BASS 2016: Daniel J. O’Malley, “Bridge” from Alaska Quarterly Review #32

He saw the old couple twice, once when they stopped halfway across to pose for a picture, and again a year later when they came back, this time without the camera, and for a while all they did was stand there.
Both times he watched from the window, which was not what he was supposed to be doing, he knew that, he knew well what he was supposed to be doing, which was studying. In the mornings, his mother would tell him things – he would follow her around the house while she did her inside work, then outside where she did her garden work and her chicken work – and he would listen and take notes in his notebook while she talked about the histories of their state and their country and their family – his mother’s family, plus his father’s family, and then their own family, the family they made when they made him – but also about the flood of locusts and frogs and other plagues that had happened before and could happen again, and he would take notes so that in the afternoon he could sit in his bedroom and study, and to then in the evening, after the supper dishes were done, he could stand and recite for his father what all he’d learned from his mother in the morning.
But his memory was strong. His mother’s words found a home in his mind the moment they left her mouth. So most days he passed his afternoon study time staring out the window and down at the bridge, which was the only thing he could see between the trees.

Remember Chekhov’s Gun? It’s the axiom of plotting that requires that everything in the story be essential, often phrased as “If you put a gun in the first act, it better go off before the end of the play.” What about when there are two guns, and your attention is so focused on the MAC-10 you’re taken by surprise when it’s the air rifle that pops off.

The actual bridge in the story, as interesting as it turns out to be, takes second place to the more metaphorical bridge between childhood and the beginnings of adulthood, that moment when a child realizes that, though he’s been aware for a while that the world isn’t necessarily as it seems, neither are his parents. And there’s a rabbit. Maybe.

I’m always interested in the ways adults lie to children. It’s usually to shield them from tough realities they may not yet have the perspective to handle, but it’s often to shield the adults from facing uncomfortable truths as well. The most destructive lies, I think, are the ones that deny the child’s own feelings and perceptions. You know you love your sister, now go hug her. We aren’t fighting, we’re having a discussion. O’Malley zooms in on that moment in our young protagonist’s life, and sets it in a highly distracting bigger moment. So distracting, in fact, I’m still wondering about it: Why didn’t the boy pay more attention to it? Was the air rifle really that much more of a novelty than the automatic? Successful imaginary restructuring? Repression? Or the overshadowing importance of the personal?

BASS 2016: Caille Millner, “The Politics of the Quotidian” from  #31.2

The committee wants to have a word with her.
… Mikael Sbocniak (department chair) will take the seat in the middle. Tomas Ulrikson (selection committee head for her post-doc interview) will be on his left, with Ernst Lichtenberg (faculty mentor whom she’s met only once) on his right. She’ll sit on the other side of the table, facing them. A triptych of white beards, deep voices, cashmere sport coats. The same look from brewing for decades in the same stock of misanthropic contempt.
Pity. The study of philosophy should have done something for them – made them kinder or more thoughtful – but she’s not sure what it’s done for her, either. Years ago, when she was stressed starting graduate school, she’d have loved to critique the power dynamics of the meeting like this one. She’d be spouting Hegel and Foucault. Now she no longer wants to say anything at all.

I love academic snark. Some of my favorite stories – Taymiya Zaman’s “Thirst“, for instance – expose the dark side of the Ivory Towers. I don’t understand it, and I don’t know that I could tolerate it for long, since I prefer honesty and straightforwardness, if only because it’s easier than keeping straight a web of deceit. But in academia, as in business and for god’s sake politics, those things won’t get you anywhere. I follow many professors on Twitter, usually teachers from moocs I’ve taken, and while they don’t often air dirty laundry in public, it’s always interesting when I get a peek at one corner of the basket. So when I started this story, and found it featured a philosophy professor struggling with her environment, I rubbed my hands together gleefully.

As it happens, I got a lot more than I expected. And it happened so subtly, I was poleaxed before I felt the blade.

In terms of technique and craft, I think the subtlety is what makes this a Best story (if there is such a thing). I think it’s even quite possible that good readers will miss the hints to what is really going on; I didn’t catch on until the third one, for example. Spoilers will indeed spoil that element. But so does discussing how subtle it is, without even revealing what it is that’s so subtle, so too late, so I’m going to reveal more than should be revealed. But I do urge any reader: don’t proceed unless you’ve read the story. It’s really worth experiencing how Millner does it.

Our unnamed protagonist is a philosophy professor whose disillusionment begins long before a student challenges her interpretation of Barthes in class, then storms out while accusing her of incompetence. I’m nowhere near familiar enough with Kant’s aesthetics or, yeah, Barthes, keep meaning to read him, to put much out here, but AFAIK key notions are subjectivity and universality of beauty, and the higher aesthetic perception of form, as opposed to mere taste, the evaluation, outside the realm of aesthetics, of content. I’m not sure how this functions in the story, but fortunately for our purposes – or at least, my purposes – I find a great deal that coincides with the repeated phrase the politics of the quotidian: no matter what we claim to believe, it is in our everyday behaviors that we show what we value, what we believe, who we are.

Just like the experience of riding a public bus, a strange man read her refusal to make eye contact as an invitation to speak.

Who is allowed to belong? The professor asks her unruly student to leave with, “You don’t belong here right now”. She doesn’t feel like she belongs. She never has, it seems, not in boarding school where she “looked different from the other kids” (I skipped right around that, attributing it to unattractiveness or poverty, possibly disability, because our assumptions have a way of steering us around discomfort zones). She certainly doesn’t feel like she belongs in the same room as the three senior faculty profs she’s going to meet with. And the climactic incident occurs when an administrative worker (who is probably feeling the same kind of intrusion onto her competence, by the way) refuses to help her, demands her ID, and throws her out for requesting help with a computer issue.

If that sounds like a pretty poor excuse for a climax, well, I left out a crucial flashback our professor remembers when the admin tells her she doesn’t look like her photo:

If she looked different in her ID picture, it wasn’t because she was so much the younger last year, it was because the photographer didn’t have the proper lighting. She knew this only because he’d told her as much. It was his way of apologizing for the fact that her face on the ID was an orange smudge.
“These color filters,” the photographer had said. “They’re designed for lighter skin. I hope that’s not a weird thing to say. I don’t see color, myself. But the camera does, and if I had known I have brought different ones.”
“If you had known what?” She’d asked him.
“I mean, they said philosophy department,” he said, laughing.

All these people who don’t see color. What they mean is, they only see white people.

It’s a story about a life lived in the face of microaggressions. Go ahead, mock the idea, but you try being invalidated, just a little bit, every hour of every day in a hundred different ways. Is it really such a burden to ask that we examine our assumptions, our language, and consider what it feels like to be on the other side of the jokes, the cliches, the stereotypes?

I didn’t realize the protagonist was unnamed until I started making notes for this post, and realized I couldn’t find her name. Then I realized I hadn’t read the Contributor Note, which informed me this was a deliberate choice: “I knew I would take one big risk – identifying only those characters who had been accepted by the institution.” I love this choice. Names are identities: “Who are you” is almost always answered with a name. We go through great lengths to remember names as courtesy and as good business. God brought the animals to Adam for naming. To refuse to name her is to underline her exclusion. I feel pretty stupid for having missed it initially.

These are interesting times for this story. The politics of the quotidian. Who we are leaks out in everyday life. Compassionate liberals urge our government to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, then fume and complain when it takes an extra four minutes at the grocery store checkout line while the cashier figures out the voucher the newcomers must use. Public minded citizens love children and support education yet vote for property tax plans that cut school funding to lower their taxes so they can keep their kids in private school. Committed feminists sneer at pretty cocktail waitresses when Mr. Feminist smiles too long (that one’s for you, Amy Gardner). Who you are shows through what you do, every little bit of it.

I think readers are going to have very different reactions to this story. I think 48.2% will see our professor as sympathetic, 46.5% will want to know what she did to deserve it, and the second group will win because their predecessors set it up that way. And that’s why the politics of the quotidian matter.

It only hurts when I LAFF: Linear Algebra MOOC

Course: Linear Algebra – Foundations to Frontiers
Length: 12 weeks
School/platform: UTAustin/edX
Instructors: Maggie Myers, Robert van de Geijn

Students appreciate our unique approach to teaching linear algebra because:
       • It’s visual.
       • It connects hand calculations, mathematical abstractions,
                 and computer programming.
       • It illustrates the development of mathematical theory.
       • It’s applicable.
What you’ll learn:
       • Connections between linear transformations, matrices,
              and systems of linear equations
       • Partitioned matrices and characteristics of special matrices
       • Algorithms for matrix computations and solving systems of equations
       • Vector spaces, subspaces, and characterizations of linear independence
       • Orthogonality, linear least-squares, eigenvalues and eigenvectors

I’ve never taken a linear algebra course before, though I’ve had some very basic work on geometric vectors, working with matrices, and Gaussian elimination through a variety of algebra and precalcs. I was looking forward to this. But, as sometimes happens (especially with math), it didn’t quite work out.

In brief: The course is set up as a series of lectures with embedded exercises, an additional set of problems at the end of the week, and four exams scattered throughout. A temporary license for Matlab is included, ending when the course is over. Staff coverage of the forums was excellent. A PDF of some material is provided, but they presuppose viewing the videos, and as usual with any math course, the video transcripts aren’t all that helpful without the videos. Disclaimer: I only made it through the middle of Week 8.

I quite enjoyed, and seemed to be doing very well at, the first three or four weeks. I think I learned a lot about linear combinations and transformations, what they have to do with matrices, and I had a lot of fun smashing Timmy Two-Space all over his grid. I saw a little hint of another point of all this with a (very primitive) weather prediction system, and that was pretty exciting. But it went downhill from there. I gave up in week 8, about halfway through. It wasn’t impossibly hard, but as time went on it had grown impossibly tedious; I just got seriously bored with slicing and dicing matrices for purposes that weren’t all that clear to me. We did have the option to skip over the Matlab algorithm exercises, but I had trouble telling where they began and ended. I completely lost the thread of “what am I doing and why am I doing it?” as calculations – small calculations, just adding and multiplying really but the stuff of nightmares for me – took over my life. I know there was something I was missing, but I never really understood what.

Let me say that I have no doubt at all that the material is essential to those who need linear algebra, and that those who are more comfy with math and computer programming would probably find it a great course. If I want to get to the point where I “know” linear algebra, I’ll probably have to take it again, but it wasn’t the right entry point for me. Of course, how would I know, since I’m still a bit hazy on what linear algebra is for.

I think one of the problems for me was that this was taught by computer science instructors, with a view towards optimizing algorithms as well as teaching linear algebra. Hence, memops and flops (which I actually understand, but don’t care about). Loops and indices. If those sound like music to your ears, this is the course for you, but as for me, STFU and leave me alone.

I’ve been hearing so many mathy people talk about how cool linear algebra is, and the course description includes “It’s visual” as a selling point. Other than Timmy, and a brief graphical description of two-rotation transformations, the only visuals I saw were printouts of algorithms and matrices, endless matrices to partition, multiply, transform. Maybe it got more visual in week 8, but I just didn’t want to do any more.

The instructors were very involved on the forums, promptly answering questions with humor, warmth, and encouragement. Prof. Myers told me about a very cool children’s book about basic combinatorics, Socrates and the Three Little Pigs; why kids that young would be learning combinatorics, I don’t know, but I spent a couple of nice hours figuring out how to fit three pigs into five houses under various conditions. Her videos of detailed proofs and exercise solutions were very helpful. And a mysterious image turned out to be computer wallpaper made from a beautiful image of a stained glass window from Prof. van de Geijn’s grandfather’s house in the Netherlands. These are great people! So I’m kind of puzzled about this: they seem to have gone out of their way to strip all that humor and warmth out of the course material itself. As a result, it was a “I’m going to read a textbook to camera and you watch the low-contrast, slightly out-of-focus slides” kind of course.

I’ve never thought of myself as someone who needs to be entertained in order to engage, but maybe I am, more than I’d like to admit, at least where math is concerned. And I admit I am somewhat spoiled by the truly exceptional moocs I’ve been fortunate enough to take. It’s also possible I no longer have the attention span for a longer course, especially one that requires so much of my time and fully focused attention over an extended period, since I was quite content for several weeks. I can sometimes skim through a philosophy or history lecture, but I have to pay attention to every detail when it comes to math, and it’s hard to sustain, even when I’m into it. And, of course, it’s very possible that, contrary to the Howling Stanfordtoids and their growth mindset, I’m just stupider than I think I am.

Even though I chose not to complete the course, I did find it very worthwhile for initial material. I’m investigating several other linear algebra sources – 3Blue1Brown’s linear algebra playlist on Youtube (which takes visual to a whole other level), Pavel Grinfeld’s lemma unit on linear algebra, and a couple of OCWs (I have trouble with OCWs; I can never figure out how to navigate them, where all the pieces are), and I’m finding that the initial material from LAFF has helped enormously. And, by the way, I think I finally understand mathematical induction thanks to this course, or at least I understood its use in the cases encountered here. So I’m glad I did as much as I did, and I hope to some day pick it up again.

BASS 2016: Ben Marcus, “Cold Litte Bird” from The New Yorker 10/19/15

It started with bedtime. A coldness. A formality.
Martin and Rachel tucked the boy in, as was their habit, then stooped to kiss him good night.
“Please don’t do that,” he said, turning to face the wall.
They took it as teasing, flopped onto his bed to nuzzle and tickle him.
The boy turned rigid, endured the cuddle, then barked out at them, “I really don’t like that!”
“Jonah?” Martin said, sitting up.
“I don’t want your help at bedtime anymore,” he said. “I’m not a baby. You have Lester. Go cuddle with him.”
“Sweetheart,” Rachel said. “We’re not helping you. We’re just saying good night. You like kisses, right? Don’t you like kisses and cuddles? You big silly.”
… “We love you so much. You know?” Martin said. “So we like to show it. It feels good.”
“Not to me. I don’t feel that way.”
“What way? What do you mean?”
They sat with him, perplexed, and tried to rub his back, but he’d rolled to the edge of the bed, nearly flattening himself against the wall.
“I don’t love you,” Jonah said.
“Oh, now,” Martin said. “You’re just tired. No need to say that sort of stuff. Get some rest.”
“You told me to tell the truth, and I’m telling the truth. I. Don’t. Love. You.”

~~ Complete story available online at TNY

Seriously creepy story. No monsters, no supernatural events, no blood or violence, just a kid who rationally, calmly decides to withdraw from parental affection. How’s a parent supposed to deal with that one? In this story, not well. But… what would well even look like? I suppose the natural approach to this story is to wonder, “What would I do,” but since I’m not a parent, I have no idea what to do with a typical child, let alone a child like this.

Jonah isn’t acting out. He isn’t withdrawing from anyone else – his relationship with his brother and his behavior in school is perfectly normal – and he isn’t disobedient. He’s just hyperrational, as though he’s examined his parents and found them unsuitable as bonding objects so has simply stopped participating in whatever love is. At first, the natural assumption is that he’s been abused, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. At one point he does coldly and calculatedly remind them of the consequences should he confide to a school counselor that his family forces him to hug and cuddle against his will, but don’t get sidetracked: the threat is instrumental (and terrifyingly effective) at obtaining his goal, but his withdrawal doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with any abuse.

What is a ten-year-old’s meaning of “I love you, Dad” anyway? Admiration of adult capabilities, gratitude for parental duties, familiarity, need, blackmail, mimickry? Granted the existence of a child’s wish to stay close to his parents – and there’s no indication that Jonah wants to leave his home – is that called “love” by default? What is it like when parents are called on it: I don’t dislike you, I want your caretaking, I respect your authority, but I don’t love you.

There’s also a very interesting twist about religion and identity: when Jonah starts reading about trutherism, the natural reaction of his father is to freak out over his son talking about Jewish conspiracies. “Listen to me, you know that we’re Jewish, right?” Martin asks his son. “Not really”, the boy answers, because to him, Jewishness is measured by religious observance that’s been absent from their lives rather than cultural heritage, which doesn’t seem to play that big a part either. I think I could’ve handled that conversation better than Martin did, which was basically, “Because anti-Semites think you’re Jewish.”

It seems to be contagious, this isolation, in effect if not in cause: Martin and Rachel have a sex scene that’s disgusting, not because of any graphic descriptions of hot, sticky animal passion, but because of the total absence of it. The family shows early signs of disintegration.

It’s the rationality that’s creepiest, since it scratches through the millimeter-thick shell of social conditioning we all adopt as part of civilization. The conflict is between Jonah’s newfound stance in rationality, and the parents’ continued existence in emotionality and social convention. I wonder if they’re unable, or merely unwilling to give up the comforts little white lies and niceties allow us, even for a moment, even to understand their son. They simply want him back the way he was yesterday; he simply doesn’t want to come back. Impasse. He’s crossed some barrier, and his parents can’t reach across. Will they learn how, as time goes on? Or are they all stuck, with Jonah in something like a dimensional shift out of a science fiction movie?

The progression of the story is pretty much what you’d expect: a series of attempts by the parents to laugh off, wait through, reason away, and pathologize what’s going on. Something like the five stages of grief, but we never get to acceptance of the “new normal” as Marcus refers to it in his highly informative Page Turner interview. Will they ever get there? Marcus leaves that for the reader to decide.

BASS 2016: Lisa Ko, “Pat + Sam” from Copper Nickel #21

It was a cold October night in 1974. They smoked back then, everybody did. This was before Pat’s two children became Sam’s and before there were three children, before they grounded the oldest when Pat found a pack of Newports in her room. By then they would have forgotten their own youth, or rather, they would hold to their children to higher standards. The children would be confident and happy – they’d feel entitled to happiness – and for that Pat and Sam would resent them.

And here I am in that awkward place where, despite having connected earnestly with several moments in the story, and despite appreciating the overall narrative technique, I found the contributor note to be more enlightening on the whole than the story. I suspect it would succeed wildly, however, as a first story in a collection of linked stories about Pat, Sam and the family they eventually form, and it just so happens Ko has written some of those linked stories. This one interested me greatly in finding out where these people went next.

But first, what we have in front of us: A nascent-relationship story told by alternating points of view. I was thinking how much this reminded me of Groff’s earlier story, where the characters were isolated, not sharing much, but the reader connected them. Turns out Ko makes exactly that point in her Contributor Note, admitting “The story came together when I stopped resisting the alternate points of view.” I’ve read that before, a writer not wanting to write the story that wants to be written, and discovering that it’s so much better when you let the story tell itself as it wants to be told.

Well-written moments abound. There’s an incident of racism in a New Jersey restaurant, and again that isolation becomes a force: Pat is relieved that Sam didn’t make a scene when white families are seated while their Chinese family – or pseudofamily, since he’s just a date at this point – is left waiting, but he wonders if she’s disappointed at his lack of confrontation. And as the reader, I have to smile at the implied chauvinism: if she felt confrontation was a good idea, why wouldn’t she have done it herself?

Another nice moment, and a subtle one, comes when Sam, on their first date after having met at a party, tells Pat her husband died.

“It was almost a year ago.”
Only? Almost? “I’m sorry.”

We’re in Sam’s head, so he’s the one wondering if she’s saying, “It was only a year ago so don’t expect too much of me” or “It was almost a year ago so I’m ready to get on with my life.” But I wonder: does Pat know for sure if it’s almost or only?And what opinion does the reader bring? All that, conveyed in so few words. Very nice. And again, highlighting the isolation of a new relationship between two reserved people. How does anyone every manage to get past that? Slowly, laboriously, anxiously, we find out.

I like to think about the typography of the title in that vein. Not “Pat and Sam” or “Pat & Sam”, either of which would be more expected; fiction readers occasionally encounter ampersands but rarely plus signs, although they are both symbolizations of the Latin word for “and”, et. Today, the plus sign connotes addition, which makes the title a mathematical expression – not an equation, since there is no equals sign, which leaves us with the question: What do you get when you add Pat and Sam? This story holds no solution, only the question..

I was also quite fond of one of Sam’s observations, that at one point “Pat began to take on a new shape, that of the steely, vulnerable survivor. Someone who’d been wanted, before.” We all have those moments when we discover new information, and everything looks different. I was, as a teenager, panting after a boy, but when I saw him with a friend of mine I realized they were right together, and we were… not. Not at all. These moments can be hard, but they’re important. Reality is always important. Remember that going forward, by the way. There’s also Pat’s sense of unease in New Jersey, highlighted by her thought, as she walks through her back yard littered with autumn: “She had never raked leaves in her life.” And the perennial truism: “When you start to hope, then comes the danger.” Yep. Hope is the thing with feathers that, if we had any sense, we’d strangle before it ever chirped. But we don’t, because to do so is death.

But, as I said, to me the story works so much better as a first chapter. So when I discovered via the Contributor Note that it is in fact a first chapter – an origin story – I was a lot happier:

I’d previously written stories with the two characters in the present day, as retirees, and others from the points of view of their daughters, but always wondered what got them together in the first place. I started the story knowing how I wanted it to end, with a particular image that had been chasing me, a man and woman in bed, physically close but emotionally distant, weighing the compromises they’re about to make.

I’m guessing one of those later stories was “Proper Girls” featured in One Teen Story in early 2014. I’m also guessing her forthcoming novel, The Leavers, is unrelated to this family, but having now read a sample of her capabilities, I’m very interested in taking a look.

Philosophy’s greatest hits MOOC: God, Knowledge, Identity, and like that

Course: Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness
Length: 12 weeks 5hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Caspar Hare

What you’ll learn
•    How to construct and analyze philosophical arguments
•    How to write clearly and communicate complicated ideas effectively
•    Arguments for and against the existence of God
•    The distinction between epistemic and practical rationality
•    Theories of Knowledge
•    Physicalist and Non-Physicalist theories of consciousness
•    Free Will and Determinism
•    Personal Identity

I very much wish I’d take this course before I took Alex Byrne’s “Minds and Machines” mooc. For one thing, it would’ve shown me the correct approach to the readings: tease out the argument being made into premise/conclusion format, or identify the premise being disproved for objections. In fact, I kind of want to take the Byrne course again; I think I’ll get a lot more out of it.

This one serves as a very good introduction to some of the foundational papers for the topics covered, from Hume, Descartes and Pascal to 20th century thinkers. I have some quibbles with presentation style, but that’s a matter of personal preference. I did finally get to see Damien, the TA from both Minds & Machines and the earlier Infinity course, as he took part in a couple of skits (and managed to nick $5 in doing so… you’ll have to take the course to find out how). And there was a rather hilarious running trope about psychotic Oprah, infected by a bacterium that causes her to attack anyone in sight.

I find the MIT courses have an odd structure in terms of how weeks, modules, and lectures are subdivided, but it boils down to lecture/quizlet/essay. The lectures are broken into short segments, and classroom discussion videos are interspersed. Most videos are followed by a couple of graded questions. Three 800 word essays round out the evaluation materials, but they’re self-graded unless you want to pay $300 for the “human-graded” (for some reason I find that phrase hilarious) option. I skipped the last essay out of sheer laziness. I’m not doing this for grades, and I’ve been rather low on motivation of all kinds since November 8.

The discussion boards were well-covered, though they included too much, since it was one of those “what do you think about this” which generated hundreds of single-post threads. This is a problem with the edX system itself, not with the course, but it’s mostly evident in courses that use this forced-posting element; no matter how many times you tell people to reply instead of starting a new post, most of them will start a new post. However, I did get a couple of questions answered (oddly, both about math – the use of the term “induction” and “identity” in math vs philosophy).

In spite of my seeming lack of enthusiasm, I think this actually works quite well as a first “serious” philosophy course. I like the use of actual papers (or translations thereof) rather than explanations accompanied by a quote or two; I also like the pursuit of a topic through argument A, refutation, counterargument, argument B, etc. And I like the focus on the logical argument being made, rather than the “gee whiz, what is the mind anyway” approach – and hey, I like that kind of thing, it’s fun and a great way to play with ideas, it’s just easy to get disorganized and end up not knowing what it is you just learned. So it’s really a pretty good class; I just wish I’d taken it a couple of years ago.

BASS 2016: Smith Henderson, “Treasure State” from Tin House #64

People being the way they are, few realized that their dead had been robbed. They returned from the funeral and set out the cold cuts on the silver trays, the faceted glasses, and the punch. They stocked bottles of beer and cans of Coke in buckets of ice, smoked a quick cigarette out back, and met the grief-stricken, the condolers, and the well-wishers at the door. The furniture smelled of the person they’d just praised to heaven and commended to the dirt. The mourners assembled along the walls in grim or conversant clusters, depending on their affinity with the dead and the yet living. Then they stole away to the upstairs bedroom or the chest in the basement or the desk in the study, only to discover the particular heirloom missing. And the surprise turned hot, and they tiptoed out of the room, slowly pinched closed the door, went up or down the stairs, and took their spot along the wall. They glowered at their kin, wondering which one had got there first.

Some people find they can’t go home again. Others discover they can never leave.

Brothers John and Daniel find out their abusive father is getting out of prison – he had a life sentence, but his terminal cancer has earned him some kind of compassionate release – and they head for the hills. Or, Montana, actually. They’ve never been there, but they like the name, they don’t like cities, and it’s got to be better than Gnaw Bone, Indiana. They’ve got a point there. Funny, I wanted to go to Montana when I was a kid, because of the Hoyt Axton song “Somebody Turned on the Light.” Funny what grabs us. But for John and Daniel, what they don’t want is for their father to grab them.

How do a couple of teenagers, even those who’ve been on their own for a while, survive a long road trip without much in the way of resources or skills? They rob houses during funerals, of course. Henderson tells us in his Contributor Note that the story came to him, nearly complete, when he read about this practice in a newspaper. On one heist, they pick up a girl who’s trying to run away. On another, John discovers more than he can handle. Then it turns out… no, that would be a spoiler.

It’s a very readable story, lots of forward motion, quirky characters and interesting, often amusing, events. Still, it’s not pure plot, for a lot of reasons, including John’s memory of smashing pumpkins with a hammer (I was a bit alarmed by the plethora of images I found just by googling pumpkin hammer to use as header art, until I remembered the rock band) then seeing Daniel take the beating for it, and how a hammer plays oh so subtly into the end. The final scene is ambiguous in a pleasant way, allowing for speculation and imagination of what happens next. And the kids are sympathetic as all get-out, making a story about death, abuse, poverty, and emotional need a fun read somehow.

This is the second Smith Henderson story I’ve run into. Like Thomas McGuane, he focuses on the rural West, which makes them stand out in a field of city and suburb stories. But that’s just where they put the stories; what they write about is universal.

BASS 2016: Meron Hadero , “The Suitcase” from Missouri Review, 38.3

All month Saba had failed almost every test she’d faced, and though she’d seized one last chance to see if this trip had changed her, had taught her at least a little of how to live in this culture, she’d only ended up proving her relatives right: she wasn’t even equipped to go for a walk on her own. What she thought would be our romantic, monumental reunion with her home country had turned out to be a fiasco; she didn’t belong here.

Some stories succeed because they touch on very deep and sombre themes. Some succeed because the writing gives goosebumps. Sometimes it’s a character, sometimes a plot that teases the reader along a path of delayed gratification that’s worth it. And sometimes a story works just because it’s charming, and heartfelt, and says something old in a unique way. I think the latter is the case here.

Saba is visiting Ethiopia to connect with the country her family left when she was too young to form a memory, to meet those they left behind. It isn’t going terribly well. The initial scene in the story has her trying to cross a street in downtown Addis Ababa. I lived in Boston, where driving is a contact sport and extra points are given for hitting pedestrians, for 20 years; I’m guessing even Boston would be no training for Addis Ababa. A local man tells Saba about a guy who tried to cross the street, gave up, and now lives on the median strip. “Don’t start what you can’t finish,” he tells her. She ends up taking a cab, and bemoans her failure.

The suitcase of the story is the second central image. Apparently it’s expensive to ship items between the US and Ethiopia, and their arrival is iffy. So her trip serves a dual purpose: mail carrier. But not just any mail.

At her mother’s insistence, Saba had brought one suitcase for her own clothes and personal items at the second that for the trip there was full of gifts from America – new and used clothes, old books, magazines, medicine – to give to family she had never met. For her return, it would be full of gifts to bring to America from those same relatives and family friends.
Saba knew this suitcase wasn’t just a suitcase.…[It] offered coveted prime real estate on a vessel traveling between here and there. Everyone wanted a piece; everyone fought to stake a claim to their own space.… An empty suitcase opened up a rare direct link between two worlds, so Saba understood why relatives and friends wanted to fill her bag with carefully wrapped food things, gifts, sundry items, making space, taking space, moving and shifting the bulging contents of the bag.

The tension of the story builds around the suitcase being so stuffed with Ethiopian love for the trip back, it’s overweight. It’s kind of a false tension; Saba could pay the overage fee, even though her relatives don’t want that. But it’s more interesting to ignore that logical flaw and go with it. That means decisions must be weighed about which of the gifts from Ethiopia to America are to be weeded out: chickpeas; loaves of bread; doro wat (a kind of spicy chicken stew); gunfo (a porridge particularly traditional for post-partum women); spices (corrorima, grains of paradise, berbere). Each relative pleads his or her case, explaining why their gift must reach loved ones on the other side. Each gift has a special resonance of meaning. And Saba must decide.

The structure of the story mimics the plot. Just as the US and Ethiopia are at the ends of a transit of goods via the suitcase, so Saba’s street crossing and her final decision are attached by a transit of sorts. Will she make it across the now metaphorical street, or will she, too, end up living on the median strip, between cultures?

It may be a flawed story (and what story isn’t), but it’s charming nonetheless, and that makes it work.

Wu-wei MOOC

Course: Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science – Part 1 and Part 2
Length: 9 weeks total
School/platform: University of British Columbia/edX
Instructors: Edward Slingerland

Part 1 introduces the basic philosophical, religious and scientific concepts that will be drawn upon throughout the course, and then goes on to cover early Shang and Zhou religious thought, the Analects of Confucius, the Daodejing (a Daoist text attributed to Laozi), the utilitarian thinker Mozi, the newly discovered and very exciting Guodian texts, and the momentous philosophical changes that occurred in the mid Warring States period.
Part 2 builds upon Part 1 by exploring late Warring States thinkers such as the Confucian Mencius, the Daoist Zhuangzi, and the return to externalism in the form of Xunzi—who believed Mencius betrayed the original Confucian vision—and his former student Hanfeizi, a “Legalist” thinker who helped lay the foundations for the autocratic system that unified the Warring States into China’s first empire. We will conclude with some reflections on what it means to study religious thought, and the thought of other cultures, in a modern, globalized world.
Part 2 can be taken as a stand-alone course, but will be more comprehensible and rewarding with the background provided in Part 1.

Short version: Another terrific class. Considering that prior to last May, I knew virtually nothing about China, it’s kind of amazing that I’ve now taken three tours through the philosophers of the late Zhou dynasty. What’s even more amazing is that each round took a different approach in interwoven layers, so it just kept getting better.

This course specialized in not only reviewing the tenets of each philosopher examined, but in relating those tenets to contemporary research in cognitive, behavioral, and psychological neuroscience. From the overall concept of wu-wei to Confucius’ attempt to cultivate intrinsic rewards via ritual and training to Mencius’ inborn moral sprouts to Mozi’s impartial caring, some of these ideas from more than two thousand years ago can be confirmed – or contradicted – by scientific techniques and very contemporary ethical philosophy.

Most weeks featured a guest lecturer on varying topics: generally, psychology and cognitive science, but also wide-ranging topics like music, language and literature, and the neuroscience of meditation. One of the guests, by the way, was Russell Brand reading the text and discussing his thoughts on wu-wei, Daodejing, Butcher Ding, and Confucianism. You never know who you’ll run into in a mooc. (I’ll admit I’m not sure who Russell Brand is, but he seems to be famous).

The syllabus is structured after Prof. Slingerland’s 2014 book Trying Not To Try (featured on Brainpickings), a clever capsulization of wu-wei ( 無爲 ), a key concept in several of the philosophies though the path and purpose may differ. Pertinent chapters from the book were provided in PDF format. His recent TEDx talk, featuring his experience playing “MindBall” at his local science museum, gives a general overview of the topic. The other text was Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (Ivanhoe/Van Norden, 2001), a translation of the works of the philosophers studied; I managed to find a copy through my local library, but since the pertinent sections are fully quoted throughout the course, it wouldn’t have been a serious impediment if it wasn’t available.

The course is structured in two parts. They can be taken independently, but I’d take the final sentence in the quote above seriously. In fact, I’d consider the first part pretty foundational to the second, since a great deal of introductory work on cognitive and behavioral science takes place in the first week; of course, YMMV, but it’s great stuff – then again, I just loved the whole course and wouldn’t have wanted to miss a minute. Pssst – as a special incentive, there’s also blooper reel tucked into Part 1, the only time I’ve seen such a thing in a mooc. All of them should include one of those.

Structurally it’s your basic lecture-quiz course with excellent instructor involvement. Each week includes about 9 lecture videos, each about 10-15 minutes, but it seems like both a lot more and a lot less. A lot more, because Prof. Slingerland (who bears a strong resemblance to comedian Jon Stewart, but maybe that’s just me) talks pretty fast (there are speed controls on the videos, but while I often have used higher speeds, I find slowing things down always makes the speaker sound drugged so I just pause a lot and pre-read the lecture transcripts) and also because there’s a lot of stuff –about language, history, philosophy, contemporary neuroscience, psychological research, etc etc – and a lot less because it’s all fascinating. A couple of ungraded “test yourself” questions followed each video, with a graded quiz to finish off each week, plus a final quiz at the end of each part. The questions generally fall between information retrieval and concept application, so they keep you on your toes, but I wouldn’t say it’s hard. It is, however, a great deal of complex stuff.

Each week also featured a “Q&A” video featuring further explanation of issues raised on the discussion forums. The forums weren’t exactly rollicking, but engagement in the discussions was significant, as people posted about aspects that interested them, and others interested in the capturesame ideas joined in; staff and instructor showed up regularly. I far prefer this spontaneous system to the inane “forced post” courses, where everyone’s supposed to answer the same banal question (“What do you think about…”) and the boards end up cluttered with hundreds of single-post threads; the result is not discussion, but a whole bunch of parallel monologues. I don’t know why so many courses do that, but I’m glad this one didn’t. Each week the staff would pin a couple of threads and send an email outlining the issues, which was also a nice touch to encourage those who might not have seen the threads to jump in. It also gave the sense of a carefully tended mooc, rather than a plug-in with a start button. Treasure these while they still exist.

As you can tell from some of the images inserted, I went a little bonkers with my note taking. I’ve always been a little overly obsessed with putting everything from the moocs I take into a Word document – lecture transcripts with video images imbedded, readings, quizzes, occasional forum discussions – but here I went overboard, even for me. I put most of the quotes from the various thinkers – and there were tons of quotes – into text boxes, each with different backgrounds and fonts, depending on my impression of what might fit the philosopher best, then pasted those into my copy of the lecture transcripts. I probably added 2 hours to each week doing this kind of word processing. Hey, leave me alone, I had fun.

But wait, there’s more! Months ago, I signed up for a course titled “The Science of Religion” on spec without really paying much attention to what it included; it sounded like something I might like. Now I’ve discovered that not only is it a UBC course, but Prof. Slingerland is one of the instructors. He’s said it’s all new material, not a condensed replay of this course; I’m still not sure what it is, but I’m looking forward to it.

BASS 2016: Lauren Groff, “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” from American Short Fiction 18:60

Leo stood on the high window ledge, his wisp of a body pressed against the glass. Here, the frames rattled if you breathed on them wrong. There was rot in the wood older than Amanda herself. But Leo was such an intense child, and so purposeful, that she watched him until she remembered hearing once that glass was just a very slow liquid. Then she ran.
He was so light for four years old. He turned in her arms and squeezed her neck furiously and whispered, It’s you.
Leo, she said. That is so dangerous. You could have died.
I was looking at the bird, he said. He pressed a finger to the glass and she saw, down on the white rocks, some sort of raptor with the short beak. Huge and dangerous, even dead.
It fell out of the sky, he said. I was watching the black go blue. And the bird fell. I saw it. Boom. The bad thing, I thought, but actually it’s just a bird.
The bad thing? She said, but Leo didn’t answer. She said, Leo, you are one eerie mammerjammer.
My mom says that, he said. She says I give her the wet willies. But I need my breakfast now, he said, and wiped his nose on the strap of her sports bra.

This is one of those stories where nothing really happens, nobody changes, but the stylistics are interesting and if you look at the whole picture and know some background, there is a point. Sort of like a French art film with no plot, where you’re supposed to notice light and dark and who’s bigger or smaller and who has agency or power or all those other things that make French art films nearly impossible to watch. Just don’t get distracted by the dead falcon and the peeping tom. I’m going to go into more detail than usual because otherwise I’ve said all I can say, so if you dislike spoilers, stop now.

First, the players and what serves as a plot. Amanda and Grant are in France, visiting Amanda’s long-time friend Genevieve and her husband Manfred. Genevieve was Jennifer back in the old days, and Manfred’s recovering from yet another manic-depressive episode. Their four-year-old son Leo finds a dead falcon and, having seen a picture of a phoenix rising from the ashes, sets it on fire. I’m a little worried about this kid, particularly since he wets the bed; isn’t that a psychopathic triad? Turns out he didn’t kill the bird, so I guess that’s only two out of three. He does seem to like ladies, though.

The only revelation along the way is that the house they’re all staying in isn’t Genevieve and Manfred’s, but a friend of theirs, as they’ve had to sell their multiple properties and are now down to one house. There’s also a little drama about a piece of cheese that later turns out to be poisoned, but since we don’t know it’s poisoned during the drama, it’s not all that dramatic, unless you count thinking “wow, he could have died” four pages later if you remember the cheese at all. Then there’s a highly clichéd, grass-is-greener scene that reveals some reason these two became friends in the first place:

Remember that Frost poem we used to say when we were wondering which of our families would kill us first? Amanda said. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. Et cetera. I would have given anything for a little ice.
At least you had some joy in your family. At least there was love, Genevieve said. She blinked fast behind her sunglasses. Amanda squeezed her knee.
At least her family never made you bleed, Amanda said. All the time.

Poor Amanda: She doesn’t know “who to envy now”.

The only other events of note are the arrival of Mina, Amanda’s niece, who will be playing nanny in exchange for a month in the French countryside. The only reason her arrival is interesting is that she turns out to be black, to Genevieve’s surprise. Not that Genevieve has anything against black people, but she knew her when she was a kid, and she wasn’t black then, except of course she was, she just wasn’t as dark seeing as her mother’s white. Poor Genevieve: she’s broke, her husband’s chronically ill, and people change race on her.

There’s some very nice writing – “But as they watched, shivering, there was a great crack, and a bolt of light split the plaza wide open, and the lightning doubled itself on the wet ground, the carousel in sudden grayscale and all the animals bolt-eyed and fleeing in terror” – and I’m pretty sure between the dead raptor and the lightning and the intrusion and Mina, there’s all kinds of symbolism, though don’t press me to pin down any of it.

I did find some interesting elements overall. First, it starts with intrusion: somebody driving by on a tractor (hey, don’t ask me, what do I know about the French countryside, apparently the place is lousy with tractors) stops by the bedroom window where Amanda and Grant are, shall we say, waking up the fun way. As readers, we too intrude on the intimacy of these people through narrative technique rather than glass. Each character is isolated, keeping much of their feelings private; Amanda doesn’t know Grant is hitting on Genevieve, for instance. The story is written in revolving close third-person, but since every character gets a turn, it feels very much like omniscient view, establishing a connection between them, missing in their lives, through the reader. And a touch of dramatic irony: we end with Mina, young and optimistic, wondering what’s wrong with the others that they’re so miserable, unaware they once felt her optimism, too.

The other stylistic element I find interesting is the lack of quotation marks in a story that’s heavy with dialogue. Some writers feel quotation marks clutter up the page and get distracting so are better omitted. I don’t have any objection to that, but in this case, I found it difficult to follow in places, not sure if someone was thinking or speaking a phrase or sentence. I wonder if that was the point: erasing the boundary between what is said and what is thought and what is done, making it all a single tableau for our instrusive reading.

And the point of it all? The Contributor Note indicates the story was inspired by a long-ago visit to France, and in particular the French lullaby “Au clair de la lune” (not to be confused with Debussy). It’s a catchy little ditty about pens and fires on one level, about banging the neighbor, any neighbor, on the other. The lullaby creates the title, as the singer entreats the first neighbor “For the love of god” and the second, “For the god of love”, which, finally, creates some sense of the story’s purpose: we start out, like Mina, all about the god of love, but not that many years later we end up, like the other four, clinging to our sanity for the love of god.

A few thoughts

It’s now day 3 of The New Normal and I still can’t focus, can’t think, burst into tears at odd moments, don’t give a damn about anything I enjoyed a few days ago. I live with depression. I’ve lived with depression all my life. This isn’t depression. It’s that BSOD message: “Windows must shut down to prevent damage to your computer.” A self-protective paralysis overlying incipient hysteria.

I had a moment of beauty yesterday when someone reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” – “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I thought I might be turning a corner. Then I found out he died. Moment’s over. That was quick. He may have died on Monday, or on Thursday. I hope it was Monday. Before.

I went through the supermarket today, wondering: Which ones? Which ones decided I wasn’t worth keeping alive any more? Was it her? Who was it that decided my friends and neighbors should be deported, was it him? Who was it that decided bragging about sexual assault and a life spent viewing women purely in terms of their sexual utility wasn’t disqualifying, who felt like telling a crowd things were better when they could just beat the guy up, who wants to muzzle the media unless they only say nice things about him, didn’t matter that much – was it you? Did you decide you liked the bigotry so much, you’d ignore the bankruptcies and the potential for war and the chumming up to a Russian autocrat? Do fetuses matter so much more than living, breathing people who were once fetuses? And if there’s any doubt that people will suffer, check out Shaun King’s timeline, check the news about Penn, or just ask me for the 15 clips I randomly pulled to show you the hatred you have implicitly approved.

Those who voted for bigotry (and they will insist they voted for other things, but if you vote for a bigot, you don’t get to wave it away and claim purity) have made it clear they’ve been revolted by the person occupying the Oval Office for the past eight years. I’m going to understand that feeling, for the first time in my life, a lot better in the next four years (oh, let’s not sugar coat this, it’s eight years, and who knows, with all three branches of government firmly in his control, it might end up more than that). But my distaste does not spring from what the new President Elect is, but from what he’s said and done. If you can show me anything President Obama has ever said or done that’s as offensive as [insert favorite example of bigotry here] that will help me to understand. If you can show me instances where President Obama has been as selfish, as mean-spirited, as vindictive, as crass, as greedy as the new President Elect, that will help me to understand. I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me how anything President Obama did affected their lives in a negative way. I’m not saying everything was peachy-keen, but he always maintained an air of grace and rationality. I never doubted his sincerity, and I always felt, even when I was disappointed by some action he did or didn’t take, some degree of trust in his judgment. I was proud to call him my President. Given my age and health, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to say that again.

Some casual online friends of mine were commenting on the election from that place of white privilege (which, I admit, I also enjoy) where everything’s an academic exercise and somehow both candidates were equally distasteful because it isn’t our rights, freedoms, and safety that’s threatened by one of them. I’ve been ignoring this attitude for weeks from all sides (my dental hygienist, a bus driver, a neighbor). But yesterday I cracked. I ended up the bad guy. I don’t like being the bad guy, and it does nobody any good. My intentions were good, and I can’t say I regret what I posted, but I made a fool of myself, and I was ineffective.

People of color have been saying white people don’t like to be made to feel uncomfortable about racism; I never knew what they meant before. I still don’t understand it: I’m always uncomfortable about racism (I’m always uncomfortable about a lot of things, for that matter), fully aware I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be the only black woman in the room, to be the black guy on the street when a police car comes around. I’ve tried to include more diverse voices into my earshot over the past several years. I still have a lot to learn. But fact is, I’m not comfortable with confrontation, so I tend to stay quiet until I’m pissed off to the point of erupting, and that’s never a good approach.

I’ll probably regret this post at some point, maybe even delete it; it’s way too “hot-take”. But right now, it’s something I need to put out here.

I hear a lot about liberals and other Democrats (funny, I always thought they were the same thing) being angry at each other, at individual Democrats, at the news media, at this and at that. Me, I’m angry at Jon Stewart. Yes, the Daily Show guy, the flaming liberal who’s been campaigning his heart out for the side of sanity and reason, the guy who’s show I watched religiously for years, the guy I still miss (though Trevor’s doing a fantastic job and brings an angle Jon simply couldn’t). Because I remember a show he did, just before he left TDS, where he and a bunch of other comedians got together on stage for a simulated circle jerk over the announcement of a certain candidate. They saw jokes making themselves for two, three months, maybe six. They never thought it would go beyond that. They never thought it could happen here.

Guess what – it happened here. And the KKK is throwing parades. This is who we are now.

BASS 2016: Yalitza Ferreras, “The Letician Age” from Colorado Review 42.2

Leticia’s mother spotted the glint in between the cobblestones, near the statue of Christopher Columbus in Parque Colón, across the edge of her stomach like a tiny sun on the horizon. She bent down sideways, careful not to fold on the fetus that would soon be her baby girl. The ring was tiny, sized for a rich child’s finger. A pronged crown nestling a ruby intercepted the gold band.
I hope it’s a girl.

Leticia’s connection to rocks began before she was even born: the cobblestones of the street, the ruby of the ring, glistening like… well, like the red braids of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess who watches over volcanos, whose hair runs down their slopes as lava flows and folds, and later becomes wispy slivers of volcanic glass. But Leticia starts out in the Dominican Republic and then New York.

An obsession with rock formations and volcanos begins for her at a young age. When her family moves from the Dominican Republic to New York when she’s 8, she begins to collect rocks in a shoebox: ordinary rocks picked up in random places, but she paints them with colors and thinks of them as various minerals and formations. It’s not only the beauty of the rocks, or the science, that appeals to her, it’s about the power displayed in geological forces, a power not available to her:

Geological changes that took thousands or millions of years to occur looped in Leticia’s head like never-ending movie: mountain ranges pushing out of the earth, minerals being formed from fluids that solidified and turned into beautiful crystals, rocks being compressed by heat and pressure, and the tiny scream of a mosquito as its life was pressed away. In volcanoes, the slow processes were sped up like cataclysmic changes she wanted in her own life, but most people were like rocks – shaped by circumstances and time. Yet once in a while a person explodes out of her bedrock and becomes something else.

I very much like that metaphor of how lives are created by forces that are outside of our control. I like a lot of the imagery and language in the story. One of the ways Leticia is shaped by circumstances is with the accidental death of her younger brother; when someone asks her if she has siblings, she tells him, “Yes, two. But now one.” That’s an interesting phrasing, connoting both the initial state, and the change, and highlighting the loss by forcing the listener (and reader) to think about it. Yet it’s not “written”, which would be incongruous in spoken dialogue; it sounds like an explanation an intellligent young woman who’s been asked this question many times might have ready. And when she meets the man who will become her fiancé, an astronomer, she admires someone who looks at the night sky all the time. He replies, “No, these days I spend very little time looking at actual stars. It’s mostly looking at hard data.” Having taken a course in solar system astronomy, I can agree that a great deal of the telescope work our instructor showed us was analylsis of signals and mathematical modeling of probabilities rather than stargazing.

Leticia’s parents are more practical-minded, and while they think rock collecting is a nice hobby, they encourage her to train as a secretary or accountant so she will not work in a factory like they do. I understand that; they’re hoping she will have a better life than theirs, but they see only one step ahead, rather than the three or four Leticia’s seen. The death of her brother solidify her plans, first with a lassitude that makes her unable to resist the path of least resistance, and second as she steps into the breach created by her parents’ grief-diminished ability to support the family.

But the astronomer does come along, and it’s on a romantic trip to Hawaii that the rocks of the earth reclaim her. Or, in another reading, that she chooses the lithosphere over the biosphere. The subsequent events aren’t entirely clear to me, and again I felt left up in the air, but the story is about that choice she made to return to her natural element; the rest, I suppose, is commentary.

According to Ferreras’ Contributor Note, the story is based on her own youthful fascination with geology and volcanology, and a “terrifying incident” that apparenty sent her in other career directions. She wrote an autobiographical essay about it, titled “Ten Famous Geologists and the Failed Geologist Who Loved Them,” a highly descriptive title. Snippets of those geological biographies are scattered through this story.

[addendum: I apologize for having done a very crappy job on this entry. I’ve been… distracted for the past couple of days. More like distraught, really. But you get the idea.]

BASS 2016: Louise Erdrich, “The Flower” from TNY, 6/29/15

TNY art by Gray318

TNY art by Gray318 (detail)

Outside an isolated Ojibwe country trading post in the year 1839, Mink was making an incessant racket. She wanted what Mackinnon had, trader’s milk—a mixture of raw distilled spirits, rum, red pepper, and tobacco. She had bawled and screeched her way to possession of a keg before. The noise pared at Mackinnon’s nerves, but he wouldn’t beat her into silence. Mink was from a family of powerful healers. She had been the beautiful daughter of Shingobii, a supplier of rich furs. She had also been the beautiful wife of Mashkiig, until he destroyed her face and stabbed her younger brothers to death. Their eleven-year-old daughter huddled with her now, under the same greasy blanket, trying to hide. Inside the post, Mackinnon’s clerk, Wolfred Roberts, had swathed his head in a fox pelt to muffle the sound, fastening the desiccated paws beneath his chin. He wrote in an elegant, sloping hand, three items between lines. Out there in the bush, they were always afraid of running out of paper.

~ Story available online at The New Yorker

I’m always interested in how a writer decides on names, particularly who gets a name, and who doesn’t. Here, it isn’t really a writer’s choice. Of course everything that happens in a story is the writer’s choice, but in this piece, Erdrich has chosen to leave the choice to the eleven-year-old daughter of Mink, who chooses to keep her name to herself even as she and Wolfred forge a bond of those alone against the world. The third time he asks, “[s]he laughed, not wanting him to own her, and drew a flower.”

Of the characters introduced in that first paragraph, the story comes down to the two children, Wolfred and the girl, who save each other and escape the adults who have betrayed them in unspeakable ways.

It’s peculiar how kids often miss an abusive parent, and this girl is no exception; her loneliness for the mother who sold her into sexual slavery for a few days’ worth of booze permeates the story. I think it’s deeper than the loss of a parent: she loses her culture, her entire way of life, when Mink dies. Wolfred, himself only 17, becomes her protector – and later, in a beautiful display of loyalty, her patient – but he can’t make up for the loss. In fact, his misinterpretation of the flower underlines the gulf between them: she can’t imagine why anyone would be named after a flower, a thing that dies.

She brings her culture along in some ways: her mother’s drum, a dog who joins them as they escape from the store where Wolfred murdered MacKinnon, her nighttime flights over the treetops, the healing skills she’s picked up from her family. But the dangers of the adult world cannot be left behind so easily:

Mackinnon’s head, rolling laboriously over the snow, its hair on fire, flames cheerfully flickering. Sometimes it banged into a tree and whimpered. Sometimes it propelled itself along with its tongue, its slight stump of neck, or its comically paddling ears. Sometimes it whizzed along for a few feet, then quit, sobbing in frustration at its awkward, interminable progress.

I very much like this semi-fantastical element, particularly as it’s presented: both she and Wolfred see it, so it becomes more real than some flight of fancy or a hallucination. While the head is the embodiment of rage and they flee from it in fear, I would guess it represents different things to each of them. To her it’s the white world trying to own her; to him, it’s the guilt of having murdered someone, even though violence was his only choice.

But they are not alone in the world, and eventually, they must re-enter. For Wolfred, this is probably a good thing, but the girl will lose more of herself when she’s put into a school where the idea is to drain her of everything Indian, to make her acceptable in the white world:

At the school, everything was taken from her. Losing her mother’s drum was like losing Mink all over again. At night, she asked the drum to fly back to her again. But there was no answer. She soon learned how to fall asleep. Or let the part of myself they call hateful fall asleep, she thought. But that was all of herself. Her whole being was Anishinaabe. She was Illusion. She was Mirage. Ombanitemagad. Or what they called her now—Indian. As in, Do not speak Indian, when she had been speaking her own language. It was hard to divide off parts of herself and let them go. At night, she flew up through the ceiling and soared as she had been taught. She stored pieces of her being in the tops of the trees. She’d retrieve them later, when the bells stopped.

The last sentence of the story is quite pointed, but in general I found the end to be unsatisfying, leaving the story unresolved in a way that feels unfinished rather than a projection into the future. I seem to be noticing endings a lot these days. In her Page Turner interview, Erdrich does cite a forthcoming novel, LaRose (published this past summer), but tells us this story does not appear in this form though its elements are scattered throughout. I’m curious: does that mean one of the girl’s descendents is a character in the novel? Or did she become a cultural icon as an adult? How did her story get carried forward? In any case, I’m glad it did.

BASS 2016: Ted Chiang, “The Great Silence” from e-flux, 5/2015

Images from The Great Silence: a video installation by Allora, Calzadilla, & Chiang

Images from The Great Silence: a video installation by Allora, Calzadilla, & Chiang

The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe.
But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?
We’re a non-human species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?

~~ Available online at e-flux

I was sobbing like a baby by the last sentence on this one (the first tears I’ve cried over this year’s BASS). I’ve burst into tears three or four times since, just remembering it. I’d assumed it was my own personal reaction, but I see lots of other readers around the internet have had the same reaction. Junot Diaz mentioned in his Introduction that this was his favorite story of this anthology. Thing is, I had no idea, when I was done reading, what technique of craft, what deftness of language, what structure, what character development made this so effective.

It wasn’t even written as a story: it was the text to accompany a video installation by artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Much has been written about both the installation and the story; I had a good idea of what I would be reading via Karen Joy Fowler’s introduction in Electric Literature before I even knew the story had been selected for BASS.

I’m late to the Ted Chiang party. I only heard about him a couple of months ago, when one of my moocbuddies mentioned “Story of your Life” as his favorite science fiction story. I checked the collection out of the library and I could see why (the film version, “Arrival”, is due for release in a few weeks). So I was very happy to see him included in this anthology; while BASS has included science fiction several times (and, by the way, the last Diaz story I read was science fiction, part of an in-progress novel), the literary fiction community in general has long had a bug up its ass about anything that smells like science fiction, and I’m always happy to see signs of that changing.

Because of the enormous emotional impact, and my inability to explain it, I asked the same mooc friends who recommended Chiang to give me their impressions. One person, who preferred the theme to the writing, mentioned “[t]he juxtaposition of very simple language with a complex topic”. I think the language, since it is the expression of the parrot, had to be simple; it’s grammatical, but a bit atypical. On reflection, I also noticed the short paragraphs of equal size, and equated that to a bird’s repetitive chirp (which is a stretch, as it is probably more about the original video-installation setting of the piece).

Shawn Urban pointed out the irony of “[t]elling this story from the perspective of one of those things we have that is disappearing, particularly while pointing out how worthwhile and like us this thing is, is inspired. I like all the implications (sound, breath, hope) tied to the parrots and man’s scanning for things (extraterrestrials) he does not have. These implications have double, poignant meanings in the story. The irony and dramatic irony are subtle yet sharp.” Yes, that’s good, the irony of looking so hard yet ignoring what’s right in front of us, and all, in a twist of the ironic knife, revealed to us by that which is, by being overlooked, about to be destroyed.

We seem very determined to maintain the belief that humans are the only source of intelligence on earth. While a few researchers look in other directions, psychology, philosophy, and medicine are quite adept at changing the definition of intelligence when it seems possible that other creatures may share this quality with us, in order to maintain our uniqueness. But would this make me cry?

Then Paul Oldroyd wrote: “But the central message of random, unwitting violence by a species that is nonetheless the subject of unconditional love is what gets me. We have such greatness and arrogance within us.” Yes, that unconditional love. A grace so rich, the trespass goes unseen. Put side-by-side with our ongoing refusal to see, let alone acknowledge, our responsibility: this very well might be what starts the tears, even now. Add to that a single victim with a story, rather than a parade of abstract statistics about rainforest destruction, and you’ve got a recipe for affective engagement.

I’m not that much of an environmentalist, I’m not particularly fixated on extraterrestrial life, I don’t have any particular connection to parrots, and still Chiang knocked me off my feet. People yammer all the time, saying whatever is instrumental to their purpose at the moment, but once in a while, a human-created non-human voice touches me deeply – whether it’s Jade Rabbit or fictional parrot – when it speaks its truth, simply to speak it. All we have to do is listen. I hear you, little bird. Hang in there. “You be good. I love you.”

BASS 2016: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, “The Bears” from Glimmer Train, #93

Once, when I was convalescing, I was sent to a farmhouse in the country. No one there knew I had been sick. A woman came to cook in the evenings, and her daughter would appear at odd hours with a mop and bucket, keeping the place clean. There were many kinds of tea to be found in the kitchen, and a woven tray on which you could arrange the tea things. Also there were deep old wooden chairs lined up along the front porch, so you could sit as long as you liked, looking out over the fields, the trees, and sometimes even the mountains if the sky was truly clear. Because of the porch and the tray and the slow way the day ended, I felt, in this place, though no one knew of my miscarriage, as if I were being gently attended to, as if all the demands of the world had been lifted away, and that I should rest.

I’d like to announce the naming of a previously known but unacknowledged disorder among readers: Protracted Furrowed Brow Syndrome (PFBS), contracted when you’re never quite sure what’s going on in a story. Fortunately, it’s only mildly painful. A glance at the Contributor Note, as well as a second read, often effects a reversal of symptoms.

The initial stages of my PFBS were barely noticeable, within normal limits of any reading experience where I hop on someone else’s train of thought. Opening with a line like “while I was convalescing” set the scene, and hinted at more details to come. But then came the narrator’s conflation of sickness and miscarriage: did she have a miscarriage because she was sick? Or was it the other way around, and complications of the miscarriage became the sickness? Or is the miscarriage itself the sickness? That led to some contemplation about how I normally wouldn’t think of a miscarriage as a sickness, but then, what would it be called? Perhaps the term sickness brings in the psychological heartsickness that followed, but further details revealed this pregnancy was not expected and the whole relationship was less than forever-after in her mind. Is her ambiguity part of the sickness as well? Or is it an engagement device, a way to get the reader asking questions and thus reading on in the hopes of finding answers?

Also peculiar was the aspect of being sent to a farmhouse, which appeared to be some kind of rustic hotel, to recover, until it became clear it was more of a writer’s retreat. But between the impression that someone had authority to send her somewhere she was not otherwise inclined to go, and the realization that she was there of her own volition and for her own purpose, I experienced more progression into the initial stages of PFBS.

This area remained practical and suspicious. At frequent intervals, sometimes only two or three trees apart, the signs were posted: PRIVATE PROPERTY, they said. Then came a list of numerous activities, followed by the words STRICTLY FORBIDDEN, and for final emphasis, the phrase SHALL BE PROSECUTED. As if these yellow signs left room for doubt and interpretation, some people had gone to the trouble of making their own: NO VISITORS, said one. NO TRESPASSING, said another. And even the cornfields were wrapped around with barbed wire. But not once did I see another person walking along the road.

The retreat itself, and the surrounding environment, delighted me and seemed just right. My brow relaxed a bit: ok, now I know where we are, the forbidding signs, the atmosphere of unseen threat (all around us, whether of trespassers on a deserted road or of pregnancy in a routine relationship or of miscarriage with the uncertainty that brings under even the best of circumstances: Am I ok? Will I ever?) and, charmingly, the house that becomes a trigger for her idyllic fantasies. I’ve done exactly that, decided that the people who live there – or, once, the veterinarian who practiced there – must be wonderful, because assholes would never have a house that so fit into my idea of family warmth and kind generosity, a house that looked so much like me. And, of course, we often imagine wrong.

It was during the running scene that PFBS truly blossomed. I understand that some people like to run, but for someone who hasn’t done a lot of running, and was still convalescing, she seemed to run for a very long time over quite a distance. My brows didn’t try to shake hands, however, until the bleeding started. And then she went into the fantasy house. Who does that? Is this a dream, a fantasy? Her reaction to Jerry Roth made me downright angry, which probably transferred to an irritation with the whole story.

And as the man drew closer, I understood more and more clearly the size of him. He moved laboriously, shuffling more than walking, halting every few steps to catch his breath. His head shone and his shoulders heaved. The hem of his bathrobe fluttered above legs that looked at once curdled and bloated, swollen to the point of bursting. His leg flesh drooped over his knees.
I knew but did not accept that this man approaching the house was Jerry Roth…. It seems impossible that the man responsible for this house was the same as the huge, repellent person kicking at his lawn. I was too inexperienced to understand how the two were not at all irreconcilable.

I think I barely skimmed the last couple of pages before turning to the Contributor Note and finding the key: Fairy tales. Oh. Silver Hair, indeed. The Bears. I get it. Would I have gotten it if not for that note? No one else seems to have had a problem with it. Are Junot Diaz, Heidi Pitlor, et al, more familiar with fairy tales, or just smarter than I am, or just more used to seeing such things, or at least more familiar with Bynum’s specialty, which is incorporating fairy tale plots into contemporary stories? Or am I just stupid? I suppose the name Robert Southey should have been a clue, but it seems I’m not up on my Lake Poets or my fairy tales.

I read the story again, and somewhat to my surprise, liked it quite a bit (I kept thinking of a line from Alt-J’s “Handmade”: “There’s bears in the wood and they’re out to get me, and I’m safe from harm if I stay in this chalet”) until the last couple of pages. I was done before the story was – and I don’t mean that in a negative way, but I felt a satisfying conclusion towards the bottom of page 66 and I still haven’t really read the remaining paragraphs. I have a hard time believing neither Glimmer Train nor the BASS crew would’ve noticed that Bynum wrote past the ending, so maybe there’s some treasure there I’m missing; that’s fine, I’ll get it on the next pass.

I’m still puzzling out a few things: What is the thematic connection between the fairy tale – trespass, pickiness – and the narrator? The passage on blondeness seems particularly shoehorned into the story: does the character think blondes don’t have miscarriages, or ambiguity, or writing block? Jerry Roth is clearly Pappa Bear, but there were three bears: who are the other two? The boyfriend? The non-baby? The book on William James? Or am I interpreting too rigidly? And speaking of William James, I found the description of his work on emotion to be fascinating, and I realized I’d heard it before. It’s been incorporated into various cognitive-behavioral therapeutic techniques under the heading of “anxiety/sadness/anger is just what you call this collection of somatic sensations, so stop calling it that and you won’t be anxious/sad/angry any more.” Such is treatment in a world of cost-driven medicine.

What’s the treatment for PFBS? Better reading skills? In the meantime, the only prolonged effect is wrinkles, and at my age, who cares.


Course: Introduction to Biology – The Secret of Life
Length: 9 weeks (self-paced)
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Eric Lander

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

Short version: Fantastic course. Excellent material, engaging and varied presentation style, homework and exams that test conceptual understanding and synthesis, humor. Not much forum activity, however. Not an easy course, but do-able with effort.

It’s something of an odd administrative setup. The course is intended as preparation for a Competency Exam, available only to those who sign up for the Verified track (which costs money). I’m not sure of the details, like the exact fees or the conditions of the Exam, or the significance of it: is it recognized by MIT? beyond moocdom? In any case, that was irrelevant to my purpose, which was to understand biology.

In that, it was a great success: Dr. Lander, in addition to being one of the leading geneticists in the world, and by the way one of the founders of the Innocence Project, is an outstanding teacher. All of his lectures take place in an in-session MIT classroom, and he has a great time telling stories about yeast juice, Linus Pauling in bed with a head cold inventing protein folding (but totally missing it on DNA structure), and asking a lot of “how do you think you’d do that?” questions once we started looking at gene cloning procedures. There are several “fun” videos thrown in as well, including MIT’s own version of “Gangnam Style” (remember that?) in which Dr. Lander appears (as well as Noam Chomsky, for pete’s sake) and a much older Stanford version of protein synthesis on the football field.

In addition to the lectures, a variety of Deep Dives and Lab videos offered by a variety of MIT students and staff explained important concepts and procedures in great detail. A problem set, intended as formative assessment (meaning the purpose is more about learning to apply concepts, not judging progress) finished off each week, with an additional Exam (generally the same types of questions as on the Problem Sets) every three or four weeks. Right/wrong answers are indicated, and you can keep track of your scores to see how you’re doing, but the only “grade” is for the Competency Exam, if that option is selected, at the conclusion of the course.

The content of the course revolves around a “coat of arms” joining biochemistry, genetics, and proteins, with genomics taking the long view. The material is something of a narrative roughly following the chronological history of biology. As a result, there’s always a sense of “you won’t believe what happened next.”

Weeks 1 through 4 started with basic biochemistry (there’s very little cell biology, however, which was a bit disappointing), then moved on to the discovery of enzymes, proteins, and amino acids, basic genetics and heredity. I did this section about a year ago but it was worth doing it again. Very little prior knowledge is assumed; some chemistry is probably helpful, but my chem is very low-level and it wasn’t a problem for me. The problem sets were terrific: maneuverable protein images, protein design apps, questions on biochemical pathways that really tested my ability to read and understand the chart.

Weeks 5, 6, and 7 moved into a detailed look at DNA: replication, transcription, translation, mutations, and the process of cloning DNA (which is nothing like cloning sheep or people). I loved this unit. The exercises were particularly helpful: “edit a gene” software, “make a plasmid” questions, very practically-oriented problems requiring application of concepts, with virtually no information-retrieval questions.

I bailed out in week 8 because I had other courses starting, and since I wasn’t going to take the Competency Exam, it didn’t matter. That’s something of a cop-out; mostly I’m just not that interested in genomic research, which is kind of sad since 1) it’s really what biology is about these days, and 2) it’s Dr. Lander’s specialty. But I got more than enough out of the course to have made it very worthwhile, and I can always go back and pick up the final portion when I’ve got less on my plate.

On the down side, there was very little interaction or support on the forums. Early on, some technical issues were addressed, but questions about content often went unanswered. I’m not sure if that’s because they’re focusing on the verified track (which, in their Philosophy moocs at least, MIT has segregated from audit track posts – two-tier education, coming to a mooc near you) or if it was just a quiet bunch.

I can’t speak to the Competency Exam track, but if your goal is to better understand the areas of biology mentioned above, this is a great course for it (you’ll need to go elsewhere for cell biology; Harvard’s mitochondria course might be a good place to start). I’d say in terms of learning, it’s one of the best courses I’ve taken. It also happens to be fun. What more could you ask for?

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.