BASS 2016: Andrea Barrett, “Wonders of the Shore” from Tin House #66

Illustration from "Glaucus, or, The wonders of the shore"  by Charles Kingsley -1859

Illustration from “Glaucus, or, The wonders of the shore” by Charles Kingsley -1859

The sea-shore, with its stretches of sandy beach and rocks, seems, at first sight, nothing but a barren waste, merely the natural barrier of the ocean. But to the observant eye these apparently desolate reaches are not only teeming with life, they are also replete with suggestions of the past. They are the pages of the history full of fascination for one who has learned to read them.

The very word seashore brings together two opposites into an ecosystem all its own, neither water nor land nor something in between but its own thing entirely. The dual nature fits Henrietta perfectly: not part-schoolteacher and part-scientist, not a half-perfect melding of any two poles, but a unique whole though created from two opposites.

The story starts with deep background: an old book, the likes of which those of us who frequent used book stores have seen many times. The book itself becomes a character of sorts, certainly a structural element as a brief paragraph from its imagined pages begins each numbered section. And with every section, we find out more about what it is to be seashore.

It is hoped that this book will suggest a new interest and pleasure to many, and that it will serve as a practical guide to this branch of natural history, without necessitating serious study. Marine organisms are interesting acquaintances when once introduced, and the real purpose of the author is to present, to the latent naturalist, friends whom he will enjoy.

Barrett’s Contributor Note includes the observation that the “demure fringes” of botany and marine science, such as Henrietta and Daphne occupied, were “relatively welcoming” to women. And Daphne, author of the fictional Wonders of the Shore (as opposed to Charles Kingsley’s volume of the same title, as shown in the header above), not only remains where she is welcomed – producing marine biology books for non-scientists – but has a secret alter-identity, known only to Henrietta, as a successful cookbook author. Neither this, nor that. In Daphne’s case, however, I sense the watery-land view of seashore: not something whole and unique, but two halves pasted together, one half always wanting to expand but crowded by the other. But maybe that’s just my reading.

The focus of the plot itself, once the stage is set (and the impatient may find themselves straining at the bit to get there – but do yourself a favor, relax and let the story set its own pace) is one of the annual vacations Henrietta and Daphne spend together making observations and collecting samples for the forthcoming Wonders on Appledore Island at the invitation of writer Celia Thaxter. Appledore Island, the Isles of Shoals, is a real place, though the hotel is long gone. What remains is the Shoals Marine Laboratory which continues investigating the seashore under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Seavey, as women are now permitted beyond the demure fringes of science.

Celia Thaxter was a very real person as well; in fact, about a decade ago I sang for a choral director whose specialty ran to historically based programs. He’d earlier created a concert of Victorian and contemporary art songs titled “Music from Celia Thaxter’s Parlor” based on Thaxter’s poetry and the sheet music that remains, just as the island and the sea remains. Celia doesn’t come off very well in the story, I’m afraid; she seems to be a bit of a snob, in fact. I’m hoping the real-life poet was more generous.

Every coast-line shows the destructive effects of the sea, for the bays and coves, the caves at the based of the cliffs, the buttresses and needles, are the work of the waves. And this work is constantly going on. The knotty sticks so commonly seen on the beach are often the hearts of oak or cedar trees from which tiny crystals of sand have slowly cut away their less solid outer growth.

We see the destructive effects in the human story as well. Daphne is embraced by the crowd at Mrs. Thaxter’s salon, while Henrietta does not fit in so well. A storm blows through the island one evening: “By morning the storm had blown away, leaving the shore littered with seaweeds and all kinds of creatures – exactly, Henrietta realized when she woke, what Daphne needed.” But Daphne has her own plans, and Henrietta is excluded. Yet this destructive effect, like the storm, provides all manner of opportunity for Henrietta, including some time spent with another Thaxter guest who did not quite fit in.

As each wave retreats, little bubbles of air are plentiful in its wake. Underneath the sand, where each bubble rose, lives some creature. By the jet of water which spurts out of the sand, the common clam mya arenaria reveals the secret of its abiding-place. Only the lifting of a shovelful of sand at the water’s edge is needed to disclose the populous community of mollusks, worms, and crustaceans living at our feet, just out of sight.

Barrett has a real talent for telling stories about historical science that subtly mirror parallel stories outlining the complexities and puzzlements of the characters’ relationships and emotions. The connections are between the dual threads are powerful, yet never obvious.

I wondered, at the end of the story, if Henrietta had regrets. I don’t think so, beyond a momentary flicker once in a while. I think, had she been a different persons, she could have felt out of place on either land or sea, caught between science and teaching, between married and single, between secrets and revelation, but instead found her own place in the wonders of the shore. Maybe not a place anyone truly understood, not even Daphne, but her place. Seashore: not land, not water, but something entirely its own.

BASS 2016: Tahmima Anam, “Garments” from Freeman’s, Fall 2015

One day Mala lowers her mask and says to Jesmin, my boyfriend wants to marry you. Jesmin is six shirts behind so she doesn’t look up. After the bell, Mala explains. For months now she’s been telling the girls, ya, any day now me and Dulal are going to the Kazi. They don’t believe her, they know her boyfriend works in an air-conditioned shop. No way he was going to marry a garments girl. Now she has a scheme and when Jesmin hears it, she thinks, it’s not so bad.
Two days later Mala’s sweating like it’s July. He wants one more. Three wives. We have to find a girl.

Not your typical wedding story. No bridesmaids complaining about dresses, no estranged relatives forced into the same room for the first time in decades, no kids being cute and/or troublesome, no muttering from giver or givee about presents. Just three girls and a guy getting married because they’re all broken, in one way or another, and “Jesmin sees marriage as a remedy. If you are a girl you have many problems, but all of them can be fixed if you have a husband.”

I’m not sure a wedding can fix the particular ways these particular people are broken. Take Mala:

Jesmin watches the back of Mala and Dulal. She knows that Mala’s brother died in Rana. That Mala had held up his photo for seven weeks, hoping he would come out from under the cement.… Mala’s face was cracked, like a broken eggshell, until she found Dulal. Now she comes to the factory, works like magic, tells her jokes, does her overtime as if it never happened, but Jesmin knows that once you die like that, on the street or in the factory, your life isn’t your life anymore.

The theme of female brokenness crosses oceans. The factory in which the girls work makes, among other things, Spanx. The story refers to them as Thanks, so called, the rumor goes, because the women who wear them look so good, they say “Thanks!” to their panties. Broken women in Bangladesh, making high-priced super-control underwear for Western women trying to fix their own perceived brokenness. But it isn’t just the women: we discover Dulal, the husband, has his brokenness as well, a brokenness he tries to fix with three wives. And then there’s the very real-life broken factory, the 2013 collapse of which in Rana killed 1,137 people besides Mala’s fictional brother.

Back in a linguistics class in another millennium, we spent a class period examining the usages of “broke” to obscure or locate intent or blame. The window was broken. The window broke. He broke it. The ball broke the window. All the ways we can distance violence from breakage, and all that’s left are shards to be swept up and something that needs fixing, the kind of broken a husband, three wives, or six ounces of Spandex can’t touch.

BASS 2016: Mohammed Naseehu Ali, “Ravalushan” from Bomb #131

"Zongo Street" by Ruben Gozi, Tema, Ghana

“Zongo Street” by Ruben Gozi, Tema, Ghana

The music we heard on our radios that morning was nothing new to our ears; it was what the soldiers played whenever they make a coup. The brassy, instrumental military music had been playing since dawn, and every now and then a deep male voice interrupted with the same announcement: “Fellow countrymen and women. The New Ghana Proletariat Revolutionary Council, N.G.P.R.C., is now in full control of the Castle and the radio stations in all nine regional capitals. We advise everybody to remain calm and to stay tuned for a speech. By the Leader of the Revolution. At ten o’clock.”
It was the first time we had heard the word, and it sounded more serious than the coup d’état we were used to.

Story available online at Bomb magazine

I often don’t recognize the first person plural point of view; I just assume it’s singular and don’t realize the “I” never emerges. In fact, I’m not 100% sure there isn’t an “I” somewhere in this story, but I don’t think so. I think the town is the main character, and the story is about how the town changes during the Ravalushun, finally descending into a despair so dark, it can’t even be seen but only heard through perverse laughter.

Unlike the prior story, set in Nigeria but applicable to anywhere, this one is rooted firmly in Ghana by everything from religion to street names. Just as with the point of view, however, I didn’t catch on for a while (I never claimed to be the brightest bulb in the chandelier); I thought it might be some kind of Freedonia, the story a kind of Marx Brothers spotlight on the absurdity of freeing the land only to take it hostage (a theme we might pay close attention to in this time), of destroying the village in order to save it. I read it as dark satire, something like Catch-22 or, even more specifically, Stephen O’Connor’s short story, “Another Nice Mess” from just a few years ago. But I was wrong: according to the Contributor Note, it is based on Ali’s recollection, as a 9-year-old child, of a very real, very bloody 1979 coup.

“We seized power in order to give it back to you, the people,” the new leader continued, his voice awe-inspiring and uplifting…. Listening to his angry speech one could have sworn by the Quran that Sergeant Leader, the name we instantly gave the new head of state, was sent by Allah himself to rescue us. To lift up Zongo Street from its poverty, to give us the opportunities other tribes enjoyed, to buy some respect for us and all the common folks in this land. The speech lasted not more than six minutes and, before concluding, the Sergeant Leader explained that some anti-revolution soldiers were trying to stage a coup to counter his “Uprising,” and that in order to stabilize the situation, a six-to-six curfew had to be imposed nationwide, “Until further notice.”

It’s a nice community, with a Catholic school and a madrassa and kids who play together and a barbershop where querulous men argue politics and a merchant who might be considered rich but does not engender any hostility, a couple of harmless guys who are non compos mentis but are tolerated just fine. It was a nice community until it was freed, at which point initial celebration turned to fear turned to horror turned to survival instinct turned to something inhuman as an owl looks on.

BASS 2016: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Apollo” from TNY 4/13/15

I sometimes felt like an interloper in our house. My bedroom had bookshelves, stacked with the overflow books that did not fit in the study and the corridor, and they made my stay feel transient, as though I were not quite where I was supposed to be. I sensed my parents’ disappointment in the way they glanced at each other when I spoke about a book, and I knew that what I had said was not incorrect but merely ordinary, uncharged with their brand of originality. Going to the staff club with them was an ordeal: I found badminton boring, the shuttlecock seemed to me an unfinished thing, as though whoever had invented the game had stopped halfway.

~~ Story available online at The New Yorker

Deceptively simple is a phrase that shows up a lot in discussions of literary works. And here it is again: on the surface, this is a story of life changes, of growing old and growing up, of regrets that last a lifetime. That rich surface is supported by text that keeps on giving; I’ve read the story three times, and each time I see worlds I missed before. And then there’s the subtext I never would have seen, like the post-colonial theme Betsy points out on The Mookse and the Gripes, or the nuggets Adichie mentions in her TNY Page-Turner interview about loving an adult voice recollecting the childhood incident, about endings that change beginnings. I’d given short shrift to the opening of the story, but reading it again with that in mind, I see what she meant. And, because this was written by a highly popular literary author and published in The New Yorker, many reviews can be found on many blogs that outline plot, trace themes, and examine the technical details of how the story works.

But I haven’t done that sort of thing in a while now, partly because I’m not trained for it, and partly because I’d rather report my own experience of the story. It’s my reading philosophy that every story becomes a partnership between writer and reader, each with their own experiences, so every reader reads a different story. All I can discuss is the story I read.

I’m struck by the universality of the story set in Nigeria, a story that, Betsy’s comments about post-colonialism aside, could be set in Boston or Chicago or LA, anywhere things like class division, parental expectations and kids who don’t meet them, can be found.

Raphael and I practiced in the back yard, leaping from the raised concrete soakaway and landing on the grass. Raphael told me to suck in my belly, to keep my legs straight and my fingers precise. He taught me to breathe. My previous attempts, in the enclosure of my room, had felt stillborn. Now, outside with Raphael, slicing the air with my arms, I could feel my practice become real, with soft grass below and high sky above, and the endless space mine to conquer.

I’m intrigued by what’s left out: we don’t know what Okenwa is doing in the present, only that he has no family of his own, and visits his family. Did he eventually turn to books? To business? Does he run a martial arts studio? His parents don’t bemoan his lack of professional status; does this imply approval? Why does Adichie not put some clue in the story? Is it because it doesn’t matter, or because it does?

I love the dance of Okenwa and Raphael’s relationship, itself a kind of martial art story, ending with a cutting blow. They progress through stages, leading to a scene of great tenderness and caring when Okenwa medicates Raphael’s inflamed eyes. But the relationship is not balanced; it can’t be, since Raphael is an employee, and alone; Okenwa has his family to take care of him when he gets sick, whereas Raphael only has Okenwa. The film scene that first signals their common interest – Bruce Lee wiping blood from his chest and tasting it – speaks volumes of how these two not only bear their eventual pain, but learn to savor it.

Does Raphael share Okenwa’s growing feelings for him? He might (I think it’s likely he does, in fact), but if he does, he turns away from those feelings. For every reaction there is a counteraction – I’m sure someone more familiar with the martial arts could phrase that better – and his turning away becomes his downfall – and, in a way, Okenwa’s downfall, as well, since he still carries that moment with him still.

I touched his face, gently pulled down his lower left eyelid, and dropped the liquid into his eye. The other lid I pulled more firmly, because he had shut his eyes tight.
“Ndo,” I said. “Sorry.”
He opened his eyes and looked at me, and on his face shone something wondrous. I had never felt myself the subject of admiration. It made me think of science class, of a new maize shoot growing greenly toward light. He touched my arm. I turned to go.

The story as a whole takes place in Okenwa’s parents’ home as a flashback. I’d like to understand better how that works, by the way, the initial conversation Okenwa has with his mom that leads us to the heart of the story, the function of those first paragraphs that introduces to Okenwa and his present-day life, hints dropped like breadcrumbs to prime the subtext of the flashback, to the point where eyedrops become erotic symbols.

The final scene ends abruptly, like a knockout punch (again, the help of martial arts experts would be welcomed). But it ends in the past, still within the flashback. And so so the story leaves us in the past, not with the grown-up Okenwa and his present-day parents, but with him as a twelve-year-old just beginning to try on the guilt of a child’s lie, a lie told from hurt, a lie that echoes in the present, an echo that began the flashback. Did he realize back then that he could fix it? Or does he just realize that now in the present?

I like stories that use standard elements – character, time, setting, language – in unusual ways. Here, I like the simultaneity of past and present as Okenwa remembers his youth, and I especially like the implied link between past and present in the last sentences: the guilt that was, the guilt that is. I like that we’re left with silence, with Okenwa, left to construct our story from the text Adichie has created for us.

Hello BASS 2016

If the novel is our culture’s favorite literary form, upon which we keep all our desiccated literary laurels, if the novel is, say, our Jaime Lannister, then the short story is our very own Tyrion: the disdain and little brother, the perennial underdog. But what an underdog. Give a short story a dozen pages and it can break hearts bones vanities and cages. And in the right hands there’s more old in a gram of short story than in almost any literary form. It’s precisely this exhilarating atomic compound of economy + power that has entranced readers and practitioners alike for generations, and also explains why the story continues to attract our finest writers.

~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016, available online

First thought: It seems smaller.

I checked page counts. The last page number of the last story: 288. Last year, it was 351. The year before, 325, then 325, 321, 322, 387, 314, 323. I wonder if that means something, if TC Boyle and, especially Richard Russo just happen to prefer stories that run a few pages longer, if Junot Diaz likes his stories particularly lean, or if it was something completely unrelated, like fonts, margins, introductions (I still remember Richard Russo’s introduction to BASS 2010, an Isaac Bashevis Singer anecdote on the purpose of short stories: “To entertain, and to instruct”), etc.

I’m not worried. It’s not the size of the story in the read, it’s the size of the read in the story. Or, if you prefer, it ain’t the page count, it’s the impact.

And of course, I started thinking about stories: how the reading group at my library emphatically declared they did NOT want to read any short story collections or anthologies, how “everybody” knows the only people who read short stories are writers and students, how so many people, like Junot Diaz, are nevertheless captivated by the job short fiction does and how it does it.

I’ve been taking some moocs in ancient Chinese philosophy lately, and one of the things I noticed is the preponderance of stories told to illustrate a point or convey a concept. Zhuangzi in particular liked to use stories, about the Butcher Ding, the Carpenter and the Oak Tree, the gourd that grew too much, his own butterfly dream. Illustrative stories aren’t unique to the ancient Chinese, of course: the Bible is full of stories. Genesis is a collection of interrelated short stories; Jesus told parables regularly. The epics of Sumeria and Greece depended on embedding stories within a longer narrative to keep the energy up, or just to prolong the recitation. Stories decorate our oldest artefacts and remains. Nor are stories relics from antiquity: the cautionary tale, the dinner table anecdote, the opening of most public speeches, stories all.

Maybe it’s my Caribbean immigrant multiplicity, the incommensurate distances between the worlds I and have it, but my life has always worked better when understood as a collection of short stories than anything else. Thing is, I’m all these strange pieces that don’t assemble into anything remotely coherent.… I guess some of us have crossed too many worlds and lived too many lives for unity.

~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016
A good short story can ground the reader. It can give hope, solace, comfort – things that are more crucial than ever.

~ Heidi Pitlor, foreword, BASS 2016

I already see a lot in this volume that interests me, just from the table of contents. I’ve always liked Andrea Barrett’s science-history; Karen Russell often makes me smile. I just recently discovered Ted Chiang when one of my mooc friends recommended “Story of your Life” (a movie version is scheduled for release in November), so I’m looking forward to reading more from him.

But most of the names are unfamiliar: new friends just waiting to be made, points of view I may not have seen before. The titles are intriguing, hinting at directions that interest me. Díaz has always been a champion of the voice that’s drowned out, the immigrant, the non-white, the other. Given current events, I can’t think of a better guest editor for this year’s volume. I wonder if that’s coincidence, or if it was planned that way.

Querida reader, ultimately I hope these stories do for you what they’ve done for me – at the very least I pray they offer you an opportunity for communion. A chance to listen, if not to the parrots of our world, then to some other lone voice struggling to be heard against the great silence.

~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016

So stop sneering at stories, and enjoy them. This might be a good place to start. If nothing else, they’re likely to be on the short side.

Time for a break

It’s time for another blogging break. I’ll be back in early October when BASS 2016 is released; Heidi Pitlor is already tweeting lines from each of the stories, so my mouth is already watering.

I thought about doing a few other things between now and then – a wonderful annotated edition of Flatland I read last Spring, an observation about hits going up as students returning to school discover, oh no, you mean I have to read a story? For some reason they’d rather read about a story. Happens every year, though it’s nowhere near as fun now that privacy filters have reduced the search terms section to a shadow of its former hilarity. And there’s always politics, but I doubt I have anything to say that isn’t said better elsewhere by those more qualified and informed than I am. Besides, I’m already a nervous wreck about this potentially disastrous election, and it’s only going to get worse.

I’ve got my hands full with a couple of monster moocs (math and bio), plus one I just love and want to spend plenty of time with (more Chinese philosophy) plus a few others, so taking the time off seems like the best option. Besides – how can anyone miss me if I don’t go away?

Be back soon…

Boethius and Bojack

As, then, righteousness itself is the reward of the righteous, so wickedness itself is the punishment of the unrighteous.
Accordingly, by this way of reckoning, whatever falls away from goodness ceases to be; whence it comes to pass that the bad cease to be what they were, while only the outward aspect is still left to show they have been men. Wherefore, by their perversion to badness, they have lost their true human nature. Further, since righteousness alone can raise men above the level of humanity, it must needs be that unrighteousness degrades below man’s level those whom it has cast out of man’s estate. It results, then, that thou canst not consider him human whom thou seest transformed by vice.

~~ Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy , Book IV Chapter iii

Last year, when I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, I noticed a lot of references to Boethius in the Hollander notes. I’d come across the name before, but had it filed under “medieval Catholic theology” and thus had ignored it. Dante was a way of finding some points of interest in that category, so I made a mental note to look into Boethius a little more. And, like most mental notes, it got lost.

Enter Bojack Horseman, the most unlikely route to medieval Catholic theology ever. I had no idea how unlikely, however, since I knew less about Bojack Horseman than I did about Boethius. A recent Millions article by Joel Cuthbertson teased with: “We’re born broken, and yet our wicked choices punish us. Somehow, BoJack the alcoholic, humanoid horse has bumped into Boethius, the 6th-century Christian philosopher.” That got my attention.

I started with Bojack, since I figured he’d be easier to comprehend than Boethius. Problem is, I’ve never taken to animations a la The Simpsons or South Park, and my tolerance for frat boy pranks and sex humor is limited, so after a couple of episodes I got the idea – he constantly misbehaves and feels quite bad about being a jerk, but not bad enough to change his behavior – and figured I’d be better off with Boethius and his Consolation of Philosophy.

It seems the most popular point from Boethius is the paradox of God’s omnipotence coexisting with free will. For whatever reason (hmmm…?) that topic, fascinating as it is, just doesn’t interest me at this time; I’m more interested in his idea that bad people feel bad, even if they seem to be feeling pretty good, because that’s part and parcel of being bad. Some years ago, as a self-comforting measure, I decided we don’t know what people go through in their heads, we only know what we can see, and I have to imagine bullies, tyrants, and megalomaniacs can’t be truly happy people, no matter how they taunt the rest of us with their power. Maybe this is fantasy, but it’s how I cope with seeing the bad guys win again and again.

For Good Fortune, when she wears the guise of happiness, and most seems to caress, is always lying; Ill Fortune is always truthful, since, in changing, she shows her inconstancy. The one deceives, the other teaches; the one enchains the minds of those who enjoy her favour by the semblance of delusive good, the other delivers them by the knowledge of the frail nature of happiness.

Finally, Good Fortune, by her allurements, draws men far from the true good; Ill Fortune ofttimes draws men back to true good with grappling-irons.

~~ Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy , Book II Chapter viii

It seems to me Plato made some gestures in the direction of goodness as a benefit in itself, rather than as an instrumental benefit, at least as concerns his theory of justice in The Republic. But that’s not quite the same as what I’m getting from Boethius (who is, incidentally, classified as a neo-Platonist): that doing evil, no matter how profitable or pleasant, degrades our humanity, and getting away with it degrades our humanity even more. Hence the animal metaphors, from Circe turning Odysseus’ men to swine, to the animal lexicon in reference to evildoers (dog, pig-headed, beast, the word “animal” itself), all the way to Bojack’s world where about half the players are half-animal.

Consolation… is divided into five Books, each Book divided into alternating chapters and songs. As a special treat, I discovered the folks at Cambridge University reconstructed the music of those Songs, a project not as easy as it sounds, since written music was still in its infancy in the sixth century. In fact, Boethius himself is credited with the system of using letters for names of notes (though he used a lot more than just A thru G and staves didn’t exist yet), which Guido built on a few hundred years later. The chapters are dialogues between Boethius as a prisoner awaiting execution, and Lady Philosophy, who offers him consolation, hence the title of the work. They read to me very much like Plato’s Socratic dialogues, though I’m sure a more sophisticated philosophical historian would notice significant differences.

Why are Nature’s changes bound
To a fixed and ordered round?

Love it is that holds the chains,
Love o’er sea and earth that reigns;
Love—whom else but sovereign Love?—
Love, high lord in heaven above!

Love, all-sovereign Love!—oh, then,
Ye are blest, ye sons of men,
If the love that rules the sky
In your hearts is throned on high!
Boethius, COP, Book II, Song vii

Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The Love which moves the sun and the other stars”
Dante: Paradiso, XXXIII, 142-145

I can see why Dante would have been interested in Boethius, given the similarities between them: both were punished as enemies of the state, both created their greatest works while in desperate straits, both used muses as figures in their writing, both constructed belief systems to deal with injustices dealt to them, including a view of a higher, deeper, more meaningful goodness and justice, and a more jaundiced view of the prosperity of the wicked. Dante even borrowed Lady Philosophy for his work In Convivio. But I also see a difference: Dante then turned to his Divine Comedy where he completed his journey through the hierarchy of joy: poetry at the bottom, then philosophy, and above them both, the divine. In this way he did Boethius one better, though it seems to me Boethius, or at least Lady Philosophy, considers philosophy and religion to be one and the same.

Cuthbertson stops short of attaching any of this to the authorial intent behind Bojack: “these specific theological and philosophical ideas are no doubt alien to the explicit vision of Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman. For all the moralizing, pseudo-psychology, and downright pontification of its characters, the show is written by comedians struggling with felt truths.” The scripts have a tendency to drop a line or two of profound insight into the strangest places once or twice per episode (of the two I’ve seen, that is), and while I’m not willing to sit through the rest of it to get a better feel for the series overall, I can’t believe the character’s name and his combination of human and animal characteristics was chosen randomly.

In any case, I’m glad this came across my path. I’ve just done the most preliminary reading of Boethius, of course, and am just sketching out some points that interest me at the moment. I’m just starting a Philosophy course that begins with proofs of God’s existence, and as a vaguely Christian agnostic still recovering from the religious trauma of my youth, I hoped this would get me closer to the right frame of mind. I hope to run into a more rigorous, structured outline of all this at some point, to put it into a more accurate frame. But I’m glad my mental note from last year was moved to the top of the pile. Funny, where a half-equine reprobate can lead, if you give him half a chance.

Finishing Pushcart XL

At the Mediterranean Café I scribbled a note in my journal “why not a best of the small presses.” I let it drop for a year, coming back to that notion in the summer of 1975 in a seaside cabin on Long Island.… What happened next with my best of the small presses idea was astonishing and continues to amaze me. The Founding Editors said okay, good idea, and off Pushcart sailed on a venture that brings us to this introduction decades later.… Many did not expect it would last more than a year, maybe two.… But the Prize refused to die…

~~ Introduction, Bill Henderson, Editor

Every year, I take a little longer to blog through Pushcart. That’s ok, I’m not in any hurry. I like taking my time with each piece. In fact, I’ve been delaying this final post because I’m not quite ready to admit I’m done – and BASS doesn’t drop until October. But it’s time.

I can see a certain symmetry in the open-and-close stories. We started in New York, with an intercultural intersection gone awry, and ended in Detroit with harmonics from the personal to the national to the global all ringing together. At this moment I believe we are all both fundamentally alone, and inextricably linked; these stories highlighted different angles of this paradox, through the lenses of the cities and lives chosen as their subjects.

I saw some other pairs: two poems used broken cups as metaphors, and two stories involved unsatisfactory meetings of young women with older mentors after a long absence. Two pieces featured bells.

To pick favorites is a bit silly, since I change my mind every so often about what I love in a read, but I’m going to try anyway.

For fiction, Colum McCann’s “Sh’khol” still stood out, as it did when I first read it in BASS 2015. Not only did it affect me emotionally, but it kept me turning pages even on second and third reads.

I was mesmerized by Joanna Scott’s “The Knowledge Gallery”, though I’ll admit I was disappointed to find the symbols carried no authorial intent. I’m still debating whether or not intent is required for meaning.

Asako Serizawa’s “Train to Harbin” impressed me both technically and from a broader human perspective; it’s historically-based fiction with significant sociopolitical implications for the present, as well as a deep and touching character portrait.

For non-fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed James Hannaham’s “Artist’s Statement”. This is the second time that art-gallery prose has been at the top of my list, in spite of my complete ignorance about art. Maybe I should start going to art galleries.

A Ring of Bells”, Catherine Jagoe’s memoir of bell-ringing in England, struck a chord (sorry) with me. Part of it was content-related, but I enjoyed her interweaving of the personal with the informational.

I think I have to give the prize for Essay that Most Made Me Think to Daniel Lusk’s very short “Bomb” which ended with its own bomb of sorts and again made me wonder about the line between fiction and nonfiction.

How can I separate out three poems from the many that were scattered through the volume, poems that varied from a few lines to a few pages, some that required more training than I have to fully appreciate. While acknowledging those, I’ll stick to the ones that were more at my pay grade, starting with Kurt Brown’s “Snapshot” for its use of form to evoke a sense of what is missing.

Form also played a primary role for me with “The Soldier of Mictlán” by Rigoberto González. The rhythm is addictive, yet, like the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, it takes full advantage of the power of repetition to direct the reader’s experience.

I must give the award for bad timing to Dan Albergotti’s “Holy Night”. It’s not his fault I read his poem at a time of particular turmoil, but I’m pretty sure I’ll remember it because of that.

And so, as hard as it is, it’s time to put the book on the shelf, and turn to other things. It’s all still with me, and as always, I’ll recall something from this anthology in the future and look back to find perhaps a completely different reading. Art is a living thing, after all; we take it in, and it grows within us.

Pushcart XL: Perry Janes, “Night Movers” from Glimmer Train #90

The month my stepbrother Tony died in a ball of gas-lit flame, the Sarychev Peak Volcano erupted in Russia and changed the Michigan sunset. It was all over the news: particles blown into the atmosphere and diffusing across the continents. The way they interfered with the refraction of light over the Mississippi, the Chattanooga, the Detroit River. It turned the sky true lavender, no pinks or reds or blues.
… The way I saw it, I opened each night with the show of what the day had offered. Red meant the day had been a mild one. Orange, the city had run itself hot, and overflowed. Those stripey motherfuckers that looked like a stack of multicolored pancakes, filled with pinks and all the rest, meant the day had been a tired one.
But that lavender had me stumped.

Pluck a guitar string; play a note on a piano; tap a spoon on a crystal goblet: the sound will continue long after the initial strike. In contrast, the sound of a smack on a pillow ends immediately. Musical instruments are designed for resonance. Some materials, like crystal, have a natural resonance that others, such as cloth, lack.

One definition of resonance: “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object.” Note the two components: reverberations of the original sound off nearby objects, and additional sound generated as those nearby objects are themselves put into motion by the original sound. For some astonishing effects of sound resonance, take a look at science Youtuber Brusspup’s demonstrations with salt and water. Powerful stuff, resonance.

It’s a word I tend to use a lot (at least six times in reference to different stories throughout this blog) as a kind of shorthand for something that touched me in a lot of ways. Multiple overtones and harmonics, rather than a one-note story. I’m not sure this story resonates with me, but it sure resonates with itself, creating layers upon layers of interwoven imagery from a variety of surfaces and neighboring objects, things as diverse as the raped and abandoned city of Detroit, a death not yet fully mourned, and ashes from a Russian volcano. All of that resonance comes together in, obviously enough, a massive schoolyard bell mysteriously out of context.

Zeke hasn’t been working for Tye as a night mover for very long, only a month or so since his brother’s death. I’m not familiar with night movers. Apparently it’s a thing the foreclosed and evicted do at the last minute, though I’m not sure what moving out in the middle of the night buys them; how much more evicted can they get? The point is that these evictions are so routine, businesses have set up to accommodate them. I’m reminded of the Michael Moore film Roger and Me showing a similar string of evictions from Flint homes.

The insidious poverty and despair is another harmonic running through the piece. ” Tye was part of a new migration of suburbanites to Detroit, enamored with the idea of rebuilding what was left behind.” The more cynical among us might wonder if all that leaving behind was engineered, or at least not seriously resisted, for the express purpose of rebuilding at bargain rates. The catastrophe we glibly refer to as stalled socioeconomic mobility resonates through Zeke’s brother’s death, as well as through the job Zeke uses to tame his insomnia.

Emptiness is a vacuum; absence is a memory.

I’m enchanted by that difference – if it even is a difference. Perhaps it’s meant to be a recapitulation, but I see emptiness and absence as very distinct things. Emptiness is a base condition. Absence is the result of something that was there, but is no more. Like a brother. Or a city.

The plot of the story covers one night, one moving job. I’m quite taken with Zeke’s observation about evictees always leaving a photograph behind. Ashes spread around the globe, perhaps. A presence to resist the absence. And in this home, a strange discovery: a huge schoolyard bell, tipped on its side, far to heavy for two men to move.

Then I realized that the bell was humming. Note so low it almost went unnoticed. The ringing peaked and quieted like my echo talking back.

Resonance. The ashes from Russia, the bell from a schoolyard, the diaspora of the poor, a haunting death. And now, the literal resonance of this bell, emitting sub-aural tones. That’s pretty impressive story construction, all those elements, none of which feels emphasized, but all of which create an ominous roar.

In checking out the author, as I tend to do when I encounter someone for the first time, I discovered that Janes (who, forgive the stereotypes, looks far more like the president of his high school computer club than a weaver of darkly perceptive resonance) has made a short film titled “Zug”. That surprised me, since the quote just above reminded of Jamaal May’s poem, “The Hum of Zug Island”, which I encountered in last year’s Pushcart. Zug Island outside Detroit has achieved some notoriety for its subliminal hum. I also note the story was recommended for Pushcart by Timothy Hedges, whose tense piece about a Detroit bus appeared in the 2013 Pushcart. All the writer’s horses and all the writer’s men can’t seem to put Detroit back together again. And again I must wonder if that’s because someone wants it that way. Privatized schools, privatized prisons: are privatized cities the next step? Or do I need to get a tin foil hat?

I see this is the final piece in this year’s Pushcart. An interesting choice: a final note that continues to sound after the book is closed. Powerful stuff, resonance.

The MOOC’s a harsh mistress: Fall 2016

I am not a summer person: as humidity and heat rise, my tolerance for the slightest inconvenience falls. After spending most of my childhood in Florida, I started moving north at age 18. I’m almost out of room (but not quite) and out of time (not yet) simultaneously. In any case, I always look forward to fall, that time when evenings chill and hiatuses end as society reboots itself – and new moocs start.

So again it’s time to semi-define something of a plan for the next few months in moocland. As always, some of these may not last: a couple are look-sees, and a third I’m dubious about already though technically it hasn’t even started yet. And, of course, something irresistible may cross my path.

For the first time in three years, I have no Coursera courses scheduled. That doesn’t mean I won’t try something, or that there’s nothing at all of any worth there; it’s just that between the isolation factor that seems part and parcel of the new platform and rolling enrollment scheduling, and the more generalized McMOOC phenomenon, it’s now a source for filler. This makes me sadder than you can imagine. I can only hope I tire of moocs before edX turns into a pumpkin.


Introduction to Biology
Start August 1, 2016 12 weeks, 7-14 hrs/wk
Instructor: Eric Lander
School/platform: MIT/edX

Official blurb:

Explore the secret of life through the basics of biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, recombinant DNA, genomics and rational medicine.

I started this from the archived course several months ago, but lost steam after the first unit on biochemistry; I just wasn’t that interested in going through genetics again. I loved the section I did – Eric Lander is not only a celebrated geneticist but a terrific teacher – so when I saw it had opened up again live, I thought I’d give it another try.


LAFF: Linear Algebra – Foundations to Frontiers

Start August 3, 2016 (official start, August 24) 15 weeks, 8 hrs/wk
Instructor: Maggie Myers, Robert van de Geijn
School/platform: UTAustinX/edX

Official blurb:

In this course, you will learn all the standard topics that are taught in typical undergraduate linear algebra courses all over the world, but using our unique method, you’ll also get more!

I’m in the early-open period, intended for those who want a “quick review” before Fall semester bricks-and-mortar classes start. I need a lot more than a quick review, but the extra 3 weeks may come in handy. So far, it reminds me very much of Stanford’s Logic course (which left me in the dust after a few weeks): it sounds like a textbook being read Here’s a theorem. Oh look, here’s another. I’m taking them at their word that it’s ok to skip the programming material, but I’m probably over my head anyway. It’s going very, very slowly so far. But it’s a niche I’m particularly interested in learning, so we’ll see how far I can get, even if I can’t finish on time.


Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness
Start August 29, 2016 12 weeks, 5 hrs/wk
Instructor: Caspar Hare, Ryan Doody
School/platform: MIT/edX

Official blurb:

This philosophy course has two goals. The first goal is to introduce you to the things that philosophers think about…. The second goal is to get you thinking philosophically yourself.

I’ve very much enjoyed the two other MIT philosophy courses I’ve taken. They’re not easy, but they’re worth the work, so I’m hopeful about this.


Jazz: The Music, The Stories, The Players
Start September 6, 2016 6 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
Instructor: Monk Rowe
School/platform: Hamilton College/edX
Official blurb:

This music course addresses jazz from a listener’s perspective, but calls on professional jazz musicians to help us engage with this often mysterious aural experience.

I don’t expect to last long in this one, but I’m curious and hoping it’ll surprise me. Jazz is a massive category like “classical music” – it can be anything, and I’ve never been able to figure out what kinds I like. That’s more or less my goal here.


Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science – Part 1
Start September 6, 2016 5 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
Instructor: Edward Slingerland
School/platform: University of British Columbia/edX

Official blurb:

An introduction to early Chinese thought, exploring connections with Western philosophy, spirituality, mindfulness, modern science and everyday life.

Given my recent dive into ancient China, of course this caught my eye. I’m a little concerned about this cluster of early September courses, and given how much I enjoyed the Hong Kong Uni and ChinaX courses, they’ve got some big shoes to fill, but I’m looking forward to getting another perspective on the Hundred Schools of Thought period. This is Part 1, with Part 2 to follow in October.


The Science of Learning–What Every Teacher Should Know
Start November 16, 2016 (changed from Nov. 2 which was changed from Sept. 14… I’ve got a bad feeling about this) 4 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
Instructor: Pearl Rock Kane, Kevin Mattingly
School/platform: Columbia Teachers College/edX
Official blurb:

An introductory teaching course for K-12 teachers about the science of learning and how to use current research to improve classroom outcomes.

Since I’m not a teacher, it’s kind of silly for me to enroll; I’ve done this before, and always end up feeling out of place and drop out. But I like to hear what people are saying about the process of learning, so let’s see.


Masterpieces of World Literature
Start September 22, 2016
12 weeks, 5-7 hrs/wk
Instructor: David Damrosch, Martin Puchner
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

Focusing particularly on works of literature that take the experience of the wider world as their theme, this course will explore the varied artistic modes in which great writers have situated themselves in the world, helping us to understand the deep roots of today’s intertwined global cultures.

The syllabus lists some huge and/or complicated works, some of which I’ve read (the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Borges, Lahiri) and some I haven’t even heard of (Orhan Pamuk, Lu Xun). When I took Fiction of Relationships, I spent four months pre-reading and just barely finished in time; I just heard about this course a week ago, so while I can get a few things read, some of it’s just not going to get done. I feel bad about that, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I’m still looking forward to finding out about different points of view.


International Law
Start September 22, 2016 8 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
Instructor: Pierre d’Argent
School/platform: Universite Catholique de Louvain/edX
Official blurb:

[I]f you want to understand what is international law, what role it plays in the world of today, how it can be used or if you want to be able to discern legal arguments within the flow of international news and reports, this course is for you.

I nearly bypassed this based purely because of the stuffy image chosen as the course logo. However, the teaser video included some goofy line drawings and overall seemed a lot less stuffy. I don’t know if I want to understand international law or not, but I’m curious. I’m also feeling quite positively towards Louvain, based on my experience with their respiration course, so I’d like to take a look.

Wish me luck!

Pushcart XL: Barbara Hurd, “The True Seer Hears” (non-fiction) from The Fourth River, #11

Insects outnumber humans by two hundred million to one. Most of them hear, most of them make noise – clicking grasshoppers, stridulating dung beetles, head-banging termites…. and except for the usual crickets and cicadas, most of them do it out of audible reach of the likes of me, who rose early this morning to sit with my granddaughter Samantha on a downed hemlock at the overlap of forest and field and test the truth of the poem I loved many years ago. You will never be alone, William Stafford wrote, you hear so deep / a sound when autumn comes. Autumn – with its sounds of coherence? – has clearly come to Appalachia – the hills are yellow and bronze.

I confess: I’m not much of a nature lover. I further confess that a big part of my unenthusiam stems from a near-phobic aversion to insects. As a result, reading this essay was less than comfortable for me. I appreciate the sentiment, however, and understand the importance of the tiniest (and creepiest) critters in the overall biosphere. All I ask is that they keep away from me.

I’m particularly fond of the multisensory aspect conveyed by use of the term “seer” (which is indeed a formed from “see”) and the emphasis on hearing in both Hurd’s enumeration of buggy sounds and in the title of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which is the focus of much of the essay. Carson’s book was perhaps the first academic-quality ecology book to make its way into the general public consciousness. Published in 1962, the first Earth Day would follow in 1970, leading to the current division between those who want to leave an intact planet behind for their grandchildren and those who bemoan the passing of such things as incandescent light bulbs and spray cans. Who could’ve guessed.

But Hurd’s point is more general than one book, or even one movement:

Can we simultaneously hear what’s not yet come, what’s here, and what’s gone? Polyphonic silences, like polyphonic music, demand deep listening. Such listeners historically have been called seers, or fools – the difference is sometimes very slight. Is a fool someone whose listening has not yet led to truths? Or someone who hears sounds that do not and never have existed, nor ever will? And can one hear too much? Perhaps to truly hear the world requires both heightened sensitivity and a fair amount of filtering and skepticism. Balance, in other words.

There’s Carson, and there’s whatever celebrity is pushing the latest antivax or contrail conspiracy theory. Alfred Wegener never saw his plate tectonics theory accepted; today it’s taken for granted. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren waited years before the bacterial cause of peptic ulcers was made part of the medical canon. Physicists keep changing their minds about whether the universe will expand, contract, or just peter out in time. Science takes its time – wisely so – before putting the stamp of approval on an idea. And many of us will never forgive the medical establishment for all those years of margarine.

But it goes beyond scientific theory as well. Every time we take a stand on any issue, particularly a controversial one, we are preparing our epitaph. For those in the public eye, every decision becomes part of history. It might be worth thinking about how you want to go down in history when choosing a hill to die on.

Also remember: history is always written from a point of view. Insects have been around 2000 times longer than people, and, as Hurd points out, greatly outnumber us. Who will be around to write the history?

Pushcart XL: April L. Ford, “Project Fumarase” from New Madrid, Summer 2014

After the last St. James Lacop congregant passed away, the State repurposed the church as a meeting place for members of AA and other damned populations, but no one is damned enough to travel one hour northwest of Palmyra to a dirt cul-de-sac of six boarded-up farmhouses whose front porches are sunken and splintered open in places where people once worked on chairs and smoked corncob pipes; the church’s disrepair is a statement about how little twenty-first century God participates in the lives of the dysfunctional and insolvent.

Sometimes, right off the bat, I pick up on the wrong cues, or misinterpret the right cues, then hang on to those faulty premises so hard I’d rather ignore how completely confused I am rather than reconsider my initial assumptions. We’re talking about reading, right? Yeah, that, too.

The first thing that threw me was the capitalization of the word “State”. Typically, when we talk about a state like Maine or Oklahoma or North Dakota, the word isn’t capitalized; that one action of the shift key implies not a geographical division but a larger government presence. This got me started on the wrong path, thinking some oppressive government was repurposing buildings and damning populations for flaws like alcoholism. Don’t tell me the past few months haven’t had an effect on my psyche. Add in Palmyra, and I wasn’t sure what country we were in (though I live in a state with towns like Mexico and Berlin and Calais). Even the corncob pipes couldn’t bring me back. Add in that I can’t count – or I can’t keep track of what century I’m in – and I ended paragraph 1 with the impression this was a future post-apocalyptic 1984-style novel. Hunger Games, for the young who aren’t sure what happened in 1984.

For the record, a far more accurate reading, one I eventually came to, is of a present-day, present-issue police procedural: the raiding of a polygamous, inbreeding cult to prevent the ongoing incestuous rape of thirteen-year-old wives and the conception of children doomed by an actual genetic condition science currently refers to as fumerase deficiency.

Once I got myself straightened out (and it’s amazing how long it took; no wonder it’s nearly impossible to convince anyone of anything once they’ve spent some time believing something else), I found the story for me resided in the comparison of two women, an unlikely pair: an investigator sent to conduct the raid, and one of the child-mothers she’s trying to rescue.

Peggy must win the group’s trust by the end of the day; otherwise, Laird will transfer her back to the windowless office filled with reports of missing persons. He was frank about why he invited her on board: “We need someone with a soft touch.” She is the only woman on the team.

While the recognized victim has been subjected to brainwashing and misogyny and under the control of men for all her 13-year-old life, officer Peggy is in pretty much the same predicament. We watch her as she wavers between two objectives: saving the girl, and saving her career, between believing her own instincts and following the rules.

Because I got off to such a bad start, I’m afraid I never gave the story a fair chance. I suspect it’s a lot more intricate than I recognize, but for me, that’s become the point, a sort of meta-lesson for the times. And sometimes, my search for accompanying art can connect me to a story. Here, I just got distracted by images of fumerase. Thanks to MOOCs, primarily Eric Lander’s Intro to Bio course from MIT, I actually have some idea of what that picture shows: alpha helices, a couple of small beta sheets, some random coils and loops, and the presence of the positively-charged lysine at the 324th position on the protein, with histadine on the 188th spot. That’s a weird thing to get from a story, but I’m trying to be more open to possibilities. Maybe I should focus more on reading the story correctly.

Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi et al: Ancient Chinese Thought MOOC

Course: Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought
Length: 8 weeks
School/platform: University of Hong Kong/edX
Instructors: Chad Hansen

We make ethical or behaviour guiding right / wrong judgments all the time but have you ever wondered where Ethics comes from, what it is about and why it is important? This course provides an introduction to traditional Chinese ethical thought and focuses on the pervasive contrast in the way Chinese and Westerners think about ethical guidance or guidance concerning what is right and what is wrong, good or bad.

While I’ve greatly enjoyed many of the moocs I’ve taken over the past three years (I’ve lost count, about 70, I think), I can count on the fingers of one hand the ones that have shifted a paradigm or had a lasting impact on life-as-lived. This is one of those few.

By a happy coincidence of timing, I’d just finished the first module of Harvard’s 10-part ChinaX series covering the Period of the Warring States and the Hundred Schools of Thought. Not only did that give me at least a vague familiarity with the names, but it let me situate the philosophers in a particular time and give me something of a foundation: an understanding of the Sage Kings that had gone before, of the transition from Shang to Zhou and the legitimacy of tianming, of the chaos of the time and the period that followed. None of this background was in any way required to understand the material itself, but it did prepare the field for sowing, so it’s an approach I recommend to those as completely unfamiliar with ancient China as I was.

The course is based on Prof. Hansen’s book, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. We opened with an overview of philosophical approaches and fields, showing where the ancient Chinese thinkers fit compared to Western philosophers. I found this very helpful as a way to keep my conceptual bearings (and picked up a few tidbits about Western philosophy in the process). It’s always a good idea to network new ideas to old ones.

The next seven weeks each featured a school of thought: Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Shen Dao/Laozi, and Zhuangzi, who took up two weeks. Xunzi took up most of the final week, which, though unavoidable (the history of philosophy is what it is), was perhaps the only complaint I have about the course: it ended on a real downer, particularly at this moment of time when an authoritarian anti-intellectualism seems to be sweeping the world, not to mention the US. The last couple of lectures offered a review that somewhat recaptured the feeling of the rest of the material, but I also went back to listen to some of the Zhuangzi lectures so I could personally end there, feeling enriched instead of scolded and scared.

Lecture courses can be tedious – so many wonderful professors turn into soulless automatons when plopped in front of a camera to read a script – but Prof. Hansen’s able to pull it off extremely well, and this was far superior to most “talking head” courses. During the course they released a “the making of” video which shows the kind of thought and care that went into presenting lectures. They weren’t happy with the first few attempts, so they kept changing the format until they found one that worked. As a result, the lectures seem more like story-telling, with little “cliffhangers” at the end of each one that keep the momentum going, even create a degree of suspense that’s atypical for a history of philosophy course. Part of it is Prof. Hansen’s relaxed and engaged delivery, which is probably helped by the presence of students in the room so he’s not talking direct to camera (which can kill even the most animated speaker). Little animations with sound effects add a sprinkle of fun, with the overall result being lectures that are a delight as well as clear and instructive, with enough foreshadowing, repetition, and summary to help retention of the ideas.

Each week included an introduction, about 10 lectures (roughly 10 minute each), handouts for each lecture for those who would rather read than listen, and links to ctext files for pertinent text excerpts. I was a little confused about those links for a while, but I finally got the hang of it. Lecture captioning is available in English and Chinese, by the way; while the course occasionally explains characters for various concepts, no knowledge of Chinese is needed (a good thing, since I have none). A non-graded “knowledge check” of one or two questions followed each lecture, with a graded quiz, about 10 questions, at the end of each week. Two peer-assessed essays, 300 to 500 words, were required, each comparing two philosophers on some topic.

Staff was very involved in the course throughout. Prof. Hansen and an excellent TA responded to most student posts in some way, often extending into new directions and giving additional insights; as a result, the boards were active and thought-provoking. Each week featured Prof. Hansen in an impromptu “roundup” video addressing some of the more popular topics from the forums. As moocs aim more for scalability and automation, these are features that will be lost, and they’re the features that differentiate a meh mooc – youtube plus some quiz questions – from an educational experience that will be remembered and will entice students to learn more.

Those of us who know little or nothing about China, or Chinese thought, probably know the words Confucius and Dao, but chances are we don’t really have any idea what is packed into those names. I’d always assumed Confucius was the epitome of Eastern wisdom; imagine my surprise to find that I don’t particularly agree with much of his point of view. Dao is one of those massive topics, like math or history or Liberty or Shakespeare, that tends to get shoehorned into a pithy definition that doesn’t begin to cover it all. I’m going to need to read poet Afaa Michael Weaver’s work with new eyes now; he explicitly mentions Zhuangzi in his interviews, and now that I have some idea of what that references, I’d like to reconnect to that.

For me the central moment came during lecture 6 with the “fish in water” description of how we relate to Daos: I flashed on DFW’s “This is Water” graduation speech (immortalized in brilliant video form). I was stunned to find DFW in Zhuangzi (or is it Zhuangzi in DFW?). The technique I call “finding my compassion” versus compassion fatigue when yet another panhandler asks for spare change? My impatience with the maintenance guy who doesn’t believe it’s necessary to find the source of a leak but just to cover up the water damage? Those are choices between daos, and often we don’t realize we’re making a choice.

This course taught me about Mozi and logic and natural philosophy, yes, but it also taught me to look for the choices I make without realizing I’m choosing – because chances are, if I were aware I was choosing, I’d choose differently. I highly recommend the experience.

Pushcart XL: Frederic Tuten, “Winter, 1965” from Bomb #129

In the few months before his story was to appear, he was treated differently at work and at his usual hangouts. The bartender at the White Horse Tavern, himself a yet unpublished novelist, called out his name when he entered the bar and had twice bought him a double shot of rye with a beer backer. He had changed in everyone’s eyes: He was soon to be a published writer.
And soon a serious editor at a distinguished literary publishing house who had read the story would write him, asking if he had a novel in the works. Which he had. And another one, as well, in a cardboard box on his closet shelf that had made the tour of slush piles as far as Boston. Only twenty-three, and soon, with the publication of his story in Partisan Review, he would enter the inner circle of New York intellectual life and be invited to cocktail parties where he, the youngster, and Bellows and Mary McCarthy, Lowell and Delmore would huddle together, getting brilliantly drunk and arguing the future of American Literature.

~~ Complete story available online at BOMB.

I very much enjoy reading Tuten’s stories, but I have never felt qualified to comment on them. He writes icebergs: stories that are two or three layers deeper than the surface story, and the surface story – French Impressionists, eccentric philosophers – are resonant enough in themselves, usually in octaves I haven’t yet learned to hear. His stories intrigue me, make me want to understand the entire world so I can follow along.

But here, he writes about an unsuccessful writer, giving me half a chance. For, while I’ve never been a successful writer, I sure as hell have been an unsuccessful one, and the trauma of the inciting incident hits me like the ground at the bottom of a thousand-foot cliff:

On the day the magazine was supposed to be on the stands, he rushed, heart pounding, to the newspaper shop on 6th Avenue and 12th that carried most of the major American literary magazines, pulled the issue of PR from the rack, opened it to the table of contents and found his name was not there. Then turning the pages one by one, he found that not only was his story not there, but neither was there any breath of him.
Maybe he was mistaken; maybe he had come on the wrong day. Maybe the delivery truck had got stuck in New Jersey. Maybe he had picked up an old issue. He scrutinized the magazine again: Winter, 1965—the date was right….


Lest you think I’m spoiling the story, all of the above occurs within the first few paragraphs. The story is in the setting (the not-yet-successful writer’s view of the 1964 New York literary atmosphere) and the reveal of the character so briefly sketched in the opening, a character who, although he drops literary names everywhere he goes, does not have a name of his own. You don’t get a name until you’re published.

As I’m prone to do when I’m over my head, I go looking for those who are more likely to be able to see what is beyond me – successful writers, of course. Peter Trachtenberg compares the story to a Chaplin film. Then there was the commentary that, although very brief, tapped me on the shoulder: fellow Mainer (!) Joseph Tomaras notes the writer’s chronic overreaching and “his fantasies of other people, women especially, more satisfying than his actual interactions with them”. Though I didn’t consciously recognize that quality, it may be a large part of what drew me to the story. I’ve always said I preferred second-hand life: to read about a country rather than to travel, to analyze culinary ingredients and techniques rather than learn high-end cheffery, to read stories rather than write them.

The story ends with a dedication to Tom McCarthy, with whom I’m unfamiliar. I feel like I could create an entire curriculum just by Tuten’s stories. In any case, I’m curious why the dedication is at the end, rather than the beginning. I also wonder if the story is autobiographical: Tuten is about the right age to have been a writer struggling to break into New York lit in 1965. The story has been selected for the 2016 O Henry prize anthology; I’ll have to see what the contributor note looks like when that’s published, if any clues there sate my curiosity. But in the end there’s always the story, which is plenty.

Pushcart XL: Lilliam Rivera, “Death Defiant Bomba or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer” from Bellevue Literary Review, Spring 2014

Samuel Lind: "Magestad Negra"  (2002)

Samuel Lind: “Magestad Negra”

If the doctor’s appointment is early, at 9 a.m., pull out the red sheath dress, the one that you bought on sale at Nordstrom with the famous but unpronounceable designer label. The red will wake the receptionist up like a motherfucker and cause her to send you hate for daring to outshine her that morning. The receptionist will think you’re tacky, loud, too much. In the bloodshot color, the doctor will notice that you wore the equivalent of a flag and think you’re stately and in charge. You’ll wear red, definitely red.
If the doctor’s appointment is later, say at 3 p.m., then the only color you should wear is … red.

~~ Complete story available online at Bellevue Review

Bomba, a quick google tells me, is a dance of Afro-Caribbean origins, first created by slaves on the sugar plantations of Puerto Rico and still celebrated today worldwide. It’s a conversation – no, more of a challenge – between dancer and drums, a kind of dare: “Oh yeah, well, see what you can do with this!”

Rivera has organized the story – in second person, no less – in the form of the dance: Basic Steps (Paseo Basico) give us a look at the woman preparing for her husband’s medical appointment, the Greeting (Saludo) takes place at the office (we often spend more time with receptionists and clipboards than we do with doctors), The Exchange (Piquetes) where the doctor delivers the words he’s practiced, the ones risk management has approved, as the woman desperately tries to inject some humanity into the process, tries to get a reprieve, a sign of mercy, maybe just an extra minute into the workflow-management time slot approved for this IDC-10 diagnosis code; and the Goodbye (Despedida) that closes the dance/appointment.

What an interesting image to use for a medical visit. Over the past several years, Lancaster University in Great Britain did a landmark linguistic study on the use of metaphor, typically military, in serious illness. The dance metaphor in this story is tailored to one person, and, interestingly, is not aimed at the medical condition, not at aberrant cells or microbes run amok or a confused immune system, but at the doctor.

Rivera discusses the origins of this story in a BLR interview: her husband has multiple health problems, and she knows how to advocate for patients. How odd that patients so often need advocacy when dealing with a system that should be an ally.

That same interview gives the origin of the second-person approach. She envisioned the story as an instruction manual of sorts, and that made second-person a natural choice. At the time she was unaware of the generally negative attitude towards the technique. I think the inclusion of the dance elements was a bit of genius, since that personalizes and adapts what could have been a routine instruction manual style into something quite powerful and very different, a story where you can hear the drums and see the skirt flashing. Her unawareness was a stroke of luck: had she stuck to the quality-control and risk-management assessed plan, the story would never have emerged in as powerful a form. And since it was originally published in the literary magazine run by Bellevue Hospital, we can only hope doctors are listening.

Pushcart XL: Ann Beattie, “The Cloud” from Salmagundi #184

Back in the town where she’d graduated from the university five years before, Candace waited at the inn to be picked up by Uncle Sterling. This was a business trip, paid for by her company in D.C., and they were amenable to putting her somewhere other than the DoubleTree out on the highway. Sterling was able to drive his car again, after finishing the last round of chemo three weeks earlier. The prognosis was good, but Candace’s mother Claire still wept about it on the phone, and Candace was worried, herself. Sterling was her favorite relative, even if he did maintain contact with her father. For sure he understood that Hank was an untrustworthy liar, but the two former brothers-in-law still occasionally golfed together, belonged to the same gym – not that Sterling had been seeing much of that place lately.

The last Ann Beattie story I read was “The Indian Uprising” in BASS 2014. I had to make a chart of characters so I could keep track of who was who and the general significance of the interactions.

This story seems more than anything like a rewrite of that one. No, not a rewrite; a transplant. Most of the major elements are very similar: the young woman visiting a terminally ill older man who’s been something of a role model, lots of ancillary characters, a trip for a meal that gets a little weird, and… footwear. In this case, $500 boots. Though a quick look at Neiman Marcus tells me $500 is actually pretty low-end for designer boots, I’m so far removed from things like this I can’t even get my mind around it. I agonized for weeks before deciding to invest $90 in my LLBeans a few years ago, figuring it would be the last pair of boots I’d ever have to buy. But $500? And they’re not even the kind of boots that help you navigate snowbanks or slush puddles.

In fact, Candace spends so much energy she could be spending on her favorite uncle worrying about whether something on her boot is a scratch or mere dirt, I wonder why we let ourselves get enslaved to things like boots that require such concern. I suspect it’s better than contemplating the impending death of a favorite uncle. While it’s not up to me to judge fictional characters for how to spend their fictional money, it is up to me to notice, and wonder what it means.

Another similarity to the older story is the use of a title that comes from the story. I was much more on board with the technique this time around, possibly because the tableau was so familiar in so many ways: a writer losing work due to computer failure, and the always-amusing conversation between the tech-savvy and the not.

“Uncle Sterling, she didn’t have it backed up in any way she could retrieve it? Do you mean the hard drive crashed, or – ”
“The one thing ‘I know, I convinced her to keep the machine, to print the story every time she had a new part. She didn’t have a printer before. Anyway, this guy was teaching the course told us that for very little money, she could have everything backed up and it could go to heaven.”
“A service you pay for, where everything you write – ”
“Automatic backup?” It goes to the cloud?”
“That’s it! I told you, up in the sky, like a moonbeam bouncing back! Goes to the clouds.”
“Cloud,” she corrected. “It’s an absraction, but – ”
“Buckets of moonbeams, buckets of tears!”
She looked at him, confused. It was like having a conversation with a crazy person.

I happen to span the period between Bob Dylan and the cloud. For some reason, that makes me feel smug, even though just a few years ago I had to ask someone exactly what “the cloud” was. I was quite disappointed to find out it was just an exotic name for modernized off-site storage. I’d expected something far more mystical – as does Uncle Sterling, when he responds to Candace’s request to go somewhere quiet for a beer: “A perfect place, complete salvation…. A cloud.” Now you’re talkin’. Even his whimsy is death-focused, while hers is boot-focused. Head in the clouds vs feet on the ground.

I didn’t put anywhere near as much effort into this as I did last time, maybe because I’m cranky with the heat, maybe because I just didn’t find it that interesting a story. Maybe because I’d read it before.

Belgian Breathing MOOC

Course: Respiration in the Human Body
Length: 7 weeks (self-paced)
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium)/edX

How do we breathe? What is the purpose of our lungs? What is the link between oxygen and life ? These questions open a vast field of discovery to help us understand respiration. This course is for anyone who wants to understand human respiratory physiology, the operation of respiration and the lungs.
…During the course experts will discuss specific and practical topics such as how to comprehend oxygenation of a patient, why and when to administer oxygen, and what hyperventilation means.
This course will also discuss in depth human anatomy, physical volumes and pressures of gasses, blood, oxygen, CO₂, lungs, tissues, smoking and chronic bronchitis.

No, the Belgians don’t breathe any differently than the rest of the world. But they sometimes do make MOOCs partly in French, like this one.

There is an all-French version of this course. I’m not sure why they decided to rework it for speakers of English – the videos are in French, but the captions, transcripts, and all text materials (including very helpful formatted handouts with embedded images) are in English – but I’m very glad they did, since I just love medical stuff. There were a few weird translation moments, and it did take a slight extra effort to coordinate words and images, but it worked fine.

Respiration is, alas, about half math and physics. It was kept very simple in this class, with basic explanations of pressure, diffusion, and maybe four basic formulas, none of which involved anything more complicated than multiplication and addition. Things still got kind of complicated, because there’s a difference between the pressure of oxygen in the blood, and the content, and then there’s always figuring out which of several values is altered when altitude is increased, when submersion is involved, or when simultaneous conditions, like asthma or anemia, are present. Then there’s some extra challenge when occasional European conventions, like using commas instead of decimal points, show up.

The course is self-paced, so all five modules were released at the start. The first two cover the basics of plain vanilla respiration, while later modules add in things like altitude shifts, effects of pulmonary diseases, pregnancy and fetal respiration, and pollution. Each section of a module (usually four sections) include a single video, which is mostly lecture with a few health-worker interviews sprinkled in. The lectures were clear and very well-presented; the interviews, not so much. Several of us took exception with the first lecture which proclaims life is not possible without oxygen; there is a sense in which that’s true (human life as we know it, say), but there’s also a sense in which it’s nonsense, since life existed on earth before there was oxygen. In fact, life created oxygen. But that’s a quibble.

Each section also contains several graded “homework” questions. Most are multiple choice, but there’s usually at least one “post your answer” question per section: pick a location at altitude and show what it does to arterial oxygen content, or describe some pollutant and its effects on the body. These are honor-graded, as in, did you do it, check yes or no. The midterm and final, each worth 20% of the final “grade”, are peer-assessed and in similar vein (oops, Freudian pun) to the “post your answer” questions. Passing is set at 50%, “excellent” at 70%. I’m not sure why they have such low expectations. My final hasn’t been assessed yet (I’m not optimistic, since I misunderstood a couple of the questions) but I’m already over the “excellent” mark.

Staff coverage of the discussion boards was very limited. In the first week, a technical issue was quickly resolved, but content questions were largely unanswered or involved long delays (two weeks). This may be due to summer vacations, or to the general trend of moocs as standalone and unsupported (a trend that dismays me greatly). It felt to me that there was generally less student participation than I’ve seen in other medically-oriented courses. Typically, a couple of students will have advanced training in technical areas and will be able to offer help, but that didn’t seem to happen here. It could be the time of year, or it could be the language issue. It could be the constant stream of forced posting that always dilutes actual communication, though someone in moocland thinks it’s a great component.

I wouldn’t say it’s an easy course, particularly for those of us who are permanently mathematically confused. But it’s very do-able. It’s also not the slickest mooc on the block, but I’ve seen some very slick moocs that were crap. It works; with a little bit of accommodation it gets the job done. While it might be too much trouble for someone with casual interest in respiration, I’d recommend it for someone who wants a basic understanding of what actually happens when we breathe.

Pushcart XL: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Hell” (non-fiction) from The Point #9

A couple of years ago, a Chicago-based corporate-identity consultant named Chris Herron gave himself the ultimate challenge: rebrand hell. It was half gag, half self-promotion, but Herron took the project seriously, considering what it would take in the travel market for a place like hell to become a premier destination. … The joke was posted as a “case study” on Herron’s personal website and quickly went viral in the marketing blogosphere—a testament to the power of effective branding.

~~ Complete essay available online at The Point

I’ll admit it: I was initially disappointed the entire piece wasn’t about Herron’s prank. At first it seemed to me like a cute, barely relevant anecdote a public speaker might use to introduce a talk, something to get the audience on his side before stating her case. About two-thirds of the way through the essay, however, it becomes evident that the anecdote is not trivial, nor is it irrelevant; in fact, it’s pretty much the point.

O’Gieblyn takes us on a personal tour of hell as she understood it during different phases of her life, from age 5 to college. Many of her recollections of childhood were familiar to me. I spent fewer years in fundamentalism, but we went through much the same childhood processes of uncertainty and fear, unanswered questions we end up feeling ashamed for asking.

We follow her to a strict Bible college, and this would probably be a routine religious biography except for a visit to a megachurch which brings Herron’s advertising plan for hell back into focus.

Hybels keeps a poster in his office that reads: “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” Rick Warren’s Saddleback motto is “Let the target audience determine the approach.”

Late last year, I had quite a reaction (the online equivalent of a hissy fit) when Coursera started referring to its courses as “products” and making changes aimed at “increasing revenue.” That’s nothing compared to my visceral reaction to reading O’Gieblyn’s description of churches using words like “business”, “customer”, and “value”. Add that to images like the Catholic Church protecting pedophiles, the Westboro Baptist Church preaching their message of hate, and it seems to me that church has become the problem. It’s no wonder I felt accused when a bag lady at the bus stop noticed my long blue skirt (my version of jeans, so much more comfortable at my age and size) and asked if I were “one of those Christians”

Like so many formerly oppositional institutions, the church is now becoming a symptom of the culture rather than an antidote to it, giving us one less place to turn for a sober counter-narrative to the simplistic story of moral progress that stretches from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue. Hell may be an elastic concept, as varied as the thousands of malevolencies it has described throughout history, but it remains our most resilient metaphor for the evil both around and within us. determine the approach.”

O’Gieblyn drifted away from fundamentalist religion, but still feels a kind of nostalgia for old-style hell and wonders if we need more discussion of the nature of evil in our lives right now. I’m not sure about that approach, either. First, I don’t see a need to equate hell, or the devil, with evil. People can get themselves mighty twisted without any supernatural intervention.

But even granted the need for a Lucifer to explain how evil came into the world: Most Christian religion holds that God created Adam and Eve with free will, and put the forbidden fruit in the Garden, so they would choose to obey him, rather than obey because there was no option to disobey. Doesn’t selling salvation by fear mean people are running away from something? Some of the most appealing people I know are religious, but I didn’t know that for quite some time. They aren’t running around screaming, “I’m a Christian so I … [don’t drink, vote pro-life, tithe, whatever]”. They simply lead lives that have at their core a generosity, a gentle solidity, that’s irresistible. Isn’t it more in line with the original Plan if the church creates something people run towards?

Pushcart XL: Kevin Prufer, “Immigration” (poem) from Southern Review, Summer 2014

When the wheels came down over Miami,
the stowaway in the landing gear,
half-frozen and unconscious,
slipped from the wheel wells into blue air.

Modern life is amazing. Wikipedia has an entire page listing the 103 wheel-well stowaways since 1947: names (if known), to-from locations, and, in the case of the 75% who die, a guess at the cause of death. Typically, that’s freezing, hypoxia, or falling from altitude, but sometimes, it’s hard to tell which occurred first. Most (though not all) are travelling from poorer or more repressive places to large cities like London, Paris, New York, though there was a 16-year-old who ran away from home the hard way, stowing from North Carolina to Baltimore. His body, damaged beyond recognition, was found in a nearby woods the next day.

You’d have to assume someone’s pretty desperate, for one reason or another, to do such a thing. I’m not sure most of us, sitting at our computers and reading poetry, can begin to understand that level of desperation, but I think the world right now would be a little better off if we at least tried.

Whether this poem is based on an actual specific incidence of stowaway immigration or is merely representative, I don’t know. I can’t find a report of a stowaway falling on a car roof, but I didn’t look that hard, since I don’t think it matters to the poem. Or to the stowaway.

In two stanzas, eight lines each, starting with syntactically end-stopped lines that get progressively more enjambed as we proceed through the poem, Prufer manages to capture three (or four, depending on how you count) points of view.

We start off with the stowaway himself, or, more precisely, the speaker’s vision of the unconscious stowaway. Speculation about his frame of mind on the way down follows, before we shift, in the second stanza, to the occupants of the car on which his body fell. We then focus on the young son who was with his family in the car, and his reaction, before broadening out to the speaker’s embodiment of the stowaway again in the final line. I’m fond of such circular structures, and it seems morally right, somehow, to begin and end with the stowaway, as seen through the eyes of the poet.

Pushcart XL: E. A. Durden, “The Orange Parka” from Glimmer Train #91

"Future 86" by Jane Fine

“Future 86” by Jane Fine

Ten minutes before closing time, Rakesh sees his daughter enter the store. He is not in his own section, Kitchen Appliances, but in the neighboring section, Surveillance, where he has been fiddling with a pair of binoculars. He happens to be looking through the instrument’s wrong end and gets a miniature view: glossy black hair falls to the waist of a well-rounded figure; a piece of clothing throbs the color of tangerine. As he removed the lenses from his eyes, he finds it hard to breathe.
The jacket of tangerine is the same, but the girl is not.
… It has been fifteen hours since he knew where his daughter was.

I spent the first two-thirds of this story with a distracting voice in my head screaming, “Why don’t you call the police?” I even wondered if that was the point of the story, to show the culture clash between white America and immigrant New York. This wasn’t something I pulled out of thin air; the text gives evidence of his natural reticence: “He is not used to the sort of confessions his adopted countrymen are comfortable with, and apparently comforted by”. Add to that, knowing what can happen to people of color when the police are brought in, I wondered if Rakesh may have had more sociological reasons for not reporting Prithi missing. I still come back to that screaming voice in my head: do NYC police not even bother to look for missing teenagers these days? Does even asking the question mean I have crossed some threshold of super-cynicism?

But it seems none of this is what Durden had in mind when she wrote the story. She writes about it at length in a Glimmer Train essay (which contains what I would consider spoilers; I think the reader’s agony and confusion is part of the aesthetic experience here) and focuses on the problem of “good” characters. I’m not sure I need more than a widower father’s pain to make a story interesting, but apparently a moment of rudeness – a moment I barely even registered – is central to the story. I’m a very bad reader, running off in my own direction, asking questions about police.

Those questions are indeed muted two-thirds of the way through the story by events that turn this into what happens next and finally substitutes blue in for orange in a last scene so cinematic I can practically hear the closing music –plaintive strings, I think – as I watch the snow fall between the lines on the page.

I may not fully understand Rakesh, but I can feel the pain and confusion radiating from him. The conflict between a job he hates yet can’t afford to lose, and the search for his daughter. I understand him best when he describes, with apparent recognition and approval, a moment from his wife’s life, the life they had before moving to America:

After her father died from a heart attack in the midst of chores on the family farm, Rakesh had found his wife crying into a washcloth at the kitchen sink. Yet she had the presence to know when her own emotions were beside the point. She did not insist on cherishing a point of view.
He had no such distance. He could not point to a tree and say, simply, “That is a tree.” Whatever he was feeling engulfed whatever he came upon. The name of the thing was merely a kind of buoy, colorful but forlorn, a marker indulged by an immensity.

He reaches out for help in his own way. At a long-scheduled teacher’s conference at Prithi’s charter school, he’s surprised to discover they know her less than he does. When the conference ended after a few sentences, I found myself annoyed until Rakesh wondered why it only lasted three minutes (“Were he a parent of the leggy, fleece-wearing set, would he have pushed for more of the teacher’s time? Would he have gotten it?”); I’d thought the pacing of the scene was off, but it was painfully, shamefully accurate, and to great effect.

Like Rakesh, the story hesitated to reveal itself, but as I looked at it over and over, pulling quotes, re-reading passages, I discovered hints and signposts I’d missed at first. I want to call Rakesh and comfort him, but I fear that would only make him uncomfortable.