BASS 2017: T. C Boyle, “Are We Not Men” from The New Yorker, 11/7/16

The dog was the color of a maraschino cherry, and what it had in its jaws I couldn’t quite make out at first, not until it parked itself under the hydrangeas and began throttling the thing. This little episode would have played itself out without my even noticing, except that I’d gone to the stove to put the kettle on for a cup of tea and happened to glance out the window at the front lawn. The lawn, a lush blue-green that managed to hint at both the turquoise of the sea and the viridian of a Kentucky meadow, was something I took special pride in, and any wandering dog, no matter its chromatics, was an irritation to me. The seed had been pricey—a blend of Chewings fescue, Bahia, and zoysia incorporating a gene from a species of algae that allowed it to glow under the porch light at night—and, while it was both disease- and drought-resistant, it didn’t take well to foot traffic, especially four-footed traffic.

Complete story available online at online at TNY

I’ve gone back a few times to figure out when I first realized what was going on in this story; it wasn’t in the opening paragraph. Oh, sure, a cherry-red dog is odd, but it was a scene of chaos and confusion, so I expected it to be explained in a few paragraphs – he’d been covered in blood, or paint, or maraschino cherry juice for that matter, something. Or the speaker was on drugs. The grass didn’t really strike me either, since most lawn grasses are hybrids; maybe it was a little weird getting down to the gene level, but again, I chalked that up to the speaker’s point of view. What I wrote in the margin was simply, “Colors!”

It’s a credit to the story that it took me so long to realize this wasn’t stylistics or character, but genetic engineering via CRISPR-Cas9. I mean, I’ve taken moocs about this stuff. And Tim Blais at Acapella Science made one of his most spectacular videos on the subject (seriously, even if you’re not interested in genetic technology, his riff on “Mr. Sandman” is extraordinary, go take a peek). So for the introduction to smoothly dive into near-future speculation without a lot of heavy-handed exposition is a credit to the story. Or maybe I’m just dense, but I’d rather go the other way.

Once the setting is nailed down (and there’s plenty of heavy-handed exposition in the middle for those who haven’t been spending a lot of time in biomoocs) the story’s a tragicomic romance about a couple of neighbors bonding over the micropig killed by the cherry pit (the name the marketers came up with for the maraschino-red dog) and the out-of-lab procreation that results…. But screw that, my favorite part is the crowparrots.

(I don’t know if you have crowparrots in your neighborhood yet, but, believe me, they’re coming. They were the inspiration of one of the molecular embryologists at the university here, who thought that inserting genes from the common crow into the invasive parrot population would put an end to the parrots’ raids on our orchards and vineyards, by giving them a taste for garbage and carrion instead of fruit on the vine. The only problem was the noise factor—something in the mix seemed to have redoubled not only the volume but the fury of the birds’ calls, so that you needed earplugs if you wanted to enjoy pretty much any outdoor activity.)
Which was the case now. The birds were everywhere, cursing fluidly (“Bad bird! Fuck, fuck, fuck!”) and flapping their spangled wings in one another’s faces.

When you consider that parrots only repeat what they’ve heard often enough to learn it, it’s pretty hilarious. It’s all a terrific situational setup.

But… does the story go anywhere after it’s set up? You’ve got a guy caught between new and old – his wife impregnated with a custom embryo via CRISPR, the neighbor who he just impregnated the old-fashioned way – and a teenage girl as an onlooker. Just as the story finishes the exposition and is ready to really start, it ends with a hint that the new world is going to destroy itself, just as the dogcat destroys the crowparrot.

In his TNY interview with Deboran Treisman, Boyle commented at length about his concerns about CRISPR. It’s a valid concern. But I’m brought back to something Heidi Pitlor wrote in her Foreword: “…fiction tends to be more successful without forceful agendas”.

I’ve read stories that connected me with issues I’d never heard of, that drew me closer to issues I already cared about, and I’ve read stories that shaped my views on some things. George Saunders won my heart with his early anti-consumerism work. But this wasn’t one of those. It read to me like George Saunders on a bad day.

I loved Boyle’s Burrito story from Pushcart XLI. I mentioned then that I wondered if I’d been a little harsh on some of his stories in the past. I think it’s more the case that, for me, he’s hit or miss. That one was a hit; this one’s a miss. But obviously other people liked it. Or maybe they liked the issue.

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BASS 2017: Chad B. Anderson, “Maidencane” from Nimrod 60.1

Torsten Warmuth: “Life is but a memory”

Torsten Warmuth: “Life is but a memory”

Nowadays, the memory starts like this: there’s a rush in the red dirt, and you and your brother snatch up the tackle box and run from the girl. She flings her fishing pole at you and yells that her daddy will just buy her another tackle box. And another, and another. The girl’s echoes follow you along the riverbank. The river is green and appears desolate—no motorboats, no fishermen, no teenagers cannonballing, no herons stretching, no feral cats pawing the muck for crayfish, frogs, or mice—which only sharpens the sounds: the orchestra of insects, the whistles of birds, the girl’s fading echoes, your steady breath. Your and your brother’s white t-shirts are smeared with mud, and he has a cassette tape in the back pocket of his jean shorts. You wish you could remember the songs he liked. There’s only this Saturday left, and you two are only a day from losing each other.

Complete story available online at Nimrod

Which is more important: what we remember, or what we forget? Our protagonist has been recently haunted by a long-ago day that started out like any other, but that ended up signalling a big change: parental divorce, estrangement from a trusted brother. As it happens, it’s the other events of the day that end up preserved in crystal clarity.

It’s a story that’s packed with interwoven elements, making it hard to write about in a linear fashion. So, I’ll start with a list of what I noticed, and do the best I can to not get too tangled up in connective tissue.

The second-person narrative: I’m very fond of second person, and I’ve hypothesized before that might be because the ones that get published must be exceptional to break through the “Oh, no, second person again” editorial resistance. Typically, in this kind of direct second person (as opposed to “instruction manual” style), the narrative voice is the protagonist speaking either to him/herself, or to another character. I found it particularly interesting that this is not the case here: there’s an extended passage revealing the death of girl on the dock, beginning with “You don’t know this” and ending with “All of this you don’t know.” This adds an element of something akin to dramatic irony, where the reader is aware of something but the character is not. This second-person voice zooming in and zooming out reminds me of the “voice of God” writer Thomas Kearnes once mentioned as a way he used second person in a particular story.

It also fleshes out an earlier sentence: “You don’t know your brother any more, and the girl on the dock is dead.” Here, we assume the protagonist knows the girl is dead; we don’t find out for a page or so that this is not the case. It’s also an interesting place to use different senses of the word “know”: “You don’t know your brother any more” indicates the status of a relationship, not information. “You don’t know” could attach to “the girl on the dock is dead” – or it might be a separate clause. Knowing, not-knowing, is on precarious footing in this story. This is exquisitely careful writing.

You feel embarrassed, as if you’ve foolishly believed something for a long time and suddenly your brother has revealed to you what maybe, just maybe, everyone else has known all along: the girl on the dock does not exist and your brother never thought much of you and you are more broken than you ever understood.
“Never mind,” you tell your brother. Across the room, your boyfriend looks at you with such pity, as if he, too, has always known during all of your stories and memories and confessions that you were misguided, silly, a fool. That look of pity, which you’ve never seen on his face before, at least not for you, feels brutal, like a betrayal, like a hook snagged in flesh. You want to hurt him.

This precarious state of knowledge comes to fruition in the final scene, when our protagonist, contacted by the long-estranged brother, tries to build a path between them, a way to get to know the brother again, using this memory. Turns out, the brother’s memory is a bit different. He’s edited out the girl entirely, and shifted some details of agency. Is his modified memory a way of protecting himself from blame and guilt? Was it more trivial than the protagonist has led us to believe? Or – and here’s the precarious nature of knowledge – has the protagonist changed the memory? What really happened that day? We can’t know. So the narrator’s words apply again, but this time it’s the reader who hears them: “You don’t know this.”

It’s heartbreaking how the failure of this connection seems to mean, to the protagonist, that rekindling a relationship with the brother is not worthwhile, and further generates resentment of the boyfriend’s reaction of pity. But this fits with something else that kept nagging at me as I read the story: gender.

I reread the story very carefully, and I find no place in which the protagonist’s sex is explicitly indicated. I read him (and I will use that pronoun for convenience from here on) as male. The sibling relationship seemed male to me, his reaction to the girl on the dock seemed male, and if the kids had been one boy and one girl, I would think Mom would take the girl and leave the boy with Dad. I probably also subconsciously kept in mind the male name of the author, since I’ve done that before. But I keep thinking of something Meg Wolitzer said in her introduction, that in giving students “surprise ending” stories so frequently, teachers were training students to expect that, to read for that, and to reject what didn’t fit. And here I was, yes even in 2017 with daily doses of feminism in my twitter feed, reading masculinity on the thinnest of pretenses.

The precarious state of knowledge, indeed. This is not accidental. The protagonist is unnamed. He has a boyfriend and a girlfriend. And, by the way, the two most important people in his life are his brother, and the girl on the dock, a boy and a girl, neither of whom he knows any more.

I’ve been mulling this story over for a couple of days, and I keep coming up with new things to add, so who knows what I’ve left out. Just a few more things:

Considering the story is about connections – the protagonist’s connection with the girl on the dock, and with his brother – it’s interesting that the story connects two scenes of action, one at the beginning and one at the end, with a long stretch of exposition and backstory. That’s almost cheating, since the “action” at the end is a phone call and a look across the room. The contrast is that, while the connections described in the story don’t work, the connective structure does. Granted, it’s not an edge-of-your-seat story, but the moodiness is kind of hypnotizing, as in this passage:

Of all the bars you manage, you like the one by the harbor the best, despite all the tourists it attracts. You work the late shifts, and when it’s closed and the crew is mostly gone, you stare at the water. It is here where your mind becomes its most acrobatic, its most macabre and fantastical. You imagine the bodies of the dead in the bottom muck; you imagine sunken boats and cars and guns rusting, breaking down; you imagine sick, rugged, bruised fish, no-nonsense and one-eyed. You imagine walking among the fish, joining them, just stepping off the edge and plunging into the water, and the fish swarming you, using the hooks of failed fishermen to snag your skin and drag you down to live in the metallic post-apocalyptic landscape they’ve created among the skeletons of people and machinery. They will eat you, bit by bit, and it won’t hurt at all, and you’ll be just a few little pieces, feather-light and scattered across the waters of the harbor and the Patapsco and the Chesapeake and the Atlantic. And one day, you’ll rise, evaporate into a cloud, and rain down on anyone who ever said they loved you, cling to their hair and drip into their ears, explore the thickets and tunnels of their minds for every thought they’ve ever had of you.

I think if I have one complaint about the story, it’s the fishhook. He gets a lot of mileage out of it, but maybe it’s a little too on-the-nose?

And about the title: maidencane is a kind of weed, it seems. But more than that, it covers the grave of the girl on the dock, a grave neglected even by her parents. She is the memory of that day, a day that ended so much, a memory covered over by time, forgotten by all except one melancholy bar manager who still remembers, but can’t connect.

BASS 2017: The turn of the leaf

I have a theory that it’s more difficult to hide ourselves when writing fiction than nonfiction, even certain memoirs. So much is revealed in the poses that we choose to strike, the silences we allow, and the conflicts we dramatize. And if fiction tends to be more successful without forceful agendas, the genre does tend to offer at least a window onto an author’s aesthetics and emotionality, and often their values.
The stories in this volume – bold, intimate, enlightening, entertaining – reflect a country profoundly divided.

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

When photography was first developed, cameras were classified as philosophical instruments, following the custom from ancient times of referring to science as natural philosophy. The idea that photography could be art seemed absurd. A photograph didn’t create, it showed what was there, what was real. This changed, of course, as it became evident that the point of view the photographer chose, the focal point, the subject itself, the degree of sharpness or blur, use of light and dark, were indeed artistic choices. In a similar way, nonfiction has grown into art – hence the emergence of the category creative nonfiction. And while it may seem an author can hide the personal behind characters and plot points, it is the person, the psyche of the author, who chooses what characters and what plot points. The truth will out, even in fiction, whether joyous or grim.

I found something in the foreword to be oddly comforting: following her question, “How does one even read short stories now?” Pitlor refers to the introductions of the 1942 edition, issued on the heels of Pearl Harbor. While that may seem more grim than comforting, what I scribbled in the margin was something along the lines of: “We survived then. We can survive now.” I don’t really believe that at this moment, but, as they say in twelve step groups, fake it ‘til you make it.

I confess to some degree of ignorance vis-a-vis Meg Wolitzer. I know the name, of course, but for whatever reason, I haven’t yet encountered her work. Let’s say I’m unencumbered by expectations. I hope her choice of stories will reveal her to me.

[Y]ou might not necessarily gasp; but without a doubt you will find yourself in a place you didn’t know about before. A place where you didn’t expect.

In short stories, I don’t think characters or their situation or their surroundings change as frequently as they turn.
The stories in this year’s edition… live, and breathe, and again and again in them there is some kind of turn.

Meg Wolitzer, Introduction

She uses the conceit from my own favorite O. Henry story “The Last Leaf”, a parable of hope and love with a trick ending. But trick endings, she points out, often serve as the only reason for the rest of the story to exist. Hence her preference for the turn over the surprise, the subtle shift rather than the grand epiphany. I think Wolitzer is right when she says we’ve been conditioned to expect certain things by what we’ve read in the past. Maybe it’s time to recognize a story’s defiance of our expectations not as flaw, but an opportunity. There’s plenty out there to read that fits what we know; the unfamiliar grows new sensibilities.

As usual, I see some very familiar names in the table of contents (Jim Shephard, Jess Walter, Lauren Groff, T.C.Boyle, Amy Hempel), some I’ve read only once but am pleased to see again (Danielle Evans, Eric Puchner), and many I’ve never seen before (which isn’t saying much, since I’m pathetically under-read). But enough of this standing poised on the edge; it’s time to jump in.

What is art going to give us now? Will the leaf clinging to the vine be proven to be not art but purely artifice, a false comfort that can’t actually save anyone’s life and in fact is pretty much good for nothing?

Meg Wolitzer, Introduction

I choose to believe (today, at least) in the art of the leaf. I need to believe in it. I will fill my walls with painted leaves. And if it turns out it’s artifice, what difference does it make, if we see the Spring.

Pushcart XLI: Reading in the Time of Solastalgia

Trini Schultz: “The Sound of Rain”

Trini Schultz: “The Sound of Rain”

Solastalgia is a very good word, made by combining the Latin solacium (comfort) and the Greek root -algia (pain). Philosopher Glenn Albrecht created it to define “the pain experienced when the place one lives and where one resides is under assault.”

~~ Lisa Purpura, “Scream (or Never Minding)”

It’s a question I seem to hear amongst the smartest, most creative, most engaged people I know: Does writing matter, now, in this time? So many of us feel our space is under assault on multiple fronts. I can only write so many letters, donate so much money, to do what I can to keep light in the world. The psychic, spiritual, and emotional nourishment from reading, thinking about what I’ve read, and forming tiny essays in response, seems far better than curling up in bed and pulling the covers over my head.

These characters, poems, these stories fictional and real – a rejected teenager trying to find her art, a charmingly goofy children’s author from the Faroe Islands, a New Orleans rapper, a Russian mobster, a fungus-lady, a burrito maker, a Brazilian telegraph operator, a disabled vet and the animal shelter worker who accidentally euthanized his dog, a woman on a strange trip through Vienna, an anorexic college student, a farmer recovering from great loss, a Jewish family over decades of change, an unwilling drug cartel participant – are a precious resource and we would be poorer without them. I’m grateful to the writers who put these words on paper, and I hope they know they serve a vital purpose, “holding open a space that is always under threat of being shut down” as artist Jenny Odell put it.

As I progressed through the volume, I tried to keep an eye on connected themes. It seemed we started with explorations of art in its many forms: its purpose, effects, practitioners. The body came into focus, shifting to embodiment and the joining of the body with the natural world, turning to psychic connections with each other and with something outside ourselves. Then disconnectivities, whether through chance or choice, emerged, just in time for the reader to disconnect from the book and move on. Of course, I could be imposing my own moods on defenseless entries, seeing Orion in unrelated stars or a face on the surface of Mars. That’s always the thing about art: it’s a collaboration between artist, medium, and beholder, and all have their say.

I confess to feeling a bit guilty that I may not have given all these pieces the attention and thought they deserved. Time was not so much the issue as my mood, affected by matters public and private. Not all of those moods were negative, by the way; I’ve discovered it’s just as hard to focus under the influence of joy and enthusiasm as when overcome with anxiety, anger, sorrow, or hopelessness. But I did not give up.

And so, one day at a time, we read, and write.

Pushcart XLI: Lauren Slater, “Bloodlines” (nonfiction) from The Sun, March 2015

I put my hand on the mound of dirty laundry, then lifted my palm to my nose and took in the scent of him. I felt happy because, well, here he was, the man I’d married, his scent the same now as it had been twenty-odd years earlier…. I recalled an experiment I had once read about: A group of men wore simple cotton T-shirts for a couple of days, perspiring in them, sleeping in them, and finally peeling them off and giving them to the researchers, who then asked female test subjects to select the T-shirts that smelled the best to them. The researchers found that each woman consistently rated highest the T-shirts from the men whose immune systems contained important components that hers lacked, thus ensuring that any offspring they produced would have a robust defense system. In other words, women are drawn to men who have deep genetic differences from them — immunologically, at least. Why would this be? Because evolution does not want us to pick mates with genomes that are the same as ours. Evolution wants diversity; the more, the better.

Complete story available online at The Sun

This essay – it’s listed as an essay, and is included in the 2016 Science & Nature volume of the Best American series – sweeps from a dissolving marriage (Wikipedia indicates Slater is now divorced) to home DNA testing for ancestry and medical markers to what it’s like to live with cancer even after a ten-year “clear” period. I had a lot of thoughts about this as I read, but I’m not going to share many of them, since my thoughts have been a bit unreliable lately.

Opposites may attract, but living with them is a different story.

We have been married for twenty-two years. Everything was fine until, twelve years into it, we had kids. Our children changed us. They brought out in B. a love so fierce, so focused, that I fell off the edge of his world, plunging into some sea where, no matter how much I flounder and flail, he fails to toss me a line.
My children often seem to be apparitions, floating forms, people of poured glass, ghostly and beautiful and beyond my reach.
I recently told my husband that if we want to save our marriage — in which whatever common ground we had has long since eroded into rubble and slid down some steep slope — then we need to spend time together without the children. It works like this, I told him: The husband and wife are a team of two. That team has to be the priority, or the family collapses.
It works like this, my husband told me: We need to do more things together as a family. If I would join them when they play Scrabble or Clue, then our marriage would improve.

I found it an odd choice for the final entry in the volume, given that Pushcart, unlike BASS, can determine the order. But this could be the product of my unruly thoughts at this time. I’ve been waiting for those thoughts to settle down, but they show no sign of doing so, and time moves on. I must do something; and since I’m unwilling to commit myself in white and black on this one, I’ll just leave these passages and the link to the original publication for those who’d like to pursue it.

Pushcart XLI: Daniel Peña, “Safe Home” from Ploughshares 41.2

Cuauh always greases the landings. If the winds are strong, he lands in the desert north of Obregon, on a sand strip outlined by burning tar barrels, desert oak, and split saguaro cut lengthwise to catch the neon sun. But if the winds are calm, Cuauh lumbers his aircraft, an aging M20J, onto a neighborhood street in Lomas de Poleo just inside Ciudad Juarez. All of the homes abandoned. Everyone gone from the drug wars.

Storytelling is a great way to turn information into an emotional experience. That’s what Peña’s done here: this story began as academic research. He tells the story’s story in the Houston Chronicle: how, during his own pilot training, he’d seen Mexican planes at lots of Texas airports; how he learned of their connection to drug cartels; how he researched drug cartels, and the effects of American policy, both in graduate school at Cornell and continued his research in Mexico City as a Fulbright Scholar. He could have written something academic or journalistic, but instead he turned it into this story of Cuauh, an undocumented worker flying crop dusting planes in Texas until he’s deported. Nonfiction generates sympathy; fiction creates empathy. At least, this fiction does.

This was in the beginning, when Cuauh was freshly deported. The new pilot from Texas who’d once been a drop duster. He was kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo right after he’d walked the bridge, and ever since, he’d been lonesome in that briny way – sulking, scared, stone hopeless.

Around the time I was reading this story, I saw a news story about one Beatriz Morelos Casillas, deported for driving without a license after 20 years – just a shade too old for DACA – and sent to Nuevo Laredo, “one of the most dangerous places in Mexico and where the State Department issued a travel warning in December 2016 due to violent crime.”

Life meets art.

Cuauh’s crisis begins when he sees the purple cowboy boots hanging out of a familiar truck. He knows whose feet are in those boots. He isn’t exactly friends with Lalo – friendship isn’t a wise investment in their business – but he’s well-enough acquainted enough with the guy to wish him no harm. What he doesn’t yet know is the role he’ll have to play in that harm. And refusing is just not an option.

The cell chiefs kept names and addresses of relatives. Even if they couldn’t find you they would find your brother or your parents. It was the thing that kept Cuauh from simply talking his plane and flying off into the north. It was the fear of it that kept him coming back, day after day, to the desert strip or the little road in Lomas de Poleo.

It’s a grim story, a story I almost wish I hadn’t had to read. But that’s the power of storytelling, for better or worse: it shines a spotlight in places we might not want to think about, and lets us see people we might think we already know in a different light.

Jacob Weber: Don’t Wait To Be Called (Short fiction collection; WWPH 2017)

It’s common for short story collections to “go together,” to have common plots or subjects. These stories are the result of my disparate life, which feels like about twelve different lives coincidentally lived by the same person. I couldn’t begin to thank everyone who helped me survive every one of those little lives within the larger life I’ve lived…. Thanks most of all to God, whom on any given day I’m 51% certain does not exist. If I’d have been more certain God did exist, I’d never have been able to write these stories.

~~ Jake Weber

For the past couple of years, Jake Weber and I have been trading comments on stories from BASS and Pushcart, both here and on his blog. I was delighted to hear that his story collection been selected by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House for publication, and of course bought it and planned to write about it. But in the background I was a little worried, as I always am when someone I know publishes: what if I didn’t like it? As usual, I needn’t have worried.

Don’t Wait to be Called is full of stories about people I came to care about, sometimes in spite of myself and my pre-existing attitudes. It transforms the vague current-event descriptor “refugee” into flesh and blood and tears and hope in people like Daud and Hiwet and Tesfay. A sensitive, insecure wreck of a bodybuilder idolizes the wrong role model, a teenager tries to connect with his dying father through algebra, and a veteran with longstanding self-doubt deals with, shall we say, a very personal injury.

Through it all, I wondered about the title of the collection, a collection that begins and ends with calling. I heard an exhortation to reach out, to help. I wouldn’t know until the last story that I was wrong, which, in addition to generating some self-reflection, led me to view the entire collection in a different light, almost as different stories: instead of presenting hurting and flawed characters as needing help, it presents them as active agents getting what they need. I asked Jake if this ambiguity was planned, since it had such an impact on me, but it turns out he had something else in mind:

Ultimately, I just love the proverb the last story plays with: dogs and days don’t wait to be called. Time moves on, as much as we don’t want it to. That compels decisions before we’re ready to make them. Our whole lives come to an end eventually, built on a series of hurried decisions. So the title of the book to me is maybe a little bit about letting yourself off the hook for making imperfect choices. Like what title to give your book, for example.

I also asked about how the stories were ordered, one of my favorite guessing games.

I had a mess of stories that didn’t go together. Other than the four Eritrean/Ethiopian stories, I was all over the place. When I looked at it a little closer, I felt like Brokedick, Dawn Doesn’t Disappoint, Strongest I’ve Ever Been and What Every Parent Should Know… all kind of fit the category of “bro lit.” That left four miscellaneous stories. So I took the four immigrant pieces, the four bro-lit pieces, and the four miscellaneous pieces, and decided to just layer them like lasagna. Sauce-noodles-cheese. That’s all the thinking that went into it, other than I altered the formula a bit so it would begin and end with Eritrea/Ethiopia stories, and hopefully start with some of my best stuff. Other than that, the order was just as they felt right, trying to break things up for the reader between heavy and light so the whole book wasn’t a downer.

While many of the themes and situations were disturbing, the book wasn’t a downer at all. When I think of downer books, I think of Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand Anyway, which so overwhelmed me with macho self-destruction I gave up halfway through. Jake’s most desperate characters are never hopeless, and while his bro-lit does involve macho posturing, the characters retain a humanity that made them relatable. Ultimately we’re all dealing with the same insecurities: Am I good enough?

A few of my favorites:

“Everything is Peaceful Here Except for Missing You” from Bartleby Snopes

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
-Matthew 5:45

 

After hello, there are five phrases in Tigrinya you must repeat at least several times each in every phone call. None means anything, which is why they are so important to say over and over. Mama has hit them all at least twice. She’s surprisingly adept at using Skype for a woman who never had a phone growing up or a computer until eight years ago.
How are you? Is everything peaceful? How is your health? How about your family? We are all fine here, except for missing you.

The opening story is quite short and exists in what is unsaid; such restraint is a gift few writers have. We come to realize, through the simplest of narrations, that family is family, a mother is a mother, no matter who the son may be.

Whenever a white middle-class American writes about African refugees, there’s a tendency to wonder if they know what they’re talking about. Jake is, in fact, a translator who knows Tigrinya (and Korean and Spanish) and has worked with newly arrived refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia; his stories come from real life rather than news and partisan commentary. I asked him if he worried about being accused of appropriation:

I don’t know what is good and bad appropriation, given that all artists steal something.There’s definitely good and bad ways to do it. You hit on some of the bad ways. White savior, talking over them, etc. I mean, I kind of have to speak from a white, male perspective. I have to temper my stories written with the hope of giving voice to someone else by knowing it’s also my voice in there, too. But there’s a way to do that in good faith and a way to do it as theft. I hope I did the right one. I just know I have to write about what moves me. Sometimes, that’s weight lifting and male enhancement. Sometimes, it’s the cruelty of the world to most of its inhabitants….I realize that my reading of Ethiopians or Eritreans is filtered through my own, privileged, white, male, Western perspective…That doesn’t mean it’s an invalid, immoral, or unworthy perspective.

“Brokedick”

Standing in a row on a counter next to Chase were four foam phalluses, in varying shades of purple, mounted to a plastic display tray. They reminded Chase of stele lined up to meet the sun by a tribe lost to history millennia ago, a tribe whose sole remaining heritage brought busloads of European tourists to guess wrongly at their purpose. Periwinkle was for the completely limp dick, already leaning over on its own. Phlox was the penis that could get hard, but not hard enough for penetration. The one that could penetrate but not maintain erectness was thistle. Finally, the fully erect rod capable of satisfying an entire cheerleading squad, the penis the pills could give you, was a deep, throbbing, royal purple.

I never realized I have a policy against reading stories that begin with prosthetic penises, until I read that paragraph. It’s a good thing I ignored that subconscious quirk, because this ended up not only one of my favorite stories in the collection, but one I’ve come back to over and over. It’s beautifully plotted, paced, and played.

Funny stories can be told many ways. This funny story is told with grim seriousness that recalls an old definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy: comedy is when you fall on a banana peel and break your leg; tragedy is when I fall on a banana peel and break my leg. It’s easy to laugh at a guy who breaks his penis (and, yes, it happens; seriously, google “penile fracture” if you don’t believe me) while screwing his girlfriend in her dorm room. The detail – he screams, punches her laptop (“the backspace button was still falling back down from where it had ricocheted, knew before it landed upside down again just three keys away from where it began…”), and transfers for a semester in Mexico to get away from the rumors that he was “the Marine with PTSD who’d beat some girl in the dorms nearly to death.”

But when the backstory comes in, and the Marine Corps reunion rolls around, we stop laughing. If we’re lucky, we know what we need. If we’re very lucky, we know when we don’t need it any more.

I was inspired by my experience in the Marine Corps during a time when there weren’t a whole lot of wars going on to write a story about a former Marine who feels like his manhood is invalidated by his own lack of a war record.

Mr. Sympathy

It isn’t that my father had no love to give me. His love merely stayed balled up as potential energy, always wanting to be unleashed like a wound spring if I ever managed to be good at the thing he wanted me to be good at….

Math stories are rarely about math, and this one is no exception; it provides plot and setting around which characters revolve, hide, fall down, get up, grow.

Corfu – yes, like the Greek island – is struggling through remedial math class. His father is the actuary’s actuary. As he puts it: “I had an unconscious tendency to change math problems from the problem in front of me to the problem I wanted it to be.” Coincidentally, he turns his father’s terminal cancer into the desire to learn algebra and ace the SATs in two months, which is, of course, not about math and all about connecting. As Dad’s illness gets worse, he loses his voice which turns out to be exactly what was needed: because love can be conveyed with little circles that look like tadpoles, and the smell of Ben-Gay on a math book can equal parental pride.

…I had something of a breakdown on Saturday night. Suddenly, numbers made no sense to me. What did they even mean? Were they real? How could zero mean nothing and also still be a number?

I immediately thought, “This kid’s a mathematician, he just doesn’t know it yet,” because that’s exactly the sort of thing a mathematician would think – not formulas and equations and what a negative exponent means, but the nitty gritty about zero. Worrying about whether numbers are real wanders into mathy philosophy territory, also a fun place, and so much more fun than the quadratic equation and solving for x. And sure enough, Corfu became a math major.

I did have some qualms. The remedial-math-to-quant path seemed a bit much, for one thing. For another, I have to question the pedagogy outlined; anyone who can learn algebra from doing the odd-numbered problems in a textbook either didn’t learn algebra, but rather learned how to answer textbook algebra problems (in which case, he never would’ve made it through an undergrad math degree) or wasn’t that confused to begin with (in which case I’m interested in his actual problem). And again I checked in with Jake to see how he developed Corfu’s path:

I was good at math in elementary school, then progressively worse as it took more and more caution and care to get answers right. I nearly failed it my junior year…. I learn from reading. A few months before I started college (after a six-year break after high school to go into the Marines), I picked up an algebra book. I taught myself algebra by doing the odd-numbered problems. Then I taught myself geometry. I really wish I’d kept going.

We’re going to have to talk more about math, Jake and I; but this is all peripheral to the heart of the story, which remains one of my favorites as is.

American as Berbere from Baltimore Review

For Meb, and everyone I know like him.

 

When he was twelve, Tesfay came to the conclusion that all Habesha music had a drumbeat that sounded like somebody had chucked two shoes into a Laundromat dryer, and soon thereafter developed a contempt for Ethiopian music—and perhaps Ethiopia in general—that stuck with him. There had been a few years, soon after he came to the United States at eight, a fugitive of famine and the Derg’s policies he knew nothing about, when he would listen with admiration to the beat of the kebero, as the horns and krar and flute-like thing with the name he couldn’t pronounce all worked around it, like pilgrims weaving their strands around a May-pole. But over time, it became harder for the Greater D.C. Tigrayan People’s Cultural Center to find anyone who knew how to play the krar, so they settled for a competent drum player and a synthesizer. In this arrangement, Tesfay heard only the drum’s repetitious “ba-bump, ba-bump” drubbing away at the same speed. It filled him with a sense of futility, that no matter how many times someone hit the drum, the cycle would just keep going around, until someone finally yelled “d’rub!” and the drummer sped up to reach the merciful death of the song.

There’s something about running that makes for a great story, even for non-athletes like me. Maybe because it’s both a simple sport – just the runner, and time – and a complex one involving physiological and psychological strategy. Maybe because running borrows off the journey metaphors.

Tesfay’s journey is again an immigrant story. His family showed up in a fanfare of publicity, since he’d been one of the starving children in a fundraising video, but they were forgotten shortly after and became just another struggling family trying to get by and Tesfay becomes the butt of jokes as the images make the rounds at his school. He becomes a runner by accident, after making a deal with his phys ed teacher to run the whole period instead of subjecting himself to peer torment in whatever game the class is playing.

Some time ago, I came across a magnificent turn of phrase by writer Michelle Janssens Keller: the immigrant as palimpsest. One story written over by another. Tesfay’s story weaves together the American and the Ethiopian in ways both harmonious and discordant: Tesfay and his cousin Robel; ambition versus faith; celebrity versus scorn; violin versus kebero. And throughout, Tesfay is moving between two cultures, never fully at home in either. A subtle but devastating clash during the Olympic trials 10K brings us to the climax of the story, and Tesfay finds his own path.

While I’ve picked these four as detailed examples, other stories stand out. “A Cinnabon at Mondawmin” outlines the two Americas in a way even earnest commentary can’t. “Savage, Maryland” creates a fascinating character in an old misanthrope who constructs a bath house so he can just soak his retirement away, and had me on the edge of my seat at the end. “The Strongest I’ve Ever Been” had me angry, sad, and amused in rotation, then finally landed on a resolution neither sentimental nor tragic.

I asked Jake the question I always ask authors I’m lucky enough to talk to: what question do you wished I’d asked?

I just like talking about the stories with people who liked them, trying to figure out what they mean. Did Tesfay come in second? Does Bill end up with Alisha? Does Chase call the girl when he gets home from the reunion? Is the guy at the end of “Dawn” really happy, or was that a false epiphany? Those kinds of questions. I have my answers, but I like to discuss these things. And now that the book is out, of course, my answers are not final.

I felt a little guilty since I didn’t address those things at all in these posts. The resolutions felt clear to me – of course Bill and Alisha get together, but they later come apart as most couples do. Chase doesn’t need to call the girl any more, he’s going to work on getting his shit together for real, and he’s probably going to lose it again, but he’ll even out as time goes on and he realizes war and sex are neither necessary nor sufficient for manhood. It doesn’t matter where Tesfay finished, he’s going to be fine. The guy in “Dawn,” well, that I had some trouble with; it was the story I least liked (hey, there’s gotta be one, or I’m not being honest) so I’d rather think about all the other wonderful people I met in these pages. But I’d love to discuss other opinions; maybe someone will change my mind.

And finally, I asked about the cover of the book. The Acknowledgment mention his brother did the design; was there anything he’d like to share about that?

Oh, man, I thought my brother was going to never talk to me again at one point. I’m just not a visual art guy. I can go to a museum and find something to like. Matisse moves me, for example. Maybe I just like bold colors. So I kind of said to Ben, “Here’s the manuscript, read it and come up with something.” He refused to do it without some collaboration from me. I had no good ideas. Originally, the best I had was to put all the animals from the last story on there: a red cobra, a dog, a chicken, a cow. I had in mind some weird, minimalist, neo-cubist thing. It didn’t work, because it was too busy for a small cover. Eventually, I said maybe he could just have the dog on there. He threw something together and I loved it. It was exactly what I wanted without knowing it. I feel like the deeper yellow around the two black figures calls forth another motif from a different story: the endless circles of “American as Berbere.” I was just really happy with it, after it was almost a disaster. I’m sure Ben’s glad it’s over, too! I’m a nightmare for an artist to work with, even though I was just trying not to be too picky.

Jake’s working on a satirical novel “about the adventures of a translator of a pretend language working for a government agency” and blogs at Workshop Heretic.

Pushcart XLI: Tatiana Forero Puerta, “Cleaning the Ghost Room” (poem) from Hawaii Pacific Review 2/25/15

Mami made me dust
the ghost room as she swept
the kitchen downstairs, washed the fruit-
shaped porcelain dishes.
 
I objected, tearing up and shaken, clutching
to the dust rag, heart pounding. She said,
it builds character of high caliber, camaraderie
with the spirits. You want the dead on your side.

Complete poem available online at Hawaii Pacific Review

Most of us have deeply ingrained attitudes towards the dead, and fear probably ranks highest. To a young girl, the idea of dusting in a room where someone died – we never know who Mr. Traynor was, a tenant, a patient? – must’ve been terrifying. She imagines him in the rocking chair where he spent most of his time. But Mom saw it differently.

While the first four stanzas express the child’s discomfort and resentment, the last three acknowledge the lesson that was taught and the gratitude felt towards a mother who made her “wipe / the mirror clean to reflect my / fear up close”, to “see myself in its pupils.” And as mother prepares child for an inevitable eventuality, so the poem prepares us for the last lines.

Pushcart XLI: Steve Almond, “Dritter Klasse Ohne Fensterscheiben” from Ecotone #19

"Different Trains" by Steve Reich (composer) and Bill Morrison (filmmaker)

“Different Trains” by Steve Reich (composer) and Bill Morrison (filmmaker)

In the spring of 1889, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Constantinople for the first time. He was enchanted—by the Topkapi Palace, the promontories of the Golden Horn, and in particular (as the rumor went) the exotic gyrations of the Sultan’s harem. The German Emperor, then at the height of his power, became convinced that the destiny of his kingdom resided in the expansion of its frontier into what he whimsically called “the Sultan’s forlorn flank.”
The discovery of vast oil reserves beneath Iraq ratified this notion and led to the conception of the so-called Bagdadbahn, a railway intended to connect Berlin to the Persian Gulf. Using the Ottoman Empire as a fueling station and trade depot, Germany would challenge the imperial dominance of Britain and Russia.
Historians may debate to what extent these ambitions contributed to the First World War. This much is known: in 1912, the Deutsche Bank transferred Wilhelm Geist, a Jew of modest birth and steadfast manner, from Berlin to Constantinople to oversee the project.

If you think that story opening is so dry you have to blow the dust off it to read it, well, I won’t disagree with you. It’s kind of odd to encounter in the “knock their socks off with an exciting first paragraph” age. I suspect the story would be savaged in a workshop setting, and without Almond’s name, would never get out of the slush pile (a few months ago, my blogging buddy Jake Weber had similar comments about another Pushcart-winning story that would never have seen the light of day without a “name” attached to it. But I promise, here the detachment adds to the story, since it’s indicative of character. And, by the way, there’s plenty of action. A visit from the Kaiser. The tension of a project failing in the setting of a losing (literally) battle. A terrifying train ride. There’s also a great deal of emotional depth as the focus shifts from Wilhelm to his wife to their daughter over the years covered in 16 pages. And it all comes down to this: you can never outrun the past that made you who you are.

The Bagdadbahn was a real project in the early 20th century, and in fact still exists although its use is limited to certain stretches and purposes. Herr Geist, however, appears to be a fictional character, or at least his contribution is too obscure for Google. We start with his obsession to complete the railway, an obsession he never realized; it was abandoned at the end of WWI, and only completed in 1940, just in time for another war. But that’s not part of our story.

As it becomes evident that Germany is losing the war and Constantinople is in danger, Frau Geist (we never learn her first name) and child Leah board a train for Berlin; they will never see their husband and father again, only hearing of his death months later.

They make a larger journey than planned on that train ride, however. From a privileged life of respectful servants and social status, Frau Geist is now merely a homely defenseless Jew. While it will be a few decades before Germany adopts genocide as policy, their lives are changed. The train they ride is commandeered for military transport of wounded soldiers, and they are evicted from their comfortable compartment. It’s only by the grace of Frau Geist’s small stash of gold coins that they are not thrown off the train and abandoned in Hungary or Romania.

Frau Geist pulled Leah under her mink and whispered, “You see? We’ve found a cozy place to sleep!” Thick bodies resettled themselves against her, seeking warmth. She smelled the putrefaction of their wounds. The stars whistled and zoomed.
As dawn filtered into the car, Frau Geist surveyed the pine benches, the filthy water closet. Daggers of ice dripped from the window slots. Her shoulders jerked silently. Leah heard her mother murmur a single phrase with such bitterness it was as if the words were a poison released onto her tongue: “Dritter Klasse Ohne Fensterscheiben.”
Third class without windows.

With Geist’s train building obsession, and Frau Geist’s traumatic journey, and the general aura of Germany and war, albeit WWI, in mind, I couldn’t help but flash on Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”, a musical statement about the Holocaust. Sometimes we’re lucky we’re on the train we’re on; sometimes not. Sometimes we don’t know for years which it will turn out to be.

We see mother and daughter make it to Berlin, and out of Berlin just in time. We watch as their lives unfold in perhaps predictable ways. And then we see them come together again, since they are perhaps they are the only ones who can understand each other.

Leah picked up one of the anise biscuits her mother had set out with tea. It crumbled on her tongue. All women are hostages, she though suddenly. They believe themselves protected by beauty or wealth or powerful men. But in the end the world takes hold of them and they are left to protect themselves.

Like I said: it’s not a dry story at all. The initial tone sets it up like a relationship: the story only lets us come closer as we get to know these women better.

As I noted a few posts ago, Ecotone publishes fiction that shows a special connection to place, particularly transition between places: “a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.” Our characters move from Berlin to Constantinople to Eastern European railroad beds to Munich to New Jersey and Chicago, but nothing is ever left behind.

Whenever I read a story by Steve Almond, I think of his teeny-tiny book of writing advice/microflashes, This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey. One of those flashes got me to cry over Richard Nixon. Reeling me in to the Geist saga wasn’t ever in doubt. Love your characters, he advises. Push them up against their deepest fears. Turns out, all our deepest fears – failure, loss, loneliness – are pretty much the same, though they happen in many different settings.

Pushcart XLI: Douglas Milliken, “Blue of the World” from Glimmer Train #94

May 24th, 1965
Walked the orchard line with the boy today after the service, from the house to the north end of the property. All the blooms had blown off the limbs, so just a foamy wash of white or dried-up yellow petals were left here and there on the ground. Very many small green apples have started, few much bigger than the head of a nail. The trees looked good. I do not much fear a late frost ruining everything that’s begun. But in this, I’ve been wrong before.

A mysterious start: who is “the boy”, why is he with the rancher, what was the service, why is there so much tension in these opening paragraphs? We don’t know for several pages that the boy isn’t a neighbor’s kid or some distant relative comet to visit but the rancher’s own son, and the service was the wife’s, the boy’s mother’s, funeral. The central mystery: how does a family recover from great loss?

We might think Dad is cold and hard, but then we see the colors. It’s a story told with color, the blue of the world in the title referring to, at one level, the pre-dawn night that brightens into dawn, though of course the meaning expands as the story proceeds. The sky, the flowers, horses, crops, all have colors, and this man we thought might be cold and hard records them in his diary, along with comments like “It’s hard to enjoy a thing when your memory of it is sweeter.” This is a man who is so engrossed in watching a black beetle on a brown stump pick at a dead bird that he misses the blue disappearing from the world. This is a man who takes weeks to refer to his son as our boy, a man who occasionally sees and talks to his dead wife. This is a deeply feeling, painfully wounded man slowly healing from fresh grief.

His son knows this too, doesn’t seem to need much comforting for his own grief. I wonder how much that costs him, how much anger will show up eventually when he’s able to express it. The roles are somewhat reversed, the son now the wiser parent, willing to let Dad mourn. But not indefinitely. He reminds Dad that, though he was taken out of school early, he will be returning in September. He tells his father the neighbor’s good will has a time limit. He even explains a common-sense version of the social-norms vs market-norms theory Prof. Dan Ariely researched: introducing money into a social relationship decreases, rather than increases, cooperation:

He said I was getting it all backward. Said we ought to have lent the mule to the Haskells for free as a favor, and only charged him if the beast got hurt or took ill. He insisted that favors are worth more than dollars, as the price of gold goes up and down but a favor is always a favor. At the very least, we should have traded services….
Then he did something that surprised me. He was squatting down in the potato mounds, but he’d stopped picking weeds. He was looking at his hands in the cool, dark earth. Then he said that people’s sympathy for me was wearing thin. He said I was eating up our neighbors’ goodwill by being a greedy fly. I told him sympathy was another name for cancer. I’d be happier when it was gone.

The story moves slowly, its rhythm one of diary entries that recount the realities of ranching amidst plain spoken lyricism. It’s one of the longer stories in the anthology, but I was buried in it throughout. Somehow I never thought in terms of resolution, and it’s just as well. The epiphany (yes, of course there’s an epiphany) was more implied than realized. Things could go either way for this family. But it was a remarkable read.

I discovered Milliken is another Maine writer, making that two in one Pushcart. I haven’t encountered him before, so I’m happy to make his acquaintance.

Pushcart XLI: Sara Batkie, “Laika” from New Orleans Review #41

Andrew Wyeth: "Christina's World"

Andrew Wyeth: “Christina’s World”

Babette came to the home the same week we got a television. They arrived three days apart, both dropped unceremoniously at the front door. Madame Durance never bothered much with the girls but was very put out by the lack of paperwork for the strange machine. “We need to keep track of these things,” she said, nudging the box with her sensible shoe. “What if it makes us all sick?” Hollis the orderly had it hooked up within an hour. It was 1957, the year Khrushchev looked up to a stardrunk sky and found a new world to conquer. We were all hankering for the unknown, though that could be hard to find in Nebraska.

I’m reminded yet again of my writer-friend Marko Fong describing a particular use of first person past as “memoir voice.” Transposed to fiction, it mimics nonfictional memoir, as it “assumes that the narrator and the ‘character/survivor’ are effectively two different first person ‘I’s.” This story makes great use of that: The distance of those 50 years gives the writer the ability to write the events in 1957 in a more mature voice, to imbue the ordering and details of the narration with insight atypical for a teenager, but readily available to the older survivor who is the narrator.

It was an unspoken rule that the girls not ask each other what brought them to Durance Home. It was simple enough to guess some of their troubles, the ones with space pod bellies already in orbit. They’d grow big, disappear for a day or two then return with bodies evacuated of their heroes. Nothing left but tears. The rest were dragged in by their mothers. I was brought by my brother, the only family I had, my slippery fingers having found their way into one pocket too many. He bought me a chocolate malted on the drive, the last ice cream I would taste until adulthood.

I loved reading this story; it’s full of small moments and observations that create an atmosphere for the subtle plot. Like the boys running alongside the bus the girls took on occasional field trips, waving and pressing their palms against the windows: “This was the only touch of a boy I’d ever known: partitioned, ghostly, and quick to fade. I liked it that way.”

I saw twin themes of isolation and hope weaving throughout the story. Not only are the three main characters isolated in their own ways, but the two prominent symbols of the story are as well. First, there’s Laika, the Russian space-dog who captures the narrator’s attention:

I thought about Laika, looked up at the sky above us, the impossible cradle that carried her. I imagined her passing through the stars, being accepted as one of their own, each small bright ball leading her gently along her path. I thought of her smile flashing across the television screen, all the hope she held in her, and I wished her safely home.

Another powerful scene introduces the narrator to Christina, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World”.

Her name was Christina, so the plaque said. Though suffering from polio, she refused the use of a wheelchair. The artist was inspired to paint her after watching her crawl across a field from a window in his house.
It must have taken her hours. What sort of person could just stand by and observe something like that? But it was a hopelessness there’s no helping. Like Laika. Like all of us, I suppose. Perhaps capturing it was all that could be done, was, in its way, the only chance of honoring it.

Wyeth’s comment on Christina: “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” At 14, the narrator knew both sides of hope, the -ful and the -less. Hopelessness is its own isolation, isn’t it. After this passage, I started thinking of the unnamed narrator as Christina: hobbled, but going forward in the way she knows best over a great expanse towards an isolated house. I’m grateful for the painter-writer, the survivor-narrator, with the patience to wait.

The plot hinges on the source of Babette’s pregnancy. She claims it’s another divine intervention; whether that’s from naiveté or shame isn’t entirely clear for some time,but eventually shows us another kind of hopelessness: the help that is not forthcoming. This becomes tied to the hopelessness of our narrator, who recalls Babette, Christina, Laika by name but doesn’t get a name herself (just as we never see Christina’s face, but only her weakened legs and her longing). Just as Madame Durance only gets part of a name, and then I know: she was the first generation of isolation by hopelessness.

Laika died in orbit. Our narrator reveals the details in a tribute to that “memoir voice” and the power of time to change perspective, to change reality itself. The plan was humane by standards of the time: she was poisoned by her last meal to prevent extended suffering as the craft was not designed to survive re-entry. This was November, 1957. It was not publicly known until 2002 that she actually died much sooner than was planned by failure of the heat control system; she cooked, alone in the capsule. Laika was, by the way, a stray, plucked from the streets of Moscow. And when we read here that the scientist in charge of preparing her for the mission took her home the night before launch to play with his kids – “I wanted to do something nice for her…. She had so little time left to live” – we can’t help but think of a 14-year-old taken for her last malted on the way to Durnace Home. I can’t help but think of our narrator, fifty years later, still there, finally, patiently, telling us the truth about Babette.

I found an extra delight waiting for me after the last line, the last period of the story, where Pushcart lists those who nominated the piece for the anthology. Typically it’s the original publisher, often accompanied by one or two writers, former Pushcart winners who recommended it. This story was nominated by Seth Fried, whose terrific work has been reflected several times over the years in these pages. I thought I recognized some elements from his writing, particularly a story titled “Those of Us in Plaid”. Seth has a sense of humor (I sent him a goofy fan email once, and he responded in kind) so I asked him if he’d be willing to share his reasons for nominating the story. And, bless his heart, he responded kindly:

Aside from Batkie’s great writing in general, I was struck by the moral complexity in Laika. You compared the story to “Those of Us in Plaid” and I think it is circling a similar idea. We’re seeing someone powerless struggling with feelings of being complicit in the face of ugliness and abuse. That’s something I explored with morbid comedy in “Plaid” and that Batkie takes on with a stark lyricism that I found affecting.

Seth Fried (nominator)

We never find out what happens to Babette, beyond that she leaves after her space pod belly empties. Our narrator’s complicity is an angle I’d like to consider more. Is this story her plea for absolution? Time becomes a character as it allows consideration, but also delays revelation. I wonder how Babette would tally up the net effect.

Pushcart XLI: Jericho Brown, “The Tradition” (poem) from Poem-a-day

Jacob Lawrence: Harriet Tubman series, panel 4, 1940

Jacob Lawrence: Harriet Tubman series, panel 4, 1940

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.
Foxglove.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

The final line – go ahead, read it, it’s only 14 lines – is a knife to the heart. I wasn’t expecting it, though I see now the ground was prepared – it was our dirt, philosophical advice, father, brothers, even the blossoms fast-forwarded to see them in time. It’s all there, I just wasn’t really reading, I saw flowers and thought, oh, flowers. Yes, flowers, blooming so beautifully until that turn in the last line and then they aren’t.

I thought about just putting the poem here to speak, which it does more eloquently than any commentary could. That felt like cheating somehow. I thought about doing more with sonnet structure. About looking more closely at the flowers mentioned: don’t flowers have individual meanings or something? I waited a couple of days for some inspiration, for something I could write that would be the right setting. I think I should’ve gone with my first instinct.

The poem serves as an epigraph for The Fire This Time, the 2016 anthology of essays, poems, and written work edited by Jesmyn Ward dealing with race in America. And now it’s 2017. Damn it.

Pushcart XLI: Ron Currie, “Cross Your Fingers God Bless” from Wigleaf

The Flammarion engraving, 1888

The Flammarion engraving, 1888

Because she was not a superstitious person, in the days leading up to her solo hike in the thickly wooded ridges Annie ignored several warnings proffered by the universe regarding what was about to happen.

Complete story available online at Wigleaf

It’s less than 600 words long, but boy does this story use structure and rhythm to its advantage.

The four opening single-sentences paragraphs just keep layering it on. The rational impulse to ignore coincidence. Increasing coincidence, increasing rationality. We know something’s coming, and it’s going to have to do with a bear. But the event itself is never spelled out, just foreshadowed and then reflected from a later point of view. I love this, because the story isn’t about a bear attack or even about whether the signs meant anything or were reconstructed out of late-arriving confirmation bias: the story is in the human struggle to understand reality, and particularly in the conflict existing relationships undergo when Annie’s view shifts.

Like Annie, we’re in an environment of determined binarism. But what if reality isn’t so neatly arranged? What if there are elements of physics and metaphysic, of the natural and supernatural, everywhere? What if they’re the same thing seen from different viewpoints, or times, or dimensions? I spend a lot of time taking moocs about such blended views of reality, like investigations of whether physics leads back to some creative divinity leads back to physics, or if there’s cognitive science to support Daoism. I wonder if we’re not headed for our own bear attack if we don’t start listening to what we’re screening out.

But I think the point is more in the realm of, what happens to friends and family when we change our beliefs? We tend to congregate with people who have belief systems reasonably compatible with our own; what happens to friendships and family ties when that changes? What does that say about the strength of those beliefs? If it’s uncomfortable to be around a Christian-turned-atheist or liberal-now-conservative, does that reflect on one’s confidence in one’s beliefs in the first place? World-views are messy; they involve paradoxes and conundrums. How many of us have examined our beliefs beyond the surface? How many of us really want to?

Two metacomments about this piece: First is that Ron Currie Jr. is a Maine writer, so shout-out for that. I read his second novel, Everything Matters, a kind of weird but, in the end, truly touching book about second chances; Second is that I’m so glad that the tiny (free) online flash journal Wigleaf gets some Pushcart love these days. Bill Henderson has been an outspoken critic of online fiction for as long as there has been online fiction, but he seems to have made a reluctant peace with electrons. See, the stuff you’re screening out can be fun.

Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth McCracken, “Mistress Mickle All at Sea” from Zoetrope  19.4

New Year’s Eve in a Rotterdam garret, the whole block blacked out, bottle rockets rattling the casements: Mistress Maggle, villainess of the children’s game show Barnaby Grudge, off duty and far from home, ate a cold canned hot dog in the dark and pronounced it delicious. These were the last minutes of the old year. She’d come from Surrey to visit her half brother, Jonas, whom she’d last seen in Boston just before their father had retired to Minorca. Expatriation was the family disease, hereditary: thanks to an immigrant ancestor, they all had Irish passports. The world was their oyster. An oyster was not enough to sustain anyone.

The question that most perplexed me about this story was answered when I found a short excerpt of the first paragraphs in an online teaser by Zoetrope. In my copy of Pushcart, the title remains “Mistress Mickle”, but throughout the story the name used is Mistress Maggle. I spent far too much time wondering why that was so, hunting for a hint. Turns out it’s one of those weird copyediting changes that sometimes happens with reprints, I guess. But it did rather distance me from the story. Then again, my concentration has been pretty compromised lately.

So, Mistress Mickle, or Maggle, whose real name is Jenny Early (“though 49 seemed too old to be Jenny and too late to be early”) is definitely at sea, literally as well as figuratively, going way beyond her discomfort with her own name. She starts out visiting her half-brother in Rotterdam, then takes a boat home to England – or, rather, back to England where she lives, since she’s from Boston, or Ireland, or I’m not sure, really, and I don’t think she’s sure, either. Along the way she seems to feel more lost by the minute. The encounter with her brother, complete with the news that his girlfriend is expecting, sends her down memory lane revisiting an old romance that didn’t work out. On shipboard, she encounters another children’s entertainer who genuinely enjoys entertaining children, and plays a much friendlier character rather than the scolding shrew she portrays; a mirror image of sorts. I get the sense that she’s desperately unhappy, yet unable to figure out just what to do about it.

The narration is a slightly odd voice, extremely close 3rd person, so close it almost reads like she’s the one narrating herself in 3rd person. The ending makes that narration crucial, since, well, she dies. Maybe. She is a bit of a hypochondriac, after all. But in that last paragraph the narration turns into direct address, zooms out, and interpret however you like.

In any case, it’s a sharp and very witty story, lots of clever jibes and twists of phrase that make it fun to read. I’d like to read it again when (if?) my focus returns.

Marcelo Gleiser: The Island of Knowledge (Basic, 2014)

Consider, then, the sum total of our accumulated knowledge as constituting an island, which I call the “Island of Knowledge”….The Island’s growth has a surprising but essential consequence. Naively, we would expect that the more we know of the world, the closer we would be to some sort of final destination, which some call a Theory of Everything and others the ultimate nature of reality. However, holding on to our metaphor, we see that as the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance – the boundary between the known and the unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination – whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyway – but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.

This past Spring, I took Prof. Gleiser’s science/philosophy mooc that focused on the question, Can we ever know the very essence of reality, or is there some knowledge that can never be within our grasp? Is it all a matter of developing technologies and learning how the universe works, or are there some things that simply can’t be discovered by reason, observation, and scientific method? This book was the basis for that course.

Prof. Gleiser has an eclectic approach to science. He’s a theoretical physicist, but the book is far more. I noticed a brief comment about his training towards the end: “I was twenty-seven and in search of ways of connecting the rational scientific approach that I was learning in school with a strong sense of spirituality I had nurtured since an early age.” That willingness to look beyond science, to philosophy, to human emotion and interaction, shows up clearly throughout this work. “If reason is the tool we use in science, it is not its motivation,” says Gleiser. While it’s mostly science, there is a strong thread of philosophy as well; this is a scientist comfortable with ideas of divinity. This was the course that inspired me to read Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, a historical/philosophical work I enjoyed tremendously (and blogged about here).

Gleiser’s opinion is that we can’t know certain things, not because we don’t have good enough instruments or don’t have string theory nailed down yet, but because some things are simply unknowable. The “brain in vats” question is the classic example – how could we know? – but there’s also the limitation of the time horizon of the universe, and it seems there are most likely distance limitations at the small end of the scale as well. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

The book starts off with the pre-Socratics and the first inklinks of atomism. I discovered Ernst Mach, of Mach-1 fame, never accepted the existence of atoms, though their existence was theoretically proven during his lifetime; as I understand it (take this with a large shaker of salt), he didn’t say they didn’t exist, simply that he didn’t accept the existence of something that couldn’t be seen (he’d have changed his mind if he’d lived long enough to watch “A Boy and his Atom” on Youtube, a movie made with atoms). The first chapters move very quickly to Einstein, and the early 20th century forms a large part of the book as more and more questions arose for every answer. Once the quantum door was kicked in, everything was up for grabs, and we moved right along to the present.

While I’m sure I didn’t fully understand all the material on even an introductory academic level, it’s a very readable book, with good explanations and analogies that made most of the technical material at least partly understandable. For example:

[Q]uantum theory implies that there is a natural fuzziness to matter, a finite “smallness” to all things…. If we apply this notion to space, it is natural to expect that the same will be true: that there is a smallest distance of space beyond which nothing can be smaller. According to this view, space is not really a continuum but fuzzy, so that motion cannot proceed smoothly from point to point…. A competing view is to consider that it is not space that needs to be “quiltized” but the notion of point particles that needs to go.

When I was young and even more foolish than I am today, my then-boyfriend and I used to argue about whether the universe was fundamentally analog or digital (oh, come on, who hasn’t had those arguments). And when I read Euclid’s Elements, I was almost disappointed to find a proof that a plane must be continuous, thus analog. But maybe I was mistaken about that interpretation, since it appears scientists are still arguing about it.

I also enjoyed reading “But we do not know what electric charge or mass is…. Mass and charge do not exist per se; they only exist as part of the narrative we humans construct to describe the natural world.” I asked once in some course just what “charge” meant, since I can’t describe it without referring to electric charge, which of course is circular reasoning. So I’m always happy to find out that no one actually knows what “charge” is, beyond that it’s a quality some particles have that causes certain behaviors. This seems like the opposite of Ernst Mach’s problem with atoms: we can see it, feel it, but don’t know what it is. Mass seems to be in the same category.

How much can we know of the world? Can we know everything? Or are there fundamental limits to how much science can explain?…. From our past successes we are confident that, in time, part of what is currently hidden will be incorporated into the scientific narrative, unknowns that will become knowns. But as I will argue in this book, other parts will remain hidden, unknowables that are unavoidable, even if what is unknowable in one age may not be in the next one. We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.
This view is neither antiscientific nor defeatist. … Quite the contrary, it is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.

It was this attitude that made this book so enjoyable for me. Back in the days when I argued about the nature of the universe for fun, I read a lot of general-readership science books, particularly Asimov. I somehow got away from that. Gleiser has written several other books on various aspects of physics and cosmology, and of course there are many other scientists writing for non-scientists these days. Maybe it’s time to get back into it again.

Pushcart XLI: Jean Valentine, “Hospice” from Shirt in Heaven

I wore his hat
as if it was the rumpled coat
of his body, like I could put it on.

At first I was worried: it’s a poem about death, obviously heartfelt and personal, by a highly distinguished poet, and I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I wondered again if I should be doing this, blogging every poem like I have any idea what I’m doing. But that’s the deal, because otherwise it’s too easy to turn the page and do something easier, and what way is that to do anything worth doing. And as sometimes happens (which is why I’ve stuck by the deal), while no doubt there are subtleties beyond my reach, I found more was accessible than I’d expected.

First is the repetition of words: hat, hand, water, life, rumple. Rumple, of all things. The others are grand words, but rumple? It’s the rumpling that makes the hat, the hand, the water, the life, all beautiful and meaningful. The repetition unites the poem, keeps reminding us why we are there in the hospice room with the dying… dying who? Friend, lover, spouse, child, rival; the details of gender, age, and relationship are omitted so the figure is vague. All we can see is the speaker.

Embodiment again: that familiar recent theme, the body as the medium of experience. Here it’s the medium of goodbye, not grief exactly but more like the presence at a ship’s launching; more like anticipation. I’ve been encountering embodiment in many diverse areas while reading these pieces, in physics and philosophy (which again twine together as they did in ancient Greece). The observer is part of the observed. To measure is to affect what is measured. That must be just as true of watching someone – someone beloved – die as it is of measuring the velocity and position of electrons. Truer, no doubt.

And embodiment, in poetry, turns to typography as form becomes function:

I remembered
like an islander           my island

 

like a calving iceberg, air

The island, the I- land, as he-land slips away from sight: isolation. Just yesterday I learned, courtesy of lexicographer @JesseSheidlower, that island and isle are linguistically unrelated, one from Latin, one from Anglo-Saxon. And now I’m self-conscious about every I that I type, which maybe isn’t a bad thing.

And at the end, after an asterisk (A star? A sound? Or just typographic direction?) there’s a turn. Poems frequently feature turns as part of the semantic structure; sonnets and elegies depend on them. This poem doesn’t have the surface structure of either sonnet or elegy, but maybe it’s an elegy in a deeper way. The turn is one of the most dramatic I’ve read recently; I actually see the speaker physically turning after the death has occurred:

I thought I’d have to listen, hard,
I didn’t even swallow.
But nothing from you stopped.

In prior lines, the speaker used third person to refer to the he; now she promotes he to second person, to you. I can’t help but see this as a step closer to first person, to the I of the island. I see it in my mind, this scene, a companion/comforter/witness at the bedside facing the dying, then rising and turning outward back to the world with that you. Or maybe it’s a different turn, an embodiment not of the hat but of the spirit, a more conceptual turn. And suddenly I wonder if I have it all wrong, if the speaker is the dying, the he/you is the friend/comforter/visitor/witness, the turning not from losing to loss but from embodiment to release.

Of course, it’s entirely likely I’ve missed a larger point about relationships or grief or death while I looked at typography and grammatical persons. But I’m glad I stuck with the poem, that I didn’t let it scare me away, because if nothing else, I know other ways of turning.

Pushcart XLI: Barry Lopez, “The Invitation” from Granta #133

Granta art by Nick Clements

Granta art by Nick Clements

When I was young, and just beginning to travel with them, I imagined that indigenous people saw more and heard more, that they were overall simply more aware than I was. They were more aware, and did see and hear more than I did. The absence of spoken conversation whenever I was traveling with them, however, should have provided me with a clue about why this might be true; but it didn’t, not for a while. It’s this: when an observer doesn’t immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language, into the vocabulary and syntactical framework we all employ when trying to define our experiences, there’s a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen the meaning of an experience.

Complete essay available online at Granta

As I read this essay, I kept thinking, “I’ve read about something like this, recently.” It took me a while to pull it out of my overloaded and sometimes unreliable memory. The Chinese Thought mooc, of course! Confucians see language – including the behavioral language of ritual – as the means of perfecting the individual to full humanity, whereas Daoists feel it’s a distraction from what is essential. “The Way that can be spoken of is not the enduring Way,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Dao de Jing in the 4th century BCE. “He who speaks does not know.” Yes, Prof. Slingerland pointed out the irony of a book dissing language, but that’s how Dao rolls.

Most importantly, he didn’t stop with examining ancient texts, but related the concepts to contemporary neurological, social, and behavioral science. In this case, that meant a guest lecture from UCSB psychology professor Jonathan Schooler on his theory of verbal overshadowing: attempts to describe nonverbal experiences tend to make the experiential memory less accurate on subsequent recall. In its simplest form: if you show someone a face, and ask them to describe it in words, they will be less likely to recognize the face a few moments later than if they did not need to put language to the impression.

Lopez goes beyond this in a paean to the primacy of experience Lao Tzu would appreciate: a broadening of pertinence from the immediate event to what was seen a half hour, or three days, before (tracks of a caribou, for instance), and to later events. The event of seeing a bear isn’t over when the bear is no longer seen; it might never, technically, be over, in much the same vein as the Butterfly Effect.

He also advocates grounding experience in a place. It’s too bad Orion didn’t get to publish this article; it’s exactly their “Nature, culture place” brand (and may the Universe forgive me for using the word “brand” in that sense, it just happens to be appropriate to syntax and semantics).

A grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket is more than a bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket. It is a point of entry into a world most of us have turned our backs on in an effort to go somewhere else, believing we’ll be better off just thinking about a grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket.
The moment is an invitation, and the bear’s invitation to participate is offered, without prejudice, to anyone passing by.

I’m not sure I want to participate in such an event, apologies to Lao Tzu and Lopez; I’m not much of a nature person to begin with, and the bear’s a dealbreaker. But I understand the point, the distancing of us from not only nature, but from reality. And again, we have this triad of will, nature, and body that’s been humming around for the past several pieces: the will to experience nature without culture’s safety nets around the body. The willingness to experience.

Pushcart XLI: Kate Levin, “Resting Place” from River Teeth, Sept. 2015

When we arrive at daycare, I step out of the car and close my door gently, hoping not to startle my son awake. As I open the back door to retrieve him from his car seat, I see the bird.
 
I gasp, but only its stillness is gruesome.

Complete piece available online at River Teeth Journal

The first year, maybe two, that I blogged Pushcart, I only did the fiction. Then I added the nonfiction, and a year later, one post for all the poetry, reading it separately. I think I missed a lot skipping around that way. Case in point: we have a second piece about a child, and a bird. A very different piece in tone, theme, and genre – I’m not sure if this is poetry or nonfiction (I would call it poetry), but I’m sure it doesn’t matter – to show us the wide-ranging possibilities of a single combination.

Again, we have a frightening intrusion into an everyday moment, nowhere near as tragic as in “The Raptor” but alarming nonetheless: Life and death, protection and destruction, innocence and guilt, side by side. But mostly there’s the sense of fragility: not just of the sleeping child or the trapped bird, but of the possibility of tragedy under the most pacific scene. Maybe it is the same theme, or at least a similar one: danger lurking everywhere, revealed at the most innocuous, routine moment, and the effect that has on a parent. “There is my sleeping son, and there is the dead bird,” says mom.

But that’s just the first act of this one-page play; the scene doesn’t end there.

But then I would look at him, breath muscle bones, humming in motion; a system insisting on itself. Who was I to doubt it?…. Through the windshield I can see my son, eyes still closed. Beneath a buckled harness, his chest rises and falls, rises and falls, rises and falls.

And we come to the question of will, also raised in “The Raptor”. Both involve the will of a very young child. But here, the will is more the will of the body: the will of “a system insisting on itself.” The rise and fall of the chest (echoing the open and close of the car door?), even in sleep, even next to death.

I’m taking yet another biology mooc, and I continue to be in awe of this bundle of atoms we call our bodies, of the billions of things that happen every second to keep our chests rising and falling, to keep us working and playing and loving and laughing and writing blog posts. Is the will to live the will of the body? Maybe it’s the will of nature: like charges repel and opposite charges attract, ions pump, cardiac muscles contract, nerve cells signal the diaphragm to take another breath, even in sleep. “A system insisting on itself,” and mom sees her world isn’t quite as fragile as she thought.

The juxtaposition of these two pieces is marvelous. Either one alone has power, but together, they hold a conversation.

Pushcart XLI: Charles Holdefer, “The Raptor” from Chicago Quarterly Review #21

Photo by Christine Dibble

Photo by Christine Dibble

Cody was the only one to see the raptor descend. What to believe. On the second day of their vacation, Lisa had put Ronny – barely three weeks old! – on the picnic table in his baby seat while she paused to apply sun cream to his soft, wrinkly knees…. “Happy Ronaldus!” Lisa straightened for a moment to apply some of Ronny’s protective cream to her own face. Up here in the mountains you had to be careful, the ultraviolet rays were more powerful.
Cody sat on a nearby rock, looking up at the pines, the fleecy clouds, and a black dot that was growing bigger.

I see so many threads running through this story: faith, religion, sex, danger, loss, family, human frailty. Yet I can’t get a firm hold on it, or organize it in a way that makes sense to me.

First, the word “raptor”. It’s not an uncommon word – technically, it’s any bird of prey, such as a hawk, vulture, eagle, falcon – but if a bird swooped in and flew off with a baby, I’m not sure I’d describe it as a raptor. I’d be more along the lines of “some big bird”. Given the religious twist of events, and the similarity of “raptor” to “rapture”, I have to wonder if it’s a symbol for divine plans. Or maybe it’s about finding rapture in various ways: in sexuality, booze, or intense religiosity. Maybe the word is just to link it all together linguistically. Even the playful family nickname “Ronaldus Magnus” reminded me both of medieval kings and popes, and of Seinfeld’s Festivus, at least until I discovered it’s an occasional right-wing nickname for Ronald Regan.

Then there’s the second sentence: “What to believe.” There’s some trick of narration there. Though five-year-old Cody was the only one to see the actual abduction, the parents saw the raptor flying away with Ronny, so they would believe the child. This is an outside narrator commenting with the view of those outside the family. And suddenly we’re in “The dingo took my baby” territory: ornithologists offering opinions about raptors’ capacities to carry off tiny babies, interviews for Cody and the parents. Although much of the story appears to be close third person from within the family, this more distant narrator introduces several crucial transitions, including a series of “Even if not for the raptor” examples of the changes that befell the family afterwards. But that early sentence left me a bit off balance.

Ronny found himself in a nest on a cliff ledge with two baby birds. Still looking up at the blue sky, inhaling the thinner, colder air, his cries competed with the screeks of his companions. Oh, he was hungry! As the blue air turned purple and then black and stars pricked the blackness and constellations whirled in the firmament above, he welcomed the warmth of the bodies next to him, and it was a comfort when the big, heavy body sat on him, with its stronger heat, its thicker feathers.
Ronny tired himself with crying and then fell into a doze, feeling the beats of hearts next to his. They beat very fast.

I felt a lot of distance between me and the characters. There’s a great deal of detail about their downward spirals. There’s also a great deal of caring going on: from the start when Lisa is careful to protect Ronny from sunburn with sunscreen, speaking to him playfully, to much later when Dan calls her in the middle of the night to ask if she ever thinks about him, even to Cory’s concern over his mother’s drinking. Yet it all felt so removed. No one ever become more than a fictional character. I wonder if I’m callous, or if that’s deliberate, a distant narrator’s analytical eye, seeing but not feeling, or at least not conveying feeling. I have to wonder, too, if this is dark humor, something I often miss completely.

When he fell, rolling into the open air, he felt surprised and, at the same time, affronted. What was happening to him?
Ronny bellowed headlong into a vast and hideous deep. There was no time to think of who could hear him. His heels moved eagerly for traction against the retreating sky. This missing sensation seemed precious, but it was also like an insult to him and to the place from which he fell.
Darkness in a hurtling tract, the rub of cold. His voice split the air, refusing to submit or yield. This much felt right. His will was still untouched, his own.

The story deals with two time lines, one in the period immediately following the raptor’s theft sandwiched in between longer segments about the fourteen years that followed. I get the distinct sense that the timelines converge. Cody, having had his personal conversion experience and on a camping trip with the girl who brought him to Jesus, masturbates on the spot, perhaps, where Ronny fell out of the nest so long ago. The text is ambiguous. The end is ambiguous as well, though the idea of sudden danger – whether from his girlfriend discovering his nocturnal activities, or from a raptor, a feral Ronny, or a wild animal – striking without any warning, might be an obvious conclusion.

It’s that mention of will that really feels like I missed something along the line. Again, I end up back at religion. A major part of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic triad is that God has a purpose and we need to make our wills subordinate to his. Many Eastern religions advocate a release of desire to achieve happiness, or following a path set by the universe rather than taking matters into our own hands. But then, there are many people who are just aimless. Again, I’m not sure how any of this fits in, but I heard the note.

That’s really my overall experience with the story: I heard a lot of notes, but I can’t figure out what key we’re in.

Pushcart XLI: Leslie Johnson, “Midterm” from Colorado Review, Spring 2015

Art by Annemeike Mein: “Whirlpool Frog”

Art by Annemeike Mein: “Whirlpool Frog”

Midmorning in mid-October, in the middle of the campus, Chandra stopped in the center of the crisscrossing sidewalks. She pulled the phone from her handbag and pretended to be texting someone; she smiled down at the screen as if someone had texted her back. She felt other students brushing past her on the walkway, but didn’t look up at their faces.

Complete story available online at Colorado Review

I kept thinking of story classifications as I mulled this one over. Some stories are love stories, or war stories or sexual abuse stories or coming-of-age stories; this one seems obviously classifiable as an anorexia story, but I think that’s just the specific vehicle; the motivation is broader. The editor’s introduction to the Spring 2015 issue of Colorado Review nails it:

“Emerging from the grip of winter, when we’ve retreated from the cold, holing up in the warmth of our homes and for a time losing touch with the earth, with one another, sometimes even with ourselves, we long to reestablish ties once the green reveals itself again. The fiction and essays gathered here, in this spring issue, bring us stories of people seeking connection in its various forms.”

The voice, though somewhat off-putting to me, is perfect for the story: it reads like an emotionally unaware college student wrote it, little hints slipping out right and left almost deliberately in that passive-aggressive way of screaming “Why are you always looking at me please pay attention to me just leave me alone”. The anorexia angle, for instance: it’s so evident, from the professor’s remarks about “not another anorexia essay” to the obsession with Pop-Tarts and hip bones, yet that’s just the surface symptomology of the deeper intimacy issues that play out. Like pretending she’s texting someone, which is the new version of 1975’s “inventing lovers on the phone” – or the “I have plans that night” from the 50s. After all, if someone is texting you, that means you’re normal, right? But a cell phone is all the intimacy she can handle.

The story has strong bone structure underneath that deliberately ravaged skin. It’s fascinating to watch as Chandra reveals a tiny bit, gauges the response, and moves a bit closer to Eli (and, literally, farther from her phone and into hot water). She starts off making up lies just to agree with him: she sees the single red leaf he sees, about to fall (now there’s a genuinely good pickup line if ever I heard one), and things go downhill from there. She’s new at this, so it’s natural she doesn’t interpret the signals well: he’s dismissive of nearly everything she says. The final revelation is inadvertent. In the context of an actual nascent relationship rather than pretense, it would be possible to get back on track. But it’s just too much for Chandra.

Approach-avoidance: that tug of war between the guy in real life or the phone in the tree, the fear vs pull of relationship, the anorexic woman who enrolls in a gender studies class than won’t show up. All the usual coming-of-age crap here in Body Week XLI, dialed up to a pathological 11 and covered over with an Everything’s Fine, Fine veneer. The resolution almost doesn’t matter. Almost.