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

LeRoy Neiman: Bull Rider

LeRoy Neiman: Bull Rider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But language is also shown as punishment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Abalone shell by shippertrish on Deviant Art

Photo: Abalone shell by shipper trish on Deviant Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie Walraven: “Old Aga Stove”

Sophie Walraven: “Old Aga Stove”

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

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

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

It’s an exquisite story, technically and emotionally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete story available online at Sewanee Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Addendum: Jake Weber makes an interesting observation about the truth value of the note vs its functional value, which sounds a bit like the pragmatism I read about in the William James book a few weeks ago]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete story available online at Medium

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

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

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

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

Margaret Wardlaw, Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete story available online at Pinch

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

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

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

The other interesting angle is the position of Entertainer, which, given the title, is probably more important. [Addendum: Jake Weber has an interesting angle on the jester role] A couple of years ago, I got interested in the concept of intrinsic versus instrumental value as it applies to people and relationships. The person renewing your driver’s license, or checking out your groceries, has mostly instrumental value to you at the moment of contact, but for most of us still retains a significant intrinsic value [Addendum: some of the reactions to the plight of essential workers becoming sick after COVID-19 got started has shaken that belief]. Completely losing sight of the intrinsic value of a human being results in things like genocide or kids in cages, but minimizing intrinsic value – seeing Rachel as an Entertainer, rather than as a person with feelings and preferences – might result in some of the things in this story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum: I wrote this post pre-COVID; I’m even more cynical now. Jake Weber wrote his post in August as we hit 166,000+ COVID deaths and 5 million cases.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Maia Jenkins, “The Almadraba” from Threepenny Review #155

Picasso: Two Women on the Beach (1956)

Picasso: Two Women on the Beach (1956)

I’d met Elena in Seville. I was twenty one – Study Abroad – and had been taken under the wing of my host-mother’s twin nephews, Alvaro and Javier. Identical in good looks and high achievement, the boys would take me to a bar twice a week, ply me with beer, and laugh at my bad Spanish. While I didn’t exactly enjoy their company, I needed them.
At the time, the fact of my virginity hovered over me always. In my mind, sex had taken on an almost physical presence – not an act so much as a fascinating character to whom I had not yet been introduced. Those afternoons in the bar, I’d look between the twins – acrylic black hair, pastel polos – and try to imagine having sex with them. For some reason I couldn’t picture it.

On the surface, this could be an ordinary story about two women who meet in Spain. But there’s a lot going on subliminally that makes it not ordinary. Or I could be overreading again, determined to turn everything into meaning.

Megan, the student, meets Elena, the teacher, one night outside the bathroom in the bar to which the twin nephews – law students, we find out eventually – take her. Neither woman ever brings up anything about their studenting or teaching; we never hear Megan explain why she isn’t hanging out with other students from her university, or what she’s studying (presumably some aspect of Spanish language or culture), or hear any reason she’s rejected the idea of losing her virginity to someone at school. It’s as if, having established the Study Abroad thing, it exists only for symbolic purposes.

A first generation Colombian, Elena grew up in America. I’m not sure where. She mentions palm trees, houses on stilts, the hurricane insurance her mother complains about paying. She misses the jungles around Cali. Once, she had to outrun an alligator.
“Go in a zigzag, “ she says, moving her hands and demonstration. “Flips them like roaches.“
She talks about men a lot. In Elena’s world, flings flare up and die over the course of days. I laugh at all her stories, unwilling to tell her I am a virgin. It isn’t a purposeful lie, only a series of omissions.

Ditto for Elena. Since she isn’t the pov character, we know less about her, putting us in the same boat as Megan, guessing at what’s real and what isn’t. She only says she is a teacher, not mentioning what or who she teaches, and never mentions it again, no anecdotes about a funny incident or a run-in with a student or parent. When the law school twins ask, as students interested in a legal issue, if she’s had any trouble with her visa, if it’s paid for by the school, etc., she skillfully and jokingly changes the subject. “With Elena, most things could be polished into jokes…. Unlike me, I decide, Elena is tough.” So again we’re left with a symbolic rather than expositional occupation, and a character-defining aura of mystery.

Megan and Elena to go Chipiona for a beach vacation, and again, Elena avoids the topic of whose car she’s borrowed or whose house they’re staying in. “[L]ike most things with Elena, it seems to invite more questions than it answers.” The story gives us good reason to assume anything she’s said – where she’s lived, the men she’s screwed – might not be true.

A pivotal scene – I’d call it the pivotal scene except there are several pivotal scenes – involves the exchange of secrets. Megan finally cops to her virginity. Elena talks about her father having a twin brother, who became “an avatar for what my father should have been” after Dad got sick. Later, she adds sexual abuse to the mix, which led to the move to the US. Twins aren’t really rare, but two sets of unrelated twins in one story is kind of odd, and children have been known to think in terms of “the bad twin” when trying to weasel out of punishment for misbehavior; is it such a leap that an abused child might create an evil twin to preserve a good father? This is Elena, after all; we have no idea how deep truth goes for her.

I know Elena is only revealing this secret because I have told her I am a virgin. Rather than reassurance, I feel an abrupt resentment towards the acquisitive nature of all relationships, how even at our most vulnerable we depend, somehow, on a willingness to make trades. It seems pathetic.

At the end of the story, Megan finds a waiter who is willing to relieve her of her virginity. Her secret now moot, she tells Elena, who can’t moot her secrets but recants them: her father, the twin uncle, the alligator, all lies. This further buttresses Megan’s view of secrets as friendship coins to be traded.

Of course, there’s another way to look at reciprocal trading of secrets. “I’m going to tell you a secret” is an act of intimacy; it makes perfect sense that the recipient will show an equal desire for intimacy, and shedding cover stories would be one way to do that. It’s not acquisitive; it’s drawing closer to another person. Or, a bit on the darker side, revealing a secret establishes vulnerability and mutual secrets create equal vulnerability. If one partner later no longer has a secret, it’s logical the other would feel the vulnerability more, and might move to erase it.

Another pivotal scene confuses me. While they’re enjoying the deserted beach, lying on Disney character towels, a boat of migrants washes ashore, “Let them be,” says Elena when Megan asks what they should do. The boat disgorges its passengers who “rush away in all directions, scattering like the seeds of a blown dandelion”, and, empty, is washed out to sea again, and Elena turns her attention to Megan’s incipient sunburn.

Then there’s the matter of the title, which turns out to be pivotal as well. Turns out it’s a fishing technique, dating from ancient times:

“People used to come from miles to fish using this Roman technique,“ he says. “Almadraba, they called it. Catch these huge fish. That was the thing about the Almadraba. Only the strongest fish got caught. The weaker ones were thrown back in, given another chance.“
“Another chance for what ?” Elena asks. “To get caught later?”
The waiter nods and smiles. He isn’t really listening. “Now these foreign companies come in, overfish the sea and sell eighty percent of the tuna to the Japanese.“

This puts the spotlight again on Elena. Was her move to the US outside the bounds of legal immigration? What about her move to Spain, was it of necessity? Is she a strong fish who make it to land, or a weak one who got caught on land? What does she feel, seeing the migrants land on the beach? These two scenes seem related somehow, but I’m not sure exactly how.

The friendship is over after that week on the beach, but we only know Megan’s side. Elena scatters, as we always knew she would. “Has anyone been back to Chipiona?” wonders Megan at the end. Anyone who?

Among other things, the story is an exploration of friendship and secrets, and allows for a lot of room to see one’s own story – or someone else’s. And it maintains a certain aura of mystery, much like Elena.

Addendum: Jake Weber focuses on Meg’s “obsession with the nobility of suffering” and the different levels she sees, as someone who hasn’t suffered much.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Becky Hagenston, “Hi Ho Cherry-O” from Witness #31.1

The next day, Wendell rolls into my office and starts working right away. He’s found commercials of children playing games called Lite Brite and Shoots and Ladders and Hi Ho Cherry-O. The children in these commercials are very white and dimpled and mostly wear stripes, and they shout a lot. They are very, very happy children. My research involves childhood in the twentieth century which, even though it wasn’t that long ago, is difficult because so much was deleted or destroyed in fires and floods. I’ve done some interviews at old folks’ homes. I’ve done some memory scans. What’s confusing is that most of what Wendell is finding doesn’t necessarily collaborate with the memory scans.

It’s a story about a woman and her neurotic robot. I never thought about it before, but now I realize that Wendell is the perfect name for a neurotic robot.

Wendell is supposed to be helping our narrator with research for her dissertation, but he keeps refusing to work unless she performs certain acts on him first. No, silly, not those kinds of acts. Things like cutting him and leaving a mark. Tying him up and leaving him in a closet for an hour. Squeezing his throat hard. Sealing a plastic bag over his head.

It isn’t like our student doesn’t have other problems. Her husband works with those in the Home for the Disembodied (nobody dies, they just get uploaded), and has a virtual wife with whom he has virtual triplets, but as he told his real-life wife, he hardly ever has sex with his virtual wife any more. She then told him she doesn’t want to hear any more about his virtual family.

And in the meantime she’s trying to figure out how to reconcile all the happy children pictured on game boxes and in ads for toys with the information from old people who remember, and those who don’t but have had memory scans. Like fights over what happens when you land on Free Parking, whatever that is. And what is this Battleship game? This may be why her dissertation advisor tried to discourage her from researching toys and games. That, and because “who wants to be reminded of what you can’t get back?”

Hagenston could have just told us that our student is living in Crazytown and the future doesn’t make sense, but instead, she shows us, just like they tell you in Creative Writing 101. But she underlines it just a little to make us laugh a little more at the absurdity of it all.

This morning, Wendell isn’t in his corner. He’s not in the closet or the bathroom or behind the laundry room door, or in my office, so that means there’s only one place left to look, and sure enough there he is in the bedroom. He’s standing about a foot from my husband, who is sitting at his workstation, the top half of his body swallowed by the VR unit. He’s lost in his disembodied world, counseling newbies, leading discussions, giving tennis lessons, coaching the triplets, and hardly ever having sex with his actress wife.
“I found some information about battleship, “ Wendell says. He still has the bag on his head. I feel like everyone is underwater but me.

Margaret Atwood said a lot about the yin-yang relationship between utopia and dystopia: “within each utopia, a concealed dystopia; within each dystopia, a hidden utopia, if only in the form of the world as it existed before the bad guys took over.” I doubt anyone in this story would describe their life as utopia, but the husband, the dissertation advisor, the staff at the University Service Robot center, all seem perky and chipper. Sort of like those kids in the ads and boxes. And meantime, we’ve got our student, and Wendell, and the old folks with all their memories of what it was really like to play Monopoly. Yin and Yang. Somebody’s happy, somebody’s unhappy. Too bad it’s the images and disembodied who are the happy ones.

Addendum: Jake Weber took this story apart and reassembled it – and came up with a very interesting take.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Allen Gee, “Old School” (nonfiction) from Ploughshares 01/10/18

Tariq Mix: “Mentor to Mentee”

Tariq Mix: “Mentor to Mentee”

How could I say that James was providing me with ideological perspectives that I would be able to apply to my Asian American identity for the rest of my life, to ward of any sense of inferiority based upon race, as far as my status as a citizen could be concerned? How could I express that he was passing down insights about how to read a short story or an essay or a novel that would serve me as a professor decades later? How could I know that we were only in the formative stage of what would evolve into a twenty-nine-year friendship ?

Gee refers to his relationship with James Alan McPherson as “old-school mentoring.” He refers to the original use of the term in the Odyssey: Athena disguised herself as family friend Mentor and looked after Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, during his father’s long absence. Classicist and philogist Gregory Nagy (who teaches a great mooc on the Greek hero which also covers this ground) puts it this way in an inverview for The Atlantic:

…[A] mentor is someone who instills a heroic mentality in somebody…. she will put menos into Telemachus. It’s a Greek word that’s usually translated as “heroic strength.” But really, menos is not just strength of any kind—it is mental strength. And by that, I mean the kind of surge of power you feel in being able to put things into action. You can see the connection between menos and “mentor.” Menos is .mental strength, and a mentor is someone who gives mental strength to someone else.

Gregory Nagy interview in The Atlantic 10/13/17

So mentoring is more than friendship, different from teaching or counseling, although all of these can be involved in the relationship.

Gee was a new student at the elite Iowa Writers Workshop MFA program when he was assigned to McPherson’s workshop section. He tells the story of his first encounter:

So for my first critique in McPherson’s workshop I submitted a fishing story that wasn’t my best work, including a main character with no descriptive racial features; the character was virtually white. Therefore, after the workshop ended, James called me over out in the hallway.
“Why did you put that story up?”
I lowered my voice. “It was smoke.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was being cautious. I’ve heard how cruel it can be here, so I didn’t want to put up what I’ve been spending all my time on.”
James stared at me with concern as if I were an ailing patient requiring a diagnosis, but he also appeared amused as if recognizing that I possessed some street smarts.
“What are you really working on?” he said.
“A novel. It’s about a Chinese restaurant in New York.”
“Can you bring me some of the pages tomorrow?”
“I will,” I said but immediately felt vulnerable.

The essay details their long friendship. To my reading, it is more of a memoriam, a goodbye and thank-you, for McPherson (who died in 2016 after a long illness) than a record of Gee’s experience as mentee, particularly the later half.

I’m always at a disadvantage with these types of memoirs. There’s a blurb by Jane Hirshfield on the cover of this edition of Pushcart: “A book made by the entire community of writers, for the entire community of writers.” To someone in that community, this would stand out as poignant inspiring; I’m guessing many writers at least met McPherson, many must have known him in some depth, and his work would be on all their reading lists. To me, it’s reading about famous people (I know… but my famous and your famous aren’t the same thing): interesting, but out there somewhere.

Another factor might be that I’ve never had a mentor. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but I never earned it. Mentoring is hard work, and it is aimed at the future, so when a mentor chooses a mentee, it must be someone they believe will have a future in the same field. I pretty much stumbled about in my youth, showing some promise in the early phases of many things (writing, science, singing, business) but never really getting beyond the basics of any particular discipline. Mentoring is hard work, and an investment of time in the future of anther person. It’s clear I never showed enough promise for a would-be mentor to want me. And by the time I got myself together, it was too late; mentors select young people who can grow and develop over decades.

I am, however, inspired by this essay to put Elbow Room, the collection of short stories that won McPherson the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to an African American, on my TBR list. Like Gee when he first entered Iowa, I am not well-read. Fortunately, there’s a cure for that.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Emma Copley Eisenberg, “Fat Swim” from Virginia Quarterly Review #94.1

VQR illustration by Lauren Nassef

VQR illustration by Lauren Nassef

Alice spots the fat women through the second-story kitchen window. It’s Wednesday, so Dad is out at his feelings meeting. She has just turned eight and has been dragging her drumsticks over different household surfaces to see what sounds they make. The sink has been working well—a satisfying ting, ting, ting. Also the panes of window glass—higher, though, and more muffled. The kitten meows on the ledge. Shush shush, Alice tells him, then bops him lightly on the head with a stick.
It’s the colors that catch Alice’s eye, the parade of bright bodies turning the corner of 49th street onto the avenue, then veering into the rec area that holds the pool.
Back soon, back soon, back soon, Alice tells the kitten. The drumsticks roll off the counter and hit the parquet floor.

Complete story available online at VQR

Fiction is filled with unreliable narrators: people who lie, don’t pay attention, or are otherwise unaware of what’s really happening. One subset of that category is the naïve narrator, someone lacking experience or capacity to fully understand the events she is narrating. This introduces a kind of irony as the narrator experiences and interprets events very differently than the reader would. Alice, our narrator here, is such a naïve narrator: a child. A precocious child (the final scene shows she is aware of her naïvete, and resists losing it) but still a child. Eisenberg’s talent is to align the reader with that resistance to losing her naïvete, to have us at least consider that, unlike other educations that are part of growing up, the world might be a better place if we all had Alice’s particular innocences.

To read this story is to see the world through the eyes of a very specific, very naïve eight-year-old girl. She knows she’s a girl. She knows she’s fat. She knows she’s black. She knows her dad goes to feelings meetings, and sometimes he cries at night. She just doesn’t know these things are bad; they just are. To phrase it in Myers-Briggs terms, she Perceives, she doesn’t Judge.

Except for one thing: she knows her naïvete will change, and she’s scared of that.

We meet Alice on the summer day she first sees the fat women come to the public pool across the street from her house. She doesn’t do euphemisms: they’re not big, or heavy, or overweight; they’re fat. The swimmers enjoy the pool without shame. Alice doesn’t avoid looking at their bodies. And she doesn’t avoid her own body.

The fat women are black and they are white, a thing that almost never happens in this neighborhood. They snap their fingers. They lean forward and stick out their butts, then lean back and lift their breasts to the sun, their bellies hanging over their bikini bottoms.
This is interesting to Alice because they are fat like her. As they dance to the rap song, sometimes a swath of fat goes one way while the woman goes another. These are moves Alice, too, has sometimes done, but only alone and only in front of the mirror. Slight rolls of flesh hang down their fronts, just below the elastic of their bras. Flesh gathers on their backs like wings. Alice would like to run a finger through the crease this flesh makes. This is what she thinks about later, at night, in her bed with the lights out. With both hands, she holds the flaps of fat where the low parts of her stomach touch her thighs. She jiggles them—together, then separately—then lets them go. She pats her vagina with her whole hand, once, twice. The thing that most people do not know about fat is that it is more taut than you think. It is not all softness. It bounces. It bounces back.

When’s the last time you perceived a fat person without judging? Or any person, really? I noticed some time ago that I have a lot of judgment when it comes to how women dress. That woman shouldn’t be wearing what she’s wearing, she’s too fat and she looks sloppy, or she’s too sexy and it’s too revealing. Why is it my business? It’s something I have to notice to adjust. It is kind of hilarious, however, to follow an attractive woman dressed in tight clothing as she makes her way down the street, just to watch all the men who pass her turn around to check out the back side. One in a while, one of them falls on his face or walks into a parking meter. But I digress.

We know a couple of other things about Alice.

For one thing, Alice doesn’t worry about her hair any more than she worries about being fat. She makes friends easily with another little girl on the drug store riding toys, a girl with “her hair up in two poofs secured with bright, colored balls that Alice thinks are cool.” I’m assuming the girl is black. The exchange that follows seems to indicate Alice is black as well, or at least has black hair. Not hair that is the color black, but black hair. Black hair has increasingly become a sociopolitical touchstone, prohibited by institutions like the military (I understand this has recently been reversed) and some schools. But Alice doesn’t know about that. She thinks her hair is just fine, and so is her new friend’s hair.

You’re fat, the girl says.
I know, Alice says.
Oh, the girl says. What’s your name?
Alice. But sometimes people call me Alley Cat or Topsy.
Because of your hair?
Can I touch it?
Okay, Alice says. She is used to this from school. Curly hair like hers, so curly it sticks straight out from her head in a circle like a Truffula Tree, is interesting to people, she knows. Alice leans her head down and into the space between their two rides. The girl puts her hand into Alice’s hair and moves it side to side.
Cool, the girl says.

The other thing we know about Alice is that she lives with her father. She doesn’t quite understand the feelings meetings he goes to, so neither do we, except we can again overlay our adult knowledge and assume it’s some kind of therapy or support group, possibly related to his divorce. He comes home from one of those meetings in a bad way, maybe drunk, maybe just upset. Alice perceives without judgment. After a shower he’s back to normal.

He’s also pretty much about Perception, at least when it comes to Alice. She tells him she might want to grow horizontally as well as vertically. He says, Okay. She tells him she’s in love with more than one person, referring to the swimmers. He says, Okay. But when she asks about his feelings group, why he sometimes cries, he won’t say.

The story focuses on Alice’s fascination with fat swimmers. First, she notices them. The next week, she imagines what it would be like to join them. And then, she does join them, and has a grand time. Alice is having her own Wednesday feelings meeting, and it’s glorious.

The end of the story brings our naïve narrator to the edge of her innocence, to an awareness that it will be threatened in the very near future:

Alice has a feeling then, lying in the dark in her good bed, and the feeling is like a presence, or a spirit, like how people describe their spirits leaving their body when they are dying in ghost stories except she is not dying and this is not a story. The spirit seems to be coming from the outside, from the night, from the street that lies between her and the pool, and it seems to want to tell her something of the future, to make her know that though she is free now, and though she has already done better than her father, the world is still waiting to tell her who she is and what her body means.
… The spirit knocks at the windowpane—once, twice, three times. Alice is gripped then, suddenly afraid.
Go away, go away, go away, she says to the spirit. And for now, it does. 

Those last sentences of the story show her rejecting, for now, the education of the world. With the ending words they invite us to consider what might happen down the line. Alice will grow up. She will become more enmeshed in the world, more subject to its judgments. She will not retain her naïvete forever; she will learn that the world hates fat people (yes, I know, you’re saying I don’t hate them but it’s unhealthy and I call that bullshit) and too much of the world hates black hair and black people and women who love women. But she might choose to remain Perceiving rather than Judging, choose not to internalize those judgments, and to forever love her hair, her body, and the fat women at the pool. And that deliberate, aware choice is so much better than naïvete.

Addendum: Jake Weber relies on his Sunday School background and uses a sermon as the format for his post on the story.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Julia Elliott, “The Erl King” from Tin House #75

I’d seen the so-called Wild Professor stalking the halls of the humanities building, a haughty, middle-aged man with a face going to ruin from booze and passion. He taught the poetry workshop and the Romanticism seminar. He spat curses at the coffee machine in the English Department lounge. He liked young girls, everyone whispered. He ate psychedelic mushrooms, kept up with cool music, and lived in a woodland cabin all summer long, typing masterpieces on a Brother electric typewriter powered by a generator.

Elliott has a knack for writing a certain kind of story: it starts out perfectly normal, then gets weirder and weirder so gradually you aren’t really sure it’s weird until suddenly you realize, you’re not in Kansas any more. Then you go back and read from the start and realize you never were.

The story references Christianity, Wicca, The Wizard of Oz, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and most importantly, a number of legends and mythologies involving nature and the sometimes-porous boundary between what is wild and what is human. I wish I had a better background in these areas, but I have to go with what I’ve got. The Erl King that I know of was a death spirit that carried away the souls of children; I don’t see that here, but that legend itself may well have roots in older tales that are more applicable.

I’ll have to leave the fine parsing to the experts, but it’s significant that the first sentence introduces the Wild Professor. We never get a more traditional name; for that matter, our first-person narrator goes unnamed as well, but her roommates get not only names, but adjectives: Punk Amy, Hippie Kim, Preppy Paige. It’s also significant that the Professor’s field is Romanticism, that kickback against the rationalism the Enlightenment and NeoClassical had ushered in, passion and individualism breaking free of reason and precision. Jake Weber follows the Romantic path in his post about the story.

He gave me his famous look-over my first winter at college, in the humming submarine glow of the library. I peered up from a translation of Venerabilis Agnetis Blannbekin and and saw him stomping toward me in muddy hiking boots. I feared he’d trample me. But he stopped and drilled me with his legendary eyes: pale green organs that floated in the darkness of his sockets like bioluminescent jellyfish. He looked ghoulish in the fluorescent light, his scalp visible in sick pink patches, and I didn’t get his appeal.
I stared down at my book, reading the same line over and over: And, behold, soon she felt with the greatest sweetness on her tongue a little piece of skin a like the skin of an egg, which she swallowed.

I knew nothing about the book she was reading but suspected it would be relevant, so I looked it up. Agnes Blannbekin was a 13th century Christian mystic in Austria, a member of a lay order of religious women. Among her obsessions was the Eucharist, the consumption of the host and its subsequent transubstantiation into body of Christ. This is all kind of routine, until you get to the passage from her Confessions that is partly quoted above. The full text reads:

Crying and with compassion, she began to think about the foreskin of Christ, where it may be located [after the Resurrection]. And behold, soon she felt with the greatest sweetness on her tongue a little piece of skin alike the skin in an egg, which she swallowed. After she had swallowed it, she again felt the little skin on her tongue with sweetness as before, and again she swallowed it. And this happened to her about a hundred times. And when she felt it so frequently, she was tempted to touch it with her finger. And when she wanted to do so, that little skin went down her throat on its own. And it was told to her that the foreskin was resurrected with the Lord on the day of resurrection. And so great was the sweetness of tasting that little skin that she felt in all [her] limbs and parts of the limbs a sweet transformation

Whether that sweetness was spiritual joy or a more… physical pleasure is apparently a matter of debate. The point is this has some significance as the story proceeds: various items are ingested, various changes result.

The action of the story is contained between two parties in the woods. The first is an end-of-semester party at the Wild Professor’s cabin, attended by our narrator and her roommates, and a literary theory professor who says things like “The sex/gender binary is always hermeneutically destabilized and epistemologically overdetermined” to which the Wild Professor replies, “The world will be undone by the flick of a young girl’s tongue.” Creepy as it is, at least I understand the reply.

Our Wild Professor takes particular interest in our narrator, and after the theoretician leaves and her roommates fall asleep from his impromptu (and drunken) lectures and the wine, they go have a little sip of private stash:

The Wild Professor laughed like a teenage stoner, falling backward onto his bed and taking gulps of air between each howl. He thrashed and kicked and then went still. As he sat up, slow and stone-faced like a movie vampire, I tensed at the sight of his black hair – a wig, I thought, that he’d slipped on during his laughing fit. But his skin was smooth too, pale as a ghost salamander’s. His enormous eyes shed gold light. And his lips looked plump and red.
He grew six inches. His jowls vanished. Elegant muscles appeared. A beautiful man moved toward me.
“How the hell?” I said.
“The willing suspension of disbelief,” he whispered , his breath on my neck… The wild professor loomed over me, his antlers ivoried by the moon.

And this is only the fourth page of a twenty-page story. One of the differences I mentioned above is that the weirdness is accelerated. It’s also acknowledged as weird. From here it gets weirder.

Our narrator stays with the Professor, developing her own transformations (the Golden Hind, perhaps?), until the Solstice when the Professor holds the second party. Things get more complicated: the roommates attend, but so do a philosophy professor with “his fourteen-year-old daughter and his twenty-eight-year-old girlfriend” as well as one of the Wild Professor’s exes. A final battle between our two unnamed characters could be seen as Good vs Evil, as a protective measure, or as mere jealousy, take your pick. The final scene is not unexpected, but is presented with cinematic style.

The fun of the story is in how easy it is for the narrator to normalize everything, to immerse herself in strangeness. And, for those who do have a better background in folklore than I do, I would imagine recognizing tropes would be a lot of fun.

For me, it was kind of fun to start off with what I thought was another academia story (one of the subsets of fiction I particularly enjoy) and end up somewhere else – but never anywhere near Kansas.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Ben Shattuck, “The History of Sound” from The Common #16

I was seventeen when I met David, back in 1916. Now I don’t very much care to count my age. It’s April 1972 here in Cambridge. White puffballs that must be some sort of seedpod have been floating by the window above my writing desk for days, collecting on the sidewalk like first snow.
My doctor suggested I write this story down, due to the recent sleeplessness that started when a package from a stranger arrived at my house: a box of twenty-five wax phonograph cylinders, with David’s and my names written on the labels of each, sent from Maine. A letter taped to one of the cylinders read, “I found these in our attic years ago. I saw you on television. Figured these must be yours.” Of the three books I’ve written on American folk music—with moderate success and thus the recent television interview—I’ve never written about that summer with David. So, here we are.

Complete story available online at The Common

You’ll find few surprises or plot twists here: everything you expect to happen, happens. No narrative tricks or structural quirks, either. Yet, when I was done, I found that, rather than knocking my socks off, this story had grown into me and found a warm, gentle place in my heart.

But first, let’s do some vocabulary so we’re all on the same page (don’t worry, there won’t be a test). When people who aren’t musicians hear the words “folk music” they might think of Bob Dylan or whoever the popular present-day singer-songwriter is. The folk music in the story is a little different: much older, often by centuries, existing in many versions, passed down through generations rather than written on music paper. There is indeed a field of ethnomusicology, and it does involve visiting diverse places and recording songs that might otherwise be lost. The Library of Congress has an extensive collection (you can order a download of some selections for $10) as do many universities. I can’t find either of the songs featured in the story, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there somewhere.

Another term that came to mind while I was reading this story is ekphrasis.

An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.

I would call this story ekphrastic, though there are obvious deviations from the strict definition. Of course, it isn’t a poem. And we’re not dealing with visual art, but music. The story itself doesn’t focus on description, though there are a couple of detailed passages. Two songs are described in some detail, and there’s a lovely description of the genre of folk music itself that I think fits the bill:

I liked the songs, but didn’t love them, not like David loved them. I don’t know exactly where the passion came from—he didn’t grow up with the songs, not like me and my brother…. now, at seventy-two, I know that most things we love are seeded before we’re ten. When I asked what he liked about the songs, the ballads especially, he said—I remember his words exactly—that they were the most warm-blooded pieces of music he knew. I see what he means, that the songs are filled with the voices of thousands who’ve sung and changed them, and that they are always stories of people’s lives. Not like the baroque music I began to love at the Conservatory, sharp and abstract and ornate like a coldly glittering piece of perfect jewelry. The folk songs had soft underbellies, could put a lump in your throat just by the melody. Emotion in song; nothing fancy.

And that is what really strikes me as ekphrastic about this story: it embodies the qualities of folk music. As I said above, it’s a low-key story without surprises. That’s folk music: because it was written and rewritten by ordinary people, the melodies and chords are fairly predictable, and the lyrics describe their lives. Some folk songs are lullabies, some are sociohistorical tales such as protest songs (I did a post on “The Gray Goose” several years ago) and some, as in this story, are love songs. Or, rather, thwarted-love songs. This is where the story excels: it is the prose equivalent of a folk song, in tempo, in tone, and in plot.

The structure is as familiar as the chord progression of “Down in the Valley”: an envelope story. Lionel, a retired musician, receives a box of wax recording cylinders left in a Maine attic back in 1917. He and a friend, David, had recorded them that summer, and fallen in love. They went back to their lives in the fall, planning to make another tour the following year, but never saw each other again. Here the story of that summer is inserted. Then we return to the present of the story, as Lionel listens to the cylinders.

David and Lionel experience something beyond friendship. I balk at calling this queer lit, however. As difficult as it might be in this era, let’s get our attention off the genitals and lift our sights higher to see this as a love story with all the yearning, joy, pain, and regret that love entails, no matter who is involved:

I didn’t experience the guilt that some men at my time would have. I just loved David, and I didn’t think much beyond that. My error was that I thought David was the first of many. That I’d tasted love. I was eager for my future. How could I have known that all the rest—Alex, William, Vincent, Clarissa, Sam, Sarah, and most recently George—were only rivulets after the first brief deluge.

Love is love. And first love, lost, has a bittersweetness that’s familiar to all who experience it.

Since the story is online, I won’t go into details of plot. The first song described in the story does that pretty well, come to think of it:

It’s an old English ballad from, I’ve since researched, the Lake District, that tells the story of two lovers lost in the woods on a January night, having run from their homes to meet by an oak tree to then elope. A blizzard comes, and they can’t find each other. In the chorus they call each other’s names, but the wind shakes the trees so loudly that they can’t even hear their own voices—so they die alone, huddled under separate trees: “Over snow’d floor two tracks did mark / One going west, the other east / Two still figures at trees’ roots / On a dead winter’s night, they never meet.”

Several plot elements pull together the overall story: fluffy white seedpods that appear in the opening and closing sentences, mimicking the snow of the song; a cantankerous woodsman who refuses all requests to share his songs, the reason becoming apparent when he accedes to their request for water; secrets revealed past the point of meaning. Even the more factual elements work towards unity, as when Lionel remembers that Edison had not really thought of his invention as a musical medium, but as more of a general audio record:

Ever practical and visionary, Edison offered the following possible future uses for the phonograph in North American Review in June 1878:
1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
3. The teaching of elocution.
4. Reproduction of music.
5. The “Family Record”–a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
6. Music-boxes and toys.
7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanantions made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.

The family record. Preserved for family, however briefly that family might have existed. Family, with all its misunderstandings, secrets, and bonds that last beyond a lifetime.

But in spite of all those plot elements, it’s a story that lives on tone, that sings in a particular key. I’m sure my fondness for it has something to do with the use of folk music as an element, and with a Maine setting, but I think it’s more than that. It’s always good to remember your heart has a warm, gentle place, especially now, when there’s so little warmth and gentleness around.

Addendum: Jake Weber had a very different take on this story; was my affection for folk music a pair of rose-colored glasses?

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Maureen Stanton, “The Human Soup” (nonfiction) from New England Review #39.2

In ancient Rome, bathing was practically an art form, a religion. After temples, bathhouses were the most common buildings. A fourth-century census recorded 856 public bathhouses for Rome’s million or so citizens, which would be the equivalent of 900 public bathhouses in Dallas, Texas, today….
On a typical day in ancient Rome, a tintinnabulum rang to summon men and women to the baths—mixed-sex bathing was common. Entrance fees were free or low, so the poor could bathe, too. They soaked in the warm tepidarium or the hot caldarium, or dipped into the bracing frigidarium, all while being entertained by jugglers, acrobats, musicians, and poets. Vendors hawked wine, pretzels, cake, eels, and quail eggs. You could hire a depilator to pluck unwanted hair, or someone to oil, sand, and scrape your skin. All this bustle created a cacophony that “could make you hate your own ears,” wrote Seneca, the first-century rhetorician.

Complete story available online at NER/LitHub

Who would have expected that an article about baths could be so enjoyable to read? Stanton layers together a general history of Western bathing, particularly communal bathing, with her own extensive experience in spas and Ys across America. These are both wrapped around a backbone anecdote about her acquaintance with a particular hot tub bather which opens, closes, and appears periodically throughout the piece. It’s a very effective way to combine the information-heavy piece I like, with material having emotional resonance, while maintaining a strong forward narrative drive. Mind + heart + body: this is a piece I wish I’d written

I should say that I am not a bath person. While I realize others find it heavenly, the benefit of sitting in my own human soup escapes me. The necessity to take a shower before and after (and quite possibly the need to clean the tub pre- and post- as well) makes it anything but a relaxing experience. I can’t get comfortable enough in a bathtub to read or listen to music or smell candles or do any of the relaxing things others seem to love. I had the opportunity to use a Jacuzzi once, and while it was more interesting than a regular bath, it still isn’t something I want to do again. Even if everyone is clothed in swimwear (which is not a given), the idea of getting into a hot tub, with friends – or, heaven forbid, strangers at the Y – is repellent to me. But I still loved this article. Even the gross parts. And boy, there were gross parts.

The general history section starts with the Roman bathhouses and proceeds through medieval Europe to pre-revolutionary America and more contemporary times. There is a brief mention of Japan’s communal traditions, but the Western world is clearly the focus. It seems European Christianity changed its tune a few times, discouraging bathing at some points while encouraging it later. It’s all remarkably interesting, considering there’s a lot of discussion of effluvia.

The sections on American bathing include a nod to the present, in the form of washing immigrants clean:

The People’s Bath in New York could accommodate 500 bathers daily, but the poor didn’t flock to the bath, in spite of 100,000 promotional flyers promising free Colgate soap. In the first year, just 10,504 people bathed there, about six percent of its capacity….
Perhaps the people understood that the baths were meant to “cleanse” more than their bodies. The New York Sun editorialized that public baths would transform “grimy Anarchists, and some of these Poles, Russians, and Italians into good Americans.” Public baths were necessary for elevating the “moral and physical well-being” of the poor, said Dr. August Windolph to the American Association for Promoting Hygiene and Public Baths. Boston’s mayor, Josiah Quincy, asserted that when “physical dirt” was banished, then “moral dirt” would be, too.

Interestingly, “When bathhouses offered swimming and recreation instead of just cleansing, the people came.”

Stanton’s more personal history uses a technique I’ve tried to include in this blog: she tucks little clues to the essence of her being into long passages, so that only the careful reader will draw closer to her. We learn about a moment in her marriage when she realized her husband was an alcoholic; we follow a relationship that would end in death; and we watch her tour the hot tubs and spas of America in another relationship. One of the most striking moments for me came early on in the piece, when she admits her annoyance with a fellow bather: “I disdained this man, but my feelings were disproportionate to my annoyance, and so I wondered, what aspect of myself did I see reflected in him?” That’s a very honest and self-aware attitude, one I think I need to become more familiar with.

She admits to some squeamishness in various situations, from seeing hairs floating on tub foam to an episode of staph mastitis, acquired, she believed (though it couldn’t be proved) from a session. And yet she finds the practice so pleasant, she continues. I believe in her enjoyment, even though I can’t share it. Empathy across an experiential gap. I’m sure there are those who don’t understand how I could so enjoy an article like this; I hope you too can cross that gap.

On the most bitterly cold January nights in Maine, the hot tub at the Y feels exquisite. One such night I sat in the tub with two men in their early forties, one craggily handsome, the other small and wiry, all of us silent in the bubbling water until the large man appeared. As he stepped into the tub, the craggy man slid over, ceding his place. “You don’t have to move,” the large man said, but the craggy man smiled. “That’s your spot.” Vacating the spot was a sign of respect, as if the large man were an elder or, if this were ancient Rome, an esteemed philosopher.

The structural backbone story follows a man she sees often at the Y hot tub and pool, waiting for his Russian mail-order bride. Over the course of the article, the woman arrives (he brings her to the Y, in fact, which generates some emotion for Stanton), to his once-again solitary state whens he apparently is no longer in the picture. Stanton finds herself feeling a distant fondness for him, and ends on a sweet, hopeful note: “He had not died of a broken heart, after all.” Following her lead, I, too, disliked the man in the beginning, and began to feel some fondness for him towards the end. Empathy across the experiential gap, again. He, too, has his story, and she reveals it at just the right pace.

This is one of those pieces that makes Pushcart so special: it puts these improbable reads in front of me, and they’re fascinating. There’s very little erotic in the piece, though the propensity for eroticism is discussed as one of the primary objections to the practice in various times and places. Cleanliness isn’t really the purpose, either. We discover an interesting aspect of shared hot tub culture: they function something like neighborhood bars, where people get acquainted and chat, and strangers find willing audiences for their stories. Surprisingly, there’s a social function.

After prayer failed to relieve St. Augustine’s sadness over his mother’s death, he thought to “go and bathe” because he’d heard that bathing “drives the sadness from the mind.” A recent study in France found that a hot bath more successfully eased anxiety than paroxetine (brand name, Paxil), a prescription antidepressant….
A pair of Yale researchers found that hot baths can ease loneliness. “Feelings of social warmth or coldness can be induced by experiences of physical warmth or coldness,” they wrote. Their study showed that people who rated higher on loneliness scales bathed or showered more often, longer, and with hotter temperatures. Bath-taking, they suggested, is “an unconscious form of self-therapy,” in which people substitute physical warmth for “social warmth.” We literalize the metaphor: warm the body, warm the heart and soul.

And then, if you will forgive my repetition, there’s the empathy across the experiential gap. That may be what saves us all, if anything can at this point.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Juan Felipe Herrera, “Roll Under the Waves” (poetry) from Love’s Executive Order, 6/15/18

LEO art by  anna_croc01

LEO art by anna_croc01

we roll under the waves
not above them we body surf and somehow we lose
the momentum there are memories trailing us empty orange
and hot pink bottles of medicines left behind
buried next to a saguaro there are baby backpacks
and a thousand shoes and a thousand gone steps
leading in the four directions each one without destinations

Complete story available online at Love’s Executive Order

In my introductory post to this year’s Pushcart, I said I would include only the poetry I could find something to say about. I confess, I’m not sure what to say about this poem by a recent US Poet Laureate (but the poem itself is not why I’ve included it; more on that to come).

The grammar is uncertain; maybe the sentences connect one way, maybe another (are the medicines left behind buried next to a saguaro, or the baby backpacks? Does it matter? The implications of either are horrible). Uncertainty and tension are part of the fabric. It hits all the painful images of the current – and longstanding – immigration issue (“men laying face down forever”, “children still running with / torn faces all the way to Tucson”, “a stolen life branded and / tied and thrown into the tin patrol box”, “vigilantes with skull dust on their palms”).

But there’s hope, too, tied right into the fear and misery. The moon has “pocked hope and its blessings and its rotations into the spikes”. And:

there is a road forgotten with a tiny sweet roof of twigs
and a black griddle threaded with songs like the one
about el contrabando from El Paso

The hope has to be part of the fear, because – and here’s what’s lost in all the ranting about who is legal and who isn’t and who belongs here and who doesn’t – nobody would do this if they weren’t leaving something worse. Compassion gets tamped down, because if we faced it squarely, the argument would all be over.

But, as I said, the poem itself isn’t why I chose to include this. It’s included, first of all, because this US Poet Laureate, this graduate of the finest writing program in the country, this teacher and poet and activist, is the child of migrant workers who our current administration would keep out.

More than that, I include the poem because of where I found it. Love’s Executive Order is an online litmag run by poet Matthew Lippman; what I’ll call it’s mission statement reads as follows:

In 1980, I was 15 years old when Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of The United States of America. My European History AP Teacher, Donald Morrison, began to grow a beard. He vowed not to cut it off until Reagan was no longer president. It stayed on his face for eight years.
January 2017: Donald Trump has been sworn in as the 45th president of The United States of America. This site is dedicated to posting one poem a week that is directly related to the presidency of Donald Trump. A protest. A commentary. A running rumination on this part of our American story.
This site will be terminated when Donald Trump is no longer President of the United States of America.

It’s not enough, of course (I keep wondering what would be enough). But it’s something: a poet’s resistance.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Homeschool” (nonfiction) from N+1 #33

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin: "The Teacher"  Cover art for the Everyman edition of Rousseau's Emile

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin: “The Teacher”
Cover art for the Everyman ediiton of Rousseau’s Emile

For most of my childhood — from kindergarten until tenth grade — I did not attend school. Homeschooled is the term I used as a kid, the term I still use today for expediency, though it has always seemed misleading, since schooling is what my mother meant to spare us from by keeping us at home. We lived during those years on a farm in Vermont that sat thirty miles outside the nearest functional town and was, in a lot of ways, autonomous…. I spent most mornings doing the chores I shared with my brothers: feeding the chickens, stocking the woodbin, hauling hay bales out to the sheep pasture. After that, the day was my own. Sometimes I read alone in my room, or sat at the kitchen table drawing comics in my sketchbook. As the oldest, I was often responsible for the younger kids, but like most children in large families they were easy — hungry for attention, game for whatever task I invented.

I’m always surprised at how a personal essay can take a topic that’s emotional or controversial and clarify the issues involved. It’s also possible to ramp up tensions, of course, but it’s a lot more interesting to inform all sides from a place of “this is my life” and not scare the horses.

O’Gieblyn’s mother chose to homeschool her children for primarily sociopolitical reasons tinged with religious reasoning: she felt schools were more interested in turning out docile and obedient workers, and inculcating beliefs environmentalism and sex education. She’s not wrong about either, though whether either of those are good or bad depend on where you sit. “We were to be in the World but not of it,” a phrase associated with Christian fundamentalism but not that far from Buddhism either.

The homeschooling was rather informal, dependent less upon a curriculum than on life at the farm. Her mother would send the required reports in, calling it “delight-directed integrated study”, a phrase that would have education reformers drooling eagerly. We get a sample of these reports:

On the topic of comprehensive health, she wrote: “Meghan had a great introduction to the health care system this past spring when she spent four days in the hospital having her appendix out.” On Citizenship, History, and Government: “We hope to have contact with a family of Russian immigrants through friends of ours who will be sponsoring them. This should help make real to Meghan some of the freedoms we enjoy in this country.“ All of the letters were written in the same shrugging, breezy tone that was her primary mode of defense, and barely concealed her hostility towards state intervention. On sex education: “Presently she is gaining a good base of information by being involved with the life cycles in our barn, and some sheep we will breed this fall.“

I’m dubious – these could indeed make great topics for exploration, but would require guidance and additional resources – but it’s hard to argue with results. Then again, while O’Gieblyn seems to have learned something along the way, it’s possible the same approach would be disastrous for someone less self-motivated. That’s the problem with systems, isn’t it, whether a national school curriculum or a mother’s idea of what learning is: they always work for someone, but rarely work for everyone.

While covering her own experience, O’Gieblyn also includes some material about the origins of home schooling, typically rooted in Rousseau’s Emile. She also introduces us to John Holt, who, during the 60s, discovered his imagined audience of hippies and peaceniks was augmented by religious fundamentalists.

This broad spectrum of home schooling is amusingly evident in Homeschool Day at Six Flags, an event conceived in capitalism; that is, it was a way to draw crowds after the start of school in September:

The Christian Reconstructionists were easiest to spot (patriotic T-shirts), as were the macrobiotic hippies, who overlapped somewhat with the anti-vaxxers, the anarchists, and the preppers. There were the rich suburban kids whose parents had pulled them from school to better facilitate backpacking trips to Mongolia, and Mennonite girls in long denim skirts, plus the occasional Quiverfull family numbering twelve, fifteen, twenty-five. The full spectrum, In other words, of American private dissent. But even then, it didn’t feel like a community so much as a summit of isolated tribes.

I happen to know three families that homeschool (or did). None of them are religious, nor are they anti-socialization. One father, a mathematician, wanted to convey his enthusiasm for math to his kids, and they ended up learning at home; after a move, they were given a choice and started regular middle school. In another family, a move generated a casual question – “Do you think you’d like to go to school at home?” – and the answer was yes; that mother used printed curricula, organized groups, and even a few moocs. The third family started homeschooling when they became alarmed at their son’s falling grades, and the seeming inability of the school to do much about it. All three sets of parents are great people (admittedly, I only know them online, but I’ve known them for several years and they haven’t ended up on the evening news yet). So I understand the wide variety of homeschooling families, and that it includes those without agendas other than giving their kids the best education possible.

One of the most interesting aspects of the piece comes when O’Gieblyn discusses her transition, at age 15, to regular high school. Uneven academic performance would be no surprise, but she indicates a sense of otherness as well: “I was wholly ignorant of the social scripts that governed large groups of females.” I find this interesting not because it triggers some vengeful aha, but because so much of how she describes herself sounds like how I felt throughout my twelve years of public school education. And even now. People want to talk about things I can’t chime in on: their families, trips, parties, favorite restaurants or clubs. I brand myself a hermit to belong to something, as I too have this sense that I have no idea what I’m supposed to talk about with others.

Another thread that interested me a great deal dealt with Tara Westover’s recent book, Educated. Westover was part of a religious survivalist family, and she left by studying and going to college, eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge University. But that isn’t the interesting part; it’s the reaction to her book that raises my eyebrows. Apparently she isn’t hard enough on her parents:

Several critics found it unsettling that’s for parents or occasionally characterized, in her memoir, with a note of affection, and that’s the descriptions of her childhood landscape we’re undergirded by a sense of longing. …Westover once hinted that the early iterations of her book had a lighter tone. When she first began writing, she confessed in one interview, she regarded her family’s behavior as harmless and eccentric ….Her authority as a narrator – and more fundamentally, as a witness to her own life – was for many readers discounted by the brain washing she’d experienced as a child….In the end, Westover, who has described her life as a process of regaining “custody of her own mind, “ was subjected, again and again, to the insistence that she did not actually know her own mind.
This is the predicament of people who were raised in highly controlled environments: any ambivalence about your upbringing is proof of its success, a sign that you are not yet completely free period

I have to wonder why she changed the tone of the book, if it was her own decision, or pressure from a publisher who knew what was marketable and what wasn’t. For the record, O’Gieblyn’s tone towards her upbringing is quite positive. For her, it wasn’t so much of an escape as simply a growing up and making decisions about what kind of independent life she wanted to lead, which might be called the true objective of all parenting.

The essay finishes off with a very nice closure, showing where all this has brought her. I’m very fond of circular shapes in essays, and this one not only returns to the personal, but shows the results of this particular homeschooling we’ve been reading about:

It is impossible to anticipate how a person will interpret the lessons of her childhood, whether she will find them an impetus for violence or a source of creative inspiration. In my own family, my siblings and I have proved the outcomes of my mother’s pedagogy wildly unpredictable. Despite her best efforts to raise us deliberately, each of us has negotiated, in idiosyncratic ways, the legacy of our childhood, and our lives have veered down such divergent paths that when we are all together, it is difficult to imagine we were reared under the same roof. My mother raised a writer, a musician, a missionary, a hotel manager, and an accountant; a progressive, a centrist, two moral Conservatives, and a Libertarian. I do not have children, but my siblings have collectively produced half a dozen. All of them go to school.

For any mother, that’s quite a record of success, and the diversity of outcomes strikes me as one of the primary objectives.

This is O’Gieblyn’s third appearance in Pushcart since I’ve been reading it. She’s appeared in some of the most prestigious magazines around, and she published a collection of essays a little over a year ago. I’d say that gives her a certain authority as a success story.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Cally Fiedorek, “The Arms of Saturday Night” from Narrative, Fall 2018

“The Back Yard” by Otis Huband

“The Back Yard” by Otis Huband

Stoppin’ on the red
You’re goin’ on the green
‘Cause tonight’ll be like nothin’
You’ve ever seen
And you’re barrelin’ down the boulevard
Lookin’ for the heart of Saturday night

(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night”, Music & lyrics by Tom Waite

I couldn’t get the song out of my head as I read this. Given the words, it could have been full of the energy of anticipation, but instead, the slow, gentle tune and the emphasis on the hook makes it nostalgic: the memory of host of Saturday nights spent looking, but not finding, some magic that maybe doesn’t even exist.

Fiedorek could have titled her story “The Heart of Saturday Night” if she’d wanted to (at least I think she could have, but a lawyer or editor might differ), but she didn’t. Using “arms” has a different feel to it. Open arms can welcome; crossed arms can protect and repel; arms can restrain, attack, or comfort. All of these elements come into the story in different ways.

Janie’s looking for her own Saturday night, if she can get around the little detail of her uncle’s wake first:

There’d be no traffic on the turnpike, not on Saturday. She could get her dad to drive her to the city, though at the risk of being pushy, and insensitive, really, considering the circumstances, but wouldn’t some part of him enjoy it in a way, like, was it not a source of comfort in a time of grief, a welcome sign of life’s renewal—the death-proof, scrappy ways of teenage lust?
There was this party in the city later. And she had it on pretty good authority—not immaculate, but strong—that Adam Donovan would be there. Adam Donovan. His name, a neon light, electric-blue.

Complete story available online at Narrative

Janie’s dad, John, has been looking for his own version of Saturday night. He’s an academic who wrote a few columns for Newsweek and has been trying to get a book published, essays on “semiotics, or technology and the soul, or something” as Janie puts it. His “career as a public intellectual had been looking, in the past year, pretty private”.

“I should’ve gone to trade school, Robbie. Electricians, contractors, do satisfying work. Me, I feel like I’ve spent my whole adult life standing in the middle of an intersection, trying to play the harp, and all this time I’ve been saying, it’s the traffic that’s the problem, it’s too loud, I can’t focus, but it’s not. The problem is—the music—the music that’s inside of me—it’s not good.”

Janie’s mom, Robbie, is more concerned with the bikers attending the wake, friends of John’s brother Murray, the honoree. In spite of having what John might consider a more satisfying life, a carefree element he hopes to see in Janie, Murray was the one who died young. His cocaine habit might have had something to do with that.

But back to Janie, the point-of-view character of the story. She’s something like a symbol of the vanishing middle class, alone and adrift in her high school between the working-class immigrants and the kids with “genetic wealth”. I love that term, genetic wealth; it used to be called old money until new money took off. And there’s Adam, who’s finally shown an interest in her, but is leaving for California, where he’ll do something exotic, but she has this one Saturday night party to connect with him, to experience the heart of every teenage girl’s Saturday night.

But there’s this damn wake, and her mother wants her to stay home and be with family, because that’s what family does. Janie sees the wake a little differently:

It was strange to Janie, watching them all, how nothing could be more radical, more awe-inspiring, really, than someone dropping dead, and yet people were often at their most perfunctory at an event built explicitly around the fact of doom. It just seemed like a waste. A waste of Murray’s memory, of the cocktail napkins, of the possibilities of language. There was no love, no vibes. There was nothing to talk about, least of all him. Everyone would drink responsibly, talk superficially, then go home. She just wished they would do it, you know, soon.

Don’t go looking for the heart of anything at a funeral, in other words.

For all her desire to flee, Jamie in the end discovers the arms of Saturday night literally in her own back yard, in two ways. First, there’s the connection she makes with a “rookie biker” (dang, I like that almost as much as “genetic wealth”) who she first views as instrumental – his pickup truck might be the way to get to the party – but comes around to seeing him as intrinsic when he starts talking sense and then reveals a secret. And then her father offers a second surprise. The sulking teenager she was fades behind the thoughtful adult she might one day become if she remains able to accept the arms that are offered, and lets the swords become plowshares:

That smell was in the air, warm and mulchy, almost tropical. That smell of total summer. It made you pause. It made you pity the dead even more than usual.

I always pay close attention to the opening story of Pushcart editions; they’re usually chosen with care, bringing thematic implications that carry on for a while until the waters change. I’m not sure which theme that will be: connecting across class lines, abandoning teenage toughness for cooperation, finding what you want in a surprisingly close place, or this melancholic nostalgia that still sticks with me. Because I’m sure Janie is going to remember this night, and the party will have little to do with it.

[Addendum: Jake Weber also had a musical reaction to this story – though a different song than I heard.]

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Start All Over Again

For forty-for years this series has been dedicated to new and established authors and editors. Somehow they have kept the faith in a culture that often does not care about the heart, mind and soul of what they represent.

Bill Henderson, Introduction

NER image

NER image

For the past couple of years, the Pushcart introduction has been focused on thanking people who have been instrumental in getting the series started and keeping it going. While this is of historical interest (and perhaps presages an impending end of something?), it doesn’t do much to set a tone or give an indication of what the year in reading was like, let alone if there is any theme or set of themes in the pieces. In other words, unlike BASS, it doesn’t give me much to bounce off of in prepping myself for the read ahead. But that’s not their job.

I still write my own introductory post, for my own benefit. I always seem to start off these projects in a state of confusion: I don’t know what I’m going to encounter, and fear I might not be up to it. That’s probably true of most things worth doing, even in times more settled than the present. “The best way out is always through” wrote Frost, so I just start.

Last year’s collection was somewhat disappointing. The year before was spectacular. There’s really no telling in advance. I see some intriguing titles in the table of contents, but who knows if “The Arms of Saturday Night” will match the bittersweet nostalgia of the Tom Waits song those words evoke, if “Erl King” will work with or against my familiarity with the original poem, if “I Confess: My Cultural Misappropriation” will clarify or further confuse me on the issue, if “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap” will be funny or sad or bring to mind “If you Give a Mouse a Cookie” or something else entirely, if “Dante on Broadway” will be anywhere near as interesting as it sounds. Julia Elliot, Mary Szybist, Fady Joudah, Natalie Diaz have all delivered for me in the past, but I don’t seem to take to authors en bloc the way so many readers do. “Who is your favorite author?” is a nonsensical question to me. For that matter, my favorite anything is always a group: a set of books, movies, even colors that rotate as favorites-of-the-moment, like that old Magic 8-Ball, depending on mood and environment.

This year, I have made a decision to change how I approach the poetry. Over the summer I read the late Tony Hoagland’s book Twenty Poems that could Save America, and discovered that he, too, found a lot of contemporary poetry rather uninspiring. There is a limit to how many times I’m willing to type “I have no idea what this poem is doing”; I exceeded that limit some time ago, but have kept trying because I thought maybe I would learn through the process. Maybe I would if there were someone knowledgeable and open to modernity to work with me (I still hope someone will take me up on that someday), but it’s just me, and I don’t seem to be learning much. So this year, I will read all the poetry in the anthology, but I will only blog those that make sense to me in some way: maybe as a memory tripwire, or maybe in content or form (and in occasional blessed moments, both).

And by the way, Hoagland has a poem in this volume with an intriguing title, hooking me on two fronts.

As a dedication, Henderson has cited “A Coney Island of the Mind” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I could reference a lot of things in connection with that: recent news has Ferlinghetti’s 2006 poem “Pity the Nation (After Khalil Gibran)” making the rounds. Doom of our own making seems to be on the doorstep.

But this space is supposed to be about the heart, mind, and soul of verbal art, and I’m struggling enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other to dwell on what may or may not turn into catastrophe. So I’ll dig into the first story, and have faith that, one way or another, we will get to the last.