Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth McCracken, “Mistress Mickle All at Sea” from Zoetrope  19.4

New Year’s Eve in a Rotterdam garret, the whole block blacked out, bottle rockets rattling the casements: Mistress Maggle, villainess of the children’s game show Barnaby Grudge, off duty and far from home, ate a cold canned hot dog in the dark and pronounced it delicious. These were the last minutes of the old year. She’d come from Surrey to visit her half brother, Jonas, whom she’d last seen in Boston just before their father had retired to Minorca. Expatriation was the family disease, hereditary: thanks to an immigrant ancestor, they all had Irish passports. The world was their oyster. An oyster was not enough to sustain anyone.

The question that most perplexed me about this story was answered when I found a short excerpt of the first paragraphs in an online teaser by Zoetrope. In my copy of Pushcart, the title remains “Mistress Mickle”, but throughout the story the name used is Mistress Maggle. I spent far too much time wondering why that was so, hunting for a hint. Turns out it’s one of those weird copyediting changes that sometimes happens with reprints, I guess. But it did rather distance me from the story. Then again, my concentration has been pretty compromised lately.

So, Mistress Mickle, or Maggle, whose real name is Jenny Early (“though 49 seemed too old to be Jenny and too late to be early”) is definitely at sea, literally as well as figuratively, going way beyond her discomfort with her own name. She starts out visiting her half-brother in Rotterdam, then takes a boat home to England – or, rather, back to England where she lives, since she’s from Boston, or Ireland, or I’m not sure, really, and I don’t think she’s sure, either. Along the way she seems to feel more lost by the minute. The encounter with her brother, complete with the news that his girlfriend is expecting, sends her down memory lane revisiting an old romance that didn’t work out. On shipboard, she encounters another children’s entertainer who genuinely enjoys entertaining children, and plays a much friendlier character rather than the scolding shrew she portrays; a mirror image of sorts. I get the sense that she’s desperately unhappy, yet unable to figure out just what to do about it.

The narration is a slightly odd voice, extremely close 3rd person, so close it almost reads like she’s the one narrating herself in 3rd person. The ending makes that narration crucial, since, well, she dies. Maybe. She is a bit of a hypochondriac, after all. But in that last paragraph the narration turns into direct address, zooms out, and interpret however you like.

In any case, it’s a sharp and very witty story, lots of clever jibes and twists of phrase that make it fun to read. I’d like to read it again when (if?) my focus returns.

Marcelo Gleiser: The Island of Knowledge (Basic, 2014)

Consider, then, the sum total of our accumulated knowledge as constituting an island, which I call the “Island of Knowledge”….The Island’s growth has a surprising but essential consequence. Naively, we would expect that the more we know of the world, the closer we would be to some sort of final destination, which some call a Theory of Everything and others the ultimate nature of reality. However, holding on to our metaphor, we see that as the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance – the boundary between the known and the unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination – whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyway – but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.

This past Spring, I took Prof. Gleiser’s science/philosophy mooc that focused on the question, Can we ever know the very essence of reality, or is there some knowledge that can never be within our grasp? Is it all a matter of developing technologies and learning how the universe works, or are there some things that simply can’t be discovered by reason, observation, and scientific method? This book was the basis for that course.

Prof. Gleiser has an eclectic approach to science. He’s a theoretical physicist, but the book is far more. I noticed a brief comment about his training towards the end: “I was twenty-seven and in search of ways of connecting the rational scientific approach that I was learning in school with a strong sense of spirituality I had nurtured since an early age.” That willingness to look beyond science, to philosophy, to human emotion and interaction, shows up clearly throughout this work. “If reason is the tool we use in science, it is not its motivation,” says Gleiser. While it’s mostly science, there is a strong thread of philosophy as well; this is a scientist comfortable with ideas of divinity. This was the course that inspired me to read Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, a historical/philosophical work I enjoyed tremendously (and blogged about here).

Gleiser’s opinion is that we can’t know certain things, not because we don’t have good enough instruments or don’t have string theory nailed down yet, but because some things are simply unknowable. The “brain in vats” question is the classic example – how could we know? – but there’s also the limitation of the time horizon of the universe, and it seems there are most likely distance limitations at the small end of the scale as well. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

The book starts off with the pre-Socratics and the first inklinks of atomism. I discovered Ernst Mach, of Mach-1 fame, never accepted the existence of atoms, though their existence was theoretically proven during his lifetime; as I understand it (take this with a large shaker of salt), he didn’t say they didn’t exist, simply that he didn’t accept the existence of something that couldn’t be seen (he’d have changed his mind if he’d lived long enough to watch “A Boy and his Atom” on Youtube, a movie made with atoms). The first chapters move very quickly to Einstein, and the early 20th century forms a large part of the book as more and more questions arose for every answer. Once the quantum door was kicked in, everything was up for grabs, and we moved right along to the present.

While I’m sure I didn’t fully understand all the material on even an introductory academic level, it’s a very readable book, with good explanations and analogies that made most of the technical material at least partly understandable. For example:

[Q]uantum theory implies that there is a natural fuzziness to matter, a finite “smallness” to all things…. If we apply this notion to space, it is natural to expect that the same will be true: that there is a smallest distance of space beyond which nothing can be smaller. According to this view, space is not really a continuum but fuzzy, so that motion cannot proceed smoothly from point to point…. A competing view is to consider that it is not space that needs to be “quiltized” but the notion of point particles that needs to go.

When I was young and even more foolish than I am today, my then-boyfriend and I used to argue about whether the universe was fundamentally analog or digital (oh, come on, who hasn’t had those arguments). And when I read Euclid’s Elements, I was almost disappointed to find a proof that a plane must be continuous, thus analog. But maybe I was mistaken about that interpretation, since it appears scientists are still arguing about it.

I also enjoyed reading “But we do not know what electric charge or mass is…. Mass and charge do not exist per se; they only exist as part of the narrative we humans construct to describe the natural world.” I asked once in some course just what “charge” meant, since I can’t describe it without referring to electric charge, which of course is circular reasoning. So I’m always happy to find out that no one actually knows what “charge” is, beyond that it’s a quality some particles have that causes certain behaviors. This seems like the opposite of Ernst Mach’s problem with atoms: we can see it, feel it, but don’t know what it is. Mass seems to be in the same category.

How much can we know of the world? Can we know everything? Or are there fundamental limits to how much science can explain?…. From our past successes we are confident that, in time, part of what is currently hidden will be incorporated into the scientific narrative, unknowns that will become knowns. But as I will argue in this book, other parts will remain hidden, unknowables that are unavoidable, even if what is unknowable in one age may not be in the next one. We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.
This view is neither antiscientific nor defeatist. … Quite the contrary, it is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.

It was this attitude that made this book so enjoyable for me. Back in the days when I argued about the nature of the universe for fun, I read a lot of general-readership science books, particularly Asimov. I somehow got away from that. Gleiser has written several other books on various aspects of physics and cosmology, and of course there are many other scientists writing for non-scientists these days. Maybe it’s time to get back into it again.

Pushcart XLI: Jean Valentine, “Hospice” from Shirt in Heaven

I wore his hat
as if it was the rumpled coat
of his body, like I could put it on.

At first I was worried: it’s a poem about death, obviously heartfelt and personal, by a highly distinguished poet, and I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I wondered again if I should be doing this, blogging every poem like I have any idea what I’m doing. But that’s the deal, because otherwise it’s too easy to turn the page and do something easier, and what way is that to do anything worth doing. And as sometimes happens (which is why I’ve stuck by the deal), while no doubt there are subtleties beyond my reach, I found more was accessible than I’d expected.

First is the repetition of words: hat, hand, water, life, rumple. Rumple, of all things. The others are grand words, but rumple? It’s the rumpling that makes the hat, the hand, the water, the life, all beautiful and meaningful. The repetition unites the poem, keeps reminding us why we are there in the hospice room with the dying… dying who? Friend, lover, spouse, child, rival; the details of gender, age, and relationship are omitted so the figure is vague. All we can see is the speaker.

Embodiment again: that familiar recent theme, the body as the medium of experience. Here it’s the medium of goodbye, not grief exactly but more like the presence at a ship’s launching; more like anticipation. I’ve been encountering embodiment in many diverse areas while reading these pieces, in physics and philosophy (which again twine together as they did in ancient Greece). The observer is part of the observed. To measure is to affect what is measured. That must be just as true of watching someone – someone beloved – die as it is of measuring the velocity and position of electrons. Truer, no doubt.

And embodiment, in poetry, turns to typography as form becomes function:

I remembered
like an islander           my island

 

like a calving iceberg, air

The island, the I- land, as he-land slips away from sight: isolation. Just yesterday I learned, courtesy of lexicographer @JesseSheidlower, that island and isle are linguistically unrelated, one from Latin, one from Anglo-Saxon. And now I’m self-conscious about every I that I type, which maybe isn’t a bad thing.

And at the end, after an asterisk (A star? A sound? Or just typographic direction?) there’s a turn. Poems frequently feature turns as part of the semantic structure; sonnets and elegies depend on them. This poem doesn’t have the surface structure of either sonnet or elegy, but maybe it’s an elegy in a deeper way. The turn is one of the most dramatic I’ve read recently; I actually see the speaker physically turning after the death has occurred:

I thought I’d have to listen, hard,
I didn’t even swallow.
But nothing from you stopped.

In prior lines, the speaker used third person to refer to the he; now she promotes he to second person, to you. I can’t help but see this as a step closer to first person, to the I of the island. I see it in my mind, this scene, a companion/comforter/witness at the bedside facing the dying, then rising and turning outward back to the world with that you. Or maybe it’s a different turn, an embodiment not of the hat but of the spirit, a more conceptual turn. And suddenly I wonder if I have it all wrong, if the speaker is the dying, the he/you is the friend/comforter/visitor/witness, the turning not from losing to loss but from embodiment to release.

Of course, it’s entirely likely I’ve missed a larger point about relationships or grief or death while I looked at typography and grammatical persons. But I’m glad I stuck with the poem, that I didn’t let it scare me away, because if nothing else, I know other ways of turning.

Pushcart XLI: Barry Lopez, “The Invitation” from Granta #133

Granta art by Nick Clements

Granta art by Nick Clements

When I was young, and just beginning to travel with them, I imagined that indigenous people saw more and heard more, that they were overall simply more aware than I was. They were more aware, and did see and hear more than I did. The absence of spoken conversation whenever I was traveling with them, however, should have provided me with a clue about why this might be true; but it didn’t, not for a while. It’s this: when an observer doesn’t immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language, into the vocabulary and syntactical framework we all employ when trying to define our experiences, there’s a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen the meaning of an experience.

Complete essay available online at Granta

As I read this essay, I kept thinking, “I’ve read about something like this, recently.” It took me a while to pull it out of my overloaded and sometimes unreliable memory. The Chinese Thought mooc, of course! Confucians see language – including the behavioral language of ritual – as the means of perfecting the individual to full humanity, whereas Daoists feel it’s a distraction from what is essential. “The Way that can be spoken of is not the enduring Way,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Dao de Jing in the 4th century BCE. “He who speaks does not know.” Yes, Prof. Slingerland pointed out the irony of a book dissing language, but that’s how Dao rolls.

Most importantly, he didn’t stop with examining ancient texts, but related the concepts to contemporary neurological, social, and behavioral science. In this case, that meant a guest lecture from UCSB psychology professor Jonathan Schooler on his theory of verbal overshadowing: attempts to describe nonverbal experiences tend to make the experiential memory less accurate on subsequent recall. In its simplest form: if you show someone a face, and ask them to describe it in words, they will be less likely to recognize the face a few moments later than if they did not need to put language to the impression.

Lopez goes beyond this in a paean to the primacy of experience Lao Tzu would appreciate: a broadening of pertinence from the immediate event to what was seen a half hour, or three days, before (tracks of a caribou, for instance), and to later events. The event of seeing a bear isn’t over when the bear is no longer seen; it might never, technically, be over, in much the same vein as the Butterfly Effect.

He also advocates grounding experience in a place. It’s too bad Orion didn’t get to publish this article; it’s exactly their “Nature, culture place” brand (and may the Universe forgive me for using the word “brand” in that sense, it just happens to be appropriate to syntax and semantics).

A grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket is more than a bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket. It is a point of entry into a world most of us have turned our backs on in an effort to go somewhere else, believing we’ll be better off just thinking about a grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket.
The moment is an invitation, and the bear’s invitation to participate is offered, without prejudice, to anyone passing by.

I’m not sure I want to participate in such an event, apologies to Lao Tzu and Lopez; I’m not much of a nature person to begin with, and the bear’s a dealbreaker. But I understand the point, the distancing of us from not only nature, but from reality. And again, we have this triad of will, nature, and body that’s been humming around for the past several pieces: the will to experience nature without culture’s safety nets around the body. The willingness to experience.

Pushcart XLI: Kate Levin, “Resting Place” from River Teeth, Sept. 2015

When we arrive at daycare, I step out of the car and close my door gently, hoping not to startle my son awake. As I open the back door to retrieve him from his car seat, I see the bird.
 
I gasp, but only its stillness is gruesome.

Complete piece available online at River Teeth Journal

The first year, maybe two, that I blogged Pushcart, I only did the fiction. Then I added the nonfiction, and a year later, one post for all the poetry, reading it separately. I think I missed a lot skipping around that way. Case in point: we have a second piece about a child, and a bird. A very different piece in tone, theme, and genre – I’m not sure if this is poetry or nonfiction (I would call it poetry), but I’m sure it doesn’t matter – to show us the wide-ranging possibilities of a single combination.

Again, we have a frightening intrusion into an everyday moment, nowhere near as tragic as in “The Raptor” but alarming nonetheless: Life and death, protection and destruction, innocence and guilt, side by side. But mostly there’s the sense of fragility: not just of the sleeping child or the trapped bird, but of the possibility of tragedy under the most pacific scene. Maybe it is the same theme, or at least a similar one: danger lurking everywhere, revealed at the most innocuous, routine moment, and the effect that has on a parent. “There is my sleeping son, and there is the dead bird,” says mom.

But that’s just the first act of this one-page play; the scene doesn’t end there.

But then I would look at him, breath muscle bones, humming in motion; a system insisting on itself. Who was I to doubt it?…. Through the windshield I can see my son, eyes still closed. Beneath a buckled harness, his chest rises and falls, rises and falls, rises and falls.

And we come to the question of will, also raised in “The Raptor”. Both involve the will of a very young child. But here, the will is more the will of the body: the will of “a system insisting on itself.” The rise and fall of the chest (echoing the open and close of the car door?), even in sleep, even next to death.

I’m taking yet another biology mooc, and I continue to be in awe of this bundle of atoms we call our bodies, of the billions of things that happen every second to keep our chests rising and falling, to keep us working and playing and loving and laughing and writing blog posts. Is the will to live the will of the body? Maybe it’s the will of nature: like charges repel and opposite charges attract, ions pump, cardiac muscles contract, nerve cells signal the diaphragm to take another breath, even in sleep. “A system insisting on itself,” and mom sees her world isn’t quite as fragile as she thought.

The juxtaposition of these two pieces is marvelous. Either one alone has power, but together, they hold a conversation.

Pushcart XLI: Charles Holdefer, “The Raptor” from Chicago Quarterly Review #21

Photo by Christine Dibble

Photo by Christine Dibble

Cody was the only one to see the raptor descend. What to believe. On the second day of their vacation, Lisa had put Ronny – barely three weeks old! – on the picnic table in his baby seat while she paused to apply sun cream to his soft, wrinkly knees…. “Happy Ronaldus!” Lisa straightened for a moment to apply some of Ronny’s protective cream to her own face. Up here in the mountains you had to be careful, the ultraviolet rays were more powerful.
Cody sat on a nearby rock, looking up at the pines, the fleecy clouds, and a black dot that was growing bigger.

I see so many threads running through this story: faith, religion, sex, danger, loss, family, human frailty. Yet I can’t get a firm hold on it, or organize it in a way that makes sense to me.

First, the word “raptor”. It’s not an uncommon word – technically, it’s any bird of prey, such as a hawk, vulture, eagle, falcon – but if a bird swooped in and flew off with a baby, I’m not sure I’d describe it as a raptor. I’d be more along the lines of “some big bird”. Given the religious twist of events, and the similarity of “raptor” to “rapture”, I have to wonder if it’s a symbol for divine plans. Or maybe it’s about finding rapture in various ways: in sexuality, booze, or intense religiosity. Maybe the word is just to link it all together linguistically. Even the playful family nickname “Ronaldus Magnus” reminded me both of medieval kings and popes, and of Seinfeld’s Festivus, at least until I discovered it’s an occasional right-wing nickname for Ronald Regan.

Then there’s the second sentence: “What to believe.” There’s some trick of narration there. Though five-year-old Cody was the only one to see the actual abduction, the parents saw the raptor flying away with Ronny, so they would believe the child. This is an outside narrator commenting with the view of those outside the family. And suddenly we’re in “The dingo took my baby” territory: ornithologists offering opinions about raptors’ capacities to carry off tiny babies, interviews for Cody and the parents. Although much of the story appears to be close third person from within the family, this more distant narrator introduces several crucial transitions, including a series of “Even if not for the raptor” examples of the changes that befell the family afterwards. But that early sentence left me a bit off balance.

Ronny found himself in a nest on a cliff ledge with two baby birds. Still looking up at the blue sky, inhaling the thinner, colder air, his cries competed with the screeks of his companions. Oh, he was hungry! As the blue air turned purple and then black and stars pricked the blackness and constellations whirled in the firmament above, he welcomed the warmth of the bodies next to him, and it was a comfort when the big, heavy body sat on him, with its stronger heat, its thicker feathers.
Ronny tired himself with crying and then fell into a doze, feeling the beats of hearts next to his. They beat very fast.

I felt a lot of distance between me and the characters. There’s a great deal of detail about their downward spirals. There’s also a great deal of caring going on: from the start when Lisa is careful to protect Ronny from sunburn with sunscreen, speaking to him playfully, to much later when Dan calls her in the middle of the night to ask if she ever thinks about him, even to Cory’s concern over his mother’s drinking. Yet it all felt so removed. No one ever become more than a fictional character. I wonder if I’m callous, or if that’s deliberate, a distant narrator’s analytical eye, seeing but not feeling, or at least not conveying feeling. I have to wonder, too, if this is dark humor, something I often miss completely.

When he fell, rolling into the open air, he felt surprised and, at the same time, affronted. What was happening to him?
Ronny bellowed headlong into a vast and hideous deep. There was no time to think of who could hear him. His heels moved eagerly for traction against the retreating sky. This missing sensation seemed precious, but it was also like an insult to him and to the place from which he fell.
Darkness in a hurtling tract, the rub of cold. His voice split the air, refusing to submit or yield. This much felt right. His will was still untouched, his own.

The story deals with two time lines, one in the period immediately following the raptor’s theft sandwiched in between longer segments about the fourteen years that followed. I get the distinct sense that the timelines converge. Cody, having had his personal conversion experience and on a camping trip with the girl who brought him to Jesus, masturbates on the spot, perhaps, where Ronny fell out of the nest so long ago. The text is ambiguous. The end is ambiguous as well, though the idea of sudden danger – whether from his girlfriend discovering his nocturnal activities, or from a raptor, a feral Ronny, or a wild animal – striking without any warning, might be an obvious conclusion.

It’s that mention of will that really feels like I missed something along the line. Again, I end up back at religion. A major part of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic triad is that God has a purpose and we need to make our wills subordinate to his. Many Eastern religions advocate a release of desire to achieve happiness, or following a path set by the universe rather than taking matters into our own hands. But then, there are many people who are just aimless. Again, I’m not sure how any of this fits in, but I heard the note.

That’s really my overall experience with the story: I heard a lot of notes, but I can’t figure out what key we’re in.

Pushcart XLI: Leslie Johnson, “Midterm” from Colorado Review, Spring 2015

Art by Annemeike Mein: “Whirlpool Frog”

Art by Annemeike Mein: “Whirlpool Frog”

Midmorning in mid-October, in the middle of the campus, Chandra stopped in the center of the crisscrossing sidewalks. She pulled the phone from her handbag and pretended to be texting someone; she smiled down at the screen as if someone had texted her back. She felt other students brushing past her on the walkway, but didn’t look up at their faces.

Complete story available online at Colorado Review

I kept thinking of story classifications as I mulled this one over. Some stories are love stories, or war stories or sexual abuse stories or coming-of-age stories; this one seems obviously classifiable as an anorexia story, but I think that’s just the specific vehicle; the motivation is broader. The editor’s introduction to the Spring 2015 issue of Colorado Review nails it:

“Emerging from the grip of winter, when we’ve retreated from the cold, holing up in the warmth of our homes and for a time losing touch with the earth, with one another, sometimes even with ourselves, we long to reestablish ties once the green reveals itself again. The fiction and essays gathered here, in this spring issue, bring us stories of people seeking connection in its various forms.”

The voice, though somewhat off-putting to me, is perfect for the story: it reads like an emotionally unaware college student wrote it, little hints slipping out right and left almost deliberately in that passive-aggressive way of screaming “Why are you always looking at me please pay attention to me just leave me alone”. The anorexia angle, for instance: it’s so evident, from the professor’s remarks about “not another anorexia essay” to the obsession with Pop-Tarts and hip bones, yet that’s just the surface symptomology of the deeper intimacy issues that play out. Like pretending she’s texting someone, which is the new version of 1975’s “inventing lovers on the phone” – or the “I have plans that night” from the 50s. After all, if someone is texting you, that means you’re normal, right? But a cell phone is all the intimacy she can handle.

The story has strong bone structure underneath that deliberately ravaged skin. It’s fascinating to watch as Chandra reveals a tiny bit, gauges the response, and moves a bit closer to Eli (and, literally, farther from her phone and into hot water). She starts off making up lies just to agree with him: she sees the single red leaf he sees, about to fall (now there’s a genuinely good pickup line if ever I heard one), and things go downhill from there. She’s new at this, so it’s natural she doesn’t interpret the signals well: he’s dismissive of nearly everything she says. The final revelation is inadvertent. In the context of an actual nascent relationship rather than pretense, it would be possible to get back on track. But it’s just too much for Chandra.

Approach-avoidance: that tug of war between the guy in real life or the phone in the tree, the fear vs pull of relationship, the anorexic woman who enrolls in a gender studies class than won’t show up. All the usual coming-of-age crap here in Body Week XLI, dialed up to a pathological 11 and covered over with an Everything’s Fine, Fine veneer. The resolution almost doesn’t matter. Almost.

Pushcart XLI: Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, “I Dream of Horses Eating Cops” from Nepantla #2

Art by Ulrike “Ricky” Martin

Art by Ulrike “Ricky” Martin


 
i name my body girl of my dreams
i name my body proximity
i name my body full of hope despite everything
i name my body dead girl who hasn’t died yet
 
i hope i come back as an elephant
i hope we all come back as animals
and eat our fill
 
i hope everyone gets everything they deserve
 

Complete poem available online from LitHub

The ordering of Pushcart pieces, unlike BASS, is up to the editors. This year we opened with a cluster of art-themed stories, a theme that’s echoed from time to time throughout. I sense a distinct pocket of body-themed works, going back to Charlie, or even to Slocomb County, though now the theme takes precedence over other threads. The body as male or female, brown or white, me or not me, human or animal, cop or civilian.

I read a poem that starts out with elements of bitterness, but turns towards hope. I’m enchanted by the idea of wanting to come back as an elephant; I keep wondering what it is about the elephant that is so appealing. Its size? Its reputation for memory? Its thick skin?

I also spent some time wondering about all of us getting what we deserve. I think nearly everyone wishes that, yet I suspect most of us will be disappointed with our deserts, a kind of moral Ikea effect.

Justice MOOC

Course: Justice
Length: 12 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk (self-paced, open 6 months)
School/platform: Harvard via edX
Instructor: Michael J. Sandel
Quote:

Justice explores critical analysis of classical and contemporary theories of justice, including discussion of present-day applications.…The course invites learners to subject their own views on these controversies to critical examination.
The principal readings for the course are texts by Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls. Other assigned readings include writings by contemporary philosophers, court cases, and articles about political controversies that raise philosophical questions.
What you’ll learn
• The fundamentals of political philosophy
• An understanding of social justice and criminal justice, and the roles they play in the modern justice system
• A deeper sense of the philosophy that underlies modern issues such as affirmative action, same sex marriage, and equality
• The ability to better articulate and evaluate philosophical arguments and ask philosophical questions

Back in the late 80s, PBS ran a series called “Ethics in America” (available online, because Youtube) led by a Harvard law school professor. He’d present a fairly straightforward situation to a panel made up of a variety of professionals – former government officials, educators, lawyers, doctors, journalists, it varied depending on the theme of the week – and ask, “What would you do, and why?” Then he’d complicate the situation, and complicate it again in a different way.

Michael Sandel has been teaching the Justice course at Harvard, the basis for this mooc, for thirty years, and it operates along the same lines as the PBS series. There may well be some organic connection, given the timing and similarity.

I remember watching the series as ethical principles were edited, sometimes abandoned. Sometimes it was because, they’d admit, they simply weren’t up to what their ethical belief required of them. But my take-away was that no one system of ethics works 100% of the time, that we mostly operate in a kind of ethical relativism (oh, that dirty word), evaluating each situation and determining priorities of principles. Funny thing is, just within the past few years I’ve been learning a lot about Jonathan Haidt and system 1/system 2 decision making: the theory is, we make decisions, including ethical decisions, almost instantaneously by gut instinct, then search for a logical reason to defend those decisions. I kept that in mind as I worked through the course.

Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do is an optional companion volume to the mooc; several chapters are included in the online readings. I’ve ordered it, just to have everything in one place.

I took a different approach to this course: because it was evident it was a back-and-forth discussion live-taped with a (very large) in-person class, I decided to forego my usual saving of video transcripts and readings. I just winged it. I’ve taken just about every philosophy course offered by both Coursera and edX, as well as a couple of Yale OCWs on political philosophy, so the material presented was familiar. A hypothetical case served as a starting point for discovering the limits of utilitarianism, libertarianism, and all the other -isms.

I heard a new context for Locke’s property rights in relation to the appropriation of native American land by colonial, and later, American, forces; I got a better understanding of Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and even though I will forever mis-refer to John Rawls as Lou Rawls (I just will; yes, I know the difference between the philosopher and the musician, so shut up) I’m glad I got more opportunity to look at his ideas beyond the veil of ignorance.

Each of the mooc’s 24 modules began with a Moral Dilemma poll (with a few exceptions), followed by a half-hour live-taped class session with 1000 students in the beautiful Sanders Hall. But don’t let the number put you off: the sessions have a remarkably intimate feel, as individual students answer “What would you do” questions and defend their choices, sometimes using philosophical language, sometimes just speaking off the cuff and allowing Sandel to guide them to a more formal statement of guiding principle. He asks the name of every student, and seems to remember it later on. Differences are viewed less as arguments than as multiple ways of approaching an issue. It’s really quite something to watch.

In terms of grades, the multiple-choice final exam is extra-weighted (70%). Unit quizzes and the Moral Dilemma polls make up the rest. The polls are graded on participation only; a situation is presented, and a choice between two or three options is allowed, along with a chance to write as much or as little as you like to defend your choice, and a chance to change your mind upon reading other opinions. I’d be very curious to know how many people changed their position; I suspect more than a few changed their rationale (I did several times, since others worded it more clearly) but I don’t think I changed sides at all. This in itself led to some self-reflection: am I closed to other ideas, or have I simply thought things through carefully?

For me, grades had little to do with this. I considered it a highly successful class, albeit one I zipped through, partly because it was so enjoyable, and partly because I was comfortable with the territory. I’m going to enjoy revisiting it all when I read the book.

Pushcart XLI: David J. Unger, “Fail Again” from The Point #10

FAILURE FESTIVAL is an invitation. An invitation for you to help us engage failure in a public setting. We need you because we don’t know how to do it on our own. We don’t know whether to barrel towards it, argue with it, or sit on its lap. We don’t know if we should give it keys to our apartment, or ask it to apologize. Sometimes we cower in the corner. Sometimes we lie down and try to convince it that we are asleep… or dead.
We want to know what failure reveals about our world that success masks. We do not expect easy answers. We may find none at all. This is a celebration and acknowledgement of the fact that when things inevitably don’t go as we plan, somehow, we must adapt. Please help.

Complete essay available online at The Point

I’ve learned, in the past three years, to embrace failure, mostly through the influence of a bunch of math teachers who are convinced if you aren’t getting things wrong, you aren’t learning anything, and that learning to tolerate frustration and persevere is more important than memorizing trig identities. One thing I can always succeed at is failing at math, so I’ve finally found a way to, um, succeed?

This isn’t a unique approach. Every writer, every dreamer who ever poured out her heart on paper knows at least one line from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, a line celebrated in 2014 by Trinity College in Dublin with “a free exhibition of beautiful, heroic and instructive failures” in its Science Gallery. And just last month, MIT’s Technology Review published a story on Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman – and PhD candidate in math – John Urschel, who says “In math, you have to be comfortable with failure.” And the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm 500 Startups is all about failure: “The alternate name we came up with for 500 Startups was ‘fail factory,’ says [founding partner Dave] McClure. ‘We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn.’”

Before we were all about “winning”, failure was a recognized route to success.

So I was really eager to read this piece, a journalistic look at the Failure Festival presented in Boulder, CO back in 2014.

I got a bit lost in the description of the festival itself. Apparently it was a three day audience-participation dance-and-performance-art thing. Garbage bags served as ponchos, tomatoes were provided for throwing and carrots for carving. It was probably much better in person than it was to read about. But I must admit, sadly, the piece didn’t work for me. But if an article about a failure festival fails, does that make it a success?

Pushcart XLI: Richie Hofmann, “Idyll” from Second Empire

Fernando Vincente:  “Atlas” series

Fernando Vincente: “Atlas” series

 
Cicadas bury themselves in small mouths
of the tree’s hollow, lie against the bark tongues like amulets,
 
 
though it is I who pray I might shake off this skin and be raised
from the ground again….
 

~ Complete poem available online at TNY

 

 
 
My initial impression of the poem was of rebirth, of an emergence from a life of repression and fear into a more free existence. But when I’m uncertain, which is most of the time (particularly with poetry), I go researching. And in my research I found gold.

First, cicadas. I have a vague idea of a cyclical existence, of an emergence every so often in a loud frenzy of insect celebration, but I didn’t know if that was folklore or fact. Turns out, it’s both:

Cicadas begin life as a rice-shaped egg, which the female deposits in a groove she makes in a tree limb…. Once the egg hatches the cicada begins to feed on the tree fluids…. Once the young cicada is ready, it crawls from the groove and falls to the ground where it will dig until it finds roots to feed on. Once roots are found the cicada will stay underground…. After the long 2 to 17 years, cicadas emerge from the ground as nymphs. Nymphs climb the nearest available tree, and begin to shed their nymph exoskeleton. Free of their old skin, their wings will inflate with fluid and their adult skin will harden. Once their new wings and body are ready, they can begin their brief adult life.

This fits beautifully into the poem: the mouth and feeding imagery, a life cycle of becoming, “one life / abrades another”, the sense of rebirth even I could not miss on first reading. We all pass from the truths we believed in childhood – truths about ourselves, about the world, generated from unquestioned pronouncements of authority figures or merely from perceptions in a very limited frame of reference – into a more complex, nuanced, and fact-based truths that withstand critical examination as contradictions are encountered.

Yes, of course it’s a coming-out poem, mixing the literal coming out of the cicada from the nurturing protection of the tree to the world, and the more figurative coming out into self-acceptance and freedom to own one’s space in the world as one is, scraping off the criticisms and fears in favor of “a body built for love”. Specifically aiming towards queer metaphor, it could also be applied to any kind of emergence from a poorly-fitting set of imposed norms into a life that fully celebrates one’s existence and understanding of reality, a more nimble and authentic way to progress through the world: feeling what we feel, rather than what we’ve been told to feel.

I was surprised to see a poem from The New Yorker in Pushcart – the champion of small presses ignores the glossies – but the nomination came instead from Hofmann’s premier collection, Second Empire. Soren Stockman’s Kenyon Review analysis gave me a greater appreciation of this metamorphic theme that runs through both the collection and this individual poem:

Richie Hofmann’s debut collection, Second Empire,contains the fierce construction of a life saturated with love. Hofmann’s speaker looks closely at the world he is born into as well as at the world he would create in its place, the former existing as a battlefield whose rules have not been proclaimed widely enough and the latter being forged from a sensual and uncompromising imagination. These two worlds often appear in the same moment, line, sentence, or poem, like two opposing emotions gripped simultaneously in the mind. Over the course of the book, they move closer, tentative as new lovers. Hofmann builds a steadying cord between the eyes and what they view in both his speaker and his reader. He grants us a tightrope and we walk out of ourselves into what eventually become our lives.

~~ Soren Stockman for Kenyon Review

Many of us are right now walking a tightrope of truths: loud voices, some of them supposed authority figures, are telling us, and the truth of what we experience in our own lives and know from however many years of our lives. Can there be a reverse metamorphosis, back into the childhood of uncritical acceptance of authority merely because it has power? I hope not.

I was particularly struck by Stockman’s observations about the cover image of the book: “We see finally the map on the book’s cover to be a torso, then the cords of someone’s neck, and then a mouth opening.” Yes, I had noticed, on the KR page, an intriguing image that looked somewhat like a 19th century anatomical drawing of a torso. His chronology is spot-on: then I noticed the map, then the neck, then the mouth. It’s a carefully cropped version of a work from Spanish painter Fernando Vincente’s “Atlas” series; I’ve used the uncropped version as the header art for this post.

The purists will tell you a poem must be taken on its own, that it’s a weakness of analytical and aesthetic skill if the reader can’t recognize what’s going on based purely on the text of the poem. That may be true, but some of us need some guidance to develop those skills. Sometimes my guidance comes from more experienced and knowledgeable poeticists; sometimes it comes from separating myth and reality to better understand cicadas.

Fourth of July

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.

~~ Joni Mitchell

I’ve never really thought much about patriotism, or about what it means to be an American. I’ve never been anything else, but I assume people who live in other countries love their countries too, for the most part, or at least love what their country used to be before something terrible happened that changed everything.

I know how that feels now.

What do – did? – I feel America was about? That it’s a messed up combination of the best and the worst from the very start (the man who wrote “all men are created equal” owned slaves and slept with one of them from the time she was 14 years old), but that we always have had this idea of “being better” at our core. We always aspired to be that city on a hill, though we often fall short. Even though we believe ourselves to be the best country in the world, one of our patriotic hymns includes the line “God mend thine every flaw” acknowledging our imperfection and our intent, fumbling and misguided as it sometimes is, towards the betterment of all.

That intent has changed. Our intent now is perhaps best described as “Me first, and screw everybody else.” Compassion, generosity, and honor have been overshadowed by greed, corruption, and hatred. Our public face to the world is some macabre cross between a joke and a vicious horror. How do we explain to the world that this – the product of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and very possibly the criminal disruption of democracy in favor of power harvesting at the highest levels – is not who we are? The scarier question, for me: What if it is exactly who we are, who we have become?

I grew up in the 60s. My parents were terrified at the changes blowing in on the wind: Negroes (that was the polite term at the time) as regular people? Women as bosses over men? Communes, drugs, frankly sexual music (popular music was always about sex – come on, what do you think Glenn Miller was in the mood for? And by the way, lots of medieval madrigals are downright obscene), natural foods, meditation, they thought the world had gone crazy. I wonder if I’m just seeing the other side of that now. But I don’t think so. I think this is qualitatively, quantitatively, fundamentally different. I think this was a coup. I think America isn’t America any more.

I keep thinking of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” I didn’t know I loved my country until I lost it.

Pushcart XLI: Lydia Davis, “After Reading Peter Bichsel” from Paris Review #215

Yevgenia Nayberg: “Alarm Clock”

Yevgenia Nayberg: “Alarm Clock”

Last spring and summer, I was reading the stories of the Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. I began reading them in Vienna. The little book—a hardcover, but small and lightweight—was a gift from a German friend at the start of my trip, to provide me with something to read in German…. I continued reading Bichsel’s stories on the train from Vienna to Salzburg, and then in Salzburg, and then on the train to Zürich, and then in Zürich, Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne, and on each train I took to go from one city to the next.
In fact, Peter Bichsel regularly writes about reading and about train journeys. He will also sometimes begin a story, or remark in the middle of a story, “There are stories that are hardly worth telling,” or “There is almost nothing to say about X,” and then sometimes follow that with a “but”: “But I have wanted to tell this story for a long time now,” or “But it has to be told, because it was the first story in my life, the first one that I remember.” He then goes on to tell a lovely, quiet, modest story, a story that glows with human kindness, or love, or some combination of compassion, understanding, and honesty. (Or am I, these days, finding this quality so marked in his stories because I am seeking it?)

I have no idea who Peter Bichsel is, or what kinds of stories he writes, other than what we’re told in the text. It’s possible if I were more familiar with this writer, I’d have a more sophisticated understanding of the story. What I notice – beside the inclusion of at least two of the dismissal/but constructions – is a kind of mirror structure: not just the opening and closing frames of train travel for the main story, but within the story itself, there is a repetition that could be viewed as signalling a return track. Or maybe it’s the odd nature of the writing itself that has me looking for tricks where none are intended, that this is a simple telling of a tale: I was reading this writer, and I decided to write out these events in his style. An homage, that is, to Peter Bichsel.

Lydia Davis sure knows how to write restaurant scenes. About four years ago I read her very short story/essay “Eating Fish Alone” (as part of a food-related mini-collection from Madras Press) and wondered why a piece about choosing a meal was so engrossing. Now I have to wonder if that was a practice sketch for this story (if it is a story). I suspect this is related to an Ishiguro story that I later found out was a practice sketch of “dream grammar” for his novel The Unconsoled; Davis’ story here too, seems to me something along the lines of a dream, not for the illogical sequence of events or sudden shifts in time, but for the extreme close-up on details that seem rather trivial.

The story within the frame consists of the author’s observations of fellow diners at lunch the first day of her Salzburg sightseeing, then of another lunch on the second day after a pilgrimage to Mozart’s birthplace. I can’t see any reason in the text for the Mozart connection specifically, but it still seems significant. Maybe it’s that in a story as packed with seemingly random details as this one, I assume everything is significant at some level I just can’t perceive.

It was the woman at the table to my right who came to interest me the most during that lunch hour, although at first, in my preoccupation with settling into my seat, putting my bag down beside me, bringing out something to read, and looking around to take in the sights and sounds of the room, I did not pay particular attention to her. It was only as I became used to my surroundings, having examined the features of the room, the customers in my part of it – the larger part – and those beyond the partition, having absorbed the particular characteristic sights and sounds of this place and taken note of any more unusual features were occupants, that my attention was more and more drawn to my neighbor.

Our narrator is quite interested in the woman at the table to her right, first because she is eating so quickly, while seemingly in no hurry to finish lunch and leave, and second because of an alarm clock on the table. This is the kind of detail that reminded me of a dream sequence. As the story notes, the alarm clock seems to serve no purpose, but reinforces the notion of time associated with this character. Maybe this is what made me think of a mirror story: a reversal of time.

While in general the story is all about observation, there are some incidents of note. The time woman asks if anyone has a pen she may borrow:

When she did not find a pen, she looked up and around at the people near her, including those in my direction, and asked us all generally if anyone could lend her a pen. I hesitated, waiting for someone else to offer. I had been writing in my own notebook, though I had put it and my pen away. I did not want to lend her a pen, even though I had more than one.

I have to wonder: why did the narrator not want to lend her a pen? I think it has to do with story function, with maintaining a distance; if she interacted directly, subject and object would merge, and the preference is to maintain the pre-modern distinction. Of course, that’s reaching, but I’m generally interested in subject/object interaction, so that’s where I go when I have the opportunity. Whether or not that’s where Davis was doing, I have no idea.

Another character of interest sits at the narrator’s table (apparently this is a semi-communal lunch spot, similar I imagine to the old Durgin Park in Boston before it decided to be an upscale restaurant), and while she is examined in detail the narrator’s interest in her is clearly less than in the time woman. I have to wonder if that’s because there is interaction between subject and object, and thus the narrator loses interest in her as a character.

For a time, I felt that we five, in that corner of the restaurant – the silent but contented married couple, who had now finished their palatschinken and returned to their former activities, he reading this newspaper, she gazing at the room; my new table partner with her pale wrinkled face, her little bun of white hair, her somber curiosity; my large-framed energetic neighbor to the right with her firmly planted feet, her wheeling elbows, and her alarm clock; and I – were an odd group, and in our variety reminded me, more than anything, of a group of the more harmless patients on a mental ward at mealtime, each with his or her own difficulty in the face of the food.

That’s a strange observation, but it seems spot-on. I wonder if the narrator is referring to actual experience of having observed patients on a mental ward, or is surmising reality from descriptions in books.

The final event of interest – in a sea of acute observation and speculation – comes at lunch the next day in another restaurant when the time woman again is a fellow diner. The narrator spends a great deal of time trying to figure out how that event, unlikely to occur by chance, has happened; she considers asking the staff about the woman, but isn’t willing to breach protocol simply to satisfy her curiosity. This reminded me of the kind of writing I hear about, a projective technique where the writer considers that the character has a mind of her own and the author’s job is to follow and shape the story to accommodate her.

It’s an odd story, written in slightly odd style, but one I found to be unexpectedly engrossing, as I did Davis’ earlier fish story. Maybe that’s why I’m working so hard – overworking? – to find a more conventional significance and meaning. Maybe I don’t need to find a symbolic structurization (the world as a mental ward; compassion and honesty as something observed but not done); maybe it’s enough that it be an interesting little piece that held my attention for twenty minutes. Maybe it’s more of an appealing wallpaper image or catchy tune than the Key to Human Existence.

And, by the way, my favorite part of the story has little to do with the story at all, but with the blog post written by Jake Weber as part of his continuing WIHPTS series. He makes a wonderful observation about the closing section of the story, something that fits in with my narrator-distance idea. But for the first time since he started the approach, he decides, “No I would not have published this story.”

At first, I took umbrage at that verdict, but I can’t really disagree with his reasons. They’re the sort of thing every beginning writer knows about literary magazines: “Not very promising to be warned early on that there isn’t really much of interest in the story….It’s adjective heavy… so much of this right at the outset of the story, after first being waylaid by a lengthy framing of the story….” Yes, and yes. These are things they warn you about. I don’t disagree with the observation, merely that those are disqualifying factors.

And then there’s the slow pace, anathema to contemporary editors who insist you grab them from the first sentence and never let them go (a quality that nevertheless seems quite lacking to me in most stories, which I’ve always chalked up to my own odd sense of what is interesting). But Jake admits:

I actually somewhat liked the non-hurried pace of it. So many literary magazine stories are frenetic, because we writers are told how critical it is to keep the story moving. This has a feel to it like a story from a century ago, when writers were still self-assured of their own raison d’etre they weren’t always in a rush, didn’t always have to have explosions.

I loved this comment, because it pointed out 1) a need for variety; if every story “grab the reader”, the slower pace stands out, feels like a relief; and 2) the explosions. I once wrote a story – it was written around a single line (“We say, but we don’t always mean”) that was highly personal to me at the time, a story about two boys become two men, with the crucial reunion scene in a coffee shop, a scene I choreographed down to with what words one leaned forward or back, featuring a trash bin with a flap that waved goodbye. In workshop I was told, “Have them meet in a forest, where there’s a fire, and the helicopters come in to save them, and he’s shouting over the noise; Or maybe explosions, a bomb goes off in the coffee shop”. The story did eventually find a home, but this is why I gave up fiction writing. Well, that, and I could never really construct a plot that interested anyone but myself; writing as therapy is great, but doesn’t create art. As opposed to blogging, where I can put a huge digression here in the middle and not worry about it because no more than two people will ever read this. The blessings of obscurity.

In any case, Jake makes a fantastic case for a story he enjoyed but wouldn’t have published, and I have to wonder if that’s what’s why I’m more drawn to Pushcart, which lets the lines be blurred between fiction and memoir, between prose and poetry, which includes pieces I don’t understand and don’t always like, but also pieces that show what is possible beyond the traditional edicts like “Grab the reader from the first sentence and put in helicopters and explosions”.

I do have to agree with Jake’s final assessment: “I’m pretty sure an unknown author would have had a very hard time publishing this story.” Oh, yeah. But what’s the point of being Lydia Davis if you have to climb your way out of the slush pile? Is it fair that others may do this and be dismissed because they aren’t Lydia Davis? No – but that doesn’t mean Davis should be more restricted, but that these rigid requirements have become the antithesis of art and that too many litmags are more about entertainment, about meeting expectations, than shaping them, about following the status quo than challenging it.

/end rant.

Pushcart XLI: Melissa Broder, “Forgotten Sound” (poem) from Last Sext (Tin House 2016)

Photo by Martin Stranka: “Rejected”

Photo by Martin Stranka: “Rejected”

I pretended the lust was voices
And I wrote down the voices
And sometimes the voices spoke as I had written them
To confirm what I already knew
Which is that I am a child and ready for petting

Complete poem available online at The Rumpus

I confess that I’ve been a bit puzzled, maybe even slightly put off, by the Broder phenomenon. She earned her MFA, has published several poetry collections since 2010 (including the one featuring this poem), and her bio at Poetry Foundation lists leadership work with literary magazines and organizations. Yet she became a sensation because of her melancholic tweets (@sosadtoday) and her same-titled book of essays about vulnerability and insecurity and, well, being sad – a book she herself felt might make others take her less seriously as a poet, a book that ended up enshrined in everything from Rolling Stone to Elle to The New Yorker. In the film Broadcast News, dysphoric reporter Allen Brooks whines, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If “needy” were a turn-on?” Turns out, in the right hands, it can be.

I can’t dismiss this poem, and not only because Broder was a prolific and respected poet before her Twitter fame. There’s a powerful haunting quality to it that touches me: the build to the last line, the echo after the words go silent like the click of a closing door, a hollow openness reminiscent of the quality Sinéad O’Connor brought to “Sacrifice”. My admiration for Elton John knows no bounds, but it took O’Connor to expose the emotion, as Broder does with Brooks’ well-defended comedic lament.

Maybe it’s a new confessionalism. Maybe it’s just relief that someone else gets it. I’ve said often I don’t pretend to know what’s “good” and what isn’t; sometimes I don’t even know exactly what it is I feel when I read something; but I still know when I feel something intense, something important, and I did. Isn’t that what a successful poem does?

Pushcart XLI: Kendra Fortmeyer, “Things I Know to be True” from One Story #209

“Troubled Mind” by Chris-Archetypes on DeviantArt

“Troubled Mind” by Chris-Archetypes on DeviantArt

I am leaving the library when Miss Fowler stops me, peering through her glasses like they are windows in a house where she lives alone. She says, “Charlie, a patron saw you ripping up books.”
“I didn’t,” I say. These words sound true, but Miss Fowler holds up The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Bits of paper flutter from its edges like snow.
I know a man in that book. He was trapped underground, dying in the dark and the antiquated language. He coughed then. He rustles in the pocket of my windbreaker now.
From elsewhere, Miss Fowler says, “Give me the pages.”
“I am going to take him outside,” I announce. I declare. Declare which is like clarion call which is of trumpets. “I am going to take him into the light.”
“Look,” Miss Fowler says. Her lips blow bubbles of words into the air: crisp, faceted ones like replacement and thin-filmed ones like expensive. She speaks to me like I am a child. Like operations can smooth these cracked, dark hands, like damages can topple the twenty-seven precarious years stacked in my name.

Oh, this one’s a heartbreaker – perhaps because Charlie is so familiar.

In her One Story introduction, editor Hannah Tinti talks about her mother’s assertion, as a librarian, that a library is a “lifeline to the community”. I spend a fair amount of time in my local public library, and I’m amazed at how patient and helpful the staff always is, no matter what my problem: a book isn’t where it should be, the photocopy machine is out of paper, can I get a copy of this article from a 1955 journal out of print for 40 years (a PDF was in my inbox the next day). But they also are very good at ignoring people who are a bit off-kilter. People like Charlie. There’s a Charlie in every library, I think; sometimes, it’s me.

Charlie is a 27-year-old Vietnam vet (the story is set in the 70s, the Carter administration per the newspaper headlines Charlie reads) with wounds both visible and unseen. PTSD wasn’t much of a thing back then; unfortunately, it’s still often overlooked, or misdiagnosed, or ignored, even today. I’m not sure if that’s Charlie’s problem, if he has brain damage or some kind of other issue (this isn’t a diagnostic story), but his reality is made of words. Words become real. Fortunato is trapped in the pages of Poe, begging for release. Without words, Charlie collapses on the floor.

I go to the library because it is full of words, and I trust words. They make things real.

These are the things that I know to be true:
1. The past and future exist through stories
2. The stories are made of words
3. Words make the future and past exist

This means: if I went to the VA clinic yesterday I can say, “I went to the clinic yesterday.” Then there it is, in your head, like a real thing: a little image that is me at the clinic. I could also say, “I went to the zoo yesterday,” and then that would be real in your head instead. You would not know the difference. I might not know the difference. I couldn’t believe the words I went to the zoo or I could believe the words I went to the clinic. Maybe both are true.

The conflict ratchets up when a librarian confronts him about tearing Fortunato from the book; things escalate, and he ends up in jail for a day and a half, but worse, he’s banned from the library. He has no more words. Charlie’s pain is very real to me.

I found the resolution to be beautiful: he is reunited, by the grace of another librarian in another library, with the original book, Catch-22, all that was left of his friend from combat:

The pages flutter like crazed butterflies. I look down and see through the high whine in my ears that my hands are cracked and through the cracks I see names. Jimmy Metcalf. Lucas Johnson. I see the way the light reflects on the water where they found that little bathing. I see the song Joe Crispin played on his guitar in Quang Tri, and how it got stuck in everyone’s head for days…. And I see the way the air gleamed pink after Jimmy stepped onto the mine – the tiny click and then the sky blown apart and the whole world set singing, flashing white in the sun, pieces of flesh against the green like cherry blossoms in the first light of spring: so pink and bright that your heart ripped in half at the beauty.
One half says, the trees on fire
The other half says, the trees are not on fire.
Maybe both are true.
I see this book inside Jimmy’s hat and then me taking it and writing down these words, a story hidden inside another story. I see the pages fill while the doctors patched up my leg and the skin scabbed over my arm.… And I see the book on the plane, carried all the way home until I landed on American soil, and the chapter ended and I closed it.
But then, here it is. On the table. In the library. And here I am.
“This book is gone,” I say again.
“No,” the librarian says, slowly. “It was just misplaced.”

If only the rest of what has been misplaced can be so easily remedied. The implication, I believe, is that it can be. But it may take time for the pieces to be found.

The notion of words becoming reality is something akin to the philosophical school of idealism, where reality consists, not of things, but of our perception of things, our ideas about things. I just happen to have completed a mooc that included a bit of work on idealism, so it was fresh in my mind. Carried to the extreme, as in Borges, it can lead to absurdities (yet I see a great deal happening recently that reminds me strongly of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”; absurd, no?). At one point, Charlie demonstrates this for us:

I fling my notebook into my bag and dash for the door. I catch a blush of autumn in my periphery, and my steps to not falter. I vanished into the late afternoon light.
 
You believed me, didn’t you? You saw me in your brain, vanishing. Which means that for one minute it was true, and now it exists, and will be true forever.
But what also happened is this:

I believe the now-discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis might also come into play here, a theory that one’s language determines the concepts one has available; that is, one’s reality. This was also the underlying premise of the recent movie Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life”. I’m also unable to forget the “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” adage when I think of Charlie; he knows a great deal about sticks and stones, but he also knows about the power of words. As in, the first librarian’s ability to say “You can’t come back to the library” (in linguistic terms, a speech act).

But none of that academic stuff has anything to do with Charlie; he’s connected to words, to a particular book, as a way of coping with horrific trauma, as a memorial to his friend. And while all the language and philosophy is more than interesting, it’s still the emotional punch that makes this story work so well for me.

My blogging buddy Jake Weber looked at the story from the viewpoint of a litmag editor in his Would I Have Published This Story? series (WIHPTS) on his blog “Workshop Heretic”. His comments are very much worth reading for good insight into Charlie’s struggles and growth, and how the story incorporates them.

Pushcart XLI: Cecily Parks, “Hurricane Song” (poem) from O’Nights

"After the Hurricane" by Wayne Rogers (detail)

“After the Hurricane” by Wayne Rogers (detail)

The pines dizzying for a hurricane, the wind
so hotly twirls their skirts and underskirts,
unnerves their pinecones, ratchets up and up
their branches into needle-spangled, needle-spraying
plumes. The white running sunlight falls and tumbles
through the meadow, rattling the grass. The meadow
sweeps me up in its arms so that I lose track of east
and feel that little kidnapped thrill that comes with drastic
weather.
Complete poem available online at Kenyon Review

Imagine a forest as a community filled with the sentience of nature: trees, grass, deer, birds. Now imagine that community dancing in the storm, not fearing it but playing with it. That’s the kind of personification I see in this poem. Pine trees as skirts particularly strikes me as particularly nice imagery; that is how the branches move in a stiff wind. I hear a lot of sibilance – grasses, guess, yes – in several parts of the poem, imitating the sound of wind.

Hannah Fries of Southern Humanities Review points out, in her review that O’Nights, the title of the collection containing the poem, comes from an entry in Thoreau’s journal reporting a friend’s comment: “He thought that Emerson was a very young-looking man for his age, ‘But,’ said he, ‘he has not been out o’ nights as much as you have.'” Being out o’nights has its costs, perhaps, but also its benefits in experience.

The forest has loved itself long enough to do this.
Is now when I should love myself into a safer place,
or is this the place where love makes me safe? I guess yes
and yes.

The idea of being safe from the storm in the forest seem odd, doesn’t it? I’ve experienced hurricanes in Florida and New England, and I’m not trusting enough of the forest to keep me safe. I wonder if Thoreau ever did.

Pushcart XLI: Jenn Shapland, “Finders Keepers” (nonfiction) from Tin House #65

Tin House Art by Martin Wittfooth

Tin House Art by Martin Wittfooth

A library is not a list. A library is dirty, has smells. I know this because I interned in a special collections library. It’s a special collections library that happens to house, along with its First Folios and signed copies of The Waste Land, a larger assortment of socks than you might guess.
Personal effects generally arrive at the Harry Ransom Center’s loading dock on the University of Texas campus via happenstance. They get stuck into boxes of manuscripts and books for reasons unknown. They’re stowaways. That is why I’m so fond of them….
It was in 7B, before my long afternoons itemizing and categorizing the socks of the dead and famous, that I began to collect certain stories. Stories about wanting and having, giving and taking, even stealing…. Yet as I poked and prodded into what began to seem like the dusty broom closet or unexamined under-the-bed of culture, it was my own relationship to objects that began to feel illicit.

What does it mean to own something? Not the legalities – those are easily determined by consulting a list of conditions that must exist. But what does it mean to us, psychologically? Is it purely for the practical reasons of economic advantage or control over disposition that we want to own a house or a plot of land or a business – or a letter written by Einstein, or the socks worn by someone powerful or famous – or is there something more, a kind of closeness? If it turned out the socks were mislabeled and were just thrown in the box by a packer with sore feet, what would that mean – that it is knowledge that determines value? Would we even want to know? Does that make the determining factor something more like faith?

Shapland’s essay about her internship at the Harry Ransom Center focuses on her work with a molecular model kit owned by Einstein (I was just looking at a similar kit the other day, available on Amazon for less than $20), but branches out to consider motivations behind thefts from the archives, and the human relationship to property in general, a relationship that is, in some crucial ways, fundamental to the spectrum of capitalism and communism but remains fundamentally illusory, as her last paragraph makes clear:

Maybe this desire for communion, for identity – the longing in belongings – is what Walter Benjamin means when he says that collection is a renewal, acquisition a form of rebirth. And isn’t it funny, the big lie at the heart of the enterpriser. All of this stuff is ultimately just that. No apparatus, no matter how meticulous or expensive or careful, can protect a collection from the inevitable slippages, losses, thefts, whether the perpetrators be people, bugs, mold, disintegration, or time. Acquire it, collect it, steal it, forward it, conserve it, preserve it, store it, house it, box it, hold it, wear it, but there’s just no keeping it.

The essay triggered a great many thoughts I’ve had floating around for a long time. So this post will be even more self-indulgent than usual: less about the essay, more about me and my reactions, which float around the fringes of ownership, since Shapland does such a good job with the center portion.

I live near the Maine Historical Society, which includes “the boyhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”, a phrase I’ve heard so often it’s implanted in my brain. Why is this home so special, why is the Rainy Day Room a place people visit in hushed awe, why is it so special to look out the same window where “it is thought” he wrote, “Be still, sad heart! and cease repining; / Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; / Thy fate is the common fate of all, / Into each life some rain must fall, / Some days must be dark and dreary” in response to a rainy day? Do they hope to be graced with the same inspiration? Is it an homage? An attempt to own something? I wonder if someone has tried to buy the property, simply to own it. And I wonder: if some document were discovered that proves he wrote the poem elsewhere, how would the room change?

Transference. That’s the psychological function at work here. It’s a combination of projection, ascribing some aspect of yourself – fantasies, desires, imagination – to the object, and introjection, taking some part of it unto/into yourself. For William James, this is the way objects (which, importantly, can also be whole people) become extensions of the self.

I wonder if that’s what’s behind my occasional obsession with songs: I’ve been known to play a song over and over, then I suddenly stop. I’ve called it ownership, though it has nothing to do with purchasing anything. It’s more than the point of memorization, but less than understanding (I never feel like I fully understand anything), so that’s not it. I don’t know what it is that happens, but it’s like an orgasm without the burst of pleasure: a sudden sense that I’m done, and I don’t want any more. The song is mine, in a way I can’t define, a way that has nothing to do with legalities.

The thefts Shapland describes (the essay appears in the issue of Tin House named “Theft”) are again puzzles on the fringes of ownership. A page of an original Einstein manuscript was stolen, and carefully protected – locked away, self-archived – by the thief (who was eventually found). Was it just the illicit thrill? Again, was it a hope to be inspired, a wish that genius could be transmissible through century-old paper? Or again, are we back to homage, communion? Or is it just a way for a poor schlub to feel special?

Shapland tells of processing a set of papers for the David Foster Wallace collection, and of being unable to part with some of the clips she was authorized to discard. Other paper clips, labeled and sorted, are kept in a locked archive box. “Once we decide objects are worth collecting for reason apart from monetary value, where do we draw the line?” I don’t fully understand the need to archive paper clips – or socks, or Andy Warhol’s gas bills – yet someone does, as these activities are funded somehow. Why are Warhol’s bills items of importance, whereas mine, hell, even my best creations, have no value at all to anyone but me? What makes someone’s paperclips a big deal?

It’s interesting, as I wander around these fringes, that in current gaming and internet vernacular, to own someone is to defeat them or make them look ridiculous in some way. This particular usage has technical roots (I understand the term originated with hackers successfully breaking into a system, thus owning it), but ownership of people has a long and horrible past (and I use the term “past” with some caution, since that past extends to the current moment) in America. I wonder if that past adds to the sense of humiliation a mocking own conveys.

Is there something wrong with me, that I am missing this urge? Given how common collecting is, perhaps it’s a normal part of human behavior – so what’s wrong with me, that things hold so little interest? I do crave owning books, but only for practical purposes, so that I can write in them and crack the spines and dog-ear the pages and love them in my own way. I’ve become fiercely interested in old books and manuscripts, but again, not to own, but to learn about, to understand who made them. Am I missing the ownership gene? Is this why I’ve always been an apartment dweller, and view major ownership – a house, a car, a business – as a burden? It feels like a major failing, almost feels unAmerican, to lack this ownership urge.

I started to write letters to the personal effects I itemized in 7B. I wrote them on the HRC’s yellow paper, on which I was supposed to be recording details about the collection for the finding aid. That’s one reason I’m not a librarian. And one reason the librarians started to give me some side-eye. You’re not supposed to have all these feelings when you’re working behind the scenes. Or if you do, I guess you’re not supposed to write about them. You’re not supposed to commune with the objects. That gradually became clear. It now occurs to me, at the distance of several years, what I brought to this job as a twenty-five-year-old graduate intern, and what gets me in trouble at most of my jobs: unlicensed perspective.

I don’t have the same unlicensed perspective (I love that phrase) as Shapland, but I have my own. I can commune with a 15th century manuscript from my living room via a cable connection. I own songs via memory. I own books of wisdom and unique ideas through cheap used paperbacks. I have my own unlicensed perspective.

International Humanitarian Law MOOC

Course: International Humanitarian Law
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain
Instructors: Raphaël Van Steenberghe, Jerôme de Hemptinne
Quote:

Starting with the sources and subjects of IHL, as well as its scope of application, the course will address the main substantive norms of IHL governing: the conduct of hostilities; the protection afforded to persons in the hands of the enemy; occupation; and implementation of IHL.
We will discuss questions such as:
    • who and what can be targeted by the enemy.
    • which weapons can be used.
    • which method of warfare is authorized.
    • who enjoys protection and what type of protection.
    • which norms apply in non international armed conflicts.
We will also deal with the different ways through which IHL can be implemented and how belligerents may be held accountable for violations of its rules when committing war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Short version: Fascinating course, highly relevant to current events, but be prepared to do some serious work. I took the preliminary International Law mooc (listed as a prerequisite, for good reason) last fall, so I had some idea what to expect. Don’t be discouraged by a poor showing on the first exam: it’s the hardest of the course, and it’s possible to recover from a horrible score and finish with a reasonably decent grade. Trust me. 😉

The course was divided into three sections. The first, two weeks long, outlined the distinctions between IHL and Human Rights law. IHL pertains to rights and responsibilities in times of armed conflict: the Geneva Convention quoted in ever war movie since the late 40s (it’s actually a suite of four, plus a couple of Additional Protocols and various Advisory Opinions, but you get the general idea). In contrast, Human Rights law is more about overarching basics and has nothing to do with war. The two are related, and that relationship took up a significant portion of the first week: how to interpret one in light of the other, and which way that works in various situations and by what principle according to whose pronouncement. It sounds simple now, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to know which was which. This first section also looked at sources of IHL, and the history of its development.

The details of IHL – types of armed conflicts (international, non-international, occupation) and forces (state forces, armed groups, terrorists) – started the second section (3 weeks) and was likewise tricky, but essential to understanding so many contemporary conflicts. Then the focus was on the Geneva Convention relating to protection of POWs and civilians, and the very complicated question of the civilian soldier. Rules of weaponry, tactics, and targeting finished up the section; much of this material was intense, particularly since things were happening in the real world at the same time: the illegal use of chemical weapons in Syria, the US bombing in response, the superbomb in Afghanistan.

The final section in weeks 6 and 7 covered the legal framework of IHL – the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Criminal Court, the UN, individual international Tribunals and hybrid ad hoc courts – and the legal methods of sanctioning violations of IHL and prosecuting war crimes. This was a welcome relief, in terms of both workload and topic.

Each week featured several videos and readings outlining individual situations and cases. The course lists a time allowance of 6 to 8 hours a week; I estimate I spent about 12 to 14 hours a week in the middle section, a bit less elsewhere. Some of that is because of my process of obsessive note-taking, but it’s not the sort of material where I can listen to a video, read a page, and be on my way; it takes multiple plays/readings, and time to understand, incorporate, and relate to prior material. I have no legal or international background other than the one prior course; others may find it much easier. Each week also featured an extended (about a half hour) discussion with practicing IHL professionals: professors at various institutions, as well as organizational, military, and diplomatic specialists, fleshing out the academic discussion with practical considerations and the realities of the real world.

Addendum: I realized, after publishing, that I’d left out a paragraph, sorry! I did have one disappointment with this course, and that was in the reliance on lectures laden with textbook language. Given the unusual relevance of the topics covered, I wonder if it would be possible to present a more engaging class, one with opening questions and more of a conversational feel. I suspect that’s not the way they do things in law schools, but maybe a mooc should try to be a bit different. Then again, given that this is something of an extension of a bricks-and-mortar degree, it might be wise to prioritize academic tone and intent rather than try to become more accessible to less targeted interests.

Grading was divided among three sources. One or two multiple choice questions followed most videos or readings, which together counted for about roughly a third of the final grade. Each section, as outlined above, ended with an assignment: two were multiple choice, one was a peer-assessed essay (for Verified students, this was staff-graded). These also counted for about a third. The final multiple choice exam (for Verified students, another essay was added on) comprised the final third.

I was taking the “WWI and Philosophy” course concurrent with this one, which had some interesting congruences: the Clauswitz philosophy against the development of IHL, the German idealists and the Just War principle. The recent ISIS destruction of Palmyra and other cultural treasures came up in both. For the record, it was a violation of international law, but good luck enforcing that, particularly when dealing with an armed group rather than a state. And that, right there, is the main problem with IHL: while there’s no doubt the rules have helped to some degree to contain the suffering that comes with war, enforcement is inadequate at best. Once in a while justice can be done – we looked at tribunals regarding the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – but mostly it’s a matter of permitting third-party attacks upon military targets in response to violations as a means of deterrence. This wasn’t glossed over in the course, by the way.

Another interesting real-life crossover – or sort of real-life: for several months I’ve been listening to a podcast covering individual episodes of the 2000-2006 TV show The West Wing. Yes, we’re weird, but some of us need some liberal porn in these times. During this course, one of the episodes discussed involved war crimes, and the podcast featured a rather extensive (for an entertainment podcast) discussion with the US former ambassador to the UN, David Pressman covering various aspects of war crimes. I was pleased to recognize so many concepts. I wish I’d been able to ask some questions about the specific incident depicted in the show (I don’t think Leo, as jet pilot, was obligated to verify his target was, in fact, military; that was his superior’s responsibility; and then there’s the retroactivity issue), but alas, the podcast upfront is one way.

This is, as I’ve said, the second of the Louvain international law courses I’ve taken. I’m still enrolled in the Human Rights Law segment, but it seems less approachable so I’ve left it for “someday”. The fourth segment is on investment law, a topic that carries no interest for me whatsoever. These four courses comprise the Louvain MicroMasters, which, if passed (as a Verified student, $150 fee) complete about a third of the credits necessary for a Master’s degree from Louvain (I’m not sure of the subject of the degree, I haven’t looked that closely).

Verified students had a slightly different exam path in this course: the essay for the third assignment is staff-graded rather than peer-assessed, and the final includes another staff-graded essay instead of an additional set of multiple choice questions.. I’ve been highly critical of courses that offer different assessment practices for audit and verified students (that is, those who pay and those who don’t) but here, where academic accreditation is an option, I think it’s a valid approach. The purpose is not to get people to pay for a certificate that’s of dubious value, but to more accurately assess students who might be using the credits earned in the degree program. It’s also a creative approach to using moocs as a supplement, rather than a replacement, to higher education, making credentials more accessible to a wider field. At least, that’s my view from well outside academia.

Even though I have no practical reason to take these courses, they’ve been helpful in seeing a larger picture and interpreting events in different ways. I probably could’ve done the same thing without quite so much work, but I like a challenge.
boil

Pushcart XLI: Taije Silverman, “Spiritual Evaluation” (poem) from Massachusetts Review #56.2

If You Think You Have Been the Victim of Witchcraft,
Envy, the Evil Eye, or Bad Luck, Come Inside
and Get a Spiritual Evaluation.

—sign on the Church of Jesus Christ in the Lord, Philadelphia

 

Did you want this baby?
There are a certain number of questions you may pass over
without forfeiting your score on the test.
Do you understand that metaphors involving hummingbirds
are not useful? Do you understand
that you are in no way related to hummingbirds?
If this baby is the size of an a) eraser or b) apricot
or c) memory, will you be able to determine
whether on the day after the hurricane,
the river was as full as a river can be
without flooding the ramp to the bypass?
 
Complete poem available online at Massachusetts Review

That first line is possibly the most meaning-per-word sentence since Hemingway. Yet, because it places the baby in past tense, it’s difficult to reconcile with the rest of the poem, which consistently looks forward in time from the present. I briefly wondered if it could be a backwards poem, but it’s not structured to make backwards-reading seem tenable.

At first, concrete symbols unify the poem and provide a certain momentum: the hummingbird, apricot, eraser, water. Then then there’s a relatively static moon section – interesting choice, since the moon is itself a symbol of change, of fluctuation, not to mention the original fertility symbol with its connection to the female menstrual cycle – followed by the concluding lines including symbols looping back to the beginning to reestablish the unity.

When you picture the moon,
do you see its surface or a not inhospitable orb
that alternates in size according to proximity with rooftops?
This problem is commonly referred to as moon illusion.
This theory is generally known as shape constancy.
With the shape of your body please prove
that the moon does not generate its own light. Do you like
charades? If this baby is a girl, what.
If this baby is a boy. Do you think
you have been the victim of bad luck?
Describe in five words what this baby will fear
if this baby is an apricot. List everyone it will love
if it is an eraser.

I’m trying to get some picture of this scene. My first thought was a woman who’s recently miscarried, seeing a “spiritual healer” to work out her grief. The metaphors seem to indicate someone with a more eclectic approach: shape constancy and the moon illusion, both recognized phenomena, along with apricots and hummingbirds .

But then I thought: what if that first line stands out because it is spoken by someone else, a nurse or doctor, or perhaps a friend trying to offer what she thinks is comfort? What if the rest of the poem is the woman’s response? That doesn’t really fit, however. Too many “you”s. What if it’s a woman talking to herself, conducting some version of a searching and fearless moral inventory while deciding what to do about an unexpected pregnancy? The last lines intrigue me as well: it must be important, this notion of loving someone more than the baby. It invites totally different scenarios, some a bit obscure, involving the father or other children.

So I ended up back where I started. I’m strongly reminded of Mary Ruefle’s “During a Break from Feeling” which I also found beautifully obscure. I’m not sure what the story is, but I love the imagery, and maybe that’s where I should stay on this one. Maybe the confusion, like the inconstant moon, is intrinsic to the poem. Or am I just making excuses, being lazy?

Confusion is my genre.

Pushcart XLI: Chris Drangle, “A Local’s Guide to Dating in Slocomb County” from The Oxford American #89

At half past ten the guy from the corner mart came into the shelter. Naomi had only seen him a few times, but he had a distinctive look, to say the least. He was young but rugged, with short-cropped hair and broad shoulders. It figured that the most attractive man in town her age was also a triple amputee. It was so hot out that even he was wearing shorts—red mesh ones with a faded Cola High School crest, below which were hi-tech black metal prosthetics inserted in grubby tennis shoes. He walked up to her and rested his elbows on the counter, and from that position looked normal, except for the one hand that was a carbon fiber hook.
“Morning, ma’am,” he said.
“Hi,” she said. “What can I help you with?”
“I’m here to pick up my dog. I talked to Dennis yesterday?”
 
Complete story available online at Oxford American

As bad as it sucks to be a twenty-two year old triple amputee veteran home from Iraq, it sucks worse when the guy’s war dog, wounded in the same IED explosion that took the vet’s hand and legs and brought home from Iraq as a best friend, gets accidentally put down at the shelter. The only thing that might suck worse is being the shelter employee who didn’t check the roster before putting the dog down. Especially when she’s lonely and the veteran is the only eligible guy in town.

If I sound flip about such serious matters, well, it’s because the dark humor flows thick and full here. These aren’t cynics, they’re realists. That’s how Fisher ended up in Iraq in the first place:

His senior year, Fisher attended the Slocomb County High School career fair. He talked to a bait shop owner, a welder, a newspaper ad salesman, a pig farmer, a rice farmer, and a soybean farmer. The rice farmer in particular radiated disappointment, and Fisher, looking at the man’s gnarled hands and hangdog face, felt the future closing around him like a fist. Then, in the corner of the convention hall, he was waylaid in his attempt to get a free keychain and ended up talking to an Army staff sergeant for half an hour. The sergeant had perfect teeth, a maroon beret, and a fine white scar on his temple, which he said he got rappelling. He was only six years older than Fisher, but from some other world where people wore polished shoes and knew how to break necks. He had been to thirteen countries. They looked over some forms, just to get an idea. Fisher agreed to take the ASVAB, to see what he might qualify for.

Before he was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a Cornell writing professor, literary magazine editor, and Pushcart Prize winner, Drangle was a kid in Arkansas and New Orleans. I have the sense he knows the territory of job fairs featuring bait shop owners and soybean farmers. He knows how to write heat, and the absence of heat, as he shows us during a sweaty sex scene. Yes, Naomi and Fisher end up in bed. There’s something disturbing about all the parallels: soldiers wearing dog tags, dogs without tags getting dead, Naomi replacing the dog, the persistent sense that both of these people feel like they’re settling for what they can get because they don’t have a lot of choices, and they figure that’s just the way it is; they’re drawn together by the intersection of their hard-luck lives. While I feel an overall sense of resignation in both of them, they both show initiative:Naomi in inviting Fisher for a drink, and in debating which top to wear, and Fisher in clearly stating, “I don’t want a pity date. I want to get pity laid.”

The final line really puts a button on the tone of the story: she heads for his kitchen to get some water, sees the dog’s water bowl, and for some reason decides to fill it:

The water came out in a smooth stream that sparkled in the light, splashed off the lip, and spilled onto the floor.

That’s the sense I get about the future of this romance, too. There’s gonna be a lot of spilled water, but they’ll mop it up and carry on. And probably throw the dish away, since it’s not doing much good any more.