Wildlife

Time passes differently here on the farm. Sometimes I have dreams where we still properly live in Minneapolis, where the duplex is still full of its furniture, and sometimes I’m convinced that we’ve lived here forever, that we’re in fact haunting it, Beetlejuice-style.

We have, in fact, been here for three weeks, which semi-shocks me. Mary, Miles’s mother, assures me that such time-slippage is normal. “You won’t want to leave,” she says. I’m surprised to find that I don’t.

The days all begin with the kittens gamboling impishly over the duvet, begging for Outside Time. We caffeinate; I go to my writing studio (upstairs) and then down to my talking-with-students studio (downstairs). Miles does elaborate things outside with wood, occasionally teaming up with his mom to paint an entire outbuilding while I sit inside, making words at my screen. We eat erratically but cook all our meals ourselves. At night, we have lengthy phone calls with friends or grip each other on the futon, pleasantly terrorized by the next episode of Lovecraft Country, which is so good I just can’t stop talking about it. Then we go to bed, and the next day begins.

I always sort of thought I’d mind it, an unbroken stretch of days like this, punctuated only by a pleasant visit from friends or the changing colors of the trees. It’s nice to find that I don’t.

This isn’t to say, of course, that things aren’t happening all the time.

In no particular order, here are some that have occurred.

1.

The other night, we were sitting out to watch the stars when we saw a ghostly little shape in the trees. Cutely, it rustled. “It’s her,” Miles said giddily, the way he might if (say) Janelle Monae showed up at a bar by surprise.

This is a cat farm, of course; Miles’s mom has a twenty-year history of feeding any strays that arrive at her house across the road, which is how she now owns (I think) nine cats that all circle her in a rambling mass. She is the sun and the cats are the moons.

Still, I didn’t think that we, across the road, would merit such visitors; we feed our cats inside, since it’s often the only way to get them in at night. But there she was, a teeny calico, sniffing about. Miles, being the more outside person of the two of us, had seen her, but she was new to me.

He got a dish of our cats’ abandoned pate, set it down on the concrete walkway, and we waited.

Within twenty minutes, she’d shown up to wolf it down, her little hunched back guarding herself against the world. And I thought that was the end of her, until I came out later to check on her and holy shit, there she was, just sitting at the end of the porch. I sat down, started making kissing noises, and sooner or later she was curling against my hand, letting out little impatient mows. When I glanced up, Miles was open-mouthed in the window, hands pressed against the glass. It reminded me of when I’d tried to introduce him to David Sedaris when I ran his reading, and Miles said, “Oh, gosh, no. Oh, no. I couldn’t,” and scampered.

We have named her Kelly, because she seems pleasantly basic.

2.

Another nocturnal visitor was less pleasant. On Sunday morning, we woke up to find that in the night, someone had snipped the zip ties on my mother-in-law’s massive Biden sign and carted it away. She was, to say the least, vexed.

We golf-carted over and the plot thickened: at the edge of her land, there was now a tiny Trump sign.

Bum bum bum!

Miles was just getting out the requisite equipment to use it for target practice when a pickup rolled up. “I hear someone yanked your sign!” said the man driving it.

Mary said, “Was it you?”

“It really wasn’t,” he said. “You know how I feel, but I’d never take a sign.”

The two of them named likely suspects together for a while. Then he pulled out a replacement Biden/Harris sign and handed it to her through the window, winking. “Though, I might just add one.”

She smacked him on the arm through the window as the Trump sign in question rested next to the pile of rifles.

“I was wondering when you’d notice,” he said. “It’s been up for weeks.”

Mary whapped him once more for good measure.

And then he went off on a mission to find her stolen Biden sign, returning eventually with an even more massive one in the bed of his pickup.

3.

I’ve already written on Facebook about turning up at what I thought was a liquor store to find it instead a bar jammed tight with the great unmasked masses, but I thought we’d be safe in Cottonwood, as that gas station is a stringent requirer of face coverings. It was not to be: on Wednesday night, Miles and I, sick of cooking for ourselves, ventured to the bar there in pursuit of a dirty chicken sandwich, and found that it was also packed with people who looked at us funny for wearing masks. The complicating factor was that Miles knew lots of them from high school.

We scuttled to the porch and sat feet apart from the other people there, all of whom Miles of course also knew. Eventually the conversation veered, as it will, to politics. Everyone on the porch declared themselves an independent, saying “I’m not voting for either one of them, I’m writing in Van Halen,” which I guess is preferable to one alternative, but I was surprised that all of them believed this and were our age.

One guy, however, said, “Man, FUCK Biden,” and drew breath.

And Miles, who is always quick with this sort of thing, said, “Dude, do we really want to go there right now?”

I said, “Yeah, man. You know what we believe. I mean, look at us.” I gestured to Miles’s techno sweatshirt and my embroidered Keds. “Didn’t you just hear that we moved here from Northeast?”

There was a moment of tension, and then everyone started talking about the puppy instead.

I did regret, later, that we hadn’t used the moment to Open a Dialogue, but I really don’t think anyone has ever been successfully canvassed by a righteous lefty while sitting on the patio of LeRoy’s. Perhaps it was enough that we were there, stuffing chicken in our faces Just Like Everyone Else, while being our openly leftist selves, every cell of us vibrating with fuck Trump, fuck that fucking guy.

4.

Two weeks ago, we met a guy who’d lost his finger in a workplace accident – the right ring, just below the knuckle. He’d watched it actually travel away from him on a conveyor belt, sailing off to where the boxes were packing themselves, and thought it’d end up in Florida (the destination of the materials) until a colleague further down the line found it, fainting in the process.

And now here he was, sitting in our clubhouse, 5′ up on a ladder, helping Miles put in a 2×4 to stabilize the TV that plays VCRs.

Where, I asked him, was the finger now?

He jerked his bandaged hand, balancing the TV with the other. “Oh, it’s in my car.”

“That car,” I said. “The one that’s right there.”

“Yup. In a paper bag.”

I now know how much begging is polite when asking to see someone’s severed finger, and the answer is: none. You just have to sit there, knowing it exists, and be glad that at least dude can still play guitar.

5.

Miles is currently in the Cities helping his dad pack up their house, and I’m home alone, which is why this blog post is so long. The cats are good company, especially Kelly, who showed up last night, prancing over with an entitled air to eat more Wet Food. I sat on the porch with her, stroking her little curved back after she’d eaten, and then went inside, leaving her some dry food too, just because she is good.

A bit later, in between episodes of Pen15, I wandered by the door and looked out.

Kelly had transformed.

She was still eating; she’d splashed her water bowl everywhere, even. Only now she was massive, and dark-furred, and stripey, and… ominous.

With shaking hands I captured a picture of it, the skunk that was just going to town on Kelly’s food. I didn’t realize until later that Kelly had not in fact transformed: she was instead curled on the porch loveseat, bravely watching Antifa Skunk destroy her land and livelihood. We both froze, not wanting to startle it. I think I actually hid under the window so I couldn’t watch it happen.

But eventually I looked up, and Bad Boy Diva Skunk was gone, and Kelly was sitting there, and we conversed, shaken, until I was ready to go to bed.

That’s the news from Wood Lake, where all the women say that you don’t have to wear your mask in this bar, all the men drink either Miller Lite or Bud and have strong opinions about the differences between each, and all the children are cats.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What’s Cookin’ in the Rural Township?

As a child, I remember saying faux-modestly to people on the playground, “My grandmother writes the Morrison County Record’s recipe column. You know, Vangie Gwost?” No one had, of course, heard of her, a) because we were children and b) because we lived quite far from Morrison County, but still I persevered. To me, my grandmother was famous. Every time I came across a paper with her byline in it, I’d stare at her tiny picture, a black-and-white newspaper version of the grandma I knew.

(There are a lot of interesting segues.)

She wrote that column for fifteen years, from 1981-1996. For the entire time she was doing so, she technically was retired – she’d walked into the paper’s office on a whim, wanting something to do in her golden years, and moved from “freelance proofreader” to “person who spends most hours of every week collecting recipes, sifting through her various piles of paper, making food that may or may not work out, badgering her husband to clean the kitchen, and calling strangers to ask them about their lives.” From what I can tell, the level of work she put into it was downright deranged; I also think she wouldn’t have had it any other way. Grandma did not half-ass.

Though I remember reading her column as a child, I hadn’t encountered it as an adult until my mother, last year, set about meticulously scanning all of it and putting it into book form. Now, the semi-collected oeuvre of What’s Cookin’ in the County? rests on my dining room table; every time I sit down to eat a solo meal, I get to hang out with my grandmother for a while.

(My relatives have assured me: it is an understatement to say that my grandparents liked to party.)

Intellectually I had known that she was a person who just could not. stop. working, but the column makes that very clear: the post-Depression hustle is strong in this one. Vangie has made every recipe, personally called its submitter to offer them Record Bucks (a form of town currency?? I don’t know) as a reward for participating, and in the process has learned quite a lot about everyone’s lives. “I had a real pleasant conversation with Katherine Zuleger,” she says on July 27, 1981. “She is a widow, and lives with her two sons on a farm outside of Little Rock. She celebrated her 69th birthday last Saturday and doesn’t sound like she will ever stop doing interesting things.” She goes on to tell us all about Ms. Zuleger’s love for quilting competitions (“before her eyesight began to fail,” notes Vangie sadly), card parties, and frozen bread dough.

As a turgid millennial, I’m a little embarrassed at how active everyone around her is. They’re as well-rounded as teens submitting college applications. I think part of this was due to her writing style. Vangie’s able to make the people around her sound like fascinating creators, avid workers, people who live in a small town and never stop trying to make it better. This is a sentiment that’s a little more earnest than I normally am, but still: what a treasure this must have been for people who, as a rule, lived their lives out of print. For a few inches of newspaper column, they must have felt proud of themselves and frightfully seen.

(Grandma loses the Beef Cook-Off in 1981 and is almost hilariously bitter about it for the remaining 15 years of her column.)

By the time I knew her, Grandma was at the beginning of a lengthy sink into dementia. She was still full of furious activity, but she found herself unable to remember the ends of things; in the column, she’d always left out an ingredient here and there (I love her week-later corrections the most; “Have you already discovered that the sugar and salt were missing in last week’s Zucchini Carrot Bread? The recipe proofreader (me) slipped up on that one,” she notes guiltily in August 1982), but now her creations weren’t always edible. I particularly recall one incident where she mistook salt for dishwashing powder, and served the resulting soup to us in Tupperware. She stopped writing the column when I was seven, and for the next fourteen years, she shifted from verbosity into nonsensicality into silence. Though I only ever knew her as someone who had Alzheimer’s, it was still hard to watch; I knew this person wasn’t her precisely, but wasn’t sure what the her were mourning had really been like.

So I’m really grateful that my mom took it upon herself to organize these. And, though I may not be a shining country example of womanhood (holy shit, I think, reading the descriptions of some of these people, how do they have time?), now that we’ve moved to the country, I’ve been making baby steps into cooking more.

Part of this is, of course, not really by choice. Miles and I now live on his farm in Wood Lake, MN, between Marshall and Granite Falls. The estate itself is perfectly bucolic. The towns around, well… they make Little Falls look like Minneapolis, and a person cannot really UberEats herself things while meeting with students over Zoom anymore. Our friends visit on occasion, but by and large, we’re left to ourselves. It’s surprising to me that I don’t mind this – I might be less of an extrovert than I thought.

I’ve spent a lot more time writing, and we’re pondering some Internet-type projects, including a YouTube series in which I make some of the more downright insane recipes from Grandma’s column and feed them to Miles. (I have no idea how Jell-O and salad dressing and cabbage can possibly fit together, but I’m willing to try.)

(NO)

And I have written this column, which is about the length of Vangie’s columns (for real), in order to share with my friend Elizabeth / the rest of the world my recipe for hearty stew, which I came up with while living in a cold apartment in Germany and petsitting a massive deaf sheepdog. She asked for it, and I started texting it to her, and then realized that – like my grandmother – I am not exactly a brevity-filled person.

What can I say? A recipe must, I’ve learned, be preceded by chatter.

SHEEPDOG STEW

Olive oil

An onion, chopped

Garlic

1-2 lb stew meat (Aldi has this, Elizabeth, even though I know how you feel about Aldi)

Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil, then simmer onions for a bit, til soft. Add the stew meat, then salt and pepper it, stirring. Add some chopped garlic – whatever’s clever, amount-wise. This stew isn’t too big on exactitude.

Once the stew is no longer pink and looks near about cooked, take either 1 beer or a cup of red wine, depending on what’s around, and add it. (As Grandma would say, “Keep some for the cook! (hic)”) Let it reduce til it no longer looks like straight-up beer or wine, just a fun soupy broth. Then add 1 can of tomato paste.

If you have fresh herbs, put some of them in now. I added chopped sage, marjoram, rosemary, basil, and thyme. I recognize that not everyone has a Mary next door with an herb garden, so this part is up to you. I hate when people get ridiculous about Fresh Herbs, but they do help.

Hooray, you have stock! Add a few cups of water and let it heat.

Once your stew is boiling, add the tougher vegetables: half a pack of peeled and chopped carrots, a few pounds of baby potatoes, some stalks of chopped celery, and a pepper or two. More onion is also fine. Again, this stew will accept many, many vegetables – it’s all about what’s in your fridge, though zucchini can get a little weird and stringy if cooked for too long.

You’re almost there! Have a beer while it heats. Vibe in the kitchen and just kind of keep an eye on that stew, salting and peppering it as you go.

When it’s boiling and the vegetables have softened, you can add a few spoonfuls of brown sugar (it’ll sweeten it), then squeeze a lemon over it. Keep adding water if it’s too thick. At this stage, you can also add any tomatoes you’ve got kicking around – ones that have weird bits are good for this if you cut the weird bits off. This phase can last as long as you like; short stew will take about an hour, and long stew can chill on your stovetop all day.

Finally, once it seems like all the vegetables are cooked and you’re maybe 10 minutes away from eating, you can add a bag of chopped kale. Salt again, then squeeze another lemon over it. Once the kale’s wilty, you are ready to eat.

Oh my god, recipe writing is much harder than I realized it was. Like Grandma, Elizabeth, I have likely left something out. If it tastes wrong, please tell me, and I will grant you my own version of Record Bucks, whatever that is.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Further Up and Further In: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

For about a decade now, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History has been one of the titles I’ll rattle off if asked to name my favorite novel. “Oh, it’s wonderful,” I always say, but when pressed, I’m usually unable to reveal much of the plot. “Well,” I’ll say, “it’s about – boarding school, you see, and the classics, and murder.”

“Murder?” people sometimes ask.

“Yes, but it’s a very lovely murder.”

“Okay…”

“Wait, maybe there’s more than one? Anyway, a group of friends all hang out together, and then they start killing.”

“Like Fight Club,” the person who’s asked me might supply, helpfully.

“Not quite. It’s fancier. The killing isn’t really the point, though. The point is more that everyone has great clothes and they drink a lot.”

“Well, okay,” people say politely. “Sure. That sounds fun.”

It’s not so much that I’m terrible at summarizing books – I could handily win a pub trivia night on The Magicians, and I can rattle off all of Amy’s tricks in Gone Girl. It’s more that The Secret History, though I’ve read it at least twice, is more about atmosphere than anything: about a world so lush and entrancing that you’ll do anything to belong to it. The beauty is the point. The killing is, it seems, just incidental.

The narrator of The Secret History is Richard Papen, a man whose name I believe I can forgive myself for not remembering until this, my third reread. Papen’s favorite novel is The Great Gatsby; he once, in narration, mournfully compares himself to Gatsby, since Papen too is a social climber who comes from unremarkable origins, but this is ironic, since Papen as a narrator is much more of a Nick Carraway (another elided-ass narrator whose name I can never remember without Googling).

Papen has this to say about his childhood in California: that he can’t remember much about it except:

“… a certain mood that permeated most of (those years), a melancholy feeling that I associate with watching ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ on Sunday nights. Sunday was a sad day – early to bed, school the next morning, I was constantly worried my homework was wrong – but as I watched the fireworks go off in the night sky, over the floodlit castles of Disneyland, I was consumed by a more general sense of dread, of imprisonment within the dreary round of school and home: circumstances which, to me at least, presented sound empirical argument for gloom. My father was mean, and our house ugly, and my mother didn’t pay too much attention to me; my clothes were cheap and my haircut too short and no one at school seemed to like me that much; and since all this had been true for as long as I could remember, I felt things would doubtless continue in this depressing vein as far as I could foresee.”

He’s spent his life longing, but until he – on a whim – applies to Hampden, an elite Vermont liberal arts college, that longing hasn’t had an object. Only when he arrives does he believe he finally knows what he’s been wanting. He falls in love with the campus, the apple-cheeked girls walking, his homelike dorm room with its high ceilings.

Almost immediately, of course, he’s dissatisfied.

The Secret History is about elitism, about climbing up and up and up in pursuit of a truer reality; it’s about echelons, about scaling one peak to discover that the true summit is further up and further in. At Hampden, Papen wants to continue studying Greek, but the only professor who teaches it is a strange sort; his class is only five large, and, as he tells Papen, seeming sad, it’s already too full. His students must drop most other classes, learning exclusively from him in his un-classroom-like classroom, which is filled in all seasons with hothouse flowers. There’s no room for Richard in the exclusive classics major bunch.

Papen, of course, cannot take no for an answer. When he overhears the five students debating declensions in the library, he pops in to suggest the locative case, and suddenly there’s room for him in the class.

(I feel obliged, here, to mention that I myself have never taken Latin or Greek, but that everyone I know who has studied them has been perfectly lovely and have, to my knowledge, never murdered anyone.)

He regrets his decision, a bit; the other students aren’t exactly the most welcoming. Bunny, the one who will be sacrificed (we’re told of his murder on the first page, and the rest of the novel is a study in why), is a blithe rich jock, terrible with money but obsessed with class. Henry is a polyglot with a glass eye and an off-putting manner. Francis is foppish and handsome and mysterious. Camilla and Charles, two beautiful twins, wear only white and look as if they’ve emerged from a Renaissance painting.

At first, Papen is sure that they’ll sniff him out as an impostor. He expends a lot of energy thinking about clothes while fighting off a near-constant hangover, worried about the impression he’s giving off. (It’s no wonder I like this book: that’s pretty much how I constantly felt at Iowa.) Everyone in the class is possessed of a quiet certainty: they are deserving members of the most exclusive society at an already-exclusive college, and they’ve agreed to have very little to do with the rest of the world. (At one point, Henry is stunned to learn – from Papen – that men have actually landed on the moon. “No, they didn’t,” he says. “When?”) And this is what’s going to hurt them, in the end.

 

 

Lately, especially in reference to policing, my future father-in-law has been fond of referencing Animal Farm. “All pigs are equal,” he says, “but some are more equal than others.”

The Secret History is a novel about that belief – about how this small group of classics majors become convinced that their lives simply matter more than the others around them — that by dint of their talent and youth and wealth and beauty, they are simply more human, more real.

This, of course, is what’s going to lead them to their murders: the secret Bacchanalian forest revelries in which they tear people apart with their bare hands, all in pursuit of a wildness that their professor has told them is the sole truth of the world.

“The more cultivated a person is, the more intelligent, the more repressed, then the more he needs some method of channeling the primitive impulses he’s worked so hard to subdue. Otherwise those powerful old forces will mass and strengthen until they are violent enough to break free, more violent for the delay, often strong enough to sweep the will away entirely,” Julian says, twinkling. He’s not warning them against these impulses; he’s celebrating them, albeit in subtext.

Some animals are more equal than others, Papen learns. And sometimes to be counted as one of those equals, one of the people who truly matter, you’ve got to push your friend off a cliff and walk away.

The novel wouldn’t work if we weren’t granted other perspectives, glimpses into what these people truly are. Tartt manages to make her narrator condescending and dismissive, but not enough that he’s successful in drowning out side characters, loud voices like the magnificently-named Judy Poovey, a costume designer with rock-hard abs and a crush on Papen. While brushing her teeth in the dorm kitchen sink, she warns him about the clique he’s fallen into. She tells him about how, at a party last year, she tossed her drink into Camilla’s face; it started a fight, and she was startled to find that the Latin and Greek nerds absolutely trounced her two-hundred-pound biker friend. “I guess when uptight people like that get mad, they get really mad,” she says, and then adds, “Like my father.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Papen says, looking into the mirror and adjusting the knot in his tie.

He’s warned by other people, too; in each one of those warnings, the characters delivering them allude in some way to their own interior life. Real life is happening all around Richard Papen, but he’s too obsessed with his own ego, with the pursuit of his ideal of a rich and true world, to notice – or to realize how many, many chances he has to turn back from what he’ll eventually do.

At the end of their conversation, Judy Poovey notices that Richard’s jacket is too warm for the weather, so she goes to her room and gets him a proper one that she was meaning to rip up and use.

“The jacket, unexpectedly, was wonderful,” Richard says, “old Brooks Brothers, unlined silk, ivory with stripes of peacock green.”

Optimistic, he runs off to his lunch date with Bunny.

“Lovely piece,” Bunny says, rubbing the rich, yellowy cloth. “Not quite the thing for this time of year, though.”

That’s the game, of course – no beauty, for these people, is ever quite good enough.

 

I realize that it’s a little weird that I chose, today, to write about a novel that came out nearly thirty years ago. In terms of The Secret History, there’s no news; they aren’t making a movie out of it (after a few failed attempts, it’s rumored that Tartt isn’t interested in selling the rights), and I can’t see any way a sequel would work. Plus, it does feel strange, in these times, to relax cozily into a tale of wealthy white people reading ancient literature in gorgeous rooms (then doing a murder or two, just for kicks).

I think it’s important, though, to think about comfort and its prices, and to ponder how exactly people become convinced that they’re the most powerful and important entities in the world. And The Secret History does this so well that I, like Papen, can’t help but watch.

 

 

*Also, look at how cool Donna Tartt is. I need that suit, I need that bob, I need it all.

**”All,” in this case, being zero social media presence, as well as a longstanding friendship/rivalry with Bret Easton Ellis.

d-tartt

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Bougie Test Prep Tutor Speaks

A lot of noise has been made about the rough ride that this year’s high school seniors are having, and it’s merited. Their graduation ceremonies have been strange drive-through affairs, a parade of SUVs with the windows rolled up, black caps barely visible. Their parties have been tiny barbecues laced with a sauce of anxiety. These are tiny disasters, in the scale of things, but they do matter quite a lot for the people living them, who are being sent into an uncertain world with less preparation than usual.

I’d like to make some noise, though, for the poor high-school sophomores and juniors.

In my experience, this is when people start figuring themselves out. It took me that long to find a friend group I enjoyed (if only I could go back in time and shout at my freshman self: do the student-run Shakespeare plays, Jessie, not the school-produced overly-patriotic musicals!), and to figure out how to (at least sort of) study for the AP math classes I’d for some reason signed up for.

It’s also, of course, when you take The Tests — Those Tests — the Numbers that Determine One’s Future, dystopia-style.

I’ve been quiet on the Internet about my current job. Partly it’s out of guilt – not only am I still employed, unlike so many others, but I’m at least slightly complicit in the system that privileges those who can pay for help – and partly it’s because people’s eyes glaze over when I start talking about the ACT and SAT. Most people do not like standardized tests as much as I do, and I appreciate that fact. Most people just want to get through them.

HOWEVER!

I’ve been working with students for a year and a half now, and I’ve got to say that helping people boost their scores on the English-y components of these exams has taught me quite a lot about… well, not just clauses and apostrophes and misplaced modifiers, but humans as a whole.

Are there parts of my job I don’t love? Absolutely. I’m ceaselessly emailing (and always end up using too many exclamation marks and smiley faces). I’m often in a desk chair for far too long and sit strangely and one of my legs goes numb. I know way, way too much about ants, because the ACT is, for some reason, obsessed.

Still, I feel lucky every day to have found out how much I like forcing high schoolers to numerically improve their performance on a (rigged, biased, fallible) test.

This is payback, partly. As a teen, I was awful at studying. I focused only on what I was good at, and resented having to do anything else. I was good at standardized tests, though, which gave me an unfair advantage; not only did it pay for my college, it let the teachers reluctantly allow me to read under my desk while they talked about facts. As I tell the kids, it’s not so much that I’ve mastered the tests’ content – it’s more that I’m good at knowing how questions are asked. Plus, I find it deeply pleasurable to be right, as anyone who knows me can attest.

But I don’t think I knew, before starting this job, what it looks like to improve.

Some kids come to me in despair. They take a practice test. The Numbers are not good. They say sheepishly, “I’m a slow reader.” Or: “I’m bad at grammar.” Or: “I hate tests in general.” They look beaten down, daunted by the massive manual of ACTs we’ve given them; they’re sure they’ll never know comma rules, or make it through the Reading section in time.

And then – if they’re trying, even a little bit? – there comes this moment in which the despair lifts.

The great, and somewhat crappy, thing about the ACT and SAT is that with enough help, anyone can learn to rock them.

What this means for the country as a whole is that our system is fundamentally unequal. The private-school kids I teach, all of whom have had intense help with reading, who show up with notebooks and pens, who have cars so they can get to the tutoring center, whose parents can afford to spend hours on the phone with me talking about their child’s needs, who have the necessary documentation to push for time-and-a-half?

I know they’ll be fine. They will be, because I am here, pointing out the mistakes they keep making with optional clauses and that shitty “first chronologically” question in Reading. No matter how anxious they are, how stressed about the Number: they can be pushed to figure it out, and I will be blessed with the moment of relief that comes the first time they score in the thirties.

Not everyone is a good test-taker, yes, but with enough help and enough practice, anyone can become one. That’s what I’ve learned about humanity in this year and a half.

Some take more time than others; everyone requires a different approach. With some students, it’s best to sit back and be quiet and let them figure it out, and with others, you’ve got to launch into lengthy explanations and make jokes. But everyone can get it.

This is why I get angry when it’s suggested that throwing money at schools won’t solve the problems with them. It will. If you had enough money, you could pair every high schooler with a mercenary tutor like me, and they would improve. It has happened with every single person I’ve ever taught, and by my count, this year and last, I’m up to at least 300 of them. There is no person on this earth who would not get better with someone who was paid to, for an hour or so a week, sit down with them and explain where it is they’ve gone wrong.

 

Last night, in a tutoring session, I was talking loosely about the very few English mistakes with one of the brightest kids I’ve had — we veered off, for a time, into chatting about his swim-coaching job and about the silica aerogel featured in the passage — when he frowned at his screen. I was wondering what it was I’d said, but it turned out it was an email that’d just popped up: he’d been booted from the July test he’d signed up for. Social distancing, it turned out, would not be possible if he showed up.

“No,” he gasped. “Noooo!”

Pour one out for the poor juniors, everyone. These kids were supposed to test in April. April was canceled entirely. Merrily they signed up for June. Alas, June’s test was not to be. “July,” I kept saying to them. “I’m sure July will happen.”

It is happening for some of them. For those who signed up later, though, they’re out of luck. The ACT is prioritizing seniors, also – people who still have to take this by fall or else they can’t go to college – and so many people who started early, figuring that they’d knock it out and move on with their final year, are out of luck.

What is it saying about American society that we’re putting so much sustained, gradual pressure on people to take a test that keeps not even happening? That we’re saying, “You’ve got to do this – and score well – or else you won’t succeed as an adult,” and then yanking it away from them?

Circumstances demand it, of course; we don’t want anyone getting coronavirus while struggling with semicolons. It just sucks, though, and I feel like possibly the people responsible could have figured something out by now. The constantly-canceled tests seem like a microcosm of the country as a whole: you need to do this, you need to do that, the administration is saying, and people are trying their best to survive, but the stimulus checks are done and they have no way of making rent. Unless, of course, they happen to be like many of the families I know: who have come out on top, and who can still afford pretty much everything.

 

I’ve made my peace with the way in which my job perpetuates the wealth gap. The fact is, there’s a glut of writers and not a lot of jobs for us; if we like money, we’re shunted into advertising or corporate communications, and teaching kids feels better than that. If we resolve to help fight for change, we work for the nonprofits and publishing houses that are first on the chopping block. If we teach in the public school system, we’re at the mercy of Betsy DeVos. Basically, it’s either this or learn to code, and I don’t really feel like doing that.

There’s also the fact that it just feels good. As a person who liked standardized tests when she took them, helping someone else succeed: it scratches the same itch, it gives me the same thrill. It’s helped me learn about processing speeds, about slowing down and not handing people the answer; it’s let me have lots of deeply weird conversations with kids by just asking some of the right questions. (I also am in charge of scheduling myself and set my own hours, which is something I’ve learned I need to do in a job, because again, I’m deeply bossy.)

But I, like my boss at the tutoring center where I work, am going to keep asking how we can help the people who can’t afford to hire us. We’ve done some free workshops for kids from a program in the Minneapolis public schools, and we’re going to do more, but I’m aware it’s far from enough.

I want to find a way I can sit across from more people and help them through this weird part of high school, the one where you – if you’re lucky – have to sit in an uncomfortable chair for four hours, wearing a mask and nervously hoping your sharpened #2 pencils hold up. Everyone deserves it — a helper, a voice in your ear, a coffee-stained voice whispering, “Often commas act like parentheses enclosing phrases you can delete from the sentence! Make sure there are two of them!” and holding up its hands in the Zoom screen, just so you’re sure you know what it means.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Good Thing List

There’s a certain form of silly Internet positivity – “Let’s flood the news feed with pictures of cats!” – that, well, I don’t want to accidentally take part in. So I’d like to clarify, before I begin, that this list is not that.

It’s just something I started this morning. Possibly it’s that I turned 31 on Thursday; maybe being “in my thirties” instead of just 30 has prompted a sudden taxonomy of what’s nice. Or maybe it’s that being angry about legitimate injustice, well – you need to take a break from it every so often, and remember what it is you’re fighting to keep.

Anyway, the chances are good that if I don’t know why I’ve begun something, I should keep doing it and just see how it turns out, so here it is.

Ta-da: my Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp list, my Banal Dolores at the end of this season of Westworld list, my Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens list. It is presented in no particular order, and all exclusions, like the list itself, are unintentional.

Here’s what’s good.

  • Hanging out with a Very Good Dog who seems to know what you need – a lean-in to your leg, a loving look, a slobbery ball brought over.

 

  • The feeling of biking further than you ever thought you could, and of having all you need to keep going.

 

  • Small impractical trains that run on tracks embedded in the grass, rattling around corners, the passengers silent, taking in the view.

 

  • A trail ride on a horse who’s as into it as you are.

 

  • The first sip of an iced latte with a smack of vanilla, and how good it hits.

 

  • Warm raspberries, fresh off the bush.

 

  • Bourbon, on the rocks, with a beer back; all around you, shoulder-pressed, warm and chattery friends.

 

  • Meeting someone new in a new city in a new country; how surprisingly well you get along, and how excited you are to have found each other to talk to. (Looking at you, Gunnhildur.)

 

  • Running errands with old friends: how boring what you are doing would be alone, and how good it is now that you’re together.
    • (Looking at you, Jeri and Dini and that tight-packed car running out of oxygen because of how hard we were laughing.)
    • (Looking at you, Meg, gorgeous with ennui, ordering sandwiches in Icelandic.)

 

  • A book you just found that just gets you; having time for sitting down in a hard bookstore chair, disappearing in it for a while, every page a treasure.

 

  • Finding something beautifully-crafted and small and secret – a hobbit house, a tiny door in the wall of Grumpy’s, an inscrutable sidewalk stencil (“Say yikes and move on” / “Always working, drunk, or both!!”).

 

  • Finding out that you and lots of people you know all like the same show, and now you can yell “BAT!” at each other and flap away mid-conversation, if you like.

 

  • Surprise crying; the sweetness of sudden grief.

 

  • Making someone else cry, and/or possibly pee themselves, but with laughter.
    • Side note: the second is only good if they brought a spare pair of pants.
      • Often, they have. More people carry spare pants than you might think.

 

  • Long spontaneous extended evenings; twilight; soft gold lights coming on.

 

  • Blue sky, green prairie, the occasional tree; too lush, too much, but there it is.

 

  • Rereading something you don’t remember writing, and loving it.

 

  • A tweet so good it seems to have come from God. Knowing you’ll never write anything that crisply funny in this particular moment, and being okay with it.

 

  • Miles in charge, Miles sarcastic, Miles cracking up, Miles cradling the cats when he doesn’t think you’re looking.

 

  • How different people look in a Really Good Dress or a Haircut that Absolutely Suits Them, or if you’ve cleaned their office and they weren’t expecting it, or if you’ve made them a braid-crown and stuck flowers into it.

 

  • When a sentence edit slaps just right.

 

  • When you’re ten and eleven and twelve, and with your cousins, and unsupervised (the parents are all enjoying each other’s company too much), and you’re up to no good, but somehow by the end of it you’re all alive and now you are the age of the parents having fun.

 

  • How, to some extent, you can lie about or exaggerate to people their capacities —
    • and then how it turns out that you were lying to yourself, and they were actually, all along, capable of so much more than you thought they were.

 

  • People who really listen, who enjoy being somewhere, who pop in at just the right moment with something deliciously clever. (Looking at you, Dad.)

 

  • Reading someone else’s private notebook after they have let you, and being amazed that they can draw faces, just like that, without even looking at the pen and pad as they talk. (Looking at you, Madi.)

 

  • Private follies: Miles’s mom’s garden room, the House on the Rock.

 

  • Those who appreciate… like… jazz, and talk so adoringly about it that you wished you appreciated it too, and now maybe you do.

 

  • The sheer hedonism of the lagoon we visited in Austin last summer: dangerous slippery rock, soft moss, people everywhere, waterfalls and inner tubes, a friend swimming excitedly for the very first time, proud above the pink floatie a stranger had given us.

 

  • Your friend losing her mind at the beauty of a wee little fern.
    • Again, you didn’t think the fern was cute before, but now, because Alice is so excited about it, you realize that the fern is indeed supremely cute. Look at its smol fiddle-top, and how tenderly it brushes her hand!

 

  • Laughing, with your mother, at a truly horrible time to be laughing – you’re driving over a bridge and need to concentrate but you’re both just being so damn funny.

 

  • Making something you think is imperfect and messy, but people watching it anyway and pointing out good parts you didn’t think were there.
    • See: Jessie’s Dollhouse, the quarantine Prairie Home Companion parody show that nobody asked for, but that we did anyway.

 

  • People who don’t ever write anyone off, not completely.

 

  • The way focused attention can make a person bloom; the level of understanding that can be reached once the secret compact has been established that neither of you is going to hurt the other.

 

  • Conversations with cats that go on for far too long, and seem intense, but what are you even talking about, Bernard?

 

  • The mysterious foot-size hole that opened up in your backyard during quarantine, and which you have showed everyone since.

 

  • The small child on an even-smaller motorcycle, being his best bad self.

 

  • The conservatory in Morris, accessible only by a secret door through the greenhouse.
    • Why was it there? Who knows.
    • What does it teach? Unclear.
    • Is it perfectly maintained anyway, and does it have a banana tree, and several living fish, and is it the best place to be in mid-winter, a humid oasis amid the falling snow? Yes, yes, and yes.

 

  • The good part of winter: pink-white sky, steaming homes, the snow-squeak of boots, unplowed streets, the promise of a warm inside.

 

  • The people who try so hard, every-every day, who give their ceaseless inward-burrowing and constant questioning and determination to everyone around them; who are always thinking about what it is and why we are here and what is good; who become, for moments, a shelter in the world, going in and in until they are a warm black hole, a lovely exploded star pulling in mass, reaching momentarily a place where time does not matter and nothing can hurt.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Relevance

I’ve spent most of quarantine trapped in my house, feverishly editing a book about a woman who is also trapped in her house.

The heroine of my book – a person whose given name is Christina, but who has renamed herself, in a fit of vainglory, Patina – is an aspiring fantasy novelist. The reason she’s trapped is that she’s acquired a certain horror of faces. She doesn’t want to see herself reflected in others’ pitying gazes – she’s aware, deep down, that she’s become something of an art monster, that she’s pushed people close to her away, focused as she is entirely on becoming famous. She believes that if she can just write the right words, the world will sweep in and sweep her up, into an echelon of importance, a place she’s long deserved.

I’m old enough now to know that the world doesn’t work that way. I wasn’t, back when I started; when I began this book, back in 2011, I was closer to the age of her antagonist, the bus driver who’s come to Patina’s town to sleep with her husband, a handsome but feckless elementary school principal.

Back then, I was writing a book simply to see if I could write a book. I was also writing it as a form of escape, because when I was writing the man I was dating let me leave the house; that was an acceptable exit, for him (though leaving to see friends or call my family in private? That was iffy). I was writing it because I didn’t know what I was, at 21, and I was afraid I was becoming something like Patina, the woman who spends her days drinking coffee-liqueur and then wine and creating horrible messes that her husband has to clean up. The man I was dating told me I should be afraid of that, of becoming someone like her.

Fiction is funny, isn’t it? It’s just a temporary gateway. When we look up from our words, we are still where we were when we sat down.

Where I was, when I started this book, back when I didn’t know what I was doing, was the Staatsbibliothek in Munich. I’m glad it entered the world in such a grand place. The StaaBi was built in 1832, was mostly destroyed during World War II, and was then (like all buildings in Munich’s downtown) painstakingly recreated out of its own rubble.

staabi

(1832)

staabi today

(Heute)

This is, I’d know later, sort of like the process of writing a novel, a thing that’s also destroyed and then rebuilt. Again, I didn’t know it at the time.

To begin a novel at the Staabi – a grand afternoon’s undertaking that necessitated many excuses, all chores done before I went – I biked there with my netbook in my bag, a crappy little thing (my then-boyfriend had commandeered my laptop, because he needed it more), locked my bike outside, and proceeded into a central entrance hall. There, it was rather like visiting a courtroom; I remember I placed my backpack’s contents on a belt, gave up the backpack itself, and was given everything I needed in a clear plastic bag. This is, I think, to prevent book theft. (Some 500,000 volumes were lost in the war; probably the ones left are very precious.)

It was filled, of course, with students, since it was right across from the university where I’d been a student the year before. Now, I was just a person, a nanny on her day off. I had a netbook and some free hours. I sat down at a desk, and I remember my view looked something like this.

staabi inside

It was grand and European and I had no Internet and nowhere to be. All around me, people flipped pages and hissed hushed German whispers.

I should rightfully, deciding to start a book, have written something about where I was – about the war, about the recreated building, about the many strangenesses of living in Munich. Instead, I opened a page and began to type about home.

My character, in that early draft, took her son’s hand (he was much younger then) and walked down her long winding driveway, which was, I realized, my aunt and uncle’s old driveway at their house in Stillwater; she stood alongside a familiar straight Midwestern road with a name like 170th; she waited for a classic American school bus to arrive. When it did, its doors opened to reveal not the crusty bus driver she’d learned to expect, but a smiling young woman with glossy brown-black hair and nervous lips. Her son looked at her with trepidation.

“Hi,” sang the new bus driver. “I’m Ms. Claire. You must be James’s mommy.”

Huh, I thought, sitting back.

 

 

I wonder, now, as I have some of the characters wonder, what book I might have written had I not decided to go to that building on that day. I also wonder what book I might have written had I not, the year before, been sitting in a certain student bar at a certain time – had he not come up to me as I left and asked slyly if I had any recommendations for things to do in Munich, and had I not agreed to, the next day, meet him at a beer garden.

The wayward elementary school principal, in my book, is obsessed with determinism. For him, things can only go as they have gone. He is fated to have met his mad wife, fated to have later met the mistress who will drive his son into an accident. I’m not sure he’s right, but it’s how he thinks, and it will hurt him in the end.

I started the book, that day. The next day, I kept going. All that year, I added sentences to it, trying my best not to write a perfect book, but to write any book at all. It was saving me, in its way. When I was in my book I was not where I was.

It’s no wonder that it ended up being a novel about the pale consolations of fantasy novels themselves. Patina is an adult who was a child like I was; we dreamed of the same fairy-tale empress. I called her Jezilani (because Jessie) and she called her Tirosa (a combination of her name and her best friend’s name), but both of us sat in math class and thought about the empress who didn’t want to get married.

The difference between me and Patina is that she married the wrong man. Her principal husband has spent his life appeasing her. He’s a person like I was, for a while – someone who refuses and refuses to see that they’re in bed with a bully, someone determined to add them up to a better character than they actually are.

Like me, Mark sidles out. I did it through fiction – writing and writing, moving on to other stories, sending those stories in an application that would end in an astonishing whisk, an escape, grad school across the ocean, my boyfriend’s sneering voice reduced first to a face on a monitor and then to nothing at all – and Mark does it by dating the bus driver, Claire.

Claire is, unfortunately, afflicted with a condition that’s got a name in German: Fernweh. The direct translation, awaysickness, became the title of the book, though it was years before I heard the German word. (For quite a long time, the novel was called The Woman Who Drives Our Son to School. Not great.) It means, quite simply, that her whole life long she hasn’t wanted to be where she is. She’s always dreaming of an elsewhere, though hers isn’t the mossy brooks and ancient trees of Patina’s land, but somewhere less corporeal, less tangible. She just wants out and has always wanted out.

By the end of the book, of course, she gets there – and Patina, obsessed with this girl who looks so very much like her fairy-tale empress, does her part to help.

 

 

I sometimes joke that this book has become my Horcrux. I’ve written others since I started it all those nine years ago – the story collection that would become my thesis at Iowa, the fun-but-uneven imagined tales of the ultra-ultra-ultra rich – but Awaysickness holds a lot of my fears and hopes within it. Even when I put it aside, as I’ve done multiple times over the years, I can still feel its characters living inside my brain.

I’ve been pleased to find that quarantine hasn’t made me into a Patina, someone who keeps starting documents but turns away in favor of sipping coffee-liqueur, dancing to Bowie, and staring out the window, mourning her lost dreams. (If this is you, that is completely okay. These are terrifying times and all we’ve got to do is stay inside and stay alive, for the present.) After a week of dithering, I turned methodical about editing. I ripped out scenes, wrote the ones that remained down on notecards, making sure they had both a plot and an emotional point (thanks, Ethan Canin); I started to read it out loud at our weekly live-stream shows, a chapter or so per week.

In quarantine, in a pandemic, I’m so much more physically trapped than I ever was in Munich, back when I was in theory free to bike around the city and sit at coffee shops under wooly blankets and buy flowers at the giant farmer’s market.

But I’ve been able to find, in editing and rewriting, an escape. And what’s more: when I walk out of my office every day, the person waiting for me is someone who tells me, over and over again, that I am not a monster, that I am going to make it, that we are going to make it. He isn’t just saying this; he has facts to cite. “Look at how hard you work!” he tells me. “People are going to love this book.”

We’ve made it through, the book and me and all the people in it. Yesterday I sent it to agents. Two of them are reading it now, and more may be on their way. The book that saved me might yet become a real physical thing, a little gateway to Elsewhere, a fantasy about fantasies, about going til we’re in a better land, even if our bodies are as here as ever.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Megan Boyle’s LIVEBLOG

One of the fantastic things about working at a bookstore – and there were not so many, but there were enough of them, enough that I did it for a year – were the many free books that came my way. Advance reader copies came in every day; they spilled over the shelf next to my desk, and while taking breaks from answering ceaseless emails and writing newsletter copy, I’d wander over to see what the world was writing.

How could this massive, dizzying book not have caught my eye?

20200320_114332

It’s a great cover design, and fits its contents. The back flap begins, “In 2013, Megan Boyle was unhappy with the life she was living and wanted to document it on the Internet for an audience. Her hope was that if she documented each thought and action on the internet, then she would begin to behave in a manner more appropriate to the life she wanted to live.” It ends, “It is a book of daring length.”

No shit, I thought, flipping to the end. LIVE BLOG is 705 pages. Though some of those pages are blanks – “did not update,” over and over again, in August 2013 – lots of them are full of text, italicized and oddly capitalized, all-capsed. And all of them written by a woman my age, then published by Tyrant Books. How?

I brought it home and it sat on my shelf for a while, tripping me out. Then, in 2018, when I was at – to be honest – a pretty low point in my life, I started to read.

 

Megan Boyle, the protagonist, written by a writer who also happens to be named Megan Boyle, is, when the “novel” begins, living in her parents’ house, oscillating between activities meant to make her feel better – weird smoothies, yoga classes, and conversations with strangers – and activities meant to fill time. Throughout all 705 pages, she’s mainlining Xanax and Adderall and occasional cocaine; she’s living off the rapidly-diminishing settlement from a car accident and trying to figure out what the hell to do with her life.

There’s something interesting, artistically, about reading this as a chunk of pages ripped from the Internet rather than on the Internet itself. If I were Umberto Eco, I’d write an essay about it, but I’m just me, and so I can say: the act of publishing this as text rather than hypertext is saying something. At no point can the “novel”-reader offer feedback to Boyle, as many of her online friends did during the multi-month 2013 writing session. There aren’t comments in a book. We can only watch, strapped in, as she pulls all-nighters, sleeps with unavailable men, and wanders around Whole Foods, looking for one good thing.

The act of writing is, in theory, meant to help her figure it out, all of it. But only a third of the way through – on April 8, 2013, at 5:56pm, she writes, “I started this thinking there would be an end somehow. Like I’d figure something out and my life would improve. Maybe shitty people just stay shitty.”

As a reader frightened of my own lack of options, I envied her. It’s springtime for Boyle, though she seems to feel none of the warmth. She wanders around in an endless world, unbound by time and space, willing and able to take any drug and go to any party in search of a solution to the something that plagues her. It’s impossible, reading it, to not compare oneself to Boyle. I did, occasionally with recognition, and often with a recoil – no, I found myself thinking, I wouldn’t ever do that, I’d make at least an attempt to be home in bed rather than driving around at 5am, searching for a conversation to sustain me.

And sometimes, often, I read with envy. Though I’m admittedly a person with a considerable creative output, my problem is that I’m (mostly) private with it. There are shades of me that I’ve never seen fit to share with the Internet, or really with anyone – and here Boyle is, was, putting it all out there on a tumblr that anyone could find. How did she get away with it?

It helps, probably, that in her early twenties she was one of the rising alternative-lit darlings of New York. She was married to Tao Lin (who I’ve frankly never been able to read) and published a poetry collection called selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee; she wrote for Vice and Thought Catalog.

But in LIVE BLOG, she seems to have the creeping sense that her best days are behind her – and I, reading it, thought yes, yes.

I thought of my own days in Iowa, those dizzying nights in 2012 and 2013 and 2014 – I was hosting workshop and Marilynne Robinson was coming to my house and I was going to the Fox Head and sitting at Vonnegut’s books and I was meeting with agents who seemed interested in me. And now here I was, underemployed, unagented, sitting on a shit-ton of yellow notebooks with words in them and half-finished Word documents and a cold that crept in through our house’s ancient windows.

I don’t write about darkness, except in fiction. I’m not comfortable with sharing desperation. The therapist I’ve started seeing, a guy named Dr. Bryan, who has a bustling red beard and a leather armchair, agrees with me – I like to maintain a facade of sweetness and light. It’s not important why I do this, he says; the important thing is figuring how to reach out to people and be a little more honest.

 

 

At the end of the book, Boyle the character hasn’t quit drugs or found Jesus. She’s just given up; the last scene is her alone in her apartment, drinking a Miller High Life and sucking down used vape cartridges to see if they’re truly empty. She’s back from the store and is remembering the group she followed into her building:

made eye contact with MTA wheelchair man as he reversed into the elevator. we said ‘hi’ quietly, kind of sorrowfully, overlapping the word at intervals suggesting neither of us meant for the greeting to be heard…. remembered they both lived on the fourth floor. i didn’t get on the elevator.

And it’s over. The experiment, six months after it started, is finished. Having spent days with her, I felt entitled to know what happened.

LIVEBLOG was reviewed – quasi-favorably – in the New Yorker. Her friend Juliet Escoria interviewed her for The Fader. I think Boyle did a reading of the entire thing over a period of multiple days in New York, or at least I remember reading about that on Twitter last year, though I’m unable to figure out whether or not that’s the truth.

But had she, in the years since, sorted it out, the thing that made her hunt and hunt and feel alone even after taking everything on earth into her body? I couldn’t tell.

On Facebook, I discovered that we actually had friends in common – the alt-lit scene doesn’t have much overlap with Iowa, but there is some. I sent her a fan letter, saying: thank you for writing this, and it’s particularly great when I’m feeling down, and also sorry if a Facebook DM is creepy. She responded months later, having just checked the ghostly messages aspect of Facebook, saying that it wasn’t creepy, and thanking me for appreciating it.

I’ve been meaning to write about it here ever since. During the polar vortex of 2019, no longer employed, I spent some days staring at its hypnotic cover, thinking: yes, I really should, now is my time.

I didn’t, and thought the moment had passed – the book world moves very slowly and then, at once, very quickly, and if you don’t strike while the iron is hot, review-wise, no one will care.

Until, on Twitter a few days ago, I read:

Annotation 2020-03-20 123820

Hell yeah, I thought.

 

I no longer work at the bookstore. It made me sad in ways that I wasn’t able to articulate to myself at the time: I was close to so many people who were achieving what I wanted to achieve, I was sitting next to fat stacks of books that were published every day, and yet I myself was too exhausted by them to write. I’d sit at people’s readings and introduce them and clap for them when they were finished, and all the while I’d be quietly critical, thinking, I could do better. But I wasn’t.

Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, talks about the frustration of artists in artist-adjacent careers; often these careers, in nonprofits and management and cleanup, are underpaid, and often frustrated artists take their feelings out on the people around them. I certainly was. Miles said the other day while we were walking (at a safe distance from other passersby): “I have never seen you as depressed as you were that year. And now look at you.”

He laughed. “I remember during the polar vortex, you were lying in bed and you said, why can’t I just find a job that pays well and is relatively flexible and lets me work with people and gives me enough time in the mornings to write? And I said, sure, honey, you will, and I thought quietly, it’ll never happen.” He touched my hand. “But it has.”

I work now as a tutor for kids struggling with the English and Reading sections of the ACT and SAT. I’m frightfully pedantic but also, I think, funny; I get to sit across from a person and explain what it is they’re doing wrong, and then watch them as they don’t do it anymore, and it’s a pleasure. Certainly I’m bored, from time to time, but never so bored as I was when answering the same type of email for the thousandth time or sitting at a reading that I felt I myself could do better. And, in the mornings, I’ve finished two books.

The virus has thrown all of it for a bit of a loop – I’m not sure the economy will support parents’ paying for expensive test prep. However, not many of my clients have canceled, and I can do it digitally; I’ve spent the last week talking to kids from the comfort of my office, occasionally waving the cats at them as a reward. I’m in a place financially that I didn’t think I could be a year ago. I’m much luckier than most.

While kids work sections, I’ve been flicking to LIVEBLOG part 2, coronavirus edition, just to be one of the crew to catch it live, this time.

And I’ve found, thankfully, that Megan Boyle has figured it out, or at least more of it. She’s sober; she’s meeting with her sponsor and attending virtual 12-step programs; she’s sending zany text messages to her friends and working a boring but occasionally entertaining customer service job; she’s going for runs and up to her same old smoothie game. It’s a fun fucking page to hit “refresh” on, especially if you’re like me and sick of Reddit.

She’s wondering aloud, yes, if a lot of her writing was drug-fueled, and is thankful to find that it isn’t – that, as her sponsor said to her, the drugs didn’t write the book. She did.

But here I am, clicking away, if only just to say: sometimes it’s possible, these days, to feel like everyone’s streaming and no one’s listening. As artists, we can’t know for sure if anyone is paying attention to us, or if we’re saying anything worthwhile, or if all these words are good for something.

So it’s nice, sometimes, to find words that do work on your soul – it’s heartening to reach out across the electronic distance and discover that yes, you are very interested in the mundane details of someone else’s life, and that you’d read pages and pages of it if you were allowed to.

It lets a person imagine that somewhere out there, there’s a person that will do the same for you; that perhaps one day, those 700+ pages you wrote will find a vibrant cover and some fresh air.

 

 

(This is also just to say: if you want to see me read live, I’ll be doing so tonight from Miles’s woodshop at 6pm. It will be fiction and it will be comforting, but other than that I’m not sure what will happen. Please tune in, if you like! These are lonely times and I’d love to share them with you – as well as the multiple excellent artists who will precede and follow me tonight.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Case for Perambulation

If you are, like me, a claustrophobic extrovert, coronavirus is hitting you hard. Not the disease itself, but the trapped-indoors-ness of it – especially coming off the heels of a long winter.

Had this happened in January, I’d be toast. Thankfully, though, it’s mid-March (right? We’ve only been stuck inside for 3 days, and already I’m losing track of months – I just now squinted at an expiration date on a carton of milk, sure that March 24 had already passed), and so the world is open to me, to us.

This is a short essay in favor of walking. It’s easy to stay six feet from everyone when you’re outside, though all cute dogs must sadly remain un-petted.

 

1.

In Iowa City, there is a park that nobody knows about. I discovered it while out with two friends in search of cows, and have written extensively about it in another blog post: it’s a folly created by a rich man, a textbook magnate, who was obsessed with Walt Whitman. It lives behind a gate. Fortunately, on that first walk, we were persuasive enough that the man who showed it to us gave me the code that would open it.

I took my friend Cristobal out one day in late spring, disregarding the fact that Cristobal is Californian and unused to mushy muck. Still, he gamely followed, and that day, we went I think five miles through bramble and field. We marveled at the sculptures dotting the woods, sat for a while by Whitman’s Pond, and wound up in the runestones, which are older than Stonehenge and came from an island where pygmies live. They are all over twenty feet tall, though half of them are buried in the earth, and if you touch them – which you are allowed to – you can feel the marks of an ancient carving knife.

Copyright property of Todd Adamson

(Photo credit: Lori Erickson)

We sat for some time in the middle of them. The day was cool, cloudy but not overcast – bright sun was followed by shadow. We offered, I think, prayers to people we knew who had gone, the same people who might now be wringing their hands in the beyond, helping us stay safe. That place is closer to the veil than most.

Then we wandered back into town, went to a house party, and two days later wet-footed Cristobal was as sick as an Austen heroine who’d wandered too long on a moor. I still feel guilty for walking him into illness, but he’s assured me that it was worth it.

 

2.

On the first day of proper quarantine, Saturday, I set out from our new house, heading south toward the river. We live in Northeast Minneapolis now, a land of tattoo parlors and tattoo-removal shops and dive bars and railroads; it’s hard to reach nature, as the river is bounded by high factory walls and the streets are diagonal with tracks.

One of those railroad tracks, I discovered, was abandoned; it followed its healthy brother like a shambling corpse. I walked on its ties, one foot on each. I passed other people at a healthy distance of six feet, all of us in our own worlds.

Up ahead was a shadow, or no – a child. Or no, a man.

An adult man, poised on the railroad track, one foot in front of the other on the rusty beam, arms out, balancing. I froze. Suddenly there weren’t any people around, and he was quite large and doing something slightly crazy.

But I kept going, following the wood, because I could see the river up ahead. He was humming, his feet one after the next, his arms spinning. I hoped he wouldn’t look at me.

Then he did, his eyes wild with joy under a beanie.

“It’s quite difficult to balance, you see!” he said in a thick Eastern European accent.

I laughed. “You got this, dude!” I said.

He laughed as well and said, “I do!”

I stepped swiftly past, and then I was all at once in a park near the river, a place I’d never been, beautiful and good.

tm-boom-island-park-704x454

(Photo credit: Family Fun Twin Cities)

 

3.

Miles and I used to live on Franklin Avenue, in a carriage house behind a mansion, halfway houses on the other side. It was a fun neighborhood for parties – the parking lot next to our house was large, and there were a lot of interesting places nearby, like Ice House and the sculpture garden at the Walker and Spyhouse and the MIA – but was not without its dodgy characters, so we usually walked together.

One morning after a party we decided to head to brunch at the diner. (Closed now, like everything as of noon, but it’ll be there in the future when all of this is over.) The route took us over the highway and into the city. We wended through construction sites and around half-finished corners.

Ahead of us, walking out of the diner, were two people who were blind, or blind enough that they carried white sticks.

The funny thing about Franklin and Lyndale, one of the busiest intersections in the city, is that there’s a school for the blind right there. It has no windows, like the Masonic temple on Hennepin, and an inadequate crosswalk. Still, the blind people must not have many other options, because you regularly see them on those terrifically busy streets, doing a great job of navigating.

From behind us, there came a noise: jingling bells, very Christmas. Miles and I turned to look.

There’s an arts center across the street from the diner, and two jingle dancers were approaching in full regalia. They had bells literally everywhere, and they shook with every step. They were gorgeous in the sunlight – yellow and bright and all in motion. We stopped, transfixed.

0b15a5-20190615-jingle-dress-02

(Photo credit: Evan Frost, MPR News)

The jingle dancers walked around us, and the blind people walked toward them, and the jingle dancers swerved around the blind people.

And one of the blind women stopped, her mouth gaping, and went to her friend, “What the hell was that?”

 

 

I think about that day a lot, especially in times like these. What the hell was that, indeed. It’s a lesson to me: however capable you know yourself to be, sometimes there are moments that just aren’t anything like what you’ve ever experienced before, and all there is to do is to stand open-mouthed on the sidewalk, wondering at the many ways in which the world can enlarge, or contract, so suddenly.

I wish we’d stopped to explain it to them, but we didn’t. We were too amazed by what we’d seen.

Dudes, we’ve got this. Let’s go out and be good to each other, reaching out across our safe distances to expand the world.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Re: The Thing You Wrote, Which Was, at First, So Promising

McSweeney’s just rejected this because they get a lot of rejection-themed pieces (unsurprisingly), but I still think it’s funny, so I’m posting it here. Is it possibly based on a real-life letter I got this week?? Who knows!

Anyway, at least I’m submitting stuff, right?


 

 

Dear Writer,

First off, let’s just say: wow! We, the editors of this good literary magazine, are writing directly to you to say just how much we liked the thing you sent us. It had emotions. It had a lot of very, very interesting parts. It was actually smart, in places. Obviously, not everything we get sent is, which is why we – though we have a lot of other stuff to do – have chosen to spend part of our day writing this message to you. You should be proud of the thing you made.

However!

It just had so, so many words in it.

Now, we like words. Obviously! Or else our magazine would be some other kind of magazine – a picture magazine, maybe, or a smell magazine. We are not well versed in other kinds of magazines. We are, as we said, word people, and certainly we want our magazine to continue to be made of words.

But that many words?

Yeah.

We started off really liking your piece, like we said in our first paragraph. However, somewhere along the way, we found a bad word. Not an actual swear word – just, you know, a word that made our mouths go, ugh.

Maybe it was too long. Maybe it just hurt our eyes, in addition to our mouths. Who can say why it was wrong? All we can say is that it was.

It made us start looking, and it made us keep looking.

And our suspicions were correct. You sent us a lot of really good words, but also a lot of not good words, and so that is why we are not going to put any of them – good words or bad – in our magazine.

We are sure this must be difficult to hear. If you have questions, we are sorry to say that we cannot answer them. We don’t want to presume to tell you which words did not work for us. We are not presumptuous people. Not like you, writer, who mailed us this half-rotted lettuce-leaf pile of language under the assumption that we would like every single bit of it.

We are wondering – although we, yet again, really don’t want you to write back to us – just where you get off. Where do you get all these words, and the self-esteem to believe that someone, somewhere, might actually like all of them?

This is the twenty-first century, writer. Nobody uses so many words anymore. If you continue to do so, you will use them all up and there will be none left for the rest of us. That’s just how it works.

In conclusion, may your children’s mouths be parched with lack of sentences.

 

All best,

The Editors

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Googled

This is just to say

that I have been to the stats page

where I can tell who has searched for me

 

and apparently

there are lots

of you lately

 

it is delicious

so strange

and so mysterious

 

 

*One of my favorite activities to do as a teacher is to make teens write William Carlos Willams homages until they fully understand why his poem This is Just to Say is, for lack of a better word, a little fucked up.

I recognize that a blogger trying to ask blog readers why on earth they have Googled her bears no resemblance to the experience of a speaker informing another person that they have eaten some plums that were in the icebox (and which the other person was probably saving for breakfast), but writing like William Carlos Williams is kind of a blast, so why let teens have all the fun, haha, right…

Anyway: who are you, random people search-engining to my blog, and what do you expect to find here?? It is POORLY UPDATED if at ALL

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized