Lunch Bites: A Taste Of A Polis Conversation

The Beauty of a Non-Judging Mind

(Welcome Guest Blogger and Polis Instructor/Advisor, Daniel Herman. In today’s blog post, Daniel gives us a taste of what it feels like to be in a Polis class. Read his post and the accompanying (very) short story during your lunch break!)

This morning I’m thinking about one of my very favorite short stories, Tobias Wolff’sBullet in the Brain.

Want to read something amazing on your lunch break? It won’t take longer than ten minutes, and it’s guaranteed to give you something to think about the rest of the day. You can find it here.

Go ahead and read it! We’ll be right here when you come back.

Are you back? Wasn’t that a great story? Okay, let’s talk about it for a minute. The story begins like this:

Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders—a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

Notice how, from just those two sentences, Wolff sets up everything to come in the rest of the story. For example: put much less poetically, I could say something like this: “Anders is a book critic. He went to the bank.” But it’s the word choice that communicates the most important information. Simply by adding the words “of course” in the first sentence, he puts us immediately in Anders’s cynical, misanthropic mindset—which, for example, dismisses the women in front of him as “loud” and “stupid” (contrasted strikingly against Anders himself, who is described as “weary” and “elegant”).

Anders doesn’t review things—he dispatches them, or dismisses them. And this, if you ask me, is what I think the story is really about: our tendency to make judgments—in particular, reflexive, habitual, judgments—about the things we encounter in our lives. Rather than allowing things to exist on their own terms, we filter and interpret them through the prism of our own experience. And those judgments tend to do us more harm than good.

In this case, Anders is thus so thoroughly removed from reality—so incapable of a simple, plain awareness of what’s going on—that when two bank robbers take the bank hostage, he can only experience it as a drama unfolding in real time before him. The robbers remind him of Hemingway’s short story “The Killers.”

Their violent threats, he can only hear as “the stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.” Finally, with a pistol pressed under his chin at his throat, he does a quick flash critique of the garish mythological figures on the bank’s gilded ceiling, and its “fleshy, toga-draped ugliness.” He just can’t stop his chattering, judgmental mind.

So he gets, as the title promises, a bullet in the brain. From there the story takes an abrupt turn, and in the second half there’s little more than a succession of images (of memories, really) from Anders’ life. And each one is an occasion where he was, in fact, able to actually experience an event, and meet reality with simple awareness.

The first two put this into sharp relief, describing the process whereby this hypercriticism took over his mind, and the obvious detriment it caused. First, a memory of “what he had most madly loved about someone…before it came to irritate him.” Next, a memory of his wife, “whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability.” In other words, these women aren’t changing, but rather Anders goes from loving them for who they are to judging and resenting them for who they aren’t. In a memory of his daughter, now a “sullen” professor herself, we find this same world-weary cynicism.

As we continue through Anders’ synapses and neurons, we find the passion he once had for the written word, the richness and beauty it brought to his world: “the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so that he could give himself the shivers at will.” Those poems, Wolff tells us, are gone. So too are the strong emotions they once kindled—ecstasy, agony, pride and fear—the things that, positive or negative, give our lives shape and meaning. Where would we be today without our memories of agonized teenage heartbreak, the buoyancy of achievement and success, the heaviness of grief? For Anders, he’s cut off from experiencing these things, trapped instead in a world where “everything began to remind him of something else.”

But wait! Don’t despair! Wolff pointedly tells us that these are things that he does not remember. The final memory Wolff describes, the one that actually does register in Anders’s final moments, is the crucial one, for it contains within it all the aspects of the others. It goes like this:

This is what Anders remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders; an oppression, like the heat.

See what he’s doing here? First, he sets up bare awareness: “Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects.” It’s all five senses, right there: looking at the field around him, feeling the heat on his skin, hearing the insects, smelling the grass, maybe placing a blade of grass in his teeth to see how it tastes.

Then an argument—whether Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays is the better baseball player. This is exactly the type of argument that comes to consume Anders’ life in later years! And what happens here? It’s an argument which the child Anders finds “tedious,” and “an oppression, like the heat.” Get it? He’s able to just allow things to be what they are, without placing his ideas on them from without.

And here’s the final passage:

Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. “Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all—it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, They is, They is.

So why do I think this is so great? No, it’s not because I’m a grammar nerd, though that doesn’t hurt.

Rather, it seems to me that Wolff is suggesting that even something as technically-founded as grammar, something we can legitimately characterize as “wrong”, even in this the young Anders can be “strangely roused, elated,” by “their pure unexpectedness and their music.”

We can say much the same thing about things that happen to us in ways we don’t want them to — even in things that are logically wrong, even morally wrong — even here we can appreciate “their pure unexpectedness and their music.” We can appreciate the sheer profound beauty of their existence—that even the most miserable and painful events that arise in our lives, a profound wonder that this is what it feels like to be alive. 

Isn’t that something? Even from a story as short as this, we can be reminded to return to the things most important in our lives: how to be happy, how to be nice,  how our past continues to influence and inform our present, how to recapture the joy and openness we had as kids.

This is what the story brings up for me. But I’m sure you read it and were struck by totally different things. This is what Polis is all about—bringing together divergent ideas and having meaningful conversations about a text.

These are the kinds of conversations we aim for in a course at Polis. Together with a group, we dig deeper into things that we ever would alone, simply because we have more viewpoints to consider. Just think of all the questions I haven’t addressed here: Why does Wolff choose those poems in particular? Is there something special about the way he describes his memories? Why does this all take place in a bank?

So much more to explore in just this one short story. Sign up for an October Polis course today!

Daniel Herman

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One Comment on “Lunch Bites: A Taste Of A Polis Conversation”

  1. David Klaus
    October 4, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    wow! thank you for this email.

    I read it, the story, and then it again…

    I loved all of it. I was just talking to my colleague (a man in his late fifties who has lost both parents now) this morning, and he said that now that he has moved back to his home town (in Marin) after years in the East Bay, he finds that in the morning, the smell of the grasses and the angle of the light often remind him of his childhood. Really more than that: they take him back.

    Then seeing the places him mom used to take him brought her back to him as well.

    The story really resonated with me on this part, and I quickly sent it to him.

    thank you. Awesome email.

    I’m going to sign up for a class soon, I promise. But keep these coming!

    sincerely,

    Dave Klaus Bernal Heights

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