Pushcart XL: Tiffany Briere, “Vision” (non-fiction) from Tin House, #59

Romare Bearden: "The Visitation" (1941)

Romare Bearden: “The Visitation” (1941)

For three nights, my mother hasn’t slept. Since her cousin died, his spirit has visited her each night, for hours at a time. He appears from the waist up on the north wall of her bedroom, facing her directly, blinking but not speaking. He doesn’t frighten her; on the contrary, she hopes that one of these nights he will claim her, escort her to the other side, where he now resides. She prepares me for this possibility.

Interconnectedness. That’s the single word I would use to describe this essay. Everyone mentioned has connections to disparate sources, and they all find joy in every connection.

I can’t even follow the connections – a grandmother from India who went to Guyana as an indentured servant, begetting a father from Guyana who with a mother from Jamaica begat the author herself, now married to a scientist of German descent who never heard talk of spirits before but sits with his mother in law and holds her disease-gnarled hands.

And there’s Briere herself, who is interconnected, not just with the West Indies and America and white and black, but with science and art: after earning a Yale PhD in genetics, she went on to earn an MFA from Bennington. In a world where the arts and humanities are being forsaken for science, she has run the other way, and I love her for it. But she has not abandoned science, not at all; she recognizes that art and science themselves are interconnected, and remain so in spite of our current obsession with dividing them, with declaring one to be a worthy pursuit and the other to be trivial. Check out some high-end mathematicians on Twitter some time: they’re all about the art, the beauty, the symmetry, the elegance of their field. Or read how Briere describes what lab science borrows from history, psychology, literature:

What attracts me to genetics isn’t purely the validation of thought or the process of discovery, but, rather , what it symbolizes. Our genomes contain our complete ancestral history, a record of where we’ve been. The history of our evolution has been transcribed and it lives in every one of our cells. And perhaps more inspiring than this record are the vast open regions that represent where we, as a species, have yet to go. These regions are wide open, ready to be filled with fortitude and endurance.
Genetics, like storytelling, is a search for core truths, for what informs the human condition.

The hand-on-the-back that forms the thread of the piece – an unseen force that crops up for Briere on several discrete occasions, always memorable but never quite categorizable – serves as a psychic symbol for that interconnectedness. The 21st century, too, has poets of the body, and of the soul. And that led me back to Whitman.

A few weeks ago, Jeet Heer tried to draw a connection between Sarah Palin and Walt Whitman: her rambling speech versus his catalogs. I had a pretty strong negative reaction to this. Whitman’s catalogs were meant to enumerate the inclusivity of all things, the unity with him of all: “every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you”. He was drawing a line from him to everything else. Palin was drawing a line around herself, and those she deems acceptable, to separate them from what she sees as unacceptable. It’s true they both drew lines, but lines can communicate, or rope off, can pull up or tie down. To see Whitman’s interconnectedness as Palin’s division struck me as a hideous miscasting. And yet… Whitman himself considered himself the poet of body, of soul, of slave and slavemaster, of everything. Who am I to argue.

But back to Briere:

I’m a child, impressionable, and my mother’s explanations of the world are bigger than skyscrapers and dinosaurs. She says that our ancestors are always with us, that our dead relatives inhabit our lives…..She says the fabric of humanity is ancient and unfathomable. She says life is infinite and eternal. She says when I meet my ancestors, I will recognize their faces and know them by name.
In other words, heaven is family.

I have to admit, I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to talking about family connections. My family was bizarrely interconnected, yet also dissociated, due to both a divorce that happened before divorce was commonplace, and the immigrant need my father felt to assimilate. There are benefits to assimilation, to be sure, but there are also losses when carried to an extreme. I’m envious of the generations of memories and influences Briere carries with her. In contrast, I should have inherited a kind of stoicism, of hardiness, but as it was stripped from its generative context, it never suited me anywhere near as well as Briere’s always-present ancestors suit her.

Maybe this, then, is the opening theme of this volume: spanning divisions, interconnecting. From Adele in the first story, we have spanning gender, age, culture, all set in New York City, the very model of a modern multiculturalism. The women who sing the blues, sing different blues of different shades, from different places, yet at some deep place, the blue is universal, and that’s why each culture has its own lyric. Interconnections. Universality. Or maybe I’m just reaching for it as a theme because I want it to be there.

Pushcart XL: Maxine Scates, “Singer” from Cave Wall, #13

Raquel Stokes: "Don't Explain" 2013

Raquel Stokes: “Don’t Explain” 2013


 
They listen to something they can’t hear
until they open their mouths, skinny whistler
in a tuneless childhood where every scrape, every
skinned knee, every door slammed
on a spilled or misbegotten dream leans toward us
cloaked in smoky barlight or circled in stage light,
Amália Rodrigues singing the losses of fado
in a language we don’t understand
but can because no one was happy there
and neither were we.

~~Available online at Cave Wall Press
 

I first became aware of fado – a Portuguese genre of “fate song” – while reading Herman Wouk’s Winds of War. It’s very similar to the American blues, with both combining African roots with the contemporary diasporic setting.

Scates attributes a line in another of her poems – “Blue Boxcars” – to something she picked up from WS Merwin in reference to Emily Dickinson: “We don’t know where the grief comes from.” She says, in a reading from a couple of years ago, that she found this a liberating idea, to feel the grief in the words, in the poem, but not know the source, not need to know the source. I think the Blues work much the same way. It’s a curious thing, to sing of sorrow, to make music out of grief.

Out of these, comes this poem. It explores the women who’ve sung the blues. They may not have the prettiest voices, but they reach us. They don’t sell out hundred-thousand seat arenas, not because they aren’t popular, but because their art is more intimate, more personal. Some people suck the air out of a room; others serve as respirators, keeping us alive with their breath. And in this winter where the 60s seem to be dying one voice at a time, perhaps in response to a country that seems to have lost its collective mind and is seemingly unaware of the increasing irony of “it couldn’t happen here,” this might serve as some kind of solace.

It’s a poem in four sentences, the last one meandering, under the power of its own lyricism, through the songs of captured women, from Hecuba in Ilium to Bessie Smith to Judy Garland, to end with the reader’s question:

…the first voice that told us sorrow was a well so deep
we’d never hear the rock hitting water, that song,
their song, never a song of ships so much as someone
going away, a lament, never a song sung around fires,
the one that keeps telling the endless march to victory,
but the other song, Hecuba’s wail, the song of junked cars
and roofs tarped against rain, song of the broken branch
we gave them, its fragrant blossoms, asking
please sing why it’s broken, sing why we broke it,
why do these blossoms fade?

Blossoms fade because that is the nature of blossoms, the nature of life, in fact: things die to make way for new things. It’s the nature of the blues to mourn and praise at the same time, to make that which has died live on.

Pushcart XL: Zadie Smith, “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” from Paris Review, #208

Photo by Blane Bussey, from the 2013 Legendary Children queer art exhibit in Atlanta

Photo by Blane Bussey, from the 2013 Legendary Children queer art exhibit in Atlanta

Clinton Corset Emporium. No awning, just a piece of cardboard stuck in the window. As Miss Adele entered, a bell tinkled overhead – an actual bill, on a catch wire – and she found herself in a long narrow room – a hallway really – with a counter down the left-hand side and a curtained-off cubicle at the far end, for privacy. Bras and corsets were everywhere, piled on top of each other in anonymous white cardboard boxes, towering up to the ceiling. They seemed to form the very walls of the place.
“Good afternoon,” said Miss Adele, daintily removing her gloves, finger by finger. “I am looking for a corset.”

I’m interested in how this story starts, both because of where it doesn’t start (hint: it doesn’t start with the above paragraph), and because of the context in which I’ve read it.

It serves as a beginning, in itself – the first story in the 2016 Pushcart anthology. Unlike BASS and the PEN collections, which order stories alphabetically, Pushcart chooses the order in which material is presented. I spent some time wondering about last year’s choice, since Henderson’s introduction made a particular point of using a first-published-story to lead off. I wonder now why this one was chosen, what it says about the material to come. Maybe by the time I’ve read a few more selections, I’ll have some ideas.

But in the context of the story itself, what interests me is how different a story it would be, if this were the opening paragraph, how different our snap judgment of what this story will be about, would be. The paragraph above sounds a bit like a 40s movie, doesn’t it, with a prim Miss Adele, dressed with her proper hat and gloves, entering a store to request service from polite staff waiting to help. A very white Miss Adele. A very female Miss Adele.

But that ain’t the Miss Adele of this story, and it ain’t that kind of story at all. The actual beginning gives a much clearer picture of just what’s happening here:

“Well, that’s that, ” Miss Dee Pendency said, and Miss Adele, looking back over her shoulder, saw that it was. The strip of hooks had separated entirely from the rest of the corset. Dee held up the two halves, her big red slash mouth pulling in opposite directions.
“Least you can say it died in battle. Doing its duty.”
“Bitch. I’m on in ten minutes.”
“When an irresistible force like your ass…”
“Don’t sing.”
“Meets an old immovable corset like this… You can bet as sure as you liiiiive!”
“It’s your fault. You pulled too hard.”
“Somethings gotta give, somethings gotta give, SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE.”
“You pulled too hard.”
“Pulling’s not your problem.”

Come to think of it, the prim and proper 40s may have more in common with Miss Adele’s life than one might think at first (not to mention a cleverly wicked nod to Scarlett O’Hara’s famous corsetting scene, trying to get her 20-inch post-baby waist into her 18-inch corset). The crooner ballad. The corset. The need to dress properly before leaving the house. The expectations and rigid roles. And, indeed, as in the 40s, something, for Miss Adele, had to give. Her corset was merely the first thing that gave on this day.

It’s not a particularly easy story to orient to. The clues are all there – the theatre references, the stage name, the song. But it’s all going by very quickly; dialog tags are dispensed with in the interests of pace, perhaps, and I was a bit lost. The corset’s about the only sure thing, and that’s torn in half. That metaphor persists throughout the story: lives, neighborhoods, experiences, all depending on the supporting undergarment that has now been rendered useless. Replacement comes at a cost.

As Miss Adele heads to the corset shop, we find out a little more about her:

Aside from the nights she worked, Miss Adele tried not to mess much with the East Side. She’d had the same sunny rent-controlled studio apartment on Tenth Avenue and Twenty-Third since ’93, and loved the way the West Side communicated with the water and the light, loved the fancy galleries and the big anonymous condos, the High Line funded by bankers and celebrities, the sensation of clarity and wealth. …. Her brother accused Miss Adele of turning rightward in old age. It would be more accurate to say that she was done with all forms of drama—politics included. That’s what she liked about gentrification, in fact: gets rid of all the drama.
And who was left, anyway, to get dramatic about? The beloved was gone, and so were all the people she had used, over the years, as substitutes for the beloved. Every kid who’d ever called her gorgeous had already moved to Brooklyn, Jersey, Fire Island, Provincetown, San Francisco, or the grave. This simplified matters. Work, paycheck, apartment, the various lifestyle sections of the Times, Turner Classic Movies, Nancy Grace, bed. Boom. Maybe a little Downton. You needn’t put your face on to watch Downton. That was her routine, and disruptions to it—like having to haul ass across town to buy a new corset—were rare. Sweet Jesus, this cold!

I confess to not knowing much about the inner lives of drag queens; The Birdcage and that episode of Project Runway’s about it. In fact, I was reminded of the conflict between Hedda Lettuce and… was it Kayne? No – Suede… during this story, a very similar kind of misunderstanding that just escalated, though everyone really had good intentions, but was merely focused on a different goal, and lost sight of the other’s needs and reactions. That’s pretty much how Zadie Smith, in a BBC interview, sums up the conflict in this story: “Nobody really offends anybody, but everybody already feels offended,” in part because of a longstanding cultural divide between people like Miss Adele, and people like the corset shop owners. Add in the RAGE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS playing on the radio, and a sales staff overwhelmed by too many customers, plus the general impatience and abruptness endemic to NYC (and, let’s be honest, most cities, my tiny city included), and you’ve got a pot just waiting to boil over. A theme most appropriate to the current moment, when everyone seems angry, and most people are angry at someone who’s angry about the wrong things.

I very much liked the progression of this story: from the torn corset that leads things off, to the store, to the conflict that grows so quietly I didn’t even realize it was going to explode until it did, to the ending that seems to sum up Miss Adele’s life:

…surely looking to everyone she passed exactly like some Bellevue psychotic, a hot crazy mess, an old-school deviant from the fabled city of the past – except every soul on these streets was a stranger to Miss Adele. They didn’t have the context, didn’t know a damn thing about where she was coming from, nor that she’d paid for her goods in full, in dirty green American dollars, and was only taking what was rightfully hers.

Haven’t we all been there – the public fight that’s the headline, but nobody sees the story of where it came from? Miss Adele limping away from the store, wig askew, face scraped, clutching her new corsets, that’s the headline, the viral Instagram. How she got to that moment is the 6000 word story no one on the street has time to read before making their judgments.

That, for me, is the crux of this piece: the violence of snap judgments based on a single image. We have all paid in full for our goods, in some currency. Everyone, every moment, has a unique story beyond the headline. It may go back an hour, or twenty years, or four hundred, or four thousand. Maybe we need to take time to read it, before jumping to conclusions.

Pushcart XL: Off to the (tortoise) races

Feel free to skip this introduction. I skip most introductions. I’d rather read the book, then come back to the introduction to see what I have missed. But I might ask that you stay put for a bit before proceeding in the brilliance that awaits you – 69 poems, stories, essays, and memoirs from 52 presses.

~~ Bill Henderson, Introduction

Pushcart has my least favorite introductions of the three American short story prize volumes. This introduction is no different from others: another historical look at the origins of the Pushcart Prize, a few digs at online literature, a mourning for the good old Days of the Giants.

But, happily, Pushcart has historically had my favorite material, and because of that, I’m happy to forgive the introduction.

For someone who is nearly phobic about anything not printed on actual paper, Mr. Henderson tends, it seems to me, more towards the outskirts of the mainstream. Not cutting-edge; I’m not sure anything cutting-edge has ever been given recognition in its time. But I usually find several pieces that take me a little out of business as usual, show me a little more of what’s possible when talented people thoughtfully follow their own rules.

And, of course, I appreciate the different genres. Though I’ve been reading a great deal of literary fiction in the past decade, my natural habitat is nonfiction: both informational books, and essays of various sorts. Pushcart nonfiction tends to expand my knowledge of the world, and shows me interesting ways of conveying information or examining a subject, a life, maybe something I didn’t even know existed. Poetry has never been my strength, and I seem to be very bad at picking out a book of poems to read. That’s why I like the variety herein: if some individual poem doesn’t appeal to me, it isn’t like I have to read a whole volume of similar poetry to see if it was a fluke. Yes, it’s a snapshot rather than in-depth study, but at my level, it’s a good approach, to see the breadth of what’s out there.

This will be a slow journey – or at least, a slow start: I’m quite immersed in three killer MOOCs that entail, as these courses sometimes do, a great deal of work (I’d thought one of them ended this week, but instead I see it continues for another month and a half!). So please be patient if I seem to be poking along. This is not a race; in a world that loves winners, the most, the fastest, the best, I’d rather just relax into a more experiential exercise here, and if that means a week between entries, that’s what it means.

But if I wait until I have more time, I may never start. So here goes.

Exit (BASS 2015)

Van Gogh's sketch for his painting, "Woman Reading"

Van Gogh’s sketch for his painting, “Woman Reading”

In this year’s volume of The Best American Short Stories, we are treated to characters like Kavitha, the emotionally numb wife who comes alive only in the face of violence… a desperate absentee father… an emasculated man who sells dental equipment…. a ruthless champion speedboat racer and oil heiress… Here are living, breathing people who screw up terribly and want and need and think uneasy thoughts. Did I like these characters? I very much liked reading tehir stories… I liked the honesty of the portrayals, and their poetry and humor and surprise.

~~ Heidi Pitlor, introduction

I’ve been blogging BASS since 2010, and reading cover-to-cover for two years before that. I’ve noticed a pattern: I tend to like even years better than odd years. I have no idea if that’s coincidence, or if there’s some reason for the oscillation, but being somewhat rational, I suspect the former.

That doesn’t mean I don’t learn something from stories I’m not so crazy about. That’s a good thing, for me, since it serves as a do-it-yourself English class. I think there were more stories I “respected rather than liked” this year than I’ve noticed in other volumes. Perhaps I’m just respecting more as I go along. Or again, coincidence.

I did find two stories I particularly liked: Colum McCann’s “Sh’khol” and Aria Beth Sloss’s “North“. As I read, I was immersed, I wanted to keep reading, and when I got to the end, I felt like I understood something, something important, better than I had before. Because I was immersed, craft took a back seat on first read, but later I noticed some interesting writers’ choices. Since I’ve enumerated what I liked about them in the individual posts, I won’t repeat the litany here.

Then there were the almost-likes, the “I like you but I don’t like-like you.” These are stories that may just grow on me as they tumble around in my subconscious, as other things bring them to mind. The reason I respected them varies. For example:

Fingerprints” by Justin Bigos came perhaps the closest to being promoted to outright-like. I enjoyed the way the fragments fit together, how the theme of fingerprints carried through, and how all of the characters seemed deeply flawed, but sympathetic instead of blameworthy. However, I realize now, I’ve barely thought about it since reading it.

Julia Elliott’s “Bride” worked for me because of the setting in a medieval scriptorium, the hallucinatory character, and the escalating hilarity.

Ben Fowlkes’ “You’ll Apologize If You Have To” appealed to me for reasons I can’t explain, against all my usual predilections, in fact, but I wasn’t sure of the ending. I’ve already thought of this one a few times in connection with other stories and other events, which is a good sign.

I liked Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” far more than I’d expected I would (I’ve never read him before; maybe I should start) and I found the individual segments wonderful. I just wonder if it’s a little pretentious. Then again, if you’re Denis Johnson, I guess you’re entitled to some pretension.

Jack, July” by Victor Lodato had some wonderful scenes, and I rather liked all the doors, but it still seemed like a lot of sound and fury over a guy who needs to be in a hospital.

Motherlode” is in this category, even though I truly hated it while reading, because Thomas McGuane’s Contributor Notes made it click. Yes, that’s considered cheating – the story must stand on its own – but once I understood the symbolism, I quite admired how he constructed the story. But I really don’t want to read it again.

I felt similarly about Maile Meloy’s “Madame Lazarus” – the idea that she was thinking of collaborators and resistors in postwar France amazed me – but I enjoyed the story much more, simply because I’m a complete sucker for a dead pet story. And for exactly that reason, I demand it do more. It did, but I didn’t see it. My failing, as with McGuane? Sure, I’ll take the hit. But still, the fact remains: I didn’t get it, so I can’t really claim it to have liked it on its own terms.

Then there was a trio of WTF stories – there always are – but I won’t list them. Again, I’ll take the hit for not seeing the brilliance there. Maybe it’s a different-wavelength thing, or personal taste, whatever.

One pleasant surprise for this year’s reading was the consistent presence of another reader, leaving comments on each story. I greatly enjoyed trading what we liked and disliked, and what stood out for each of us; whether we agreed or disagreed, I learned from each comment. In a world (and a social media environment) – where the New York Times just declared “Obnoxiousness is the new charisma” – a world more and more conflict-driven, where even trivial discussion becomes an argument and winning is the goal, it’s great to find a place where the genuine exchange of ideas can take place.

Exit BASS – pursued by Pushcart XL.

BASS 2015: Jess Walter, “Mr. Voice” from Tin House, #61

Tin House cover art by Emily Winfield Martin

Tin House cover art by Emily Winfield Martin

Mother was a stunner.
She was so beautiful, men would stop midstep on the street to watch her walk by. When I was little, I’d see them out of the corner of my eye and turn, my hand still in hers. Sometimes I’d wonder if the ogling man was my father. But I don’t think the men ever saw me. And my mother didn’t notice them, or pretended not to notice, or had stopped noticing. She’d simply pull my hand toward the Crescent, or the Bon Marche, or the fountain at Newberry’s, wherever we were going then. “Come on Tanya, no dawdling.”
This could have been my mother’s motto in 1974: no dawdling.

Back in 1997, I had a conversation with a friend about Roberto Benigni’s wonderful film Life is Beautiful. While it was hard to argue with such a loving depiction of the father, he’d cheated the boy, I said, out of the opportunity to be strong, to offer him comfort, to share, to be with him through the ordeal. My friend replied: “What if the kid was aware all along what was going along, and pretended back, because that’s what he knew his father needed?” *Click!* I’ve loved that interpretation ever since: two people loving each other in the way the other needed, yet with no trace of artifice. Honest, generous love, though perhaps disguised.

I had a similar *Click!* moment with this story, a couple of days after I read it. In the shower. Not quite Archimedes, but then again, I’m no Archimedes.

“Listen to me, Tanya. You’re a very pretty girl. You’re going to be a beautiful woman. This is something you won’t understand for a while, but your looks are like a bank account. You can save up your whole life for something, but at some point, you’ll have to spend the money. Do you understand?”
It was the only time I ever heard mother talk about her looks this way. Something about it made me sick. I said I understood. But I didn’t.
Or maybe I did.

When it came time for Mom to cash in her account, she didn’t buy the prettiest man in the shop, or the most sexually proficient, or the richest. She was shopping for something else, and Mr. Voice fit the bill perfectly, in spite of his less than impressive physique: short, graying, buggy eyes, everything but a wart, for pete’s sake. And in spite of his mundane job: commercial voice-over artist. Hence his nickname.

But now I think Mom knew exactly what she was doing. She was picking someone she could, when the time came, leave without regret – and, more importantly, someone she could trust with that which she left behind, someone who could offer a type of safekeeping she knew she could not. Mr. Voice, seen from that view, was the perfect choice.

And that makes it a story about Mom. Tanya may tell the story, and much of it may narrate her life with Mr. Voice, but it’s really about the very loving choice Mom made. I may be the lone voice in the wilderness who sees it that way, but so be it. Some people know they can’t be perfect, so they find a way to be imperfect in a perfect way.

Nobody gets to tell you what you look like, or who you are.

Although the order of stories in BASS anthologies is predetermined – alphabetically, by author’s last name, from the first issue – I’m always surprised at how some stories fit together, contrast, serve as perfect beginnings, or, as in this case, perfect endings. It’s a retrospective story, handy for putting the reader in a looking-back mood, as I’ll be doing in my wrap-up post next. It’s also a nice story. That isn’t intended as a criticism; I’ve become sick of tough and anti-heroic of late, and I long for the days when being nice was a virtue rather than a sentimental flaw. I wouldn’t want all my fiction this way, but as a final story in a volume I found uneven, it left me with a pleasant warmth as I turned the final pages.

BASS 2015: Laura Lee Smith, “Unsafe at Any Speed” from New England Review, #35.1

Cartoon by Doug MacGregor

Cartoon by Doug MacGregor

The day after his forty-eighth birthday was the same day Theo Bitner’s seventy-five-year-old mother friended him on Facebook. It was also the same day his wife told him he needed to see a doctor. Or a therapist. “It’s your mood,” she said. “It sucks.” Counting his mother, Theo now had eight Facebook friends. Sherrill, his wife, had 609. …
The estrogen levels at the house, a smallish Tuscan number in an uninspired neighborhood south of St. Augustine, were through the roof, in Theo’s opinion. With his daughter Ashley, unemployed and fresh from FSU with a degree in Women’s Studies (what the hell?), ensconced back in her childhood bedroom, with his mother Bette now living in the spare room he’d once fancied his office (the “bonus room,” Sherrill called it), and with Sherrill herself generally holding court over the rest of the house, Theo had begun to feel increasingly scuttled, shunted, reduced. There was a conspiracy, he reckoned. He didn’t like it.

Seems to me there’s some kind of agreement among males of the species, perhaps a Rule in a mental imprint laid down as neurons develop connections in the womb: “If there’s something wrong with your life, blame a woman.” Granted, the same thing can be said of women, who sing the “my man done me wrong” song way too many times. For that matter, we’re all looking to blame someone else, anyone else, as long as we never feel like our failures belong to us. So let’s all grow up: you picked ’em, you either live with ’em, or you get out, but in any case, take responsibility for your own damn failures.

But Theo isn’t quite there yet. He doesn’t want out, he just wants a little vacation. And that’s what this “story” is about. Yes, the quotation marks are snide commentary: to me, this is more a string of clichés than a story: a mid-life crisis, a lost phone cutting ties, threatening thunderclouds, a love-bug smashed on the windshield. I grew up in Florida; love bugs are a real thing, and they do make a horrible mess. And, by the way, they stay, ahem, connected, long past doing the deed, and often fly through the air as a matched set, which is why they’re called love bugs. What’s unusual here is that there’s only one on his windshield; typically they arrive in swarms, covering the windshield, headlights, hood, grill, you name it. I suppose that’s meaningful. It’s a special love bug.

Then we have the title: yes, marriage is unsafe at any speed. So is life, for that matter. Running away from home after your fantasy, definitely.

The only surprise is that his dream car isn’t red, but white.

As I’ve been commenting through this volume, my reading partner Jake (Hi, Jake!) has noticed I don’t often call out stories, or indicate I don’t “like” them. Part of that is just that I’m not really looking for “like” but to understand what the writer is doing, and part is that I’ve felt bad in the past when I’ve dissed a story. But we’re almost to the end of the anthology now, so it’s high time for a rant. I’m sure I’ll feel terrible about this in a few days (I’m sorry in advance, Ms. Smith) and I’ll feel stupid once I find out there’s a brilliant use of symbolism or reversed metaphors or some such thing. So be it.

The story is so clichéd, I’m going to quote a spoiler paragraph, so be forewarned. However, the spoiler doesn’t spoil anything. It’s exactly what you’d predict might happen from the estrogen crack on.

Theo felt a coolness runs through his veins, and he processed the implications of the current situation. So far today, he’d initiated (though admittedly not yet executed) an unapproved expenditure of $5000 from the joint checking account he shared with Sherrill; he’d very likely lost his biggest commission of the month, if not his entire job, by blowing off the sales call with Kelso; and he’d committed tawdry and outrageously athletic adultery with a woman half his age. And now, it seemed, he also aided and abetted a confessed embezzler. He watched the road. He felt in his pocket again for his phone. He gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white.

I’ve see some internet comments about what a fun this is. I’m all about fun, honest I am, but I guess I’m just not on that wavelength. And there’s this: New England Review is a serious literary journal with an impossible acceptance rate, and ranks 21st on Cliff Garstang’s Pushcart list. It’s not given to publishing fluff. So someone tell me what I’m missing.

BASS 2015: Aria Beth Sloss, “North” from One Story, #197

The sea captain who found my father’s notebook frozen into the side of Little Iceland came all the way to northern Idaho to hand-deliver it to my mother.… It was stuffed inside a specimen jar, stoppered, carefully sealed with wax. The pages were in perfect condition, she pointed out, the words only a little smudged here and there.
The sea captain nodded. The balloon could have landed anywhere, he said, sunk anywhere. The water would have carried the party’s belongings miles from where they died. With time, their bodies would have been dispersed in this way as well.
Or, my mother said, he could have deliberately thrown it overboard. A clue, she called it, as though the whole thing – my father, the balloon, the years of waiting, all of it – was no more than a puzzle waiting to be solved.
Every love story begins with a discovery: amidst the ordinary, the sublime.

In his Introduction, TC Boyle refers to some of these stories as “Very long stories”: not necessarily in terms of page length, but in terms of what is encompassed within them. In those terms, I felt “North” was one of the longest.

In terms of the historical grounding of the tale, I’m reminded of Colum McCann’s excerpt “Transatlantic” or of Naomi Williams’ recent novel Landfalls. All recount factual events from fictionalized settings. “North” is far more fictionalized than the other two yet is rooted the ill-fated Arctic adventure of Swedish balloonist S. A. Andrée, whose story Sloss read after her own pregnancy. But whereas Andrée never married, Sloss’ fictional balloonist did (or at least, as much as did), and this story becomes a merging of two adventures.

What he is leaving behind is no different than what he is leaving for, she will tell him. A truth stranger than any magic: inside her is the wildest land.

In her youth, Mary was considered a “wild woman,” and her family was concerned that she was unsuitable for any man. Her mother knew, though: she would find a wild man. In this way, we get a clue about where Mary’s wildness comes from. Not that her mother was wild; she would’ve stayed in Virginia all her life, had her preacher husband not dragged her to North Dakota. But somehow, I think there was a longing for wild in her, and this is what she gave her daughter Mary.

The voice is beautiful and lyric, a joy to read (there’s a subtle erotic scene that knocks me out), but what I appreciated more than anything is equality implied in the highly lauded exploits of adventurous men, and the glossed-over achievements of women who bear and raise children – particularly those who raise children alone once their adventurous men have crashed on unknown shores.

I love Sloss’ choice of narrator: the couple’s child, who may be narrating from a time shortly after the notebook was discovered, or, given the sophistication of the voice, years later, after many secrets have been shared. Very little is certain in this story; we are given broad strokes, and allowed to color the details ourselves. Through this narrator-child, the offspring of both adventurers, we hear a generational saga, not so much of the people but of individual hearts. This gives a personal stake in the telling beyond that which a 3rd person narrator would have, yet has enough distance from the two characters to allow for observation, balancing objective and subjective.

I am born at noon the next day. My mother tells me this is the first thing she did: she checked the clock. I am still attached to her when she looks. We are not yet two when she begins to keep track of me, the seconds I have been alive and then, after she cuts through the cord herself, cleaving my body from hers with a kitchen knife, the seconds I have been on my own.
This is what women do, she says.
By which she means she understands that one day I will leave her too. Lift off the ground, think myself beyond gravity.
Let go.

And through this child – I’d assumed from the voice she was a young woman, but perhaps, given that last line, he is a young man; the balance of sympathies could go either way – we glimpse the next in the line of wild, and the impossibility of the mother’s task: to love enough to say goodbye.

Happy New MOOCs 2016


These lists scare me. It doesn’t look like that much, less than prior lists in fact, but considering two courses started in the Fall are still ongoing (including calculus, which eats up every minute I can feed it and still leaves me banging my head against the screen), and that irresistible courses crop up unexpectedly all the time, it’s a daunting schedule. But I expect I’ll drop some of these; after 3 years, I still can’t tell from the descriptions whether or not a course is for me, unless I start it, so I start them all, so as not to miss anything.

The 2016 plan, winter quarter:

 

General Chemistry: Concept Development and Application
Start: On demand
Instructor: John Hutchinson
School/platform: Rice University via Coursera
 
Official blurb:

This course will cover the topics of a full year, two semester General Chemistry course. We will use a free on-line textbook, Concept Development Studies in Chemistry, available via Rice’s Connexions project.
The fundamental concepts in the course will be introduced via the Concept Development Approach developed at Rice University. In this approach, we will develop the concepts you need to know from experimental observations and scientific reasoning rather than simply telling you the concepts and then asking you to simply memorize or apply them.

 
Status: Dropped after 1 week: disliked the approach.
Sounds like IBL for chemistry – cool! Maybe, we’ll see. One of the benefits of MOOCs is that you can take courses over and over again. I haven’t taken this course before, but I took two chem courses earlier this year and still didn’t feel as though I had a real sense of how chemistry works. I’m an old fart, after all, so not everything sticks the first time around, or even the second. So, here’s another shot at chemistry, let’s see if repetition is the key to success. The trouble is, it’s a self-paced course, and I have yet to finish a self-paced course, no matter how good the course is. Some of my Rogue MOOCer friends are taking this, too, so maybe we’ll keep each other moving forward.

 

Medical Neuroscience
Start January 4, 2016
12 weeks, 16-20 hrs/wk
Instructor: Leonard E. White, Ph.D.
School/platform: Duke University via Coursera
 
Official blurb:

Medical Neuroscience explores the organization and physiology of the human central nervous system. This course is designed for first-year students in graduate-level health professions programs. It builds upon knowledge acquired in prior studies of cellular and molecular biology, general physiology, and human anatomy.

 
I like brain stuff. From the description, I have a feeling this is too technical for me, but I’ve taken several courses on brain function, and there’s plenty of bio info all over. There’s a “prereq check” quiz kicking things off, so that’ll help me figure out just what I’m in for. I’ll give it a shot, but I won’t feel bad if it’s over my head.

 


Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors
Start: January ?? 2016
Instructor: Susan Sauvé Meyer
School/platform: University of Pennsylvania via Coursera
 
Official blurb:

What is philosophy? How does it differ from science, religion, and other modes of human discourse? This course traces the origins of philosophy in the Western tradition in the thinkers of Ancient Greece….Part I will cover Plato and his predecessors.

 
So, well, you know, philosophy… I keep taking courses on Plato, and it seems to me every one of them has a very different viewpoint. That’s a good thing, by the way. Start date seems a little vague, and there’s no indication of how many weeks, so I get the feeling this is still under construction. It’s one of those “rolling enrollment” things, I think; a compromise between scheduled courses (which Coursera abandoned insisting everyone prefers on-demand), and on-demand, which has been a complete bust. I used to have an attitude towards edX. Now I have an attitude towards Coursera. Anyway, I’ll do it for Plato. There is a Part 2 featuring Aristotle, but let’s see how this goes first.

 

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the 19th Century Orchestra
Start January 21, 2016
3 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk (self-paced)
Instructor: Thomas Forest Kelly
School/platform: Harvard via edX
 
Official blurb:

Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th Symphony premiered in Vienna in 1824, and continues to be one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire. The monumental symphony’s size and complexity stretches traditional instrumental forms to the breaking point, and its famous choral finale changed our view of orchestral music forever…
You will learn the basics of musical form and analysis, the genres and styles used and the circumstances of this symphony’s first performance and subsequent history. Learners in this course need not have any prior musical experience.

 
Another installment in the First Nights series of non-rigorous musical exploration, from the people who brought you the Messiah MOOC. I need to keep my expectations in line: coincidences of timing and surprise made the Messiah course a special event, and this may not have the same emotional impact (then again, Beethoven, hello?), but I’m looking forward to it all the same.

 

Fun with Prime Numbers: The Mysterious World of Mathematics
Start January 21, 2016
4 weeks, 1 hrs/wk
Instructor: Tetsushi Ito
School/platform: Kyoto University via edX
 
Official blurb:

In this math course, you will learn the definition and basic properties of prime numbers, and how they obey mysterious laws. Some prime numbers were discovered several hundred years ago whereas others have only been proven recently. Even today, many mathematicians are trying to discover new laws of prime numbers.

 
Status: Dropped at the beginning of week 3. This was probably the worst MOOC I’ve taken.
I have no idea what this is – what kind of a math course can be done in one hour a week? – but my policy is to take every math course I see, so I signed up. It might be fun, who knows. It’s certainly going to be different.

 

The Conscious Mind – A Philosophical Road Trip
Start February 2, 2016
4 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
Instructor: Dan Lloyd
School/platform: Trinity College via edX
 
Official blurb:

In ordinary life we barely notice the operations of our own minds. In The Conscious Mind – A Philosophical Road Trip, we will illuminate what we take for granted in perception, action, and interaction with others. We’ll explore this mindful awareness through demonstrations, illusions, brainteasers, thought experiments, riddles and jokes, all designed to shake you loose from your ordinary assumptions about the way consciousness works.

 
Hey, it’s a philosophy course. I take philosophy courses. And consciousness is cool, mostly because no one knows just what it is. The description sounds somewhere between religion and psychology, and the teaser video is unusually creative for a teaser video, so sure, I’ll see what’s up.

 

The American Renaissance: Classic Literature of the 19th Century
Start February 16, 2016
7 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
Instructor: Donald E. Pease, James E. Dobson
School/platform: Dartmouth via edX
 
Official blurb:

Join a hybrid community of learners, both online and in residence at Dartmouth College, as we discover how to discern the historical turning points involved in the production and transmission of American Renaissance writings. We will conceptualize the role historical and affective turning points continue to play in the selection, interpretation and valuation of these writings.

 
I was quite impressed by Dartmouth’s cooperation between instructor and EdTech team in the Opera course I just finished; so many courses now seem to be run by edtech departments, with instructors relegated to the role of on-air talent, but they seem to have a more synergistic approach. Of course, every MOOC is different, so there are no guarantees, but hello, literature, yeah, count me in. I’m further impressed: on December 20, they launched a website and Twitter account for the course, including a list of all readings to be covered (which are substantial, so the advance notice is appreciated). The teaser video’s trumpeting of Dartmouth’s role in this literature is a little over the top (we get it: Dartmouth is a venerable institution with an illustrious past, can we move on now?), but it’s just a teaser video.

 

College Algebra and Problem Solving
Start April 18, 2016
8 weeks, 18 hrs/wk
Instructor: Adrian Sannier, Sue McClure
School/platform: Arizona State University via edX
 
Official blurb:

In this college level Algebra course, you will learn to apply algebraic reasoning to solve problems effectively. You’ll develop skills in linear and quadratic functions, general polynomial functions, rational functions, and exponential and logarithmic functions. You will also study systems of linear equations. This course will emphasize problem-solving techniques, specifically by means of discussing concepts in each of these topics.

 
I just finished the ASU history course, and frankly, that leaves me very skeptical about this course. But, it’s a math course, and see above re I take math courses. I’m hoping the promised problem solving techniques will be prominent.

 

Exploring Light
Start March 24, 2016
4 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
Instructor: Paul Doherty, Eric Muller, Zeke Kossover
School/platform: Exploratorium (San Francisco science museum)
 
Official blurb:

This is an Exploratorium Teacher Institute professional development course open to any science teacher (particularly middle or high school level) and light enthusiast. Participants will engage in hands-on STEM activities that allow them to directly experience natural phenomena and gain an understanding of how the Exploratorium helps people learn.
NOTE: Because this is a hands-on workshop, you will need to buy or find materials for this course. All of the materials required are inexpensive and should be easy to obtain. We’ll send out a complete list with recommended sources before the course begins.

 
This is the first time I’ve heard of the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco. I’ve taken several courses from the Manchester Museum in England, though they’re part of a university; apparently the Exploratorium is standalone. The course is intended for teachers, so I’m aware it’s going to have a very different focus, but the hands-on aspect appeals to me; it all depends on how much trouble and expense is involved in finding the materials.

 

Explorations in Confucian Philosophy
Start April 25, 2016
6 weeks, 4-5 hrs/wk
Instructor: Alan K. L. Chan
School/platform: Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, via Coursera
 
Official blurb:

Explore the world of Confucianism, its foundational teachings, the ways in which it continues to shape Chinese culture and society, and how it may respond to today’s global challenges.

 
Note: The course has “temporarily” been removed from the platform; I’m told (on 1/13/16) it will be returned in the future.
For all the philosophy courses I’ve taken, I know virtually nothing about Asian philosophies in general, nor Confucianism in particular. What better reason to take a course?

BASS 2015: Joan Silber, “About my Aunt” from Tin House, #60

This happens a lot – people travel and they find places they like so much, they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand. If they are young, they take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex; they settle in; they get used to how everything works; they make homes. But usually not forever.
I had an aunt who was such a person.

Kurt Vonnegut once gave a talk – I’d call it a lecture, but Vonnegut wasn’t really the lecture type, he just talked – about the shapes of stories. While humorous, it was also very accurate: after all, if a character isn’t struggling against something, it’s not much of a story, is it. Conflict is the very heart of fiction: conflict between characters, between man and nature, between woman and society, between person and desires, through fears. It’s conflict that give stories shapes, the rises and falls, often emphasized by changes in pace, language, narrative distance.

But that isn’t the only way to tell a story.

I have a memory from many years ago, possibly high school – I’ve never been able to find a source to credit so I may be conflating several things or misremembering – about different cultures preferring certain shapes for their writing. Hebrew likes parallel lines. The Creation story of Genesis, the Psalms, much of the exhortations of the Prophets, depend on saying something, then saying it again in a slightly different way, or in telling a story using similar sentence structures over and over again. Japanese stories like inward-tending spirals, circling around the point closer and closer but forcing the reader to make the final leap herself. I think most contemporary fiction does just this, in fact, but in my memory, the spiral shape was attributed to the Japanese. English language fiction prefers the inverted pyramid, funneling an initial wide swathe of activity into a final climactic point – except for news reporting, which uses the inverted pyramid to refer to the importance of information rather than the breadth of narrative.

I had a very strong sense of this story as a poetic braid rather than a typical narrative. Or perhaps, even more appropriately, parallel monologues, as there seems to be little communication going on between the two prime players. We hear first about Kiki, the aunt who spent her youth adventuring in Turkey, to the consternation of her family, before returning to New York to sell her accumulated artifacts and, when those run out, to clean houses and eventually run a cleaning service. Twenty years later, Reyna adventures herself to New York on an adventure, equally puzzling to her family and perhaps more recognizably hazardous to us: a boyfriend in jail, a ridiculous willingness to follow him anywhere:

I was going to ride in the car and count the cash; I was going to let him store his illegal cigarettes in my house. All because of what stirred me, all because of what Boyd was to me. All because of beauty.
I had my own life to live. And what did Kiki have? She had her job making deals between the very rich and the very poor. She had her books that she settles inside of in dusty private satisfaction. She had her old and fabled past. I loved my aunt, but she must’ve known I’d never listened to her.

These two lives twist around each other and around New York and family expectations. There’s little forward movement to the relationship between the two women. This isn’t about them growing closer, or blowing up in a final fight, or regrets or yearning or anything else between them. Again, I read it as a story of isolation. Kiki and Reyna, while deeply involved with other aspects of their lives, manage to pass through each others’ spheres without much interaction at all. It’s a very specific kind of insulation.

Throughout my reading, I was reminded of a scene from an earlier story from this volume, Fowlkes’ “You’ll Apologize If You Need To”: the down-and-out fighter visits his up-and-coming ex-girlfriend, and thinks, “It’s because of me that you can marry a rich lawyer and stay home all day in a big house. You lived with a fighter once and had his baby and followed him into all sorts of bad decisions, so now no one can say you were always boring and domestic.” Kiki has finished her character-saving adventure; Reyna is just beginning hers. They are not in sync, going through these experiences together, but observing each other from different stages. The story explores the quality, rather than the trajectory, of that relationship, of how the women regard each other.

Silber’s Contributor Note makes it clear that was her goal: “I wanted the two women to understand each other just fine but few each other across a great divide, where neither envies the other.” She later decided to use the story as a first chapter of a novel. Frankly, with its limited narrative arc – no Vonnegutian shape to speak of – I have no idea where this story would go. It doesn’t show signs of going anywhere on the these pages. So it might be interesting to find out what lies ahead.

BASS 2015: Shobha Rao, “Kavitha and Mustafa” from Nimrod, #36

The train stopped abruptly, at 3:36 p.m., between stations, twenty kilometers from the Indian border, on the Pakistani side. Kavitha looked out the window, in the heat of the afternoon, and saw only scrubland, and endless yellow plane of dust and stunted trees, as far as the eye could see. She knew what this meant. One of the men in the berth, the tall one Kavitha had been eyeing, calmly told the women to take off all their jewels of valuables and put them in their shoes. They’ll search everything, he said with meaning, which made the young woman in the corner blush. Two or three of the women gasped. The old lady started crying.… The boy was not more than eight or nine years old but, of all of them, he seemed to remain the calmest, even more so than his father. He serenely took two thin pebbles, a curled length of twine, and a chit of paper, maybe a photograph, from his pockets and put them in his shoe.

Rao had, according to her Contributor Note, a very clear idea of what she wanted to write about here: serious conflict, a woman and a boy, “I was widowed long ago”, all set in the violence of the partition of India and the Pakistans. It’s a suspenseful story, yet because of writing’s zoom lens that allows a focus shift from the panoramic to the close-up, a very intimate one. As Rao says, “Violence, all after all, is not difficult. Humanizing that violence is what is difficult.”

We recognize the woman in the loveless, sterile marriage, and we understand her simultaneous acceptance of her lot, and her hunger for something more. That the conflict between those contrasting poles is brought out by a crisis situation is not unusual, but it’s her mysterious and tenuous connection to the boy in the train that ramps up the natural suspense from “Will she survive” to “What will she choose?” Or perhaps more accurately, “Did she make the wise choice?”

Again, nothing was quite clear in her mind, but never had two rocks and a piece of twine seemed to hold so much promise. The contents of her shoes – a necklace, some rings, and a set of matching bracelets – held none.

I had a lot of trouble visualizing what was happening in the story, and that’s a shame, since I think a great deal was going on in the mise-en-scene. That’s an important part of reading fiction, however: expanding our ability to see, beyond what we see every day, and it’s always good to stretch that capacity a little.

I find the ending quite interesting. It seems highly positive to me, for the rare happy ending to a work of literary fiction. On further reflection, however, I considered that it might be possible that it indicates something other than what I first thought, a darker view. More of a bittersweet than happy ending. In fact, I think the last line can be read many ways. I like that. I’m very interested in how a story “projects into the future” as I’ve called it from time to time, what a literary analysis course I took called portability: how characters take on lives of their own that last beyond the final page. I could imagine several futures for Kavitha and Mustafa, all of them better than had they remained on the train – even had the robbery not happened.

Thinking MOOC

Course: Philosophy and Critical Thinking META101x: Thinking about thinking
School: University of Queensland via edX
Instructors: Deborah Brown, Peter Ellerton, et al
Quote:

We’ll begin by developing some of the intellectual tools we need to analyse the big issues in philosophy – understanding the nature and structure of arguments. We’ll learn what makes an argument compelling, and how we can evaluate arguments to see if they are put together in a convincing way. We will develop this skill all through the course, by applying it across a range of philosophical topics with increasing sophistication. In each module we will be analysing and evaluating arguments.

The Fallacy Referee, the Glossary Fairy, the philosophical Grotesques, illustrations filmed in coffee shops, high school classrooms, duck ponds… Once again, as with the Duke “Think Again” course on argument, I could tell the people making this course had a lot of fun with it. I’m all about goofy, but it wasn’t quite my style of goofy. That’s ok, I’m sure a lot of people thought it was great. I have to give them credit for creative and well-executed graphic and camera work, as well as for enthusiasm.

The course was made up of four week-long modules, each with a series of lectures, conversations (“Philosophers Talk” featuring faculty discussing pertinent topics), readings (“Let’s Philosophize”), discussion topics for the forum (with significant staff support), and ungraded questions and exercises. Grades were based on four exams, one per module. The introductory material indicated three possible tracks to accommodate different goals or different prior coursework. What’s odd is that I couldn’t figure out what went with what track. That’s ok, all MOOCs are pretty much choose-your-adventure.

Some of the lectures and readings seemed a bit vague and cryptic, with more jargon – the endless parade of “isms” – than explanation or framework for understanding. Possibly, these were for “serious” philosophy students and were simply over my head (I’ve been perplexed by underdeterminism before), but I would’ve liked a bit more explanation.

The course has been Archived, which means you can enroll and take the material at your own pace, though there won’t be any grades or discussion forums. It’s not a bad course, just not my cup of tea. If it’d been an 8 week course, I probably would’ve dropped by week 3. But the 4 weeks were worthwhile. There’s a great deal of philosophical info in there. And they really went to a great deal of effort to create the course; dozens of people were involved, from the philosophers discussing their work to TAs enacting little illustrative dramas (in addition to the unseen editors and edtechs). In fact, I’m a bit surprised they’re archiving it after one run, considering how much went into it, and how many discussion questions show up; I’m going to guess it’s some kind of supplement to the in-person philosophy curriculum.

I have a hard time summing up what was covered without listing individual topics: argument structure, validity and soundness, fallacies, philosophy of science, dualism, idealism, realism, this–ism that–ism, analogies, causation… and dozens more. I would imagine to a philosopher, these fit together in a category that covers all these things, but to me it seemed almost like a random collection of philosophical topics about thinking.

BASS 2015: Maile Meloy, “Madame Lazarus” from The New Yorker, 6/23/14

Watercolor by Tan Chun Chiu

Watercolor by Tan Chun Chiu

 
Many years ago, after I retired from the bank, James brought a small terrier to our apartment in Paris. I told him I did not want it. I knew he was trying to keep me occupied, and it is a ridiculous thing, to have a dog. Maybe one day you rise from bed and say, “I would like to pick up five thousand pieces of shit.” Well, then, I have just the thing for you. And for a man to have a small dog—it makes you a fool.
 
“Please,” James said. “Let’s just see how it goes.”
 

~~ Available online at The New Yorker

I had the poor luck to read this story in public, during my monthly cheeseburger-and-fries splurge at a local pub. I’ve been remarkably dry-eyed through most of the stories in this volume so far, but I am a complete sap when it comes to dying pet stories. Fortunately, the pub staff is used to me, and, since I make it a point to be there during off-hours of mid-afternoon, lets me read and cry or laugh or whatever without comment or fuss beyond refilling my coffee.

On the surface, this is a dying pet story. But with references to Lear, Waugh, and Plath, it becomes more. And, for the second time in two stories, I found the contributor notes to be extremely helpful. Meloy intended this as a story about “human illness and aging, the breakdown and betrayal of the body (and, in the past, of a country),” and was surprised when emails and letters about the deaths of readers’ beloved dogs poured in, rather than memories of postwar France and the necessity of collaborators and resisters living and working together to rebuild. This says a lot about authorial intent: it only goes so far. An author can put all the symbolism and depth she wants into a work, but it’s a talent as well to be gracious when readers embrace the surface story instead. I still remember reading how perturbed Robert Frost was at readings of “The Road Not Taken” – “You have to be careful of that one,” he said; “it’s a tricky poem – very tricky.” But people didn’t want a tricky poem, they wanted a Hallmark card.

I quite like Betsy’s take on the story at The Mookse and Gripes, particularly her speculation about the narrator’s part in his distant relationship with the people in his life. She’s right: it’s easy to think of him as a victim of his callow lover, but there might be a reason he’s in the relationships he’s in. The narrator is unnamed; is that a narrative technique to make him more universal, or a character indicator as he withholds his very name from the reader?

I think there’s a lot of universality to the story. The narrator and his lover are gay, but there’s nothing gender specific about age and experience using money to attract those who would otherwise be unavailable, nor about youth taking advantage of its assets to achieve some measure of security. The Parisian setting increases the sophistication, and it is in fact central to Meloy’s intent, but the surface story plays out in grittier cities, in tiny towns, all over the world. Someone is always betraying something, and we’re always afraid to die alone. I suppose the layered interpretation is what makes the story literary.

At first I believed that the appearance of love from a dog is only a strategy, to win protection. Cordelia chose me because I was the one to feed her and to chase away the hawks and the wolves. But after a time we crossed over a line, Cordelia and I.… A creature’s eyes are on you all the time, or the warm body is next to you. There is an understanding. And I think this becomes something like love.

Plath, as Lady Lazarus, said: “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” Cordelia gives a master class to a man who knows he will soon face death. Judging from the last sentence, maybe the lesson was learned.

Anatomical MOOC: The shoulder bone’s connected to what again?

Course: Going Out on a Limb: Anatomy of the Upper Limb
School: Penn via edX
Instructors: Dr. James S. White
Quote:
Anatomy lab isn’t just for first year medical students anymore. With this online anatomy course, anyone can learn about the upper limb, without the cadaver.
…We’ll start with basic human anatomical terminology and apply that knowledge to examining the bones of the upper limb and how they articulate at joints. You will also learn about the muscles that produce movement at those joints in addition to the innervation and blood supply of the upper limb.

You’d think anatomy would be incredibly boring: “The finger bone’s connected to the hand bone, The hand bone’s connected to the arm bone…” (which, by the way, is anatomically wrong) without the music. Sure, there was a lot of that, but I found it fascinating anyway. Then again, I’m weird. And I really, really like medical stuff. Which, of course, is why I took it, since I have absolutely no reason to learn anatomy. Most of the students were in, or aspiring to, health care or fitness fields (and boy, did they know their stuff; lots of information on the discussion boards), and that’s at whom the course was aimed. In fact, Dr. White indicated it’s pretty much one section of first-year medical school anatomy (minus the cadavers).

Medical school students are, of course, expected to have all of this memorized. That’s why medical students are in their 20s, not their 60s; it’d take me a year to memorize all this, and then I’d lose it since it’s not information I would use on a regular basis (or ever again, really). But while there were plenty of charts of muscles, actions, origins and attachments, and innervations, and hundreds of diagrams from the anatomical planes and position to the detailed routes of nerves and tendons, there were also some interesting tidbits that were more retainable for even the likes of me.

Like for instance, the brachial plexus mixes up all the nerves from the cervical vertebrae so that every arm muscle is innervated by more than one spinal cord segment, which allows function to continue in spite of severe injury to a particular nerve. And that’s also why, when my cervical disks started collapsing one after the other, my arms often hurt in the same place.

Remember how we all learned in junior high that the shoulder’s a ball and socket joint? Well, that’s true, except the socket is extremely shallow, so the whole shoulder is held together by tendons and muscles, which is why some people (like my ex-husband) dislocate a shoulder if they sneeze too hard. And a wristwatch is really a forearm watch, because the wrist bones are in what most people consider the hand. Rotator cuff injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, all sorts of fun things were all splayed out for us on multicolor slides.

While the quizzes did have a lot of “what is this structure” questions, there were also some items that required putting together the anatomy and working with it. Such as: Why is a fall on an outstretched hand more likely to injure the scaphoid or lunate bones than to the triquetrum? It has nothing to do with the wrist bones; it’s the cartilage on the end of the ulna that absorbs some of the shock to the triquetrum. And, by the way, I love the word triquetrum, it’s my favorite bone. Here’s another one: A woman has upper limb weakness after surgery, and is unable to protract her scapula. What muscle has most likely been affected? And my favorite question(s) of the entire course:

To bring the palm of the hand from anatomic position to facing posteriorly using the shoulder joint, one would have to do which of the following actions?
– Medial rotation – correct
– Lateral rotation
– Pronation
– Supination
 
To bring the palm of the hand from anatomic position to facing posteriorly using the elbow and wrist radioulnar joints, one would have to do which of the following actions?
– Medial rotation
– Lateral rotation
– Pronation – correct
– Supination

See, you can turn your palm backwards either by moving your whole arm at the shoulder, or by flipping your radius over the stationary ulna, and those are completely different actions using completely different muscles. Cool! No? Well, I had fun. And the best part is: Thoracic anatomy is in the works. I’m really looking forward to that.

Like I said, I’m weird.

BASS 2015: Thomas McGuane, “Motherlode” from The New Yorker, 9/8/14

Looking in the hotel mirror, David Jenkins adjusted the Stetson he disliked and pulled on a windbreaker with a cattle-vaccine logo. He worked for a syndicate of cattle geneticists in Oklahoma, though he’d never met his employers—he had earned his credentials through an online agricultural portal, much the way that people became ministers. He was still in his twenties, a very bright young man, but astonishingly uneducated in every other way. He had spent the night in Jordan at the Garfield Hotel, which was an ideal location for meeting his ranch clients in the area. He had woken early enough to be the first customer at the café. On the front step, an old dog slept with a cancelled first-class stamp stuck to its butt. By the time David had ordered breakfast, older ranchers occupied several of the tables, waving to him familiarly. Then a man from Utah, whom he’d met at the hotel, appeared in the doorway and stopped, looking around the room. The man, who’d told David that he’d come to Jordan to watch the comets, was small and intense, middle-aged, wearing pants with an elastic waistband and flashy sneakers. Several of the ranchers were staring at him. David had asked the hotel desk clerk, an elderly man, about the comets. The clerk said, “I don’t know what he’s talking about and I’ve lived here all my life. He doesn’t even have a car.”

~~ Available online at The New Yorker

Because it appeared in TNY, opinions on this story abound: Grant Catton, Paul Debraski from I Just Read About That, and the gang at The Mookse and the Gripes contain astute comments. Apparently it’s similar in style to Cormac McCarthy, whom I’ve never read out of lack of interest in 21st century tough-guy chic, and the Coen brothers films, which I have seen. I see the connection to the latter, now that it’s pointed out: people without competence or morality, who still manage to evoke a twinge of sympathy, running smack into what they deserve. It’s possible I just wasn’t cut out for this kind of fiction.

A couple of notes. I had an overall favorable view of David, the point-of-view character, at the start. I found it fascinating that credentials for cattle insemination can be obtained online, that there is such a vocation. I find it doubly fascinating that David “brought art to it”; if you can bring art, genius, to putting semen into cows, you can bring them to anything. I didn’t really understand how he went from that to another grifter on the make, but we all have some inner flaw we’ve somehow managed to patch over, and he seems to have had the misfortune to encounter the circumstances that broke through that patch.

I was off-kilter throughout the piece – comets, guns, cows, cars, what kind of story is this? Then the airplane left me wondering, is this a normal thing in Montana, airplanes landing in front of cars to get the driver’s attention? Hey, I’m gullible, what can I say. So the dementia angle came as a relief.

While I had a pretty good sense of David, and came to realize Weldon’s problem was not so much his patched-over flaw as the plaques and tangles in his brain, I still don’t have any idea what’s going on with Ray or Morsel, who they are when they’re not scamming, what they’re doing there. But I loved the ending, somehow, without actually following the story very well. It seemed perfect.

So what does this have to do with fracking? Because, according to McGuane’s Contributor Note, that’s the force behind the story:

I started out with some vague ideas about the energy industry, about a more pastoral version of the West, and about the skills learned through agriculture, and how they would finally clash. This was in danger of remaining pretty abstract, pretty ideological, not to mention uninteresting until occupied by human beings, characters I had on hand; and my feeling for the country I was talking about. The energy industry and its taxation on the earth is concentrated in specific places. The extraction of oil from shale through fracking has befallen parts of North Dakota and Montana. Its profits are astronomical. Few dare to stand up in the face of this tidal wave of money. The arrival of hookers, drug gangs, and gunmen in guileless prairie towns and their credulous boosters has been unspeakable. You need to see such broad things through the eyes of individuals in order to ake plausible fiction.. As usual, this often calls upon a writer’s capacity for finding voices for the voiceless. Nothing new about that, but it can be a challenge when, as in the case of “Motherlode”, there is such extraordinary distance between these lives and the forces that rule them.

~~Thomas McGuane, Contributor note, BASS 2015

After reading this, I think I better understood what the story was “trying to do”, as we say when we aren’t sure what it actually did. I can see David as the rural tradition of Montana, derailed of late by dreams of “oro y plata” (the state motto) and headed for disaster. McGuane seems pretty convinced the state, like David, is throwing away its birthright for a mess of pottage. It wouldn’t be the first time money scraped the thin patch off what was already there, all along.

Civilized MOOC

"Greek fire", ca. 7th century

“Greek fire”, 7th C

Course: Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe
School: Arizona State University via edX
Instructors: Dr. Ian Frederick Moulton et al
Quote:

[W]e will explore European civilization from its beginnings in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to the voyages of Christopher Columbus. We will study politics, warfare, trade, religion, art, culture, and daily life, as well as the legacy of ancient and medieval civilizations to the modern world.

Remember those “Eight countries in 10 days” European tours that were so popular in the 60s? This course reminded me a lot of those: a whirlwind trip through the famous historic and cultural landmarks of 4000 years in 7 weeks. It’s part of Arizona State University’s Global Freshman Academy, where students can, if exam proctoring conditions are met and a (signficant) fee paid, earn ASU credit upon passing (whether or not that credit will transfer to other schools is uncertain). And as a seven-week Freshman course covering upwards of 4000 years of civilization, it’s pretty good.

Mesopotamia and Egypt were dispatched in the first week, Greece in the second, Rome in the third. Then, an interesting twist: a week on Israel and the Jewish People; this caused some consternation as a lecture recounting the basic plot of Genesis and Exodus served as an introduction, rather than showing up in the Religion or Cultural section. This was defended by the view that a culture’s beliefs are the best way of understanding the people, which is a good point, but I still wonder if the lecture should have made more clear the distinction between factually supported history and cultural belief. Byzantium got itself a week, and the Middle Ages in Western Europe was split up over two weeks.

Each unit included subchapters on the elements listed above: politics and war, trade, religion, culture, etc. I was impressed that primary sources – in translation and edited, of course – were included for most subchapters, works like the legend of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Genesis, Cicero, Pope Urban’s call to the First Crusade, and Boccaccio’s Decameron. I was a bit amused that the first canto of the Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy was included under the heading of “Daily Life”; I would’ve expected to see it in religion, culture, or even politics (since he wrote it as an exile and included numerous mentions of Guelphs and Ghibellines) but they defended that choice by invoking the stories of Paulo and Francesca and other Florentine contemporaries.

Each week included a quiz and a set of “flashcards” via Cerego. I’ve seen Cerego used in other courses; it’s quite an interesting idea, and great where memorization of many elements is important (I found it invaluable when learning amino acids, though I let it slide and have forgotten them all). Here, the only requirement was to get to Level 1, which is more or less useless.

Discussion questions were posted each week. I’ve rather soured on discussion questions, since they tend to generate more or less identical responses parroting the lectures from most students. I think discussion questions could do other things (as they did in the Egypt course, for that matter), such as invite speculative inquiry on how something might happen prior to lectures, but that isn’t how they’re typically used.

Students taking the credited course were required to take some of the exams under proctored conditions (the rest of us just proceeded as usual). I can’t even deal with the requirements of verification, let alone instructions like “no one may enter or leave the room” or “no radio or tv or voices can be present.” I heard there were some technical issues early on, but I didn’t pay much attention; those counting on earning credit should be more diligent as to contingency plans.

In addition to the quizzes, Cerego, and two exams, a Design Project accounted for 5% to the total score for the course. The assignment was extremely vague – do something, a paper, video, podcast, music, magazine article – to demonstrate understanding of some objective of the course. Grading was by self-assessment. This is the second time I’ve run into a “do something” project with a low bar for passing, and while I appreciate the opportunity for creativity and self-direction, I’m dubious about the value of self-assessment on such a loosely defined project. A few students shared their efforts, as we were encouraged to do, and these showed some interesting creativity: a “newly discovered” Platonic dialog, a series of letters between fictional citizens of Rome, a blog post researching Hadrian’s Wall.

As a freshman level survey course, I think this was successful; in fact, extra points for including primary documents, and for looking beyond battles, kings, and dates. It wasn’t what I was hoping for, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value for what it is.

BASS 2015: Elizabeth McCracken, “Thunderstruck” from Story Quarterly, #46/47

This was her flaw as a parent, she thought later: she had never truly gotten rid of the single maternal worry. They were all in the closet, with the minuscule footed pajamas and the hand-knit baby hats, and every day Laura took them out, unfolded them, try to put them to use. Kit was seven, Helen nearly a teenager, and a small, choke-worthy item on the floor still dropped Laura, scrambling, to her knees. She could not bear to see her girls on their bicycles, both the cycling and the cycling away.… Would they even remember her cell-phone number, if they and their phones were lost separately? Did anyone memorize numbers anymore? The electrical outlets were still dammed with plastic, in case someone got a notion to jab at one with a fork.
She had never worried about grieving intoxicating gas from hefty bags. Another worry. Put it on the pile. Soon it might seem quaint, too.

I’ve always been interested in narrative technique, both how a writer chooses the point of view from which a story will be told, and the effect on the reader. As I read this story, I fell into the close first person, and, shame on me, never noticed the first switch until I noticed the second I’m not sure that’s what McCracken intended; after all, she divided the story into two sections, number them to emphasize that. There’s little more she could have done to have said, “Hey, this is starting something new,” but I rode right over it. Was I inattentive – my first assumption – or was I caught up in the story? Interesting, since I didn’t think I was that enrapt. In fact, I was thinking how interesting it was that I was so glued to the previous “lost child” story, but here I was more of an observer, interested and curious, but apart.

Helen hit her sister; Helen was shut in her room; afterward all four of them would go to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor with the twisted wire chairs. She and Wes couldn’t decide when to punish and when to indulge, when the child was testing the boundaries and needed discipline, and when she was demanding, in the brutish way of children, more love. In this way, their life had been pasted together with marshmallow topping and hot fudge. Shut her in her room. Buy her a banana split. Do both: see where it gets you.
Helen sneaking out at night. Helen doing drugs.
Children were unfathomable. The same thing that could stop them from breathing in the night could stop them from loving you during the day. Could cause them to be brought home by the police without their pants or good explanation.

When, in the opening scene, daughter Helen is escorted home, sans pants, by the police, who report she’s been huffing, Laura and Wes don’t know how to handle it. Who would? Thus Laura’s plaint above: have they been too permissive, or to strict? Does any parent ever know? I’m not a parent, but I’ve been a child, and as I recall, each parental mistake seems monstrous at the time. The good news, for parents and kids, is that those mistakes shrink in time. If you get time.

Wes’ solution is to take the family to Paris for the summer, maybe have Helen take some art classes. But Laura agrees, entering into Wes’ fantasy: “Perhaps they’d understand her there. Perhaps the problem all this time was that her soul had been written in French.” I’ll admit, I don’t understand that kind of family, where such a trip is even a realistic option, or where it’s something one thinks of when a teenager needs attention. What, there are no artists, no French class, in their home town? Maybe I’m resistant to fantasy. But Wes knew what he was doing: Helen blooms in Paris, acting as translator and guide, becoming more cheerful by the day.

Everything was going to be All Right.

Except, of course, that would be a Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie, not a literary short story. Helen is suddenly in the hospital with a severe head injury. The only story they can piece together is that Helen has been sneaking out of the family’s Parisian flat at night to carouse with a group of French teenagers. And something happened. Now, coma. And now, the POV, though remaining in third person, switches to Wes:

“Helen,” he said, “Helen. You can tell us anything. You should, you know.” They depend the kind of parents who wanted to know nothing, or the wrong things. It hit him with a force of the conversion; although they believed what they didn’t acknowledge didn’t exist. Here, proof: the unsalable existed. “Helen,” he said to his sleeping daughter. “I will never be mad at you again. Were starting over. Tell me anything.”
A fresh start. He erased the photos and texts from the phone: he wanted to know everything in the future, not the best. Later he regretted, he wants names, numbers, the indecipherable slang-written texts of French teenagers, but as you scroll down, deleting, affirming each deletion, it felt like the kind of meditative prayer: I will change. Life will broaden and better.

See, that’s literary fiction: after daughter is in a coma, Dad decides Everything Will Be All Right, while the reader feels sorry for him.

While Laura sees the harsh realities, Wes burrows deeper into fantasy land. Laura shuts herself in her room; Wes goes out for ice cream. It’s an interesting technique, to use such a clear break in the story to show such a clear break in this family. I’m not surprised to discover that I understand the harsh glare of reality far better than fantasy. But both will be necessary for this family going forward; the question is, can they come out from their respective corners and work together, or will it be a continual conflict?

The surprise comes when the POV shifts, briefly but crucially, to Helen late in the story. The shift is far more subtle; no section breaks here.

Don’t let her take me, Daddy. Her mother hadn’t looked her in the eye since she’d come into the room, but when had she, ever, ever, ever thought Helen. All her life, she’d been too bright a light.

And here, the emotional climax, as the mystery is solved. Not the mystery of what happened to Helen (oh, it solves that too, but that’s rather mundane) but the bigger mystery: the fantasy, or the reality? Prison, or ice cream sundaes? The parents remain unaware; the reader is the only one who receives the solution. I wonder: is it better to know, or to believe?

Quranic MOOC

Left: One of the oldest surviving Quran manuscripts, perhaps late 7th century. Right: Opening of Sura 20 in 1924 standardized edition.

Left: One of the oldest surviving Quran manuscripts, c. 7th century.
Right: Opening of Sura 20 in 1924 standardized edition.

Course: Introduction to the Quran: The Scripture of Islam
School: Notre Dame via edX
Instructors: Gabriel Said Reynolds
Quote:

This course will introduce you to various aspects of the Quran, including its basic message, the historical context in which it originated, the diverse ways in which Muslims have interpreted it, and its surprisingly intimate relationship with the Bible. By the end of the course, you will gain an appreciation for the perspectives of Muslim believers and academic scholars alike on the origins and the meaning of the Islamic scripture. No background in Islam or Arabic is necessary for this course.

Like many white-bread Americans, I have absolutely no idea what’s actually in the Quran. I’ve tried to read parts of it a couple of times, but got lost very quickly, and when it comes to religious texts of any kinds, it’s very difficult to judge the reliability of sources of information unless you have some overview of the playing field. So when I found out this course was available, I jumped at the chance to start understanding better. I’m glad I did; this was a highly successful project.

We started with an overview of structure of the Quran, the themes found within, and the process by which the text became standardized. All of this situated the verses in a time and context. I realized why I had so much trouble understanding it on my own: whereas the Bible is structured around a mostly chronological account of the Hebrews, the life of Jesus, and the Apostles – a story, with some philosophy thrown in along the way – the Quran has a different structure. Suras (chapters) don’t necessarily stick to one theme, nor is there a narrative in most cases. This gets particularly confusing as each Sura is named, but the name doesn’t necessarily refer to a theme, or even the most important aspect of the section, but rather to some distinctive feature.

The last two weeks of the course compared the Quran with the Bible, first with the Old Testament (Adam, Noah, and Moses) and then the New Testament (Mary, Jesus, and the disciples), examining the differences with an eye towards understanding why those differences appeared. I found these differences to be fascinating, and often quite beautiful.

What I appreciated most about the course was the clear distinction between what is in the text, and the interpretations of that text. This was most evident to me in connection with the “Night Journey” of Sura 17, the story of Mohamed’s mystical transport in the course of one night from Mecca to Jerusalem to Heaven and back again. We looked at several traditions of interpretation of the text according to different Islamic scholars and schools of thought, and how those interpretations are situated into more verifiable aspects of Mohammed’s biography and the history and geography of the period.

The course consisted of a weekly set of lectures (one of which was taped in Jerusalem overlooking the Dome of the Rock), which were clear and informative. We were also able to enjoy guest interviews with several academic and religious scholars of the Quran, and each week also featured a “response” video on questions and issues raise on the forums. A typical week would also include significant reading: two or three Suras, and a chapter or two from a couple of academic texts. I found some of these academic readings to be somewhat complicated, primarily due to my unfamiliarity with Arabic, even Anglicized Arabic (obviously, all material in the course was presented in translation, with occasional recitations in the original Arabic), and secondarily due to my newness to the terrain. But that’s what learning is, after all: expanding the landscape of what’s familiar.

Grading was on the basis of three multiple-choice quizzes; each week also included a very short (4 to 5 questions) ungraded quiz. I didn’t find these to be difficult, though in some cases I needed to refresh my memory, as so many new names, places, and concepts were piling in. There was a quirk I haven’t seen before: the final essay (analysis of a sura not included in the course material) was for verified students only, and was submitted by email for grading by staff. While staff grading is a fantastic feature, I was surprised there was no option for peer assessment, or even self-assessment.

Another feature I greatly appreciated was the detailed structuring of the discussion forums into the topics covered for a particular week. This minimized the deficiencies of the edX forums (which I’ve ranted about before), but on top of that, given the tenor of the times, discussions in this type of course could easily get out of hand. Every mention of posting questions or comments included the word “respectful” (sad that such a thing is necessary, but a welcome reminder) and the boards were well-monitored. I didn’t participate – a combination of time pressure and being too much of a neophyte to formulate an intelligent query, or much of a query at all – but I looked around and was surprised at how well-behaved things were, given the high level of activity and the different points of view being offered. The single troll I noticed went almost entirely unfed, which is pretty remarkable. Of course, it’s possible that things were cleaned up by moderators before I got there, but that’s pretty remarkable as well. In any case, I found it comforting that, as so many in the world seemed to be going crazy, there still are people who are able to wonder, question, and trade ideas in a rational way.

I can recommend this course for anyone who’s interested in taking a look at the Quran from an academic perspective, and understanding some of the interpretations it generates; yes, there is significant effort involved, but as one of my academic heroes says, if you’re taking an easy class, you need a different class. I’m at too low a level to know, but I think it’s effective as a multi-level course: that is, beginners like me find it a great introduction, but those with more depth of experience and understanding will no doubt find it worthwhile as well. I may take it again myself, to deepen my understanding.

BASS 2015: Colum McCann, “Sh’khol” from Zoetrope, #18.3

A novella had arrived from the publisher in Tel Aviv eight months before, a beautifully written story by an Arab Israeli from Nazareth: an important piece of work, she thought.
She had begun immediately to translate it, the story of a middle-aged couple who had lost their two children. She had come upon the phrase sh’khol. She cast around for a word translated, but there was no proper match. There were words, of course, for widow, widower, and orphan, but none, no noun, no adjective, for a parent who had lost a child. None in Irish, either. She looked in Russian, and French, in German, in other languages too, but could find analogues only in Sanskrit, vilomah, and in Arabic, thakla, a mother, nathkool, a father. Still not in English. It had bothered her for days. She wanted to be true to the text, to identify the invisible, torn open, ripped apart, stolen. In the end she had settled upon the formal bereaved, not precise enough hardly, she thought, no mystery in it, no music, hardly a proper translation at all, bereaved.

Parents strongly cautioned: This story will rip your heart out in six different ways – yet leave you loving it for doing so.

And I’m not even a parent.

I need to be particularly spoiler-sensitive about these comments, however, because the story shifts and moves like the sea that plays a part throughout. It is indeed about the loss of a child, a phrase that is itself ambiguous. “He lost his daughter” means something very different from “He lost his keys.” Or does it?

I can imagine a logical reason for the paucity of words indicating a parent has lost a child. The death of a spouse, or of parents when one is young (you wouldn’t refer to a 30-year-old whose parents just died as an orphan), is a change in one’s societal status, unlike the death of a child. Even though the emotional effect is, of course, profound, would you want to be labeled as “the parent who lost a child” by a single word? The Sh’khol Jones, analogous to The Widow McAllister? I don’t think so. But it’s one thing to consider this from the calm, cool, analytical point of view, and quite another from the heart of the mother who fears she has lost her child.

This is what McCann does so effectively: radical empathy. Becoming the other, a theme from the Fiction of Relationship course. Telling another’s story. Getting to know another well enough, to understand the nooks and crannies of how they feel, and why, to tell the story. McCann has worked with a group of creatives to form Narrative4, a non-profit that brings together kids from disparate neighborhoods – most recently, Newtown, CT, and Chicago (“Twenty-six murders in one day, twenty-six murders in one month, you tell my story, I’ll tell yours”, about the 1:01 mark).

I remember reading an excerpt from McCann’s novel Transatlantic in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, and being amazed that I could be so mesmerized by a story that takes place primarily in the cockpit of a 1919 aeroplane. Here again, I was spellbound by the story of Rebecca and Tomas. McCann not only has the radical empathy he values so highly, the empathy he credits with changing lives and possibly the world, but he’s able to create it in others using only text on a page.

The writing is astonishingly beautiful. I always hesitate to say something like that, because I still have this nagging question: is writing that calls attention to itself able to do the job of writing, the transport of one person to another situation? When I stop reading, transfixed over these words: “I have, she thought, made a terrible mistake”, am I still in the story? That sentence is a flashing neon sign. It demands I stop, pay attention. Why is it broken up like that? The story – about brokenness – is about loss, the loss of a child, but the sentence starts with, “I have,” takes a breath with “she thought,” then understates the obvious. The sentence stays with me. I suspect, the next time I make a big mistake, it will be this sentence that comes to mind.

The interaction of Rebecca and her ex-husband is just as arresting. When they were married, they had the Good Life, and she left it for this tired cottage until crisis brings him back to her:

– I’d like to be alone with my wife, Allen said.
Rebecca lifted her head. Wife : it was like a word that might remain on the page, though the page itself was plunged into darkness.

The story kept changing as I read. I can understand why T.C. Boyle, in his Introduction, compared this to a novel. In technical terms beloved by high school English teachers, a short story is not only readable in one sitting, but takes place over a limited period of time. The plot of this story takes place in the space of a few of days. But the story is far longer, going back perhaps to Eve losing both her sons – a scene not included in Genesis, by the way. Because it’s too horrible to contemplate – or because it’s so well-understood?

Because the character Rebecca is a writer, a translator of literature, McCann has, I think, greater leeway to have her thoughts be beautiful even in her anguish and fear. Just as inside Jack’s head, in “Jack, July” was a unique place, so is inside Rebecca, and McCann puts us there, offering us radical empathy – or rather, the story requires it of us.

Sh’khol. She knew the word now. Shadowed.

So many ways to lose a child.

MOOC like an Egyptian

Course: Ancient Egypt: A history in six objects
School: University of Manchester (UK) via Coursera
Instructors: Drs. Joyce Tyldesley, Glenn Godenho, Campbell Price
Quote:

As its name indicates, the course is a history of ancient Egypt based on six objects housed in the collections of the Manchester Museum, in the north-west of England. These objects, which range in date from the Predynastic Period to the Greco-Roman Period, have been carefully chosen to illustrate some of the most important stages of Egyptian culture. By looking in detail at these wonderful artefacts, and uncovering the fascinating stories that they tell us, we will develop an understanding of this remarkable ancient civilisation.

I confess: I have no interest in pyramids. Kind of puts a damper on any study of Ancient Egypt. But I was intrigued by the approach used by this course: six objects that tell the story of Egypt. Of course, it wasn’t quite that cut-and-dried, but it did make for an interesting structure.

The class was run by the Manchester Museum, so each week contained a couple of videos of archaeologists and Egyptologists talking about several objects, from bowls used for funerary rites to statues to tomb paintings to tools. Because Ancient Egypt was so long ago – four thousand years – most of the materials come from burial chambers, and since most of those were looted in antiquity, we’re lucky to have anything at all. In spite of that, we saw a wide variety of materials and heard a great deal about Ancient Egypt beyond pyramids. Fun fact: animals were mummified, too. Ibises. Crocodiles.

What I liked most about the course was the variety of learning activities. Now, I hate the phrase “learning activity”, it always sounds like second grade, but it happens to be descriptive here. Weekly activities included very short readings on historical chronology, fact sheets on the objects of discussion, and period-specific maps. There were a couple of video lectures loaded with photographic documentation of the subject under discussion, and, most interestingly, two or three videos of pairs of Manchester Museum academic experts hanging out in a cluttered museum storeroom, conversationally discussing various objects connected with the period – tools, art, pottery, coffins, a crocodile mummy.

Each week concluded with a quiz and an”activity” (shudder), generally a scavenger hunt through museum websites to find objects that interested us personally, which we would share on the discussion forums. This turned out to be a lot of fun: I found a statue of the goddess Bast (famous to fans of The West Wing), some tiny pieces made from hippopotamus ivory, and an adorable 5000-year-old bowl on two feet.

The peer-assessed final project was likewise creative in nature: shadow the course by putting together a set of six objects to represent Ancient Egypt, either as a whole or of some individual period, in some way. We were invited to be creative, given license to use slide shows or videos instead of essays. The assignments I saw were all essays, but I hope some people had fun with it; I would imagine, if a student were more familiar with museums and had access to good Egyptology collection, a video might have been a lot of fun.

The material for all weeks was released at the beginning of the course, though it did proceed on a schedule. I kept with the schedule this time, partly because I was taking so many other courses, and partly because I wanted to take a different approach; usually I skip ahead, but I stayed with the group this time. It worked out fine; for me, it’s a matter of schedule.

And yes, we were in Week 2 or 3 when the US discovered a leading Presidential candidate believes the pyramids were not burial tombs but storage buildings for grain designed by the Hebrew Joseph. Presidential candidates believe all sorts of batshit stuff, but this was one of the batshittiest, made more batshit by the fact that the candidate is, in fact, a (now retired) brain surgeon of great renown. Too bad he didn’t take this course, or he would’ve seen there wasn’t a lot of room in the pyramids, Joseph was way too late for the first pyramids, the unlooted pyramids have coffins and funerary objects in them, and the looted pyramids have the same funereal art and markings on the walls.

I found the course informative and enjoyable. If you’re looking for heavy-duty history or the technical aspects of archaeology, you might be disappointed, but I can recommend it if you’re just interested in knowing more about ancient Egypt.