Thanksgiving as Adulthood

by Ashley Bales

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I’ve never gone home for Thanksgiving.  Not since ‘going’ became part of the complication.  Certainly, I had many lovely Thanksgivings at home before I left home, but since moving out of my parents’ house I’ve never made the trip back just for the comforts of family and my father’s unbeatable stuffing and pumpkin pie.  Some of my favorite Thanksgivings, however, have been as an adult, with friends and stragglers and all the rest who also found long distance travel a month before Christmas impractical. 

In college, my Thanksgivings were full of friends as broke as I was.  None of us knew how to cook a turkey and setting the table felt like dress-up.  We bought gallons of Carlo Rossi and traded who got to drink out of the one unbroken wine glass.  By grad school I was making stuffing almost as well as my father and amazed my international friends, who had never seen a 20 lb turkey.  My greatest successes were the years when we were all too busy to go home, home was too far.  We were stuck here and I knew what to do with a baster and a carving knife. 

A year after my now husband and I started dating, his parents decided they’d come to New York for the holiday.  This was complicated by my brother, who subsequently announced that while he didn’t have leave for Christmas, he could make it to the west coast for Thanksgiving.  When I explained why I regrettably would not be able to see him, as I was already committed in the east, he joyously insisted he would come to me instead. My mother and step-father quickly joined the caravan.  My place couldn’t accommodate a crowd, so we’d host at my boyfriend Mike’s. The day before, Mike, his mother, her boyfriend and I headed off to buy the groceries with the last of her food stamps.  As we were walking out of the apartment she suggested we check the size of the oven.  I scoffed, she insisted, and I ran in to find an oven not much bigger than a bread box.  There would be no way to cook the turkey in it.  Luckily, my apartment, a mere 4 blocks away, had a beautiful oven.  We’d cook the bird there, and bring it over for dinner. 

The day came.  Timers were set, the parade was on.  Mike and I took turns running over to my apartment to baste the bird.  My mother arrived with chicken soup, and the meeting of the families happened blessedly in my absence, as I frantically basted 4 blocks away.  A friend called at some point to ask if she could bring someone and then showed up with three extra Parisians who sat between the parents and either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English.  My step-father announced that he was vegetarian, when I’d only ever known him to be lazily kosher and Mike ran out to buy fish.  Someone’s dog took a shit on the floor and I managed to carry all 22 lbs of that turkey the four long blocks in a crumpling aluminum pan without dumping it onto the sidewalk.  It was not my favorite Thanksgiving, but it was the first with my husband.

Since, Thanksgivings have become less adventuresome. Friends have enough money to go to their families.  They have families of their own. None of us are playing at adulthood anymore. Worst of all, everyone can cook now, though I can be confident—particularly with the new spatchcocking craze—that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a stuffing as good as mine. 

Happy Thanksgiving.


Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.

When the Robots Come

by Eric Beebe

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Scrolling through Twitter, in bed late on a weekend in October, I found the first notice I’d seen of what some call the future and others have called the end of humanity. Sophia, an android developed by Hanson Robotics, had spoken at a summit as she was granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia. I turned the volume on my phone way down and tried to listen without waking my girlfriend next to me. To grant a robot citizenship was an unprecedented leap, and I wanted to see how much humanity it had taken from a machine to earn such a distinction. Still, I doubted whether the footage would hold my attention for longer than a sound bite. I’d seen enough “marvels” of the future to warrant skepticism, ones that sounded more Microsoft Sam than any semblance of a human. But watching the footage, I was surprised. Yes, there was the element of the uncanny to Sophia’s voice and appearance, but, more than any judgment on where her adaptive artificial intelligence stood, one question took root in my mind: how human will she get?

It’s no secret that plots and stories grappling with this kind of advancement in technology have been influencing our thoughts on the matter for decades now. From early science fiction novels to the flashy blockbusters that proceeded, the question of whether AI and androids are things to be feared or embraced has been more prominent in society than some might recognize. Almost always, these tales include a warning, a hint that humanity should be cautious in advancing technology faster than we can grapple with the repercussions, philosophically or otherwise. In some of the most well-known incarnations , like The Terminator and The Matrix franchises, the warning takes a xenophobic form, assuring viewers that if machines become too much like us—that is, too smart—they must inevitably discover that humans are inferior, unnecessary, and expendable. These plots tap into a deep-seated suspicion of the unfamiliar, which can be twisted all too easily into hysteria. It’s no surprise that common sentiments surrounding the latest developments in AI tend to include at least some notion of, “But how long until it kills us?”

On the opposing end, however, we see cautionary messages about advancement that point the finger at humans and only humans. In plots like those of the video game Fallout 4 or HBO’s TV reboot of Westworld, AI is portrayed as having its capacity for a soul underestimated far more than its threat to the human race. In these, violence on the part of robots is a reaction to human aggression, aggression stemming from an inability to appreciate and respect the sentience of what we’ve created. Whether the androids face enslavement, genocide, or other horrors in these stories, the common factor is an absence of humanity in humans, not AI.

How much of our anxieties about AI are a result of devouring pop culture’s endlessly recycled tropes on technology as our undoing? How many people would fear new creations like Sophia without consuming stories about the evils of Skynet or Agent Smith? Would I have felt compelled to refer to Sophia as “she” rather than “it” if I hadn’t spent hours in a video game aiding the efforts of synthetic humanoids escaping enslavement to live as people? As is expected of art, these stories help to shape our worldview. One can imagine a day when androids are ever-present in our lives, and what then? We may not need to have all the answers now, but if we’re to prepare for when the robots come, we need to take a deeper look at the narratives around us and do what we expect AI to do most: think.


Student Picks: Darnielle, Puterbaugh, Jones

First, a reminder: 

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If you're in New York, join us at McNally Jackson Books in Soho at 7pm to celebrate the third issue of Assignment. We’ll feature readings by Christine Smallwood, Anna Summers, and the winner of the 2017 Assignment MFA Student Writing Contest, David Moloney.


Sarah Foil-- Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle is a salute to a margin of the population that is often overlooked, stereotyped, and laughed at: the people who meet once a week for Dungeons and Dragons with their friends; the people who stay up until 4am in front of their computer screens; the people who have subscriptions at their local comic book stores; the people who sit on the bedroom floor and listen to the same record over and over again.

It’s a maze of a narrative that jumps through the life of Sean Phillips, a deformed recluse and the creator of Trace Italian, a popular mail-in role-play game set in dystopian United States. Scenes alternate between different points in Sean’s life, his depressed childhood, the creation of Trace Italian, and the tragedy of two teens who attempt to follow his game in the real world.

Darnielle’s debut novel is beautiful and heartbreaking. The plot is one that will stay with its readers long after they finish the last page. As a writer, it leaves me striving to do more.

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Eddie Dzialo-- While listening to records with a friend, he told me that music works its way into our DNA and becomes a part of us. Singing it, tapping its rhythms becomes instinctive. Phish is that music for me. Strangely enough, at my first seventh-grade dance, the DJ played “Down with Disease” as the last song of the night. Coming home from Iraq, I was on a satellite phone with my mother trying to find a way to buy tickets for their reunion show at the Hampton Coliseum. My wife and I chose a Phish song for our first dance at our wedding. In Afghanistan, I listened to 40gb of Phish shows I’d stuffed into my iPod before deploying.

Puterbaugh’s biography explains how Phish built a career around fans whose allegiance dwarfs my own. More importantly, it details why someone would follow Phish around for a leg of a summer tour, listening to hours of improvised music, selling grilled cheeses in a parking lot to fund getting to the next show. Phish spent decades learning to speak through a musical language that they invented, a language their fans heard and integrated into their lives. Puterbaugh’s biography conveys deep understanding of that language. 

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Megan Gianniny-- One of my favorite short fiction discoveries this year was the Tor.com novellas, ranging from Lovecraftian retellings to Afro-futurist space adventures. Mapping the Interior by Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones is a quieter story of a boy haunted by the ghost of his father, and the mysterious circumstances of his father’s death before his family left the reservation.

Junior’s story is as much about the struggles of life with a single mother as it is a ghost story. He defends his sickly brother from bullies, faces off against an angry neighbor, and makes up stories about the trash in the yard to pass the time. But when night comes, Junior maps his house to figure out the path his father’s ghost is taking, and what he can do to help his father return to them.

Jones’ ending snuck up on me and was utterly chilling, as good horror should be. But despite the ending, the scariest parts of the story were how the darkness and grief stay with Junior long after the ghostly visits have ended. The dark humanity of Junior’s story is what makes it so powerful, and makes me want to read more by Jones.

Three Details

by Eddie Dzialo

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During the time I was in the Marines, units deployed for seven months, then they trained for seven months in preparation for going back. When I returned to the United States in October of 2008, it was a statistical certainty that I would be back in the Middle East by May of 2009—and I was. Before my second deployment, I was assigned a new platoon. A platoon usually consists of 40 Marines, give or take, and when I took command of it, I had less than 20. People had been sent off to specific schools for training, others had been moved to other units, and the rest had started the process of being discharged because their contractual obligations had been met.

Every few weeks, new Marines would check into my platoon. Shaved heads, rigid, nervous. They’d stand in front of my desk as I went over their files, figuring out where they were from and how well they had performed at the School of Infantry. Most of them were young. They’d just graduated from high school, or they’d left college to join up. I would try to draw out three details about them during our initial conversation. They were married.  They had kids.  They had slept in a van when they were homeless. This way, they were not just machine gunners or riflemen, they were kids who carried pictures of their children around with them in the same shirt pocket every day.

Once, when a new Marine was checking in, I looked through his file and noticed that he was 27 (I was only 24). Because he was several years older than most Marines of his rank, I asked him why he joined at an unusually late age. Without hesitation, he said, “Because I was sick of bagging fucking groceries, sir.” Afterwards, when I would see him during a field exercise, I would think about his answer, and I was proud of him for his conviction.

It’s been nine years since the day I checked that Marine into my platoon, and his response is no less powerful now than it was then. For as complicated as war can be, it’s the tiny moments that become so important.

Before leaving for Afghanistan, I was transferred to another platoon. When we deployed, I wouldn’t be in charge of the person who had quit his job as a grocery bagger to risk his life overseas. And on July 11, 2009, he was killed. He’d been driving a vehicle, and an IED detonated underneath him. His lieutenant, a close friend of mine, had been thrown from the vehicle by the blast. Another Marine lost both his legs and bled out in the helicopter while being transported to a medical facility. Of the three, the lieutenant was the only one to survive.

When I think back on it, I think of all the things that had to happen for that person to be in that vehicle on that day. Four feet to the left, and the vehicle wouldn’t have rolled over the IED. Had they chosen a different route, would things have been different? Would they have been worse? I don’t know, and there will never be anyone to tell me.    


Eric's Workshop

by Phil Lemos

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PROFESSOR: Well, thanks for reading an excerpt from your submission, Eric. That was certainly chilling.  So, I’ll open this to the group now.  What do we like about this?

(Silence)

PROFESSOR: What do we think?  What’s working here?

STUDENT A: I dunno I thought it was kinda ‘meh.’

PROFESSOR: So, two things.  Typically, we want to start with something the author has done well.  And I think if we want to be helpful to Eric, then I think it’s important that we give him more specific, concrete examples of what we’re talking about.  Do we have any examples of what was so ‘meh’?

STUDENT B: I just wasn’t buying it.  First of all, you have this country, Oceania, that isn’t in Australia where Oceania is in real life – it’s like, the entire Western Hemisphere plus England, because this seems to take place in London.  Yet London isn’t part of England?  It’s like, there’s no way this would ever possibly happen.

STUDENT C: Yeah, I’m Canadian, and there’s no way we’re letting Oceania annex us.  

PROFESSOR: OK, let’s talk about world-building.  How does—

STUDENT B:  What is Airstrip One?  Why does Winston live in an airport?

ERIC: He doesn’t live in an airport, Airstrip One is—

PROFESSOR: Remember, Eric, you’re still “in the box.”  You’ll get a chance to address these comments at the end.

STUDENT D: It’s just really hard to suspend disbelief here.

PROFESSOR: Could you elaborate on that?

STUDENT D: These characters believe whatever this Big Brother guy tells them.    He spreads this nonsense like, 2 + 2 = 5, and they’re always talking about how they’re about to win the war, but it never happens and—

STUDENT C: Why do they keep fighting? Who fights a war for 10 or 15 years?

STUDENT D: – and, anyway, the rank and file characters believe everything they’re told.  It’s just really insulting to the intelligence of humans in general.  These prominent people spread whatever factoid they want, and this segment of the population believes it, no questions asked?  That’s not how it works.  People have brains.  They can think critically.

STUDENT C: Wait…I’m confused.  Was Big Brother the president?  Or the host of the TV show?

ERIC: NO!  Big Brother was—

PROFESSOR: Eric, I think I’ve established the rules.  If you continue to interrupt we’re going to have to stop the workshop.

ERIC (muttering under his breath): This is ridiculous.

STUDENT E: Why are they so mad at Emmanuel Goldstein?  And why is it that all the scheming bad guys have to be Jewish?  Like, for once, could the bad guy be German? Or Muslim?

STUDENT C: This is more a comment than a question – you should use a grammar check before you submit these workshop samples, because there were a lot of sloppy grammatical errors.

PROFESSOR: Do you have any examples?

STUDENT C: Well, for starters, Thoughtcrime is two separate words, not one.  “Thought” and “crime.”  Same with doublethink.   

STUDENT A: Yeah, I noticed that too.        

STUDENT B: Me too.

STUDENT C: You’re not using the words correctly.

(Eric crumples up his paper.)

PROFESSOR: Does anybody have any other questions?

STUDENT B: I mean, yeah but, I feel like there are too many questions to go over here.

(Silence)

STUDENT C: You know what this piece needs? More of a Gone With the Wind thing to the love story.

PROFESSOR: OK, so now we can turn thing over to you, Eric.  Do you have any questions for us?

(Silence)

PROFESSOR: Eric? This is your opportunity to address some of the things we discussed about your workshop piece.  You seemed like you had some things to say earlier.

PROFESSOR: Well?

ERIC: Never mind, I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re all beyond hope. (Grabs his papers, gets up from the table and leaves.)