Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Lara Markstein, “The Best-Ever Doom Metal Band” from Santa Monica Review, Spring 2020

Art from Lara Markstein’s website
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Bertolt Brecht, Svendborg Poems

When we get to the metal side of the musical spectrum, I have to admit I’m out of my comfort zone. So I was a bit surprised to discover there currently is such a thing as “doom metal” and, in fact has been since the early 80s. Maybe it’s just that it seems so appropriate right now. And this story takes full advantage of that association.

The best-ever doom metal band out of Oakland played for an aging audience lounging in lawn chairs that had sunk into the Savannah sludge so that their occupants appeared drunk, perched at odd angles between the RV’s and the oaks.
“At least no one complains about the noise level,” Cleo said between songs.
Like their listeners, who’d lost the last batteries for their hearing aids, Aubrey didn’t catch Cleo’s joke….
Cleo whispered into the microphone and kicked the drum machine when it petered out, which happened more frequently since they’d hit the south. The weather had been grim; endless overcast skies and flash thunderstorms. They’d stacked their solar panels uselessly beside the spare tire and jack. Cleo didn’t actually mind the warped sound. She imagined their songs lumbering up like some half-formed beast from the swamp.

I was confused for a while, probably several pages longer than I should have been. Somehow Savannah is full of Floridians, or maybe it’s in Florida, there are armed guards at state borders, visas are required to get to the east coast, and Aubrey’s shooting squirrels for dinner. What this opening section does really well is introduce an ambiance of doom, grit, mud and sweat. That, plus the confusion, plus the music, pretty much made me miserable. But I think I’m supposed to be miserable in this story, so job well done.

I should’ve picked up on the hint given by solar panels – come on, a metal band using solar power for their instruments? But it still took a while to recognize exactly what was going on:

Chicago was one of the cities that hadn’t been affected as badly by climate change. The Great Lakes had tempered the hike in temperature, and the locals welcomed the heat. The ones who hadn’t been priced out of the state, that is.

Oh, no wonder Savannah is full of refugee Floridians: Florida isn’t there any more.

Hence my use of Bertolt Brecht as an intro.

I’m afraid my misery index interfered with my willingness to buckle down and actually read the story as carefully as I should. I could use the excuse, “I’m too old for this,” and maybe I am. But for those who like a little grit, it’s gonna be a cake walk. The band plays the Moody Theater in Austen, TX, home of Austin City Limits (I’m old, not dead), and it’s about thirty people and a stage manager who just shows up because he’s got nowhere else to go. Then they end up back home in SF, where they try to reunite with Skeet, the drummer whose absence makes the drum machines necessary. There’s a scene where she makes the music come together that’s thrilling to read, and will ring true to anyone who’s ever performed.

It’s one of those stories I can recognize as successful even though it’s not my thing. Hey, if anyone does a version with folk or classical, let me know, the mud and decay would be an interesting contrast.

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Dantiel W. Moniz, “The Loss of Heaven” from Paris Review # 235

This character is based on a real-life regular I used to have when I started bartending in the chain restaurant I worked in, at just shy of 19. This man was already a regular at the bar, but became exclusively my regular for around eight years, no matter which new restaurant I was working at. He was an older man whose wife had died some years earlier, and he frequented a lot of places. My night was Friday night. Clearly, he was lonely, and I think he projected some of that loneliness onto me. He fetishized me and got in the habit of dictating how he thought I should be in the world, as if what he thought was the only truth. It took a long time to shake him and the guilt I had from eventually doing so. This story came into being because I was curious about where that guilt came from, that obligation to appease him, though I didn’t owe him anything. I wondered what his life was like outside of those hours at the bar we spent together. I wondered what he was like. I don’t really believe in humans as monsters, but I do believe we can achieve monstrous acts, and I wanted to see what I wasn’t seeing about him.

Dantiel Moniz, Interview in LARB

The story is included in Moniz’ debut collection Milk, Blood, Heat from last year, and is the only story to feature a male protagonist. A determinedly male protagonist, I should say. But it features him bookended by women: his wife, the bartender. And it focuses on what happens when all that determined maleness collapses in a heap of rubble.

We meet Fred as he makes his entrance into the bar:

He weighed 210 pounds buck-ass naked; 217 in his leather jacket and boots, which he wore that crisp March evening to the bar along with a gold pin in his lapel. It was shaped like a spade, a gift from his wife when they were young, once she’d discovered how much he liked expensive-looking things. He wasn’t handsome, but his light skin, wavy hair, the polished gleam of his fingernails, and the bills pressed tightly in his wallet almost made him so. As he entered the Albatross he stopped in the doorway and imagined his body filling the width of the frame, giving the occupants time to look and wonder who he was. The jukebox played the Temptations and threw colored light onto his face, and a couple of women at a nearby table glanced up from their pastel martinis, one sucking the cherry from her drink. Satisfied, he walked in. Hilda swept a dish towel along the bar top, looking bored, smiling out from under her bangs at a trio of men at the counter, a pretty laugh spilling from deep within her chest. He chose a stool in the middle, with an unobstructed view of her.

It came as a surprise to realize, a few paragraphs later, that Fred is fifty-eight years old. His posturing is that of a much younger man, or one who sees himself as much younger. He’s a fairly well-to-do retired car hauler, and loves the Buick Regal he bought himself six years ago almost as much as the hundred-dollar bills in his wallet.

Oh, and his wife, Gloria, is dying of cancer.

She was diagnosed a year ago and underwent a course of chemotherapy, but now it’s back and she’s done. He assures her they can afford it – “above all else, he was a man, and he took care of his own” – but having been through treatment once, she’s not interested in a second round. She resumes smoking, and goes to visit her mother and sister for a while.

Fred takes it personally. How can he take care of his own, if his own won’t let him:

She was punishing him, he knew…. Fred was certain that she somehow saw everything about him. That this cancer, as it ate at her body, had imparted in her a kind of godly knowing in exchange for what it took. When Gloria looked at him, Fred could feel his wrongdoings bathed in light: his dalliances with other women, that he had denied Gloria children because he hadn’t wanted to be encumbered by their need. She knew, too, about the mad money tucked away in a secret compartment in his wallet; about the disgust he’d felt upon first finding out about the tumor, at the weakness of her body; his resentment at swapping roles, when she was nine years younger and supposed to take care of him. And the worst possibility – that Gloria could taste his absolute terror at being left alone, the bitter tinge of his shame dissolving on her tongue. She knew he would be a coward without her, and he believed a part of her enjoyed the thought.

If the first paragraph made Fred a bit of a narcissist, this one seals the deal: his wife’s cancer is all about him. But you can’t really blame him.

I’m struck by the religious imagery that abounds in this piece. Firstly, I thought the title sounded vaguely familiar, and a brief google turned up what would have been obvious to any Catholic:

O my God, I am heartly sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.

Catholic Act of Contrition

The Act of Contrition is, as I understand it, said in the rite of confession following penance and preceding absolution. It announces a genuine regret for having offended God, but, interestingly, begins with the sinner’s fear of going to hell as the result of those sins. There’s something childlike about that: “Yes, I’m sorry I ate the cookies because you told me not to, but I’m really sorry I got caught and you’re going to spank me.”

Secondly, Fred seems to genuinely regret what a lousy husband he’s been, and he also regrets what he sees as punishment: loss of heaven:  “… he remembered when he used to call her his little bit of Glory. He didn’t know when he’d stopped.” This could be seen as more narcissism, but I think it’s more than that. For him, losing Gloria is a more literal loss of heaven, even if he hasn’t always shown true appreciation for it. And thirdly, there’s that line about his shame dissolving on her tongue that evokes a communion wafer.

And that’s just the setup.

He normally visits the bar on Tuesday, a quiet night, but with Gloria away, he goes on Friday night when it’s a lot more active. His bartender doesn’t seem to have much time for him. But that’s ok, he gets into a nice conversation with a younger man at the bar, and does what an animal behaviorist might call a display. In birds, it would be feathers. In people, it’s pride, whether it’s in money, a car, imagined flirtation with a bartender, or 210 pounds of imposing manflesh up against a scrawny young kid. And we all know, pride goeth before a fall.

Hilda’s evasion at the end highlighted for me Fred’s cry, “Why didn’t anyone ever stay?” when he couldn’t get enough of her attention earlier in the evening. Given what Moniz said about her own guilt in the above interview, I imagine Hilda doing an act of contrition of her own later that night, but she needn’t; Fred is a bottomless pit of need, and that’s not her fault.

With the opening paragraph being the way it was, and the details about Gloria, I expected to have a hard time finding my compassion for this guy. Yet Moniz showed me where to look in her final paragraph with Fred, stripped naked in the closet empty of Gloria’s clothes, unable to look in the mirror. Now that’s contrition, if a little late.

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  • LARB Interview: The Single Sentence Is Supreme: A Conversation with Dantiel W. Moniz By Genevieve Hudson

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Karin Lin-Greenberg, “Housekeeping” from The Southern Review #56.1

Franco Tyrone’s suicide at the Corvid Motel was the biggest thing that had ever happened in Galaville.

The Publisher’s Weekly review of this year’s Pushcart edition reports: “The hilarious and quirky story ‘Housekeeping’ by Karin-Lin Greenberg revolves around the suicide of a TV actor in a small town, where a hotel maid finds the body and becomes an instant celebrity.” I find that description superficial and even a bit insulting. Yes, there are humorous elements, as the story plays with the peculiar twists fame takes, and pokes fun at the American public for obsessing about the unimportant. There’s a more subtle, dark humor (a suicide at the Corvid Motel, whose sign features a crow? By the way, the similarity between corvid, the technical name for the crow family, and COVID, is probably coincidental. I just love a good coincidence) as well. But I don’t think any reader will come away from the story thinking, wow, that was hilarious and quirky. The review is perhaps best considered ironic, in that it, too, promotes sizzle over substance, because the story is about so much more. Or maybe it just seems like that to me.

The story begins with the sentence quoted above, and continues by situating the suicide in the town and in the life of the narrator, a sixteen-year-old girl named Benny:

Franco had been in town to film an episode of his television show, Finding The Heart Of America. The day after he killed himself, he was supposed to talk to the LaBella brothers, who baked made-from-scratch fruit pies in an old pizza oven, and then he was supposed to interview Dizzy Garrity about tapping maple trees for syrup, and then he was scheduled to meet with me at Galaville Orchards and film me talking about how I make our famous cider doughnuts. I should say the doughnut were not actually famous, but a sign in our front window declared FAMOUS CIDER DO-NUTS, so Franco was supposed to call them famous and maybe, once they were on TV, they would become famous, and people from the city driving upstate to admire the fall foliage which stop and buy dozens. Like the doughnuts, I was supposed to be on television, and, like the doughnut, I thought I would get a little famous. Franco always made it seem as if the people he talked to on Finding The Heart Of America mattered, and the places they came from mattered too. I’d hoped being on television might make me someone interesting, might make it so I wasn’t at only thought of as just the smart, uptight girl, the nerd destined to be valedictorian of Galaville High.

This paragraph does a lot both to establish a voice for Benny, and to lay out the priorities for us: she plays second fiddle to the doughnuts, and hopes to become famous by proximity. The implication that she doesn’t matter, and won’t unless Franco makes her seem interesting, is kind of heartbreaking, but seems pretty common in a time when kids send TikToks into the world hoping to get famous and matter.

As it happens, the Doughnut Interview never happens, Benny loses her chance at fame. Her twenty-four year old sister Tess is the one who catches the wave instead by a macabre route:

My sister worked as a maid at the Corvid, and when she went to clean Franco’s room at noon, she knocked and then shouted out “Housekeeping!” three times and entered the room when there was no answer, and she discovered him hanging. She was interviewed by the Albany news stations and then, because Franco was famous, she was interviewed by the national news shows. Everyone wanted to talk to the girl who’d discovered Franco’s body.
Because Tess was beautiful, she became a meme, screenshots from the news interviews of her outside the motel appearing all over the Internet. In these screenshots, Tess was standing below the wooden THE CORVID MOTEL sign with the silhouette of a crow, her hair blowing in the breeze. Her image was superimposed with phrases like, “When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Sure Your Hair Is On Point” or “Stay Sexy Through Tragedy!” She became known as the Hot Crier online.

We’re only on the second page, but maybe it’s time to pause and process a few things.

Franco evoked Anthony Bourdain all over the place for me. There are similarities – both were in successful careers before their television careers which seem remarkably similar, both hanged themselves during an on-site visit, both showed empathetic connections with the people they interviewed – and differences – Bourdain died in a super-luxury hotel in Switzerland and was found by his friend, chef Eric Ripert, rather than by a housekeeper, and there was plenty to discuss about his life, since he’d been candid about his past, present, and possible futures, for years.

Apparently the lack of suitable fodder regarding the fictional Franco made Tess more focus of interviews for a gossip-starved world. We discover she was unable to return to work at the motel after finding Franco, so while it might seem she deliberately played on her moment in the spotlight, it’s just as likely she didn’t know how to turn it off. It’s interesting the media coverage and memes never mentioned her trauma; we find that out via Benny.

We also find out that six years ago, Tess was made Benny’s guardian, as the girls’ parents were “unsuited for the responsibility of parenthood and could not resist the lure of opioids.” Benny would have been ten at the time, and Tess became her ersatz mom at the age of eighteen. This also seems to be left out of the memes, in favor of her hair, which is better fodder for humor.

In the aftermath of the media storm, Tess is invited to appear on a dating show similar to The Bachelorette. Since she’d broken up with her small-town boyfriend some time before, she grabs this opportunity, seeing it the way Benny saw the doughnut interview: a chance to get out.

That’s where the weight of the story lies: the urge to get out of a small town, to live a more interesting life, and the impossibility of doing so; the feelings of the ones who leave, and the feelings of the ones left behind, the conflict between roots and wings. We get a glimpse of the power of these issues when Tess tells Benny about a teacher of hers from high school:

“You know he e-mailed me a couple of times in the past few years, encouraging me to apply to college?”
I hadn’t known that. “Did you?” I asked.
Tess laughed. “Of course not,” she said. “How?”
There was so much packed into that one-word question, so much about how it would ever be possible for Tess to afford college, go to college, and so much unsaid about how my presence, my always-present presence, stood in the way of Tess moving forward.
…. I wanted Tess to win the show and be happy and never have to work again, and I wanted her to lose and come home. I wanted a lot of things, most of them in opposition to each other.

This is where my heart lurched in my chest. I remember my brother, five years older than me, leaving for college. Our relationship was typical brother-sister stuff, with a layer of hostility for the world to see, and I hid any anxiety about his leaving as I was expected to do. A year or two later, I overheard our dad tell our stepmom that it was unlikely my brother would return for the next Christmas, or ever, and I hid my feelings about that as well, and started playing “The Only Living Boy in New York” and, later, “Daniel,” a lot.

The story ends with a scene between Benny and Ricky, Tess’s rejected hometown boyfriend, watching a video of Finding The Heart Of America and sharing their loss, starting with why Tess broke up with him in the first place. This feels to me like a reprise of the title: this time it’s Benny knocking on the door, calling out “Housekeeping,” and via Ricky’s explanation, finding something she didn’t want to see.

“And look,” he said, pointing to the screen, “just because someone leaves home, travels, sees the world, it doesn’t mean they end up happy.”
I nodded. I always thought I would be the one who would get out, and I’d always imagined Tess would be here, ready to welcome me home anytime I wished. I had pictured myself older, coming home to visit, and Tess cutting up an apple for me, spreading peanut butter on every slice, asking me to tell her about my exciting life. Tess was an inextricable part of my conception of Galaville, and maybe it was that way for Ricky too. Sure, she’d come back for a while, try to make things work, but Galaville would feel different, small and stifling. I knew how these things went, how people cast on reality shows started dreaming big, started wanting different lives from the ones they lived.

The story resists easy answers, it avoids the comforting epiphany or the definitive act of change. But in this ending scene, it projects into the future, and lets us wonder where Benny is now, how Ricky’s doing, and if Tess grabbed the brass ring she was reaching for.

A year or two after my brother left for college, I overheard our dad tell our stepmom that it was unlikely my brother would return for the next Christmas, or ever. I hid my feelings about that as well, and started playing “The Only Living Boy in New York” and, later, “Daniel,” a lot. And a few years later, I left, too. Some people leave home to get away from something, some to move towards something. I haven’t spoken to my brother since the 90s when our dad died. Turns out, I was one of the things he was getting away from. It took me a long time to understand that.

Anthony Bourdain was, I think, both moving away and towards.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach

But, while for me he’s inextricably linked to this story, it isn’t about him. It isn’t about Franco Tyrone either. Come for the humor and quirks, if you like, but stay for the ones who leave, and the ones left behind, in the Heart of America.

Lin-Greenberg published a prize-winning short story collection back in 2013; she has another one, titled Vanished, coming out this year, and a novel, You Are Here, scheduled for 2023. I’m going to keep an eye on those.

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  • Excerpt (first ~4 pages of 15) read by Lin-Greenberg on Soundcloud

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Daniel Orozco, “Leave No Trace” from Zoetrope All-Story # 24.3

For example, a copy of The Mind of Man, a psychology textbook by Gustav Spiller from 1902, contains an intriguing note by Borges: “Memories of a lifetime, page 187.” On this page, Spiller estimates how many memories a person has from different stages in a lifetime: around 100 for the first 10 years, 3,600 until 20 years, 2,000 more memories between the ages of 20 and 25, reaching about 10,000 in the first 35 years of life. He also states how much time it would take to recall these memories. For example, one does not remember every detail of a long trip, but instead certain landmark points — perhaps the moment of departure and arrival, or some stop in between.

Rodrigo Quian Quiroga: In Retrospect: Funes the Memorious, from Nature 463:4

I have to wonder if, when Orozco wrote this story/essay about memory, he had Borges in mind, or even this passage in mind, since he refers to Spiller’s computation referenced here.  But, as I sometimes do, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first half of Orozco’s piece is a rather ordinary story about a rather ordinary man, a deliberately ordinary man, one might say, even aggressively ordinary. A man determined to not stand out, to not be remarkable, but to leave no trace of his life on this earth when he left it, following the admonition of his father delivered at a young age and a vulnerable time:

When he was six years old, Little Rutger’s mother was killed by an exceptionally rare and virulent spinal cancer, and his father, a benign and devoted alcoholic who embraced the memory of her ghastly suffering to the exclusion of everything and everyone else until he himself died a half decade later, took his only child aside the day after they had buried her, and told him this:
“Everything goes, little buddy. Your mother is gone. I’ll be gone someday, and you’ll be gone, too. Life is a slog, one cold, dark, slippery, uphill slog. There’ll be a crack of light or two to see your way. That’s called hope. And a handhold here and a toehold there. That’s mercy. But the light, that’ll wink out and you’ll be in the dark again. And the holds, they’ll crumble and down you go. So crush hope. Let hope die. And mercy? Well don’t quit your day job! And what about love? I loved your mother. You loved her, too. We watched her suffer and die, and – boom! She’s feeding the worms now and we’re alone. Love is pain, little buddy. So harden your heart. Take that precious, meaty-beaty little muscle of yours and turn it into a fist of stone.
“Everything goes. When I go, the only mark I’ll leave is in here –“ little Rutgers father touched his son’s head, surmising the traces of his mark inside with gentle fingertips. “And when you go, that’s all she wrote. No memory of me left at all. Boom!
“So keep your head down. Sit in the back row and don’t raise your hand. Play dumb. Avoid the spotlight. Don’t make a fuss. Bring a book and just wait in line…. Be invisible. Be smoke. Be a ghost. Leave. No. Trace.”
And so Little Rutger didn’t. Or at least, he didn’t mean to.

Note that the father is himself consumed with memory of the mother’s suffering even as he counsels his child to not only harden his heart, but to generate no memory in the mind of anyone else. So his wildly inappropriate – no, horrific – advice can be seen as generated from a desire to spare his son the agony he feels.

We follow Rutger through his aggressively ordinary life. His father’s death just a few years later leaves him in the care of his aunt and uncle who are unable to draw any particular interest from him, other than baking bread. In other respects, “he is adequate at everything he does,” neither good nor bad but just good enough, be it bridge or kite flying or babysitting. He avoids connections and passions in high school, hiding away in the upper reaches of the theatre moving sets and lights rather than participating in the plays below, and at the same time secretly crushes on Nora, who takes the lead in every production.

When his aunt and uncle die, they leave him their house, which causes some consternation for their children who expected the house would be theirs. He goes to work as ground crew at the airport, directing planes as they taxi from terminal to runway – yet another observational role, much as his theatre activities had been, separated from the actual flights but crucial to them in a rather invisible way.

Every workday, he walks two miles, rain or shine, from his home to the train station and back. He brings a book and pretends to read so intently so he can listen undisturbed to the other train passengers. It is always the same book, and no one ever notices, and all of what he overhears is mundane and uneventful and extraordinarily ordinary, which is always a great relief.

 We see other casual relationships with a neighbor, coworkers, but they end with the deaths of those people and Rutger goes on until at the age of forty-nine he finds himself dying of an undiagnosed heart condition on the train where he was pretending to read. No one notices for some time.

This – the death of the protagonist – would typically be the end point of a story, and an unsatisfying, pointless story at that given his aggressive ordinariness, but here is where this particular story kicks into high gear and becomes a blend of essay and story concerning memory: the traces we cannot help but leave.

We remember almost nothing. Memory is the junk drawer in your kitchen with everything in it, and you’re looking for the flashlight batteries but instead come across those needle nose pliers you needed last week, alone glove, fourteen dollars in Monopoly money, credit card receipts for things you don’t remember buying (a bucket of fried chicken, a pedicure, a tank of gas in a town called Sparkle), a collar with tags for a long dead dog (Prince),… what were you looking for again?

Orozco demonstrates this haphazard memory collection via Rutger’s life: a boy who remembers seeing him on the train, reading the same page of the same book; the teenage actress Nora who thought at first he was creepy but over time has softened her memories to acknowledge his unstated admiration of her; and, in the incident I find most charming, a woman from China recalls him from the airport:

In Yuegang’ao… an old woman recalls, on a visit to the United States as a child, watching through the window of a jetliner as a man with Day-Glo orange traffic wands did a little dance while guiding the pilots from taxiway to ramp. By the time she raised her phone, he’d disappeared, and the lack of physical record would render the moment somehow sharper and brighter for her, like a relic restored and pristine, until her death at ninety-three, the memory would often arise and manifest as she skipped nimbly from taxicab to curb, or shuffled from room to room in her apartment…

Interesting that Rutger would dance when he thought he was unobserved. I agree with the evaluation that the lack of a photograph made the memory sharper. I never take photos; the few I had (lost several moves ago) never meant much. I remember much more about my second-grade friend Betsy than was evident from a black-and-white snapshot, and I sometimes barely recognize the people in the photos though I have clear pictures of them in my head.

It is in this essayish section that Orozco references Gustav Spiller:

Memory fades. In the late-nineteenth century, a psychologist named Gustave Spiller did the math and calculated that the average thirty-five-year old with approximately thirteen thousand days of total lived experience remembers only twelve hours of it.

Though his point is most likely how remarkable it is that Rutger, that aggressively ordinary man, nevertheless managed to find his way into the memories of so many people when memory is a scarce commodity, I was, of course, given my penchant for research, driven to look up Spiller. I managed to find an ebook of The Mind of Man (presumably legally available as it must be in the public domain by now) and, on epage 26, his book’s page 187 with what seems to be the relevant passage:

Thus the first 20 years of my life bring about 3600 sheaves into the garner of my memory; 20 to 25, which were years rich in varied opportunities, yield 2000 more; and another 9 years, less suggestive in their history, probably 4000 more, omitting the last twelve months up to the time of writing. This swells the number of floating re-collections between o and 34 to about 10,000, allowing for omissions. A somewhat Bohemian life is thus numerically summed up in what may be lived through in half- a-day. In other words, I am able to re-develop about one 10,000th of what happened to me, though it must be admitted that a quantitative statement is not wholly satisfactory.

Gustav Spiller, The Mind of Man

The relevance of Borges’ story “Funes the Memorious” becomes more evident with the last vignette of the story. Serena Harrow, characterized as a Super Recognizer whose talent is an asset to police forces in reviewing photographs to place people in certain places at certain times, glimpsed Rutger briefly at the moment his heart began to fail on the train back when she was twenty-one, without recognizing his condition. Her reaction, should she see a photograph of him now that she is fifty-five, would be:

And although he is a stranger to her – they all are – the instant of recognition never fails to elicit a wistful flutter of affection, like the memory of a cherished friend. Ah yes. I remember you. She leans back in her chair and smiles. I’ll always remember you.

It’s a charming ending to this story of a man who tried to leave no trace in homage to the traces his father could not relinquish. But tempting as it is to leave it there in a warm glow, I balk a bit. These memories of Rutger, the memory traces of most of us, are gone within a generation or two, perhaps a bit more for those with large extended families, and of course for those who achieve fame of some kind or make a lasting contribution to knowledge or society. But Serena Harrow will not pass on her memory of Rutger; neither will Nora, nor the woman from China, nor the boy who took up his habit of reading the same page of the same book on the train to appear occupied when he was in fact eavesdropping. Our traces do not last very long.

The irony is that Rutger’s best chance at a longer memory trace might be the children of his aunt and uncle, who were so displeased that he inherited the house. That, I would imagine, generated a great deal of conversation in their families, and possibly became one of those family stories that’s passed down because Grandma is coming to visit and you know how cranky she gets if you mention her father.

I greatly enjoyed this story, and the considerations of memory it left with me. I wonder (with not a little trepidation) who will remember me, and for what.

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  • Article: Rodrigo Quian Quiroga: In Retrospect: Funes the Memorious, from Nature 463:4
  • eBook: Gustav Spiller, The Mind of Man

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Senaa Ahmad, “Let’s Play Dead” from Paris Review # 232

The [Best Canadian Stories 2021] collection begins with three stories in a row that are about “love”—or what should be love, but is in fact an occasion for violence and danger of some kind…. Ahmad’s canny/uncanny use of repetition and dark humour underline how survival is, on some level, a repetitive and monotonous grind. (Get beheaded four times, get up five.)

Meghan Kemp-Gee, Review of Best Canadian Stories 2021 in The Fiddlehead

While I love the stories in Pushcart, I sorely miss the Contributor Note feature of BASS – that is, contributor notes that are for a particular story, trace its origins, its intent, rather than provide a mini-CV. Since I’ve become quite fond of starting these posts with some outside material whenever possible, I’ve had to be a bit creative. Fortunately, this story has appeared in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021, as well as Best Canadian Stories 2021, so I was able to find the perfect introduction.

There was a man, let’s call him Henry VIII. There was his wife, let’s call her Anne B. Let’s give them a castle and make it nice. Let’s give her many boy babies but make them dead. Let’s give him a fussy way of being. Let’s make her smart and sneaky, because it’s such a mean thing to do.
Let’s make it so she can’t escape.
Let’s seal the bottle, and shake it, and shake until our hands fall off.

This little prelude to the story sets us in history, but keeps a slightly evil mischievous tone. This isn’t the streamlined modernism so many of us were conditioned to expect. It’s also not the invisible narrator of contemporary fiction. Interesting that an old-fashioned technique can sound so up-to-the-minute. The title turns death into play, and the use of “Let’s” makes the reader and writer co-conspirators, or at least partners, in the game.

So the story starts with her beheading. This should not, however, be taken for historical fiction. In fact, it might be called ahistorical fiction, since it frequently announces the details are uncertain with the same mischievous grin:

Henry will return to the body later, when everyone is gone and what’s left of her has been moved to the chapel. He will stand on the threshold, halfway between one momentous decision and the next. He will kneel on the dais beside her severed head and lay one ornately rubied hand along her frigid cheekbone. Maybe he will stay five minutes. Maybe he will stay 35. Maybe he will cry softly, but it doesn’t matter, because there isn’t a nosy patron around to commission an oil painting for the textbooks, and it doesn’t matter because she’s dead, she’s still very, very dead.

In fact, while the story claims two blows of the sword were necessary, I can’t find a source that mentions that. A sword was used, however, when an axe would have been more typical, and the Smithsonian article goes to some detail to explain why. Spoiler alert: it was just another weenie wag on the part of the King.

And then the twist that takes us from an interpretation of reality to… something else:

We don’t need to stick around while her body crawls its way to her head and fits itself back together. Every excruciating inch of the stone floor is a personal coup, and every inch lasts the whole span of human history. It is slow. It is clumsy. The head falls off a couple of times. The body is floppy with atrophy. There is a lot of blood. She probably, definitely cries. It does not befit a queen.
*
He is reading the Saturday paper, still in his shirtsleeves, when she breezes in the next morning. The horizon of the paper lowers to the bridge of his nose. He is a man who wears his tension in the way of a beautifully tuned piano, and in this moment he vibrates at a bewildered middle octave.
“Anne,” he says, at an absolute loss.
“Henry,” she says, the picture of politeness.
She sits at the table. Not a hair out of place, not a leaky vein in sight. She butters her toast in four deft strokes. A servant steps out from the shadows to fill her teacup to the brim. It’s all very serene, domestic. If it takes her a few tries to put her toast back on the plate, or if he dabs his napkin with a little extra violence, well, who can say. She slurps her tea, which they both know he hates. He hoists his newspaper back up. Like this, they go on.

It’s this uncertainty woven among the declaratives that I find most interesting. Why specify the number of strokes to butter toast, then indicate maybes on other elements? Does this indicate it’s all speculative, the buttering, the napkin, the reheading? Because of course the reheading is speculative, and if you’re going to speculate, why not include the tiny details that paint the scene?

Of course, a man like this Henry wouldn’t be content to just let things go. Some might feel if their executed wives showed up at breakfast, it might be a sign that they should leave well enough alone, but not him. Page after page, we watch him hang, drown, suffocate, and otherwise murder his wife, and we watch her put herself back together. We hear of the loyalty of her maids, the puzzlement of his advisors.

Time for an escalation: they travel through time.

Henry is learning.
He gets crafty. He invents the portable long-barreled firearm.
Then he invents the firing squad. Then he invents acute ballistic trauma. Then he sends his wardens to find her.
But while he’s busy doing all that, she’s been busy, too, inventing: cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The telephone. The 911 call. First-response teams. Modern-day surgery. Organ transplants. Crash carts. Gurneys. Subsidized medicine. She improvises like it’s the only thing she knows how to do.
It is ugly, obviously. There is quite a lot of blood and gore and spattered internal organs. But she lives. Still, she lives.

Murder and its survival as an arms race. It’s brilliant, isn’t it. The war between the sexes, men ruling women, women fighting back, violence that becomes accepted as part of marriage, all the feminist and antifeminist rantings condensed into one King and one Queen, neither of whom will give up. I find a perverse connection to a meme that’s emerged recently: “What doesn’t kill you mutates and tries again.” Then there’s the game aspect, Anne just having fun. Or maybe something else. I have no idea what it all means, but it’s tremendous fun to read.

I noticed this story was nominated by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, whose delightful collection The Trojan War Museum And Other Stories I read a couple of years ago. I can see a similarity in style.

Ahmad is working on a short story collection. That’s one I’m going to have to read.

    *   *  *                

  • Story available online at LitHub
  • Review of “Best Canadian Stories 2021” by Meghan Kemp-Gee in The Fiddlehead Magazine
  • Article by Meilan Solly: “Why Henry VIII Orchestrated Every Detail of Anne Boleyn’s Execution” in Smithsonian Magazine

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: B. H. Fairchild, “Revenge” (poem) from Smartish Pace # 27

Fairchild himself spoke to the intersection of physical labor, memory, and his development as a poet in an interview with [Paul] Mariani [2005]: “One of the most important transitions for me, psychological or otherwise, was the gradual, halting movement out of the physical world of work into the world of art and literature and ideas. Very often, especially in my later teens and early twenties, I was existing in both worlds at the same time, watching a welder lay down a perfect seam while Madame Bovary was walking around in my head, or observing the gleam of a freshly shaped and honed piece of stock while remembering the arc of a Brancusi sculpture. I don’t ‘insist’ upon beauty being found in strange, overlooked places; that’s just the way it seems to emerge in many of my poems. Nobody could be more surprised at this than I am…”

Poet Entry in Poetry Foundation

I more or less gave up posting about Pushcart poetry a few years ago when I got tired of finding new ways to say, “I have no idea what this poem is about / why it’s considered good / why it’s written the way it is.” I’ve made a few exceptions since then, for poems that made sense to me.

This poem makes sense to me, in about six different ways.

It’s a story. Funny thing is, that’s one of the reasons poetry eludes me: I kept wondering why something was written as a poem and not as an essay, beyond “because the writer is a poet and heard it that way.” But here is a story written as a poem because that hammers home the point of the story.

We start with a father and son:

One day my father said, Get in the goddamned car,
and so I did, and he drove us about five miles
out of town, where he parked on an empty shoulder,
shut the Ford’s engine off, and then turned to me
and said, You have a weak personality. I said,
What the hell does that mean? And he said, You know,
when you speak, the way you talk, laughing and using
all that fancy-assed, flowery language, you do not
impress other men, serious men, for whom life
Is a serious business
. I said, after a long silence,
I don’t give a flying fuck about impressing
other men. I can tell you, though, that I care
about impressing Patricia Lea Gillespie,
If that’s the sort of thing you’re worried about
.

Ah, the father, disappointed that he’s not able to pass his brand of masculinity down to his son. Worried that his son is a softie. But this kid has anything but a weak personality, given how he stands up to his father and not only defends his love of poetry but flaunts it. The son picks up on what might be the underlying concern, that he’s gay, so he assures Dad he’s not gay, that one of the direct motivations for his love of poetry is the pursuit of Patricia Lea Gillespie (which just happens to be the name of Fairchild’s wife; she appears in several of his poems).

But Dad still has his ideas about what men, serious men, are, and what they aren’t, and he has no room for poetry. When is son tells him he not only reads poetry, but memorizes, it: “His eyes widened. Why would you do / a thing like that?” I can feel that. My father couldn’t understand why I bought books, why I asked for books at Christmas and birthdays: “You have books.” Fortunately, masculinity wasn’t part of my problem, just common sense.

And here the son gives a performance using the Dylan Thomas poem “In My Craft or Sullen Art” that he’s memorized for Patricia Lea:

I began, as I say, not just for the moment
but for all time and for all young men caught
in the rush of passion and sudden confusion
when the heart cannot speak but the man – oh yes,
the man – absolutely must, she’s so beautiful,
the moon in platinum waves rippling down
her raven-black hair, and I rolled down my window
of that piece-of-shit car and I sang it out, far out
beyond the stalks of uncut wheat, beyond the corn
and soybeans, oh ever beyond the soybeans, and even
the beef cattle standing mute behind barbed-wire
in a boredom so gigantic, so heavy it should
put God to shame….

And this story turns into poetry. The rustbucket car, the drab scenery, the motionless animals, the fencing, all lit up by this kid leaning out the window yelling words written by a decrepit drunk Welshman who couldn’t help writing poetry, heard by a father who “stomped the gas pedal / with each burning syllable” because this is not something men do.

And I remember the grim, tight mask of his face
inflamed now by the porch light as he lurched
for the front door and I sang to Kansas poems
I so loved that they became a kind of revenge.

Yes, this could be a story. But it has to be a poem, really, to underline the kind of revenge of a son, not really against his father, but against a rigid kind of masculinity he never understood any more than his father understood the life-giving force of poetry.

I tried to figure out if there was some technical secret to the poem, a meter, a form, something like that. All of its lines are approximately the same length, mostly 12 syllables. The first lines start out with a pretty rigid meter:

one DAY my Father SAID, GET in the GODdamned CAR,

and SO I DID…

but then it starts to metrically unravel, and by the time Dad starts telling him about his weak personality, it’s all over the place. So I have no idea why the poem takes the exact form it does, only that it must be a poem, must cram this high drama, this wildly varied scene – a great audition piece for an actor, I would say – into a format that’s stolid and predictable and unimaginative, and busts the hell out of it.

Yes, this is a poem I get.

*  *  *       

Poetry Foundation entry for B. H. Fairchild

Black Hole MOOC

Course: Astro 101: Black Holes
Length: 10 modules, 18 hrs total
School/platform: University of Alberta/Coursera
Instructor: Sharon Morsink et al
Quote:

What is a black hole? Do they really exist? How do they form? How are they related to stars? What would happen if you fell into one? How do you see a black hole if they emit no light? What’s the difference between a black hole and a really dark star? Could a particle accelerator create a black hole? Can a black hole also be a worm hole or a time machine?
In Astro 101: Black Holes, you will explore the concepts behind black holes. Using the theme of black holes, you will learn the basic ideas of astronomy, relativity, and quantum physics.

Class Central keeps coming up with ideas to make MOOCs fun again. Their Cohorts program allows for better forum discussion and a weekly Zoom meeting to recapture both the sense of being in a class with others, and the student interaction that has given way to on-demand scheduling. This particular course is part of their Science Friday cohort, with each Cohort week covering two modules of the mooc. When I saw it on Twitter, I knew I’d join in. I’ve finished the coursework through Coursera, but the cohort is still running through February 4; feel free to join in.

The mooc itself is a great introductory look at astronomy in general with black holes as a focus. It begins with a general discussion of black holes, particularly as they are presented in various movies and TV show (spoiler alert: Interstellar wins for accuracy). They then show us the life cycle of stars, and when that life cycle ends in a black hole.

The next several weeks take an interesting journey to a hypothetical black hole, covering gravity, relativity, and general astronomy as we move from a far distance to the accretion disk to the event horizon and, finally, to the inner singularity, where what happens is speculative. A couple of weeks on observation techniques round out the course – how do we find, measure, and observe black holes – including information on optics and various forms of telescopy, and ending with contemporary examples.

Each module of the mooc includes one to two hours of lecture videos, plus a ten-question multiple choice quiz. Most of the questions are information retrieval, but a significant number require putting together several ideas, which I find particularly helpful for understanding the material. A few math questions appear, but they use the equations as provided and involve only basic algebra.

Each Friday cohort zoom session allows for discussion of the material in two weeks of the class. Several members of the cohort have science backgrounds so it’s an opportunity to ask questions about the material and to discover some interesting tangents (I was particularly interested in the mention of the Planck length, which I vaguely recall from somewhere; it was fun to re-examine the idea).

I was particularly interested in this course because I’d heard that CalTech’s Mike Brown is revamping his Solar System Astronomy mooc for next fall. He’s been adding updates every year since I took it back in 2015, and I guess it was time for version 2.0. It was a challenge back then; I’ve taken a lot more science since, and this course in particular helped get me primed for another run.

Even if black holes aren’t your primary interest, there’s plenty in this course that makes it worth taking, particularly for those who might be intimidated by the physics and math of more advanced courses.

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Michael Kardos, “Reality TV” from The Cincinnati Review # 17.2

I was feeling nostalgic the other day while talking to my wife about the malls of New Jersey. I was surprised she didn’t remember the Woodbridge Mall, the one with the tigers. She’d grown up in Wilmington, Delaware, but that wasn’t so far away.
“The TV show?” I said as a memory jog. Nothing.

In last year’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders started off with how short stories set up expectations, then either fulfill or subvert them. He used Chekhov’s “In The Cart” as an example, but for me, this story perfectly fit the bill. And in only three pages.

I told her how the Woodbridge Mall had been sprawling and adequate, not fancy like the Menlo Park Mall two miles down Route 1 with its posh anchor stores and food court full of healthy choices. For the holidays, the Menlo Park Mall went all out: enormous tree in the atrium, tens of thousands of lights, fake snow, the works.
…The Woodbridge Mall couldn’t compete with that level of family-friendly extravagance, so they went in another direction. They found twelve volunteers, chosen for their neediness and grit, and gave them all an hour together in the mall. For those sixty minutes, every item was free, theirs for the taking. They had only to carry the items they wanted to one of the exits.

So I was just reading along wondering where this (fairly reasonable by today’s standards) reality show in a New Jersey mall would lead, when I hit Paragraph Eight. I wrote, “OMG” on the title page. Now, as an old fart, I’m not much for what I still think of as teenager text talk (even though the teenagers who started OMG now might have teenagers of their own, and yes, I know about the 1917 usage) but it was what came to mind. I did not see Paragraph Eight coming; suddenly we weren’t in Kansas any more, Toto, we were in Rome on one of Nero’s bad days.

Then, about Paragraph Sixteen, I added an “F” to that OMG.

Please understand: if I’m not much for text abbreviations, I’m even less for vulgarities, but again, it was what came to mind.

And then with the final Paragraphs Seventeen and Eighteen, I realized that, like Dorothy Gale, we’d never left home at all. And I discovered again how messy it is to cry while wearing a face mask, not to mention embarrassing while riding a city bus to the supermarket. I’ve got to stop reading in public. And I hope I got those paragraph numberings right.

I’m not going to say much about the details of the story, or quote more of it, because you’ll want the experience of reading it, just for those great surprising-yet-inevitable transitions from one set of expectations into another, the stunning shift from one mood into something completely different. It’s available online (link below). It’s been compared to the Schwarzenegger film Running Man. I’ve never seen the movie, but I used to blog about Reality TV. I finally quit writing about Project Runway in August 2013 with a cry of, “Tim [Gunn], you used to be an educator!”:

I’ll admit I’m also fascinated, in a sick way, by what these shows have now become (planned dramas), and the underlying reason: reality is boring. People want story. And the mass market wants stories they already know: Poor kid makes good. Pride goes before a fall. A hero, a villain. Find a way to cram in some yogurt or cars, pre-select a bland winner whose work fits some current marketing niche, and you’ve got Heidi too busy counting her money to care about what some obscure blogger says.
But even car wrecks lose their fascination if you watch them long enough, especially when the car wrecks are choreographed to provide maximum gore. Enough.

My last Project Runway blog post

So I was all in on this story, and wow, did the escalations and subversions of expectations hit. The last paragraph left me staring out the window of the bus thinking of Kant and his hopelessly naïve thing about people being treated as ends, not means, and one of those final lines from “Don’t Look Up” – “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” – because we did, and how did we mess it up so badly?

I got curious about Kardos; his name is very familiar to me, but I couldn’t think of anything specific about him.

Turns out, in addition to several novels and a story collection, he has a popular writing-craft book. I actually thought about getting it for about six seconds, then slapped myself because “You know what happens when you try to write fiction!” 

I checked to see if I’d read anything by him in the past whatever years I’ve been blogging BASS and Pushcart and other readings. And yes, he had a story, “Animals,” in the 2015 Pushcart. Apparently I didn’t much appreciate the story on first read, but I downloaded a PDF version of it and had to play with formatting: “Something funny happened while I was finding paragraph breaks: I found the story. Hey, whatever works.” It turned out to be about connecting, about caring for people, about giving up too easily (smacking me in the face with my own faithlessness), and again I swooned. Strange, I don’t remember any of it, but that’s why I blog: I know no one is interested in my rantings, but some day I might want to remember what I thought of a story or a book or a  MOOC or even a reality TV show, should it be relevant.

“I laughed, I cried” is horribly trite. “If you read one story this year…” is also pretty tired. But that’s because they’re words readers say all the time. I did laugh; I did cry; please read this.

*  *  *            

  • Story available online at Cincinnati Review.
  • Commentary by Brandon Timm at his blog Reading and Drinking
  • My post on Kardos’ 2015 Pushcart-winning story, “Animals”

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Richard Hoffman, “Remembering the Alchemists” (non-fiction) from Consequence #12

Image from Seattle Artists League webpage
In the essay I ask this question: “What does it mean to be the foremost arms dealer in the world? The health of our American economy presently depends upon the murder of other human beings. How did we get here? When did we make this deal with the devil? How long have we been addicted to this poison?”

Richard Hoffman, online blog

If a theme is emerging in the early part of this volume, it’s more of a list, a Hit Parade of Contemporary Issues that keep (some of) us up at night. And now for your reading pleasure, an essay on gun violence, from neighborhood shootings and children accidentally shooting themselves to global warfare.

If I sound a bit peeved, it’s not because I have any dispute with the article. I’m just tired of reading another analysis, another examination of the problem, in the absence of any solution.

The title comes from a poem:

In the early 1970s, with the exuberance and promise of the antiwar movement and counter-culture turning to disillusion, the poet Charles Simic asked the question I am circling here:   Poem Without A Title
  I say to the lead
Why did you let yourself
Be cast into a bullet?
Have you forgotten the alchemists?
Have you given up hope
In turning into gold?
  Nobody answers.
Lead. Bullet. With names
Such as these
The sleep is deep and long.

The incidents Hoffman includes will break your heart. Again. And again. And we deserve the heartbreak, because we will not change.

As I started writing this post, the article was available at Consequence magazine. It appears it no longer is. I have no idea how to interpret this (maybe they, like other print magazines, make articles available briefly on a rotating basis, and its turn was up), but it just adds to my frustration.

*  *  *  

  • Author’s blog post about the essay, quoted above.
  • Smithsonian Article about Basil Zaharoff, “an arms salesman who made a career out of selling to both sides in a conflict”

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: McKenna Marsden, “Suffering in Motion” from New England Review #40.4

I wanted to have the feeling of the present moment throughout the piece. Splitting it up into the segments and scenes was a way for me to keep everything in the present. I also wanted to give it sort of a cinematic or photographic feel. When I was younger, I wanted to write graphic novels, and I still love graphic novels. So that has definitely influenced my style.

McKenna Marsden, Author interview at NER

The first piece in a Pushcart volume often has significance that rings throughout the year’s collection. I’m curious to see if that’s the case here, where we’re looking at several themes brought together under the masthead of identity: Who do you see yourself to be, Does the reaction of others matter; How can you reconcile physical reality with the mental image; and Can an alternative provide joy?

When I finished my first read of this story, I thought, oh. Ok. It’s a perfectly good story, but is it truly exceptional, or is it merely topical? I’ll admit I got a lot of insight from several interviews and discussions (links below) that allowed me to feel more favorable by the end of my second read. I agree with the participant in Literary Roadhouse who felt “the stakes weren’t high enough” but I’m trying to find my way to a more expansive reading via several story elements, some courtesy of Walt Whitman (and, possibly, President Bartlet of The West Wing).

I like the structure of the text: small sections, with predictive titles. It does have something of a snapshot effect without all the transitions (those who have spent untold hours working on smooth transitions might feel a bit resentful, but they’ll survive). And another element: how the language of the first two pages changes following a revelation.

This morning, every morning, Hannah wakes up at 5:50 to run…. Not up to usual pace today. No clear reason, except maybe an odd pain in the sole of the right foot. Hannah starts to feel something like resentment or anxiety, which brings up anxiety about talking to Mom later today, which settles into a general high, weird pall over the day’s run. Nothing for it but to keep running. Running works all these things out.
Around mile seven a man passes from behind, and the feeling hardens into hatred and points right at him. Hardly anyone passes Hannah anymore, but those who do are always men. Hannah hates his basketball shorts and his crew socks pulled all the way up, hates his earbuds and the phone he holds in his hand. Hannah wants to stop him and say, I just wanted you to know that you’ve done nothing to deserve your body and I’m actually faster than you.

This early paragraph introduces a major theme: Hannah, a marathoner in training for the Boston event two months hence, is dealing with the betrayal of the body. First, it’s female. Hannah doesn’t feel female, or male, for that matter, but has recently felt most comfortable as non-binary.  Secondly, their foot hurts, and is interfering with their training, and potentially with the planned marathon.

The story avoids pronouns for the first few pages, until Hannah reveals to their mother, over a Skype connection, that they are non-binary. Mom isn’t upset, but does try to suggest other options.

I have to admit my own difficulty understanding non-binary status. I suppose I feel female; I’ve been female for almost seven decades, though I’m not sure what part of “feeling like me” corresponds to feeling female. The difference between me and Hannah is that I’ve never felt being female was something I wasn’t. But isn’t this what we read stories for: not to validate our own experience, but to experience someone else’s reality. And Hannah very clearly feels neither male nor female.

Hannah mentally tries out pronouns, in rhythm with the footsteps. They, them, they, them, they, them. Hannah uses it in a sentence: Hannah is doing their long run today. They are running the Boston Marathon in two months. The rain is making them wet and cold. It’s awkward, but there’s something appealing about it. The suggestion of containing multitudes.

Pronouns seem to figure into a lot of the objection to non-binary status: “You mean we have to figure out someone’s pronouns?” I was around back in the 60s when adopting “Ms.” as an honorific seemed an impossible task, and now it’s barely given a second thought, so if you want to object to using they, you’ll have to do it on other grounds and stop hiding behind grammar. I will say that there are moment of confusion in the story because of the use of they: is it referring to Hannah, or to all the people in the scene? It’s not a major problem, but in a complex story it would require deft handling. In real life, it might get confusing. But I still think we’ll figure it out. We’ve figured out much worse: bae, for instance.  I do confess, however, to using word search to ferret out the accidental use of “she” and “her” in this post. Because willingness is not perfect execution.

And let me not forget to flag Whitman’s Song of Myself here.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman Song of Myself #51

Whitman’s poem has him uniting with pretty much everyone and everything in life, which is why he contained multitudes (The University of Iowa has a great analysis of the entire poem on its Whitman Web, link below). He would’ve understood non-binary, though his use of multitudes is quite different.

We follow Hannah as they tell others of their non-binary status. No one pushes back, and most just say “Oh” and go on to other things. I wonder if they’re looking for conflict. If so, they find plenty of it in the context of running.

The foot problem turns out to be plantar fasciitis. I happen to have had a bout of this years ago; I was told to use a rolling pin under my arch to stretch it out, and to invest in “sleep boots” to keep my foot flexed overnight, preventing shortening of the fascia. I never did get the boots, but the rolling pin did the trick. Apparently runners’ fasciitis is a different animal. And it turns out to be fatal to Hannah’s marathon plans, at least for this year. This is the mental-body conflict in more concrete form, isn’t it. Not only can (some) men outrun them, but now they can’t run the race that’s been their focus.

For a story that really has, as mentioned before, low stakes – no one’s giving Hannah a hard time about their identity, and athletes sit out a season all the time – the story manages to pull off an upswing in mood as Hannah finds a 5K race that they think they can run in on their partly-healed foot:

The race is at a little park on the Mystic. It was a small race to begin with and it seems like most of the runners have bailed because of the weather. There is a white tent on the grass, with a bib pick-up table and flats of Vitamin Water and bananas. There are some parents and some teenagers. There are people who look like they’ve never run a 5K before and people who look like they do these for fun sometimes and three guys who are clearly competitive, doing warm-up sprints. Hannah gets registered and does some strides on the grass. Their foot feels fine. The competitive guys stop what they’re doing for a minute to watch. Yes, motherfuckers, Hannah thinks, notice me, even though they are not a guy and not a 5K specialist, even though they will almost certainly not win this race, even though the tendons of their foot might come to furious life at any point. Hannah lines up at the starting line, choosing to believe for now that they are limitless.

I kept looking up “limitless” in Whitman, sure I’d heard it. I did find it in “Assurances” from Leaves of Grass: “I do not doubt I am limitless, and that the universes are limitless—in vain I try to think how limitless…” I have no doubt, given the prior use of multitudes, that this is the reference here, an assurance that, even when our body does not conform to our expectations, we can find joy. But I was hearing something else. I was hearing a quote from the TV show The West Wing, where, following a tragedy, the President gives a rousing speech about possibilities: “every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.” That fits just as well, turning the story that dwelt in darkness and failure to one of hope and positivity.

 I’ll have to read more into the volume to see how this story carries forward. I’ll keep working on the more expansive reading.

*   *   *

  • Story available online at NER
  • Author interview at NER’s Behind the Byline
  • Partial reading and interview at NER OutLoud (audio)
  • Discussion (audio) at Literary Roadhouse
  • University of Iowa WhitmanWeb

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: What Have You Got For Me This Year?

Van Gogh: Woman Reading a Novel, 1888
The Pushcart is first of all just a sample. No anthology – not even one of his heft – could possibly include more than a hint of the grandeur that has been featured in our little magazines and presses in recent decades.
… Never before, in the estimate of this rather seasoned observer, has our literary world been in better shape. So many of the stories, poems, essays and memoirs nominated this year have been gloriously good.

Bill Henderson, Introduction

When I closed out BASS 2021 just before Christmas, I thought I’d take a week to focus on things other than blogging: preparing for an upcoming MOOC (are you interested in black holes? There’s a great course from the University of Alberta starting in a few days, with a Class Central cohort to make it less lonely than MOOCs have become recently), focus on Duolingo a little, clean up my computer in preparation for migrating to my new machine, and of course get a head start on reading the new Pushcart so I have a few posts in the bank when I start blogging again in the New Year.

Then this morning, I realized: it’s New Year’s Eve! Boy, I sure puttered that week away. No matter, it isn’t like I’m going to get fired.

The Pushcart Introductions have grown shorter in recent years. I’m not surprised; it’s hard to come up with new things to say about a collection of stories, articles, and poems. But there’s always something to say about the writing world, and/or its intersection with the Real World. When I first started reading, the complaint was about online literary magazines. Then paper litmags started going online, or folding. More recently there was the cry against the devaluation of words thanks to politicians and elected officials who should know better (I can’t argue with that one). And now, it’s a warning against the consolidation of publishers. Pushcart, being the champion of the Small Presses, is a natural antidote to that, bless their hearts.

A look through the Table of Contents shows only one crossover with BASS: Kevin Wilson’s “Biology.” I see two BASS entries in the Special Mentions: Jenzo Duque’s “The Rest of Us” and Rita Chang-Eppig’s “The Miracle Girl.” My three favorites aren’t here at all; to be fair, only two of them are from eligible magazines.

This year, as I have for the past several, I’ll read the poetry, but won’t blog about a poem unless I have something in particular to say about it. I started this routine a few years ago when I got tired of writing “I really don’t understand why this is a poem or why it’s so good” over and over. But once in a while, something clicks, and I like to remember those. The fiction and nonfiction will, as usual, get individual posts. I expect to finish up some time in April, but given the uncertainty of the era, that may change.

Also, as I say every year, blessings on you Dedicated Reader.

Bill Henderson, Introduction

Thank you. I need all the blessings I can get.

Let’s get started.

BASS 2021: Going Out

Collage by Nell Painter: “With Arms Lopped Off”, 2014
In these pages are pleading attempts to be heard and seen … as well as desperate incantations against being erased, extraordinary moments of reimagination, inventive tales of escape. One look at the titles alone – with words like miracle, escape, paradise, and last days – reveals a steady gaze upward and outward.

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

When I started this Read back in October with the introductory material that referenced the pandemic, political polarization, and increasing sounds of anarchy, I wondered, “What were the Introductions and Forewords about before the world went sideways?” Let me note now that I recognize the world has always been sideways, it just takes longer for some of us to notice the tilt. But I thought it might be interesting to look back at some of the older volumes I have on my shelf.

  • 2008: Salman Rushdie, in his Introduction, wrote at some length about the stories he chose. Heidi Pitlor, in her second year as series editor, went into a great discussion of what each word in the title “Best American Short Stories” means.
  • In 2009, Alice Sebold discussed her ambivalence about awards, while Heidi (may I call her Heidi? She feels like a friend by now) noticed how many stories took risks.
  • In 2010, the first year I blogged, Richard Russo told the Isaac Bashevis Singer story: What is the purpose of literature? To entertain, and to instruct. It was a charming narrative that didn’t mention the stories, or the reading process, at all. Heidi mentioned changes in the publishing world.
  • In 2011, Geraldine Brooks discussed her process of choosing, and the differences between stories, while Heidi wrote of common elements she saw in stories.
  • In 2012, Tom Perotta advocated plain language; Heidi noted the diversity of themes.
  • In 2013, Elizabeth Strout framed stories as telephone calls, and included a fairly extensive discussion of each one she chose. Heidi wrote about the tragedy of Sandy Hook, and on the difference between writing in the moment, and writing with the perspective of time: “…[W]hile we are grieving, we are now writing. We may be sacrificing perspective or depth, but this does not necessarily amount to lesser writing. if anything, there is a new sort of immediacy, a newfound intimacy and urgency in our fiction…”
  • In 2014, Jennifer Egan wondered where the stories were about the war we’d been fighting for ten years, the recession that derailed so much, before continuing with her process of choosing the twenty stories. Heidi wrote about uncertainty, and the need for diverse voices. 
  • In 2015, TC Boyle wrote about commercialization of fiction and the economic insufficiency of short story writing. Heidi focused on the landmark 100th volume.
  • In 2016, Junot Diaz discussed the short story form, and gave an extensive explanation of each story. Heidi acknowledged that so many issues had become political,, that stories have to compete with reality for attention.

That 2016 edition seems to me to be a turning point. It seemed far more diverse than earlier editions, and domestic realism – the dying marriage, the troubled parent, the lonely soul  – didn’t disappear, of course, but  took a back seat to sociopolitical issues, to examining how one’s economic situation influences one’s choices, how one person may have fewer choices than another simply by being born in one place or time or of certain parents.

From there on, both Heidi’s Foreword and the guest editor’s Introduction began to root themselves in the present, to view the stories as the product of a moment. Often, the moment shifted so quickly, a story written in one year, published the next, and anthologized still later seemed a bit dated. I mentioned the “Men Behaving Badly” volume of last year that refreshed the Me,Too movement begun two years before.

The stories this year did not specifically mention the pandemic or the political upheaval in which we find ourselves (with one exception), but they do deal with loss, grief, fear, struggle, and change. Those have been perennial topics in recent years, which have, in my opinion, made these volumes far more interesting than those that presented six ways a marriage could go wrong.

When I was a child, my grandmother Dorothy was the first person who taught me something of the power of narrative. She was a natural-born storyteller…. It was only when I was older and had spent years thinking about storytelling and stories, trying and failing and trying again to write good stories, that I understood this strange ending. I realized that with the telling of our family stories, my grandmother Dorothy had taught me so much about fiction, about what I valued in novels and short stories. How I wanted a story to be bracing, disorienting, and immersive. How I wanted it to grip me like the sea, pulling and pushing brine and bubbles up my nose, down my throat, leaving the taste of salt on my tongue. How I wanted it to scour me clean so that I forgot myself in the embrace of the wave, of the story. My grandmother Dorothy taught me that the narrative could be a different kind of sea – not the sea of loss, of grieving, but instead a life-giving, life-affirming ocean. Her stories made me value this: language that evokes and renders sharply and beautifully even as it confounds. Tales that surprise and subvert the reader’s expectations. Fiction so well told that it subsumes a reader’s awareness to the world of the story.

Jesamyn Ward, Introduction

I very much liked the way Ward sorted the stories into categories of time, character, place, youth, surprise, and immersion. The categories of course intersect, and I’ve noted this in my indiviual comments. I found myself struggling during the “problematic character” group, which says more about me as a reader than about the stories. That was, I think, the down side of reading in the groups as Ward listed them, rather than front to back as I normally do.

I’ve noticed something over the past couple of years: I might not be thrilled with the anthology while I’m reading it, but over the next year or two, as I look back, I view it far more fondly. This was particularly noticeable for the 2019 edition; I was a bit negative, but I think now that might have been more a matter of a wider division between the stories that worked for me, and those that didn’t. Again, this is all in the context of me as a reader, not as a critic; these stories were chosen three times by those with far more sophisticated palates than mine. As I look back over the Tables of Contents in pulling together my comments, I smile more than I might have at the time. Maybe I grow into the stories; maybe they grow into me.

This year, I had three stories on my A+ list, that is, stories I wanted to shove into strangers’ hands and exclaim, “You’ve got to read this!”:

  • Jane Pek, “Portrait of Two Young Ladies in White and Green Robes (Unidentified Artist, circa Sixteenth Century)”;
  • Shanteka Sigers, “A Way with Bea”;  
  • Jamil Jan Kochai, “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”.

Many of the other stories also lingered with me, or, in  a few cases, I felt more of an intellectual admiration for their design and execution than an emotional bond. One of the most puzzling – or maybe terrifying – for me is the Saunders story, the last one I read. I’m still in its sphere of influence; I need to let some time pass before I can really see it and not see my reaction to it first.

I want to review these stories next year, maybe when I start the 2022 volume, or maybe when I wrap it up, and see how my view has changed.

I hope this collection offers you the opportunity for immersion, for surprise, for travel, for awe. I hope that as you sink into world after world, become character after character in these stellar stories, you can forget yourself, and then, upon surfacing, know yourself and others anew. I hope that return offers you some sense of ease and, as the best fiction does, a sense of repair.

Jesamyn Ward, Introduction

What might I yet do, rather than What should I have done? A place where action is possible. If a story takes me – takes us – there, keeps us there, it’s value is incalculable.

BASS 2021: George Saunders, “Love Letter” from The New Yorker, 4/6/20

TNY Illustration by Rodrigo Corral
It was also feeling that old dilemma a fiction writer feels in the middle of a crisis: how to write something that honors that which a short story is designed to do (show the reader how hard it is to live correctly in a fallen world by putting her on the horns of a true dilemma) while not somehow, via its neutrality and its focus on the long view, serving as a sort of enabler for evil. In particular, I was wondering what I personally should be doing at this moment of crisis and was noticing that I wasn’t doing much. And since writing is the only thing I’ve ever been able to do that has the slightest whiff of power about it, I decided to write a story “about” (that is, “out” of the moment I found myself in.)

George Saunders, Contributor Note

How fitting this should be, by pure coincidence, the last story I read in this year’s BASS. Or how terrifying. It comes straight to the heart of exactly why I feel, underneath everything else, a sense of inevitable doom, and a deep wish that I not survive long past November 2022 and, god forbid, not see November 2024 at all. I will take the responsibility for taking Saunders’ story, so clearly a call to action, and turning it into a reason to sink into despair.

It’s a story in the form of a letter from grandfather to grandson, a response to some potentially dangerous situation the grandson finds himself due to the activism of some friends. The details are not clear, just that the grandson is asking something along the lines of, Should I join the fight or keep my nose clean? and the grandfather is answering in two different modes. As a citizen: Do what needs to be done! As a loving grandfather: Keep yourself safe and be ready to emerge when things improve.

But how will things improve if no one every enters the fray?

Seen in retrospect, yes: I have regrets. There was a certain critical period. I see that now…. Every night, as we sat across from each other, doing those puzzles, from the TV in the next room blared this litany of things that had never before happened, that we could never have imagined happening, that were now happening, and the only response from the TV pundits was a wry, satirical smugness that assumed, as we assumed, that those things could and would soon be undone and that all would return to normal—that some adult or adults would arrive, as they had always arrived in the past, to set things right. It did not seem (and please destroy this letter after you have read it) that someone so clownish could disrupt something so noble and time-tested and seemingly strong, that had been with us literally every day of our lives. We had taken, in other words, a profound gift for granted. Did not know the gift was a fluke, a chimera, a wonderful accident of consensus and mutual understanding.

The grandfather is writing from a country that’s already gone, where cops pull him over to threaten him because he’s written Letters to the Editor protesting certain government stances, where the the lawyer who used to take on noble causes now mows the lawn. Some of the details are clear, but the overall structure of the present is vague, a technique that lets us draw the lines ourselves. It’s terrifying, because it’s all so familiar.

One of the most terrifying things about this letter/story is the first line: the date.

February 22, 202_.

First of all, for those of us who were around before the Powers that Be decided to consolidate Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays into President’s Day on a convenient Monday, that date used to be known as Washington’s Birthday. I don’t think he chose that date by accident.

And then there’s the year. Today is 2021, two weeks from now it will be 2022. The story takes place some time within the next 8 years. Not in the distant future, if he’d written 20__. This is what puts the chill in my heart, that single character, that 2.

But here’s where I turn ambivalent. Is this a story, or is it an essay in a more palatable form? If this had been written by anyone other than George Saunders – or any Big Name author – would it have been published, or would it have been returned with a terse, “Not what we’re looking for”? Or, has he in fact captured the searing anxiety of the moment – an anxiety that seems mostly absent from those with any power to do anything to prevent it – in a way that personalizes it, as fiction often does when confronting larger issues? I flip back and forth on this with the speed of a beating heart, or a trembling hand.

Ward included this in her “time” category, citing the tension between present and past. I also see tension between those at the beginning, and those at the end, as well as a laser-like focus on the present moment, which has now been going on for a year. This time-confusion shows up when the grandfather wakes after a dream:

Lying there, I found myself wondering, for the first time in a long while, not What should I have done? but What might I yet do?
I came back to myself, gradually. It was sad. A sad moment. To be, once again, in a time and place where action was not possible.

How we view where we are in this possible/not possible timeline may determine the course of history. Now that’s a story about time.

 *   *   *

  • Story available online at The New Yorker.
  • Read another take on this story by Edwin Turner at Biblioklept
  • Ben Walpole of Short Story Magic Tricks shares his analysis.

BASS 2021: Jane Pek, “Portrait of Two Young Ladies in White and Green Robes (Unidentified Artist, circa Sixteenth Century)” from Conjunctions #75

Central Academy of Fine Arts, China
The Legend Of The White Snake is one of those folktales that I feel like I was just always familiar with, growing up in Singapore, probably from cultural osmosis. There are multiple versions of the story, but the ones I am aware of all focus on the titular immortal female snake spirit (the white snake) falling in love with a human man, and the trials and tribulations they have to undergo before they can be together happily ever after. But before any of that takes place, the white snake’s companion is the green snake, another female spirit, and I wanted to imagine that (to me) much more intriguing relationship.

Jane Pek, Contributor Note

I fell in love with Pek’s story “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains” in last year’s BASS, and now I find myself falling in love all over again. It’s a very similar story about loss and grief and what one does with time when time in abundance is all one has left. It’s sweet, and sad, and beautiful. And, as I so often say, I’m never happier than when I’m learning something, and here I again learned a great deal. I’ve provided links below for anyone who might share that enjoyment.

The original story is outlined above. In Pek’s hands, it’s a story about two immortal spirits who love each other, but one wants something more: a baby. And that means giving up her immortality, becoming human.

You told me you had calculated the fate of the man who would be your husband based on the ten stems and twelve branches of his birth. He had a delicate constitution. He would pass in twenty-four years, before his fiftieth birthday.
I didn’t say anything.
You said, “What is twenty-four years to you?”
I said, “What will twenty-four years be to you?” I wasn’t thinking twenty-four. I was thinking fifty, sixty, your skin drying to parchment, your hair thinning and graying, your frame stooping ever closer to the ground in which you would—if you did this—someday rot.
You touched my face. I waited for you to ask if I would give up my own immortality, if I was willing to step with you out of the wilderness of myth and into the terraced rice fields and tiled roofs of history.
“You don’t have to stay,” you said.

What do you do when the person you love, have loved for aeons, needs to leave you to fulfill some desire? And though she intends to come back – “What is twenty-four years to you?” – it will not be forever. But even that respite disappears. So the spirit of the Green Snake follows her descendants over the centuries.

This is where Pek excels, in weaving history with the wandering Green Snake. She serves as guardian to the offspring of her beloved; she serves as a muse to such diverse figures as Arthur C. Clarke and Oscar Wilde – and possibly more that I didn’t recognize; you  have to keep an eye out for these things, they’re a delight when you recognize them.

Then there’s the painting, commissioned when they were both still immortal, and an object of her search afterwards.

Back then we didn’t think in terms of time. Our references were geography and action, places we had been, things we had done. In Xiangyang we had talked a jilted, impoverished artist out of jumping into the Hanshui River, and spun a pretext to give him a hundred taels of silver: we would ask him to paint our portrait. We wore our best dresses for it, you in white and I in green, tinted our cheeks and lips, put pins in our hair. We never collected the painting from him. We prided ourselves on traveling light, and, anyway, we saw no use for it, a record of things that would never change.

She finds the painting has ended up in a British museum thanks to the sleight of hand of a missionary who probably convinced himself he was saving it from destruction during the Opium Wars that started days later. In her Contributor Note, Pek acknowledges this is a contribution from her research on the Qing dynasty and the British greed.

She goes on to characterize the Green Snake as “someone who is really quite bad at dealing with that breakup.” It’s pretty arrogant to argue with an author over her intent, but I don’t think she handled it badly at all. In our lifetimes of seventy-odd years, a devastating breakup might easily cause a change in direction that lasts for several years. For an immortal spirit, it might last six centuries. What is six hundred years to her? She didn’t spend it sulking in her tent, but instead tended the descendants of the White Snake until there were no more, as well as her dabbling in archaeology and literature. As Ward writes in her Introduction explaining the stories she categorizes as moving through time:

Both of these artful, beautifully constructed stories tell a tale of time, of how it is mutable, alive, mysterious, and real. How all we have in this strange and bewildering present are those we love, and how even when the times turn terrible, that love remains. In this pandemic year, this was a particularly valuable lesson to read and remember….

Jesamyn Ward, Introduction

Forgive me if I reveal that  I finally had to hand-type the above quote because, while dictating it, I kept breaking into tears that rendered my voice-recognition software useless. Love lasts forever – but so does grief.

*   *    *

  • The story is available online via LitHub.
  • One version of The Legend of the White Snake, nicely illustrated
  • About Stories to Caution the World, where the legend first appears in print.
  • The discovery of the submerged Koneswaram temple, written by Arthur C. Clarke: “Ceylon And The Underwater Archaeologist”

Chem-II MOOC

Course: General Chemistry II: Chemical Equilibrium, Kinetics, and Transition Metals
Length: 14 weeks, 8-12 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Matthew Shoulders, Patti Christie, David Grimes
Quote:

This course is the second in a series of two general chemistry courses that together cover first-year University-level chemistry. In this course, you will explore fundamentals of chemical reactions, such as how thermodynamics defines the energy released or consumed by a reaction, the nature of chemical equilibrium, and whether a reaction is spontaneous. You will also learn chemical kinetics to examine rates and molecular mechanisms of reactions, and learn about the design and use of catalysts.

Short version: Thumbs up.

When I wrote about MIT’s General Chem I: Atoms, Molecules and Bonding, I whined a little about chemistry being all math and having little of the magic we think of when we consider science in the real world. This second half of the year-long course makes up for that by including lots of real-life examples, from how much energy we get from various substances, to CO2 cleanup, to how the body processes glucose, to increasing crop yields via nitrogen fixation, to how batteries work, to the ozone hole. Ok, it isn’t fireworks and making baking-soda volcanoes, but there was a unit on how colors are formed by transition metal solutions that was pretty cool.

At heart, though, chemistry is still about math. They can talk all they want about creativity in figuring out reaction processes or designing batteries or buffers, but it’s still going to come down to doing the math. As with Chem I, they kept calculus out of things, though in places there were calculus-like expressions in disguise, and they did show a single integration problem just for fun. The math is just algebra. It’s a matter of figuring out how to get from what you’ve got to what you want to find, and that can get complicated.

The course was taped using black lightboards, giving it all a somewhat mysterious and dark air throughout. For those who think distance learning should be just as easy for teachers as regular classroom teaching, I’ve got news: there are little things that have a big impact. One is: Get out of the way.  Prof. Shoulders mastered this throughout; the Recitations, less so. There’s also the little matter of shaking the pens immediately berore use, which seems so minor, but makes a huge difference in how the writing shows up. This was a problem in the first couple of videos, but it got better fast. Just in case, at the end of each lecture a nicely formatted PDF of lecture notes was provided, including all equations and diagrams, alleviating any visibility problems.

In each of the six modules, the graded problem set began with a bulleted list of  What We Have Learned. I found this very useful as a review, since five of the six modules included three lectures and spanned two weeks (module 6 was two lectures in one week). Oddly, it also reminded me of Clare Beams’ short story, “We Show What We Have Learned,” which has nothing to do with the course but always made me smile (in the not-quite-realism story, a teacher literally falls apart in front of her class). A further treat for those of us from the literary side of the street: In the introduction to the topic of Kinetics, we’re treated to Prof. Shoulders’ dramatic reading of Dickens’ Bleak House, which terrorized him as a child with the description of spontaneous human combustion and served as a way to discuss why, thanks to kinetics, a spontaneous reaction doesn’t necessarily just happen.

Another high spot for me came in the discussion of the Michaelis-Menten equation. I’ve run into this in three or four other moocs, and it wasn’t until this course, when they flashed a photo of Michaelis and Menten on the screen, that I realized Menten was a woman.

It was a long course, made longer by two midterms and a final which were not available to audit students; full access cost $149. I would assume those evaluations, as is usually the case, offer fewer tries at a question (the problem sets allowed ten tries for all calculated answers), and involve more figuring out how to get an answer rather than plugging numbers into equations.

On the down side, the course was far more error-prone than I’ve experienced in past courses, particularly in the first module. Problem set questions were marked incorrect when they should have been correct; recitation videos included incorrect answers. I realize these are things that occur in all moocs, especially first-runs, but they seemed excessive. The good news is Prof. Grimes was on hand to fix problems, reset attempts, extend deadlines, and generally make sure correct answers were given credit. The other good news is that this is not likely to be a problem in future runs, since the errors have been fixed. I’m going to chalk it up to lack of staff for proofreading, the side effect of putting together a mooc during a pandemic. I’ve been accused of blaming everything on COVID, but the fact is, there has been a lot of disruption so I’m inclined towards  generosity.

Although I went astray in some of the calculations, I feel like I got some sense of what was being asked. In particular, I have a much clearer idea of the difference between thermodynamics and kinetics. I even used an analogy from kinetics in speaking with a tech consultant the other day: I told him he was to be a catalyst to get me over the hump of activation energy, because without that help I’d dither for another year. He thought I was a little crazy, but that’s ok, he’s not wrong.

BASS 2021: Bryan Washington, “Palaver” from McSweeney’s #62

I’m always taken by stories within stories, and I’d wanted to write a narrative between this mother and her son for years. I’ve thought about these two characters for a while, along with the literal and imaginative distances between them. But I couldn’t land the narrative’s voice for anything. It always felt a little too distant. So it was only after I allowed the story’s structure to relax, given it breathing room and flexibility for both characters to reveal themselves, that the writing began to feel less like an impossible thing than something I could maybe navigate.

Bryan Washington, Contributor Note

I’ve often read what a horrible thing it is to include dictionary definitions in any kind of nonfiction writing. It’s overused; it shows a lack of imagination; it comes across as a stall for time. The thing is, when a story has a title like “Palaver” and I realize I don’t really know what the word means – something about talking – so I look it up, if I find the definition interesting in relation to the story, I’m going to include it.

Turns out, “palaver” has a range of meanings. At one end, it’s something like inane babble. At the other end, it was at one time used to describe communication between sailors and the peoples they encountered in distant ports, so came to mean a cross-cultural meeting. The conversations Washington brings to us between a mother and her son fit both definitions.

He made his mother a deal: for every story he told, she’d give him one of her own.
That’s hardly fair, she said.
Bullshit, he said.
It was the first time he’d used the word with her. And she let it slide, the first of many firsts between them.

That opening paragraph prepares us for the style of the story, but we still don’t know why they’re trading stories. It turns out she’s from Texas and he’s in Japan teaching English. He had another job but lost it when a client complained. “Because you’re Black,” says mom; he denies it, and we’re not sure whether he’s trying to forget about it, or if it was something else entirely. Because there is something else. He shares his first story with his mother: “Once upon a time, said the son, I fell in love with a married man.”

Apparently she wasn’t expecting that. Neither the married part, nor the man part.

We get some hint of backstory – no details, but a vague idea – via what his mother doesn’t say, an approach that works quite nicely.

Once upon a time, the mother didn’t tell her son, I thought I’d take you back to Toronto. Wed live with my sister. The two of us would leave Texas, in the middle of the night. We wouldn’t say a word to your father and we’d never come back.
Once upon a time, the mother didn’t tell her son, I thought I’d become an opera singer.
Once upon a time, the mother didn’t tell her son, I wrote poetry. I scribbled words in a notebook and hid it in the guest room. But one day – you wouldn’t remember this – I found you crying underneath the bed, and the pages were spread open, right at your feet. I think you were nine. I never wrote a poem again.

We see glimpses of their lives this way, through his actions – he goes out, comes home the next morning – and her lack of words. His relationship with the married man troubles him. Her relationship with his father has been troubling for a long time.  While mom is able to see his actions, he can’t hear the words she doesn’t say. He might have found comfort if he had. Or he might have been surprised.

There’s a change in the final exchange, however. Instead of going to a gay bar or his apartment, they picnic in a park, amidst people having fun. There’s a sense of lightening. And a sense that, while she refused to play the game, she’s coming to a different kind of agreement.

The teens in front of them slowed their dancing, falling all over one another. It was enough for the mother to grin despite herself. The world was bigger than anyone could ever know. Maybe that was hardly a bad thing.

Her final words seal the deal: “Tell me something else.” It’s almost like moving through the stages of grief, and now, she’s come to acceptance. And yes, there’s been plenty of the inane chatter as they’ve avoided what’s central to either of them. But now the last thing we hear from this cross-cultural meeting between mother and son is a note of hope.

Ward includes this story in her “problematic characters” group. Neither mother nor son are unlikeable, not at all. But also in that group she describes characters who are “more opaque, less open” and that certainly applies. I don’t get the sense that either of them wishes to withhold from the other, but rather they don’t want to hurt each other or expose themselves to criticism across the cultural divide between them. That they seem to be finding their way to communicating without those risks makes this a happy-ending story, or, at least, the happiest ending either could hope for given the circumstances.

BASS 2021: Stephanie Soileau, “Haguillory” from Zoetrope: All-Story #24.2

Zoetrope art
The situation – an old man whose quiet morning of crabbing is rudely interrupted by a young family searching for a cat – was a gift from my old Cajun grandfather, who suffered such a morning himself. The thematic concerns of the story – whose suffering we grace with our sympathy and whose we deny, how we sometimes turn our own suffering into cruelty – came out of what I heard and observed in the time following Hurricane Katrina’s and Hurricane Rita’s landfall in Louisiana in 2005. Hurricane Rita’s devastation just a few short weeks after Katrina prompted, in someone like Haguillory (white, working class, and generally spiteful), not a deeper empathy for the suffering in New Orleans but rather a sense of grievance, a perception that he and others like him were being slighted by the media in favor of “New Orleans” (i. e., urban Black people). This attitude seems to be a pretty clear, if euphemistic, expression of endemic racism, and demonstrates how deeply both private and institutional racism divides people with common interests.

Stephanie Soileau, Contributor Note

Sometimes, when I come to write my posts on these stories, I find the author has done all the work for me, as here where Soileau lays out the themes and interpretations of the story. In this case, it’s a good thing she did, because I’m not sure I would have arrived at her points had she not hand-walked me there.

The story is a character study of the title character, focusing on one particular day in ways that display his contradictory attitudes towards his family and pretty much everything in his life:

When Haguillory woke at four thirty and went to the kitchen in his shorts and slippers, Dot was already there at the table, tanked up on coffee. He poured himself a cup without much looking at his wife. Outside the kitchen window, his tomatoes blushed in the moonlight. The blue crabs down in the Sabine marshes would have been gorging all night under that bright full moon, and this morning Haguillory planned to catch some.
He fixed his coffee and pretended there was nothing strange about Dot sitting up before dawn, when she was usually in bed until nine or ten. Her joints kept her awake late, and on top of that, she’d get herself all agitated watching the nightly news or reading the paper. How she could stand it, he didn’t know; it was always the same thing: New Orleans this, Katrina that, like those people were the only ones who’d been hit by a storm.

 I had a lot of trouble with this story. Haguillory seems something of a contradiction. He views his wife at times with derision, but is careful to clean up after himself when he gets up early. It’s not clear why she’s coming crab fishing with him on this day, but he doesn’t object. We get a strong hint that he did something to kill the neighbor’s pecan tree, but it’s not clear why; perhaps annoyance at the pecans it drops on his property? We know he’s been retired for five years, but not from what. His son adopted a daughter from “some country he’d never heard of.”  It’s no mystery why Ward included this in her “unlikeable characters” category.

At the marsh, as they’re setting up crabbing equipment, they cross paths with another family looking for their cat. The family is living in cramped conditions in a trailer, and it seems the father tried to get rid of the cat because it kept peeing on his son’s bed but had second thoughts.

“Y’all can’t imagine what it’s like,” the boy’s father said. “Three adults, two kids, and a incontinent cat. In a ten-by-thirty-foot box? Nobody can live like that. It’s been almost a year!” He stripped off his hat and beat it against his thigh.
Ç’est un bonrien, that FEMA,” Haguillory said. He spat into the canal. This young fella and his family, that little boy with his shirt too big—they’d never show that on the news. It was sad, how they forgot about some people, not about others. He himself was still waiting on payment for the damage Rita had done to his roof. “I’m sick to death of Katrina,” he said. “You don’t hear about nothing else!”
He was fixing to say more—about all the people in this world, like those looters in flooded New Orleans or that little adopted girl at Danny’s, who seemed to think their suffering entitled them to inflict suffering on others—when the cork on his fishing line dipped below the surface.

That’s an interesting line about people who feel their suffering entitles them to punish others, since that’s pretty much exactly what Haguillory seems to be doing. Turns out Dot knows exactly who her husband is, and she lets him know she isn’t pleased. Not that he’ll change, but he doesn’t argue. And again, there’s a contradiction: he gives the boy a pocket knife. I’m guessing he feels some connection with him, as an overlooked victim.

The last line is another one of those loud bells that rings long after the story’s read and put away: “There’s all kinds of meanness, and all kinds of mercy too.” Haguillory knows he can be a big SOB, but he also sees himself as kind. Does he think his final act in the story is a mercy? Is he, perhaps, right?

One of the disadvantages to reading these stories by category, rather than in order, is that I’ve encountered these “unlikeable character” stories one after the other. It’s been… difficult to move through and my posts have suffered as a result. More importantly, the stories deserve better. Lesson learned: when ordering short stories, variety works better.

The story, available online, is included in Soileau’s 2020 collection, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights, a look at life in Louisiana. Since I find myself without much to say about the story, I’m including links to a couple of interviews that further explore the author’s ideas.

* * *    

BASS 2021: Yxta Maya Murray, “Paradise” from The Southern Review #56.3

The 2017-18 California wildfire season caused more than $45 billion in damage and killed approximately 150 people. Paradise suffered one of the most violent of these conflagrations in 2018, when its citizens saw 85% of their town consumed. Five months later, President Donald Trump refused to sign a bill that would provide relief for these victims, as well as for those of the recent hurricane and flooding disasters. His reason? Puerto Rico would get too much money. “I don’t want another single dollar going to that island,” he said. That summer found me at Ucross, in Wyoming, watching videos of the hell-red passage that Paradise residents drove through while escaping certain death. It occurred to me that white supremacy is the worst strategy western civilization ever concocted. It does not even help its constituents. Fernanda, Wesley, and Jesse showed up in the midst of these musings, on a bad afternoon that found me fearful and perplexed in equal measure.

Yxta Maya Murray, Contributor Note

Back in 2018, I watched the Camp Fire in northern California from the safety of my New England living room, and still felt horrified by the images of fire consuming everything, leaving behind rubble and burned out hulks where stores, homes, and cars had been. Yet reading about it here was worse. Murray has a way with description:

At both sides of the road, the landscape turned into what looked I swear to holy Jesus like molten lava. Black-brown clouds streamed down through a bloody sky and onto a swell of hills that had fried deep black and were streaked through with flame. It was getting furnace hot in the car. It was close, like you couldn’t inhale right.

The story itself is a model of simplicity: a woman, her young child, and her father-in-law try to escape the fire.  Wes is a white racist son of a bitch who doesn’t want to leave his home behind, one of those “I’ll ride it out” types you see interviewed after they’re rescued from hurricane flooding. But a storm, while it’s scary, isn’t the same as a fire; we’ve all been through storms, even bad storms, and there’s reason to believe they can be survived. You see a wall of fire coming at you, and you change your mind right quick, though still perhaps too late.

Fernanda, some mixture of Pomo and Latina, is determined to get the hell out of Paradise along with her daughter, Jesse. She was married to Wes’ son, Mike, until he died of a heart attack a few years back. Wes never looked kindly on the marriage – “on our wedding day he sat in the front pew just shaking his head” – but he did have a fondness for his granddaughter, so he invited them to live with him after Mike died. Well, “invited” might be an exaggeration. He sent her an email that she could move into the back room, then told her to keep out of his basement, a room full of treasures – including a bronze statue of Custer – or else.

The conflict of the story keeps shifting. First it’s Wes and Fernanda, who go back well before she even knew Mike, to when she was a waitress at the café where Wes liked his steak well-done. On the morning of the story, it shifts to getting Wes to leave, since Fernanda is pretty sure they stand a better chance of getting out if they take his SUV rather than her little car. And eventually it shifts to the two of them trying to escape as the fires of hell burn around them.

Murray’s description, so effective in bringing us into the fire, seems a bit odd in other places, like the opening paragraph:

“I think we should go, Dad,” I said, shielding my eyes from the wind. The sheriff had tweeted an evacuation order for Pulga twenty minutes before. It was quarter to eight in the morning and the sky didn’t look right. Ten minutes ago it had turned from bright blue to a thick, pale orangy gray.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Wesley, my father-in-law. He looked eastward with his face crinkling up. He was a big bull of a man, about five-eleven. He was white and bald and wore glasses. He had a chipped front tooth and his son’s blue eyes. He wore a Cowboys T-shirt and blue nylon shorts and black flip-flops. Eighty years old.
“That sky, though,” I said. I’m five-two with a big ass and strong arms. I’m forty-four. My black hair frizzed all around my head. I wore black nylon shorts and a pink nylon top and no shoes.

I’m not sure what all this description adds at this moment. I’m also puzzled that five-eleven is seen as a “big bull of a man.” Even with a heap of solid muscle weight, that doesn’t seem that big to me, and I’m five-two as well. I wonder if the point is, to a brown woman, a five-eleven white racist looks a lot bigger. I’m also confused about the blue eyes, since later Mike’s eyes are specifically described as green, and daughter Jesse inherits them, giving Fernanda genetic reason to assume some white heritage. Is this to contrast brown eyes with not-brown? Is it an editing glitch? I doubt it, given the level of publications we’re dealing with, but it’s not impossible.

I had to laugh at the swipe Wes takes at 45, while maintaining his bigotry:

“I’m never going to make back what I lose,” Wes said. “I’m too old.”
“Insurance will cover you and then Trump will make you a rich man with one of those disaster packages,” I rattled on. The sky was really starting to darken, and I could see a thick haze of smoke coming in fast on a current.
Nancy moved onto Pearson. I inched the Yukon to the stoplight. I turned on my turn signal like she had because we all had to become robots.
“That asshole will leave us stranded,” Wes said. “He’ll piss on some more hookers and burn it all on golf.”
I started laughing. Tears were streaming down my face. “You liked him, I thought.”
“Only on Mexicans and Puerto Ricans,” Wes said.
“Right.” I laughed some more.
“Not you,” Wes said.
“I don’t care, it’s okay,” I said. “because if we get out of this alive I’m going to punch you till you sneeze teeth, you old son of a bitch.”
“Okay,” Wes said.

I’m not sure I’d be able to laugh if I were Fernanda. But she’s weighed the cost of moving into a house with a Custer statue already, taken the insult of being warned not to steal, for pete’s sake: “I knew I had to eat the grits he gave me.” She’d compromise just about everything for the sake of her daughter, who Wes really does dote on. (By the way, the funds for California and Puerto Rico were finally released, after much dramatic threatening about using them to build The Wall.)

I’m not even sure how much time passes on the road out of town, as the fire burns around them. I envision Wes imagining himself being thrown into Hell for his sins; the metaphor is there, regardless of how the character sees it. And, as someone fearing eternal damnation, he starts begging for mercy, for atonement, for grace, for forgiveness:

“Tell me you forgive me,” he wept.
I watched the hellfire sweep across the trees to our right and kept my foot steady on the gas.
“Tell me,” he said.
“I forgive you, you Custer-loving bastard,” I lied.
…The red underworld rose up to heaven, exploded in the pines, and whirled above us like naked stars. The pale spot of clear sky continued glimmering ahead, though, and I aimed for it, without praying, and filled with something less like faith then a blind keeping-on. And what I hoped was not my last thought was What a Native woman’s got to put up with in this goddammed life doesn’t stop until the minute that she dies.

That last sentence is a gem, and echoes with me still.  And it played a big part in resolving what was my biggest uncertainty.

I wanted to categorize this differently than Ward did. I felt immersed in the fire. I’ve never been in a fire, never been near a threatening fire, only carefully tended campfires and bonfires. I found it terrifying. Ward instead considered it as part of the “problematic characters” group; she describes Wes  as “brusque and unyielding and racist, but the story peels away the layers of his personality so that by the end we feel empathy for both of them.” I felt his racism had become more of a defense, now perhaps a substitute for grief over the passing of his son.

Then I realized I was seeing him as Archie Bunker:  funny in his absurdity, but well-meaning underneath; he’s not really one of those racists, the ones who would kill and exclude and let die by the side of the road, but more the Norman Lear racist with a warm, gooey inside.

Nothing in the story indicates that. Although he offers them a home, he’s clear it’s for Jesse, and he’d throw Fernanda out in a heartbeat if he had an excuse, and Fernanda’s laugh is not one of humor but of bitter acceptance. So I have to recognize my own delusion here:  that he feels the need to beg for forgiveness as he faces Judgment indicates consciousness of guilt. And again, as with his size, Fernanda no doubt sees him very differently.

Again, I say it: the power of story, to see the world through another’s eyes.

BASS 2021: Christa Romanosky, “In This Sort of World, the Asshole Wins” from Cincinnati Review #17.2

Many of the stories I write take place in an area of Appalachia similar to where I grew up, where there are few jobs and high levels of opiate and meth use and hydraulic fracturing has poisoned the water. This is where the story takes place, but that’s just the husk. When I began writing this piece, I wanted to explore how people love and how people survive. And the more I explored this, the more I was sure I wanted to write about how people hate too, at how vital hatred can be for survival….

Christa Romanosky, Contributor Note

The title says it all: This is not a feel-good story.

On first read, I thought it was surprising that this wasn’t in the “unlikeable characters” group of stories, but instead in “immersion.” But now I get it. Tiff is not likeable, but she is not unlikeable in the sense, as Roxane Gay put it in her great article, “Not Here to Make Friends,” one of those characters who “aren’t pretending, that they won’t or can’t pretend to be someone they are not…. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.” Tiff isn’t asserting her independence or marching to the beat of her own drum; she’s angry, the kind of deep-down angry that comes from being on the losing side of life for a long time. She doesn’t accept the consequences of her choices because she doesn’t see them as choices as much as last resorts.

We get some indication that there was abuse of some kind in her younger years, abuse overlooked by her parents, followed by cutting episodes. Then came her husband, who recently died of an overdose. So she, and her son Bucky, are staying with her parents, trying to survive. How she chooses to survive is questionable, but given the environment, it may well be her choices are pretty slim.

The hillside was eroding, shale crackled like mangy dog skin, road cut out and rocky, but between two ravines about a half a mile back, Grubber John turned off the engine. Below the heavy ridge of rock and clay, a pit entrance, shaded by crab-apple trees, sumac, milkweed, thistle. “Here we are,” Grubber John said, handing her a flashlight. “We are the forgotten people, owner of the forgotten things. And this is my humble abode.”

She has to rely on second-hand favors of friends of her husband, favors from people who aren’t particularly worried about making sure Don’s lady gets a fair shake. Grubber John’s favor includes something like a job that involves drugs and sex. Some Bitch, her name for another Friend of Don who gives her a ride, rips her off when she isn’t looking. This is not a feel-good story about the disadvantaged pulling together. It’s about the rage that forms when there’s no one on your side.

Except maybe Bucky, her toddler.

At home she shut a window, slammed a door. Turned on the radio, the AC. When Bucky finally woke up crying, she cuddled him to her chest. “I got you, baby,” she said, rocking him. “Something woke you up, huh? Something scared you.” He smelled like mint and vinegar, baby powder. Her mouth emitted the heat of her sore bottom teeth, and she inhaled him like a fugue.

One of the things Romanosky mentions in her Contributor Note is how trauma is passed on through generations. Who knows what Tiff’s parents went through, but now she wakes up her baby just to feel protective. Is this minor, the down-and-out version of waking up your baby just to see him smile? Or is it another adult depending on a child, instead of the other way around?

The final sentence is one of those “oh” things, a thought that sends shivers down the spine.

Tonight Bucky smelled like mint, old sweet milk. She pressed her mouth to his lip, as though he held the source to the only oxygen in the room. And when Bucky finally stirred, she said, “You having a bad dream, baby?” But he slept on, oblivious to how much Tiff loved him. Enough to consume him, she thought. What a funny way to feel about a thing you love.

And this is the problem, isn’t it. Love as consumption rather than nourishment. If love can’t be trusted, what is left but, as Romanosky clearly states, hate. This isn’t a case of pushing people away until you learn to trust them; there’s no one to trust here. It’s about coming at everyone with a machete before they come at you. And if your baby is the sole source of nourishment for you, then someday he, too, will distrust love.

We all love stories about the plucky character who manages to survive under incredible stresses: she talks her way into a terrible job and hangs on until she meets someone who gives her a better job, or finds Mr. Right who sees beyond the poverty and lack of education to her pure soul. But this isn’t Pretty Woman; it’s more akin to the original script where Vivian was drug addict and ended up thrown out on the street instead of being whisked away by the Knight in Shining Armor. It’s not a great date movie, but it’s probably more real. And may God, or whoever is watching, help Bucky.

Zoroastrian MOOC

Course: Zoroastrianism: History, Religion, and Belief
Length: 4 weeks, 3 hrs/wk
School/platform: SOAS, University of London/FutureLearn
Instructor: Sarah Stewart, Celine Redard
Quote:

Zoroastrianism has had a profound influence on major world religions. Its history tells the story of imperial culture, persecution, migration and the establishment of diasporic communities.
Utilising a rich visual repository of artifacts, paintings, and texts, this four-week course will take you through the story of Zoroastrian religion, history, and culture.
The course draws inspiration from an exhibition titled ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’, as well as the book of the same name.

Every once in a while, I’ll run into a reference to Zoroastriaism in something I’m reading or in a mooc or a video on philosophy, religion, or ancient history. Yet I know very little about it. Most of what I knew prior to this course came from the Global History of Architecture mooc I took a few years ago, but that wasn’t much: fire, sky burial, Persia. So when Class Central tweeted this into my feed, I thought, hmmm, that looks interesting.  

The mooc is based on SOAC’s 2013 exhibit, and companion book of scholarly essays, titled The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination. Material, about half video and half article, is divided into four weeks: an overview of the texts and beliefs of the religion, its history in the ancient world, the diaspora and contemporary Zoroastrianism, and the Avestan language, the original language of the sacred texts.

My biggest takeaway was how so many aspects of the religion were similar to Christianity; in fact, one section looked at the influence of Zoroastrianism on the three Abrahamic religions, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism. We have a fight between good and evil, with a fallen angel being cast out of heaven, and a final battle between good and evil at which point a descendent of Zarathustra (aka Zoroaster), the primary prophet, born of a virgin, will resurrect the dead to dwell in perfection as Ahura Mazda, the creator god, had originally planned. I have often heard that the three Wise Men, the Magi, were thought of as Zoroastrians from Persia. To complicate matters, there’s also the judging of souls after death by weighing of the heart, which sounds a lot like the process outlined in the manuscripts now known collectively as Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The history of the religion, as covered in the course, is somewhat fragmented. The original tenets, prayers, and worship features were transmitted orally for a few thousand years; they were eventually written down in one language, then translated to others as the followers were subsumed within other cultures due to migration or conquest. Thus, little of the original written material remains. After the Islamic conquest of Persia, Zoroastrianism moved to India, which I found surprising. I get the impression of a proto-religion, something like the Indo-European language that in itself no longer exists but can be retroactively surmised by combining aspects of the languages descended from it.

The final week was about the Avestan language of the original documents, though these are piecemeal and need to be combined with later transcriptions into other languages to provide a potential picture of the original religious practices and beliefs. Normally, this is something I’d jump all over, but I had a lot of distractions and I’d really lost the thread by then.

Some of the more unusual parts of the course include a reading of a particulary popular story of the test of faith, comments from contemporary Zoroastrians on their connection to what is a widespread but distinctly minority religion, and the language piece which includes practice in writing alphabet and in reading a few words.

I’ll take most of the responsibility for my less-than-stellar focus in this mooc, but for me the presentation wasn’t the most engaging. Others, if the forums are any indication (and they usually are) were quite delighted, including a number of contemporary Zoroastrians from around the world, as well as many students with  backgrounds in the general vicinity of interest. I’m glad it was offered, as I do know a bit more now than I did before. Maybe at a future time, I’ll be able to better absorb more of the material.