fascinating was God, aka, Melanie.

Melanie is the pivotal character in the story – the character who, as Ken Nichols points out in a great analysis at Great Writers Steal, shakes up the status quo at Delta Zeta Chi by not only vanquishing seemingly invincible Caleb, but by writing – and sharing – a poem about it, and since the poem is included in an online excerpt, why not, it’s great:

Who is this soldier who did not hold his fire
When the whites of my eyes were shrouded
In fluttering eyelids?
I thought I knew you
Knew you were the steady hand on the wheel
The prow itself
But what kind of captain are you?
Scared sailor with your hand on your mast
Betrayed by your own body
As we are all betrayed
On your knees
Above me
Begging my forgiveness
With the muscles of a demon
And the whites of your eyes
As white as a child’s?

But… the story isn’t about her. That disappointed me.

I suppose, had the story been about Melanie, I would’ve been disappointed as well. She would’ve turned into a kind of caricature of a Warrior; she hovers on the very brink as is, but doesn’t quite go over. Instead, she leads to another, more personal catastrophe, as Oprah goes from observational narrator to agent of his own doom, and the story follows a path predictable from the first paragraph.

I was a little surprised that several readers, including Ken, and writer Spencer Lenfield, found the story to be funny. Maybe you had to have been a frat boy to get the funny. Yes, there are comedic aspects (the poem’s obviously hilarious, and… ottering? Really?). But I found Caleb’s reaction to the poem to be downright inspired – “As if this thing that we had all most likely done, and had been ashamed of, was the least shameful thing in the world”.

Mostly, I just found it sad that it’s a fairly good representation of reality – at least, the reality I imagine goes on in contemporary colleges (in which case I was so much better off going to a commuter school). I liked a great deal about it, but a lot of it made me angry as well. Like Oprah’s post-graduation dream world: “I dreamed of a consulting firm that Nutella would one day helm, staffed by brothers, known for underpromising and overdelivering, with an insignia depicting a clock face in the talons of an eagle.” Seems like a lot of current tech is founded on this model: sistahs, beware.

Thing is, what made me angry was not only a reasonable representation of contemporary society, it was also absolutely central to the story. That makes it hard to read in places. But it doesn’t make it a bad story. Yes, it goes exactly where I’d expected it to go, before God distracted me. But to have it do other – to become the epiphany-leads-to-instant-change story – would’ve been worse. Because we all know, epiphanies happen quickly, but change is painfully, tragically slow.

The Amazing Technicolor CalcuMOOC

Course: Calculus: Single-Variable
School: University of Pennsylvania via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Robert Ghrist
Calculus is one of the grandest achievements of human thought, explaining everything from planetary orbits to the optimal size of a city to the periodicity of a heartbeat. This brisk course covers the core ideas of single-variable Calculus with emphases on conceptual understanding and applications. The course is ideal for students beginning in the engineering, physical, and social sciences.

Are there any prerequisites for taking this course?

Students are expected to have had prior exposure to Calculus at the high-school (e.g., AP Calculus AB) level. It will be assumed that students:
▫are familiar with transcendental functions (exp, ln, sin, cos, tan, etc.);
▫are able to compute very simple limits, derivatives, and integrals; and
▫have seen slope and area interpretations of derivatives and integrals, respectively.


Is this course hard?

Yes, it is! Like, really hard. But it’s a satisfying-kind-of-difficulty not unlike running a race or climbing a mountain.


Am I ready for this course?

Take the diagnostic exam, which opens on Day 1 of the course: that should help you decide.

This is the first Coursera MOOC I’ve outright flunked. Twice. It’s also one of the best courses I’ve taken. But take that warning above seriously: it is, indeed, like, really hard.

Much is made of the approach: everything you ever wanted to know about Taylor series, but couldn’t ask since by the time you got to Taylor series in Calc 1 you were fried. By Week 4 I was doing Taylor series in my sleep. I still have my cheat sheet taped to the wall over my computer. I could take it down, but I still think I’m going to try this again some day. Besides, I got to like Taylor series (even if I still get binomial and geometric series confused a lot).

Each week included an ungraded homework assignment of 6 to 10 questions; this wasn’t the “do the odd problems 1-25 on page 63″ homework, each problem tested a different concept or approach. Lots of student did the homework in a half hour. It usually took me a couple of hours. Each “chapter” – a topically-focused group of about four weeks – ended with a graded quiz of another 10 questions or so. The quizzes, however, total only 20% of the overall grade, with 80% coming from the final exam. The timed final. Needless to say, I never got anywhere near that far, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. I would’ve liked to have been in a position to try, though.

And if the material isn’t hard enough for you: each week has a “bonus” video (my favorite was on applications of differentiation like the boundary operator and lists, but I can’t say I got past the “oh, cool” stage), and a “challenge” quiz available for those who dare, so it’s designed to take on those with a firmer grasp of calculus, as well. I even managed some of the Challenge questions in the first four weeks.

I wish I could continue to outline the whole course, but I never got beyond the Ordinary Differential Equations of Week 5. The spirit was willing, but the brain. Just. Could. Not. But it’s a calculus course, it’s got the stuff you’d expect – derivatives, integrals, differentials, optimizations, applications – at a deeper level than Calc 1.

So let’s talk about the art instead.

Art in a calculus class? That’s one reason this was so much fun. I like colors. This blog theme is black so the colors stand out. And the colors stand out in these videos as well. I mean, LOOK at this stuff. That isn’t a standard font, by the way; the font, the diagrams, the animation is all individually crafted – yes, crafted – for this MOOC.

Prof. Ghrist is quoted in another student blog as explaining each video took about 20 hours to make using PowerPoint. Now, I made a few short PowerPoint videos – nothing anywhere near this elaborate or high-quality, just using text, basic animation and sort-of-sync’d voiceovers – when I was in my Vidpo phase (I have a couple more I want to do, I’ve just been doing other things, like taking calculus moocs over and over) and I have no trouble believing each of these 15-minute lecture videos involved at least 20 hours of work. Since there are 60 lectures, that’s about 1200 hours. And that’s just producing the videos.

Every once in a while, a video went beyond “ooh, cool” and just knocked me out. Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare showed up in an exercise modelling language change over time. Broke my heart that I couldn’t get that – my apologies, gentlemen, for not doing you justice. But just seeing you there made me happy.

Then there was the water faucet in the related rates video. The purpose was to compute the rate of change of the stream’s radius with respect to time, but what fascinated me was the bubbles (arrows added). A variety of bubbles. Some started on the left; some started on the right; some came in pairs; some were faster than others. I’m pretty sure there’s no Powerpoint button for “insert random bubbles” so the animation has to be designed with care. They were awesome bubbles.

Ok, so the bubbles were extraneous to the problem – what about the water leaking out of the tank video? Look at this time-lapse compilation of clips: the water really drips out of the bottom, sure, that’s nice. And the stream across the floor changes, that’s cool. But what’s really amazing is that, if you look at the timestamps (or take the course and see the actual animation), the level of the liquid in the tank drops faster as the volume decreases – which is the point of the problem (I think; remember, this is the part I flunked). I never really got to the point where I could quantify this. But the changing rate of the level of water as the tank narrowed, I got that – and again, I don’t think there’s a PowerPoint shortcut button to do that.

This is what it looks like when someone puts 1200 hours into a MOOC. Every minute shows. And that’s just the videos.

But wait, there’s more!

There’s no textbook for the course – though there’s a very good Wiki available that includes basic explanations and examples – but there is a Funny Little Calculus Text. And yes, it’s funny; it’s downright amazing. I cadged a clip on Archimedes’ last words for my semi-secret Blogging Euclid project (something else that’s languishing while I’ve been moocing myself to death this fall). I brought a Polyphemus clip in to my Greek Mythology course last summer. I’m not sure I’d be able to learn any calculus from it, but it’s a treasure hunt, with all the digressions (and I do love a good digression), puns and “pretentious literary references” (the only literary references worth reading).

The most important part of any math MOOC, of course (for me at least) are the discussion forums, where I can go crawling for help, comfort, and the ever-popular communal whine. The Summer session was far more active than Fall, but both were sufficient. While my questions were at the level easily handled by other students Prof. Ghrist would crop up at the unlikeliest times, to congratulate a student who’d made a particularly astute observation, to shepherd the adventurous through more advanced applications – or to reply to a random comment I made in a “venting” thread (as opposed to a more topic-oriented thread) with an incredibly kind reply. This means a lot – and so much for the impersonal, automated MOOC the haters keep talking about. This doesn’t happen in every course, but it tends to happen in math courses most often, I’ve found. Then again, I’m usually at my goofiest in math courses, since, unable to pay back the favor of helping students with the math, I turn to entertainment to earn my keep.

And there was the student, a fluent but not native English speaker, who was such a wonderful companion through the Summer session. He was operating at a far more advanced mathematical level than I, but we had a great time anyway, discussing such fine points of language as “click bait” and the perils of unintended idiomatic meaning in the use of the verb “to suck”. We ran into each other in another course, in fact, though I didn’t recognize him (sometimes people go incognito) and got into a rollicking discussion of the possible reasons a computer grading system would accept 7 ½ and 7.50, but not 7.5. I still think it has to do with significant digits, but I don’t have the foundation or the confidence to argue effectively – but winning the argument wasn’t the point.

When I said I’d flunked this course twice, I wasn’t counting the first time I signed up, since I only lasted 13 minutes before un-enrolling (to be honest, it was probably more like a week, but 13 minutes feels truthier). I hated it. I hated everything about it: the videos were stupid, the voice-overs were horrible (even in retrospect, I have to admit they take some getting used to; the prosody is a little odd, and the vocal fry would’ve earned Prof. Ghrist the cover of a NYTMagazine cover if he were a woman), and who the hell is this guy who insists on being referred to by title? In reality, it was just too far over my head, and I needed more background, but as a typical student, I blamed everything in sight rather than blame myself. I did, however, re-take Calc1 among other things.

When it became apparent early this year that this was the course to take next (it was highly recommended by seriously mathy people I’ve come to admire), I went looking for a way to feel better about it, and found a Youtube video of a talk by Prof. Ghrist in which he starts talking about Milton, and then uses the Divine Comedy to talk about the topology of Dante’s afterworld (a lecture, by the way, that I found more interesting than most of the material in the edX Dante course – and, by the way, no trace of vocal fry). Yep, that’ll do it.

Then I found the Funny Little Calculus Text, and realized – there’s a sense of humor there. How’d I miss that first time around? Besides that I was so depressed at being out of my depth, I guess. Once I turned it into Steven Colbert Teaches Calculus (there’s a passing resemblance for those of us with facial recognition deficit, to whom all white guys with short dark hair and glasses look the same), I started looking forward to it. And I ended up loving it enough to flunk it twice. I’d flunk it again, but I can’t take the heartbreak (people think I’m kidding when I talk about crying over math), and it’s not good for the completion stats all the MOOC haters love to quote.I keep trying to be a success story, but I think it’s my destiny to instead be a cautionary tale: teach your children well, or decades later they’ll still be banging their heads against a brick wall, trying to find a way in.

All of my favorite math MOOCs – oddly, just math – end up with theme songs; I’m not sure why. Jim Fowler’s Calc1 had “Still Alive” from the video game Portal; Keith Devlin’s Mathematical Thinking had the weird and incomprehensible “Hand-Made” set against a mathematically modellable murmuration of starlings, and now, SVCalc has Coldplay’s The Scientist“: “I was just guessing at numbers and figures / pulling your puzzles apart… Tell me your secrets, ask me your questions… running in circles, chasing our tails, coming back as we are; / Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard; / I’m going back to the start” (I have to skip over most of the lyrics or it gets a little creepy – it is after all a love song, and Edward Frenkel’s the only one who can get away with that sort of thing.)

I did, in fact, go back to the start, three times, but I think I need to go farther back before I try to go forwards again. I’ve got some high-school level moocs on edX coming up in 2015. And there’s still Mike Lawler’s kids (who, at 8 and 10 are way ahead of me in their grasp of what numbers do; they spent last weekend’s Family Math figuring out the last 4 digits of Graham’s number), who teach me something every day. Most importantly, they’re teaching me to be mathematically fearless. I have a ways to go.

Based on what I saw happening with other students in this MOOC, I think those who have a better grasp on math than I do may find this course difficult, but productive, and passable. And for those who aren’t highly invested in grades, but are looking for a way in, it might just do that, as well.

Or you can just admire the art, and come up with your own theme song. You may learn something in spite of yourself.

BASS 2014: Molly McNett, “La Pulchra Nota” from Image #78

15th century illustration from Bartholomew Anglicus, 'On the Properties of Things'

15th c. illustration of a leper rattle from Bartholomew Anglicus,’On the Properties of Things’

My name is John Fuller. I am nine and twenty years of age, born in the year of our Lord 1370, the son of the learned musician and the youngest of twelve children – though the Lord in his wisdom was pleased to take five brothers and two sisters back to the fold. After a grave accident, I no longer possess the use of my hands. Any inaccuracies in this document are not the fault of the scribe, who enjoys a high reputation, but of my own mind. My pain is not inconsiderable. However, I will continue frankly, in as orderly a fashion as I am able, so that these words may accompany my confession to the honorable Vicar of Saint Stephen’s.
My story begins as God knitted me in the womb.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time over the past few months immersed in medieval theology courtesy of Dante Alighieri. Maybe it’s because I can put myself in the story in all three key roles. Maybe it’s because there’s so much crammed in these fourteen pages – sorrow, love, joy, longing, heartbreak, loneliness, alienation, sacrifice, guilt, stoicism bordering on learned helplessness, a harsh and compassionless justice. Whatever the reason: I absolutely loved this story.

Because all the elements of the story fit so well together, it’s impossible to discuss in detail without spoilers; the first paragraph itself is a kind of spoiler, in fact. I haven’t found it online, so I’ll just make some general observations and encourage everyone to find a copy of BASS 2014 (or back issue #78 of Image, a literary journal with a “commitment to artistic excellence and religious truth… poised to make a lasting impact on the future of our national culture”) to see for yourself how McNett weaves together a music teacher, his wife, his student, and the often inscrutable Will of God.

I also admire the process she went through to get here. In an interview with Dan Klefstad of NPR affiliate WNIJ, she explains how she went from a story that felt too “Glee” to the 14th century via research on the history of vocal instruction. That writer’s decision to move the story from a contemporary choir to the 14th century was genius, and allowed so much else to be brought in: socially moderated rules of conduct which, although passé today, are based on aspects of human relationships, emotions, and desires that have not changed in six hundred years, and the overwhelming pressure of religion.

To get the setting and diction right, she read several period texts:

One was a diary written by a man who had a large family; within a month they all died except him.
“I don’t know if it was to the Plague or what happened,” McNett says. “But with every death he gave thanks to God or `Divine Providence’ and so forth. There was no bitterness and almost no sorrow, just complete acceptance.” McNett says she’s not a religious person, but was deeply moved by these accounts. “So I wanted to include at least one person in the story who had that faith.”

~~Molly McNett

John Fuller has more faith on his worst day than most of us do all our lives. Except for one bad moment; yet as for many of us, it’s one bad moment on which everything turns. And it’s the skill of the story that makes me wonder if all that faith is really such a good idea: doesn’t it prevent change? Doesn’t it leave him mired in the past, in rage buried underneath every “Praise be”?

Ken Nichols at Great Writers Steal (one of my favorite craft-oriented writer’s blogs) points out how carefully the story is focused. I’ve always found historical fiction to be problematic, but as Ken points out, “McNett doesn’t focus too closely on the clothing, language, food, science or customs of her specific time and place. Instead, she keeps our attention on what we share with John Fuller, Katherine and Olivia.” He’s absolutely right: what’s important about the setting is the belief system and the emotional lives of the characters, not what anyone’s wearing. The story does a great job of drawing us into those elements.

And those elements are why the story must be set in the 14th century; a contemporary setting wouldn’t make sense. John wouldn’t accept his wife’s vow of celibacy, and/or he’d hop right into bed with his student; in either case, the story would have to be very different. It’d be the story I’ve read a hundred times. This one’s a lot more interesting. Though the mechanisms are less familiar, the story is generated by fundamental motivations I understand. It’s a kind of defamiliarization.

Some stories are highly visual; this one is highly aural. John remembers two sounds from his childhood, one ugly and one beautiful: the leper’s rattle, and the song of the nightingale, his first encounter with what Jerome of Moravia called “la pulchra nota,” the beautiful note. When his wife labors with their children, she makes such a racket the midwife resorts to stuffing her ears with cotton. And there is another encounter with la pulchra nota, as one of his singing students, and a sweet young thing at that, achieves the perfect note:

I would like to end my story at this moment. I would like to linger here at the very crux of joy, where the note, and these words, were as one to me.
But I cannot. I then understood something about music that I had not learned from my father, or Jerome of Moravia, or Isidore of Seville. La pulchra nota the is the moment of beauty absolute, but what follows – a pause, however small – is the realization of its passing. Perhaps no perfection is without this silent realization.

After ecstasy, there’s nowhere to go but down (remember that next time a blushing bride declares her wedding day “the happiest day of my life” – because she might just be, cursedly, right) so it’s no surprise when Olivia’s voice sounds less sweet on future notes.

Steve Almond gives writing advice along the lines of “it’s your job as a writer to put your characters through hell” and McNett certainly does give John a full range of emotional experiences: contentment, grief, sexual frustration, desire, joy, disappointment, rage, guilt, and finally, a kind of passive acceptance that seems saintly – or insane. Perhaps a touch of both. Each twist felt very authentic to me; it wasn’t something written to create a plot, but a pitch-perfect (sorry) recording of an emotional life.

Through the story, I was pulling for John, and that’s part of the writer’s job, too (“give the reader someone to care about”). But I was always aware: John’s wife has her own story as well, as does his student. It’s easy to create a hero among villains – that’s soap opera – but to blend together three characters with elements of each – three flawed noble souls who can’t quite get outside themselves to see another’s needs – is where a real story happens.

I see this story was also selected for a Pushcart 2015 Prize. I couldn’t agree more.

Ironic MOOC (Kierkegaard style)

Course: Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity
School: University of Copenhagen via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Jon Stewart
It is often claimed that relativism, subjectivism and nihilism are typically modern philosophical problems that emerge with the breakdown of traditional values, customs and ways of life. The result is the absence of meaning, the lapse of religious faith, and feeling of alienation that is so widespread in modernity.
The Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) gave one of the most penetrating analyses of this complex phenomenon of modernity. But somewhat surprisingly he seeks insight into it not in any modern thinker but rather in an ancient one, the Greek philosopher Socrates.
In this course we will explore how Kierkegaard deals with the problems associated with relativism, the lack of meaning and the undermining of religious faith that are typical of modern life. His penetrating analyses are still highly relevant today and have been seen as insightful for the leading figures of Existentialism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism.
No prior knowledge of Kierkegaard is required. The course will be on an advanced undergraduate level, and it will be an advantage for students to have some prior knowledge or idea about the history of philosophy.

I now know (or, more accurately, know of) three Jon (no “h”) Stewarts: the comedian, the oldest American Ninja Warrior contestant to qualify for the Mt. Midoriyama finals in Vegas – and the philosophy professor who taught this class.

I signed up for this course because 1) I wanted to know more about Kierkegaard, and 2) I heard a lot of good things about this course from some students who took it last year. It worked out well.

True to its title, the course focused on Socratic irony and the difference between German Romanticism, and Kierkegaard’s vision of negative irony as subjectivity rather than relativism, and a general overview of his understanding of Christianity, all set in a travelling on-site biography. The lectures took place in a variety of places around Copenhagen – in the University, museums, houses where Kierkegaard (and others important to his life) lived, Amalienborg Castle, in front of the Parliament,the Citadel Church, his gravesite, and most dramatically, a stone monument in the village of Gilleleje which honors the man who in 1835 there contemplated his mission in life.

The focus on irony and subjectivity pushed existentialism and the “stages” of life – two things I’d associated with Kierkegaard prior to the course – into the background. I quite liked the more in-depth approach to a smaller area, but I’d like to pursue other aspects of Kierkegaard’s work further; I hope a “part two” will be forthcoming at some point. Kierkegaard isn’t someone I would dare to read alone.

I do think, however, they buried the lede. It wasn’t until the 7th week I found out that Kierkegaard was sure he’d die at age 33 and so planned his work in two parallel streams with a final analysis capping them off. He was so confused when he didn’t die, he checked his birth records to make sure he had his age right. So what was the poor guy to do, but write more books – and pick a fight with the church, bless his heart. I wish I’d known that initially, not just because it’s interesting, but because it gives a structure to his body of work.

In addition to the video lectures (about an hour a week), readings from Plato/Socrates, Hegel, and Kierkegaard were assigned, and made available in PDF format. This was one of the first courses where I used the video transcripts provided for most Coursera lectures, highlighting instead of taking notes; this approach worked quite well for me, allowing me to listen more than worry about catching everything. It worked so well, in fact, I’ve started using the technique in other courses; I’m embarrassed I never thought of it before.

Each week concluded with a ten-question multiple choice quiz (three tries), and a 2000-word final peer assessed essay was assigned; to my surprise, the question was extremely general, linking Socrates, Kierkegaard, and modern life. Anyone who’d paid even cursory attention to the lectures would’ve had no trouble with the essay, though of course peer assessment is unpredictable. I can’t say I’m particularly proud of what I turned in (assessments aren’t completed yet so I have no idea what “score” I received) but I do feel like I got a great deal out of the course, so it was a success.

I’d recommend this course to anyone; it’s very accessible – and, by the way, it’s scheduled to run again in March 2015. The course description estimates 4 to 6 hours a week, which seems about right (they’re usually much too low), though, as with any course, one can always find ways to dive deeper into the material. Plenty of avenues were available, and I probably could’ve spent more time on certain areas, like supplementary readings. I didn’t use the discussion forums at all for this course; initially I was simply overMOOC’d, and later, I just couldn’t find a comfort zone.

I find it interesting that both Dante and Kierkegaard, two profoundly Christian writers, took as primary muses voices of the Ancient world, Socrates and Virgil, neither of whom had any part in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But where Dante gives Virgil a few slaps for his paganism, Kierkegaard holds Socrates in highest esteem throughout his life, and saw a great deal of similarity between his contemporary understanding of Christianity and the model Socrates followed. Interestingly, I found this course, which sometimes included some heavy-duty issues of religious faith and Christian dogma, far more enjoyable and productive than the Georgetown approach to Dante, though I enjoyed reading Inferno more than reading Kierkegaard.

In the last week of the course, as Ferguson showed the world what injustice looks like and 12-year-old Tamar Rice was gunned down for looking dangerous, this quote from The Sickness Unto Death came into focus on my screen:

“…When I see someone who declares he has completely understood how Christ went around in the form of a lowly servant, poor, despised, mocked, and, as Scripture tells us spat upon – when I see the same person assiduously make his way to the place where in worldly sagacity it is good to be, set himself up as securely as possible, when I see him then so anxiously, as if his life depended on it, avoiding every gusty of unfavorable wind from the right or left, see him so blissful so extremely blissful, so slap-happy, yes, to make it complete, so slap-happy that he even thanks God for – for being whole-heartedly honored and esteemed by all by everyone – then I have often said privately to myself: “Socrates, Socrates, Socrates, can it be possible that this man has understood what he says he understood?”… No, Socrates, you I can understand; you make him into a joker, a jolly fellow of sorts, and fair game for laughter; you have nothing against but rather even approve of my preparing and serving him up as something comic – provided I do it well.
Socrates, Socrates, Socrates! Yes, we may well call your name three times; it would not be too much to call it ten times, if it would be of any help. Popular opinion maintains that the world needs a republic, needs a new social order and a new religion – but no one considers that what the world, confused simply by too much knowledge, needs is a Socrates…
So it could very well be that our age needs an ironic-ethical correction such as this – this may actually be the only thing it needs – for obviously it is the last thing it thinks of. Instead of going beyond Socrates, it is extremely urgent that we come back to this Socratic principle – to understand and to understand are two things – not as a conclusion that ultimately aids people in their deepest misery, since that annuls precisely the difference between understanding and understanding, but a the ethical conception of everyday life.

~~ Søren Kierkegaard

I don’t think invoking Socrates will help, until we’re ready to fix ourselves – the crowning irony being, we all (myself included) think it’s the other guy that needs to change. And kids keep dying, and will keep dying, until “their kids” become “our kids” and “them” becomes “us” and we stop the self-mutilation we’ve been inflicting on ourselves. But this has nothing to do with the course. Does it.

BASS 2014: Brendan Mathews, “This is Not A Love Song” from Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2013

Interior. Basement of Kat’s parents’ house. River Forest, Illinois.
If you can’t imagine Kat in the gray skirt and Peter Pan collar required by the nuns at our all-girls high school, it’s probably because you’ve never seen the pictures I took when I was the president and only dues-paying member of the photography club and Kat was spending afternoons
Camera Eye by Evalithimortality

Camera Eye by Evalithimortality

and weekends punching out songs in her parents’ basement and running them through the four-track she bought with a summer’s worth of babysitting money. She was my only subject—my muse, you could say—but that was because she was the only one who would sit still while I fussed over lenses and light readings and angles. It wasn’t patience: Even then she was focused; even then she was very good at tuning out background noise. I took rolls and rolls of film of her bent over her guitar, her hair a veil over her eyes, her lips soundlessly counting out the beat. Then I’d disappear for days of red-light seclusion in my studio, which my parents insisted on calling the laundry room. A set of these pictures, soulful black-and-whites mostly, spiked with a few hallucinatory color shots, won the school art prize senior year and had the added bonus of convincing every girl in our graduating class that we were lesbians. It’s too bad we weren’t; maybe we wouldn’t have been so lonely, so frustrated, so perpetually amped up.

If this volume doesn’t cure me of my fondness for unusual structures and narratives, nothing will. It’s like every story is taunting me: “Here, figure this out!” See for yourself – it’s available online (thank you, VQR).

Then again, what fun is a story that makes itself wholly known from the first line. Maybe that’s what I like about what some people consider “tricks” – it turns a story into a puzzle, to be figured out: “Hmmm, what was the author doing here?” All I can say is that, though I start out hating most of these stories, once I put a little effort into them, I end up very impressed.

This is the second Mathews story I’ve encountered; the first was ” My Last Attempt To Explain To You What Happened With The Lion Tamer” from BASS 2010, and while that wasn’t quite as narratively unique, it too wasn’t standard exposition-rising action and all the rest. But this goes beyond that. I was initially annoyed, but I then found a way in.

It’s a story told through photographs, with the narrator the photographer obsessed with her childhood friend turned indie grunge star. Some of the initial entries, all set off by identification of the photograph (some by location, as above, some by index, as in “Box 5, Spool 3″). Sometimes they’re fragments of conversation. Sometimes they’re pure narrative. Sometimes they start off in present tense (“She stands in the doorway…”) which I interpret the narrator going through the photographs, describing them, explaining the circumstances behind them, the memories they evoke. Does this sound elegiac? Yes, of course it does; and, of course, it is.

It’s a variation on the epistolary story, I suppose. Because of the variety between sections, I got a real sense of someone going through photographs, reliving someone’s life, remembering. I can see why Egan would’ve been particularly attracted to this piece, dealing with the music industry as it does. In places it reminded me of some of the parts of Goon Squad that I didn’t particularly like. But here, it worked better for me, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because my attention was always on the narrator. Oh, Kat is interesting enough. Kat’s the star.

Not that she ever looked at the crowd when she sang. The eyes of other people distracted her; the way those eyes begged for instant intimacy wasn’t just an imposition, it was an affront. An assault, even.
She didn’t look into the crowd, she looked over it, at some safe, empty spot on a far wall, or a point on the ceiling where hands and faces could not reach. When she first started playing out in clubs where there was no stage, just a space on the floor to set up, her insistence on staring at the ceiling or squeezing her eyes shut tight gave her the look of some mad, ecstatic saint. People said she was blind, or epileptic, or terminally shy. Whatever they believed, they were talking about her, and she needed that kind of an advantage—that lingering hold on the crowd’s mayfly attention—if she didn’t want to get lumped in with every other band thrashing through its twenty-five minutes (“Which band? The one with the freaky girl singer with the messed-up eyes? Oh yeah, they were pretty good.”)

But the narrator – off in the corner, snapping pictures, reaching, longing, remembering, feeling – is the one I want to know.

I’m fascinated by the recurring eye imagery throughout the piece. The word “eye” or “eyes” appears 23 times in a 6200-word story. I checked a few other online stories, and none came close. The “I/eye am a camera” trope of course. It’s easy to just call this the “I/eye am a Camera” trope and move on, but Kat has some eye stuff going on, too. She’s the one who can’t look; the narrator is the one who can’t stop looking.

I once heard some lectures by Roy Flukinger, curator of the photographic archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas/Austin, that changed my conception of photography. Initially, photography – daguerrotypy, actually – was seen as a technical field; the 1851 Great Exhibition, a forerunner of the World’s Fair, classified daguerrotypes as “philosophical instruments” along with telescopes, partly because of the precise procedures, chemicals, and equipment involved in capturing images. The art involved in photography wasn’t recognized for some time, until the technology became more user-friendly and it became understood that, while the camera captures reality, it is the photographer who chooses what to capture, how to frame it, and how to render the image. And now cell phones capture history – and perhaps change it, one can only hope – daily. But what is chosen for capture is still in the thumb of the photographer.

You should do a book, someone said. You should put them all together so people can see what she was like, before. And I could. I have thousands of pictures. Each one different. Each one telling the same story.

I don’t think the story being told is of the rise of Kat the singer. I think it’s a much more personal story, and that’s because of how the image here was captured. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not that interested in Kat; I’m far more interested in the person, sitting on the floor, going through photographs and explaining them to the empty room.

Infernal MOOC (Dante-style)

Course: The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Journey to Freedom, Part 1
School: Georgetown University via edX (free)
Instructor: Frank Ambrosio

1. Students will become familiar with the theory and practice of “Contemplative Reading” that constitutes one of the principal structural dynamics of Liberal Arts education.
2. Students will be able to apply the general practice of “Contemplative Reading” to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
3. Students will demonstrate in-depth and relatively advanced familiarity with and knowledge of an epic poem of the highest cultural significance; in specific, Dante’s Divine Comedy.
4. Students will begin to articulate for themselves their own personal convictions in response to reflection questions about human dignity, freedom and responsibility with which the Divine Comedy inevitably confronts its readers.
5. Students will engage with the most fundamental goal of Liberal education, promoting the universal dignity of personhood.
6. Students will become acquainted with the specific contributions the Christian, Catholic and Jesuit tradition of Georgetown University bring to the promotion of human dignity.

I really just wanted to study the poem.

Make no mistake, this is a religion course, not a literature course. Yes, I was fully aware going in that Georgetown is a Jesuit Catholic university, and that the Commedia is, after all, a religious poem and steeped in allegory. I happen to enjoy studying religions, the way I enjoy studying television commercials – they tell us a lot about who we are – and I have a bookshelf full of books on a variety of religions and am just finishing up a Kierkegaard mooc I enjoyed quite a bit – but this wasn’t a religious studies course, it was a six-week come-to-Jesus sermon with pronouncements like, “Human existence is a gift from God. And the destiny of human existence is either to accept that gift or to refuse it.”

Boy, did I enroll in the wrong class.

However, I grew up amidst Pentecostals, and, once you take away the Inquisition, Catholics are amateurs compared to them. So I kept going. It was a long six weeks. Still, many students were highly enthusiastic about the course. And, of course, everything, even a tour of hell with an earnest Jesuit, has its good points.

The course took place partly on the edX site, and partly on Georgetown’s MyDante site featuring the Hollander translation of the poem, an annotation feature, and a journal for tracking our spiritual journey. Some students had trouble handling both sites initially, but this sorted itself out eventually (though I just found out there’s a “final step” of entering six codes to move participation scores from MyDante to edX, they must be entered correctly, they must be entered in order, and they cannot be corrected if entered wrong… sheesh). Things were pretty confused in general the first weeks in particular, with numerous sermonish lectures and Madonna and Andy Garcia reading Neruda poetry, for reasons I still don’t quite understand – something to do with La Vita Nuova (a great inclusion, by the way, since, though very different in tone and structure, it’s intrinsically related to the Commedia) as covered in the second week. Inferno’s cantos were covered in weeks three through six, and the course pattern eventually became more predictable.

Week Three featured the highly acclaimed Joshua Oppenheimer documentary film “The Act of Killing,” a devastating account of Indonesia’s 1960’s massacre of labor party supporters through re-enactments staged by one of the murderers. Wondering what this has to do with Dante? Apparently the objective was to give us first-hand experience at touring hell and hearing the stories of sinners, paralleling Dante’s pilgrimage. It was was an amazing movie, and extremely thought-provoking. The opening scene features dancers coming out of a huge fish, which still has me baffled, but not as much as watching people who seem to have forgotten the slaughter participating in the re-enactments. Then again, I’ve never understood why so many Americans take part in Civil War and Revolutionary War re-enactments. Not enough violence on tv, I guess. I’m still not sure the movie belonged in this course, but I’m glad I got to see it.

A great deal was made of the process of “contemplative reading.” Silly me, I thought that meant reading something, and thinking about it. When I blog stories or poetry, I tend to go off on a personal track, relating the text to something in my life or in society. I thought that’s what they had in mind. Turns out, it was more about contemplating my sins. Hey, I had a semi-psychotic stepmother whose idea of fun was to hide in a closet until I was running around in a panic, at which point she’d pop out and scream, “Did you think the Rapture came and you were left behind?” It would’ve been funny if that hadn’t been exactly what I was thinking (I was a very strange 11-year-old, which may have something to do with my being a very strange 60-year-old). I’ve contemplated my sins plenty. Amateurs, I tell you.

Once it became evident that this wasn’t the course I was hoping for, I found, via the comments of another student, a series of videos featuring Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta on Youtube; they’re part of the Yale Open Courses. These were terrific. The interactive component of a mooc was missing, of course, but I better understood the structure and allegory of the poem, which was my objective.

I also requested a copy of the recent Hollander translation, used in the Georgetown course, from my local library; it wasn’t available until the last week of class, so I’m working on it, belatedly, now; it contains the verse-by-verse commentary I was hoping for. And of course there are other sites, like UTA’s Danteworlds and Paris Review‘s “Recapping Dante” from a year ago.

My opinion: The edX course is outstanding, if you’re interested in using the text to examine your soul by the light of Catholic theology; if you want to study the poem, there are better materials.

On the bright side, Georgetown’s MyDante, a version of which is available to all, features the original poem in Italian (at least, as original as possible for a work hand-written in the 14th century) along with audio recordings of each canto in Italian. I don’t read, speak, or understand Italian beyond a few operas and art songs, but I still appreciate having these elements in one handy dandy site. The Hollander translation to English, with a self-annotation feature (how long our notations will remain available to us is unclear) was set up in private and “social” formats (the better to see the annotations left by classmates).

Best of all was an extensive assortment of terrific art embedded next to the text, images that changed as the page was scrolled – I was pretty enthralled with that, seeing a blurry image gradually clear, or a figure pop out in three-dimensional movement. Props to whomever did that art. It’s the only reason I’ll sign up for the Purgatory and Paradise segments next year (the publicly available version of MyDante includes a less elaborate version of some of the art), if I decide to sign up – I won’t bother with the coursework at all.

I’ll probably just read the poem and watch the Yale tapes, though. I’m a big fan of personal convictions and human dignity, but I can handle my own introspection and reflection. And even amateurs can leave marks.

BASS 2014: Will Mackin: “Kattekoppen” from TNY, 3/11/13

TNY art by Grant Cornett

TNY art by Grant Cornett

We went through a number of howitzer liaisons before Levi. His predecessors, none of whose names I remember, were able to build artillery plans in support of our night raids. They were skilled enough to communicate these plans to the soldiers who would fire the howitzers. In fact, any one of them would’ve been perfectly fine as a liaison to a normal organization. But ours was not a normal organization. Sometimes what went on gave normal men pause. And if they paused we’d send them back and demand a replacement.

What Mackin – in his first published fiction – has done in four pages with war, postage stamps, and candy, is miraculous. Fortunately, it’s available online. Read it, I implore you, before (or instead of, if time is short) continuing here. Then sit with it for a few days. Then read it again. It’s that kind of story.

The story takes place at a military base in Afghanistan; the unnamed first person narrator’s voice is that same restrained, keeping-sane-in-an-unsane-place voice of much recent war fiction. He’s a member of Seal Team 6, and his mission for most of the story is to find two soldiers, referred to as Chin and No Chin on the basis of their photographs, who were kidnapped in an ambush.

If we’d been asked how long we’d go on searching, our answer would have been: as long as it takes. Think of the families back home. Baby Chin. Mother No Chin. But in truth there were limits, and we had methods for determining them. From the streaks of blood found in the drag marks, we ascertained wounds. From the wounds, we developed timelines. And we presented these timelines on a chart, which read from top to bottom, best case to worst. By the time that village lit up beside us, we were at the bottom of the chart. The next night, we started looking for graves

It’s one of those stories where every sentence, every clause, maybe even every word, relates to another part of the story, and as you read (the second, and third time) you see those interrelationships more and more.

Levi, the new howitzer liaison (I’m pretty vague on the precise function of this job, other than it involves calculations used in aiming artillery), is Dutch, but in the American military, and takes a brief leave to attend the birth of his son in Texas. This jumble, and the fact that no one tries to figure it out but just accepts it as one more bizarre thing, accentuates the atmosphere. It’s a crazy place, and thinking about it too much is crazy-making. Levi’s heritage also allows the inclusion of two essential elements of the story: packages from his Dutch mother come with Dutch postage stamps picturing Bruegel paintings, and contain Dutch candy, the Kattekoppen of the title.

Juxtaposition is the name of the game. The descriptive passages are necessarily short, but still use juxtaposition masterfully to include beauty and horror in one scene. For the narrator, even candy evokes death and destruction:

Kattekoppen were brown cat heads with bewildered faces. They made me think of a bombing attack I’d been involved in, in Helmand, during a previous deployment. We’d dropped a five-hundred-pound laser-guided bomb with a delayed fuse on a group of men standing in a circle in a dusty field. The round hit at the center of the circle and buried itself, by design, before the fuse triggered the explosion. The blast killed the men instantly, crushing their hearts and bursting their lungs, then flung their bodies radially. The dead landed on their backs, and a wave of rock and dirt, loosed by the explosion, sailed over them. The dust, however, floated above. As we walked in from our covered positions, it descended slowly. By the time we reached the impact site, it had settled evenly on the dead, shrouding their open eyes and filling their open mouths. Those dusty faces, their uniform expressions of astonishment, were what I thought of when I saw Kattekoppen.

The Dutch stamps provide the opportunity to include more imagery. I’m impressed with how these elements are chosen and woven seamlessly into the story. I don’t usually put art in the body of literary posts, but because they play such a key role in the story, I’m including the three paintings referenced. First, there’s “Hunters in the Snow.”

Returning from our manhunts through the snowy mountains west of Logar, I felt the weariness of Bruegel’s hunters. Cresting the hill that overlooked our frozen outpost, I saw their village. And, within its fortified boundaries, I watched men go about their daily tasks as if unaware of any higher purpose.

Later in the story, that scene, that painting, is recalled as the narrator watches another village. The observer, hidden from the observed.

Then there’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” William Carlos Williams wrote a heart-rending poem about Bruegel’s treatment of this scene, and Mackin’s narrator echoes his impression:

The stamps on the package from Levi’s mother featured “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” The detail chosen was Icarus drowning. What was not shown was how the world went on without him

The final painting mentioned is “The Triumph of Death” which I discovered last year when I read Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” last year. It’s not surprising that it appears here. What is somewhat surprising is that it is brought into the story, not by a stamp, but by the recollection of the narrator:

…I looked out the windshield at the war, which, stamp-wise, could’ve been a scene from Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death”—one that, even without a skeleton playing the hurdy-gurdy, or a wagon full of skulls, or a burning shipwreck, or a dark iron bell, still raised the question of salvation.

I see a link between the paintings, relating to observation. First, there are the unobserved observers of “Hunters,” then the non-observant villagers of Icarus, and finally, there’s no one left to observe in “Triumph.”

I’ve only skimmed the surface here. The paintings alone have depths to plumb, and each scene, each character, each event, evokes rich impressions. Hyperbolas into infinity. Pink snow. An owl. I suspect I’ll be encountering this story again in one of the prize volumes.

Just when I thought I’d read the best thing I was going to read all week, maybe all year, I read Mackin’s Page-Turner interview. He tells a story of an experience, at the Pentagon, with a parade of wounded soldiers, that should be made into a film, and explores the “ironic detachment” he so effectively created for his narrator.

Like David Abrams, author of Fobbit, Mackin spent 20 years in the military. I’m glad we now get to hear from him; he’s got a lot to say, and a great way of saying it.

Addendum: This post was originally written in March 2013, after I’d read the story in TNY; I’m delighted to encounter it again in BASS 2014. Interesting: although the stories are, as always, arranged alphabetically by author, two stories about soldiers in recent US wars appear back-to-back.

BASS 2014: O. A. Lindsey, “Evie M.” from Iowa Review #43.1

Chris Arendt: "Standard Operating Procedure" (2010) via

Chris Arendt: “Standard Operating Procedure” (2010) via

You must adore digital cable. The search options have revolutionized me and everybody. Technology marches, no matter. You can be groped inside the hot metal gut of a troop carrier, or you can see things die and see pieces of dead things. I promise you it will not affect the remote control. Though I forgot to write down the name of the pop singer, with digital cable I can see into the future, and I will find her. This is amazing. She will come back.

People in chaotic situations often fixate on small details: if I can control the press of the fabric I wear, the distance between towels in the bathroom, the number of calories I eat, if I memorize the bus schedule for the entire city, maybe that means I’m in control of my life. Evie M. is in a chaotic situation. It doesn’t help that the chaos is inside her.

Here’s another hard-to-follow story. Because it’s told in first person, I wasn’t sure if the narrator was Evie M., or if the narrator is even male or female, since there are clues either way. Slowly, it dawned on me: Evie M. is a veteran of the war in the desert, with all that implies, and her post-war life has become an obstacle course of tv show reruns, frozen foods cooked with to-the-minute timing, recalcitrant copy machines, small packets of coffee creamer, and a workplace full of idiocy where the insignificant is magnified out of all proportion.

Supervisor yelled at me today. So close I could smell his cologne. He barked that I wasn’t “into it” the way I needed to be. Sandalwood. In consequence, I couldn’t finish my first note, to my father. What if everyone counted on someone else to locate the clerical errors?, he demanded. What if everyone produced reports whose pages crinkled because of a stupid copy jam? What if the whole damn order of things broke down?

Too late. The whole damn order of things broke down for Evie somewhere in the desert when this dog… well, that would be a spoiler, and an unnecessary one at that, since the story (a fairly short one) is available online (thank you, Iowa Review!).

Also available is an interview with Lindsey, a veteran himself. He comments on the character of Evie, for whom “even the trivial is terrorizing. Perhaps this is a result of war—itself a juxtaposition of mundane and atrocious—or maybe it’s because she just doesn’t fit her surroundings.”

It’s interesting how we never seem to realize what our veterans are going through until the arts – literature, movies – tell us. Maybe that’s self-preservation of the status quo: We couldn’t vote for politicians who raise fears to continue wars, expand wars, start new wars, if we had any idea what we were subjecting our fellow citizens, our fellow humans, to as a result. We’d rather not know, have some vague idea of PTSD from some news report that quotes statistics, and pat ourselves on the back for our patriotism. Evie M. isn’t a statistic. I’m not sure what she is – I’m not sure she knows either – but a statistic isn’t even among the choices.

A word about the header art: I discovered the Combat Paper Project while researching this post; art from the project was used to illustrate this Spring 2013 issue of Iowa Review:

Through papermaking workshops, veterans use their uniforms worn in service to create works of art. The uniforms are cut up, beaten into a pulp and formed into sheets of paper. Participants use the transformative process of papermaking to reclaim their uniforms as art and express their experiences with the military.

~~Combat Paper Project

Stop by, check it out. The art is marvelous. The project is even better. Maybe through art, we can understand, and that’s where change begins.

Poetry MOOC (no, not that one, a new one)

Course: The Art of Poetry
School: Boston University via edX
Instructor: Robert Pinsky
Poetry lives in any reader’s voice, not necessarily in performance by the poet or a trained actor. The pleasure of actually saying a poem, or even saying it in your imagination—your mind’s ear—is essential….
The course is demanding, and based on a certain kind of intense, exigent reading, requiring prolonged— in fact, repeated— attention to specific poems.
The readings will include historical poems, as well as contemporary work. The focus will be on elements of the art such as poetry’s historical relation to courtship; techniques of sound in free verse; poetry’s relation to music; the nature of greatness—with only incidental attention to schools of poetry, categories and trends.

Poetry Foundation ran an article about this course; I wasn’t going to take it, since my experience with edX has been less than productive, but at the last minute I went for it. I’m glad I did.

Each week featured Pinsky (US Poet Laureate 1997-2000) giving brief lectures and discussing various poems with a diverse group of readers from the Favorite Poem Project. This wasn’t a technical course on poetics; it wasn’t the super-close reading of ModPo; it was more of a personal exploration of the meaning of poems to individuals.

The first few weeks looked at approaches to poetry: Difficulty/Pleasure (I was thrilled to see Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” linked to Michelangelo “To Giovanni da Pistoia When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel”), Freedom/Meaning, Form/Quality.

The middle of the course took a more thematic approach: courtship/teasing, music/poetry, humor/tribute. These were the weeks I found most engaging. I never thought I’d say that about courtship poetry, but once I realized the Courtly Love sonnets were madrigals, I felt at home, and moving on to Millay and Williams in the “teasing” segment came just in time. Then came music and poetry, featuring Pinsky reading Ben Jonson to a jazz trio. I referred to this as “slow-jamming Ben Jonson” which I hope was not taken as a sign of disrespect – I loved it! And, by the way, it’s available on YouTube.

The centerpiece of this course was writing: forum posts, weekly writing assignments, and, most notably, a personal anthology, a sort of do-it-yourself favorite poems project. This was a collection – twelve in all – of our “favorite” poems, along with a brief statement of why the poem was important to us, and any analysis we wished to make. Within a 200-word-limit per poem, which was difficult (I can’t write a 200 word grocery list) but just the process was informative: what poems should I choose? What should I say about them? Why do I so love the poems I love? Is it the poem itself, how I came across it, or what it evokes in me? I’ve appended it to this post, just because it was so much fun to do.

Initially the weekly writing assignments were peer-assessed, the first time I’ve seen that technique used on edX (it’s very common on Coursera). Problems developed; several of us received straight 0’s even on objective criteria, like word count. This may have been a technical glitch or simply a different attitude in the student base. The peer-assessed grades were dropped and “grading” such as it is for any mooc returned to the self-reported completion model (an “I did it!” button after each assignment). Good on them for flexibility; mooc grades are pretty meaningless anyway, particularly in a course such as this, where one’s personal opinion predominates over any knowledge base. I enjoyed the assignments in any case, and found the work that went into them to be productive. That’s the point, after all.

I seem to finally (after, what, 5 or 6 disasters) be getting the hang of the edX forums, as I was able to enter into several highly interesting discussions along the way. The intensity of the Coursera boards is still lacking, but communication in this session rose well above the waste of time I’ve found the edX forums to be in the past.

Two “Office Hours” segments were scheduled, which were more or less Pinsky’s responses to questions students submitted. I didn’t have the patience for them (why didn’t they have the questions arranged beforehand?) but they went well beyond course material. The course in general was run by technical staff, and TAs showed up on the discussion forums from time to time, which is how things usually work with a “name” professor (though there are exceptions).

With peer assessment and forum participation turned into self-report, multiple-choice questions provided the bulk of the “graded” material. Is there anything more antithetical to poetry than multiple choice questions? Week 3 seemed particularly bad: what was the last word of a paragraph? Who wrote “Moonlight in Vermont” (the song was mentioned in the video discussion, so it isn’t quite as absurd as it sounds, but still). I suppose it provides some evidence of participation – a live body has to answer the question – but I think the course would’ve been better off without them. At least there were only a few MCs per unit.

Minor glitches aside, I enjoyed the course quite a bit, particularly the middle weeks. I discovered some poetry I’d never heard before (though, since I’m new to poetry, that isn’t hard). I loved the Personal Anthology project; it was like writing a bunch of short blog posts, but only about poems with particular meaning to me. The writing assignments provided good opportunity for thought as well – I very much enjoyed talking about the structure of Susan Sommers-Willet’s “Tallahatchie” as well as the very different parodies of Longfellow and Kipling – and I discovered more by reading other students’ work (peer assessments were still required though the grades didn’t count, which is a great model for peer assessment generally, by the way). I had some great conversations, particularly about music (medieval English madrigals of John Dowland, Paul Simon, and Eminem – all fit into this course) and about humor.

I’m glad I signed up; this course had its charms. Like slow-jamming Ben Jonson. I can recommend it for anyone who wants a gentle introduction to poetry. Or anyone who likes to just think and write about poetry.

Favorite Poems Anthology
1 Haiku
Daigu Ryokan (1758-1831)

There’s more to haiku than seventeen syllables in three lines: semantics enter into it as well. A seasonal word starts things off, then there’s a “cutting word” that separates the two parts – “The two parts are sliced in half, and there’s an open space which the reader, the audience, is supposed to enter into” says Haruo Shirane. I’m not sure if “thief” was at the time of this writing considered a seasonal word – unlikely – but there’s a lovely sense of “what does this mean?” that allows me to enter into it, and write it with Ryokan, even centuries after his death.
There’s a story (several variations exist) behind this haiku: a thief entered Ryokan’s hut, but found nothing to steal. Ryokan felt so bad, he offered the man his clothes, then after the thief left, wished he could’ve given him the moon (a symbol of enlightenment) as well. There’s so much to read into this: the nature of possession, of theft, of giving, and, in this day when genes are patented and property extends from the core of the earth to the stratosphere (really, it does, look it up), who owns nature? I also like the switch in atmosphere, from the thief – oh no, what did he leave behind? apprehension – to the beauty of the moon.

2 “Song of Myself“, part 23
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with math and science: they tantalize me, but -perhaps because? – they’re always slightly out of reach of my grasp. Here, Whitman, himself lacking much formal education beyond primary school, pays tribute to the other side of the room. I love his metaphor of “they are not my dwelling, I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling,” a sentiment he also touches on in “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”. I’ve always had the sense of math as a door I couldn’t open, my nose pressed up against the glass, so I cherish this idea of Whitman entering his own dwelling – poetry – via this house, passing through but not dwelling there. Though he deals in what we might call metaphysics – throughout Song of Myself, he emphasizes the unity of all things, he is one with the grass as well as every other person past, present, and future – he begins in reality, and uses it to develop his universalist view, that even as we all turn to dust, we become again from the dust.

3 “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

For me, this works with the above selection from Song of Myself as one.


4 “Prayer to Persephone
Edna St. Vincent Millay 1892-1950

I first encountered this poem – just the last few lines, really – in a novel, Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman. In the book, an inner-city teacher is trying to get her students to think about this poem, and reads the lines; “Persephone / Taker her head upon your knee: / Say to her, “My dear, my dear, / It is not so dreadful here.” The teacher asks the class of misfits and academic disasters who might be speaking these words, and one student offers: “Maybe a teacher?” I was about 12 when I read that, and hadn’t yet learned to view school as hell. Later, when I read the entire poem, I was more taken with the notion of “She that had no need of me” and sensed a mother-child relationship, an adolescent who was in the painful process of disattaching from the nuclear family to make her way in the world, when some tragedy struck. I later found out Millay wrote this poem, a cycle of elegiac poems, in fact, for a college friend who died in the flu epidemic of 1918. What I find especially moving is not that the speaker asks Persephone to send the woman back to life, or comfort the grief, but to relieve the fear and insecurity she knows underlay the confident surface of the beloved. “She that had no need of me” has a touch of bitterness to it, but it’s saved by this selfless act of concern.

5 “I, Too
Langston Hughes 1902-1967
video with audio recorded by Langston Hughes

I’m very fond of poetic “conversations” – poems written in response to other poems. In 1860 Walt Whitman wrote “I Hear America Singing,” but he left someone out – the voices of those who were still enslaved. Hughes wrote this reply less than a century later, but while Jim Crow still reigned. He begins with “I, too, sing America” as a direct response to Whitman, and closes with a slightly different line: “I, too, am America” with both lines separated, standing singly, isolated. That closing line can be viewed several ways: an indictment, perhaps: while you’re all singing how proud you are on the Independence Day on which slave-owners announced their freedom while they simultaneously denied it to others, remember that I, too, AM America; I am what you have created, I am here to remind you that you have made tragic, hideous mistakes and you still haven’t made it right. Or it can be read as an announcement: like it or not, I am the America of which you are so proud, so stop treating me as an Other.

6 “The Woman with Two Vaginas
Denise Duhamel (1961-)

Denise Duhamel writes a lot of sexual poetry, but this particular poem, despite its title (and though it does deal, somewhat explicitly, with sex), comes from a book of poems based on Inuit mythology. As bizarre as it seems, I find this poem very moving: husband abandons wife due to custom rather than his own displeasure, she’s wailing on the ice floe, he’s weeping into the “barren palms” of his new wife, and for what? To maintain some kind of community-imposed normality? It’s as tragic a story as Heloise and Abelard, or Violetta and Alfredo, Romeo and Juliet, or any other pair of lovers who are separated by some societal demand while their love remains strong. The tercet structure interests me: why three lines? Tercets are often found in highly structured forms, like terza rima or villanelles, but here, there’s neither rhyme or a strong rhythm (many lines are pentameter, but many are not). Maybe the idea is to use a stanza associated with a structured form, then break the structure – as these people might have remained happier had they broken the structure of society? Do they symbolize the woman, the man, and the concept of “normality” which disrupts their lives? Is there some significance to the number “3” in Inuit culture? I don’t know; all I know is that I can hear her sobbing on the ice floe, and I can hear his mourning in his hut, and I wish they’d been wiser.


7 “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes
Eduoardo Corral (1973-)

In his video reading of this poem, Eduoardo Corral says he uses code-switching in his poetry – using Spanish words here and there, not italicized – which would normalize the English and “otherize” the Spanish. That seems like a reflection of the wish to not “otherize” Latinos, which would be even better. I like the couplet structure of the poem, since I can see two strong “duo” elements in the poem: the speaker and his father, and the two identities the speaker wrestles with. He wouldn’t have a problem with them, if one of those identities were not so hostile to the other in contemporary society. Some of the Spanish language is easy, or inferable, but some is more opaque; I didn’t realize “aguila” was the word for “eagle,” nor did I realize an eagle perched on a cactus holding a snake in its mouth is on the official national Seal of Mexico. Then the last line: “The snake is torn.” So is the speaker, whose father did so much for him, whose shirt he wears: “The gaze of the moon / stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin” – the speaker literally takes on the mantle of his father.

8 “Self-Portrait with Exit Wounds
Ocean Vuong (1988-)
(I wrote a more extensive post on this poem last May)

The poem opens with “Instead let it be the echo to every prayer” – instead of what? And what is the “it”? I love the openness of these words, in view of the poem’s setting (a friend of Vuong’s, fellow émigré from Vietnam, possibly a lover, shot himself at age 18) it might be, Instead of the life being silenced, or Instead of the dirge of mourning, or Instead of the gunshot fading, or Instead of the war that, though long over when we were born, still poisoned our lives, or Instead of being shamed and harassed for whom we love. The poem combines so many echoes, I’ve only been able to scratch the surface, and it’s the sort of poem I might want to keep reading for years, and see how it changes. I came across it early this year in the 2014 Pushcart anthology, and liked it so much, I ordered Vuong’s chapbook, the first book of poetry I’ve purchased since I was a teenager.


9 “Ballade of the Hanged Men
Francois Villon (1431-1463) / Transl. Richard Wilbur (1921 – )
I wrote a far more extensive post on this poem – with a translation comparison chart – last June.

I’m captivated by the translation of this poem. It’s in a highly restrictive form – a Ballade Supreme – with strict rhyme and meter requirements, yet the translation works perfectly aesthetically and practically. The poet – Villon was himself condemned to death at one point, though he was pardoned – speaks for a group of hanged men in first person plural. To me, there’s an accusory tone: you may be revolted by our rotting bodies, but was it not you who executed us? So don’t judge us harshly – and then, the repeating refrain, “Pray to God that He forgive us all”. Us all, meaning the executed criminals, but also those who executed them, and those who scorn their remains and feel superior. We are all guilty; we all require forgiveness for what we’ve done here. Then there’s the use of “forgive” instead of “absolve” – I don’t know French well enough to know if that’s standard practice, if there’s a different French word for the English concept of absolution, and in theological terms, there is a difference: “absolve” changes the condition of the miscreant; “forgive” changes the condition of the forgiver. It is for God to absolve, it is for man to forgive. So though the prayer is aimed at God, it’s directed at the observer, the reader, who is also a participant in this scene. There’s a lot to think about here.

10 “The Mrs. Gets Her Ass Kicked
Tracie Morris (contemporary; no birthdate available)

This is a bit of a change-up. I discovered Tracie Morris through another poetry MOOC, and though this poem is odd – it’s sound poetry and must be performed rather than read (the link is a video) – it’s amazingly thought-provoking, uniting Doris Day, “Dancing Cheek to Cheek”, and the impact of slavery on the African American woman. Doris Day was a squeaky-clean actress in the 50s who epitomized the standard middle class dream every woman had: to meet a man who would support her. The song’s lyrics echo this “Heaven, I’m in heaven” and then the sound starts, with Tracie patting on her chest to break up the words – it reminds me of something out of a war movie where a helicopter evacuates the wounded. Then she sounds like she’s strangling, all the while singing this insane song about how happy she is. This slowly morphs into “It all started when we were brought here as slaves from Africa”, linking domestic violence against black women to the overall devaluation of human life through slavery. It’s powerful experience, unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.


11 “Musée des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

I came across this poem in connection with a short story from The New Yorker, “Kattekoppen” in which a Breugel painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” appears on a postage stamp sent to a Dutch soldier in Afghanistan. At the time I was taken with William Carlos Williams’ poem, which is very similar to Auden’s; they both make clear the “life goes on” quality, that one person’s catastrophe might not even be noticed by someone else with the routine business of living on his mind. Williams’ poem is subtler, I think, but I prefer the reflection of Auden on the wisdom of the Old Masters. There’s also an odd rhyme scheme, I’m not sure if it’s even deliberate (it must be), it’s very irregular, but noticeable. It’s interesting that these two have such a similarity with Steve Smith’s poem as well; perhaps that’s why I was drawn to them.


12 “Not Waving But Drowning
Stevie Smith 1902-1971
video with audio of Stevie Smith reading

I began this course with this poem as my “favorite poem” in the first week; since I feel very strongly about it, and since it’s ok to re-use it here, I’m including it again. Stevie Smith wrote it after she’d read a newspaper story about a man at the beach who’d drowned as his friends waved to him, not realizing he was in danger. The irony of that situation touches me, but the poem treats it beautifully by making it unclear who the speaker is in each stanza. How is a dead man moaning? Or was that before he was dead, was it another man perhaps? Who says “I was much further out…”, is that the man speaking (as a ghost), or the poet speaking metaphorically? That phrase gets repeated at the end, again with the same ambiguity about who is speaking. The middle stanza seems to be onlookers at the beach, or possibly at his funeral, absolving themselves from responsibility. But really, how could they have known – it was a mistake anyone could make, isn’t it? Or were they just having too much fun, were they too comfortable in the sun, to really pay attention? How many signals do the drowning send before they go under? Maybe we need to pay more attention to each other, make sure we see the difference between waving, and drowning.

BASS 2014: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: “The Judge’s Will” from TNY, 3/25/13

Marcel Duchamp, "Portrait of Chess Players," 1911

Marcel Duchamp, “Portrait of Chess Players,” 1911

After his second heart attack, the judge knew that he could no longer put off informing his wife about the contents of his will. He did this for the sake of the woman he had been keeping for twenty-five years, who, ever since his first attack, had been agitating about provisions for her future. These had long been in place in his will, known only to the lawyer who had drawn it up, but it was intolerable to the judge to think that their execution would be in the hands of his family; that is, his wife and son. Not because he expected them to make trouble but because they were both too impractical, too light-minded to carry out his wishes once he was not there to enforce them.

I don’t insist on likeable characters (or I’m trying not to), but I find it’s helpful to feel some kind of empathy for some character in a story. I felt none here. With the exception of one powerful scene, this story (available online) seemed to me to tread the space between farce and melodrama, leaving me somewhere in the vicinity of soap opera.

The Judge – for once, we have an unnamed male character, though I suppose his title is more imposing than a name would be – seems unconcerned about wife Binny’s reaction to his revelation, or even his admission that he’s put his paramour in the will. Binny isn’t concerned, either; she seems concerned only with son Yasi, who’s relation to her is so overwhelmingly incestuous in tone (though not in deed, relax), it’s hard to focus on anything else. Not only does she refer to him as a gossip-partner, as a substitute for the friends she dropped years ago, and as her closest confidante (including, presumably, her husband), she almost literally “left” her husband for her son when he was just a baby:

Although this bedroom had meant nothing to Binny for many years, now her thoughts were concentrated on it, as they had been at the beginning of the marriage. The judge had been an overwhelming lover, and those nights with him had been a flowering and a ripening that she’d thought would go on forever. Instead, after about two years, the judge’s presence in their bed was changed into a weight that oppressed her physically and in every other way. It had been a relief to her when Yasi was born and she could move with him into her own bedroom.

Again, I’m torn between looking at this as spoof or pathos. It doesn’t hit the sweet spot of funny, funny-in-a-sad-way, or sad-in-a-funny-way. Or even weird-in-an-interesting-way. I suppose I should look at my own need to categorize everything, but for me, it misses the mark, which is to impact me in some way. It’s a rather bizarre set of relationships, yet with the overdramatic judge and his paramour, and the strangely detached Binny, their situation doesn’t intrigue me as much as I’d expect.

The judge has been keeping Phul, sheltering her, since she was fifteen, and so she has only learned one thing: keeping him happy. Hence her concern about his impending death, leaving her without means, a reasonable concern; and also hence his concern to provide for her after his demise, a laudable intent though generated by a distinctly un-laudable root. In many ways, she’s the underside parallel of Binny: they’re both dependent on the judge, though Binny has the official claim and thus legitimacy.

Complications to the judge’s efforts to ensure Phul’s security ensue as Yasi starts out as the emissary but is soon replaced by Binny herself. I suspect there’s some important thematic development here, but it all seems a little overcomplicated to me, yet trivial at the same time.

Until the chess game, when things get interesting. Don’t they always, when chess is involved. It’s all very rich and powerful as Binny and the Judge finally relate to each other: an overwhelmingly understated move, followed by a dramatically overstated reply. The chess game seems to reflect the marriage: just who is in charge in this relationship, emotionally? Is Binny’s seeming indifference a gambit? It’s quite a nice climactic scene. Maybe that’s the point: a sudden rush of intense emotion and intimacy.

When I don’t invest emotionally in a story, I tend to pay more attention to mechanics, so there’s an up side to everything. Yet, here again, I’m left puzzled. The first two paragraphs are clearly from the judge’s point of view, and there’s a smooth and clever transition to Binny, his wife, in the third, using the opportunity created by her departure from the room. But since the narration remains with Binny for the rest of the story, I’m left wondering: why these two paragraphs? There must be a reason. Granted, POV-hopping isn’t the major sin it used to be, but it’s usually still done for a reason, and I’m not sure what the reason is here.

I’ve lately been thinking more about what my reaction to a story says about me, than what it says about the story. I’m not sure what my overall indifference to this one (in spite of the moments of brilliance) says about me. But I think I need to keep wondering.

Addendum: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala passed away just yesterday; she leaves a rich legacy of work as a remembrance.

Second addendum:The above post (and addendum) was written in April 2013 when I first read the story in The New Yorker.

BASS 2014: Lauren Groff, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” from Five Points #15.1&2

George Hart: Two-headed Snake Puzzle

George Hart: Two-headed Snake Puzzle

Jude was born in a cracker-style house at the edge of the swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.
Few people lived in the center of Florida then. Air-conditioning was for the rich, and the rest compensated with high ceilings, sleeping porches, attic fans. Jude’s father was a herpetologist at the University, and if snakes hadn’t slept their way into the hot house, his father would have filled with them anyway. Coils of rattlers session formaldehyde on the window sills. Writhing knots of reptiles lived in the coupes out back where his mother had once tried to raise chickens.

In many ways, this story was for me the opposite experience of the prior story, Gates’ “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me,” in that I found the first half far more engrossing than the second half. Perhaps I gave up hope too soon. Or I was just too angry – first, at the adults who let this child down, and then, at his inability to heal.

Yet it was also a similar story; both use poetry, or song, to bring in a spiritual element. Instead of a bluegrass tune, here we have a sonnet by John Donne, arranged for chorus many times by a wide variety of composers:

At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.

~~John Donne

Now, I’ll admit I’m no match for Donne. But Linda Gregerson is, and I got a great deal out of her reading of this sonnet.

For example: one important poetic element in his poem (besides “violent enjambment”; I do love coming across these new poetic terms) is the change of heart at the turn of the sonnet. For the first half, the speaker is all gung-ho for the End of Days; then he realizes, maybe he needs more time to deal with his own issues. That dovetails nicely with the story on several levels, particularly in Jude’s return to the Florida house, and in the way he was never able to fully accept “the density or lateness” of his mother’s love, but belatedly finds a different kind of peace in the knick of time.

Then we have the paradox of the title: how can a round earth have corners? Gregerson explains: It’s an allusion to the rising acceptance of scientific awareness of Donne’s time (he was a contemporary of Galileo). While the spherical nature of the globe was at least subliminally accepted in the educated (and seafaring) world, the Church was still irrationally doing everything it could to prevent official recognition of that fact, in honor of various biblical passages, including Revelation: “I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth.” Donne manages to grasp the paradox by the tail and tame it: he makes those corners imaginary, symbolic, metaphorical. This deals a blow to scriptural literalists everywhere, but so be it (if anyone wishes to take a lesson for contemporary society from this, be my guest).

The geometry of the title fits particularly nicely with the story in another aspect: Jude’s love of mathematics:

At six, he discovered multiplication all by himself, crouched over an ant hill in the hot sun. If twelve ants left the anthill per minute he thought, that meant 720 departures per hour, an immensity of leaving, of return. He ran into the bookstore, wordless with happiness. When he buried his head in his mother’s lap, the women chatting with her at the counter this took his something for sadness. “I’m sure the boy misses his father,” one lady said, intending to be kind.
“No,” his mother said. She alone understood his bursting heart and scratched his scalp gently. But something shifted in Jude; and he thought with wonder of his father, of whom his mother had spoken so rarely in all these years that the man himself had faded. Jude could barely recall the rasp of scale on scale and the darkness of the cracker house in the swamp, curtains closed to keep out the hot, stinking sun.

Geometry in particular plays a larger part later on in the story, but that would be a spoiler. Let’s just say it’s not by accident that a letter has four square corners.

By the way: you know you’ve taken too many math moocs when you start to feel annoyed that writers, when they want to portray an alienated, emotionally inhibited, but highly intelligent character, will reach for a mathematician. At least the herpetologist-father was a twist.

But discovering Groff’s inspiration for the story (equal parts Central Florida, about which she admits feelings of both love and dread, and the Donne poem) in the Contributor Notes made the above a faint protest. Once she chose the title – or rather, once the title chose her – Jude the geometer was inevitable.

BASS 2014: David Gates, “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me” from Granta #126

Gustave Doré: Plate 6, Inferno, Canto II: 'Day was Departing' (1857)

Gustave Doré: Plate 6, Inferno, Canto II: ‘Day was Departing’ (1857)

The name Paul Thompson won’t mean any more to you than my name would, but if you’d been around the bluegrass scene in New York some thirty years ago, you would have heard the stories. Jimmy Martin had wanted to make him a sunny mountain boy, but he refused to cut his hair. He’d turned Kenny Baker on to pot at Bean Blossom and played a show with Tony Trischka while tripping on acid. Easy to believe it all back then. The first time I actually saw him he was on stage, wearing a full-length plaster cast on his – give me a second to visualize this – his left leg, holding himself up by a crutch in each armpit, playing mandolin with only his forearms moving. And someone had magic-markered the bottom of the cast to look like an elephantine tools-leather cowboy boot. This was at an outdoor contest in Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1977, the summer I turned eighteen.

I have a tendency to meld into whatever obsession I have going at any time. The mystery is why one thing takes precedence, and not something else, but right now, I’m into Dante. The Inferno, to be specific. So when Dore’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy showed up in this story, the entire story became, not about the narrator’s long relationship with his musical mentor, culminating the way such stories often do, but about the older poet Virgil giving young Dante a guided tour of hell.

The set-up was terrific. I was as charmed as anyone could be by a bluegrass group whose members have day jobs as English and math professors, with the iconic Paul Jackson himself a science writer at Newsweek. I grew a bit puzzled, even a little bored perhaps, by the shift to the narrator’s routine marriage and academic career, punctuated by brief mentions of what drew me in to begin with. I figured there was some underlying thread I was missing, but I couldn’t tell where it was. As Heidi Pitlor said in her Foreword to the volume many of this year’s stories “tended to wander – sometimes intriguingly, often into unsettling territory rather than accelerate toward some definitive endpoint.”

Eventually, I felt like there was a turn, and I had some idea where we were going. And make no mistake: the initial material is essential, it just didn’t feel that way as I was reading. I did go off on one tangent: when the narrator says, “But most of the time, Paul wasn’t anybody I thought about much, though I know now that he was thinking about me,” I envisioned a completely different story than the one that actually unfolded. I still think there might be something of that tangent as subtext, but I think it was wise of David Gates to leave it at that.

In spite of the pivotal role played by Paul, it’s the narrator’s story, a story about moving on when it’s time, and paying attention to when it’s time. I think we all have some trouble with timing, but when it counts, he gets it right. Twice. Series editor Jennifer Egan says it ends with happiness. I’m not sure the narrator ends up happy, but he’s definitely better off than he might’ve been, had not the hand reached down to guide him. Come to think of it, Dante called his work a “Comedy” not because it was funny, but because it had a happy ending.

Granta included an illuminative conversation with David Gates (available online), including the source of the title: “My Sinful Past”, a bluegrass song, of course, from the Stanley Brothers:

The hand reached down to guide me
The smile was sweet to see
I heard a sinner murmur
Oh Lord, have mercy on me.

~~Carter Stanley

It is Dante, isn’t it.

BASS 2014: Nell Freudenberger, “Hover” from The Paris Review #207

It started a few weeks after we separated for good. In this line of work, the symbolism wasn’t lost on me. But to call it “flying” might be too misrepresented it. It wasn’t as if I were soaring above the house tops, gliding over the wide boulevards to see the sun setting over the Santa Monica Pier. If it was anything, it was hovering: a little lift, when I least expected it.

Some readers will groan when a story begins with the protagonist’s involuntary levitation, and some will say, “Wow, cool.” Just like some readers, when reading a story featuring a delicate moment in parental relations between a recently divorced mother and her adorably confused child, will say, “Awwww…”, and some will say, “Again?” I tend to fall into the second category in both cases – but I always make room for exceptions. This story split the difference, and I ended up very happy.

In her Contributor Note, Freudenberger says she’s “never written a story with a supernatural element before.” I think she got it just right, because after the mention at the beginning (which hooked me for sure), it faded into the background as I became more and more interested in her kid. I’m not a kid person. At all. But this kid – a kid who becomes attached to a bag of flour, sleeping with it, taking it to school, treating it for all intents and purposes like a teddy bear – is my kind of kid.

My friends have gently suggested that Jack’s attachment to a bag of King Arthur unbleached self-rising flour has something to do with his parents’ separation, that he sensed it coming, and it’s the kind of allegation you can’t dispute without sounding defensive. But I know for a fact that Jack had no inkling of our problems until we told him his father was moving out and that his relationship with the flour began several months earlier, coinciding exactly with the time he began asking questions about death.
“What do people do after they die?”
“How do dead people pee?”
“Will you die?”

So I bought him the flour. It sat on the shelf with the books he’d outgrown sometimes it was incorporated into a building made of Bristle Blocks or playground for the Lego people, who used it for a trampoline. He named it Malfin, which he pronounced to rhyme with dolphin.

It’s the knight on the label, I suppose – a heroic figure mounted on a powerful steed, bearing armor and a sword and a proud banner. What kid with death anxieties wouldn’t want him on their toy shelf, watching over them as they slept at night? I wondered about the name – a five-year-old wouldn’t know it’s a brand name overseas for a morphine based medication, nor would he look at the Latin “mal” and “fin” and come up with “bad end”. Maybe it was just a rhyme on dolphin.

Mom’s in denial, I suspect, about how much Jack knew and when he knew it. But Mom, presumably a writer, has her own view of the world, a view in which she is to blame for everything, and in which she compares herself to everyone, usually unfavorably.

I can’t help feeling that other people had better reasons for their breakups than we did. (This is characteristic of me, Drew would say, the way I am always comparing. How can you be happy if you’re constantly measuring your life against the lives of others? And not even examining, he would say. Inventing … fictionalizing! How can you know what anyone else’s life is like?)

See why I forgot about the flying?

Flying does play a part in the story, of course; like Chechov’s Gun, you can’t put flying in the first paragraph and have it just hang there. Mom’s hover features in a hilarious scene of a parent-teacher conference disrupted by “a peculiar carbonated sensation”. And there is, as served right up front, the symbolism of the timing. That got me thinking: is the flying about feeling light and free and joyous? Or is it about a desire to escape? Mom thinks it’s one; I suspect it’s the other.

I noticed the preponderance of the word “it” in the first paragraph, quoted above. “It” appears seven times out of 72 words, even repeated sequentially between two sentences. “It” is important, whether “it” is the ability to fly, or the need to hug a bag of flour. I also noticed another writer’s choice (though I suppose everything in every story is a writer’s choice): Mom as first-person narrator goes out of her way to avoid giving her name, even in instances where it would fit naturally, and, in most stories, that’s exactly where the author would slip it in. To wit: a conversation between Mom and ex-hubby:

Drew was incredulous. “He brings the flour to school?”
“Just for the past week or so.”
“Jesus,” he said, and he used my name, which he never does.

That’s interesting (not to mention a cute ironic twist, since he uses her name, which she doesn’t use, something he never does, except he does, but she doesn’t… never mind), particularly since she’s the only nameless character in the story. Now, that’s frequently the case in first-person narration, but here it seems highly deliberate. I wondered about some kind of divine implication – thou shalt not utter the sacred name of God, Mom as God – but that doesn’t really work. Identity plays a much bigger role in the story.

The end of the story trickled off for me. I think the last sentence is supposed to be a kind of epiphany, maybe another one of those moments everyone but Mom understands. After such an engrossing narrative, I’d expected something a little more definitive, but in a story about a woman who worries so much about what other people think, maybe it’s perfect. It’s an interesting place to stop, I’ll say that. And in a story that resists classification, it might be the most appropriate ending of all.

Musical History MOOC

Course: From the Repertoire: Western Music History through Performance
School: Curtis Institute of Music (PA) through Coursera (free)
Instructors: Jonathan Coopersmith, David Ludwig
There are two goals for the course. The first is to understand a general survey of the development of Western classical music through the ages. By better understanding each piece we cover, you should arrive at the second and more important goal, which is to develop the skills and tools to research and understand other pieces of music on your own.

I signed up for this course on impulse, at the last minute, thinking it might make a nice relaxing complement to an intense schedule for this fall. As such, I decided going in I would approach it as “recreational learning” and would only do the assignments that interested me.

A lot of music, particularly that aimed at the non-musical public, tries to end on a “high note,” and this course certainly did; I fell in love in the last week, much to my surprise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Each week covered a different historical period. An overview of the pertinent social and musical history was followed by a biography of the featured composer and a “closer look” at a representative work, with detailed analysis of what happened musically in each performance. I especially liked that the pieces chosen weren’t the same things everyone’s heard a thousand times. For example: instead of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (which I dearly love), we looked at “the chaconne” from his violin partita; instead of a familiar Beethoven symphony, the Grosse Fuge was featured. I’m sure the experienced musicians in the class were familiar with these pieces, but they were new to me, and I enjoyed hearing them in the context of learning more about how they work. I could’ve found the Grosse Fuge on Youtube, but learning why it was a big deal is a different matter.

Of the seven periods (ancient and medieval, baroque, classical, early and late romantic, modern, post-modern), I expected to enjoy the first three the most; I’ve always had a fondness for Gregorian chants, motets, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. I did particularly enjoy the early-music week (I’m a fan of old stuff), but what surprised me was the thrill I found in the final week of post-modern music (what can I say, I like new stuff, too).

The highlight of the last week was an interview with contemporary American composer George Crumb. He made high-concept music seem perfectly reasonable. Too many times, artists talk in their own conceptual language, and leave the listener feeling stupid for not understanding (to wit, John Cage); that wasn’t the case here. I was quite enamored with the idea of “extended technique” – using instruments in atypical ways, such as singing into a flute, or strumming the strings of the piano instead of pressing the keys), and his graphic notation of the kind of new music is fascinating. I can’t say I’d put Vox Balaenae on my playlist, but it’s like conceptual poetry: understanding what’s going into it is incredible.

The course consisted of three main elements: video lectures, weekly quizzes, and three peer-assessment assignments. I watched every lecture and listened to each performance, and I did fine on all the quizzes, but I didn’t do the peer assessment assignments (which are ongoing as I post this – you can still enroll in the course if you’re interested in the materials, though of course you won’t get “grades”). The first one required the same kind of detailed musical analysis of technical details – modulations, theme developments, form – as the music theory course I took this summer, and, as before, I just didn’t want to work that hard. I would’ve liked to have done the second and third assignments – a biographical approach to the musical impact of a particular composer, and program notes – but since I’d already accepted I wouldn’t be “completing” the course with a certificate, and because I needed the time in other courses, I skipped them as well.

I instead made additional effort to be more active on the message boards. I was virtually silent in the first weeks – I’m easily intimidated by those with more technical knowledge than I, and there’s a limit to how much “Do you like this? Oh, listen here…” I had time for. The staff did provide some interesting discussion questions and I participated in those with great enjoyment. Staff was active on the boards, always a good sign.

On the frivolous side, I give Curtis an award for best use of a logo in a video open on Coursera (though not necessarily all MOOCdom; I was also quite taken with one from an edX course). The music playing over the logo changed week to week to include the piece we would be studying = though it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that.

One of the best things about MOOCs is also what detractors see as a major flaw: a student can put as much or as little effort into them as desired (or as one has time for), which may or may not include “completing” the course (obtaining a certificate). Since I didn’t do the peer-assessment assignments, I didn’t complete. That’s fine with me; does anyone take a non-credit music course for a certificate? I enjoyed the course, and learned more about music; for me, it was a success.

BASS 2014: Joshua Ferris: “The Breeze” from TNY, 9/30/13

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

The breeze, God, the breeze! she thought. You get how many like it? Maybe a dozen in a lifetime… and already gone, down the block and picking up speed, or dying out. Either way, dead to her, and leaving in its wake a sense of excitement and mild dread. What if she failed to make the most of what remained of his perfect spring day?

If you like narrative experimentation, this is the story for you. As it happens, I love narrative experimentation, as long as I can get reasonably oriented, or find a comfortable disorientation. This story provided both.

At first, I thought: cubism. That’s primarily because I’m very susceptible to the influence of whatever it is I’m doing at the moment, and at the moment my modern poetry course is studying Stein’s “If I Told Him,” a poetic portrait of Picasso – poetic cubism. Not to mention Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I’m at the center of some weird time vortex these days, as I keep running into interrelated things, like Norway and Wittgenstein. Or I’ve totally lost my mind and am making what shrinks call “loose associations.”

I came to my senses: it’s a story about all the possibilities that open up every moment of every day. So I moved on to the quantum universe, where anything that can happen, does happen, in some alternate universe (Star Trek:TNG fans may recall “Parallels“). Yes, this is me, coming to my senses, what can I say.

Ferris doesn’t refer to cubism or quantum theory or parallel universes in his Page Turner interview; he does, however, refer to what Willing Davidson calls the “popular acronym” FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. I need to get up to speed on my popular acronyms; I thought I was doing pretty well because I finally learned YOLO.

…there were all those alternatives, abstractions taking shape only now: a walk across the bridge, drinks with Molly at the beer garden. Lights, crowds, parties. Even staying put in the brig, watching the neighborhood descend into darkness. The alternatives exerted more power over her than the actual things before her eyes.

The concept of missing out, however, is something I’ve understood for a very long time. In The Bell Jar, Esther turns a story of a nun and a fig tree into a dream – a nightmare, really – about being in a fig tree, surrounded by all these plump, delicious figs, yet paralyzed because she could not decide, “Yes, this one,” and kept wondering if maybe the one over there might be better, but then she’d have to give up all those on the other side. A former boss, always eager to close a sale, would call it “the paralysis of analysis.” Cognitive science has long studied the phenomenon and found a choice between multiple attractive options is the most stress-laden decision situation, and often leads to refusal to choose any of them. Potent stuff, reduced to a popular acronym. Don’t you love Twitter?

The story consists of seventeen sections, each variations or continuations of various scenarios that follow when a young woman feels a beautiful spring breeze on her balcony. She recognizes this breeze as special; she wants to seize the day. She calls her husband, asks him to come home from work, to “do something.” But what? What can one do to mark this special moment? Doing one thing means not doing something else – perhaps something that would have turned out better. But doing that other thing means not doing the first thing, or any of a dozen other things… You can drive yourself crazy thinking like this. You might start thinking in loose associations, for instance.

The first section sets it up; everything else runs with it. The second section is uncomplicated by second-guessing, and is, perhaps, the perfect day: a picnic in Central Park, complete with happy ending for both, followed by an extended pub session with friends. The following sections get more complicated.

What if they get stuck in the subway for a couple of hours? Isn’t going to a movie – especially “the 3-D follow-up to the sequel of the superhero blockbuster” in a regular theater because the IMAX tickets were sold out – too plebian for a special occasion like the first spring breeze? Does her husband really “get” anything she says? Will they ever get a table at the hotel? What if they go to a neighborhood Italian place and have a nice dinner? What if she wants to, um, do it, in Central Park, but can’t bring herself to suggest it? What if she suggests it, but it doesn’t, um, work?

What breeze came had no effect on her, and she understood that the night had been over several hours earlier, when everything she was seeking in the world had been brought out from inside her. If it had not lasted long, was it not long enough? It had been an error to go in search of something more. If she had just told Jay about the breeze, shared that stupid fleeting moment with him – why hadn’t she? He might’ve understood. Everything that came after was a gift she had squandered.

I’d classify this as an “interesting” story, which sounds like a slam but is a high compliment: it’s a story that intrigues me on a technical level. It could easily fall apart (even Ferris admits he might find it annoying at first, as a reader), but it works, and that’s worth studying. It also intrigues me on a personal level as I sometimes experience the same paralysis that eliminates possibilities, and second-guessing that turns a genuinely good experience bad. Maybe the next time I catch myself doing that, I’ll remember Sarah, and what a great time was possible for her, if she’d just stop thinking so much.

NOTE: This post was originally written in October 2013, when I read the piece in TNY. I’m very happy it was selected for BASS. As I reread it, I thought again about the fig tree dream (I even wrote up a “new” paragraph before I realized I’d already written about that), and about cubism (same thing; apparently I don’t remember posts I’ve written, though I remember stories I’ve read). I think this would make an interesting piece of sculpture, with the different storylines weaving together, splitting or changing colors as they modify. Yep, I’m still weird.

BASS 2014: Craig Davidson, “Medium Tough” from AGNI #77

Claudio Goldini: "Right Hemiatrophy" (1992)

Claudio Goldini: “Right Hemiatrophy” (1992)

There’s a line where the two halves of my body intersect. It begins to the left of my throat, centers itself between the points where my collarbones meet, cleaves the breastplate and rib cage, then snakes to the left down my abdominals and carves right again before finishing at my groin. To the right: densely muscled, proportionate. To the left: austere devastation.…
My face is unaffected. Should you see me walking down the street in trousers and long sleeves, you would not notice much amiss. Were we carnally acquainted, however, you might wonder if I’d not been born so much as fused from separate cells. During maiden intimacies it’s my habit to disrobe slowly, explaining things. An educational striptease.

I never thought I’d cry over arm wrestling.

About a year ago, I read Calvino’s fanciful fable The Cloven Viscount about a medieval noble split into a good half, and a bad half. Jasper Railsback’s problem should be so simple: he is one person, living with a weak half, and a strong half. I found it most interesting to try and parse out which half is which.

Not physically, of course; that’s made clear from the start.

My right is a bricklayer’s hand. It can be taught blunt-force tasks. But I can feel music through my left hand. The right is my hammer. The left, an instrument of God.

Then again, maybe not so clear. Jasper – known as “Jazz” – arm wrestles with his right arm. He repairs premature infants’ brains with his left. Now “strong” and “weak” get hazier: is it stronger to break a guy’s arm in a match, or to thread a hair-fine filament into the ventricle of a three-pound baby to give him a shot at reaching four pounds? Is it stronger to pick up a hooker in a roadside strip club, or to teach her disabled son that technique can beat strong and fast? Is caring stronger than bitterness, forgiveness stronger than hate? Is there even forgiveness here – or just acceptance?

You’ve got to be tough for contingency’s sake. My mother was tanks to the gills when she told me this. She had left the stove element on and I’d touched it. My right hand still bears the concentric scar. She pressed ice to the burn cavalierly, never setting down the jelly jar in her free hand. You’re only medium tough, kiddo, she’d told me. Right in that meaty part of the curve.

It’s the detail of the jelly jar – not a glass, can, or bottle, but a jelly jar – that creates an entire scene out of few sentences. I can see the stove (sloppy with spills) in the cramped kitchen, the expression on mom’s face, hear her tone of voice, because of that jelly jar.

How do we measure tough, and what does our choice of yardstick say about us?

In her Introduction to this collection, Jennifer Egan said she chose this story because of the language: “The language is technical, lyrical, and sensory – qualities whose seeming incompatibility makes their fusion even more potent.” Even the poetics echo the fusion of weak and strong.

What truly captured my heart was outside the story, however. In his Contributor Note, Davidson says something few are willing to acknowledge:

“I’ve always been interested in broken characters…. There’s that Hemingway line about bones being strongest at their broken point… I don’t buy that. I’m sure it’s true in a physical sense, but the whole “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” jazz doesn’t carry water with me. I think what doesn’t kill you can make you weaker and more frail and fearful, but despite that fact most of us still summon the will to carry on after life breaks us in the little ways life tends to…”

This demonstrates the risk of philosophy-by-aphorism: Yes, the winner standing on the stage clutching the trophy, says, “Dreams do come true if you work hard,” but witness the stream of losers backstage who also had dreams and worked just as hard. Jazz Railsback is a doctor; most would consider him a great example of Nietzsche’s dictum. But read the opening quote again, about maiden intimacies. If you’re made stronger by the burden you carry – if all that extra strength created by the burden is devoted to carrying it – is it really stronger? And couldn’t he have been a doctor with two matching sides? For that matter, how many parents take one look at him, and bring their broken babies elsewhere?

Thought-provoking story.