Rudy Koshar

Rudy Koshar is a former Guggenheim Fellow and 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee whose work appears in Guernica, Corium, Riptide, Black Heart Magazine, Stockholm Review of Literature, Montreal Review, Revolution House, Eclectica, and elsewhere. The author or editor of seven books and over a hundred scholarly articles on German history, he teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, blogs at rudykoshar.net, and is an invited blogger at Huffington Post.

Cadillac

1960-1969-cadillac-7

My thanks to Virginia Baily and Sally Flint, editors of Riptide Journal, which just published a short story of mine, “Cadillac.” Here’s the introduction and a link to the magazine below.

He reads his essay to a half-filled room at eight in the morning, and everyone says it’s fine. One of his first graduate students, now a successful English professor at a top state university, comes up afterwards and says, “that was good, Charles, really good.” A person he doesn’t know, but who sat in the front row and nodded off twice during the thirty-minute presentation, also shakes his hand, says “very good, Professor Lindsay. Most informative.”

The day gapes at Charles. He once enjoyed conferences, but now the panels and schmoozing feel like sessions on the expensive rowing machine he and his wife never use any more. At last year’s conference he gave his paper in the morning, then laid on his bed in his hotel room all afternoon and evening, read, ate a room service dinner while he watched football, called his wife Valery and told her he loved her, how were the kids, good, good, glad to hear it, I’ll be home soon, then turned in early.

He looks at the conference schedule. He could go to one of the ten o’clock sessions. “New Perspectives on the Post-Utopian Novel.” He recognizes one of the paper givers, a scholar with whom he’d had some helpful correspondence twenty years ago, when Charles was a freshly-minted Ph.D. applying for assistant professorships. Or he could walk through the hotel foyer, greet those who wave or come up to him to congratulate him on his new book, which everyone will say is really good, then walk out into the Raleigh sunshine on a late September morning.

The Cadillac is long. Its red color and dial-infested dashboard scream “Excess!” Charles Lindsay loves it. He drives it out of the rental agency parking lot with one plan, which is not to have a plan.

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Acknowledgment

The racial violence of the past days defies words, but I’m hoping that this flash fiction, which I published in Sleetmagazine 3, 2 (Fall 20111) is relevant.

The man approaches as I stop the lawn mower and take off the safety glasses that make me look like a creature from a ’50s sci-fi movie. He is twenty-something, as tall as I am but huskier, bare arms covered in red-black tattoos. The bill on his over-large Raiders cap is wide and paper-flat, jogged to the left.

“Car problems?”

“Outta’ gas.” Twenty-something doesn’t look at me, but down and to my right.

“I have a tank in the garage. There’s maybe a gallon left.”

Two minutes later I’m in the street and he stands against the car, driver’s side, gas lid open. It’s a defeated car, an Olds, from the ’90s. Mississippi plates. While I hold the tank to pour the gas, I look through the back window. On the passenger side there is a huge, elderly woman, a rolled mass of dark flesh dressed in pink and orange. Her gray hair is flat on top but splayed into fuzzed tendrils on either side.

“Mississippi’s a long way from Wisconsin,” I say to the man. Then I think, do I sound suspicious?

“Got family on the west side.” The young man still does not look at me, but he smiles.

I search for more words, but I notice the tank has emptied, and I draw the nozzle away from the gas lid. “Do you have the cap?”

“Ain’t no cap.” He looks at me for the first time and frowns.

“We should start it up and see if it runs.”

The young man gets behind the wheel. There are candy wrappers and an empty Doritos bag on the passenger seat. An empty Coke in the bottle holder. The ashtray overflows with cigarette butts. The key turns but the engine only cranks. Another try, then again. He looks up at me, a furrowed expression.

“Better not run down the battery,” I say, leaning down. “Wait a minute, and try again. If it doesn’t start, I have jumper cables.”

I look into the back seat. “Afternoon, ma’am.” I smile.

She looks away, staring at my house. There is a tattered blue blanket and a small pillow. On the floor, yellowed newspaper. Behind her, on the rear window tray, I see a stuffed animal, brown, a teddy bear or maybe a dog, with matted fur and one eye missing. I look back at her. She doesn’t acknowledge me.

Twenty-something turns the key again. The engine starts and blue smoke hazes up from the exhaust pipe.

“You’re set to go,” I say, too cheerily.

“Could use some cash, man. To buy more gas.”

“Jerold, that man has helped you already,” rasps the woman. Her voice abrades the July air.

“Here,” I say, before the man responds. “I happen to have a ten on me.”

“Thanks, sir.”

I walk to the other side of the car, which drives away as I look into the back seat and wave.

The old woman glares at me, and I have to turn away.

Go to the magazine here.

 

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Would Nietzsche Shake Trump’s Hand?

I just published this blog on Huffington Post. The link follows.

Peter Wehner’s July 5 New York Times opinion piece about Donald Trump and Christianity has the tone right but the argument wrong.

Wehner, who served in the last three Republican administrations, points out that evangelical Christians’ rationalizations for supporting Trump are not only wrongheaded but farcical. Wehner quotes evangelical leader James Dobson, who after meeting with the presumptive Republican nominee said, “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit.” How absurd, argues Wehner, who notes that the Holy Spirit represents forbearance, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Who would seriously consider using such words to describe Trump’s personality?

Even more revealing of the knotted logic many Christians use are the public statements made by author Eric Metaxas, who has published a biography of the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Wehner quotes Metaxas saying Trump will keep America “from sliding into oblivion.” Here Wehner might have mentioned that Bonhoeffer is the closest thing Lutherans have to a modern-day saint. He was murdered by the Nazis just weeks before the end of World War II. While he sat in prison for his heroic anti-Nazi activities, he advocated for the idea of a “weak God” who enters the world not through power but suffering. It is extraordinary to hear a Bonhoeffer scholar sing the praises of a politician who promises to “make America great again.”

But when Wehner claims Trump’s worldview is akin to that of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, his otherwise informative piece goes off the rails. Wehner fails to mention that Nietzsche would have found Trump to be a vulgar and superficial man. Nietzsche’s elitism was of an intellectual variety, and it would also have led him to reject Nazism’s plebeian rabblerousing had he lived long enough to witness it.

Predictably, Wehner quotes Nietzsche’s writings about the “Übermensch” and “will to power.” We should no doubt recognize how such concepts steered the philosopher into dangerous ethical waters. But when Nietzsche wrote, “What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness,” he wasn’t referring to politics. Nietzsche’s “superman” became super through his willingness to overcome obstacles and transform his personality in a process of continuous self-fashioning. As one scholar noted, “Nietzsche is truly allergic to the idea of winners.” He hated the self-satisfaction of those in power, whether in politics or business, and he valued individuals who were unimpressed with their success. In Twilight of the IdolsNietzsche said he philosophized with a hammer, and that meant taking the hammer to self and world, repeatedly and without pity.

Likewise Nietzsche hated the moral certainties of institutional Christianity. If individuals gained his respect through self-questioning and self-renewal, then so too did associations and societies. This even extended to the language we use to make meaning of our world. In his “On Truths and Lies in an Extramoral Sense,” Nietzsche famously wrote, “So what, then, is truth? It is a mobile army of metaphors.” This didn’t mean, as Wehner asserts, an indifference to truth, but rather a strong appreciation of its slipperiness and inherent instability. Truth was out there, but it was fluid and recognizable only from specific perspectives.

Nietzsche’s thought reminds me of the younger Karl Marx, who in 1848 wrote, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Marx referred here to the devastating effects capitalist economies had on work, families, and religion, or, as he wrote, the “real conditions of life.” Like Marx, though from a very different perspective and with quite different (often nefarious) consequences, Nietzsche sensed how the modern world, the world we still live in, undermined truth and power. This is far from the world of Donald Trump, who speaks with an arrogance that would have made Nietzsche cringe.

It is important to understand what historical precedents undergird our Presidential candidates’ rhetoric, but we also need to get these precedents right. Trump is no Nietzschean, just as he is no Christian. If Nietzsche met Trump, would he shake his hand? No, the philosopher would turn his back and walk away, muttering like the precocious curmudgeon he was.

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Hardboiled

Microfiction, or sudden fiction, often 250 words or less, continues to fascinate me. I just had one of my pieces published in Microfiction Monday (Issue 49) this morning. My thanks to the editor, Gayle Towell, who made a suggestion that considerably improved this piece. See link to the magazine below.

He puts the water on, drops in two large brown eggs from the co-op, organic, free-range, opens his digital edition of the Times, reads that wildfires are devastating a part of the San Gabriel Valley and Britain has left the European Union, he hears the water boiling, there was a bloody riot in a private prison in Texas, of course, and oh, the plight of Syrian refugees, then he remembers he forgot to set the timer, takes the eggs off, submerges them in cold water, cracks one open, and damn, it’s undercooked.

Read more here.

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A Short Story for the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

Today is the centenary of the start of the largest battle of World War I, the Battle of the Somme, in which more than a million soldiers were killed or wounded. Kipling’s “The Gardener” was first published in McCall’s Magazine in April, 1925, after a visit to a military cemetery in Bois Guillaume near Rouen. For the story’s genesis, see here.

Click to return to 'The Heritage'
British women tending war graves in France


The Gardener

By Rudyard Kipling

Every one in the village knew that Helen Turrell did her duty by all her world, and by none more honourably than by her only brother’s unfortunate child. The village knew, too, that George Turrell had tried his family severely since early youth, and were not surprised to be told that, after many fresh starts given and thrown away he, an Inspector of Indian Police, had entangled himself with the daughter of a retired non-commissioned officer, and had died of a fall from a horse a few weeks before his child was born.

Mercifully, George’s father and mother were both dead, and though Helen, thirtyfive and independent, might well have washed her hands of the whole disgraceful affair, she most nobly took charge, though she was, at the time, under threat of lung trouble which had driven her to the south of France. She arranged for the passage of the child and a nurse from Bombay, met them at Marseilles, nursed the baby through an attack of infantile dysentery due the carelessness of the nurse, whom she had had to dismiss, and at last, thin and worn but triumphant, brought the boy late in the autumn, wholly restored, to her Hampshire home.

All these details were public property, for Helen was as open as the day, and held that scandals are only increased by hushing then up. She admitted that George had always been rather a black sheep, but things might have been much worse if the mother had insisted on her right to keep the boy. Luckily, it seemed that people of that class would do almost anything for money, and, as George had always turned to her in his scrapes, she felt herself justified – her friends agreed with her – in cutting the whole non-commissioned officer connection, and giving the child every advantage. A christening, by the Rector, under the name of Michael, was the first step. So far as she knew herself, she was not, she said, a child-lover, but, for all her faults, she had been very fond of George, and she pointed out that little Michael had his father’s mouth to a line; which made something to build upon.

As a matter of fact, it was the Turrell forehead, broad, low, and well-shaped, with the widely spaces eyes beneath it, that Michael had most faithfully reproduced. His mouth was somewhat better cut than the family type. But Helen, who would concede nothing good to his mother’s side, vowed he was a Turrell all over, and, there being no one to contradict, the likeness was established.

In a few years Michael took his place, as accepted as Helen had always been – fearless, philosophical, and fairly good-looking. At six, he wished to know why he could not call her ‘Mummy’, as other boys called their mothers. She explained that she was only his auntie, and that aunties were not quite the same as mummies, but that, if it gave him pleasure, he might call her ‘Mummy’ at bedtime, for a pet-name between themselves.

Michael kept his secret most loyally, but Helen, as usual, explained the fact to her friends; which when Michael heard, he raged.

“Why did you tell? Why did you tell?” came at the end of the storm.

“Because it’s always best to tell the truth”, Helen answered, her arm round him as he shook in his cot.

“All right, but when the troof’s ugly I don’t think it’s nice.”

“Don’t you, dear?”

“No, I don’t and” – she felt the small body stiffen – “now you’ve told, I won’t call you ‘Mummy’ any more – not even at bedtimes.”

“But isn’t that rather unkind?” said Helen softly.

“I don’t care! I don’t care! You have hurted me in my insides and I’ll hurt you back. I’ll hurt you as long as I live!”

“Don’t, oh, don’t talk like that, dear! You don’t know what – “

“I will! And when I’m dead I’ll hurt you worse!”

“Thank goodness, I shall be dead long before you, darling.”

“Huh! Emma says, ‘Never know your luck’.” (Michael had been talking to Helen’s elderly, flat-faces maid.) “Lots of little boys die quite soon. So’ll I. Then you’ll see!”

Helen caught her breath and moved towards the door, but the wail of ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ drew her back again, and the two wept together.

At ten years old, after two terms at a prep. school, something or somebody gave him the idea that his civil status was not quite regular. He attacked Helen on the subject, breaking down her stammered defences with the family directness.

“Don’t believe a word of it”, he said, cheerily, at the end. “People wouldn’t have talked like they did if my people had been married. But don’t you bother, Auntie. I’ve found out all about my sort in English Hist’ry and the Shakespeare bits. There was William the Conqueror to begin with, and – oh, heaps more, and they all got on first-rate. ‘Twon’t make any difference to you, by being that – will it?”

“As if anything could – ” she began.

“All right. We won’t talk about it any more if it makes you cry”. He never mentioned the thing again of his own will, but when, two years later, he skilfully managed to have measles in the holidays, as his temperature went up tot the appointed one hundred and four he muttered of nothing else, till Helen’s voice, piercing at last his delirium, reached him with assurance that nothing on earth or beyond could make any difference between them.

The terms at his public school and the wonderful Christmas, Easter, and Summer holidays followed each other, variegated and glorious as jewels on a string; and as jewels Helen treasured them. In due time Michael developed his own interests, which ran their courses and gave way to others; but his interest in Helen was constant and increasing throughout. She repaid it with all that she had of affection or could command of counsel and money; and since Michael was no fool, the War took him just before what was like to have been a most promising career.

He was to have gone up to Oxford, with a scholarship, in October. At the end of August he was on the edge of joining the first holocaust of public-school boys who threw themselves into the Line; but the captain of his O.T.C., where he had been sergeant for nearly a year, headed him off and steered him directly to a commission in a battalion so new that half of it still wore the old Army red, and the other half was breeding meningitis through living overcrowdedly in damp tents. Helen had been shocked at the idea of direct enlistment.

“But it’s in the family”, Michael laughed.

“You don’t mean to tell me that you believed that story all this time?” said Helen. (Emma, her maid, had been dead now several years.) “I gave you my word of honour – and I give it again – that – that it’s all right. It is indeed.”

“Oh, that doesn’t worry me. It never did”, he replied valiantly. “What I meant was, I should have got into the show earlier if I’d enlisted – like my grandfather.”

“Don’t talk like that! Are you afraid of its ending so soon, then?”

“No such luck. You know what K. says.”

“Yes. But my banker told me last Monday it couldn’t possibly last beyond Christmas – for financial reasons.”

“I hope he’s right, but our Colonel – and he’s a Regular – say it’s going to be a long job.”

Michael’s battalion was fortunate in that, by some chance which meant several ‘leaves’, it was used for coast-defence among shallow trenches on the Norfolk coast; thence sent north to watch the mouth of a Scotch estuary, and, lastly, held for weeks on a baseless rumour of distant service. But, the very day that Michael was to have met Helen for four whole hours at a railway-junction up the line, it was hurled out, to help make good the wastage of Loos, and he had only just time to send her a wire of farewell.

In France luck again helped the battalion. It was put down near the Salient, where it led a meritorious and unexacting life, while the Somme was being manufactured; and enjoyed the peace of the Armentières and Laventie sectors when that battle began. Finding that it had sound views on protecting its own flanks and could dig, a prudent Commander stole it out of its own Division, under pretence of helping to lay telegraphs, and used it round Ypres at large.

A month later, and just after Michael had written Helen that there was noting special doing and therefore no need to worry, a shell-splinter dropping out of a wet dawn killed him at once. The next shell uprooted and laid down over the body what had been the foundation of a barn wall, so neatly that none but an expert would have guessed that anything unpleasant had happened.

By this time the village was old in experience of war, and, English fashion, had evolved a ritual to meet it. When the postmistress handed her seven-year-old daughter the official telegram to take to Miss Turrell, she observed to the Rector’s gardener: “It’s Miss Helen’s turn now”. He replied, thinking of his own son: “Well, he’s lasted longer than some”. The child herself came to the front-door weeping aloud, because Master Michael had often given her sweets. Helen, presently, found herself pulling down the house-blinds one after one with great care, and saying earnestly to each: “Missing alwaysmeans dead.” Then she took her place in the dreary procession that was impelled to go through an inevitable series of unprofitable emotions. The Rector, of course, preached hope end prophesied word, very soon, from a prison camp. Several friends, too, told her perfectly truthful tales, but always about other women, to whom, after months and months of silence, their missing had been miraculously restored. Other people urged her to communicate with infallible Secretaries of organizations who could communicate with benevolent neutrals, who could extract accurate information from the most secretive of Hun commandants. Helen did and wrote and signed everything that was suggested or put before her.

Once, on one of Michael’s leaves, he had taken her over a munition factory, where she saw the progress of a shell from blank-iron to the all but finished article. It struck her at the time that the wretched thing was never left alone for a single second; and “I’m being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin”, she told herself, as she prepared her documents.

In due course, when all the organizations had deeply or sincerely regretted their inability to trace, etc, something gave way within her and all sensations – save of thankfulness for the release – came to an end in blessed passivity. Michael had died and her world had stood still and she had been one with the full shock of that arrest. Now she was standing still and the world was going forward, but it did not concern her – in no way or relation did it touch her. She knew this by the ease with which she could slip Michael’s name into talk and incline her head to the proper angle, at the proper murmur of sympathy.

In the blessed realization of that relief, the Armistice with all its bells broke over her and passed unheeded. At the end of another year she had overcome her physical loathing of the living and returned young, so that she could take them by the hand and almost sincerely wish them well. She had no interest in any aftermath, national or personal, of the war, but, moving at an immense distance, she sat on various relief committees and held strong views – she heard herself delivering them – about the site of the proposed village War Memorial.

Then there came to her, as next of kin, an official intimation, backed by a page of a letter to her in indelible pencil, a silver identity-disc and a watch, to the effect that the body of Lieutenant Michael Turrell had been found, identified, and re-interred in Hagenzeele Third Military Cemetery – the letter of the row and the grave’s number in that row duly given.

So Helen found herself moved on to another process of the manufacture – to a world full of exultant or broken relatives, now strong in the certainty that there was an altar upon earth where they might lay their love. These soon told her, and by means of time-tables made clear, how easy it was and how little it interfered with life’s affairs to go and see one’s grave.

So different”, as the Rector’s wife said, “if he’d been killed in Mesopotamia, or even Gallipoli.”

The agony of being waked up to some sort of second life drove Helen across the Channel, where, in a new world of abbreviated titles, she learnt that Hagenzeele Third could be comfortably reached by an afternoon train which fitted in with the morning boat, and that there was a comfortable little hotel not three kilometres from Hagenzeele itself, where one could spend quite a comfortable night and see one’s grave next morning. All this she had from a Central Authority who lived in a board and tar-paper shed on the skirts of a razed city of whirling lime-dust and blown papers.

“By the way”, said he, “you know your grave, of course?”

“Yes, thank you”, said Helen, and showed its row and number typed on Michael’s own little typewriter. The officer would have checked it, out of one of his many books; but a large Lancashire woman thrust between them and bade him tell her where she might find her son, who had been corporal in the A.S.C. His proper name, she sobbed, was Anderson, but, coming of respectable folk, he had of course enlisted under the name of Smith; and had been killed at Dickiebush, in early ‘Fifteen. She had not his number nor did she know which of his two Christian names she might have used with his alias; but her Cook’s tourist ticket expired at the end of Easter week, and if by then she could not find her child she should go mad. Whereupon she fell forward on Helen’s breast; but the officer’s wife came out quickly from a little bedroom behind the office, and the three of them lifted the woman on to the cot.

“They are often like this”, said the officer’s wife, loosening the tight bonnet-strings. “Yesterday she said he’d been killed at Hooge. Are you sure you know your grave? It makes such a difference.”

“Yes, thank you”, said Helen, and hurried out before the woman on the bed should begin to lament again.

Tea in a crowded mauve and blue striped wooden structure, with a false front, carried her still further into the nightmare. She paid her bill beside a stolid, plain-featured Englishwoman, who, hearing her inquire about the train to Hagenzeele, volunteered to come with her.

“I’m going to Hagenzeele myself”, she explained. “Not to Hagenzeele Third; mine is Sugar Factory, but they call it La Rosière now. It’s just south of Hagenzeele Three. Have you got your room at the hotel there?”

“Oh yes, thank you, I’ve wired.”

“That’s better. Sometimes the place is quite full, and at others there’s hardly a soul. But they’ve put bathrooms into the old Lion d’Or – that’s the hotel on the west side of Sugar Factory – and it draws off a lot of people, luckily.”

“It’s all new to me. This is the first time I’ve been over.”

“Indeed! This is my ninth time since the Armistice. Not on my own account. I haven’t lost anyone, thank God – but, like everyone else, I’ve lot of friends at home who have. Coming over as often as I do, I find it helps them to have someone just look at the – place and tell them about it afterwards. And one can take photos for them, too. I get quite a list of commissions to execute.” She laughed nervously and tapped her slung Kodak. “There are two or three to see at Sugar Factory this time, and plenty of others in the cemeteries all about. My system is to save them up, and arrange them, you know. And when I’ve got enough commissions for one area to make it worth while, I pop over and execute them. It does comfort people.”

“I suppose so”, Helen answered, shivering as they entered the little train.

“Of course it does. (Isn’t lucky we’ve got windows-seats?) It must do or they wouldn’t ask one to do it, would they? I’ve a list of quite twelve or fifteen commissions here” – she tapped the Kodak again – “I must sort them out tonight. Oh, I forgot to ask you. What’s yours?”

“My nephew”, said Helen. “But I was very fond of him”.

“Ah, yes! I sometimes wonder whether they know after death? What do you think?”

“Oh, I don’t – I haven’t dared to think much about that sort of thing”, said Helen, almost lifting her hands to keep her off.

“Perhaps that’s better”, the woman answered. “The sense of loss must be enough, I expect. Well I won’t worry you any more.”

Helen was grateful, but when they reached the hotel Mrs Scarsworth (they had exchanged names) insisted on dining at the same table with her, and after the meal, in the little, hideous salon full of low-voiced relatives, took Helen through her ‘commissions’ with biographies of the dead, where she happened to know them, and sketches of their next of kin. Helen endured till nearly half-past nine, ere she fled to her room.

Almost at one there was a knock at her door and Mrs Scarsworth entered; her hands, holding the dreadful list, clasped before her.

“Yes – yes – I know”, she began. “You’re sick of me, but I want to tell you something. You – you aren’t married, are you? Then perhaps you won’t… But it doesn’t matter. I’ve got to tell someone. I can’t go on any longer like this.”

“But please -” Mrs Scarsworth had backed against the shut door, and her mouth worked dryly.

“In a minute”, she said. “You – you know about these graves of mine I was telling you about downstairs, just now? They really are commissions. At least several of them are.” Here eye wandered round the room. “What extraordinary wall-papers they have in Belgium, don’t you think? … Yes. I swear they are commissions. But there’s one, d’you see, and – and he was more to me than anything else in the world. Do you understand?”

Helen nodded.

“More than anyone else. And, of course, he oughtn’t to have been. He ought to have been nothing to me. But he was. He is. That’s why I do the commissions, you see. That’s all.”

“But why do you tell me?” Helen asked desperately.

“Because I’m so tired of lying. Tired of lying – always lying – year in and year out. When I don’t tell lies I’ve got to act ’em and I’ve got to think ’em, always. You don’t know what that means. He was everything to me that he oughtn’t to have been – the real thing – the only thing that ever happened to me in all my life; and I’ve had to pretend he wasn’t. I’ve had to watch every word I said, and think out what lie I’d tell next, for years and years!”

“How many years?” Helen asked.

“Six years and four months before, and two and three-quarters after. I’ve gone to him eight times, since. Tomorrow I’ll make the ninth, and – and I can’t – I can’t go to him again with nobody in the world knowing. I want to be honest with someone before I go. Do you understand? It doesn’t matter about me. I was never truthful, even as a girl. But it isn’t worthy of him. So – so I – I had to tell you. I can’t keep it up any longer. Oh, I can’t!”

Next morning Mrs Scarsworth left early on her round of commissions, and Helen walked alone to Hagenzeele Third. The place was still in the making, and stood some five or six feet above the metalled road, which it flanked for hundreds of yards. Culverts across a deep ditch served for entrances through the unfinished boundary wall. She climbed a few woodenfaced earthen steps and then met the entire crowded level of the thing in one held breath. She did not know that Hagenzeele Third counted twenty-one thousand dead already. All she saw was a merciless sea of black crosses, bearing little strips of stamped tin at all angles across their faces. She could distinguish no order or arrangement in their mass; nothing but a waist-high wilderness as of weeds stricken dead, rushing at her. She went forward, moved to the left and the right hopelessly, wondering by what guidance she should ever come to her own. A great distance away there was a line of whiteness. It proved to be a block of some two or three hundred graves whose headstones had already been set, whose flowers were planted out, and whose new-sown grass showed green. Here she could see clear-cut letters at the ends of the rows, and, referring to her slip, realized that it was not here she must look.

A man knelt behind a line of headstones – evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: “Who are you looking for?”

“Lieutenant Michael Turrell – my nephew”, said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.

The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.

“Come with me”, he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”

When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.

 

 



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Paul Ryan on Guns: “You know, there is a loophole here…”

Paul Ryan’s record on gun control has consisted of one part political cynicism (perhaps reinforced by the fact he’s received $36,800 from the National Rifle Association) and one part disingenuousness. He responded in character this past week  by simply fast-forwarding past the Democrats’ Congressional sit-in on gun violence. Here’s a piece from Amanda Terkel, Senior Political Reporter at Huffington Post, entitled, “Gun Violence Problem Will Follow Paul Ryan Back to Wisconsin,” that makes an important point. There is a gun violence crisis back in Ryan’s hometown, Janesville, Wisconsin, attributable to the increased number of guns in circulation and the passage of one of the Republican party’s most destructive pieces of legislation: conceal-carry. Here’s the text, and a link below.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has rejected Democrats’ efforts to bring a vote on gun control legislation, calling their sit-in on the House floor this week nothing more than a “publicity stunt.”

“This is not trying to come up with a solution to a problem,” Ryan said Wednesday. “This is trying to get attention.”

But the issue likely won’t go away easily, especially because there is strong public support for certain gun control measures. Democrats have promised to continue to bring it up, both in Washington and around the country, as lawmakers go home to their districts for the July 4 recess.

And while Republicans say they don’t like the specific proposals put forward by Democrats, they haven’t coalesced and committed themselves to an alternative.

The issue will follow Ryan back home as well. Ryan’s hometown, Janesville, is about an hour away from Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city. Milwaukee saw a 69 percent increase in homicides from 2014 to 2015, which Police Chief Edward Flynn has attributed to the proliferation of firearms.

“When you dramatically ease the availability of firearms and maintain weak criminal penalties, you of course facilitate the use of deadly violence among those committed to a criminal lifestyle and innocent victims affected by the crossfire,” Flynn said in January.

He has also pointed to the state’s 2011 concealed carry law as a possible contributing factor. And in response to the rise in homicides, the local paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, commissioned a two-year, 100-part series about young people and gun violence.

This week, Democrats wanted votes on legislation that would bar people on the terrorist watch lists from getting guns and another bill that would close background-check loopholes for firearm sales at gun shows and online.

In the past, Ryan has said he’s open to changes to gun laws. In 2013, he called the idea of closing the gun show loophole “reasonable” and “obvious.”

“I think we need to find out how to close these loopholes and do it in such a way that we don’t infringe upon people’s Second Amendment rights,” he said in an interview with Journal-Sentinel’s editorial board.

“We had this issue, 2001, 1999 I think … when I first got into Congress,” he added. “At the time I remember thinking, ‘You know, there is a loophole here. We should address that.’”

Ryan’s office did not return a request for comment.

Eighty-six percent of Americans support preventing suspected terrorists from obtaining firearms, and 62 percent back a ban on the sale of assault rifles.

The Journal-Sentinel weighed in this week and praised Democrats for their sit-in, writing that “to think that the Democrats’ 25-hour protest on the House floor was only a publicity stunt is to devalue it.”

“Congressional inaction on what amounts to a chronic public health issue — gun violence — is deplorable,” the editorial board said. “Congress should listen to the vast majority of the American people and pass bills to limit access to certain weapons and make sure that suspects on terrorist watch lists can’t get their hands legally on guns. Lawmakers also should require universal background checks.”

Opponents of the Democrats’ bills have argued that too many people are swept into the government’s no-fly and terrorist watch lists. It’s hard for people to get off those lists when they’re put on them in error, and they shouldn’t have their Second Amendment rights taken away because of a mistake.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) conceded that their bills are “not perfect” but faulted Republicans for not taking up the issue at all.

“They don’t even want to start that process,” he said Thursday. “We need to go through it and we need to take action.”

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Fascism Depends on Walls

My post on Donald Trump, walls, and fascism just appeared on Huffington Post. Here’s the text and a link to the site.

Donald Trump’s dim understanding of the world is punctuated by brilliant insights. One such example is his promise to build a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border as a part of his immigration plan. Many commentators have condemned the idea as moronic, but is it? In a recent Huffington Post blog, Frank Islam and Ed Crego note that Trump is indeed building a wall, but not of steel and concrete. Instead he makes his structure out of bigotry and hatred. As much as I agree with their statement, I think it misses something deeper about the Trump movement.

There has been plenty of discussion about whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Leaving aside the finer points of this ongoing debate, it is important to note that fascism in its classic era in Europe between the world wars was defined by the creation of walls. As an ultranationalist movement grounded in xenophobia and militarism, fascism saw the nation as an armed camp in need of defense from the outside world. Interwar Europe experienced rising nationalism and economic hardship due to the Great Depression. Countries felt motivated to close themselves to cross-border movement, whether of goods or people or ideas. Under fascism, national borders were not simply legal or economic dividers but markers in an existential struggle, a matter of life and death. Even when individuals crossed national borders, they didn’t really “cross” because national differences were allegedly rooted in people’s essential (usually racial) characteristics. People were not what they did or what they aspired to become but what they were from birth, and no amount of border-crossing changed them.

Under fascism, wall-building took place within national borders as well. Nazism identified Jews as a mortal threat to the nation. Later, Hitler’s anti-Semitism became the touchstone for Nazism’s attempt to reorder Europe along fascist lines. But fascism could and did use any minority useful for rousing fear, anger, and resentment. It’s worth remembering that Social Democrats and Communists were Nazism’s first targets after Hitler gained the Chancellorship. Later homosexuals and Sinti and Roma experienced Nazism’s persecutory drive. Fascism was dynamic and inventive when it came to pinpointing enemies. The regime didn’t worry much if it was inconsistent identifying real or imagined opponents. Nazism attacked Jews because they were said to be an alien race, but when it came to defining who was a Jew and who was not, Hitler’s minions swerved between religious practice and pseudo-science to create their categories of discrimination.

Domestic border-setting was a key source of much of the bile that characterized political rhetoric at the time. Hitler hated to discuss specific issues and policies because such things bored him. Above all, facts and policies lacked the captivating qualities of hateful rhetoric and bullying language. Not deliberation and dialogue but humiliation and ad hominem attacks were fascism’s modus operandi. And as we know, hateful words easily slid into violent action.

It is of more than historical significance to note that fascism didn’t entertain rigid divisions and borders on this point. Hitler and Mussolini wanted fluid movement between words and deeds. Before Hitler took power, his rallies often descended into violence, but this was anything but a misstep or departure from an original plan. Rather, violence stemmed from the nature of the movement and quickly became Germany’s new normal, as normal as mass shootings are today in America. It was the fascist exception that proved a rule: if violent words were prevented from spawning violent action, borders and walls were to be dismantled and bridges built.

The archetypal wall of classic fascism was the barbed wire fence. We know what went on behind those walls. Yet in Germany, where the Nazi regime began building concentration camps immediately after it took power, many citizens accepted such walls as necessary measures for restoring law and order in a society torn by violence the Nazis themselves had nurtured. Later, many Germans were unaware of, or in denial about, the atrocities perpetrated in these places in their name.

When Donald Trump screams “I am building a wall,” he is doing more than creating another sound bite or exploiting Republican-built hatreds toward minorities. With an impressive degree of political instinct, he is tapping into the essential nature of classical fascism. Fascism depends on walls, internal and external. It is a disturbing measure of fascism’s metastasizing presence in America that many voters (and many Republican party leaders) are willing to join Trump’s construction crew.

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Book Notes 2016.3

More random comments on recent reading, from Erdrich to Ligotti, and Ballard to Bulgakov.

J.G. Ballard, High-Rise (Norton, 1975). Striking dystopian/sci-fi by one of Britain’s most important writers of the last century.

J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (Norton, 1962). Compared to some of his later novels, e.g. High-Rise and Crash, this work feels a bit leaden and overfilled with description. But given that it’s a novel about a world grown nearly uninhabitable due to global warming, it is alarmingly prescient more than 50 years after its debut.

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (Vintage International, 1996 [1966]). An unfinished masterpiece of Soviet-era Russian fiction by a writer who never lived to see the publication of his greatest work. Also a fascinating example of Russian magical realism.

Don DeLillo, Americana (Penguin, 1971). I may have read this novel, DeLillo’s first, when I was an undergraduate. On reading it now, I found the first 100 pages as engaging as any fiction I’ve come across in recent years. DeLillo’s remarkable talents are evident in almost every line here. The middle third of the book, mostly backstory, also shines at different moments, and is notable for its commentary on the horrors and hidden darkness of small-town American life. But at a point roughly when the protagonist’s road trip begins in earnest, the narrative quickly descends into a self-indulgent rant full of philosophical bon mots and occasionally insightful comments on American culture at a moment when it was experiencing a hangover from the ‘60s. The language continues to scintillate, and perhaps part of my reaction is due to a feeling that much of what DeLillo has to say here is now seriously dated. I still agree with the author’s key premise: the cinematic image, in all its diversity from film to advertising, has so mutilated American life that any notion of a “true” identity must appear in quotation marks. But is the tortuous ride DeLillo takes his readers on worth the trip? The author’s most recent novel, Zero K, is naturally more mature (DeLillo is now 80 years old), and though it still contains numerous examples of the novelist’s jazz-style improvisations (or passages that read like improvisations), it has a more settled quality even when it unravels the scariest textures of US culture.

Louise Erdrich, LaRose (Harper, 2016). Elegant, lyrical writing; fascinating characters; subtle, complex plot lines; historical texture—everything a reader expects from Erdrich. LaRose is perhaps 50 pages too long, but pacing and characterization pull the reader in their wake and lead to a finely drawn, memorable conclusion.

Mark Haddon, The Pier Falls, and Other Stories (Doubleday, 2016). In the title story to this collection, a pier breaks in half and sends scores of tourists and others to their watery doom in the English Channel. Not individual characters but the disaster itself is the protagonist in this fascinating but frightening tale. Even darker—but with character development and plot—is “Bunny,” which narrates the story of a morbidly obese man who is befriended by a young woman. In these and other stories, Haddon does “dark” as well as any writer out there today.

Allan M. Heller, 40 Frightful Fictions (Night to Dawn Magazine & Books, 2015). The writing is occasionally pedestrian, but this collection shows how flash fiction can establish mood and character in the horror/weird genre.

Heda Margolius Kovály, Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street (Soho Crime, 2015). Heda Kovály’s memoir, Under a Cruel Star, is a gripping account of how the author survived both Auschwitz during World War II and the Stalinist show trials in Communist Hungary. But her talents do not carry over into fiction writing. Channeling Raymond Chandler, whom she once translated, and set in Communist-era Hungary, this mystery lacks punch. The author chose to use hard-boiled language reminiscent of American noir writing of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but in her hands, the pacing and diction seem flat and imitative. I doubt it is a matter of translation. Above all, the author’s attempt to shroud characters and events in a veil of mystery does more to confuse the narrative than to heighten drama. Finally, it is not too much to expect that this novel would give readers insights into the peculiar world of Hungarian Communist society, but this never happens. The main theme of the story—no one is truly innocent and no one can finally be trusted—would just as easily fit Chandler’s or James Cain’s classic noir novels. In short, where’s the “there” there?

Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (Penguin Classics, 2015). Classic dark (very dark) stories by a cult figure in the horror genre. In comparison to Steven King’s entertainer/court-jester persona, Ligotti is the genre’s intellectual because of his attention to form and his philosophical influences. King is embarrassingly superficial compared to Ligotti. Of interest is that the Detroit-born author—again in contrast to King—established his fame writing not full-length novels but short stories and novellas. These tales do not make for pleasant reading, partly because the faux Gothic style, though understandable from a functional standpoint, seems over-stuffed and florid. Still, creepiness seeps through every line and makes Ligotti worth the effort.

 

 

 

 

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A Happiness Shortfall in American Family Life

As a new grandparent, I have become more aware than ever of the challenges faced by young working parents in this country. Our weak social welfare net and belief in an individualism that historically never existed add unnecessary stresses to family life that make Americans’ vaunted commitment to “family values” seem rather weak tea. Refusing to consider rigorous childcare and family leave policies, lawmakers tell young families they must tough it out on their own. This recent piece by Elissa Strauss in Slate, “Surprise, Surprise: American Parents Are the Least Happy Parents in the Western World,” highlights the key issues. You can find the link to the piece below.

For her 2015 book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior expanded her popular New York magazine article looking at why parents tend to be unhappier than non-parents. She chronicles the shift in parenthood over the past century, during which children have become “economically worthless but emotionally priceless,” as sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer put it, and the culture of intensive parenting that has formed around this paradigm. Senior also draws a distinction between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” The former exists in the present moment and would much rather watch television than wrestle his kids into bed. The latter is our inner Proust, whose recollections of the time spent with children fill him or her with far more joy than recollections of time spent with Netflix.

What I took away from Senior’s work is that parental happiness is no less kaleidoscopic than general happiness. It’s shape-shifting and hard to quantify; one’s perception of it depends a lot on the time of day, the weather, and one’s blood sugar levels. But the fact that parental happiness is complicated doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to improve it. New research from sociologists Jennifer Glass, Robin Simon, and Matthew Andersson offers some insight into how that can be done.

 The team compared happiness data from 22 European and English-speaking countries taken from 2006 through 2008. They discovered that the parental “happiness penalty” is not inevitable, and varies substantially from country to country. In some places, including Norway and Hungary, parents are happier than adults without children. The United States, unfortunately, sits much closer to the other end of the spectrum: Parents here, compared to non-parents here, report being the unhappiest of them all. The “happiness shortfall” in the United States was “significantly larger” than the gap found in Great Britain and Australia.

Glass, Simon, and Andersson also compared the relative costs, in time, money, and energy, of raising children in each country and the amount of support given to parents by the government. These include “the duration and generosity of paid parenting leave, the number of annual paid sick and vacation days guaranteed by law, the cost of child care for the average two-year-old as a percent of median wages, and the extent of work schedule flexibility offered to parents of dependent children.” What they found will not come as much of surprise to parents with young children in the United States today.

“The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers, the briefing states (italics in the original). “Countries with better family policy ‘packages’ had no happiness gap between parents and nonparents.”

Not only did parents get a happiness boost from family-friendly government policies, but non-parents reported feeling better, too. They also benefit from guaranteed sick days (children aren’t the only group that gets sick) and vacation days, not to mention the intangible benefit of living among families whose daily life isn’t polluted by instability and fear. Interestingly, monetary government subsidies, whether in the form of child allowances or monthly payments, had less of an effect on happiness than policies that make it easier for parents to combine work and parenting.

The practical burden that a lack of government support puts on parents is obvious. The psychic one, less so. In a recent essay on Literary Hub, writer and Slatecontributor Belle Boggs examines “the loneliness of the working mother or working parent who accommodates our broken child care and parental leave system.” Boggs says this loneliness “comes not from leaving your child, but from trying to make hard, sometimes impossible-feeling work—organizing child care, paying for child care, and working through the times when there is no child care—invisible.” Boggs’ essay focuses on the academic and writing world, but that invisible feeling is not limited to that sphere.

The unhappiness American parents feel isn’t just because of a lack of government support, but the assumption behind it: that we must do everything on our own. So many of us operate this way, rendering our childcare and domestic efforts “invisible,” because that’s what society tells us we should do. If a child gets sick, like mine is right now, we hesitate to talk about it—least of all in professional settings. Last night I was awakened by my flushed and sweaty son at 3 in the morning, and I spent the rest of the night physically accommodating him as he fluctuated between fever and chills. There’s no logical explanation for as to why he never goes to his father’s side of the bed, just that for all our attempts to co-parent, for the equally unconditional love bestowed upon him by both us, he is drawn only to me when he is downtrodden.

These aren’t stories we tend to bring up to colleagues and bosses, no matter than their impact on us, for some good reasons. Such nights are common for parents; feverish children are an ordinary trauma, like dental work or traffic jams. Few are eager to hear the retelling. But another reason we hesitate to tell these stories is that we live in culture that tells us that we are supposed to endure childrearing on our own. The expectation that others should care or accommodate our worn-out bodies is foolish, even uncouth. My sick child is not anyone’s problem but my own, says our lack of a federal paid sick leave policy. My newborn is not anyone’s problem but my own, says our lack of a federal paid parental leave policy. Early childhood education and childcare is not anyone’s problem but my own, says the lack of affordable, high-quality childcare. That the road to happiness is, as the report tells us, paved with more support for parents comes as no surprise at all.

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A Killing Silence

In the wake of the Orlando massacre, this New York Times editorial, “The N.R.A.’s Complicity in Terrorism,” hits the political nail on the head. Find a link to the piece below.

“America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms,” one spokesman for Al Qaeda said in a 2011 recruitment video. “So what are you waiting for?”

Few places on earth make it easier than the United States for a terrorist to buy assault weapons to mow down scores of people in a matter of minutes. The horrific massacre in Orlando last weekend is only the latest example. And all this is made vastly easier by a gun lobby that has blocked sensible safety measures at every turn, and by members of Congress who seem to pledge greater allegiance to the firearms industry than to their own constituencies. There is a word for their role in this form of terrorism:complicity.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats began a filibuster to force a vote on gun-control legislation. If Congress is serious about the threat of terrorists using guns, there are several steps it can take right away.

First, support reasonable efforts to close the so-called terror gap, which would make it harder for suspected terrorists to get their hands on a gun. In December, Congress considered legislation by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and Representative Peter King, a Republican, that would have given the F.B.I. the ability to prevent gun sales to people it had reason to believe might be connected to terrorism. The bill was based on a Bush administration proposal, and versions of it have been pushed for years, but Republicans on Capitol Hill, beholden to the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights organizations, voted it down.

This would be inexplicable under normal circumstances, but now that the Islamic State has openly called on lone-wolf attackers to take their war to the streets of America, it is a full-blown national-security hazard. All those attackers need to do is to buy a gun and swear allegiance to ISIS’ death cult. At least some of them are or have been under F.B.I. investigation, including Omar Mateen, the Orlando killer. If a law like Senator Feinstein’s were in place, authorities would have at least a chance of stopping aspiring terrorists from buying weapons.

Some critics say the government’s terror watch lists sweep up far too many innocent people. But the Feinstein bill allowed law enforcement officials to block a sale only after showing that a prospective gun buyer on the watch list was known or suspected to be involved in terrorism. If blocked, the person could challenge that denial in federal court. (A competing bill introduced by Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, would give authorities only three days to prove that a suspect is about to commit an act of terrorism — a nearly impossible standard to meet.)

Other effective measures include universal background checks to intercept people who are legally barred from gun ownership, like those convicted of domestic abuse and the mentally ill; and limits on magazine capacity, which some states have already enacted. Mr. Mateen was able to kill 49 people largely because the assault rifle he was using could fire 30-round clips as fast as he could pull the trigger. No civilian anywhere should be allowed to have that ability.

What makes the legislative inaction all the more maddening is that there is general public agreement in favor of attempts like these to reduce the bloodshed. An overwhelming majority of Americans — including gun owners and even N.R.A. members — support universal background checks, while strong majorities want to block sales to suspected terrorists and ban high-capacity magazines.

And yet the N.R.A. rejects these steps, even though it says that terrorists shouldn’t be able to get guns. Instead, it clings to the absurd fantasy that a heavily-armed populace is the best way to keep Americans safe. That failed in Orlando, where an armed security guard was on the scene but could not stop the slaughter.

Most of the rest of the world figured this out long ago. But in the United States, the gun industry and its enablers continue to insist that the only solution is more guns, and more bullets flying.

The gun industry lobbyists may be beyond reason, but the lawmakers have a duty to respond to their constituents. Unfortunately, after each new massacre, far too many offer nothing more than condolences and moments of silence. That silence is killing us.

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