Pushcart XLII: Brian Doyle, “Memorial Day” (non-fiction) from The Sun, June 2016

Art by Stan Fellows

Art by Stan Fellows

We are at a parade. It is Memorial Day. I am sitting on the curb in front of the church with my brother, reserving our family’s spot…. Our dad will not walk in the parade wearing his uniform. He declines politely every year when he is asked. He says he no longer has his uniform. He says he does not know where it went, although we think he does know where it went. He says he wore it only because the job had to be done, and now that the war is over, there is no reason to have a uniform. He says uniforms are dangerous statements, if you think about it. He says uniforms can easily confer false authority, and encourage hollow bravado, and augment unfortunate inclinations, and exacerbate violent predilections. This is how he talks.

Complete story available online at The Sun

A snapshot out of the past, perhaps the 50s, with Dad a WWII vet. It’s a short essay, nicely written in a style appropriate for a child’s-eye filter. Kids hear things they don’t quite yet understand. But they observe. It’s a good premise for an essay, a way to comment without commenting, an observation that’s really a commentary, that lets the reader observe and draw her own conclusions from those observations.

And what the kid sees here is, he sees Dad being reserved about his own service. He sees him only applauding when the firefighters go by. I’m not sure I get the subtext any better than the kid does; maybe it’s because the veterans are now out of harm’s way but the firefighters still have to show up at the next three-alarmer? Or maybe he remembers some darkness from the war. We all think of WWII as the “good war”, played by the rule book (doesn’t it strike anyone else as strange that there are rules for war?). But we also know that maybe that wasn’t precisely the case.

This is my second encounter with an essay by Brian Doyle. The first, “The Hawk” from Pushcart 2013, was similar: short, observational, emotional in an understated, indirect way. It’s a style that works quite well for him.


Viral MOOC

Course: Viruses & How to Beat Them: Cells, Immunity, Vaccines
Length: 8 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Jonathan Gershoni

Have you ever wondered what viruses actually are?
Have you been curious about the ways they invade our bodies, attack our cells and make us sick? Come and learn what viruses are made of and understand the mechanisms of how they hijack and take over our cells.
There is no need for a background in science – just bring your curious mind!

Short version: Well-done introductory course beginning with a broad overview of biology basics, then focusing on pathogens and the immune system, particularly as it interacts with viruses. Great visuals, interesting but plain-language interviews with some serious heavy-hitters (like Nobel laureates David Baltimore and Bruce Beutler, and Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the HIV virus), and a friendly style make this particularly accessible and, yes, fun.

This is another of those courses that just popped into my inbox out of the blue a few days before it opened. I was debating whether I wanted to re-start MIT’s 728 series on DNA, so I thought this might help make up my mind (it did: I just don’t want to work as hard as 728 demands, right now). It served as a nice refresher of the basics, from chemistry to cell bio to DNA to immunology, ending with a rational look at vaccines (spoiler alert: scientists are for them). It wasn’t quite as virus-specific as I’d expected, but, first, as an introductory course, some preliminary material was necessary, and second, seating the virology in a network of other concepts makes sense.

Each week included lecture videos with ungraded “test yourself” questions, and a lab demonstration or interview on a pertinent topic. A summary lecture, complete with concept map (which I greatly appreciated) finished off the week’s material. A live Q&A session, inviting student questions through the forum and participation through a software portal, took place around week 4. Since participation required downloading something, I didn’t attend, and no video has yet been released for us slowpokes so I have no idea how it was, but the question thread was booming so I’m hopeful.

Graded material included weekly quizzes, a midterm, and a final, with the final heavily weighted. At first I thought of the questions as standard information retrieval, but there are definite shades of meaning in there that require some interpretation and extrapolation. Every once in a while, a congratulatory GIF would pop up when a question was answered correctly; this generally scared the bejesus out of me, showing once again that I really need to calm down.

This is the 3rd of 4 courses I’ve taken in the past couple of months from IsraelX, a group of several schools; that’s kind of a brilliant idea, I’m surprised other countries haven’t done this. I’ve enjoyed each of the courses I’ve taken, and found them very helpful to understanding the various fields (which range from design theory to bio to religion to history). Although most of the rest of their 11 courses on the schedule are outside my areas of interest, I’m hopeful I’ll be learning more from them soon.

Pushcart XLII: Steve Stern, “The Plate-Spinner” from Agni #83

There used to be thirty-six. You should have seen them in their glory days, what a spectacle! Silhouetted in amber spotlights on a muggy august evening, the saints were truly the carnival’s main attraction. No spring chickens even then, they were still remarkably spry, their stamina inexhaustible as they galloped night and day, each on his own spinning plate the size of a barrel lid, their beards and earlocks flying, the tails of their caftans streaming, horizontally behind them. …
In those days I hardly even knew their names, the saints, or “stylites” as Old Man Rothstein called them, nor did I set much store by the pitch he’d worked up for their act:
Ladies and gents, please to observe the Lamed Vovniks – which is Hebrew for Thirty-Sixers, count ‘em – holy men from the legendary city of Sfat. See how they got to keep steppin’ lively on them magic plates or else the good Lord’ll remove His grace from the world. In other words, my fellow mishpookies, if they ever stop their centrifugatin’ or them plates cease their gyroscopic whirliggigery, it’s all she wrote for the rest of us…”
…it was an article of faith that the luck of the carnival somehow depended on the rabbis treading those whirling zinc discs.

Some things in this story are real; some are not real. And some are sort of real It’s fun to figure out which is which. But then, I have a strange idea of what fun is. This sort-of-apocalyptic, sort-of-fantasy story based on Hassidic beliefs and practices was definitely fun.

For example, I spent a fair amount of time re-reading the description of the saints, or stylites, or rabbis (they’re called all three as the story progresses) before concluding they are not real, at least, not in the world as we know it. In the world of the story, they’re very real, a bunch of old guys running around in circles 24/7 on top of spinning plates, with various ways of coping with sleep and more, um, private needs. They seem to be a combination of the old plate-spinning acts from goofy talent shows, and the 5th Century Christian ascetics of the early Byzantine empire, known as Stylites, who sat up in tall, narrow towers for years to show their devotion to God.

The Lamed Vovniks are in the category of Sort of Real. As the story tells us, the phrase does literally mean “The Thirty-Six” but the significance is much greater than that: in Hassidic lore, branching from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, there are thirty-six righteous people (usually men, but occasionally a woman is included) around at all times for whose sake God will not destroy the world. I suspect 36 has a particular meaning in Hassidic numerology, but my casual research can’t find consistent references to what it would be.

How the Lamed Vovniks got turned into a carnival act – and that it remains unexplained – is part of the weirdness of the story, and part of its appeal.

This is my second encounter with Steve Stern. The first time was back in 2012, when I hated his story “The Ballad of Mushie Momzer” because it was relentlessly depressing, beating down the hapless protagonist with no mercy. I acknowledged I was probably missing important references to Jewish folk stories, since that’s Stern’s specialty. This time, I was a bit better prepared, not just by general knowledge but by (sing it with me, you know this line) the coincidence of having taken a couple of moocs recently that added to my understanding of Judaism: one, a mooc on Talmud, and one on Kabbalah that just concluded. And this story is loaded with references to Kabbalah and Hassidism, half of which I probably overlooked. I loved it.

Two warnings: Self-indulgence alert. I’m going to go through it in great detail, mostly just to exercise my own understanding of the references. And, spoiler alert, since such an approach requires telling a great deal of the story. That’s ok, the voice is so strong, and since there are so many great details I’ll leave out, it’s really worth reading even if you know generally what’s going to happen. And, as I said, I have probably missed a great many things, and may have made some mistakes (corrections welcomed).

Our narrator is Corliss, who ran away from the orphanage where he grew up and joined the carnival at a young age. The inciting event of the story is the die-off of 26 of the saints, leaving ten. This seems to be sufficient, they feel, since ten is a minyan (the minimum necessary for Jewish worship), but the world begins to fall apart: computers crash, the world economy collapses, and it’s basically societal chaos. The carnival finally falls apart, but Corliss stays with the saints, tending the poles to keep them spinning.

It’s an arduous undertaking, since there’s no money, and all he has for barter are carnival prizes. A group of street kids – the urchins, he calls them – hang out and start helping to keep the rabbis spinning so Corliss can get food and sleep a little. “I couldn’t quite grasp that current events had taken such a toll on the Cavalcade of Fun. I’d always believed we were proof against the intrusions of history.” Yeah, we all believe the leopard won’t eat our faces, until he does. At another point he says, “It amazed me that, while civilization had ground to a halt, nature persisted and even flourished, as if it had been liberated at last.” Doesn’t amaze me at all. Liberation is mentioned three times in the story in various ways, making it something of a floating theme.

Corliss asks the saints why they spin; they don’t remember, though they have some thoughts about going forwards so you don’t go back, and a riff about sexual union with the divine that’s straight from the Kabbalah. Yes, the projection of the divine has male and female parts and they like to get together. Unfortunately, there are also evil equivalences of these parts – Samael and Lilith – and when they into things, the world feels pain. I’m not making this up, I swear, though the details are a bit beyond my level.

One of the rabbis tells him he isn’t worried about death. “I been dead already before. In heaven they told me, Come back again when they’re finished, your good deeds.” This, too, is Kabbalistic, the notion of a sinner being reincarnated to atone for past misdeeds. I am SO glad I took that mooc. But the saints aren’t getting any younger, and they start taking the Sabbath off, sitting in place on their plates (I think; I have a terrible time visualizing any of this, it’s so bizarre).

Then the girl with the plums shows up. I’m not sure if plums have any special significance in Hassidic culture, but her name is Lily and her dog’s name is Beelzebub and the significance of that isn’t too obscure. She’s helpful for a while, but then she distracts him in the usual way girls distract boys, and guess what:

At first you might have taken their banged-up plates for the shields of fallen warriors, but this was no battlefield, The papery corpses in their sable garments looked more like cast-off chrysalises than human beings. Maybe by abandoning their bodies I’d set free their souls. It would have been nice to think so, but in their absence – broken bodies notwithstanding – I’d never felt so alone.

Lily has taken off, and Corliss is left with cleaning up the remains of the crashed rabbis. He does something odd: he loads their corpses on a makeshift raft, sets it afire, and pushes it out into the flooded river. This isn’t Jewish at all; it’s Vedic, carried forward into Hindu culture. I’m not sure why this is in the story, but I’m thinking there’s an interesting explanation for something so out of place.

Then he goes back to clean up the plates and poles, and notices one pole still has the plate mounted, though at a precarious angle. The urchins show up, and form a pyramid (hmmm) to open a path to the plate, but that damn dog Beelzebub beats him to it.

Beelzebub, starting to trot in place, accelerated our spinning. Clumsily, until I found my footing, I attempted – having no choice – to follow his lead.
We gathered momentum, the dog and I, charging ahead while the temp raged and a different order of weather was taking shape in the river – you could glimpse the waters of heaven pouring down into the waters of Earth…. I was running to beat the devil now, wondering, as I did, if the spinning had prompted the deluge or vice versa. Had the saints been saving the world from disaster or propelling it toward its destruction?

There’s an interesting little detail in there: he starts out following the dog, and ends up being chased by it, which of course is what happens when you’re both running in circles. But I suspect it’s bigger than that, more of a metaphor for the kind of reversal that happens when we pursue evil: we end up pursued.

The storm intensifies, and Corliss gives us his last report:

What I do know for sure, however, I can’t let on; because if I told you all I could see from the lofty perch, before the approaching waterspout lifted me and the Bub up into its black funnel, you would rip your garments to the navel in grief for having lost that wisdom.

There’s a reversal in that, too: the telling would imply loss of wisdom. I’m not sure what this means, but it seems important, and I wonder if it might have something to do with the death of the rabbis causing a kind of uncreating, a reversal, of the universe.

Since the story isn’t available online, I was hoping to find a video of Stern reading it, but instead I found one of him as the invited guest at a temple service. He was surprised at the invitation, and admitted, “I’m gloomy guy. I’m just no damn fun.” Unlike Mushie Momzer, I found it quite fun to read. Maybe I just felt more grounded in the details. In any case, it’s an imaginative, intelligent story, well told.

Pushcart XLII: Francisco Cantú, “Bajadas” (non-fiction) from Ploughshares, Winter 2015/16

Look, my mother said, I spent most of my adult life working for the government as a park ranger, so don’t take this the wrong way —but don’t you think it’s below you, earning a degree just to become a border cop? Look, I said, I spent four years away from home, studying this place through facts, policy, and history. I’m tired of reading. I want to exist outside, to know the reality of this border, day in and day out. Are you crazy? she said. You grew up with me, living in deserts and national parks. We’ve never been far from the border. Sure, I said, but I don’t truly understand the landscape, I don’t know how to handle myself in the face of ugliness or danger.

Francisco Cantú, Fulbright fellow, grandson of a Mexican-American immigrant and son of a park ranger, spent four years as a border agent because he wanted to truly understand the landscape. Then he earned an MFA in nonfiction so he could write about it in a series of essays, collected for his soon-to-be published book, The Line Becomes a River (Penguin House, February 2018).

In this essay, we see the first year of his career patrolling the border in the form of diary entries. It’s just as uncomfortable to read as you expect it to be. And it’s just as important as you expect it to be, because for many of us, perhaps most of us, we, too, have witnessed the border at a distance. We read news stories about vans stuffed with dead passengers who paid everything they had for a chance; we read political bombast about rapists and drug dealers; we hear the other side, about desperate people fleeing gangs and drug wars and poverty so extreme we can’t really imagine it.

But what is it that border agents actually do? I realized as I read this essay, I had no idea, beyond the vague idea that they find people crossing the border illegally and arrest them. I would imagine there are tv shows and movies that show such things, but I’ve never watched them; unlike Cantú, I’m comfortably ensconced in the world of words, not the world of desert and scrub brush and mountain lions and people flat out of choices.

There are days when I feel I am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this? I wonder sometimes how I might explain certain things, the sense in what we do when they run from us, scattering into the brush, leaving behind their water jugs and their backpacks, how to explain what we do when we discover their lay-up spots. Of course, what you do depends on who you’re with, what kind of border agent you want to become, but it’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze, and Christ, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is, but the idea is that when they come out from their hiding places, when they return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped, they’ll realize their situation, that they’re fucked, that it’s hopeless to continue on, and they’ll save themselves right then and there, they’ll struggle toward the nearest highway or dirt road to flag down some passing agent or head for the nearest parched village to knock on someone’s door, someone who will give them food and water and call us to take them in—that’s the idea, the sense in it all.

The observations aren’t sensationalized or sentimental, but they often have compassion – for both the agents, and the people they pursue – at their core. I have to wonder if Cantú is thinking, If my grandmother hadn’t come here years ago there but for the grace of God go I. There but for the grace of God go all of us. Law enforcement and humanity do not have to be mutually exclusive.

They do, however, wear on the soul.

Last night I dreamed I was grinding my teeth out, spitting the crumbled pieces into my palms and holding them in my cupped hands, searching for someone to show them to, someone who could see what was happening.

I expect we’ll be hearing a lot about this book in a few weeks when it’s released. I expect some of the discussion will make some of us angry for various reasons. The book might make people uncomfortable. That’s what art is supposed to do.

Pushcart XLII: Natasha Trethewey, “Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath” (poetry) from Poem-a-Day

"Dancer" by Marvin Posey

“Dancer” by Marvin Posey

Do not hang your head or clench your fists
when even your friend, after hearing the story,
says: My mother would never put up with that.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

We’re often reluctant to sit still for another person’s pain, and will do what is necessary to not let it touch us too deeply beyond a polite sympathetic murmur. This is particularly true when the victim’s behavior seems to contribute to the tragedy a friend now deals with. “What was she wearing?” “Did he eat right and exercise?” “Did she try antidepressants and therapy?” Because, of course, rape/cancer/suicide doesn’t happen to people who do everything right, and while our compassion is boundless, we often act like it must be carefully rationed for only the most deserving. And of course, nothing like this could ever happen to us, because we are smarter than that.

Here, the speaker offers bitter advice in the wake of reactions she’s received when revealing her mother was murdered by her husband. It basically boils down to: If someone doesn’t get it, don’t bother trying to explain.

to ignore subtext. Imagine a thought-
cloud above your head, dark and heavy
with the words you cannot say; let silence
rain down….

The specific examples cover a wide swathe of dismissals. One of the most enraging, in the context of a poem, is the professor who tells the poet to write about something else. Or maybe the most enraging is the juror who thinks couples should “work it out.”

The final stanzas convey the reality of the speaker’s world:

….one does not bury the mother’s body
in the ground but in the chest, or—like you—
you carry her corpse on your back.

I believe the speaker will put the corpse down when she is ready. If that isn’t soon enough for the rest of the world, too bad. She has learned to cope with that, as well.

Intro to Kabbalah MOOC

Course: Introduction to Kabbalah
Length: 5 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Boaz Huss, Yoed Kadary

This course will introduce you to the major ideas and practices of the Kabbalah from an academic point of view.
The course will examine basic Kabbalistic themes such as the theory of the Sefirot, ecstatic and prophetic Kabbalistic techniques, reincarnation, demonology, and practical Kabbalah. It will introduce major Kabbalistic works and movements, including the Sefer ha-Zohar, Lurianic Kabbalah, Hasidism, and the contemporary revival of popular Kabbalah….
The aim of this course is to introduce students with no background in Kabbalah or Jewish thought to the major ideas and practices of the Kabbalah in their historical and cultural settings. The ideas are presented in an accessible manner without jeopardizing the course’s academic rigor.

I skipped my usual preview-of-coming-attractions post this quarter, partly because a lot of classes seem to pop up all of a sudden without a long lead time. Like this one: I found out about it via an edX email days before the course started. It was a subject that interested me, so sure, I’ll play.

I’ve been aware of Kabbalah for decades, both from its mention in popular books and movies to reading a bit more about it in general-readership books on Judaism, like The Jewish Book of Why, but I never knew any of the details, or why some Jews studied it and others didn’t. Then the Beautiful People (aka Madonna) started doing Kabbalah and felt kind of pissed off, that it was being turned into something more like Scientology than something a yeshiva bocher might want to learn when he finished the Talmud. Turns out there are different kinds of Kabbalah, and some have little or nothing to do with Judaism – or religion, or philosophy – at all.

The first few weeks of the course covered the basic components of Kabbalah: the structure of the divine, how the Sefirot came into being, and how all the parts of the divine structure interacted with other parts and with humanity. This was kept academic, as promised; there were mentions of specific practices that could be involved, but they were only general descriptions. Then we moved into a more historical survey of the different schools of Kabbalah that sprang up in the late medieval period, the Renaissance, and in the modern period, as well as contemporary approaches to Kabbalah which move away from contemplation of the nature of the divine into more of a focus on self-help.

The basic theology of it all is fascinating, as was the history of the development of different Kabbalistic practices under different leaders in different times. A fair amount of the terminology was in Hebrew (in Roman orthography; no, we didn’t have to learn to read Hebrew, that would’ve been insane). It took some time and some effort, but now terms like Sefirot, Zohar, zimzum, and En-Sof kind of roll right off my tongue. Cerego was again very helpful.

Each week included a set of lecture videos, each one followed by a short quiz, and a Reading exercise in which a passage studied in the lecture was presented with multiple choice questions. A truly comprehensive final exam finished out the course, another reason I was glad I’d used Cerego, as I was still getting relevant material daily. The first six lessons were released two per week, which was a pretty brisk pace, but the remainder over Christmas holidays released once per week which was a lot more relaxed.

I greatly enjoyed the course, and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning something about the underpinnings of Kabbalah, rather than a specific practice; even at the basic levels, it’s a fascinating subject. As a neophyte I found it well-designed for beginners, with enough repetition and visual reinforcement to help with learning the necessary terms and concepts.

Pushcart XLII: Anthony Wallace, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from Southern Review 52:3

Reverse of a silver tetradrachma featuring the Owl of Athena; ca. 480–420 BC

Reverse of a silver tetradrachma featuring the Owl of Athena; ca. 480–420 BC

A well-dressed couple entered the lobby of the Hötel Saint-Dominique, the young woman first, pushing an expensive-looking pram, the muscles in her slender arms and legs taut with purpose. When they came to the hostess’s desk just outside the bar, the young woman recited their family name and the time of the reservation. She looked at her wristwatch to show that they were exactly on time. The hostess smiled and then the young woman added, “A corner table, private but with a view of the dining room. I don’t want to wake her.”

My reach is going to far exceed my grasp (R>G) on this one. I kept encountering Easter eggs – you know, those little surprise asides that stand out if you’re in on the joke, and otherwise pass unnoticed. Considering the ones I found, I’m thinking there must be dozens more that I just wasn’t equipped to see. I’d love to know about them. Or I can just keep taking moocs on philosophy and literature and art and see what happens.

And yes, there will be spoilers. But it’s ok, it’s the sort of story that isn’t in the reading, but in the finding, and the connecting, and I haven’t exhausted those avenues.

The basic plot is a little strange, but not complicated. A couple with a baby carriage come in to an elegant restaurant for dinner; the waiter notices the carriage contains not a baby, but a doll; the husband appears to overhear him telling this to a coworker; the couple leaves, with the mother tearing the doll apart as they go, scattering its limbs in the restaurant. The restaurant crew comments.

This in itself raises some questions beyond, who brings a baby to an elegant restaurant? She’s fairly disappointed with how dinner goes – minor details keep annoying her – but there’s no real explanation for her storming out. At one point she’s rocking and almost-nursing the doll; then she’s tearing it apart. What happened? Is it possible they didn’t know it was a doll until the husband overheard the waiter’s remarks, he told the wife, and she was enraged at being fooled? Or at being found out?

However, all of this needs to be considered in the larger context. The story bears the name of a Walter Benjamin essay on art, a reference I probably would have missed had I not just completed the Design Theory mooc just mentioned in my previous post. Given that the doll is a mechanical reproduction of a baby, this can’t be a casual coincidence.

As I said, I’m reaching a bit beyond my grasp here (R>G#1), but as I understand it, Benjamin’s essay sees a difference between art, and the reproduction of art (and what is a baby if not a work of art, and what is a doll if not a reproduction of a baby), in that the aura of the original, the contact with the artist, is lost in the reproduction, reversing the concentration that contact with art brings into the distraction that immersion in reproductions bring:

Distraction and concentration form an antithesis, which may be formulated as follows. A person who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it; he enters into the work, just as, according to legend, a Chinese painter entered his completed painting while beholding it. By contrast, the distracted masses absorb the work of art into themselves. Their waves lap around it; they encompass it with their tide.

~~ Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

If that feels like a stretch, don’t forget the essay and the story share the title, and by the way, the story specifically mentions Benjamin through the thoughts of the waiter:

The waiter had recognized the professor, had a few months before attended one of his lectures on the theory and practice of translation, a field in which he was an eminent authority—the man who some people said was the next Walter Benjamin in that he frequently discussed literary translation not in terms of what it got right but, more importantly, what it got wrong: the misreading or misinterpretation that led, strangely, to greater fidelity to living art and the possibilities for interpretation that implies.

This talk of misinterpretation, of fidelity to living art, seems to me to be somehow relevant to the events of the plot, but I can’t pin it down.

Benjamin’s essay is very concerned with film as a medium. And by the way, there’s at least one film reference in the story: “The couple sat together in silence, picking over their second course. The waiter arrived with a bottle of Chablis, that green-eyed goddess, uncorked the bottle in front of them….” In Marathon Man, there’s a similar scene at Lutèce, with the line “The great Chablis of the world are almost always green-eyed” just before Dustin Hoffman’s brother, an undercover spy, reveals Elsa’s suspected Nazi past to Hoffman (whose character is, guess what, a historian). No, I didn’t have this off the top of my head, but the “green-eyed” reference was so confusing – was it a typo, should have been grey-eyed? – I did some googling (R>G#2) and found the line.

At the risk of wearing out this trope (or is it just obsessive pursuit?) let me connect Benjamin and film and Nazis a little more closely (R>G#3) via the last paragraph of his essay:

Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own alienation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.

~~ Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

As far as the aestheticizing of politics, calling Leni Riefenstahl (his essay was published in 1936, three years after her first propaganda film), the marches, the rallies, and oh god, Wallace couldn’t have predicted that I’d be reading this in a time when we have a reality-TV star as President, while half of America is reading the juicy political tell-all released at midnight the other night to a buying frenzy usually associated with Harry Potter or teenage vampire novels. As for communism politicizing art: isn’t all art inherently political, whether it strives to be or not?

Benjamin was, by the way, part of the Frankfurt School, philosophical descendents of Hegel and Kant, a bunch of early 20th Century Marxists (including My Favorite Marxists Horkheimer and Adorno) hanging around in Germany when Jewish Marxists could still hang around in Germany and breathe at the same time; he tried to escape in 1940, got as far as France, and killed himself when it became apparent he would not make it into Spain.

But wait, there’s more: throughout, the mother is several times referenced in ways that bring to mind the Homeric depiction of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom:

….it was her eyes that one was irresistibly drawn to with their finely reticulated gray irises and luminous, overlarge pupils….

These musings occupied the waiter while he waited to go back into the dining room, to wheel in the dessert cart, to offer the gray-eyed goddess what was in his power to offer her. The gray-eyed goddess, ‘the trim-coifed goddess—

That’s the clearest reference to Athena this side of the 8th century BCE, especially the phrasing of that last sentence, the double-descriptor so common in Homeric poetry intended for oral recitation. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was buddy to both Achilles and Odysseus in their respective epics. But what does Athena have to do with any of this?

Consider another excerpt from the story:

The hostess, who had an MFA in screenwriting and who’d written two screenplays she was unable to sell, was just such a cynical product of the service industry. To her way of thinking, there were only two kinds of people in the world: those who’d had their screenplays optioned, and those who hadn’t…. For her, the important distinction was that the optioned got to live in the historical moment, and hence live real lives, while those not optioned were consigned to live at the end of history, like orphans stranded at the end of a dirt road. The hostess had remained in the second group far longer than she’d expected, and she was in the process of adjusting herself to that fact.

That also tweaked my antennae (R>G#4) due to the “Architectural Imagination” mooc
from last spring, which used some theory from Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics. Let me paraphrase and conflate some notes from the mooc lectures by Prof. Hayes: In the symbolic period, WeltGeist (world spirit) is outside the object (typified by Architecture of mud, stone, wood) looking in, and the object is pointing to it; In the classical period (typified by Greek and Roman sculpture), the WeltGeist shows forth from within the object; In the romantic period (post-Roman, typified by music and art), the WeltGeist has almost left the object. At the end of the Romantic period, the WeltGeist escapes the physical, and moves into thought (philosophy, theology) and no longer needs Art. Which may be why nobody likes modern art or music. But as this is a historical process, it can only be observed when it’s over, when it’s too late.

And it just so happens, Hegel (with whom I wrestled mightily this past summer in yet another mooc, “The Great War and Modern Philosophy”) had some ideas about Athena, though he used her Roman name Minerva:

Philosophy always arrives too late. As the thought of the world, it only makes its appearance after actuality has finished its process of development and is over. …Only in the maturation of actuality does the ideal appear to confront the real. Then the ideal reconstructs this world for itself in the form of an intellectual realm, comprehending in its substance. When philosophy paints its grey on grey then the form of life has grown old, and this grey on grey is not capable of rejuvenating it, merely of understanding it. The owl of Minerva only begins its flight when the twilight falls.

~~ G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820), “Preface”

Nothing is as it seems. The baby in the pram is actually a doll. The hostess is actually a screenwriter (this is Paris, not Hollywood, where everyone’s a screenwriter). The waiter’s a philosopher. The restaurant seems empty except for the couple. The most un-Athena-like character in history is framed as Athena. What’s going on? Is it some kind of deconstruction of reality, a jumbling of images?

The narration is what some writers call head-hopping – third person through various characters as the story progresses – so it seems there’s a disembodied narrator – the WeltGeist, Philosophy, Art freed from material form? – floating outside of it all. Maybe that’s a working theory (R>G#5): the narrator/WeltGeist follows the progression outlined by Hegel, moving from outside looking in (the initial entry into the restaurant), to inside looking out (in the mother’s head), to being freed (the doll-dismemberment) to ending with philosophy and thought via the hostess and waiter. That doesn’t quite track, but it’s the best I can do.

[Addendum 1/14/18: I’ve been thinking about this story for the past week, and I have a new working theory: The key is in how the waiter, representing Art as it matures into Philosophy and absorbs the partaker, and the hostess, representing the reproduced Art that distracts the partaker, react differently to the scenario they’ve just witnessed. He is “forever changed by his encounter”, though he isn’t sure exactly how, like Paul on the road to Damascus; she sees the event as a screenplay, to be reproduced as a movie.]

I sure wish some philosophy professor would do a mooc, a lecture, a podcast, a Medium article, whatever, on this story; if I could find so many Easter eggs, imagine what someone who actually knows what they’re talking about could do with it.

Design MOOC

Course: Design Theory
Length: 6 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edx
Instructor: Various

The first of its kind, this course is a pioneering exploration of theories of design theory. Much of the way we interact as a society springs from design and is influenced by it.
The course offers an in‐depth exposition of prime concepts in contemporary design theory. It looks to ask and answer questions such as: What is design? How is design related to the histories of culture, economics, and the arts? What is the role of design? What is the responsibility of the designer? What is creativity and how its use in design propels the development industry and technology? How is design related to contemporary markets and industries?

I have a notoriously hard time with courses that focus on creating visual presentations, either artistic or informational. So I approached this with some trepidation. But with a couple of exceptions, this isn’t a design course; it’s a philosophy course. In fact, the final wrap-up video used Paola Antonelli’s term “interior philosophers.” That’s fine by me.

The first lecture of each week tended to be very abstract and theoretical. As in:

However, formalism classifies design as primarily an aesthetic phenomenon. It considers design as part of the aesthetics domain of reality, which accordingly should be analyzed as such. The Design Object, according to formalist philosophy of design, is mainly an aesthetic object, whose essence is an aesthetic form. Its essence is its composition and appearance, the rightness of its structure, and the way its elements are combined and related to each other. In that respect, formalism is a materialist classification of design.

~~ Lecture, Week 1

Even though philosophy is, theoretically, my comfort zone, this required some parsing. As the week moved on and more concrete examples came into play, the first lecture of the week would become more relevant. I was often surprised – pleasantly! – at the directions some of the initial lectures took. Though I might not have been sure at a few points along the road, in the end I enjoyed this course. And I think I learned something – even though art, like math, often seems like something I just never quite understand.

Some highlights:

• An interview with Professor Yarom Vardimon on his earliest artistic influences, and his work on such projects as the 50th anniversary of Yad Vashem (how do you design a celebration that the word “anniversary” implies, with the events commemorated?) and a children’s hospital: colorful lights, toy shapes lining the corridors with names of donors, a bright and open entrance. Always present in his approach was his own experience.


• Design as a way of reinforcing, or challenging, social norms and expectations. This ranged from toys (which can restrict play to what is expected by the designer, and is reflected in the parent’s choice of the toy, or can allow creativity to use the toy in unexpected ways) to water bottles, which we evaluated on various criteria (turns out, I was on board with masculine and feminine, but I seem to have no idea what erotic, expensive, cheap, or comfortable look like).


• Design not only communicates from designer to user, but from user to society. Eyeglasses have become fashionable, conveying less of “something’s wrong with his eyes” to “wow, she must be smart” or “those glasses are awesome”; why not other assistive devices? Why can’t walkers and wheelchairs come in colors, to make them look like fun gizmos instead of something old people use? Prosthetic leg coverings are available in superhero styles; eye patches can be decorated.


• Harvard mathematician George David Birkhoff came up with ways to quantify aesthetics, both visual and linguistic. I have a lot of knee-jerk issues with this, but it’s an intriguing idea. For all our protestations that aesthetics is separate from rationality, it might not be quite so cut-and-dried (no, do NOT tell me about the golden mean and the Parthenon, I’ve been successfully inoculated against that by the best mathematicians around).


• Philosopher Walter Benjamin. What made this a highlight of the course was the purely coincidental and near-simultaneous appearance of a short story I was reading from the Pushcart Prize volume that rather overtly used Walter Benjamin’s aesthetic theories (and Hegel’s, though he didn’t show up in the course). There’s a reason I keep taking these courses. When I run across simulacra and grey-eyed goddesses in short stories, I have some idea what to make of them.

In addition to lecture videos, the course used a variety of participatory materials. Each week, a poll question started things off, a sort of priming mechanism that touched upon some aspect of the concepts to be covered. Short quizzes followed lecture sequences. Activities like the water bottle evaluation, and associated discussion questions, also contributed grades. The final week included a quiz that turned out to be a comprehensive final exam; I was a bit taken by surprise since it was embedded in the week 6 material (it was labeled “Final Exam” so I need to pay better attention). It was somewhat more difficult than the shorter weekly quizzes sometimes requiring making fine distinctions between elements of a theory, but once my pulse rate went down I found it to be an excellent summary of the material.

For me, the course was a great success. I was worried that, because I’m not in the field of design and am hampered by my art-blindness, I wasn’t “getting it”, but the final video, a casual discussion amongst three of the instructors, reassured me:

You know what I would like? That people who were finishing this class, this course, that maybe they go outside now to the world and start looking at those signs, and cars, and buildings, and spaces, and suddenly start thinking about what meaning they have in their lives, and how they are interacting with all these environments in a very interesting way, in a very intense way, something that maybe was a natural thing, transparent almost. It suddenly becomes more visible.
And more reliable. So also understanding that the objects that we use are not separate from us, and the technologies that we use are not separate from the way that we think of ourselves. And they actually in many ways construct our psychology and our self-perception as human beings, as we saw, and as individuals. So it’s extremely important that we understand what actually constructs our identity, if we are to preserve any type of agency, in a world that is technologically enhanced.

Turns out, I got it just fine. In fact, this extends my prior interest in advertising imagery to pretty much everything constructed by people: why was it made the way it was made? What is it trying to tell me? Do I have to listen? Do I want to? I can’t tell if I don’t hear it in the first place, and this course is an excellent way to start hearing what objects are saying.

Pushcart XLII: Ron Koertege, “Thanks for Coming In” (poetry) from Nerve Cowboy #41

We just want to talk about your excursion on the 27th.
Sunday before last. Isn’t that right? You wore that thrift
store sombrero. Move a little closer to the machine, please.
There’s nothing to be afraid of. Excursions are allowed.
It isn’t as if you tried to escape.

Complete poem available online at Hometown Pasadena

And again, context is king. I might have let this poem roll off my back a couple of years ago – maybe even three months ago – as an amusing little diversion. You gotta work for it, get past the thrift-store sombrero and the lavender underthings, to what’s under the amusement: cold terror. I think we’ve all been too amused for too long and a little cold terror is called for, but I’ll admit it’s a lot less fun than amusement, which is why cute cat videos (not to mention lavender underthings) are so popular.

You and your companion began by
chatting about radioactive waste management. Excellent.
Then you put your hand on her leg. And by “her” we mean
your not-wife, but she of the lavender underthings. Stay seated,
please. We are measuring electro-dermal activity.

It’s all in the questions that come to mind. Escape from what? Why are they wearing uniforms? And, more central to us as readers, perhaps, is the kicker at the end: why is poetry such a big problem? And then there’s the SMBC comic of the day that happened across my feed on the day I first read this poem, which maybe had me primed for amusement, for taking jibs at poetry.

Now before you got into the back seat and
mussed up your uniforms, you read to your not-wife from
a book. None of what was recorded made sense to our data
banks, so we were wondering what exactly were you reading?
Poetry. Oh, dear. Would you like some water? We’re
going to be here awhile.

But then the questions came in, and I realized, this isn’t funny at all. Poetry isn’t the butt of the joke, it’s the antithesis of order. It’s the heart of what the authoritarian fears most: personal autonomy, freedom of mind, a human soul at work. More dangerous than radioactive waste by far.

I still see writers asking why they should bother writing stories, essays, poems. This is why. Keep writing. It drives the bad guys crazy, keeps the good guys sane. SMBC had it almost right: Poetry – art – is fuel.

Pushcart XLII: Jason Zencka, “Catacombs” from One Story #216

Sign in the Catacombs of Paris: “Happy the man who has been able to learn the causes of things and has trampled beneath his feet all fears, inexorable fate, and the howl of greedy Acheron” –  Virgil, Georgics

Sign in the Catacombs of Paris: “Happy the man who has been able to learn the causes of things and has trampled beneath his feet all fears, inexorable fate, and the howl of greedy Acheron” – Virgil, Georgics

Take another look at her: the woman at the bar.
Sitting alone atop a barstool, fingers tracing the stem of a margarita. Blue dress, full, rounded shoulders, tall. She’s a paradox: You’ll remember her for her singularity, and yet her singularity cries out for metaphor, bows to the truth of things that are other things. The tension of her figure against the blue fabric is a suspended orchestral note—rich, dissonant, ever-hovering above resolution. Her smile—teeth, winningly disheveled, free of the eugenic tyranny of orthodontia—is a stand of birches, castle ruins.

The story has nothing to do with the woman at the bar. Almost nothing. Not much. The story has everything to do with the woman at the bar, to the truth of things that are other things.

I spent some time wrestling with how to write about this story. It’s one of those perfect unities of form and content, where the experience of reading it is the experience of the character, so no summary does it justice. It’s so full of twists and turns, I don’t even want to use another quote beyond the opening above. I don’t want to talk about the primary character, or the inciting incident, or the climax, other than to say that as you read the story, it metamorphoses both suddenly and subtly, somehow, in a way that makes it four stories, but one, not a trinity but a quaternity. And it all starts with the scene above, a scene that somehow drips sensuality and forces us to keep reading while always feeling just a little bit off. It’s magical.

But how do I write about a story without writing about the story? Do I just use the One Story author interview that explains the “hinge paragraphs” – oh, I love that phrase, they are indeed hinges – were written first, but Zencka knew the feel of the story from the beginning, and the structural discontinuities were just how he accomplished that – or that his family was similar to the family in the story (ok, one more quote):

In 1980, my family went on vacation to Acapulco. Which was strange since we weren’t wealthy and weren’t much for destination holidays. No Disneyland, no Grand Canyon. If we went anywhere at all it was to my uncle’s potato farm, about two hours from our home in central Wisconsin, where my mom was a secretary at the public junior high school and my dad made manhole covers at the Neenah Foundry. Winnie had pretty well made up his mind that going to Acapulco was just another of the many worthless ideas my parents were churning out in those days until it occurred to him that it might be the site of his deflowering…. Winnie had a few champions – particularly Mrs. Kohlhagen, his freckled and willowy Language Arts teacher – but Winnie’s peers, mostly sons of men from the foundry or one of the nearby paper mills, viewed him with suspicion on their most charitable days, and Winnie yearned for wider realms.

The most mundane family in the world becomes the generator of the strangeness to come. But don’t think, by strangeness, I mean anything to do with magical realism. The tone of the first paragraph, the setting in Mexico, certainly sets it up that way, but nothing here is supernatural. It’s all the kind of full-tilt truth that knocks your head off when you run into it. A boy who worships his older brother. Ok, one more, and that’s it:

Have I said how I loved this boy? Of course, I didn’t realize he was a boy then, and it’d be years and years before I did. But I loved him terribly. I would have waged wars for him, committed numberless atrocities. Surely goodness and mercy would follow such a child all the days of his life, would fill whatever house he dwelled in, light it up like the gaudiest of Christmas trees.

And then there is the phrase, “I was the one who lost him.” Somehow, “I lost my keys” feels passive, even though the grammatical structure is active. On the action/intent index (I had a linguistics professor in college who was obsessed with action/intent indices) there’s no action, no intent. But somehow the story makes it very active, very intentional. I’m not sure how it does that; maybe it’s just my reading, or maybe it’s the context in which the phrase is placed. What do we even mean by “I lost something”; isn’t losing something that just happens? Even when it happens to the object of the sentence, be it keys or brother, doesn’t it happen to us as well? The unstable subject-object relationship migrates from character to page to reader, and who is whom?

And what does any of this have to do with catacombs? No, I’m not going to spoil that segment of the story. I always like to check several resources, to see if my impression of a word is accurate: catacombs are underground burial chambers, but they are also used for religious services, particularly memorials of saints and martyrs buried there. The living visit the dead as communion, as worship. It’s the perfect element for this story, with its themes of loss and memory and obsession. Turns out, Zencka knows something about obsession: having read his author interview, there’s a “damn” in my head, though not on the page, in a perfect place, and knowing it, I can’t unknow it.

Zencka is a master of tone, of conveying setting and mood in a way that makes you sweat, either a musky sultry sweat, as in the opening, or a dirty, tired, frightened sweat, as in this third turn. And though there’s a magnificent, pitch-perfect exchange here, I won’t quote it, out of respect for the wholeness of the quaternity. I’ll just say – and this is from the fourth turn – that George taught me there are no catacombs in Acapulco. And like the woman at the bar who is not really a character, absence is more important than presence.

Returning to Zencka’s author interview, I highly recommend it for those interested in the craft of writing fiction; it’s a real look into the process of writing, as well as some techniques he uses. For example:

I liked the formal challenge of building a car (a mystery story) and then promptly removing its engine (telling the reader, Sorry, Winnie won’t return, no mysteries being solved here, kiddos) and then seeing if I could still maneuver the thing across the finish line. But mostly no. The “rule-breaking” aspects of this story—the direct address, the implied POV shift, the tense changes, the flipping of the bird to the story’s stated plot—that was all more or less “how the story came out.” During the long revision process, I thought a lot about why these idiosyncrasies worked, and what I had to do to make them work better. But the story’s basic structure, such as it is, mostly came as a result of bouts of daydreaming during which I tried to ask as few questions as possible.

~~ Jason Zencka: Q&A by Hannah Tinti at One Story

So the features I love so much are not consciously planned, but come out of an organic creative process of knowing how the story should feel. That might be why the rule-breaking works so well (at least for me, Hannah Tinti, Charles Baxter, and Bill Henderson), and doesn’t feel gimmicky or forced. It’s as if this is the only way this story could be told, and the story itself, with twisty maze of passages real and metaphoric, leapt onto the page from the writer’s subconscious.

Pushcart XLII: Forward

Encapsulated Janus Particles

Encapsulated Janus Particles

Over the past four decades these introductions have often lauded small press editors and authors. This year we honor Barack Obama, writer.
In his three books, Dreams for my Father, The Audacity of Hope, and Of Thee I Sing, he is honest, elegant and generous. In the White House he insisted on the dignity of the office and didn’t waste time with flatulent opinions or ridiculous, often dangerous, fantasies. He didn’t “do stupid” and he didn’t speak or write stupid either.
We miss him.

And so we dedicate this Pushcart Prize to our writing friend Barack Obama. Not the politician, not the President – the writer, who respects what words mean and can do.

Introduction by Bill Henderson, ed., Pushcart Prize XLII

As miserable as I am about the current state of political affairs, I get nervous when I see paeans to the past. I get nervous about a kind of retro-blindness in which we forget the mistakes that were made, the decisions we disagreed with (and, no matter where on the political spectrum we stood, we all disagreed at least sometimes), and a kind of gilding of an age that wasn’t that golden but just seems so now. It’s the same kind of retro-blindness older Americans seem to have about the 50s, when things were so much better – except for those caught in the nets of Jim Crow, McCarthyism, female subjugation, overt ethnic discrimination, and fatal poverty among the very old, the very rural, and the very ill.

I understand the impulse to look backwards (and yes, so much was so much better), and the beginning of the year is a fine time to do that. But with a new Pushcart before me, it’s time to turn forward – which itself is illusory, since the pieces here were all written in the past, and published prior to December 1, 2016. The past and the future meet in the present, and “….let us not forget what is shallow & what is deep eventually meet” (from Sasha Steensen’s “Poems for Lent”) and I think I’ve just OD’d on metaphor for our current malaise. Time to go forward.

In looking for an appropriate image for this post, I started with Janus, and discovered the Janus Particle:

Janus particles are special types of nanoparticles whose surfaces have two or more distinct physical properties. This unique surface of Janus nanoparticles allows two different types of chemistry to occur on the same particle.

My moocing has been at more mundane levels of science, so I’m not exactly sure what this means (though I’m somewhat familiar with amphiphilic phospholipids, if that’s a similar thing), but it still piques my interest. Like many of the stories and poems – especially poems – in Pushcart that I don’t quite understand, yet lead me to interesting places and stay with me, I think I’ll remember the Janus particle.

In the Table of Contents, I see three BASS 2017 stories, none of which, incidentally, I selected as my favorites from that volume (though they all came close; it was a very good year). I thought maybe it was that they’d appeared in the “slicks”, since Pushcart sticks to small presses, not TNY or The Atlantic. No, my favorites were all from small presses, so I have only my taste and judgment to consider. But what we love, we love.

I see a considerable sprinkling of familiar names (Saunders, Trethewey, Oates, Jones, Faizullah, Johnston – I’m always pleased when I realize I recognize more contemporary poets than I did the year before) and several intriguing titles (“Funny Bird Sex”, “How to Shoot Someone Who Outdrew You”, “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving”). I know there are treasures waiting here among and beyond those cues. It’s time to read forward.

BASS 2017: Reading in the time of Solastalgia, part 2

Illustration from “Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal” by Paul Fleischman & Julie Paschkis

Illustration from “Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal” by Paul Fleischman & Julie Paschkis

The Best American Short Stories 2017 celebrates all that is our country: crowded and lonely, funny and sad, fame-obsessed and fame wary. Here are immigrants, a cabdriver, a person with a boyfriend and a girlfriend, a bartender, a racecar driver, sex workers, a human resources manager, a Ukrainian packaging specialist, a bridesmaid, a Cuban writer. Here are trapped naval officers, a contestant on America’s Funniest Home Videos, a gay man desperate to be a father.
I love these stories. I feel irrationally proud and protective of these characters, these Americans in their fragility and grace, their division and desire…”

~~ BASS 2017 Foreword, Heidi Pitlor, Series Editor

Reading, as I keep insisting, is always done in a context, and the experience of a story varies depending on the context. This year has had one hell of a context. As Heidi (may I call her Heidi? She’s been my companion for about a decade now) says in her foreword: “How did one even read short stories now?”

Let me again quote philosopher Glenn Albrecht’s definition of solastalgia, a word I discovered when I closed out Pushcart XLI a few months ago: “the pain experienced when the place one lives and where one resides is under assault.” This was intended to mean environmental change, but it feels appropriate in this time. Would these stories have read differently three years ago? Will they read differently three years from now? I believe so, but I can say for sure that I greatly enjoyed this volume at this time, breaking my decade-long pattern of preferring even yeared BASSes to those from odd years.

A lot came up for me during the ten weeks I spent on BASS 2017; I want to deal with some of that before delving into my favorites from this edition. Such as this LitHub article by Brandon Taylor, about the value of slow reading:

Maybe that’s why I take exception to the idea of a short story as a kind of quick read. I read books of stories slowly, because each story requires a different negotiation. You can’t get all of a story on a single pass. If you think you have, then I’d encourage you to go back and read it again and linger on the things you’ve missed….
Sometimes, you read a story, and its meaning comes slowly, like the weather in certain parts of the world. The gradual accumulation of clouds and the carrying scent of moisture in the air. And then, suddenly, a bolt from the clear blue—the ringing in your ears. When you’ve understood a story, you know it, because it changes your very relationship to the world…. A story isn’t quick. It takes time.

Brandon Taylor, “Against the Attention Economy: Short Stories Are Not Quick Literary Fixes”

I have always resented the intrusion of the numbers game – gauging importance by the number of followers – into reading, via Goodreads, blogs, and general bragging about having read x books this year. Last week CNN was agog over a 4-year-old who read 100 books in one day – streamed live on Facebook (shades of Fiona Maazel’s story, “Let’s Go to the Videotape”). It feels churlish to not celebrate something like that: lord knows, I’m all for kids reading, and I’m all for showing the beautiful side of Chicago. But… there’s something that bothers me about treating books like points in a video game, whether it’s adorable kids, or Goodreads members.

I freak people out when I tell them I read two books a year, or that it takes me eight to ten months to read Pushcart. Those aren’t really true statements, of course, since I read a great deal for the moocs I take, and I sneak in a number of extras along the way. But my core reading is, indeed, two books a year.

I don’t treat short stories like M&Ms, to be gobbled down one after the other until the bag is gone. I read a story, and consider my first reactions. I put it aside, come back to it later – maybe later that day, maybe the next day, maybe when I’m falling asleep. Maybe it takes ne day; maybe three. Sometimes I let a story sit a while, either because I have so much to say about it, or because I come up empty and want to let it percolate a little longer. And later, after I’ve put up a post and read other’s comments, I might return to it again when considering another story, or when some event brings it back to mind. A short story can last a long, long time, changing and growing in response to new experiences. Count me among the slow reader fans.

Some tweets from Heidi also tweaked my radar.

I have been asked if the book truly represents all of our country.
My response: BASS2017 represents great writing, whether that’s from someone who is POC, white, LGBTQIA, poor, disabled, etc.
Make of that what you will.

Heidi Pitlor via twitter

On the surface, I agree with this. Writers, and characters, of varying races, backgrounds, ethnicities, gender identifications, and religions appear in these pages, and I applaud that; it’s a big part of what I appreciate about BASS. Different people have different takes on even ordinary events, consider different things more or less important, explore different facets.

But I’m still a little uncertain about the notion of writing “representing all of America.” Does that mean writers of differing demographics? Does it mean writing itself? Let’s face it, the same litmags appear again and again, year after year: TNY, Harper’s, Atlantic. Granta. I understand those tend to be where the “best” authors go, where the “best” stories are, but aren’t there great stories in other, more obscure litmags? Once in a while, something sneaks in (I still remember the Hobart entry from 2012) but it’s mostly the elite mags, and getting through the slush pile into one of those is not something that happens every day. No one, not even Heidi Pitlor, can read everything, but maybe it’s worth keeping it in mind.

And what about the “other side”? Let’s face it, most fiction writers are pretty liberal, or at least left-leaning centrists (a phrase that now rolls off my fingertips so easily, it scares me). The views of the characters in BASS tend to be views I agree with; characters I would disagree with tend to be set up to trip over their convictions, or are pitted against “good guys”. I’m not sure it’s possible to write a story with a sympathetic white supremacist (unless change is the focus), but is it possible to write one with a sympathetic gun rights advocate who’s tender and caring and distraught by all the mayhem (does such a person exist? I’d like to know about them), or a supply sider who tutors underserved kids and works for a better world (same caveat)? I’m just talking out of my hat at this point, but I wonder if we’re all reading as diversely as we think we are. The closest we came to such a thing in this volume was the Kevin Canty story; is there perhaps more where that came from?

And for my final rant, I turn to Jake Weber. I’m so grateful to Jake for joining me in these reads over the past couple of years, sometimes here, sometimes on his blog, even while he was in the throes of seeing his own first story collection published; it’s great to have someone else to bounce things off of, to fill in some gaps, to sometimes disagree with, and to see what another mind reacts to. He raised this question in one of his comments:

I know this is the eleven millionth time I’ve made this complaint, but how is it possible that America’s literary community is so anemic that not one single professional critic has posted something about this story or the majority of stories in BASS? The third result on Google for “Amy Hempel The Chicane” is you. I love your blog, but surely, there is someone out there better at parsing stories than us.

~ Jake Weber

After I dusted off my ego (which I keep insisting I don’t have), I joined Jake in wondering why nobody else blogs BASS. Trevor Berrett has a robust community focusing on TNY stories (and various other works) at The Mookse and the Gripes, but no one seems interested in a leisurely, sustained reading of BASS (or Pushcart or PEN, for that matter). Some readers make isolated, brief comments on Goodreads, but that’s about it.

I’ve assumed that I’m the problem. I tend to react to, rather than analyze, stories; although I think I’ve amped up my game over the past seven years of blogging, I just don’t know how to review. For some stories, my approach means telling my own story in reply to a perceived theme; for others, it means a focus on craft issues, figuring out what worked and how. And when I don’t connect to a story, it means wondering why (and coming up with trivia to pad it out). I suppose that isn’t exactly what draws in active participants.

In a comment on the previous story, Avataram discussed a review of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist that mentioned how the two characters’ names were not accidental and had thematic significance. That’s the kind of thing I keep looking for in BASS stories. I’d love to discuss more in-depth literary points: the glass is a symbol of ego, the language does this with rhythm and pace to show where the protagonist is trying to avoid, or basking in, something, it’s a rewrite of Paradise Lost or Gilgamesh. Maybe I’m just not educated enough? Maybe I’m asking too much of BASS? Of short stories?

Right now, most of my blog traffic is generated by students. In the summer (and over holidays), my hits drop precipitously, but in September and January, short stories spike. I’ve even shown up on a few course syllabi, which is kind of a kick (and a little scary). And once in a while a follower besides Jake will comment, which makes me very happy. Once in a while an author finds her way here, but it’s my understanding it’s rude to ask an author to explain her work (anyway, that’s what contributor notes, another favorite feature of BASS, are for). Questions, I can do; maybe I’m looking for An Answer.

Jake’s central question remains: why is there so little reader interest in delving into these stories?

I guess my dream of a reading community large enough to allow intermittent participation yet still maintain variety and active discussion isn’t going to happen, but I keep blogging each story because it helps me read, forces me to read slow. And it’s not unusual for me to find, when I’m looking for a good quote or checking for a character’s name, an answer, a new direction, or a thought that had eluded me.

“How did one even read short stories now?” asked Heidi Pitlor in her Foreword. On some levels, it works the same as it always did: I let myself connect to strangers, slow down where it hurts or makes me laugh, figure out why. But in this time of solastalgia, I think there’s more community in reading than ever. There are writers – and readers – out there who know about feeling out of place, about reaching across divides, about hiding the essence of who one is in order to survive, about learning what beauty is and isn’t, about living with loss and regret and joy and the compromises a loving relationship requires. We meet here, in these pages. And it gives us power to do the work we all need to be doing right now.

Favorites in no particular order:

Amy Hempel’s “The Chicane”
Eric Puchner’s “Last Day on Earth”
Sonya Larson’s “Gabe Dove”
Emma Cline’s “Arcadia”
Mary Gordon’s “Ugly”
Danielle Evans’ “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain”
Chad Anderson’s “Maidencane”

BASS 2017: Jess Walter, “Famous Actor” from Tin House #69

After a few minutes, he stopped elbow-fucking me and turned to that we were face-to-face. It was weird staring into those pale blues, eyes I’d known for years, eyes I’d seen in, what, fifteen or sixteen movies, in a couple of seasons of TV, staring out from magazine covers. He muttered something I couldn’t quite hear.
I leaned in. “I’m sorry – what?”
“I said…” he bent in closer, so that his mouth was inches from my left ear “…the universe is an endless span of darkness occasionally broken by moments of unspeakable celestial violence.”
I was pretty sure that wasn’t what he’d said.
He laughed as if he recognized what an insane thing that was for someone to say. “You ever think shit like that at parties?”
I tend to think about crying at parties, or if someone might be trying to kill me. But I didn’t say that. I don’t very often say what I think.

Jess Walter has a great command of voices. I adored the openings to both Financial Lives of the Poets and Beautiful Ruins – though I far preferred the former to the latter overall – because of the ease with which he conveys insanity as observed by the not-insane. Or maybe it’s the observation of sanity by those who don’t realize they’re insane.

Both Todd and Katherine – those aren’t either of their real names, but that’s how this story rolls – are pretty insane, but only Katherine knows it. A long time ago, I read a passage in some book, a work of fiction by someone trying to be academic about family dysfunction, in which a therapist declared: “In a troubled family, the person who is in treatment is the healthiest family member.” The people who know they’re crazy are one step ahead of the people who are crazy but don’t know it, and that’s where we are with Todd and Katherine. Or whatever their names are.

Katherine’s pretty interesting; she has a depth of hurt in her that’s better left concealed from someone like Todd. She has a thing going with her ex, where they send each other insulting post cards. In his Contributor Note, Walter says she took him by surprise, taking the story in a direction he hadn’t expected. I never know what to say when writers say that, but they all say it, eventually, seeing these characters that spring out of their minds as having independent wills and personalities. Maybe that’s why I was never any good at writing fiction.

The story returns to that cosmic-violence thing when Todd admits he just says stuff like that because people expect so much from him, just because he’s Rich and Famous. Apart from having adequate sex with Katherine, he spends the apres-party portion of the evening complaining how tough his life is. Why does it never occur to these people that poverty and obscurity are the ultimate equal opportunity gigs? If you don’t like the Beautiful Life, come on over to the other side of the tracks and see what kinds of expectations people have of you here.

By the way, I discovered during my casual research that a paragraph was accidentally cut from the BASS version. I’ve read the omitted text, and I rather prefer the opening without it. It still makes sense, and I’d rather imagine what elbow-fucking means, and what the Famous Actor is doing just prior to his encounter with Katherine. Maybe I’ve been converted to minimalism.

As I’ve already said, I love the voices here: Todd, switching between slick and self-pity, and Katherine, blisteringly sardonic in her thoughts while coolly polite in her words. Some great one-liners:

There should be a German word for wanting to gouge out your own teary eyes….
I disliked him from the moment I decided to sleep with him….
First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon….

Katherine, as the narrator, has the power in this story, to decide what to show us and what to conceal. The name Todd is her choice; Todd is one of the actor’s characters. And her name, well, that’s even more interesting. Todd starts a long whine with “I know I sound self-absorbed but…” – pro tip: never continue any sentence that starts with that phrase, it will always ALWAYS prove you are exactly what you deny you are – and sure enough, launches into more tales of woe and tries to make it her fault. Katherine lets him finish then asks, “What’s my name?” “Aw fuck,” he says. Which is not her name. “Katherine?” he guesses; it has a hard C, right? No. Later, she hints that this, like the insulting postcards, may be her form of interpersonal sport. But that’s ok; Todd is playing his own game, one that Katherine won’t discover until after he’s left.

What’s real, and what’s acting? Does it become real if we act it well enough? Fake it ‘til you make it, the Twelve Steppers say. “The thought manifests as the word, The word manifests as the deed, The deed develops into habit, And the habit hardens into character,” goes a platitude variously attributed, but probably originating in Buddhism. If you cross your eyes, they’ll stay that way, says some culturally imagined mother. Is a good kiss a good kiss, or is it an actor acting a good kiss? Does it matter, if it’s a good kiss? More importantly, is love, or pain, real, or is it what we believe it is; and can we believe it into, or out of, being?

BASS 2017: Curtis Sittenfeld, “Gender Studies” from The New Yorker, 8/29/16

Nell and Henry always said that they would wait until marriage was legal for everyone in America, and now this is the case—it’s August, 2015—but earlier in the week Henry eloped with his graduate student Bridget. Bridget is twenty-three, moderately but not dramatically attractive (one of the few non-stereotypical aspects of the situation, Nell thinks, is Bridget’s lack of dramatic attractiveness), and Henry and Bridget had been dating for six months. They began having an affair last winter, when Henry and Nell were still together, then in April Henry moved out of the house that he and Nell own and directly into Bridget’s apartment. Nell and Henry had been a couple for eleven years.
In the shuttle between the Kansas City airport and the hotel where Nell’s weekend meetings will occur—the shuttle is a van, and she is its only passenger—a radio host and a guest are discussing the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. The driver catches Nell’s eye in the rearview mirror and says, “He’s not afraid to speak his mind, huh? You gotta give him that.”

Complete story available online at The New Yorker

Last week, all Twitter was talking about a New Yorker story. It seems some people thought it was the perfect allegory for the times, and some thought it was about a random sexual encounter. I learned a while ago that reading everything someone thinks is the greatest thing ever written is a huge waste of time, so I didn’t bother, but some of the reactions-to-the-reactions were interesting. Eventually, it turned into a war between good story/bad story, a dichotomy I reject.

Halfway through this current story, I realized I’d read it before. I’m guessing it, too, took Twitter by storm, but I don’t clearly remember reading it, so it didn’t seem to make much of an impression at the time. It seemed a lot more interesting this time, although it is, when you get down to it, another story about a random sexual encounter. It’s the context in which it’s read that makes it interesting.

I get a lot of flack for that kind of thinking from the text-must-stand-on-its-own people, but there is no such thing as art that stands on its own; there’s always a context, and here, the context shifted between readings, and that changed the reading experience. It’s the shift, rather than the story itself, I find most interesting.

Nell’s heart, already wounded by her earlier breakup with Henry, is now stinging as his recent marriage rubs salt into the wound. She’s a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, in Kansas City for a conference. I suppose it’s the effect of the blow to her ego that makes her the most unfeminist feminist in history, or maybe I have too narrow a view of feminism (didn’t I just rant about that a few stories ago?). With every current event, she thinks of something her ex said or did. She’s unable to stand up for herself with the cab driver, and gets wrapped up in worrying about whether or not she’s being elitist. Then the politics start.

I find it fascinating that this story was originally published in mid-2016, when, as Sittenfeld says in her Contributor note, “I and everyone else believed Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election.” Um, almost everyone. She added only four words (I compared copies for relevant sections, and found them) to the post-election version.

The plot of the story hinges on Nell’s lost driver’s license.

With CNN on in the background, Nell hangs her shirts and pants in the hotel-room closet and carries her Dopp kit into the bathroom. The members of the governing board will meet in the lobby at six and take taxis to a restaurant a mile away. Nell is moving the things she won’t need at dinner out of her purse and setting them on top of the bureau—a water bottle, a manila folder containing the notes for a paper she’s in the revise-and-resubmit stage with—when she notices that her driver’s license isn’t in the front slot of her wallet, behind the clear plastic window. Did she not put it back after going through security in the Madison airport? She isn’t particularly worried until she has searched her entire purse twice, and then she is worried.

I recently had a similar surprise when I noticed my credit card wasn’t where it usually is; the panic was overwhelming, since I had no idea where I’d lost it (credit where it’s due: Capital One was extremely soothing, and took care of all of it). But a driver’s license is something else; it’s one’s proof of identity, particularly important in these times, and doubly so for someone who has to board a plane for home in a few days.

Among the calls she places is one to the cab driver. Of course, he has a different understanding of what’s going on, and those cross-purposes drive the story. They end up in bed together, because when you lose your identity, you might as well become someone who has some fun. It gets weird when they both realize they have different ideas of what’s going on: she thinks he has her identity (her license), but he doesn’t, and thought this was a pickup all along. After throwing him out in a rage, she finds her license; it just slipped through a hole in the lining of her jacket pocket. It’s all a fairly clever conceit, this play on having, losing, rediscovering identity.

And, by the way, she isn’t thinking about her ex any more.

As per my usual round of pre-post research, I wandered over to The Mookse and the Gripes to see what Trevor and his gang had to say, and found a very interesting exchange between Avataram (who happens to be a long-time Twitter follower of mine, though I didn’t make the connection until now) and Roger, giving the story a more political twist:

Avataram August 23, 2016 at 8:55 pm
A dark allegory on how Trump and his supporters have made America lose her identity and have screwed her.
Roger August 24, 2016 at 7:47 pm
Wait, Avataram … in the story, the main character only thinks she loses her identity (driver’s license) – it turns out she had simply misplaced it! And she enjoys her time with the Trump supporter (“you had fun,” he says, sullenly). And she leaves him frustrated and disappointed. So maybe it is a bright allegory about America thwarting Trump’s supporters, after toying with them a little?

Though subsequent events support the more pessimistic interpretation, some still feel it’s possible that “everything will be ok eventually”, allowing for the brighter outlook. Anyone who reads here frequently knows I’ve been in despair for a year now, and it only grows worse as new events unfold; the recent Alabama senate race is being touted as a victory, but I still think it’s going to go sour, then there’s the tax scam and, if the tea leaves and twitter feeds are correct, a massive miscarriage-of-justice upheaval about to happen, probably on Christmas Eve. And by the way, nobody “made her” lose her identity; she lost it herself, due to a combination of factors, including greed, inattention, and faith in the light that failed.

Aside from politics, the main thing on my mind as I was reading the story was: What the hell is she doing? Granted, the cab driver seems reasonably normal, and presumably licensed (!) thus identifiable, but that doesn’t rule out threat of physical violence, or, for that matter, the more mundane disadvantages of one-night-stands with strangers like pregnancy or disease. Then there’s the child-of-the-shoemaker-goes-barefoot angle: if, as I suspect, she actually knew exactly what she was doing all along, but had to hide behind a fake misunderstanding, what the hell is she teaching in Gender Studies? Even as I type that, I realize maybe I need to lose my identity once in a while myself, because I’m a real downer. But hey, if a feminist (or a non-feminist for that matter) wants her Uber driver to go down on her, that’s fine with me – it’s none of my business – but a feminist would own it, not look for ways to dodge responsibility.

In any case, all of this made a story I wasn’t particularly interested in, interesting. And gave me a solid metaphor for the times: America has indeed lost her identity. And we’re all screwed.


Global History of Architecture mooc

Course: A Global History of Architecture
Length: 12 weeks, 8 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Mark Jarzombek

How do we understand architecture? One way of answering this question is by looking through the lens of history, beginning with First Societies and extending to the 16th century. This course in architectural history is not intended as a linear narrative, but rather aims to provide a more global view, by focusing on different architectural “moments”….
…Why study the history of architecture? Architecture stages cultural dramas. Buildings, in that sense, are active, designed to do something. Different buildings activate their surroundings in different ways. We go to history to see how these experiments were done.

To call this course “The History of Architecture” does it a disservice, since it’s a history of so much more – of cultures, religions, trade and commerce, and, as we go from the first indications of human modifications of the environment, from the 70,000-year-old ochre and beads of Blombos Cave in South Africa, to the pre-Holocene peoples of Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim, through the Bronze and Iron ages to Classical civilizations, across the innovations of Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern peoples reaching the European Gothic and Renaissance periods via trade, to the exploitation of New World peoples by Old World commerce, the history of our brilliance, our goodness, our stupidity and cruelty, our human-ness. It’s really quite amazing, how much is packed into these twelve weeks.

I’ll admit, I was a bit confused at first – I never expected lemurs to lead off an architecture course – and I wondered if it had simply been mistitled, and should be Archeology or Anthropology. But that was ok, too, it was interesting whatever it was, and eventually I caught on to the point: our skyscrapers, our political systems, our religious belief and the way we furnish our houses, all that proceeded from that paleolithic cave. Somewhere in the last four weeks, the quote above about cultural dramas and activating surroundings appeared, and I fully realized the value of this approach. I do think an introductory video would be a big help, however.

I’m beginning to understand that the term “architecture” encompasses more than buildings. The arrangement of places for various activities – sleeping, eating, burials, ceremonies – was prevalent in some of the early discussions of First Societies, the earliest examples of people living in groups, today exemplified by the !Kung (or San: yes, like the guy from The Gods Must Be Crazy). Yet many of their customs are still with us: eating together, forming circles, rituals for coming of age and hunting (or, as we’d put it, going to work). Prof. Jarzombek is a specialist in First Societies, so we spent a fair amount of time with the Gravettians and the Magdalenians, noting the differences between the two.

I’ve taken world history courses that didn’t cover history as well as this course, in terms of the big picture. Where were the most active population centers, and why? What beliefs, available materials, and situational needs motivated the culture and thus the architectures? Climate changes and environmental upheaval such as earthquakes changed trade routes, motivated invasions and migrations, and offered or shut down trade. It was all fascinating, one long story of people moving around, adapting to new conditions. Yet some major world history events were ignored: The Crusades, for example, are not mentioned. Sometimes the timeline got a little blurred, since there was necessarily some back-and-forth as the focus switched geographical areas (and I assume there’s a “Part 2” course that picks up where we left off, but that hasn’t made it to moocland yet). I felt like I understood the general flow of human history much better by the end of this course, and once I got used to the presentation style (it took a couple of weeks), I had a great time.

And then of course there were buildings, plenty of buildings. Stonehenge, pyramids, Angkor Wat, the basilica of St. Peter, the Hagia Sofia and Dome of the Rock were all featured, but there was a great deal besides: the coastal villages of the Haida, the Maasai in Kenya and the Hammer in Ethiopia, Maltese cave temples, the roof-accessible houses of the early city at Çatal Hüyük (now Turkey), the city of Cahokia – the Native American metropolis that was larger than the London of its time, and remained the largest city in what is now the US until Philadelphia of the early 19th century – steppes, caves, shores, mountains, forests… well,I could go on, but you get the idea. From the adjoining square houses of Turkey, accessible only from the roof, to the amazing rock-cut temples in India, the beautiful mosques with fantastic arches and domes to Hindu and Buddhist shrines and Greek temples and Christian basilicas and Gothic cathedrals to Versailles, it was just amazing to see what people come up with no matter what their level of technology.

The final lecture was a fascinating look at buildings over time, a subject mentioned several times during the course but really brought to fruition at the end. Some buildings, like Greek and Roman temples, weren’t meant to be expanded; new buildings were added later on. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were happy to expand the temple at Karnak over the years, and the same happened with Christian churches and Muslim mosques. Buildings that were originally pagan temples became churches, mosques, synagogues as populations changed. Then we looked at issues of restoration and preservation. Interesting questions about authenticity came up. And then there’s the amazing approach of Jorge Otero-Pailos, who, among other things, removes layers of dirt from buildings using a special rubber compound, then displays those layers in sequence, in a kind of archaeology of soot. Without the course preceding this lecture, would it have affected me so deeply? I suspect not.

I’m pretty sure this was a pre-existing OCW recycled as a mooc. Sometimes this repackaging works, sometimes it doesn’t; here, I think it did, although I have to admit the content had far more to do with my enthusiasm than the presentation. The ‘live” in-class lecture approach is a bit less polished than a multiple-take video, but I still prefer it, as read-to-camera so often comes off as stilted and nervous. The professor’s enthusiasm and off-the-cuff commentary more than made up for image quality and occasionally confusing syntax.

I did have a hard time finding a good image of the professor for this post. I always try to find a snip that is representative of the course, visually interesting on its own, and reasonably flattering. In this case, where most of the videos were shot in the dark with the prof wandering in and out of projector light, I had to make some compromises, but I don’t think that sort of thing weighs heavily on anyone’s decision to take the course or not.

The lectures were basically slide shows accompanied by narratives about a period, or descriptions of the architecture under consideration.The visuals were sometimes hard to see, but most of them are available online elsewhere, with the exception of maps drawn on Google Earth scenes, which were… pretty messy, to be honest, and not intuitive. But I understand his point about maps showing current nation boundaries being useless in this context; his maps did contain useful information about migration patterns and available resources. They’re worth getting used to.

Each week includes two lectures, both about 90 minutes. They estimate 8 hours a week is required for the course; that sounds reasonable to me, though it took me longer because of the way I do things (and I’m slow). A free online textbook was provided; it’s huge, and I found it difficult to use, but I’m not that comfy with online books; someone more used to Kindles and such might find it much easier. A print version is available; it’s pricey, but if I were a freshman humanities student, I’d invest in it. For that matter, if I could find a used copy for $15, I’d buy it.

Grading was based on “homework” – a few multiple-choice questions following most of the lectures – and on four exams given at regular intervals. The homework doesn’t count for much; the exams are weighted far more heavily; view the homework as practice for the exams, and as extra credit. The exam questions are half multiple choice, half labeling or identifying; no surprises, all information retrieval, though once in a while a topic not explicitly covered in the lectures (but presumably in the text) will show up.

I found Cerego invaluable here; there was just too much stuff to remember it all without constant reinforcement. While it’s time-consuming to enter important points from each lecture into a quiz set, it serves as studying, and it was very much worth it when the exams rolled around. And it’s still nice to see the early material cropping up, reminding me of the rest of the lecture around key points. Makes me smile.

The discussion boards were very active with “official” threads for topics Staff set up; I didn’t participate so I can’t speak to the quality of discussions or staff presence. I personally dislike overdirected commentary, but it does provide structure, so it’s really a matter of preference.

I’d highly recommend the course for its broad approach and fascinating content, with the caveat that the presentation isn’t as “slick” as some courses made for moocs. I’m more than willing to make that tradeoff. I feel like I know the world better as a result of this course, and that’s as good as education gets.

BASS 2017: Jim Shepard, “Telemachus” from Zoetrope, 20:1

Stained glass by Betsy Bird

Stained glass by Betsy Bird

To commemorate Easter Sunday, the captain has spread word of a ship–wide contest for the best news of 1942, the winner to receive a double tot of rum each evening for a week. The contestants have their work cut out for them. Singapore has fallen. The Prince of Wales and the Repulse have been sunk. The Dutch East Indies have fallen. Burma is in a state of collapse. Darwin has been so severely bombed it had to be abandoned as a naval base. The only combatants in the entire Indian Ocean standing between the Japanese Navy and a linkup with the Germans, who are currently having their way in Russia and North Africa, seem to be us. And one Dutch gunboat we came across a week ago with a spirited crew and a crippled rudder.
We are the Telemachus, as our first lieutenant reminds us each morning on the voice–pipe: a T–class submarine—not so grand as a U, but not so dismal as an S. Most of us have served on S’s and are grateful for the difference, even as we register the inferiority of our own boat to every other nation’s. The Royal Navy leads the world in battleships and cruisers, we like to say, and trails the Belgians in submarine design.

Some of us might find it hard to remember, but there were many hopeless moments in WWII, and this was one of them. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, with the destruction of a big portion of the American naval fleet, isn’t even mentioned because the focus is on Great Britain, but add that to the list, and these were dark days, especially for the British, who saw their empire disappearing, as well as their homeland at risk. When I get into a funk these days, when it seems like Democracy and all the promise of America has been irrevocably lost to a gang of amoral thieves determined to roll back, not just to the 50s or even to the 1850s but to the 1150s, I remember how hopeless WWII once looked. And yet we survived.

Little did the crew of the Telemachus realize that while the Empire was indeed gone, Great Britain would survive – with less grandeur than before, but perhaps a necessary taking-down. But enough navel-gazing; on with the naval-gazing.

Shepard has a way of constructing detailed pieces of reality that sometimes seem to go off into hyperbole, whether it’s an expedition across the Australian desert or up Mount Everest or a mission on a wartime submarine. Usually there’s a personal story embedded within, here with our very young and introverted narrator “The Monk” dealing with his illicit but persistent attraction to cousin Margery.

But it’s a long story, and I got pretty bogged down in the details. I can do submarine stories – I re-read Wouk’s War & Remembrance often and have no trouble with Briny’s adventures under the sea – but I couldn’t find a track to follow here, whether it’s recounting old tales or current tensions. The gist of it is: The food’s awful, it’s cramped and stinky, and they figure they’re gonna die.

The last paragraph, a single long sentence, is gorgeous. The sub has finally come upon a target for their last torpedos, and they fire, knowing this will reveal their location and most likely doom them to the return fire of a surviving enemy ship:

And the image of what I wish I could have put into a letter for my cousin at once appears to me, from the only other time I was allowed at the periscope, along with the rest of the crew, when on a rough day near a reef in a breaking sea we found the spectacle of porpoises on our track above us, leaping through the avalanches of foam and froth six or seven at a time, maneuvering within our field of vision and then surging clean out of the water and reentering smoothly with trailing plumes of white bubbles, all of them, flowing together, each a celebration of what the others could be, until finally it seemed as if hundreds had passed us, and in their kinship and coordination had then vanished into the impenetrable green beyond our reach.

It’s a lovely not-that-ambiguous close, and I went back and gave the story another try; but again I was overwhelmed by the detail, which is I recognize the very strength of the story. I’m wondering if I should take a break – I’ve been struggling with the past few stories – but there are only a couple of stories left. And besides, I was really looking forward to this one, first because I often like Jim Shepard, and second because I was hoping my recent study of the Odyssey would come in handy given the title.

The relevance of the name of the ship, as stated in the story, is its Greek meaning, “far from war”, rather than the quest Odysseus’ son took to find out the truth about his father’s role in the Trojan War, a compressed and reverse parallel to Odysseus’ trip home (and a rather clever way for the storyteller to include events relevant to the father’s problems). But towards the end of the story, Monk daydreams about a letter he could write his cousin: “how some part of me anticipated the Pacific as if a way to discover my father’s fate.” That’s pretty on-point, and, as his father was on a cargo ship that went missing, somewhat likely. Both the Odyssean Telemachus and our Monk grow up in their respective stories – though only Telemachus gets the chance to do something with his newly acquired wisdom.

In his Contributor Note, Shepard cites several inspirations, among others, his affection for “the combination of intrepidness and lunacy” he’s always found in British military history. Then he says something I can’t quite place:

And then my wife, Karen, and I were talking about the kind of guy who likes to blunder through the world pretending that he doesn’t know things and who needs to be reminded every so often that his igrnorance is causing other people pain, and suddenly I had my protagonist.

I recognize Monk’s longstanding feeling of being worthless, of having no abilities except for running, and it made a sort of perverse sense to me that he’d end up on a submarine where running is impossible. But I’m not sure what ignorance is causing people pain. The only clue I find is the boat’s doctor chiding him for not helping out a new crewman, but I suspect it rather has something to do with his cousin, I’m just not sure what.

This story is part of Shepard’s collection The World To Come (the title story is a One Story offering from 2012, when I was still subscribed to One Story), and despite, or maybe because of, the overwhelming detail of this story, I’m tempted to read it. He has a way with words, and a way with historical fiction that reveals humanity as it reflects on the present.

BASS 2017: Maria Reva, “Novostroika” from The Atlantic 12/16

Daniil took a step forward. He bent down to the hole in the partition and looked at the woman sitting behind it. “I’m here to report a little heating problem in our building.”
“What’s the problem?”
“We have no heat.” He explained that the building was a new one, this winter was its first, someone seemed to have forgotten to connect it to the district furnace, and the toilet water froze at night.
The woman heaved a thick directory onto her counter. “Building address?”
“Ivansk Street, No. 1933.”
She flipped through the book, licking her finger every few pages. She flipped and flipped, consulted an index, flipped once more, then shut the book and folded her arms across it. “That building does not exist, Citizen.”
Daniil stared at the woman. “What do you mean? I live there.”
“According to the documentation, you do not.” She looked at the young couple in line behind him.
Daniil leaned closer, too quickly, banged his forehead against the partition. “Nineteen thirty-three Ivansk Street,” he repeated.
The woman considered an oily spot on the glass with mild interest. “Never heard of it.”
“I have 13, no, 14 citizens, living in my suite alone, who can come here and tell you all about it,” he said. “Fourteen angry citizens bundled up to twice their size.”
She shook her head, tapped the book. “The documentation, Citizen.”

Complete story available online at The Atlantic

It’s not going to come as a surprise to anyone that life was tough in the USSR. I kept wondering why I was reading another story about it, though I suppose every story goes over well-trod ground in some way. But this came at an interesting moment, as so many of these stories have: I’d just seen a story about which countries feel they’re better off than 50 years ago, and which don’t. It seems half of Russians feel they’re better off; about a third feel they’re worse off. Americans, on the other hand, have more people thinking they’re worse off than better. Maybe that’s why we turned our government over to them (oh, yes she did).

I felt very much suspended between two poles while reading this. Many of the events are funny. Come on, being told the building you’re living in doesn’t exist, because it’s not on the city ledger? And then we have Daniil’s job, which seems to involve fitting more food into less tin can:

He set to work drawing diagrams of food products in 400-milliliter cylinders. Chains of equations filled his grid paper. Some foods posed more of a packing problem than others: Pickles held their shape, for instance, while tomatoes had near-infinite squeezability. Soups could be thickened and condensed milk condensed further, into a cementlike substance. String beans proved the most difficult: Even when arranged like a honeycomb, they could reach only 91 percent packing efficiency. In the middle of every three string beans hid an unfillable space. Daniil submitted a report titled “The Problematics of the String-Bean Triangular Void” to Sergei Ivanovich’s secretary.


Now, packing problems are a neat little subset of mathematics, simplified versions of which show up on geometry, algebra, and calculus tests all the time. Vi Hart even made a green bean vector Matherole for Thanksgiving a few years ago (displaying one of the many reasons why she was just named, along with Matt Parker, named Math Communicators for 2018 by the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics). And I have no doubt that, though there is a biological reason botanical products tend to be round, it is possible to engineer – or, breed, as we used to say before genetic engineering was a thing – a vaguely triangular green bean, though it would take much longer than the end of the week (and possibly techniques that were unknown at the time of the story). But it’s funny nonetheless.

This is all tucked around the human story, which is not so funny. Sometimes that works out great; here, I just felt disoriented, by the coffin coming down the stairs and breaking the space heater purchased with the life savings of one of the 14 people living in the apartment. I think I was supposed to cheer when Daniil carved out the building number to show the Office so they would believe the building existed – but I just didn’t feel it.

I tried to look at it as pure metaphor, a State that has lost all sense of the humanity of its people, and yes, I figure that connects to today, where what is said has more impact than what is real. But I just ended up back in the USSR.

I see from the Contributor Note that this is part of a linked-story collection now in progress; that could be interesting, to see different points of view – no doubt, the stubbornly dubious bureaucrat has her story, too – or maybe move back or forward in time.

BASS 2017: Eric Puchner, “Last Day on Earth” from Granta #134

“We’re going to the animal shelter, “ my mom said one afternoon. She was sitting at the kitchen table, holding a glass of white wine. I’d never seen her have a glass of wine before six o’clock. I inspected the bottle on the counter – it was half-empty, sweating from being out of the fridge.
“I told your father that if he didn’t come get the dogs this morning, I was taking them to the shelter. I’ve been asking him for six months. It’s past one and he isn’t here.”
“They’ll put them to sleep,” I said.
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“No one’s going to adopt some old hunting dogs. How long do they try before giving up?”
“Seventy-two hours.” My mom looked at me, her eyes damp and swollen. “Your father won’t deal with them. What am I supposed to do?”….
“We should do something for them,” I said, “before we take them to the shelter.” I needed time to think.
“Good idea,” my mom said, looking relieved. “Where’s the happiest place for a dog?”
“The beach?”
She smiled. “Of course. The beach. My God, I don’t think they’ve ever been.”

You know what’s going to happen right from the start of this story. You know the kid’s going to run to Dad, tell him about the dogs so he can heroically save them from the cruel fate Mom has devised. And you know the kid’s going to be disappointed, because Dashing Dreamers with Big Ideas never come through in the day-to-day crises; that’s why they married Practical Partners in the first place. And you know the dogs are going to be vivid symbols of the Family Left Behind.

This could be turned into a routine tearjerker, but Puchner steers clear of the biggest pothole: now an adolescent, the boy has little attachment to the dogs. Now all he has to do is outgrow the hero-worship for his father. As an additional inoculent against sappiness, the story handles the crucial scene with a subtle, bittersweet innocence, as if seen through the lens of additional experience that underlined how important this day was.

To me, the heart of the story had little to do with the dogs, but about a shifting of loyalties. A coming of age (as much as I hate the term), as the kid realizes not just that he’s outgrown the dogs and the uncritical admiration of the big-dreaming dad, but how valuable – and even amazing, superheroes who can walk on their hands – a practical, reality-based mom can be.

I was surprised to find, via the Contributor Note, that this story was mostly autobiographical. It takes some discipline to find a way to move away from the personal, bring it to the universal; to keep the emotion from sapping up the later recollection from tranquillity (apologies to Wordsworth).

I have a soft spot for Eric Puchner; his “Beautiful Monsters” from BASS 2012 was one of my favorite stories from that volume. I’m glad to see both stories are included in his collection, published earlier this year, that uses this as the title story, a collection focusing on all the perturbations of family.

BASS 2017: Kyle McCarthy, “Ancient Rome” from American Short Fiction #62

We might as well begin with the homes. The condos, the townhouses, the penthouses, the classic sixes and sevens. Let’s begin there and with the servants that cook and clean them, though “servant” is not the term used. The wealthy prefer “housekeeper.”
This one time, I was called for an emergency paper intervention, dispatched on twenty-four hours’ notice to Seventieth and Park, where Isabel Shear led me past her snowy-white bedroom, a capacious boudoir whose proportions easily exceeded my Brooklyn studio, and into her office, a tiny little space by the back staircase dedicated solely to the serious intellectual work of eighth grade.
The assignment that had caused Isabel Shear so much grief read as follows: Compare the impact of the cult of domesticity on an upper-class woman, a working-class woman, and a slave during the last years of the Roman Empire. If you send your child to a top Manhattan independent school, she will complete essentially this assignment for the next twelve years of her life. Note the nod to historical relevance, the dutiful attention to women and minorities. Note, too, that Isabel must complete this assignment using only primary documents, because Trinity wants to train her to be a real historian. How many primary documents from 100 AD, do you think, discuss the housekeeping practices of slaves?

There’s a great deal lying just beneath the surface of this story: the social benefits and liabilities of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. I find it particularly interesting that the gender of the narrator is left vague for the first half of the story, until she’s revealed to be female, and her race is never specified, though there are subtle hints (what I call “othering” in that she specifies her student is white; if there’s a more sophisticated term for this, please let me know) that she’s not white.

The story reaches across millenia to connect a contemporary 8th grader with her Roman counterparts: Isabel is as clueless about the Filipino servant who brings her a sandwich, and the educated but unsuccessful writer who helps her with her paper (which, by the way, seems astonishingly sophisticated for 8th grade; do upscale middle schoolers really read Marcus Aurelius?), as she is about the slave class in Rome, who, she insists, can’t have feelings of domesticity since they don’t have homes. That in itself is a pretty loaded idea. Can a slave make a home in quarters provided by her owner?

Layered on top of that is our narrator, a failed writer (another failed writer; how many is that in this volume now, three, four?) who got into Harvard on the strength of a play she kind of accidentally wrote in high school; she tutors the children of the rich to pay the rent. This, I learned from the Contributor Note, is something McCarthy actually did herself for a while. I recognize myself in her attitude towards her education: “During my teenage years I conceived of my intelligence as a natural phenomenon, like the sea. The sea does not try to get better. The sea is.” That’s an attitude math’s growth-mindset people have done their best to challenge, but it remains: smart is something you are or aren’t, not something you can be. And if intelligence works that way, what about the rest of it? Is self-improvement in any facet possible, or must we remain what we were born?

Another line I found intriguing: “All thirteen-year-old girls want to be seventeen, unless they want to be ten again.” I’ve always thought teenagers want to be (or at least look) older, but I can understand how tempting it might be to turn back the clock and not worry about growing up for a while. Hence the references to
Reviving Ophelia
and the self-destruction that often besets girls when they hit puberty. The retreat-into-childhood goes along with the tutor’s story of her attitude towards sex in high school: “But I wanted him to pressure me; I wanted to have sex without choosing, fully, to have sex; I wanted to avoid responsibility, just a little bit, for my wanting.” This is a terrifying thought, since it’s pretty much the defense of every rapist. Adolescence seems to have become a very dangerous game.

She says,”Are you a feminist?”
“Yes,” I say. “Are you?”
She hesitates. “Yes.” She looks both bashful and proud. “But I don’t do any feminist work.”
“Me neither,” I tell her, and we grin at each other, like two housewives who’ve just admitted that we don’t iron the sheets.
Later, though, I keep thinking about it: feminist work. What is feminist work?

This exchange is wonderful. I know there are women who claim they aren’t feminists, but that usually means they are pro-life and want to be stay-at-home moms and let hubby worry about the money. To have those choices is a byproduct of feminism; to make those choices is in itself a feminist act (but to legislate those choices to force them on others is another matter, and no, we’re not going to fight about that here). But then these two feminists are defined by a distinctly unfeminist metaphor, housewives ironing sheets (oh, the irony?). For the record, I’m in my 60s and I’ve never ironed a sheet; I can’t believe it’s a guilty secret in the age of permapress.

But the puzzle of “feminist work” is what I take with me from this story. What is feminist work? I suppose the phrase brings to mind political action, but it’s really embedded in all our lives, men and women alike. I’m on my 4th repeat of the TV series Mad Men, and boy do Peggy and Joan do feminist work in an era when feminism meant lesbians in orthopedic shoes reading Gertrude Stein. And by the way, Don Draper has his feminist moments, though he more than erases them with his distinctly anti-feminist moments.

And the story overall? American Short Fiction is a highly prestigious publication. So again, I’m puzzled, since I found this story to be more beads on a string – a collection of interesting points with a vague connection in the relationship between the tutor and student – than a narrative fabric highlighting interwoven ideas around a main theme. I seem to be missing the boat a lot these days.

BASS 2017: Fiona Maazel, “Let’s Go to the Videotape” from Harper’s 06/16

Who doesn’t film his kid experiencing a threshold moment? It was bittersweet, really. Of course it was. Gus pedaling away on his own, newly aware of his autonomy, which contravened everything Nick had taught him by force of grief, the bond between them fortified by the loss of Nick’s wife — Gus’s mom — three years ago in a car accident that was still being litigated today.

Complete story available online at Harpers

There were times in this story when I wanted to grab Nick by the shoulders and shake him. I think that’s the point.

I had a lot of trouble with the overall voice, including the narrative perspective. I think it’s supposed to mimic the narration of the videos described in the story – awkward and distant – but I found it rather unpleasant. I don’t insist on “beautiful writing” – in fact, I’m suspicious when I start to think, “Wow, what beautiful writing” because at that point I’m no longer in the story – but I really… well, there’s no other way to say it, I hated the way this was written. I keep thinking of that Cary quote I drag out from time to time, about “Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it neatly like this?” and understand there’s a reason it’s written this way. But that’s like saying sardines are supposed to taste like that – fine, but don’t expect me to enjoy them.

I find a minor incident in the opening, and the final climactic scene, to have a lot in common.

“Too tight,” Gus said, and yanked at his chinos. The audience had been told to dress business casual, which had Nick stuffing Gus into last year’s pants and polo, looking at the result and thinking: big picture. He would leave the superlative fashion sense to double-parent families and focus, instead, on celebrating his son with 5 million other Americans.

To phrase the problem as one of fashion, instead of Gus’ discomfort, sums up Nick’s cluelessness. This becomes acute during the final scene when, after viewing Gus’ achingly sad class video, he focuses on making it better by posting it, because all those Likes make him feel better. He’s looking everywhere but where the problem is: Gus is heartbroken, and alone with his sorrow. Nick isn’t a bad guy, or even a bad father; he’s hurting, too, and has substituted a lawsuit for his own mourning.

I seem to be as off-the-wavelength of this story as Nick is off-the-wavelength of his son. Maazel’s Contributor Note indicates she wanted to do something about the plusses and minuses of connections via social media, and I see a lot of praise for the disturbing implications of that. Now, I’ll admit I get pretty defensive when people start putting down the internet, since it’s more or less where I am most comfortable, but I think the Youtube angle is merely an update of, oh, having a baby to save a bad marriage, or moving to a new town after a loss to change the scenery. Or, perhaps more fittingly, a more general application of any writer dealing with any life event by creating words: I simply read it as a father who can’t face his own grief, let alone his son’s.