Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Dan Pope, “Bon Voyage, Charlie” from Bellevue Literary Review #35

Charlie Company was shipping out. Blair arrived for the sendoff ceremony at the Community Center a few minutes before 11:00 PM and set up his gear – the soft-boxes and reflectors, the backdrop for portraits – in a corner of the gymnasium. The enlisted men were spread around the bleachers and banquet tables in their fatigues, chatting with wives and girlfriends, mothers and siblings. Along the opposite wall, VFW old timers were serving hot food out of trays, wearing their ceremonial caps.
Blair was on assignment for the Hartford current to get a pictorial for the Sunday magazine.

I’m always uncomfortable with stories about the military. First, it isn’t a world I’m familiar with. That brings its own problems, in that we as a country have a small subculture bearing the brunt of sacrifice for decisions made by people at high levels of government who may have never themselves served. It’s a lot easier to send someone else’s kids into war. And second, there’s an aura of sanctity around the military promoted by the phrase “thank you for your service” and profiles of wounded warriors on Veteran’s Day that makes arguing about the use of military intervention a touchy subject. Nobody wants to hear they lost their son, or their own body parts, in a war about the price of oil.

That’s exactly where this story goes.

Blair is a former soldier, now photographer, who’s pretty cynical about the send-off for Charlie Company that he’s been assigned to cover. Since he served in the first Gulf War, he knows something about what the kids are in for, and has some cover for his negative attitude towards the operation, which seems to be some phase of the Iraq war. The story uses photography as a structural element, beginning and ending with photo shoots that cover the beginning and end of one man’s military career.

In spite of my discomfort with military plots, I’ve read such stories that affected me greatly. This one seemed too obvious, and I was curiously unaffected by what should have been a devastating story about a newly married soldier’s fate. The parallel implication about Blair’s war wounds, less visible but still profound, also left me unmoved. I never felt like he made sense to me as a character; his choices reflected necessities of plot, rather than of character.

That’s why I’m uncomfortable with this particular military story: I feel like I should feel something, yet I don’t. Not only does that feel vaguely unpatriotic, but, worse, I’m blaming the story. I wonder what it is that I’m missing.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Leslie Pietrzyk, “Stay There” from Southern Review, Spring 2018

Las Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

Las Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

Anything in the world can change in a single instant. See? Here I am, now alone. Yet here I am, still bound to that same ache of nothing I started with, tonight and every night. I close my eyes. That. That’s the thing that will not change.

At first, I thought this was going to be another woman-turns-40-and-self-destructs stories. And it does start out that way, but it goes farther and a lot deeper. That’s why I’m not leading off with a quote from the “Oh-my-god-I’m-almost-40” sex scene that opens the story, but with where it ends up after some emotional mileage. Stylistically, it reminds me of Lisa Taddeo’s “A Suburban Weekend” or Emma Cline’s “Los Angeles”.

Our protagonist is Lexie, photographer and teacher – oh, make that former teacher, since she got fired for having a relationship with a student, Tay, who has these turquoise eyes she can’t resist and who makes her forget she’s almost forty – attending her own exhibition/party. She gets some surprising, and surprisingly devastating, news at the party. How she reacts is the core of the story.

It’s a story about relationships. The importance of relationships, how to have non-relationships, and how to ruin any real relationships that might crop up in spite of yourself. Lexie learns that syllabus, as all children learn all human skills, from her parents, primarily her prominent politician-father, now determinedly estranged. When the gallery owner tells her, “Selling art is about relationships,” she hears her father telling her politics is all about relationships; “…not until college did I realize politics is about power. Likely art is, too.”

…. I glance into the tiny mirror I’ve found in my purse. A network of lines etch the corners of my eyes and lips; I see crevices. Another thought to push away, and I start up the stairs, heels clacking. I think of when I was growing up, watching my father practice his smile in the bathroom mirror, smiling over and over, tilting his head this way and that, as I timed him with the second hand on his wristwatch. Ten seconds, twenty, a minute. “Smiling’s hard work,” he would say, “and takes muscle. You’ve got to build muscle if you want anything in life.” I thought he knew everything. It was exciting that his picture was everywhere, the smile I knew from the mirror, his famous smile. Now he’s dead to me. I rouse the muscles of my own face, forming a smile. And I stride up the stairs to this party.

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in all the neuro moocs I’ve taken is that real smiles generated from emotion, and fake smiles generated by conscious command, follow two different nerve pathways. It’s why smiles are so hard to fake, why when I try to give a reassuring or acknowledging smile in a situation fraught with social anxiety, I’m often told I look like I’m grimacing in pain. I’ve improved my fake smiles, but Lexie’s politician-father has mastered it to the point of practicing to keep his smiling muscles strong. This is where she learned to smile.

This is also where she learned relationships. And where she learned stealth, because she didn’t know her parents had been separated a year before her father announced he was running off with someone younger, but that was the day before 9/11. “Can’t buy timing like that, and, lucky for him, my father’s scandal got danced right off the front page.” For the public, maybe. Is this when her father became dead to her? We know she last saw him about ten years ago at her sister’s wedding, but that was unplanned, since he wasn’t invited but just showed up, right in time to take her place in giving the toast.

By the way, her name isn’t Lexie any more. That was a childhood name, used by her friend Shannon, another relationship that’s more habit than connection at this point. And it’s Shannon who accidentally breaks devastating news to Lexie at the exhibition. Shannon who shows up with an idiot boyfriend who collects “political art” that turns out to be art by politicians (“I bought a George W. Bush at a charity auction”), but he’ll settle for art by a politician’s daughter in a pinch. Shannon who, when Lexie tells the idiot boyfriend “Basically, he’s dead to me” to dissuade him from using her as a pathway to her father, says, “You haven’t heard?”

My heart thumps, maybe loud enough to muffle her words. Once I hear what she says something will change. It’s one of those before/after moments that life whacks you with. Shannon is the one who drove through a hurricane to rescue me from the bad boyfriend’s apartment, who picked me instead of Lisa Long to co-edit the yearbook with her, who taught me quadratic equations and dragged my ass through algebra. The one who, a long time ago, knew everything about me and loved me anyway. Why did she turn into this stranger?

Lexie takes off, with Tay and his turquoise eyes in tow, because who doesn’t run from bad news. But wait… why is it bad news, if he’s been dead to her for years? It’s the end of possibility, not of reconciliation, but of apology, of acknowledgement, of seeing justice done. And maybe, just a little grief for the relationship that, strange as it was, was central for a long time. I understand that. When I got a letter announcing my ex-husband’s death, the ex-husband I hadn’t seen or talked to since the day in court, who I’d gone to significant trouble to assure I wouldn’t see or talk to, I threw the letter across the room. I didn’t know a letter could be thrown; that flat surface, light weight, all that air resistance! I didn’t consciously intend to throw it. Yet my arm heaved, and the letter ended up in a distant corner, alarming the cat who I hastened to reassure. I get it.

Lexie’s road trip with Tay takes a strange turn at a truck stop with a convenience store he’s convinced has great beef jerky when she reveals what she wants from him. Is this what she’s wanted all along, or is this a product of the night, the news, the flight? He reveals his own secret, then goes in search of that beef jerky. Enter a stranger, looking for the hooker named he’s engaged by app for $100 he’ll never see again. After a moment of fear, this leads to the most telling scene of the story:

He presses his hand up onto the window, palm flat and wide, sideways, fingers splayed. His eyes settle and fix on a point in the distance. Even so, my heart jumps across my chest. I’m statue still, though maybe I should grab for my purse or my phone. Just in case. Instead I think about Crystal and her hundred dollars. She’s probably some guy in Nigeria. She probably doesn’t exist at all. I think about a man, this man, lonely enough to send money to a girl who doesn’t exist, though surely part of his brain had been warning him no.
I cautiously rest my own hand up against the window where the man’s palm is, spreading my fingers to meet his. I’m startled to hit smooth glass, expecting his rough, warm skin, and I wonder how his rough, warm skin might press against mine, might push into the deep me of me. I’ll never see this sad man again.
All these years it was so easy, saying, my father’s dead to me, because he wasn’t dead.
Feelings explode across my mind, flaring like fireworks. Why we persist in loving things that don’t exist.

The surprise at touching a barrier instead of flesh, the confusion about what it means to connect, the recognition of another lost, lonely person without self-recognition, the broken grammar of that last sentence; this is the award-winning paragraph. This is Liv finding the Venetian candies; this is Alice relating (maybe) the underwear adventure the next day. No, the stories aren’t really that alike, it’s my reaction that connects them. And that isn’t even the climax.

The title comes from a Rumi quote mentioned in the story: “Close your eyes, fall in love, stay there.” Lexie has no trouble with the first two; it’s the last one she finds tricky. She’s almost diagnosable. The persistent feeling of emptiness; intense, unstable relationships; fear of abandonment; impulsive, self-destructive actions; uncertain self-image. I wonder what’s going to happen to her in the parking lot of that truck stop, abandoned by everyone. Not the best place to choose to stay.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Tiffany Midge, “An Open Letter to White Women Concerning ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and America’s Cultural Amnesia” (nonfiction) from McSweeney’s June 2018

Dear Dakota, Jezebel, Bronte, Caprice, Cher et al.,
I don’t mean to single anyone out here, but as an Indigenous woman it behooves me to point out that while I perfectly understand your fondness for The Handmaid’s Tale as a white feminist anthem, I can’t help but feel all kinds of something about it. Each week when all of you are discussing and posting recaps of the latest episode on Facebook, I’m resisting the urge to cram my face into the couch pillows to keep from screaming. I don’t mean to point blame on anyone, per se, but I’m talking to you, Katniss, Guinevere, and Fig.

Complete story available online at McSweeney’s

Feminism has often had a class problem. While women were fighting to get to the highest levels of the corporate boardroom, and to be taken seriously as a candidate for president, other women were trying to raise children while meeting work requirements at minimum-wage or tip-driven jobs offering no health care or paid sick leave and putting up with all kinds of crap from the boss and customers because they couldn’t afford to lose their job even if Gloria Allred had been willing to swoop into Noplace, USA to work out a settlement three years later.

By placing her Indian Handmaid’s Tale along side the popular TV series based on Atwood’s book, Midge takes the the comedy-over-tragedy approach to communicate how, no matter how crappy life is for women in the corporate world, it’s crappier on the reservation, and while a rising tide lifts all boats, some boats seem to be forgotten about. Since it’s a short letter, and available online, I’ll leave it for readers to peruse.

One touch of irony I can’t resist mentioning: considering how she peppers the letter with cute white-girl names taken from white-girl literature and pop culture, consider the name Tiffany Midge. While its origins are Greek, it wasn’t really used as a name until the 80s and had more to do with the lives of the Rich and Famous than with the Epiphany. One set of statistics (reliability unknown) claims its use is 71% white, 16% black, and .7% Native American. As for Midge, well. Yet Tiffany Midge is indeed legally recognized as Sioux. She specialises in poetry and humor. I can’t say much about the former, but I give her points for the latter.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Joy Williams, “Flour” from Paris Review #224

The driver and I got a late start. I usually decide on these excursions the night before, but it was late in the morning when I informed the friend who was coming to visit me for the weekend that I had to cancel, it was absolutely necessary for me to cancel. I had got it in my head that in her presence some calamity or another would arise and she would have to assist me in some way, rush me to a physician or something. She would be grateful she was there for me perhaps, but I would find it a terrific annoyance and embarrassment. I gave some other excuse for the disinvitation of course. Pipes. I think it was broken pipes. I should have written it down so I don’t use it again.…
By departing so late, we could not make our customary first stop. The driver and I usually spend two nights in lodgings on our route. This time three nights would be necessary. We take separate rooms, of course. If by chance we should come across one another in the restaurant or the hallways, we offer no acknowledgment.

And again, I must do something with a story I find enigmatic and impenetrable. I understand the words, the turn of events, but I don’t have a clue what the story is about. It does intrigue me, however, which is a hopeful sign. As I have said many times, I love nothing more than a story that teaches me something, and I did learn some things from this, though they may or may not have much to do with understanding the story. Still, it’s a foothold. And it was fun. I love research.

I have also looked at what some other more erudite people have said about Williams’ other work, and that, too, provides at least an approach. An approach to what is uncertain at this time, but I do have a hypothesis. Because I am somewhat at a loss, this is going to be one of my more muddled posts. It may not go anywhere interesting or significant; it will be horrible to read, particularly if you haven’t read the story. But it will go somewhere, and that may have to suffice. Someday I may come back to it with better ideas.

Let’s start with what Williams has said about herself, and what others have said about her work.

In a 2016 Vice interview with Lincoln Michel (another writer who often leaves me stumped), Williams provided a list of “8 Essential Attributes of the Short Story (and one way it differs from a novel).”

1) There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below
2) An anagogical level
3) Sentences that can stand strikingly alone
4) An animal within to give its blessing
5) Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior
6) Control throughout is absolutely necessary
7) The story’s effect should transcend the naturalness and accessibility of its situation and language
8) A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.

I can see a few of these clearly in the story at hand. There is a clear surface with underlying disturbance, which I have rendered as “I know all the words and the plot but I don’t know what it’s about.” There are many sentences that stand strikingly alone, such as when a description of a bright yellow truck with smoke billowing from its tailpipe is interrupted by the paragraph “When a little baby dies you think, If they can do it with such wonderment, so can I.” That’s striking, all right. There is an animal, the narrator’s dog, who is only mentioned and seems to have no role; perhaps the role is to give its blessing. I can’t really say if the story is controlled; it seems to be, but my perception of it is so weak, I might not notice if it weren’t. The effect definitely transcends the naturalness of the plot, and again, I know all the words blah blah.

The others are more elusive. “An anagogical level”: Medieval Christian scriptural analysis divided texts into four levels, one of which was anagogical, or relating to eschatology; the end times, judgment day. In a more modern, general sense, anagoge refers to a spiritual interpretation of text.

“Interior voices… wildly erratically exterior”. Again, there was a medieval sense of this, described by Augustine relating to visions, but I’m going to assume we’re looking at the more modern version, of what we say in our heads and what we say with our mouths. I see it as somewhat the reverse: the narrator says very little out loud, but in her head she’s mean and cranky. She’s dismissive of the driver’s efforts at translating Coptic, though out loud she only clarifies one point about the flour. At the end, she does argue with him a bit, about the translation, in fact, and whether his rendering is correct. This may be significant when I put it together. As for the driver, we have no idea what’s going on in his head; we only have his words, and limited actions.

Consolation may or may not be there. I don’t see it, but since it isn’t necessary, it’s not an issue. The point of the story is not consolation, that’s for sure.

Numerous other writers have pointed out various enigmatic qualities to Williams’ work. At Lit Hub, Vincent Scarpa analyzes a single paragraph of one of her stories that deals with grief, beginning with an acknowledgment of the impossibility of the task:

How haughty, how criminal the endeavor to break down what it is about the work of Joy Williams that’s remarkable and astounding and utterly singular when the what it is—I know, as anyone who reads Joy knows—is fundamentally and immaculately irreducible. To write about her work in an academic mode could be seen as an effort toward taming its innate wildness; its masterful ungovernability.

“Dangerous” never rests on the laurels of the perfect metaphor that serves as the story’s conceit.

She is playing with the story’s rate of revelation…. And what I’ve just described there—this coexistence of knowledge and confusion and incomprehension, the lag time between a given moment and our understanding of it—does it not have a certain resonance with the way grief so often operates?

And here I am, attempting this haughty, criminal endeavor to analyze this story, to tame its wildness. I won’t flatter myself by calling my notes here academic, but I do use academic materials, and my approach is more cognitive than emotional. It may be that I need the cognitive approach to get to the emotional core.

In any case, something to consider is how the story makes the reader experience the effects of the story’s center (such as grief, in Scarpa’s case). Don’t show, don’t tell, create an experience that illuminates.

A New York Times article declared her “one of the greatest chroniclers of humanity’s insignificance” and credits her with “misanthropic genius.” And in the contributor note to her story, “Honored Guest” in the 1995 edition of BASS, she wrote:

All art is about nothingness: our apprehension of it, our fear of it, its approach. We’re on the same trail here, we hurry along, soon we’ll meet. There are details along the way, of course. Even here there are tattoos and hairdressers and ice cream and dogs with slippers. But these are just details, which protect us as long they can from nothingness, the dear things.

Not all of these attributes need to apply to this particular story at hand, of course. But in reading them, in combination with some of the elements of the story that required some research, I came up with a hypothesis – which I will get to, I promise, but first, the story elements.

The driver is translating Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language. I happen to have read Youssef Ziedan’s novel Azazeel, last year, about a fifth-century Coptic monk’s journey from southern Egypt to Alexandria to Jerusalem to Antioch, and this detail made me smile and recall Hypa and his struggle to figure out Christianity in that era.

When the driver and I first met – when I was interviewing him, you might say – he told me that he was studying Coptic.
Naturally, I did not believe this for one moment.
Without any encouragement from me he said, “The verb forms and tenses of Coptic are interesting. For example, some tenses that we English speakers do not have are the circumstantial, the habitual, the third future, the fourth future, the optative, and tenses of unfulfilled action signifying until and not yet. I am working now on translating and interpreting the story about the woman carrying flour to her home in a jar that is broken.”
“The flour all pours out?” I said.
“Why, yes.” He seemed pleased.
Everyone knows the story of the woman and the flour. Who did he think he was kidding? Still, you are never drawn to a person for the reasons you think.

This is where I had the most fun. I first wanted to know if we were dealing with real things here – real tenses, a real story – or if this was something the driver was making up, or we were in fantasy land. Both the tenses and the story are real. Coptic has a wide variety of interesting tenses, so I’m going to think it might be significant that Williams chose these particular ones for the driver to name, rather than others. I’m not concerned with the actual form or translation of these tenses – that would be too much – but with what the word “optative” suggests (choice) to the English speaker. So many futures! One dictionary definition of circumstantial declares it “incidental, not essential”. Anyone who’s watched a courtroom drama knows circumstantial evidence isn’t enough to convict without a witness or motive. Unfulfilled action, again we’re so concerned with time and the future. We don’t seem to care about past tenses at all, although there are quite a few.

The story is also real. It’s from the Gospel of Thomas, a gnostic gospel considered non-canonical. It was discovered in modern times, and presumed hidden because early Christians objected to its teachings. I’m not comfortable going into more detail – it’s complicated – but it involves truths revealed by God.

I found a wonderful site that offers various translations of the story, plus scholarly (and lay) interpretations (I have no standing to determine the scholastic quality of the site, so I am going by faith; if someone knows of a more academic resource, please let me know). I find two different interpretations, and have to admit to being a bit confused. The story:

All three refer to the woman as analogous to the Kingdom of the Father. At first, I thought, that makes Heaven sound pretty careless. Then I came across a wonderful article – a book, really, in manuscript form online – dealing with the Gospel of Thomas in depth, and discovered several interesting things.

First, the Kingdom of the Father is not Heaven, it’s not a place at all in Gnostic thought:

The Kingdom is thus not something absolute that exists in some localized place and that we need only to see. It is a state of mind and consciousness that slowly begins to manifest as we do spiritual work. As we are caught in the everyday “flour” of life, we need to remember that there is a powerful life energy that brought us into being, the colostrum, and we need to stay in touch with that energy in order to shape ourselves into “large loaves”, like the large branch of Saying 20, i.e. a person who stands out and is noticeable for their inner radiance, peace of mind and tranquility.
….[T]he message is: do not get caught in the material world, the world of growth, decay and death, the “built” world that then becomes “unbuilt.” Fix your sights on the stable, permanent, self-generated Higher Realm of the Father’s Kingdom.

This links to an element of the story, the division of the three tiers of the car, which, by the way, seem like a very strange car, but maybe it’s like a station wagon with an extra row, or some kind of minivan. I don’t understand minivans, they came along after my period of car ownership. In any case, the arrangement of the car, interesting just on the face of it, becomes loaded with subtlety in light of the passage above:

The car is a big one, encompassing three rows, three tiers behind the driver. It amuses me to think of them as the celestial, the terrestrial, and the ­chthonic. In fact, I quite believe that all things—every moment, every ­vision, ­every ­departure and arrival—possess the celestial, the terrestrial, and the chthonic.
The dogs had pretty much stayed in the terrestrial section where their beds were, as well as a few empty plastic bottles. They liked to play with them, make them crackle and clatter. Sometimes I ride in the chthonic with the luggage, the boots and coats, the boxes of fruit and gin and books. It smells strangely good back there, coolly hopeful and warmly worn at once. But usually I stretch out in the seat behind the driver and watch the landscape change as we rise from the desert floor.

This three-part division of existence was predominant in Greco-Roman theology (and has indications in various Eastern religions as well) but, as we’ve seen before, it’s changed over time. While today we might think of it as heaven, earth, and hell, to the ancients it was more about the realm of the gods, the surface of the living earth, and the underworld or realm of the dead. A place of divinity, a place of life, and a place of death. Note that the driver is on the other side of the celestial realm. Could this make him a divinity? Or place him outside the three realms, in the Kingdom of the Father? Also note that, throughout the story, the narrator restlessly moves from one compartment to the other, even sitting with the driver for a while, “but find I can gain no perspective.” I again want to think of her as searching for the Kingdom of Heaven, but being unable to find it since it isn’t a place but a state of mind she is not, at least yet, capable of.

As for the parable the driver is translating, there are at least two interpretations. Again, the Koepke document is very helpful:

Read one way, the empty jar describes the spiritual emptiness of being too caught up in the outside world and of not cultivating one’s inner self. The woman lost her essence of life by letting it flow out of the jar; she
was too unaware even to notice and not until she got home did she even discover that the jar, her inner self, was empty.
But the problem with this reading is that the whole story is a parable of the Kingdom and that is only used for higher spiritual states. In addition,the unrealistic nature of the handle of the jar breaking, which would not cause the flour to pour out, is a deliberate clue to alert us that the surface meaning of the story doesn’t add up.
So there is also a higher state of emptiness of letting go of mental concepts, categories and endless inner chatter to attain true consciousness. When the woman comes to the end of her road (her life), she attains serenity (being beyond toil), she reaches into her house (her inner self) and finds emptiness (readiness for a higher spiritual state).

So we have one case in which it’s bad the flour – the essence of life, awareness of higher things – is leaking due to preoccupation with the trappings of the world, and the emptiness of the self that results is terrible; and another case in which it’s good that the flour – preoccupation with the unimportant – is being discarded and the resultant emptiness is preparation for a higher spirituality.

And what of the brokenness of the jar? Is it the brokenness of our souls that lets the life force out – or the blessing of enlightenment that lets us let go of the trivial? “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” per Leonard Cohen. The light can’t get in if it’s all full of flour.

Now, here’s the hypothesis for the story, the hypothesis I promised many words ago: It’s a story about spirituality, enlightenment, a higher consciousness. The narrator’s journey echoes the journey of the woman with the jar. The driver is a kind of guide: the Dao, as Lao Tse or Zhuang Zi might put it. As the narrator says, “Still, you’re never drawn to a person for the reasons you think. Besides, he was the only one who had applied for the position…” Koepke sees the Gnostic Jesus in a similar vein as the Daoists, as a philosopher (Saying 28), hoping to get people to view themselves more clearly so that they can achieve spiritual growth.

The narrator chooses to take her journey, as she has chosen to take it before. Yet she resists it every step of the way, dismissing the comments of the driver. At one point they stop for a picnic, bread and water. It evokes many ideas: prison, “thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies,” and the Eucharist (would wine be too on-the-nose?). On one former journey she made the bread, but it was terrible, so the driver now provides it, underlining the Eucharist. She’s uncomfortable no matter what car row she sits in.

The ending provides a crucial moment, as the driver tells her:

“What is important is the quality of the emptiness she eventually discovers,” he agrees. “And that is what is so difficult to suggest.”

The ending paragraph has them arriving at their destination, a destination that was never defined for us. She sees it as “utterly foreign.” He sees it as “much the same as always.” Is this the emptiness she has discovered? Has she, in fact, reached a more advanced state of emptiness than ever before, so things look different? Whether the difference is good or bad, we don’t know. This is in keeping with the two interpretations of the parable. Has she been drained of worldliness and is now open to spiritual growth, or has she been drained of spirituality and is now bereft? I would tend towards the first.

I have an alternative hypothesis: it’s a parable about death, evoked by the line about the baby dying with wonderment. But the repetitive nature of the journey makes me think that isn’t quite right. Maybe the wonderment attaches to every experience in which the spiritual consciousness is engaged, not just dying. But it is something to keep in mind.

Many comments in the story seem important, for that matter, and I’ve skipped over them. The yellow trucks. The bedraggled blanket used for the roadside picnic. The journey rising from the desert. The art in the second hotel. The bathrobes in the last hotel. In a five-page story, every line is important, every image, every thought, but I’m having enough trouble with the major moments.

I go back to something Vincent Scarpa said about the story creating for the reader the experience it was intending to describe. Spirituality is a difficult path. With religion, you can learn a creed and some prayers and follow some rules and participate in some rituals and call yourself a Catholic or Jew or Buddhist or whatever. But the path to enlightenment, to spiritual growth, is less defined. You can look up a bunch of references on the internet and quote philosophy professors and literary icons, but how do you know when you’ve got it right?

In one of the many philosophy moocs I’ve taken, the professor indicated that Kierkegaard felt Christianity should be confusing, that the existence of God should not be something that can be proven. This is the leap to faith he advocated: you don’t believe in salvation because you find evidence, you just believe. I don’t really understand that. I don’t understand this story. But the journey was a lot of fun, even if I’m not sure the empty vessel at the end is a good thing, or a bad thing.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Allan Gurganus, “I Confess: My Cultural Misappropriation” (nonfiction) from Salmagundi #197-198

I.
It kicked in early, my confusion: When is cultural appropriation appropriate? By the age of six, I owned three good puppets. Those being gifts, I had not made them. My mother boasted a Master’s degree in education; so Christmas brought me a cardboard marionette theatre. It was red and gold. My arbitrary players? A yellow fur lion, one ancient Austrian woodcutter and a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. Having only these actors might seem limiting; but, odd, all my plays about the world fit them exactly.
The character-puppet I did not need was one representing a sensitive freckled white boy with bangs, seersucker shorts, and his own National Geographic subscription. He would have bored me very much. It was others, always others, I pursued. The less like me, the more I needed them. What I didn’t know, they were. By asking them, by moving them around our little stage, I farmed my life toward theirs. I kept trying to understand them from the inside out. My strings lifted their hands and paws. Manipulation, you say? Don’t puppets require that? Isn’t all art manual labor in the service of certain truth-telling tricks?

Complete story available online at Salmagundi

Once in a while, I run across a story in these anthologies that suffers by mere timing. When originally published in early 2018 in an issue devoted to “This Age of Conformity” it would’ve been an interesting extension to the discussion of cultural appropriation. Now, in the post-American Dirt period, it seems a little late. Some things, when lead times of over a year are involved, can’t be anticipated.

Gurganus defends his ability to write characters unlike himself by recalling two experiences from his childhood. One, as above, is his puppet collection. The other is his foray into ventriloquism, and the metaphor of throwing one’s voice. He also raises, in the third part, the artistic tradition of the homage, of building on an older work and continuing the development of an idea. He also brings in his own oeuvre, which started off with a bang in 1989 with the immensely popular and highly acclaimed The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. That novel included a prominent black character, and he provides testimony for the authenticity he endowed her with.

This is all well and good, though it seems like a self-defense to a charge not made. Much of the appropriation discussion sounds like that, with writers asserting their right, their mission, to bring to the page the lives of people unlike them, to leave the “write what you know” advice in the past and use imagination, research, and empathy to include characters that serve the work, whatever their demographics. It is a confusing conversation, to be sure, one that I struggle with. But I think we’ve reached a point where it’s agreed that there’s no prohibition against white writers writing non-white characters, as long as a) they are honest characters and not stereotypes, and b) not all non-white characters are translated through the vision of white writers.

About a month ago, in the wake of the American Dirt controversy, my blogging buddy Jake Weber wrote a few posts about his experience dealing with the question of appropriation as a writer. I felt like I got a little closer to understanding the boundaries as a result. If Gurganus’ post does the same for others, I’m all for it. The metaphors are quite clever. But I’m still aware that every time a writer of color objects to a particular work, white men line up to argue back.

I’d suggest that such ethnic guardians—advocating enforced cultural monopolies—are accidentally practicing their own form of one-voice one-note puppetry. To say that six-year-old black children should be issued only puppets depicting six-year-old black children—that backs us into an enslaving literalness. I grew up in the south of water fountains marked “Colored ONLY.” To willingly re-nail that sign onto any human replenishment as essential as Narrative, that repeats a tragic mistake for tricky new reasons.

Until the 60s, white American children played virtually exclusively with white dolls. I would venture that in most households, they still do. We don’t call that enslaving literalness; we don’t call it anything, it just is.

This is a complex issue. I don’t mean to argue with Gurganos. I haven’t read any of his work, so
I have no standing whatsoever. I’ll leave the arguments to those better versed in the details. I will just say that, while more or less agreeing with his basic point – that a writer can find ways to incorporate characters unlike herself – I’m a bit antsy about the overall tone. And frankly, I’m tired of the whole argument. Hmmm… is that called privilege?

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Diane Williams, “The Important Transport” from Egress #1

Photography by Lucien Clergue

Photography by Lucien Clergue

Otto told me that our opportunity had been squandered and that i should have felt compelled to contribute something. He said, “It is too bad you don’t understand what is happening here.”
And, I saw that it was true – that I had failed to do my best.
This was to be our short interregnum. How to proceed next?
That morning the wake-up radio music alarm had been set, but the volume knob had been wrenched by somebody, counter-clockwise, full on. My first thought was that the window must be open and that the wind had caught at the blinds and that it was blowing across the fins – the slats, rather – and that they were vibrating and causing this tremendous sound before it dawned on me that this blast was something other and it made me afraid.

I’ve said many times that the context in which a story is read can change how it’s perceived. This was a case in point, though quite by accident.

I originally read the story back at the end of February, and had no idea what to make of it. Because it’s so short – a page and a half – I somehow skipped over it and went from “Hao” to “Pattycakes”. I say somehow, but it’s possible that I mentally filed it as poetry; I won’t deny the possibility that I just didn’t want to deal with it at the time and ‘accidentally’ moved my bookmark. In any case, I forgot about it until my friend Andrew (hi, Andrew!) asked if I’d read it and what I thought. So I turned to it again, on this weekend where reality feels apocalyptic, and it’s a different story.

In our defense, Andrew and I, Williams isn’t the easiest author to read. In his introduction to The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, Ben Marcus writes:

Diane Williams has spent her long, prolific career concocting fictions of perfect strangeness, most of them no more than a page long. She’s a hero of the form: the sudden fiction, the flash fiction, whatever it’s being called these days. The stories are short. They defy logic. They thumb their nose at conventional sense, or even unconventional sense. But if sense is in short supply in these texts, that leaves more room for splendor and sorrow. These stories upend expectations and prize enigma and the uncanny above all else. The Williams epiphany should be patented, or bottled—on the other hand, it should also be regulated and maybe rationed, because it’s severe. It’s a rare feeling her stories trigger, but it’s a keen and deep and welcome one, the sort of feeling that wakes us up to complication and beauty and dissonance and fragility.

That gives me some freedom to go with gut feelings without searching for hard evidence on which to base them. And here’s where context comes in. I see this as a banal love story written as apocalyptic literature, with an ending that signals recovery.

The title was instrumental in that. To me, a transport is a military operation, generally moving troops and equipment around. Holocaust literature refers to the trains to the camps as transports. The title set up a grim tone for most of the story.

The word interregnum in the third paragraph reinforced this. While it’s a term that can apply to many situations, it stems from the time between reigns of kings. A standard dictionary definition goes, “a period when normal government is suspended, especially between successive reigns or regimes.” Normality is suspended. In the story, it seems to be the period between staying together, and moving apart. A period of questioning, of deciding. Denial and settling is over, but they’re not yet at the point of moving on. Disruptive and chaotic.

The story is great at conveying this sense of suspended normality. It feels like a desolate time, a place of destruction, but what is really there? A radio alarm, and Venetian blinds. Granted, there’s a scene in which they create a moment of chaos, but if that’s all the chaos you have in your lives, count yourself lucky.

Then there’s the ultimate commonplace, a cheating spouse. Is this to underline the narrator’s sense that her world is crumbling, even in is ordinariness? To show how threatening the benign can look when the psyche is in pain? Is this the root of the chaos?

“Where did you go?” I asked.
“Kay,” he said. That’s my name.
“You’re all I have. Where did you go?”
“Do you like it here?” he said.
“No, I don’t like it here. Why should I?”
“I know. I know,” he said. “Some water?” He had to walk and to walk, to go such a short way, it seemed, to get that for me.
We had another such dialogue the next day.

Adding on the “that’s my name” seems awkward, but the Cary rule applies: it means something. Not only do we get the first-person-narrator’s name, which is handy, but in the next dialog – and calling it a dialog adds a theatrical element, a play two people are putting on for themselves with set lines, rather than a conversation in which two people communicate – he gives the name of the woman he was with. It’s something like effect-before-cause: she has to tell us her name is Kay, so we’ll understand Suzette is the other woman in an almost parallel scene in which the other woman replaces her. And, by the way, Suzette is the perfect name for a younger, other woman you want to hate.

The Important Transport comes at the end:

I have had to wait for my own happiness. I married Eric Throssel, who is a good companion – and I thought I was very happy when we had finished supper one night. But the more important transport occurred on route to Long Grove while I was driving.
Eric spoke, and his words I don’t remember them, but thank God they served to release the cramping in my neck, and in my shoulders and my back and they provided for an unexpected increased intake of oxygen and can we leave it at that?

When in doubt, I go back to the dictionary, and discovered a meaning of transport that I was vaguely aware of, but had completely forgotten about:

an overwhelmingly strong emotion.
“art can send people into transports of delight”

Broken hearts can mend. Is there anything more trite than all this? Yet this is all wrapped in enigma, as Ben Marcus indicated in his introduction. We don’t know what Eric said, and she isn’t going to tell us, because what difference does it make. The point is, tension evaporated and it was a breath of fresh air. A hint of the orgasmic in there. Who knows what she thought happiness was; now she knows it’s better.

Why tell a routine love-lost-and-found story in such a way? Those of us who have known love as war and disaster might understand. In literary terms, I’d call it defamiliarization. But in a broader sense, at this moment when for most of us normality is suspended, the upbeat ending is like an oasis. Let’s hope we all get there.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Erin Singer, “Bad Northern Women” from Conjunctions #70

Michelle Tsosie Sisneros:  Six Sisters Harvest

Michelle Tsosie Sisneros: Six Sisters Harvest

In the culture in which these women were raised, power is physical strength, fear, money, respect. Power is male. The mom might be able to skin a deer and pay the light bill, but she’s a poor mother of four and that means she eats shit every day. It would never occur to the Tocker sisters that they might be powerful.

No matter how hard their mother works, no matter how important she thinks her family name is, no matter how many bad bitch stories she tells her daughters, the girls see that their father just has to stroll in the door and he has more power.

Erin Singer, author interview with Catapult Magazine

That’s really the story right there, but it’s quite remarkable how many different ways Singer packs it in to what is a fairly short text, only eleven pages. It’s told from the point of view of the teen daughters of the family in first-person-plural narration. They know how their parents see the world; they know how people outside the family see the world; and they themselves see the world. Then they come to a decision: stay with Mom, or go with Dad?

We are Tockers, descendants of thirty-six feet of long lean Saskatchewan woman: six Tocker sisters, six foot tall, exemplary ax-women all, so says our mom. At the kitchen table this morning we are mixing our Nesquik and Mom is quoting from Taking Our Time: A History Of Tockers. Citing each Tocker triumph she stabs the book with her file, showering its curling cover with fingernail dust. Tocker Trucking! Compass Sawmill! TT’s Laundromat! Stab! Stab! Stab! Mom plants the file in an old baby corn can crammed with white pencil crayons and shards of rulers and dried out pens. She rubs her eyes until mascara moons arise underneath. Our spoons clack inside our plastic cups.

That opening paragraph contains a lot. They see Mom as stabbing the book of family history. Does Mom feel like she’s stabbing it, or does that perception belong to the daughters? In other words, is she really doing subconscious violence to her family history, or are the girls overlaying that in a kind of wish fulfillment, seeing as it’s what keeps them bound to their mother, and their mother bound to the town. And the file: I read the word file and see a manila folder, but the little detail of fingernail dust, and the perception of stabbing, makes it clear it’s a nail file. Something you really can stab with, after you’ve erased part of your body to make it more acceptable. The old can and its contents cry of a life filled with junk.

The daughters’ lackadaisical interest – you’d think a mom doing a that pontificating and stabbing would arouse some curiosity, or maybe alarm, rather than continued focus on stirring chocolate milk – gives a hint that this is a recurring event, not something unusual for a Saturday morning.

We get a glimpse of Dad, who notices the scratches on their legs from the stray dog he brought home. But there’s something more important to notice about Dad: he’s got one foot out the door, and the girls know it. This, too, seems like a recurring event.

The tension of the story hinges on whether Mom and the girls will go with him. Or, maybe just the girls. That seems to be a delicate question. Does he want them, if Mom isn’t coming?

We see life in the town through the girls’ eyes, and it isn’t pretty. They don’t seem to have friends; the other girls ignore or ridicule them. And their future doesn’t look so great, either, as they make clear in an apostrophic address to the town:

Before we die we’ll slick your Teen Burgers with Teen sauce, make chicken salad on a cheese bun and keep your kids from drowning in the public pool and we are jolly bun fillers of sub¬marine sandwiches and we ring up your Trojans and Lysol and scented candles, and we shovel your snow and push your babies on the swing set, pare your grandpa’s toenails, harvest your honey, detail your urinals, hold the papery hands of your dying, nestle newspapers in the rungs of your mailbox and ladle gravy on your French fries and we push logs through your sawmill, bring you size-ten Sorels, then size eleven, then size ten and a half, and climb onto our mattresses at night with gasoline on our hands and dog bites on our ankles, chicken fingers on our breath, cigarette smoke in our hair, ringing in our ears and our men’s hands snaking up our thighs.

This is powerlessness. The symbols of size and power are everywhere, from their dream of owning a truck “big enough to cruise around town looking down on everyone else’s roof” to mom’s story about the eagle who catches a fish too big for him and drowns. This interplays with the thread of who’s going with Dad when he leaves. “In the morning, Dad gives us one final pitch. He asks us who we want to be.” And we find out something very interesting about Mom, something that may have everything to do with the girls’ decision, or nothing at all.

It’s one of those rare literary stories with a happy ending. The interview above brings out the use of “distant future” to reassure us that the girls’ decision is the right one. It’s very satisfying in a way that doesn’t glorify poverty or dead-end lives, a trope I’m so tired of seeing. This feels more honest. Life isn’t perfect, but there are moments when you have a shot at making it better, and Singer does a nice job of illuminating one of them.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Claire Luchette, “New Bees” from Ploughshares #43.4

David Pettibone: Beekeepers (2012)

David Pettibone: Beekeepers (2012)

We bought the nylons before evening prayer at a twenty-four-hour grocery three miles away. They came folded inside paper envelopes, tawny mesh showcased under cellophane windows. We bought a dozen. They tend to rip.
Later we disagreed about whether the envelope could be recycled. If paper’s affixed with plastic, is it still paper? Eventually, we stripped the cellophane squares from all twelve envelopes and sorted the scraps.
Everything has a thousand uses. When nylons run, we slip our hands inside and dust shelves, polish silver, buff our leather shoes. There’s always a way to give something new life, but most people don’t realize this. Most people don’t want to know all the lives contained within disposable things.

Welcome to another episode of My Journey Through This Story. It’s a charming, rather short short piece, and just fun to read on the face of it. I could stop right there. But that isn’t really what I’m here for, is it.

The first paragraph would be pretty run of the mill if it weren’t for that reference to evening prayer. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about short stories, it’s to keep reading even when I’m confused. I can always go back and re-read, especially when I’m only on the first page, and maybe I’ll realize I missed something. But in this case, the details filled me in as I read. Slowly, and kind of sneakily, a word casually dropped in there (like the evening prayer) the next paragraph following some white space:

That spring, we wanted new bees for Harriet. They hadn’t wintered well, our bees. Only a few hundred were left by the time Harriet came to the convent. She didn’t know there used to be thousands, so to her, there was a bounty. She’d go out bare-handed and give the hives some air. She’d coo and grin, watching them float. She was unlike us – we found them fearsome. Agatha was allergic to bees, and Mary Lucille was seventy-three, frail as linguine. Therese avoided pain, and I avoided anything with violent rage.
The winter survivors moved slowly. They were depressed, having witnessed the deaths of their babies and their parents, who had come to lie in piles at the bottom of the apiary.

So this is a convent. At first I thought we might be doing another first person plural narration, but then the “I” slipped in there. It’s still got the feel of group narration, though. The four nuns. And Harriet, the newbie, for whom they want to get new bees. Oh, I see.

The description of the depressed, mourning winter bees is one of the many great details of the story. So are the individual reasons the nuns feared the bees. It’s a skill of writing, to know which details to highlight, and how to highlight them. In spite of the darkness of the information being revealed – a dying bee colony, a nun who avoids violent rage (why, I wonder; is it so far outside her experience, or was it once too far inside?) – the tone is brisk and… not quite cheerful, but upbeat. I found myself smiling. Maybe it was the mention of the Oreocookie cow. I had no idea there was such a thing, more formally known as belted Galloways, so I had to look it up. It’s hard not to smile with an Oreocookie cow in front of you. Later, we’ll read about the nuns getting out of their van, “one sister at a time”, another perfect little smile-generating detail.

But for now, we find out more about Harriet.

We were having trouble with Harriet, it’s true. She was a novice – hadn’t been veiled, hadn’t been given a religious name. During morning prayer, she had this look of hurt. It’s not unusual. 5:20 is a painful time to be praying if you are usually dreaming then. But it was harder for Harriet than for most. She displayed none of the joy we felt, none of the love. She worried the skin under her eyes. She never had an appetite. She had a round crater on her neck where an old boyfriend had stubbed out a cigarette.
So we wanted to surprise her with new bees. Many times, all a person needs is somewhere to be and something to do.

By now, I’m recognizing some of the very smart things Luchette does. On second read, that is; on first read, I don’t analyze, I just read and maybe make notes when I notice something. Again, there’s the detail casually dropped in, this time Harriet’s scar. In addition to making Harriet more of a concrete character, it connects with the narrator, and makes her fear of violent rage more likely to be part of her history as well.

The paragraph ends with a little aphorism. The story contains a lot of these thoughts: “[Bees] like inertia, just like us…. It’s best, more often than not, to say nothing, rather than something…. [Harriet] didn’t know yet that privacy was not a punishment, but a gift…. It’s possible to be candid about your candor’s limits…. It is terrible to be conscious of all the ways you can be hurt…. If you look long enough, there is always something to blame…. Many times the greatest mercy you can grant a man is the chance to believe himself the hero…. Everything comes with a price…. It is our belief that the greatest grace you can grant yourself is the private knowledge of your own strength.”

I’m a little divided about this technique. Shouldn’t the story bring out those ideas, rather than stating them so baldly? Isn’t this tell, don’t show? But then, why did the writer, who must know this, whose story made it through several rounds of eagle-eyed editors, do it that way? Yes, it’s the James Cary quote again, “Why did you do it so clumsily like that”, and it turns out there’s a reason. I don’t know what it is. Maybe just because an aphorizing nun fits so well in the story, keeps the tone lighter than it might be while conveying what is sometimes heavy-duty truth. And is sometimes just funny, like the hero line, and is sometimes banal, like everything having a price. It also fits the characters: when things go a little sideways, and this calm, rock-solid nun has an aphorism for it.

As much as I enjoyed this story about the sisters’ trip to buy bees, I have trouble putting it all together. I contrast this with the earlier story, “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas”. That, too, was a delightful read, but it fit together as a whole. While this story was just as much fun to read, I don’t quite get the gestalt. Let’s consider the possibilities.

Ploughshares’ stated theme for this issue was “how we react to change in our surroundings.” We have Harriet, the newbie, not adjusting well to life in the convent, possibly because she is, to use a phrase from some TV movie, running away from something rather than towards something. We have winter bees feeling sad at their fallen comrades. We have nuns encountering a very strange person in their effort to buy bees, and then dealing with technical difficulties on the ride home. Is that the point, that the nuns have learned to deal with pretty much anything, from a strange man who lives in a house with millions of bees and asks them to come into his garage in a scene that recalls Buffalo Bill asking the Senator’s daugher to help him put the chair in the truck, to a van that won’t steer, to a priest who needs to feel like a hero? Would Harriet develop this competence if she were to stay with them?

I see another possibility stemming from that first paragraph, the aphorism about the lives contained in disposable things. All of these people seem disposable. That isn’t criticism; most people are disposable. But they contain so much. Even the bee guy. First, there’s the coda to the nun’s phone call setting up the meeting:

After he said goodbye, his phone hovered in its receiver, and we heard him whispering tender words: “Oh, darlings. You can have my waffles. Yeah.” We hung up, flushed with the hot shame of happening, uninvited, upon an intimacy not our own.

They have no idea who he’s talking to, but they recognize intimacy. Later, they will realize who he’s talking to, and perhaps rethink that. But then, in his garage, there’s an incident with his dog: “On his face, there was, for a moment, tenderness. Care.” Again, a moment of what might be considered craziness is seen for something much sweeter. What might seem disposable contains beauty. The same insight seems to extend to the priest when they call him for help they don’t need.

As a third possibility, I spent some time considering the similarities between bees and people. The nuns certainly are busy; is the convent a beehive? It doesn’t seem like it’s dying, though they do mourn the loss of Harriet when she leaves.

From a different angle, it’s tempting to see the nuns as beekeepers, particularly with their habits; several images of beekeepers evoke this as well. They do a great deal of tending, from their concern about recycling materials to calling the priest for help they don’t need. Harriet would fit in with this; she’s a bee they tended who flew away. I like the idea of this approach the best, but it’s still a little wobbly.

So I don’t feel like I’ve got it yet. That’s ok; sometimes it can be frustrating to not “get” a story, and sometimes it can be an intriguing puzzle. Maybe it’s because the story itself read so nicely, I’m willing to let this simmer, hoping eventually the flavors will blend and I’ll see it as a whole. Or I’ll understand why it isn’t a whole, and accept it as such.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Camille T. Dungy, “Is All Writing Environmental Writing?” (nonfiction) from Georgia Review, Fall 2018

‘Autumn in Georgia,’ by Hale Woodruff, ca. 1931

‘Autumn in Georgia,’ by Hale Woodruff, ca. 1931

We are in the midst of the planet’s sixth great extinction…. Yet some people prefer to maintain categories for what counts as environmental writing and what is historical writing or social criticism or biography and so on. I can’t compartmentalize my attentions. If an author chooses not to engage with what we often call the natural world, that very disengagement makes a statement about the author’s relationship with her environment; even indifference to the environment directly affects the world about which a writer might purport to be indifferent. We live in a time when making decisions about how we construct the products and actions of our daily lives—whether or not to buy plastic water bottles and drinking straws, or cosmetics with microbeads that make our skin glow—means making decisions about being complicit in compromising the Earth’s ecosystems.
What we decide matters in literature is connected to what we decide will matter for our history, for our pedagogy, for our culture. What we do and do not value in our art reveals what we do and do not value in our times. What we leave off the page often speaks as loudly as what we include.

Complete essay available online at Georgia Review

I’m a little off-balance with this essay. It’s like I’ve walked in on a counterargument, but I’m not sure what the original argument was. As a result, I agree with many of the points made, but since it seems to be pushing back against an unknown proposal, I keep changing my mind about whether I agree overall or not.

As I read the counterargument on the face of it, because writers all exist in and are influenced by their environments both in the present and over the course of their lives, and because the subject of writing exists in an environment or is devoid of an environment either intentionally or not, all writing is environmental writing. Therefore, anything can be called environmental writing.

This is similar to the argument, made by Roxane Gay in BASS 2018, that all writing is political because the act of writing is inherently political. I agree with that, in that if you’re writing a simple boy-meets-girl story, you’re erasing a large part of the world, and if your characters all live in the John Cheever suburbs of the 50s, there’s a statement to be made about what has been ignored. But if I pick up a volume billed as a political anthology, I expect a more direct observation about what’s left out, an analysis about who is privileged and who is ignored. And if I select an anthology of environmental writing, I’d expect the environment to feature in the stories, or for the volume to include some analysis of how conveniently it was left out and why that might be.

But on the face of it, I do agree that we are influenced by our environments, and that those environments include choices, made by us or by others, about what is important and what is not. I agree that leaks into writing, mostly deliberately, whether via a positive or negative impression of the ethos the environment reflects. And I also agree that to exclude interactions with nature or with one’s environment is to make a statement just as the inclusion would be.

Take for example the powerful poem from Pushcart XLII, Christopher Kempf’s “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s”. I would say this poem includes equal parts environmental, historical, social, literary, and biographical writing, in a synergy that exploded for me as I reached the last lines. If it were included in a volume of environmental writing, I’d have no problem with that. Nor would I object if it were in an anthology of any of the other subject headings.

In contrast, a recent story, “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” by Jason Brown, also combines these elements. The environmental aspect is not as pronounced, but it’s there, but it’s more of a family story with historical and social overtones influenced by environment. Is it an environmental story? Yes, but putting it in a volume so labeled would puzzle me unless there was some analysis emphasizing how the environment influenced the characters present and past.

On the other hand, something like Lisa Taddeo’s “Suburban Weekend” or Tony Hoagland’s “Into the Mystery” are clearly influenced by the environments in which they are set, but I would balk at putting them into an environmental anthology that doesn’t analyze why they are there. Maybe Dungy feels that’s the reader’s job, but that seems more of a way of reading than a way of labeling writing. And that may be a good point: maybe to put such stories in an environmental volume trains us, as readers, to think of all stories in that way, to look for the role the environment does – or doesn’t – play in the story as written, and to consider why the writer chose to compose it that way.

In such urban environments, it might be difficult to remember that you are, in fact, in an “environment,” given that we’ve come to think of the terms environment and nature as referring to someplace wild and nonhuman, more akin to the foothills of my childhood than to the cul-de-sacs terraced into their sides. But that line of reasoning slides us toward the compartmentalization I resist. Our environments are always both human and other than human.

Again, I agree. When I read Wendell Berry’s “The Great Interruption” in BASS 2019, I argued with him a bit when he said, “It meant in Port William what it could not mean, and far more than it could mean, in any other place on earth.” It was a story of curiosity, of innocence, of putting two and two together, of growing up, a story of humor and unexpected interruptions in the most delicate of moments. I disagreed that such elements are unique to any place on earth. It was a story told around town with a knowing smile for years, that evoked certain emotions. I see that as a function of community, and while the community in the story is rural, there’s no reason an urban community – and I mean the word community in the sense of people who know and care for each other – wouldn’t react in similar ways.

In 2009, when Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry was published, one of the most remarkable statements the book made was that black people could write with an empathetic eye toward the natural world. In the general public perception of black writers, the idea that we can write out of a deep connection to the environment—and have done so for at least four centuries—came, and I think still comes, as a shock.
As the editor of Black Nature, I was able to make the anthology a complete project by expanding the presentation of how people write about the environment. Not all the poems in the anthology are of the rapturous I walk out into nature and find myself  ilk, though such poems are there…. And so, many of the poems in the collection do not fall in line with the praise school of nature poetry but, instead, reveal complicated—often deadly—relationships. The authors of these works mix their visions of landscapes and animals into investigations of history, economics, resource extraction, and other very human and deeply perilous concerns.

This may be the source of the original argument I am lacking: has there been discussion about this volume not being environmentally themed? This seems to run side by side with the troubles in the science fiction community when women and writers of color started getting recognition and winning prizes for their work: one subset of the community felt they weren’t writing science fiction at all. The idea that there are those with a different way of viewing the environment, or science fiction, or poetry or music or anything creative, aren’t conforming to norms is how art mummifies itself. And, let’s be honest, if these volumes with different points of view and different ideas had come out of the white male community, a la Raymond Carver or David Foster Wallace, everyone would be falling all over themselves to praise the innovation and adopt the style.

But I’m just guessing at all this. I am curious about that 2009 anthology. I took a quick look at the table of contents, but of course since I read very little poetry it didn’t mean much to me. However, I can think right away of several more recent poems I’ve encountered that Dungy might call environmental while others might not.

One is “Tallahatchie” by Susan Sommers-Willett, a mirror addressing the river as a mirror of Emmett Till, reflecting the deeply complicated relationship with nature that Dungy refers to elsewhere in the essay. The second is Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition”, clearly setting out the dynamic (“We thought / Fingers in the dirt meant it was our dirt”) with a heartbreaking echo. Then there’s Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact” which brings me to tears with every read. For that matter, the song “Strange Fruit” has a similar vibe.

Yes, all these poems connect dead African Americans to nature. Yes, some readers of environmental writing might be more comfortable to see them classified as black poetry, or political protest. Interesting how segregation finds its way into interesting corners of our lives. To see a poem that connects Eric Garner with nature is a way to broaden the environmental tent; it can also be seen as making visible something that some might prefer not to see, and thus might be kept out of the tent.

The history of human divisions is often constituted of stories about one set of people being hostile toward the presence of others. An ideology that would demand the exclusion or subjugation of whole populations of human beings is an ideology quick to assume positions of superiority over all that is perceived to be different. If you can construct a narrative that turns a human into a beast in order to justify the degradation of that human, how much easier must it be to dismiss the needs of a black bear, a crayfish, a banyan?

One thing that has stuck with me from a mooc on the philosophy of human rights was the recognition that the Western world tends to view people – especially Western people, that is, white people – as having intrinsic value, and everything else as having only instrumental value. This is what I hear in this paragraph of Dengy’s essay. But what if it works in reverse of the order she imagines, as the Kempf poem above seems to intimate? What if, upon arriving, Europeans in search of trade goods to build wealth saw the people they encountered as just more of the wildlife of the uninhabited (because they were uninhabited by Europeans) forests and plains? That the entire tableaux was of instrumental value, as blessed by the God who gave people dominion over the earth, the Bible once again being used as justification of whatever was most profitable?

Since I agree with so much, why am I having trouble with Dungy’s argument? I think it’s mostly that I can’t see what she’s arguing against, since it’s not included. I’ve changed my mind several times in the course of writing this piece, and I’m still not sure just what it is I agree with and where I draw the line.

But when I ran into the idea of segregating certain areas of literature, whether it be science fiction or nature poetry (whining, Why do you have to bring politics into everything), and thus excluding black poetry and relegating it to its own corner so genres like environmental writing or science fiction can be kept pristine and not upset readers (that is, the readers who “matter”) with such ideas, I can understand the counterargument better. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get it.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Farah Ali, “The Effect of Heat on Poor People” from Kenyon Review Online Mar/Apr 2018

Saba was beginning to think that Kamil was a belligerent man. When she’d married him, she’d known that there wasn’t going to be a honeymoon because his financial circumstances didn’t permit extravagances, but she wished they could put some neutral space between them. They had each taken three days off from work after the wedding, and in the hours and weekends that they had to spend together, they discovered they had precious little in common. After the forced post-wedding holiday, they gratefully fell back into their jobs. Saba was a receptionist in an office building, and Kamil was a reporter for an English newspaper. Because they had seen their parents, uncles and aunts, and older cousins make the best of bad relationships, they stumbled along clumsily.
Saba couldn’t understand how Kamil could sound angry even about things that excited him.

Complete story available online at Kenyon Review

The irony of the title about covers it. Remember, the word poor has more than one meaning. Financially poor, sure, but there’s also “oh, those poor people”, and it’s this sense that applies to these two. And then there’s also multiple meanings of the word heat.

A matchmaker set up the couple; Saba was twenty-six, and her mother figured she’d better get her married before it was too late. He was ok-looking, and he had a decent job, so Saba agreed. Now she’s getting to know the man who is now her husband.

As the weather grows hotter and hotter, Kamil looks outward at the people in the community that is his journalistic assignment; Saba turns inward. In that sense, the effect of heat on these poor people is very different. While he goes out into the heat to observe and find material for the article he’s writing, she goes to an air conditioned office, thankful for the respite. Those of us who are aware that air conditioning is part of an acceleration of increased heat for those outside the walls might have a bit more sympathy for Kamil’s hostility.

One evening he stalked into the kitchen where she was washing a teaspoon under a small waterfall and wrested it from her soapy hands. She shouted that he smelled like garbage, and he hit her on her face. Right away, he looked horrified at what he had done. He stammered that he was terribly sorry, that it was the heat, or all those thirsty people clutching their throats as they died one by one by the sides of roads he went on every day. Saba stayed quiet, scrutinizing the event that had just happened, like a scientist in a lab coat peering quizzically into an unidentified object. She did not feel angry at Kamil, and she recognized that that was a curious thing. Instead, she imagined severing her nerve endings with tiny scissors and shutting off her pores, sealing herself in.

The bruise becomes an intersection point for them later in the story.

I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to this story than I got from it. Sometimes it happens that way; I’m glad it’s online so readers can decide for themselves. I don’t see either of them as bad people, just mismatched people with different expectations of marriage. Kamil wants to save the world with his writing; Saba wants to be loved. They’re facing different directions, a problem exacerbated by the heat crisis that grabs all Kamil’s attention and passion. To view it in a broader, more symbolic way, Kamil is the voice crying in the wilderness, hoping to save the world, and Saba is the world, just interested in the realities of her own life. This view makes the ending particularly tragic.

This story was published before last year’s heat crisis in India in which Chennai ran out of water completely. This is what we’re in for. And those running the world from air-conditioned offices don’t really give a damn, because they will always be able to buy comfort. At least, they believe they will.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Claire Davis, “Pattycakes” from Gettysburg Review, Summer 2018

LeRoy Neiman: Bull Rider

LeRoy Neiman: Bull Rider

The man walks over to stand next to the boy, props a cleated shoe on the fence rail. He means to study the bulls as he does before every performance. For that’s half of what he thinks of it, a performance. The other half is something else that all these years have yet to reveal to him. Besides checking for the giveaway tilt of the head or rheumy eye, he’s looking for the ones that have an edge about them, a nervous energy beneath the slack hide. The ones getting their game on.
The kid fidgets, and when the man looks over, the boy is radiant in the sunlight: his red hair hot as a firecracker; his face overrun in freckles. The man can’t make out the color of his eyes, great maybe, but it’s so clear they’re like a baby’s fresh out of that first darkness.
“You the clown, ain’t you?” the boy asks of the man dressed in loose drawers and face greased in paint.

The grizzled veteran and the eager newbie: it’s a story we’ve read in dozens of different settings, from all points of view. Up the Down Staircase, one of the first adult books (in the sense of grown-up, not pornographic) I read, had the newly graduated Miss Barrett in her first classroom contrasted with an entire New York high school full of teachers in various stages of burnout. The first Star Wars episode played Luke, with his idealized vision of rescuing Princess Leia, against the pragmatic Han Solo. Even Working Girl had Melanie Griffiths trying to break into her first job against the dreamcrushing self-interest of Sigourney Weaver. And Hollywood movies play it all the time: the ingenue vs the star.

The story can play out different ways. The happy-ending version has the newbie triumphant and forming a friendship with the veteran, who now has a fresher outlook thanks to the experience. The revenge version has the newbie almost defeated, then rising to crush the veteran. The tragic version has the veteran crushing the newbie. The TV-series version has them both learning something and forming something of a conflicted but tolerable working relationship.

Davis puts this dynamic to work in the rodeo, the bull riding competition. The veteran is the rodeo clown, who’s been Hap the Clown for so long, he barely remembers his given name.

He watches the bulls a long moment. “Glenn. Name’s Glenn.”
“I’m Louis,” the kid offers, like he’s been asked, and holds out of hand, which the man takes after a long pause.
“Why a clown? Were you a rider first? Did you used to ride the bulls?”
“Do I look that stupid to you?”
The boy’s gaze moves up and down the clown outfit. “Well yeah. But that’s the point, right?”
And yes. That’s the point, he thinks. It’s always the point. It’s the clown, the buffoon, it’s God’s own fool who’s left to save the day.

Since I know nothing about bull riding or rodeos, I did some casual research to figure out exactly what Glenn does, and what the difference is between him and the barrel man he references later in the story. It seems there are different systems depending on where you are, but in general, there are clowns who are crowd-entertainers, barrel clowns who do some work distracting bulls and some entertaining, and bullfighters who dress as clowns to attract the bull’s attention, but aren’t there to entertain the crowd. Their job is to provide a target for the bull once the rider is thrown, so that the rider can get to his feet and get the hell out of the ring. One article compares them to Secret Service agents assigned to take the bullet for the protectee. Glenn is this kind of bullfighter.

We find out something of his background: his father raised bulls for the circuit, and was financially destroyed by a bad purchase. His mother was disappointed that Glenn went into the rodeo, but he believes “it would have proved some small consolation that he’s never ridden the bulls.” That “Do I look stupid” line is his stock retort when anyone asks him if he’s ridden, or wants to ride.

The newbie is Louis, who wants to ride a bull. I’ll admit I don’t see the appeal of bullriding, but a lot of people don’t see the appeal of reading stories and writing about them, so it’s all good. We get some idea of what he’s after:

Of riding the bulls, he says, “First time I seen it? Man, oh man, guys like riding a fucking earthquake and he comes off after eight seconds, and I can see it.” The boys eyes light with a hallelujah fire. “He comes off that ride and he’s different from me and my dad and all my friends and all the people I’ve ever known in this world. Different. You get that, right?”
There’s little to be said after that, and then the quiet between them feels so good, the man can’t bring himself to tell the boy everything he should have known from the get-go

I was surprised at how engrossed I was in the story, how much I was pushing towards finding out what happens. Glenn isn’t the kind of character who reveals himself, yet I did feel like I got to know him, much more than Louis who just might not have as much to know, given his young age. One line bothered me: “[B]eneath the splendor, there’s always the ruin.” It doesn’t seem to fit the tone of the piece. But it’s a superb line. And it brings to mind the suffering that often goes into glory, as well as the tears of a clown under the makeup.

No, I’m not going to reveal what happens, except to say it wasn’t really a surprise, but was quite satisfying. Not in a happy-ending sort of way; not in a revenge way, or a tv-series way. In its own way, it worked. That’s the best description of this story, which brought me in, in spite of myself: it did its job, just like Glenn.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Ye Chun, “Hao” from Georgia Review, Fall 2018

“好/hǎo/: good” by Han_characters on Dribbble

“好/hǎo/: good” by Han_characters on Dribbble

Qingxin remembers that the character 万comes from ** in the Oracle Bone Script—a scorpion with large pincers and a poisonous sting at the end of its jointed tail. How does a bug come to mean ten thousand, as in “毛主席万鋸” — Chairman Mao lives ten thousand years, a slogan she’s made to write a thousand times a day? She wants to look it up in her Shuowen Jiezi, but all her books were confiscated and burned. If she remembers correctly, it’s speculated that scorpions once plagued the central plain, so when people saw the sign, they saw not just one scorpion but tens of thousands of them. Now, three millennia later, on the same central plain, she is labeled “毒蝎,” poisonous scorpion, and ordered to write a word that comes from the same insect a thousand times a day. Is she, then, a “poisonous scorpion,” releasing tens of thousands of scorpions back to the central plain each time she writes down the word? It’s confusing.

Complete story available online at Georgia Review
Note: While the Chinese characters display, The Oracle Bone characters are graphics and so do not display; ** is substituted. See the online story to view the characters as intended.

I could sum up this story in one sentence: it’s about the ability of language to hurt or heal, set in 1966 during China’s Cultural Revolution. But when have I ever let one sentence suffice. It’s a lot more interesting to look at it from three different points of view: the linguistic information, the historical setting, and the very personal, yet very universal story of a mother and her child. These three elements blend together to form a story that’s satisfying on an intellectual and emotional level.

Because I have an interest in language, and took a mooc (yes, I know, I’m always taking those darn moocs) about the earliest history of China and thus have some basic exposure to oracle bones and the evolution of the written language over the past two thousand years, I was fascinated by the stories of the words chosen as examples in the story: ten thousand, zero, bad, and most importantly, good, which in Mandarin is hao.

One of the primary tenets of linguistics is that words are arbitrary symbols for their meanings. That’s true to a large extent; there’s no connection between the sound we make for “cat” and the furry purrer curled up by the window. But within a language, there is often a history to words, and this story does a wonderful job of showing how the ideas of scorpions turned into the word for ten thousand. But a story needs emotional resonance, and for this, Qingxin’s thoughts as she writes her punitive assignment, her memories as a teacher, and her tender moments teaching her child her own love of language, provides that.

But language is also shown as punishment.

The character 无 is simplified from 無, which comes from ** —a person dancing, waving bouquets of flowers, for the dead. Now, the word means zero, nothing. There’s no more dancing for the dead, no rituals, just a dead body dumped somewhere, turned into zero, nothing. His body was dragged onto the shore. Three Red Guards took her there: “We got something to show you.” They looked mischievous. There was no dignity in that waxen face either, with garbage caught in his collar, riverweed in his hair.
They asked her to slap his face. She looked at them.
“Slap his face—he is bad,” one said. “He knew he was bad, that’s why he killed himself, which makes him even worse.”
“There’s no need to explain to her,” another said. “You do what we ask you to do. You are all bad!”
Both had been in her Chinese class and her husband’s history class—that was two months ago, in the pre-revolutionary era, when they were merely adolescent bullies with military fathers. Now they are judges and executioners.

As I read this, I wondered why it is that numerous American books and movies reflect on the experiences of Holocaust survivors, but relatively few on those who suffered through the Cultural Revolution. A different situation, to be sure, but does that explain it? Am I just underexposed? Is it more about American Eurocentrism (for white America, at least)? In any case, we are not spared the horror in this story.

And through it all is Qingxin, whose main concern is her daughter. Whatever horrors she has undergone during the day – beaten, humiliated, scorned – she pours tenderness and love onto her daughter. When the girl sees her mother’s bruises and wounds, and shows fear, Qingxin assures her, “I won’t die until I know you’re safe.” Part of that safety is passing on the language that comforts her, the history of words that are now being twisted into something else, making sure her child has a foundation of self-respect she can draw on no matter what, just as Qingxin does. The contrast between the words for good and bad is a direct reflection of her reality:

But she thinks of the word itself. It comes from **, a kneeling person with breasts, a woman, ** , holding a child, ** . It suits her, doesn’t it? At night she holds her daughter in her arms, and in the daytime, as she’s made to kneel in front of others, she is still holding her, even though no one sees it.
And she thinks again of the word 坏 that hangs in front of her chest and is yelled into her face every day, which comes from **, a person crying by the crumbled city wall for her lost home. It also suits her in that sense: she is the one who has lost her husband, her home, and wants to cry by the crumbled world.

I often marvel at the coincidences that accompany my readings. Just as I’m reading a story about, say, butterflies, an article appears in one of my feeds about butterflies. It’s probably more about being especially primed for certain topics. In this case it was words, so when my favorite medievalist retweeted a quoted poem, it leapt out at me in a way it might not have a few days ago:

Words have loyalties
to so much
we don’t control.
Each word we write
rights itself
according to poles
we cant see; think of
magnetic compulsion
or an equal stringency.
It’s hard for us
to imagine how small
a part we play in
holding up the tall
spires we believe
our minds erect.
Then north shifts,
buildings shear,
and we suspect.

Ryan’s poem was written more about the shifting norms of poetry itself, but it fits so well with this story it reveals the universality of language itself, how it is both a blessing and a curse, can be used for good or evil. This is something to remember as words have again become weapons; it is we who make them so.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Mary Miller, “Festival” from Paris Review #226

Photo: Abalone shell by shippertrish on Deviant Art

Photo: Abalone shell by shipper trish on Deviant Art

I was busy looking at the college girls. High-tops were popular again, as were ripped jeans. Cutoffs. Crop tops. There was a group of six in front of me and I noted their similarities: three had on the exact same pair of tennis shoes. Five were wearing shorts so short you couldn’t tell they were wearing them. Two crop tops. Four had braids in their hair. They were all of varying degrees of very thin. The uniformity was mesmerizing. The girls were young and beautiful and proud to be young and beautiful in a way I’d never been at their age. Youth and beauty hadn’t seemed like anything special, and though I’d been young and pretty enough once, I had never been one of them. A few weeks ago, a group of girls had laughed at me from their car. It was clear they were laughing at me because they’d looked right at me and then one of them said something and the others opened their mouths and another pointed. But I hadn’t heard what they’d said. What could they have said? I was just a regular person in blue jeans, not fat or ugly or weird looking. I was plain. But being plain isn’t funny.
I was still disappointed I hadn’t given them the finger or told them to fuck off, hadn’t stuck a hand through an open window to touch a girl’s cheek or pluck a strand of her hair. I’d just stood there. It hadn’t occurred to me to do anything else.

At first, I was a little bored, wondering why I was reading this story. Then about halfway through, the beat dropped, and I realized everything preceding, and for that matter following, was a character study with particular relevance for the present moment.

Lauren and her husband are attending some kind of festival in their town: music, art vendors, that sort of thing. Through a series of small moments, we find out something about who Lauren is. Her husband announces he’s planning on wearing his gray shirt, so she shouldn’t wear hers, but she’s already planned to wear her gray shirt so she wears it anyway. Who are these people who put such forethought into what to wear to a casual event? Then there’s the incident with the teenagers, and it seems Lauren isn’t the type to call out rudeness on the part of others, but kind of wishes she were. Wearing the gray shirt anyway is about as much self-assertion as she’s able to do right now.

We find out she isn’t typically outgoing via an overly symbolic scene involving a snake in a neighbor’s yard. And she had a thing with one of the musicians playing the festival; whether that thing was before or after she was married isn’t clear.

She and her husband go to his office for beers. This varying level of detail is annoying to me, we have no idea what either of them does for a living, but later she references being well-off. She gets really excited by the free tampons in the ladies’ room, and wants to swipe a bunch, along with the magazines and candy lying around. Not that she needs any, but hey, it’s free stuff.

They return to the festival, and Lauren finds Jesse’s booth; her mother asked her to buy one of his seashell paintings, again for reasons that aren’t clear. Maybe she just likes them. He seems to be a family friend, until we find out Lauren’s sister had a “drunken, not-quite-consensual encounter” with him one night. Lauren seems to be the only one aware of this, but again, it’s all vague to the reader, to Lauren, and possibly to the sister. To Jesse, it’s beyond vague:

I wondered what he had done to my sister on that night so long ago and whether whatever had happened had been rape, but once you’ve been saved you’re forgiven, and there’s no need to think about any of the bad things you did in the past. That was the allure of the whole thing. You could just admit to being a sinner and let it all go while everyone else continued to suffer.

Religious salvation isn’t the only way to not think about it. Getting rich and going into politics also seem to work.

Lauren aims for a confrontation but doesn’t quite make it, recapitulating the earlier scene with the laughing girls. I see a lot of overconsumption: of free tampons and magazines, of excessively large wind chimes, of a cluttered house – “We were jamming it full” – which brought to mind bulimia, a frequent sequelae of sexual abuse. This made me wonder if it wasn’t just the sister who had a not-quite-consensual encounter. I kept thinking about who tries to scramble what’s written indelibly in the hippocampus, and who just magically erases it, and how that doesn’t seem fair.

The vagueness of it all, in the setting of explicit details about gray shirts and barbecue and paintings, seems to be an important element, but I found hard to work against. Maybe that’s the most eloquent thing about the story.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Rebecca McClanahan, “Stories that Fit My Hands” (nonfiction) from Georgia Review, Winter 2017

Yes, she can recite the names and punch the corresponding numbers, but who are these people showing up at her door every few hours, or phoning her from across town or across the country and saying things like, “Hi Mom. How are you today?” Up until a few months ago, Dad would have connected the dots for her once again, would have intervened in a phone call like this one. But he is worn down and, since his latest stroke, when he does connect the dots they form in a strange design.

If you need more evidence that comedy and tragedy are flip sides of the same coin, read the opening paragraphs of this pair of essays about adult children caring for parents in seriously declining health. McClanahan thought she had found the answer to her mother’s confusion around phone calls: setting up speed-dial for the six children in birth order. “It was a brilliant solution”, she says, but man proposes, God disposes, and now Mom is trying to call her dead sister on her wristwatch.

This is the first to two linked essays in this selection, titled SATURDAY NIGHT AND SATURDAY NIGHT AND SATURDAY NIGHT WITH THE NEIGHBORS. We join McClanahan and her husband as she welcomes her parents, living next door, to dinner. The essay brings together Waiting for Godot, Dadaism, her father’s delight in not using his knife at dinner and his insistence that he was in New York on 9/11 in spite of the reality that he wasn’t. It’s a scene of not-quite-chaos, with chaos in the feelings just below the surface. McClanahan’s husband tells her to think of it as theater. That’s a technique therapists sometimes recommend for dealing with difficult others: become a detached observer rather than an emotional participant. But that’s a tall order.

The second essay, OUR GOD IS TOO BIG, takes its title from an answer to the 1952 book by JB Phillips, Your God is Too Small.

I closed the book. My God is not too small. He is too big.
To hold, I mean, in the palm of my hand. A hand that can reach to touch this man I have grown, almost too late, to love beyond measure. Why enlarge the aperture? if God still lives, he can shine through the smallest gap, the cleft of a rock. Ancient poets could fit a whole life, and death, into a few syllables.

The focus is on the father, who is now hospitalized and near death. Again, there is a constellation giving the scene emotional resonance: a nurses’ aide named Jeremiah which generates Biblical references, and the book. It’s exactly the scene you think it is.

Maybe essays like this are meant to bring back our own memories. For me, it was across family lines. First, my mother-in-law, who my husband affectionately referred to as “dippy”; we were no longer married (and he was in fact dead) when that dippiness became something more serious. She was living with her daughter, but the stories she called and wrote about had me alarmed at times. They turned out to be imaginings, but imagine living in such a mental place.

My experience with my father’s death was shorter, but more intense. He was fine until he wasn’t, and then he wasn’t fine for three weeks in Intensive Care following bowel surgery and multiple heart attacks. He’d move his hand in odd patterns in the air, doing imaginary crossword puzzles. He didn’t want me there; he only wanted people who wouldn’t or couldn’t come. I always thought that was a grand metaphor for everything.

I’m not sure these essays add anything to the conversation about caring for aging parents, but they do provide a conduit for memories, for those of us unfortunate to have them. For those dealing with such problems, maybe it’s enough to see that they’re not alone, that struggling to cope with the increased demands doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. And it doesn’t mean you don’t love your parents.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Jason Brown, “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” from Missouri Review #41.3

Sophie Walraven: “Old Aga Stove”

Sophie Walraven: “Old Aga Stove”

When, at fifteen, I began my first summer as the Rural Carrier Associate of Howland Island, Maine, a post officer from the regional office showed up unannounced and reminded me that I must adhere to the agency’s mission statement by ensuring the “prompt, reliable, and efficient” delivery of the mail. In August I thought of his words as I held the official-looking letter that had arrived for the writer staying in my grandparents’ guest cottage. Most people only received bills and handwritten notes from friends and relatives. Sometimes a postcard. My grandfather, who frequently asked me if I’d heard the writer say anything interesting, would love to see the contents of a typed envelope from the Jonathon Riley Agency, 333a Lafayette St., NY, NY.

At a glance, you might think there are two reasons I would particularly enjoy this story. First, it’s set in Maine, which I always appreciate (though the Islands are a completely different universe from Portland). Second, it involves Don Quixote; anyone who’s read some of my recent posts will know I’ve been a bit obsessed by that novel since my reading last fall, seeing it in stories where it has no business being seen. It’s nice to read a story where it’s explicitly mentioned and thematically relevant.

But those aren’t the real reasons I loved this story. At first, I didn’t even know why. I thought it was because it was a charming piece blending wit and pathos with fun characters, tall tales and family history (and some real history), written by someone who trusted his reader. Then on the second read, it deepened into an example of characters wanting something, the mantra of short story writers. And as I dictated pull quotes for this post, I found myself blubbering over a particular late paragraph where one character recognizes another’s desperate but well-disguised need, and in the final paragraphs, that need is transferred.

It’s an exquisite story, technically and emotionally.

The Howland family is central to the story. Our point-of-view character is fifteen-year-old John, living on Howland Island with his grandparents for the summer. It’s his grandfather who often fills the page with his presence, however. Like many grandfathers, he’s full of family stories – going back some 400 years to the Mayflower, then moving forward to settling and the losing most of Howland Island – and anecdotes of his own adventures. And like many grandfathers, some of these tales may be exaggerated. John can recognize some discrepancies with reality (can you see the tie-in with Don Quixote?) but is unsure of other details. I would say the primary movement of the story is John’s coming to terms with one particular discrepancy, and growing into a new kind of role in the family legacy.

The story is put into motion when one of the island’s summer visitors, a writer, gets a fancy letter from New York. As John expected, his grandfather tells him to invite the writer to lunch.

“Should I mentioned the Aga stove?” i said. He didn’t nod, because I’d come dangerously close to calling it what it was: John Updike’s Aga stove. The stove on which John Updike had made tea in the morning before he sat down to write or grilled himself a cheese sandwich after a long day of writing. In our family, if you wanted to speak of John Updike, you spoke of “the stove,” not, as Uncle Alden sometimes called it, “the Aga.” Likewise you could say “Lewiston” but nothing about the dowel factory my great-grandfather had bankrupted. Nothing about China Lake, where my father spent most of his time, nothing about my mother, who had gone to live among the Rarámuri of Copper Canyon

I love the technique here: the story moves forward; a great element, John Updike’s Aga stove (yes, he did have an Aga), is introduced; and we also find out more about the family. All in one paragraph.

I noticed an interesting stylistic element: although John knows the writer’s name and mentions it in that first paragraph, he never refers to him by name, only as “the writer.” Similarly, while he refers to “Grandma” throughout, he only refers to “my grandfather”. I’m not sure of the significance, but it stood out to me. Maybe it’s as though those two characters are set against each other linguistically as well as episodically.

Another thing I notice is how essential every paragraph and sentence is. That’s something you read about in how-to-write books, but it’s kind of amazing to actually see it. Even when there’s a description, it matters:

Under the black metal letters screwed onto the planks of the stern of our boat, you could still see the outline of the name BETSY, the wife of the man, Harold Moore (a distant cousin to my grandfather), who built her and ran her as a lobster boat for almost thirty years. The iron fastenings wept dark rust stains down the sides of the peeling white hull.

The main problem with the Alice B which for some reason never seemed to worry my grandfather, was that she was sinking. The electric pumps run day and night.

In most stories, I’d dismiss weeping rust as poetic but not terribly important. Here, it takes on a subtle significance, playing off the title. And let me say again how the writer trusts the reader: we aren’t beaten over the head with anything, but we’re allowed to absorb through our attention. Such as that there is no moment in the story when the boat’s last sail is announced; it’s implied by the title, and thus as we read, we make the connection and realize it ourselves. It’s so much more effective that way, and it lets the reader – this reader, at least – enjoy some self-congratulations on having noticed.

As I see it, the boat is something of a representation of the Howland family: old, tired, functional but sinking. The stove is more about the grandfather’s vision of himself, and as such, it’s the Aga stove that is often a scene stealer:

“One of the ovens is not working,” my grandfather said. “I forget which one.” He opened one door to reveal the firebox, another door to reveal one of the ovens. “Big enough for a turkey,” he noted.
“I would never cook a turkey in this thing,” Grandma said.
Finally, my grandfather opened the door he had wanted to open all along. He knew very well which one. “Oh, this is the one that doesn’t work,” he said and started to close the enameled hatch.
“Wait,” the writer said, stepping forward and pointing. “Was that a pair of tennis shoes?”
My grandfather slowly reopened the door and peered in as if he’d forgotten about the shoes.
“Oh, yes, they were there when we got the stove. We leave them in there to remind us which oven not to use.”
“Are those?” The writer laughed and raised his eyebrows to express exactly the kind of surprise my grandfather hoped for. Instead of answering, my grandfather opened the stove door wider. From the side, you could see that the instep of one shoe had worn at a bevel, and the sun faded canvas tops had been scuffed near the laces. “Updike’s shoes?” the writer said. He leaned over with his hand outstretched. For a moment I feared he might try to touch the shoes. No one, not even my grand father, touched the shoes. The writer seemed to realize he was about to cross a line and retracted his hand.
I knew what would come next.

This is show-don’t-tell at it’s finest. The grandfather is playing a game, using the shoes as a lure. And he’s very good at it. But what is the point of the game? Is it just a way to spend an afternoon? No. The grandfather’s interest in the writer echoes themes from Don Quixote, who hoped one of the people he encountered on his adventures would write of them, and tell of his exploits as did the authors of chivalric tales of old. This doesn’t account for all the exaggeration – according to John, he’s told these tales before – but how better to catch the attention of a writer than with John Updike’s tennis shoes in his stove. John knows what game is afoot:

As we all passed through the dining room to the parlor, the writer gazed at the cracked plaster, paintings, hand-made furniture, the long varnished sweep oar nailed to the ceiling beams along with at least 150 corks from a century of New Year’s Eve parties held around the hearth. I could see the stories about our lives forming in the writer’s head.

Then we find out the grandfather is writing a book, a book about Don Quixote. I’m not going to say more about that, except that it lead to the paragraph that had me in tears. The ending paragraphs as well are all goosebumpy, as John steps into a new role, quite literally. As much as I’d love to quote those paragraphs here, I’ll restrain myself, to leave the discovery for others. You’ll have to take my word for it that it’s worth it.

But wait, there’s more: This is one of the stories in Brown’s recently published collection of linked stories, A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed. I’ve already asked my local independent bookstore to order it, and I found that Brown gave a reading there just last month; I deeply regret that I was unaware of him, or of this story, so didn’t go to see him.

As a consolation prize, I found a terrific podcast , New Books in Literature by G. P. Gottleib, that features an interview with Brown about the book as a whole. His comments about this particular story start around the 11 minute mark.

This story has me enchanted with this family; I can’t wait to find out what happens next – and all that happened before.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Malerie Willens, “Scandalous Women in History” from Sewanee Review, Fall 2018

After being hired as a beauty technician with Rémy at Saks Fifth Avenue, Kim was given a lab coat the color of a pencil eraser, and told she’d be going by “Kendra.” She wore her long auburn hair pulled back, exposing a creamy, freckled complexion and lippy pout. Over the next several months, magnified beneath the department store’s halogens, she would see approximately three thousand faces at various stages of decay. On her first day of work, she learned the merciful cant of the makeup counter:
“Say ‘extracting’ for popping zits and ‘cleaning’ for getting rid of blackheads,” explained Jade, her boss. “Most important: don’t say ‘wrinkle.’ Say ‘fine line.’ And stay positive. If someone’s oily, suggest a product to eliminate shine. ‘Shine’ sounds dewy, not greasy. Watch Dane when he gets here. He’s our star.”

Complete story available online at Sewanee Review

For the second time in a week, I see a story that seems to be a vehicle for something a lot more interesting than the surface plot. In this case, the work adventures of three cosmetics salesclerks at Saks carries an exploration of one of my favorite philosophical/neuroscience topics: the distortion of our perception of reality, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by chance circumstances.

The three main characters are so different from each other, there’s almost a sign saying “Notice this”. There’s our third-person point of view character Kendra, real name Kim, a self-admitted slacker whose mom taught her the nuances of shoplifting. Dane, nee Doug, is in the third stage of being gay, meaning he’s moved past the closet and defiant promiscuity into sitcom cleverness. And Nadia, a brand-new citizen who tells people she’s from Moldova in order to avoid what comes up if she admits she’s from Romania (either gymnastics or Ceaușescu, neither of which she wants to discuss with new acquaintances).

Their job at the cosmetics counter is a combination of soft sell and therapy via lipsticks and face cleansers. I confess to a single round of Clinique skin care way back when, but other than that, I’ve always viewed those department store counters (do they still exist? I haven’t been in a department store in at least a decade) as predatory. Having read this story, I feel justified.

But the story has bigger fish to fry. In fact, it examines one of my favorite topics from the intersection of philosophy and neuroscience: just how good are we at perceiving reality, when so much – particularly choice of language – influences how we respond to what we perceive?

Take just that first paragraph. The boss changes Kim to Kendra; no reason is given, but I’d bet it’s more stylish, a name more women would see as being knowledgeable about current beauty trends. It turns out Dane changed his own name long before taking this job, simply because he didn’t like Douglas and doesn’t like diminutives. Nadia doesn’t change her name, but changes her country of origin. These are all ways of altering how people, particularly customers, respond to them, by changing inputs to perception.

Then there’s the “merciful cant of the makeup counter.” You want people, typically women, to like being there, and they aren’t going to like it long if you tell them they have pimples or wrinkles, so bring on gentler alternatives.

The central action of the story concerns a note left for Kendra by someone unknown:

I am the indentation on the pillow just after you’ve left bed. I’m the bits of hair in your brush, the sheen your thighs leave on the leather seat, the way your boots still suggest your stance even after you’ve taken them off. I’m your glasses once you’ve laid them down, I’m the way they make other people look (like you) when they try them on. I’m the cowlick you comb down, the cleavage you hoist up, the wart that keeps growing back on your thumb. I am uncontrollably you, unstoppably so, and I keep existing and existing: pushing, pulling, staining, straining. You can make your bed, wipe the chair, comb, cup, cradle and coddle and still I keep coming at the world with my you-ness. Lucky world.

Notice there are positive (cleavage), negative (cowlick, wart), and neutral things. It’s a catchy prose poem, maybe a “Song of You-Self”. Overall, it’s positive, since the world is lucky to have you-ness. But it’s not “How do I love thee” nor is it “What’s the frequency Kenneth”. Kendra doesn’t know what to make of it. Is it Dane playing a trick on her (she’s right, it’s the sort of thing he’d do) or does she have a secret admirer or a crazy stalker? She shows a willingness to entertain several possibilities, and devises a strategy to help her narrow down the choices. A game of note-swapping goes on, and each of the three reacts in different ways. Kendra ends up feeling pretty good about it, landing on the “secret admirer” option, using the reactions of the others as a guide. A few days later a second note appears, and she switches to the crazy-stalker option.

In some ways, Kendra acts like a scientist. She sees a phenomenon, forms a hypothesis, tests it, establishes a theory, then alters that theory when new information is available. On the other hand, she’s swayed by the reactions of the other two: when they receive the note, they think it’s from a secret admirer and find it flattering and cheering, so she adopts the same attitude, until she sees something they don’t see.

When a customer suggests Kendra should write a book about her experiences at the makeup counter, she undergoes a similar pattern of going along with another’s enthusiasm. It’s not something she’s ever thought about, but the customer is so excited, even coming up with a title, Kendra gets a little jazzed by the idea, thinking the woman has some experience and connections to facilitate such a project. That fantasy doesn’t last long, and Kendra’s able to let it go when, instead of reaching for a publisher’s contact info, the woman glances at her own messages.

Kendra loses her scientist label, and replaces it with her easily-influenced-by-others label,

When she saw ads for booze in a subway or a magazine, she looked for messages hidden in the liquid. Her friend Pam’s Uncle Frank, a big-shot advertising man, and a bachelor, had taught her to do that. In middle school she and Pam would spend weekends swimming and eating turkey chili in his condo, and he’d dazzle them with the secrets of subliminal advertising, showing them ads for brandy and scotch in Playboy and Penthouse. There were lips and breasts and silhouettes of naked women, barely discernible in the swirling psychedelic liquid. Words like “sex,” “love,” and “yes” were planted there too, transforming the ads into games of Where’s Waldo that still captivated Kendra. Neither she nor Pam ever spotted the words or images on their own. They’d curl up next to Uncle Frank in their bathing suits, coltish and leggy on the leather sectional and breathing in the scent of his cool licorice breath. He’d guide them to the word or image with a flourish. Once Kendra had seen whatever there was to see, she couldn’t believe she’d ever missed it.

Yeah, I read that book back in the 70s, Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Brian Key; it was immensely popular, but so was Chariots of the Gods? and both were solidly debunked. The guy who did the original subliminal experiment in a movie theater and claimed he could alter sales of popcorn and soda later admitted it was a hoax, and most of the images are along the lines of the “Mars face” or the Big Dipper. Every once in a while, subliminal advertising crops up again, but marketers have much more effective ways to make you buy.

The story’s title comes from a new makeup line featuring colors named for Delilah, Jezebel, and, god help us, Eva Braun. Sure, calling a line Scandalous Women of History is going to draw a certain cohort, and Delilah and Jezebel were long enough ago to have lost the exact nature of their treachery while retaining the exotic bad-girl image. But come on, who’s going to buy anything named for Eva Braun? (yeah, I know) Dane claims he sold two that day.

The story ends with an older woman preparing for her third date with a more educated man. He’s written her a note referencing Aeschylus, and the woman doesn’t know how to pronounce the name. Kendra does, and I catch myself in my own preconceptions when I’m surprised. Then again, how do I as the reader know she had the correct pronunciation?

One of my favorite bits from the TV series Mad Men sums up much of this story:

Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.

Whether it’s fixing your wrinkles – no, your fine lines – or reacting to an anonymous note or preparing for a date, we all want to hear we’re ok, and we’ll listen to the voice telling us we’re ok even if it doesn’t make any sense. Kendra gets extra points for being a little more skeptical than most. She could have continued to see the anonymous note-sender as a secret admirer in spite of the second note; she could have continued to believe she was being recruited as a writer of a cosmetic counter tell-all (and, to be honest, I think that would be an interesting book). But she accepted new input even when it wasn’t favorable. That’s pretty solid. But I still want to know if she pronounced Aeschylus correctly.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Margaret Wardlaw, “Monsters” (nonfiction) from Creative Nonfiction #66

The old Victorian anatomy lab was the final resting place for hundreds of human remains, carefully dissected, labeled with pins, and floating eerily in jars of formalin. The pathological museum was once the crown jewel of the state’s oldest medical school, and a full century later, the jars remained. The specimens were long since obsolete, but what could be done with them? Their eerie glass gathered dust, and they became dismembered sentinels, staring out at each new generation of novice physicians.
There were babies among them….
[A]s late as the 1980s in some medical publications, physicians called these babies “monsters.” When I was a medical student in the early 2000s, one particularly haunting specimen still bore the label “anencephalic monster.” Suspended naked and eternally lonely in his strange glass coffin, he had no top to his skull, only a small amount of brain, and huge staring eyes. Monster. That was the technical term, and it had been that way for as long as anybody could remember. It was the term the Royal College of Surgeons had used, and the Renaissance doctors before them, and the medieval manuscript writers before them.

Complete story available online at Medium

I was, at one point, something of a connoiseur of How I Became a Doctor books. From 1965’s Intern by Dr. X (who railed against paying 85 cents, plus “3 per cent sales tax in this miserable state”, for a lunch of chicken a la king over mashed potatoes, pie a la mode, and coffee, and did nothing for cancer patients because there was nothing in that era to do) to the somewhat technically-oriented neurology books by Harold Klawans or the more poetic musings of Oliver Sacks to the bawdy and irreverent anecdote approach of House of God and The View from The Vue, I loved them all. Then things took a turn, and medical books became more introspective; the gaze shifted from patients to doctors, from illnesses to the culture of medicine. I rather lost interest, possibly because the information I read for was more readily available to general readers, possibly because, with age, I became one of the many hostile patients left behind by the culture of medicine, its obsession with statistics and screenings and its lack of interest in what is actually bothering the patient.

Wardlaw’s essay is decidedly in the introspection camp. It was written as part of a 2018 writing challenge offered jointly by Arizona State University and Creative Nonfiction for the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “channel the spirit and anxieties of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into new nonfiction tales of science, medicine, and world-changing technologies in the twenty-first century.”

In an interview witih CN’s Hattie Fletcher, Wardlaw recounts a colleague’s comments on reading the work in progress:

I remember when I first wrote it, I showed it to a pediatric palliative medicine doctor. I wasn’t actually looking for structural feedback at the time, more wanting to share with her my emotional experience of caring for a dying child, and hoping to connect with someone who had likely had similar experiences. I remember she told me she thought it had too much disparate content and was actually several essays. I felt disappointed, because I had hoped to make an emotional connection and wound up instead with editorial advice that I just didn’t agree with.
I felt very strongly that it was one piece, and I wanted to give the reader the sense that I had of how humans have always been obsessed with these babies. I wanted to show them the connection that I felt with people across history who have felt both compelled and unsettled. There is already a fair amount of academic work about this phenomenon, for example he postmodern philosopher Margrit Shildrick has called it “our transhistorical horror and fascination with the monstrous.” And I’ve written many essays about monstrosity with an academic audience in mind.

Margaret Wardlaw, Interview

I can understand the colleague’s perception of several essays. There is a rotation of topics, but the essay is crafted so that the rotation is smooth and serves a purpose: to guide the reader from past to present, then to project into what might be possible for a better future. I see it as a unified whole, examining, through several lenses, how medical science and technology can obscure the very humanity it purports to serve.

We start in the past with an overview of the storage of pathology specimens in glass jars, among them fetuses that didn’t survive the womb due to various genetic or developmental abnormalities. Monsters. This wasn’t grotesque voyeurism; it was an attempt to classify and understand those abnormalities in the hopes of one day having the knowledge and skill to prevent them. Those jars bring us into the almost-present, as Wardlaw did her medical school dissections in the presence of these specimens, “under the fixed stares of the babies”.

The present becomes intensely personal, as Wardlaw describes the care of a baby she calls Luz, a child whose disease is “incompatible with extrauterine life” yet has survived almost a year by the benefit of medical technology. Luz may seem like a new topic, but there is a similarity between the old specimens in jars, and the living baby in a contemporary intensive medical setting: an isolette, IV tubes, monitoring wires. While it’s miraculous that life can be sustained, the methodology is also dehumanizing, just as storing fetuses in jars for future study was dehumanizing.

Wardlaw describes her decision to hold Luz, something that sounds so simple, but in a medical setting, is complicated, rare, and worthy of a documentary essay. And it works: Luz stops crying.

Maybe if I can do this now, for this baby, just hold her when she needs it, when she’s crying out in a great need, and just come to her as a baby, maybe it could be a sort of penance for all those babies. A penance for my whole profession, and for all those years that we thought these children were monsters and treated them horribly, and locked them in jars forever, and forgot altogether that they were ever babies at all.

It’s a much more interesting essay because it draws on a history of fearing those who are different. This fear might be self-protective, a fear of what might happen to us, what could happen to our future children, what might even be contagious in times when disease processes were poorly understood.

One of the medievalists I follow specializes in monsters. Various places were thought to be inhabited by all sorts of semi-human beings: the head-on-legs gryllus, the chest-faced blemmyes, the one-legged sciapods. Our fascination with monsters goes back long before history, and was possibly an evolutionarily adaptive trait. But it’s no longer needed.

Wardlaw is not content to merely ease the distress of one baby; she turns the essay outward, expressing the benefit this child could provide if we could not turn away:

And yet, far from being regarded as mistakes, these babies were an important part of the natural order. There was a perfection hiding in the otherworldly shapes of their uncommon bodies. There was a God who, with time and care, fashioned their physical flaws to point perfectly to our spiritual ones. And if one looked closely enough, a baby like Luz had the power to teach, instruct, and correct. Even in her short life, she could be a guide, bending us forcefully toward our own better nature.

There are times, frequently now, when I fear our better natures have gone to sleep, or dissipated, or are buried beneath the sins that are also part of us, and sometimes just eclipsed by the stresses of contemporary life. If we can recognize the humanity of a baby whose face and brain have folded in on themselves, we might have a chance at doing the same with someone who disagrees with us on Twitter.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Whitney Collins, “The Entertainer” from The Pinch #38.1

Turkish version of the Wonders of Creation W.659 fol 119a (1717)

Walters Art Museum: Turkish version of the Wonders of Creation W.659 fol 119a (1717)

Mrs. Billingsley asks Rachel’s mother, not Rachel, if Rachel would like to accompany them to the beach for two weeks. “There’s no television, no A/C. It’s almost embarrassingly primitive, but Rachel is just so entertaining. Such a delight. I know she’d make my girls happy.”
This is how Mrs. Billingsley puts it to Rachel’s mother over the phone, one evening after Rachel has been particularly engaging at tennis, and Rachel’s mother, in her outdated kitchen, still humiliated by her divorce, her hatchback, her teeth, replies: “Yes! Yes! Absolutely!” without even asking Rachel if going to the beach for two weeks with the Billingsleys is something she wants to do.
If Rachel’s mother’s own life is unsalvageable, her daughter’s still has a shot.

Complete story available online at Pinch

At first I was annoyed: oh no, not another Poor Little Rich Girl story, or something out of the We Weren’t Rich But We Were Free book of mythology. Given that poverty is an equal opportunity employer, the rich can’t be all that unhappy. I was also oddly defensive about the stereotype: the rich must be shallow, vain, and full of self-destructive neuroses.

But I don’t think that’s the actually story being told here. I mean, it can’t be, not at this level. Right?

I see some other interesting angles. One is the circle of disdain: the haves looking down on the haves-less who look down on the haves-still-less until eventually we come to the haves-less looking down on the haves, who are so obviously not happy. Mrs. Billingsley’s plea to Rachel at the end, to teach the girls anything useful, weakly attempts to elicit that kind of sympathy (why the hell doesn’t she do it herself?). Granted, this all boils down to the same mythologies and stereotypes mentioned above. But it’s still kind of interesting that everyone gets to sneer at some aspect of someone else.

The other interesting angle is the position of Entertainer, which, given the title, is probably more important. A couple of years ago, I got interested in the concept of intrinsic versus instrumental value as it applies to people and relationships. The person renewing your driver’s license, or checking out your groceries, has mostly instrumental value to you at the moment of contact, but for most of us still retains a significant intrinsic value. Completely losing sight of the intrinsic value of a human being results in things like genocide or kids in cages, but minimizing intrinsic value – seeing Rachel as an Entertainer, rather than as a person with feelings and preferences – might result in some of the things in this story.

Rachel’s mom really does think she’s acting in Rachel’s best interests by sending her with the Billingsley girls (hereafter referred to as D&D), hoping she’ll meet the right people and learn the right skills to become one of the Idle Rich. Getting her body into rich shape might be the most dramatic:

Rachel’s mother can at least teach her something about the not-eating. Think of your hunger as a wheelchair, she’ll tell Rachel before she leaves for the trip. Think of your hunger as a wheelchair, she’ll tell Rachel before she leaves for the trip. Something you can never get out of, but something that will get you where you want to go, even if it’s uncomfortable.

This is played for all it’s worth in the story, most dramatically when D&D ask Rachel to eat while they watch, vicariously enjoying every bite. Rachel starts thinking their fingernails and lips are chewed, not from nerves, but because they’re starving. Then they ask her to judge a “do we sound poor” contest: going to Sears and putting ketchup on steak are class markers. Rachel has her own take on the habits of the rich: when they show her around, they point out where drugs and sex have happened, not where to find extra towels or toilet paper.

This intrinsic vs instrumental value is dramatized by a story D&D tell, about the time their father found an owl and brought it in to be entertainment for the party:

“Dad just walked in with that owl on a beach towel. Everybody went out of their fucking skulls and the owl didn’t do a goddamn thing,” Davenport says. “It had to be sick.”
Devlin blinks slow, remembering. “It just sat on that towel and stared. Everyone was passing it around and Dad was standing there like it was no big thing except it turned out to be a big thing.”
“A real owl,” Rachel says.
“Turns out owls are beautiful,” Davenport says. “Who knew?”
“Thanks, Dad,” Devlin says as if he’s right in the room with them. “People were so-so before you brought the owl in, but now they’re happy as fuck.”
Rachel feels something close to fear, rising. “What happened to the owl?”
Devlin lays down on her bed and closes her eyes. Davenport pulls off her shirt and sits there, topless, using her shirt to pat under her armpits. “It’s hot,” she says. “I’m wasted.”
Davenport falls forward on her bed. Her bare, brown back is as slight as a child’s. Rachel stands there, alone for a moment, thinking about the owl. She wonders if they let it go. If the owl let people touch it. She imagines the owl, startled, flying around the living room, the guests both delighted and afraid, Mr. Billingsley really getting his money’s worth, even though it cost him nothing. Rachel leaves Devlin and Davenport the way they are: passed out, with the lights on.

The eventual fate of the owl is either so unimportant to the girls that they don’t remember, or don’t care enough to answer; or, it was something they don’t want to talk about. Maybe that’s shame; if so, a good sign. In any case, Rachel must be identifying with that owl pretty strongly right now.

All this is well and good, but not particularly enlightening. Rachel’s dad, who left his job at the bank in order to be an entertainer – apparently a not-very-good comic – lost his instrumental value as provider so Mom left him. Ok, that’s an interesting twist, emphasizing it isn’t entertaining itself that is the problem. But it’s the final paragraph that expands the Entertainer theme into something else:

Outside, the ocean fades and crashes, fades and crashes. Finally, it occurs to Rachel that it sounds like applause.

This opens up the story for me, zooming out to see the whole human condition as entertainment for some outside entity, be it nature or the gods or eternity. It brought me back to the puppet show in Don Quixote, where the puppets were embedded in the storytellers and DQ was embedded in the audience and the whole bunch of them were embedded in a story written by a fictitious narrator who was embedded in the novel written by Cervantes who was embedded in the universe written by God: who is Entertainer, and who is Entertained, just keeps expanding.

The problem is, it really reads like the simple surface story of stereotypes and Eat the Rich attitude (almost literally) with a little Entertainment thrown in. Or maybe that’s just the easiest way to read it, especially now.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Ryan Eric Dull, “General: Unskilled” from The Missouri Review #41:3

Mikey was on the road somewhere in Fountain Valley, looking for the 405, a ceramic saluki in his right hand and a big forced smile on his face, teeth and all. He’d heard from the entrepreneur and motivational podcaster Greg Charridan that smiling, even fake smiling, sent signals to your brain that helped to keep you upbeat. It was important to stay positive, although Mikey knew that the ceramic saluki was probably going to ruin his day.

Fragility. Everything in this story seems so fragile: the ceramic dog, Mikey’s smile, his positive attitude, his potential ranking increase to third place, his relationships with his clients.

I know little about the gig economy; I’ve never used it or participated in it. But Mikey’s all in. He’s on an app similar to TaskRabbit, except it’s expanded for this story and includes doctors and lawyers (if you pay attention to Medical Twitter you might be surprised to find that doctors think private practice is becoming untenable, so that isn’t completely off the wall) and, for people like Mikey, the category of General: Unskilled. On this day for Mikey, that includes some internet research for a recreational genealogist, reading sentences for a university linguistics researcher, delivering groceries and listening to an old man talk for a while, role-playing a job interview with a nervous applicant, and delivering a small, fragile ceramic figurine of a saluki between 3:45 and 5:00 pm.

If you listen to the news about the gig economy, you might think his very economic survival is fragile as well. But Mikey doesn’t really see it that way: he sees himself as gloriously free.

Mikey’s heart broke for his housemates, all of them sitting on their asses, throwing resumes into help-wanted dumpsters or chasing after degrees, delaying the inevitable. Look where they were, and look where they could be…. Everyone was wedded to some analog, old-world path to success, too focused on the left-foot-right-foot to realize they were walking into a hazmat wreck. Or else they’d been unemployed for so long that they were independently reinventing Buddhism, learning to free themselves from want.

Like the man said, Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Because it provides the narrative and thematic backbone of the story, let’s start with the dog. As a former devotee of the Westminster Dog Show on tv, I had some vague idea of a saluki, a sort of cross between an Afghan hound and a greyhound. Wikipedia has its origins in the middle east, with ancient Egypt developing the breed. The ACK says:

Among the world’s oldest breeds, the slim but rugged Saluki was the hunting hound of kings for thousands of years. Salukis are swift and agile sprinters who love a good chase. They make gentle, dignified, and independent but loyal pets.

So they look more fragile than they are. Maybe that’s true of all thr fragility in the story. Salukis sound like Mikey in personality: independent and loyal, active. And, of course, bred for use by the elite.

When I think of General: Unskilled work, I think of, I don’t know, stuff I could do if I weren’t so clumsy and old. Cleaning out the garage. Washing windows. Sure, deliveries, though I’m not sure I’d turn over a $200 figurine; I guess it’s insured.

But Mikey’s day goes beyond that stuff. Grocery delivery is one thing, but providing companionship to an old man is something else. Mikey does his best, hoping for a 5+ rating, but you have to wonder, where is the guy’s family, friends? Is this a gap the gig economy is meant to fill? The $19 cross between an errand boy and a therapist, because there is no one else?

The most interesting gig is with the job applicant. Mikey’s first pass with him goes fine: he only signed up for 20 minutes, but Mikey did his best to instill confidence, and he thought he’d done a good job. But they guy calls back and is in bad shape. This doesn’t seem like just another gig to Mikey; something else has eclipsed his push for a 5+ rating, something like caring:

Mikey waited for Ethan to say something. All at once, he was furious, just existentially miserable that Ethan should have to say anything, that there wasn’t some other way to figure out what he needed. How awful to talk. How awful to have to. What Mikey wanted was to hook this guy directly into his veins, to pass this guy’s pained, anemic blood through his own hearty organs and make it clean.

I’m left confused by this story. It seems to be pulling in several directions at once: fragility, independence, human connection for profit, human connection in spite of oneself, automation of human resources, availability of multiple levels of services. All imprinted on the current moment, which has gig believers and gig doomsayers. Maybe it’s diffuse because it’s all in there, and how it works, or doesn’t, for you depends on your own situation and, let’s face it, luck.

It occurs to me this could be turned into a TV movie very easily: Mikey gets hit by a truck, leaving him without income and without insurance, at which point all the clients he helped come together and crowdfund his recovery. Happy ending, sort of, if you think relying on the kindness of strangers to pay your medical bills because no one can afford insurance is happy. I’m in too cynical a place to be objective right now.

Ben Orlin: Change is the Only Constant: The Wisdom of Calculus in a Madcap World (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2019)

Calculus takes the most vexing and mysterious things imaginable — motion, change, the flow of time — and boils them down to ironclad rules of computation….It inspired Tolstoy, Borges, and David Foster Wallace. It shaped visions of history, ethics, and the powers of the human mind. Calculus is the canonical example of turning the impossible into the routine, and its ideas have nourished not only science, but economics, philosophy, and even literature, too.
That’s the case I wanted to make in this book…. an exploration of the human side of calculus, what it has meant over the years to everyone from scientists to poets to philosophers to dogs. If calculus is going to remain a fixture of math education—even for those not pursuing STEM careers—then we need to bring out its humanity, to find a version of calculus that speaks to everyone.

Ben Orlin, Ars Technica interview with Jennifer Ouellette

First, the important stuff: I’M IN A MATH BOOK! And a calculus book no less. Ok, it isn’t a calculus textbook – it’s a history/philosophy/literature/science/mythology/puzzle book that shows how concepts of calculus exist in all those disciplines – and it’s just my name, but still, if you flip back to page 319, the last page, I’m listed as one of the people who “gave excellent feedback at various stages”. I considered myself honored to receive an early draft of some of the chapters, and while I’m not so sure my feedback was excellent, I’m thrilled to be right there in print.

And now that It’s All About Me time is over, what about the book?

Last year, Ben Orlin’s first book, Math With Bad Drawings (also the title of his ongoing math-humor blog, completely charmed me despite the persistent mathphobia I periodically try to overcome. And now, a year later, his second book takes on the same challenge but focuses on calculus. After three years and five moocs (two of which I actually passed) trying to learn calculus, I’ve felt pretty traumatized by derivatives and, especially, integrals. Could Change is the Only Constant: The Wisdom of Calculus in a Madcap World charm even me?

Spoiler alert: Yes!

I want to be clear: this object in your hands won’t “teach you calculus .” It’s not an orderly textbook, but an eclectic and humbly illustrated volume of folklore, written in non technical language for a casual reader. That reader may be a total stranger to calculus, or an intimate friend; I’m hopeful that the stories will bring a little mirth and insight either way.

While this book won’t teach you calculus, it will teach you all sorts of other interesting things about interesting people, events, and ideas from literature, history, and, yes, math. Because the chapters are short, self-contained and cover individual topics, it’s possible to skip over something that seems confusing and move on to something completely different a few pages later. I’ll be honest: I’m not sure how this book would strike someone with no experience whatsoever in calculus. I’d love to find out; any volunteers?

Writers know that all writing is rewriting, and this book underwent extensive editing. Ben helpfully wrote about the process, from his recognition that “my book was not working” to his use of a mathematical model to fix it. I read a pre-revision draft, so I saw the murdered darlings. I am quite sad that a section on Adrienne Rich ended up minimized to a single epigraph (“The moment of change is the only poem”) but I have to admit, the rewrite was an improvement, and far closer in style to his first book.

Also similar to his first book is the physical object: clever dust jacket and thematic echo on the hardcover and endpapers, great page design allowing lots of room for notes and doodles, heavy paper preventing bleed-through of colors (though, unlike the first book, the only color used throughout is red). And just so you don’t think I’m some groupie who’d applaud anything Ben did, another reader, book artist Paula Beardell Krieg, also gave it high praise.

Some of my favorite chapters:

_____

Chapter 3: The Fleeting Joys Of Buttered Toast

One day, cradling a fresh mug of tea and munching a piece of wheat toast (ugh – I thought I grabbed white), I plopped onto a sofa next to my friend James, an English teacher. “How’s it going?“ I greeted him.
James took this placeholder question like he takes everything: in complete and utter earnest.
“I’m happy this week,“ he reflected. “Some things are still hard, but they’ve been getting better.“
Evidently, I’m a math teacher first and a human being second, because this is how I responded to my friend’s moment of openness: “So your happiness function is at a middle sort of value, but the first derivative is positive.“
James could have slapped the toast from my hand, dumped his tea over my head, and screamed, Friendship annulled! Instead, he smiled, leaned in, and said – I swear this is a true story – “That’s fascinating. Explain to me what it means. “

And he does. Don’t be scared, there aren’t really any nasty equations, just a lot of graphs, and if you can tell up from down, slash from backslash, you’ll be all set. My takeaway: if you’re talking about a good thing (like being happy), a positive first derivative is what you want. And, for that matter, a positive second + derivative, though at some point we get into the philosophy of too-much-of-a-good-thing. And if you’re talking about a bad thing, you definitely want the first derivative to be negative. But there are lots of combinations, and Ben explains which ones are preferable. Assuming you want to be happy (hey, I just read a short story about a masochistic robot, I take nothing for granted).

Chapter 6: Sherlock Holmes and the Bicycle of Misdirection

You know how Holmes always had a brilliant way, unknown to anyone else, to figure out his mysteries?
Turns out he didn’t always get it right. Don’t get me (or any of the logic professors I’ve taken moocs from) started about deduction vs induction, but here we’re talking about a specific story, “The Adventure of the Priory School”, in which the tracks of a bicycle are analyzed to figure out which direction the bike is moving. This is one of those cases where I’m not completely sure I fully understand the analysis, but it’s so much fun to read, I don’t mind.

Chapter 11: Princess On The Edge Of Town

This is a wonderful chapter for those of us who would rather read about Phoenician legends than math equations. It features Pygmalion and his sister Elissa (aka Dido when Virgil got around to writing the Aeneid), and has absolutely nothing to do with My Fair Lady (different Pygmalion myth) and everything to do with getting the most out of an oxhide. Or, in calculus terms, maximization. In calculus class, this often gets turned into the sheep-pen problem; this is way more fun.

Chapter 15: Calculemus

This might be my favorite chapter. It’s a debate about making math easier for people to use, versus keeping math in the realm of specialty knowledge only a few can access.

As 20th-century mathematician Vladimir Arnol’d explains, Gottfried Leibniz made sure to develop calculus “in a form specially suitable to teach …by people who do not understand it to people who will never understand it.”
….The point of “calculus” – a word Leibniz coined – was to create a unified framework for calculation. Centuries later, mathematician Carl Gauss would write of such methods: “One cannot accomplish by them anything that could not be accomplished without them.“ In my darker moments, I have said the same of forks. But just as I continue to dine with times, Gauss saw the profound value of calculus: “anyone who masters it thoroughly is able – without the unconscious inspiration of genius which no one can command – to solve the respective problems, yea to solve them mechanically …”

This surprised me. Every math course I’ve taken now in my adulthood (which means moocs) has stressed the importance of understanding what the notation means and has gone through extensive proofs to show that, yes, the sum of the derivatives is the derivative of the sum and how the power rule works instead of just moving, multiplying, and subtracting the exponent. I would have been happy to take it for granted, but noooooo. And here’s Leibniz, saying the point of his system is to take the understanding out of it:

For all inquiries that depend on reasoning would be performed by the transposition of characters and by a kind of calculus…. And if someone would doubt my results, I should say to him: `let us calculate [Calculemus], Sir,’ and thus by taking to pen and ink, we should soon settle the question.

I asked Ben, via email (one of the many things I appreciate about Ben is that he’s so patient with fools like me), to clarify for my own edification: Have math teachers been overcomplicating things for us poor students? No, not really.

It’s important to understand mathematics deeply, but it’s a pain if you constantly have to draw on your deep understanding.
Take arithmetic. It’s important to know how our numeral system works (i.e., the meaning of place value), and why the standard algorithms (e.g., “carrying” and “borrowing”) do what they purport to. You don’t want arithmetic to be a collection of black-box procedures beyond the reach of your understanding.
But also, once you know the procedures, it’s okay to execute them a bit mindlessly. In fact, it’s preferable!


The chapter goes on to explain that Leibniz was imagining calculus as part of a greater system, where all reasoning, particularly mathematical, could be reduced to symbol manipulation, making it more accessible so that more problems could be solved without constantly reinventing the wheel to figure out a derivative.

The first Calculus mooc I took (one I actually passed, and that made me so happy I took it again) this kind of accessibility was described as democratization:

This is an example of the way in which mathematics is a democratizing force: problems that at one time would have only been accessible to the geniuses on earth are now accessible to everyone. At one time in history, you would have had to have been the smartest person on earth to have calculated the area of some curved object. But now, armed with the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, we can all take part in these area calculations.

—Jim Fowler, Calculus 1 (Coursera/OSU), Winter/Spring 2013

I have a feeling a lot of calculus students would settle for a little tyranny of genius, particularly around the time the AP Calc tests get started.

Chapter 17: War And Peace And Integrals

Back in 2014, Ben wrote on his Math With Bad Drawings blog: “Forget the history of calculus. Write me a paper on the calculus of history.” He suggested seeing history as an integral, as Tolstoy did; or as an infinite series (converging or diverging?); or as a set of partial differential equations (this is where I flunked out of most calculus classes, so don’t ask me) or as various other mathematical structures. In this chapter, he expands on Tolstoy’s vision of history as a giant Riemann sum (don’t worry, he explains those in terms we can all understand).

Tolstoy knew where history must begin: with the tiny, fleeting data of human experience. A surge of courage, a flash of doubt, a sudden lust for nachos – that interior, spiritual stuff is the only kind of reality that matters. Furthermore, Tolstoy knew where history must end: with grand, all encompassing laws, explanations as tremendous as what they seek to explain.
The only question is what comes between. How do you get from the infinitely small to the unimaginably large? From tiny acts of free will to the unstoppable motions of history ?
Though he couldn’t fill the gap himself, Tolstoy sensed what kind of thing should go there. Something scientific and predictive; something definite and indisputable; something that aggregates, that unifies, that binds tiny pieces into a singular whole; something akin to Newton’s law of gravitation; something modern and quantitative … something like … oh, I don’t know …
An integral.

This doesn’t quite work out, since systems made up of many very. small pieces can become unpredictable pretty quickly. But it’s a wonderful journey, and, as Ben says, “Tolstoy’s integral fails as science but succeeds as metaphor…. History is the sum of the people living it.” To us today – and I mean today, this very day, these days when the story of the decade happens every couple of hours – it may not seem like we contribute much, given the way power has been working lately. But we are still affecting history. At least, let’s hope we are.

Chapter 19: A Great Work Of Synthesis

One way I know I don’t really understand calculus is that to me, the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus is just another ho-hum thing to remember, a not-very-exotic thing at that. In every course or video, its introduction is heralded with pomp and circumstance. It seems pretty straightforward to me: the derivative and the integral are inverse functions: what you do with one, you can undo with the other (there’s a lot of ‘sort of’ in there). The chapter explains how this works in simple terms, because it’s fairly simple. Why it’s such a big deal, I still don’t know. Some things, even Ben can’t explain to me.

While this chapter is indeed about the FT of C, I include it in my favorite chapters because it stars an unlikely player: an 18th century woman, Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Wikipedia describes her as a philosopher-mathematician-theologian-humanitarian. Her mathematical achievement was something like what Euclid did for geometry or Fibonacci for algebra: at the age of 30, she wrote the first comprehensive calculus text for students. And she positioned the FT of C prominently.

She received an appointment to the University of Bologna, only the second woman so honored, but changed course and spent the rest of her life serving the poor and running various charities and institutions. And there’s also a fun story about the mistranslation of her book that generated a curve still called “the Witch of Agnesi”. I’m always up for fun stories.

Chapter 26: A Towering Baklava Of Abstractions

This is a chapter about a two-page endnote published in 1996. Perhaps that sounds arcane, so let me dispel any doubt: it is arcane. Fantastically so. The endnote in question imports a prickly, cactus-like topic from one arid setting to another – from the desert of introductory calculus to the bizarre greenhouse of experimental fiction. The book in which the endnote appears – Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – has been dubbed “a masterpiece,” “forbidding and esoteric,” “the central American novel of the past thirty years,” and “a vast, encyclopaedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Wallace’s mind.“
My question is this: why, in a work of fiction, a dream of passion, would Wallace force his soul to this odd conceit? Why devote two breathless pages to – of all things – the mean value theorem for integrals?
What’s the MVT to him, or he to the MVT ?

In this chapter, Ben juggles the MVT, its “elder cousin” the IVT, Infinite Jest, DFW’s view of math, a quick view of 18th century mathematics history, and Sierpinski triangles. It might be the most fascination-dense nine pages in the book. And it all hangs together, because parts of it aren’t supposed to make sense.

So first he lays out the MVT, which is really pretty simple and intuitive when it’s just explained with a real-life example, like taking a car trip and figuring out your average speed. No problem.

Then we go to Infinite Jest. No, I haven’t read it. I did try: I was on page 6 when news of DFW’s suicide broke, and that ended the book for me. But apparently there’s bit on page 322 about Eschaton that has something to do with tennis balls “each representing a thermonuclear warhead,” and that points to an endnote about nuclear weaponry that requires the MVT. And just when I’m ready to throw the book in a corner, Ben tells me: “Now, if none of this is making sense to you, fear not. The fact is that none of this makes any sense to anyone.” Couldn’t you have told me that before I started crying over how bad I suck at calculus?

Much of the rest of the chapter discusses why DFW would have done this, and involves his fascination with a certain type of math, his degree in analytical philosophy, and the shift in the 18th century from intuitive descriptions to symbolic notation of concepts like the MVT. Buried in there are two gems.

The first relates directly to the influence of mathematics on Infinite Jest: “In one interview, [Wallace] explained that Infinite Jest borrows its structure from a notorious fractal called the Sierpinski gasket.” By the way, that 1996 interview with Michael Silverblatt of NPR’s Bookworm – who recognized the fractal structure and asked specifically about it – is available online. This almost makes me ready to pick up the book again. But… no, not yet.

The second is a math book DFW wrote, Everything and More: A Compact Hisory of Infinity. I have always wanted to read more of his nonfiction, and at first I thought this would be a great place to start, but Ben describes it with phrases like “a dense, technical treatise” and “a thornbush of forbidding notation” so I think I’ll stick with A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. But I’m happy to know about it.

_____

These are only a few of the twenty-eight chapters; maybe the one that most grabs your fancy lies in one of the others, like the time the Church tried to ban paradoxes, or the medical researcher who ran afoul of Math (it’s a good thing this happened in 1994, before Twitter), or the chapter that borrows from Flatland (another wonderful book; I have an annotated edition that’s historically, sociologically, and mathematically enlightening), or how Ben finally finds a real purpose for Clippy, that annoying MS-Word helpbot from years past.

An end section titled “Classroom Notes” lists chapters according to topics as they would be covered in a calculus class. Since, as Ben made clear, this is not a textbook, this makes it easier for students who are using a textbook and/or class to find the material pertaining to, say, limits or optimization. As such, it’s far more useful than an index. A thorough bibliography for each chapter is also helpful.

This storybook is by no means complete – missing are the tales of Fermat’s bending light, Newton’s secret anagram, Dirac’s impossible function, and so many others. But in an ever-changing world, no volume is ever exhaustive, no mythology ever finished. The river runs on.

Could this mean there’s a Volume 2 in the future? I have no idea, but I’m betting there’s something lurking in Ben’s idea kit that will someday result in another book on my shelf. For now, I can say that this one helped to ease some of my lingering anxiety and shame about calculus, and generated just a little more motivation to try again than I had before. Not now, not yet; but maybe someday, and that makes it a valuable door re-opener for me.