Extinction Rebellion

Last weekend, I attended my first meeting of the wholly wholesome protest sect Extinction Rebellion. If you’re a government agent reading this, I’d here like to state that they are not, in any way, a terrorist organization, despite the fearsome name. This is a post about what they are instead.

I think I suspected, while dressing (what to wear to a climate activist meeting, I fretted? Answer: literally anything) that it would be me and about six other people. Instead, they kept having to bring in more chairs.

I did not take photos, but if I had, a panorama of the room would have revealed:

  • Older women in vibrant attire.
  • Earnest couples in their early thirties, all definitely here for the first time, and probably, like me, wondering whether we can justify having kids.
  • Some timid young men, heads bent over phones.
  • Many people who used they/them pronouns. (“I respond to everything except “it,” said a person in a skirt, charmingly.)
  • In the corner: two children curled over a tablet, occasionally yelling in delight.
  • At the snack table (nuts, chopped vegetables, hummus, and fruit), what I’d later learn was the art contingent, the people who make all the fancy buttons: two smiling and highly-capable-looking women in their mid-forties, the sort of people who wear cat-eye glasses.

Everyone except the organizers seemed nervous that someone would stop them and question their activist credentials. And no one did, because it was the opposite of that kind of meeting.

In the windowless meeting room, all crunching nuts, we began with a land acknowledgment, as well as a reminder to big talkers to shut up and non-talkers to start talking. Then we went around the room and every person introduced themselves. It did not take forever, because a lot of people seemed surprised to be asked and said only their names, but the ones who talked said things that made me, and everyone, tear up.

“I don’t want to just be alone with the climate disaster,” said a young woman, summing up my feelings succinctly.

“I’m here because I’ve been without hope for so many years that I thought, well, I might start hoping again,” said a wry older woman who, as she’d later reveal, is writing a book about the Black Panthers.

“I’m here because I was watching YouTube and stumbled into the IPCC report and became scared, and then afterwards Extinction Rebellion was next in the queue, and it was the only thing that made me feel better,” said a quiet person named Sunny.

“I’m here because if we don’t figure this out, everything else will be a moot point,” shrugged a man.

As always, in this sort of situation, I took notes in order to quell my oncoming nervousness about next being asked to speak. Then I kept taking notes, compulsively, filling eight or so pages in the notebook my brother Joe gave me for my birthday, and when it was my turn I was surprised, and ended up echoing the man’s point.

I said, “I’m here because I work in the book industry, and I’ve realized what total bullshit that will be if nobody’s around to read because the world’s on fire.”

It’s true. My purposes are selfish. The few people who could hear me laughed, though.

The organizers went on to give us a brief history. Extinction Rebellion (XR) began in the UK only last year, in the spring of 2018. The theory behind it is that people work more easily in small, non-hierarchical groups – XR is designed to splinter, to break into smaller and smaller contingents to get things done. “When the government has failed in its fundamental duty,” said the professorial man quietly, everyone leaning in – he was a great speaker – “which is to keep us safe, that’s when it’s time to rebel.”

XR London, after its founding, worked quickly; enough people flocked to it that in November 2018, they were able to arrange protests that effectively shut down five massive bridges in London. After a winter of activism, this May, the UK’s government – despite Brexit and everything – declared a climate emergency, making it the first country to do so.

Extinction Rebellion’s theory is that if 3.5% of the population mobilizes, that’s enough to force governments to take action. They’re counting on people like the ones in the room (everyone had an air of schoolteacher or grandmother or public servant about them) to create protests that make everyone in a city take notice, and for those protests to snowball. These protests don’t, the organizers explained, necessarily have to take the form of civil disobedience; those who participate won’t all have to get arrested or superglue their hands to government buildings. Instead, what’s required is creative action, and a lot of it.

In a little more than a year, XR has spread to every continent except Antarctica. It’s been combined with other groups – the Ghanaian contingent is linked with the anti-colonialist movement Stop the Maangamizi, and the German group works with Ende Gelande, who are fundamentally anti-coal. I’ve been following them on the Internet for a while, and was wondering when they’d show up here. Now, here they are – in a library in St. Paul, trying to gather more followers.

XR Twin Cities was founded earlier this year, and was, the organizers said wryly, six people who had no history of activism and no clue what they were doing. They shared only anger and friendship. Their first action was a banner drop over a bridge in the frigid winter air. They got some honks, stayed for a few hours, then went home, shrugging. Now, they’re everywhere: at all Open Streets festivals, at the State Capitol with friendly lawmakers, and sending an open letter to MPR demanding climate-responsible reporting.

It is, in short, my kind of movement: it’s very fucking fun, and requires little commitment. In the Twin Cities, it’s possible to become involved at the highest levels – as a member of a working group planning actions – or by simply showing up to events. I have no idea what I’m doing yet, but it’s going to be something.

This Saturday, tomorrow, they’re doing Green Emergency on the Greenway, an after-dark open mic that shares love for endangered species. (Word people, they’re still looking for performers.) Every Tuesday, the fun art ladies hang out at a house in Powderhorn from 1-4pm and do crafts, mostly jewelry and buttons intended to spark curiosity from people who don’t know. “Ask me about my earrings,” said one, leaning in to dangle them more prominently. “Go on, ASK ME.” (If this is something you’re into, message me – I’ve got the address.)

And next month, in North, there will be another meeting much like the one I attended – on Saturday August 17th, from 2-3:30pm, you yourself can come to North Humboldt Ave and feel better.


It has been hard, hearing all this news, existing in the polar vortex, watching the rivers flood, to know what to do. I’m aware, every time I bike to work and cook tofu, that counterbalancing me there’s some dude buying a truck and eating only steak. I’m aware that even biking to work and eating more vegetables isn’t enough. I hang out in the Star Tribune comments section and despair about all the people from the suburbs who are calling our warming earth liberal bullshit.

I think the best thing going to the meeting did for me was to give me hope. It’s like writing: if you don’t have hope that the thing you’re working on is going to turn out, well, it won’t.

This is something that the organizers of XR, a year and a half ago, fundamentally understood – that in order for activism to change minds, it can’t be shrieky or preachy. It’s got to be fun and inviting.

It’s got to be a room with ample snacks and people named Santa Eric Riese (who rocked a dressy skirt, a THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE T-shirt, a pair of pigtails, and a magnificent white beard) saying, “Minnesota is so nice, so curious. We protested on roller skates, and for weeks afterward people were stopping me in Uptown, saying, what is this? What were you doing? How can I get involved?”

So I have written this somewhat slapdash blog post – my first in a year – to say that if you too occasionally feel too sad about the planet to keep going, well, there’s something you can do. It’s right here in the Twin Cities, and it’s friendly as shit. And it’s enough to show up, because if enough of us do it, who knows what can happen?


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Why I’m Not Voting for Keith Ellison Anymore

It’s the day of the primary, and now look: another rising DFL superstar has been taken down – or might be, depending on how today goes – by loudmouthed women, just like poor Al Franken and Dan Schoen. Is there a conspiracy? Anything’s possible, these days. Because look at them! Likable guys on their way up, funny men, nobody you could picture molesting anyone or shouting at them or pressuring them into sex – but now here she comes, another lady marching in to say he –

Did what to her, precisely?

In this case, the evidence is maddeningly hidden. There’s a videotape, allegedly, but it’s in a storage locker somewhere on a flash drive; who does that to a piece of damning evidence? At least the Franken ass-grabbee marched back to her husband and expressed her outrage, which… thank God she at least told him, he’s a credible witness. The best this woman’s got is an angry son, who sort-of knew all along, then found the video that confirmed it. Only now he can’t find it, either.

All of this makes good Democrats suspicious. “I mean, how would you record it?” said an older man to me last night, a good person. “Was she, like, recording everything in their apartment?”

Implicit in that question: if you recorded everything anyone ever said, wouldn’t you find something to get a politician on? (We’re talking normal politicians, here.) Doesn’t everyone say and do things that are probably objectionable taken out of context?

(I think, with shame and gratitude, of times when I’m glad I haven’t been recorded.)

The objections continue. Wouldn’t you find something like this, the man I was talking to said-without-saying – our beloved congressman walking into his bedroom to find his girlfriend lying down, listening to a podcast; getting angry and saying that he told her to take out the garbage; when she didn’t respond, yanking her by her feet off the bed and shouting at her that she’s a bad guest?


Anyone can concur that this video isn’t a good look for Ellison. Well, if it does exist.

Still, the fact of its existence seems suspicious – why was she recording this one time? She’s mentioned, in texts, the fact that she’s writing a memoir about him and their relationship; was she trying to blackmail him? Just taking something – well, not innocuous – but something private – public, out of context? Why record his one moment of wrath?

I do, unfortunately, have an answer. I wish I didn’t.

Isn’t it more likely – I say-without-saying hesitantly – that shit like this happened every night? And this just happened to be the one time she had her phone in her hand, could stealthily press the camera into life?

Well, maybe not every night. Fine.

Isn’t it almost worse, though, if it happened irregularly? If not every night – if some nights were normal and good and snuggly even, went by without blowups – then every two or three, or once a week at minimum? Enough that she could calm herself down, thinking it was over – saying to herself, maybe it really is done, I’m not a bad guest anymore, I’ve fixed the bad-guest part of myself, the stuff he dislikes – but then two days later she finds him looking despondently at potato peels between the garbage can and cabinet side, and it starts again: baby why do you throw the peels on the ground not in the garbage can, can’t you see we live here, it’s such a mess, do you want our house messy, what is wrong with you, why are you such a slobby person – then on and on into everything else that’s wrong with her – because she is, as it turns out, not fixed, wrong in all the ways, thank God he’s here to fix her, he’s saying this out of charity.

It’s only awful in the way he repeats himself, keeps doing it. He says there’s nothing wrong with these – he doesn’t call them arguments but Conversations, even though she doesn’t talk during them – but still he’s always careful to do it in private. In person, in public, he is such a Catch. She has to catch herself and shake herself sometimes, say to herself – this man, the one that all your friends envy you for dating – remember what he does, when the door is closed and nobody else can hear it.

So, I say-without-saying, am only saying here, in the safety of print: that’s why she records. Because this one time, she wants someone else to see it. Or she wants evidence of it, for herself, later, so she can prove she’s not crazy, that all of this really happened.

Here’s why I’m not voting for Ellison (which, just 24 hours ago, I was so excited to do):

His ex-girlfriend is saying that the tape exists, but that it’d be too shameful to show anyone. She says she’s buried it so deep in a storage locker that she can’t find it.

This is, paradoxically, the same thing that makes her sound like  a Russian sleeper agent. You picture a man in a fur hat, going Da, darhlink, go, say zese zings ze day before ze primary. Yes, you too! Provoke ze infighting! HA! Picture it so much, the unlikeliness of these hard-to-prove accusations, that it starts to seem like – well, a conspiracy, a slop job, yes, but come on, do we always have to believe women? Isn’t this a little Salem-ish?

Why can’t she find the tape?

I know that damn feeling.

She says she doesn’t want to go public with it because it would be so embarrassing for both families: it being the sole evidence of the way he was in private, all these Conversations in which he convinced her how bad she was, how delusional she was being, how lucky she was that he was staying with her even though she was so awful.

I’ve felt that embarrassment. I’m feeling it now. I should stop typing, I should delete this.

See, the thing with these – relationships with men who like to have Conversations – is that you get out, however you do. (Unless you don’t.) You beg a deposit from your parents. You get into an unlikely grad school and move across the ocean.

For a time, you Try to Make it Work. That’s the funny part, the times you send emails or texts saying you love him – if it was so bad, why wouldn’t you cut ties entirely? Why would you leave this whole paper trail of very sane-sounding messages of love in your wake? I think it happens because you’re trying to convince yourself it was as he told you – that the two of you were in love, only you were bad, too bad for him, and so had to leave him, regrettably. You tell yourself that if you were better, you could be together. Or if he just changed a little bit; stopped taking everything so much to heart all the time.

With distance, he peters out, meets other women. His voice gets quieter. You separate fully. He’s only in your head, anymore, any time you chuck a potato peel on the ground instead of in the can by accident.

Maybe you dash into a relationship with someone else, someone antithetical to him, someone meek.

Maybe your friends say you seem happier. Maybe you start to tell them, bit by bit, what it was like to live there in that room, the blanket over your head, his voice not diminishing no matter how much you cried.

But the shit thing is, it’s very hard to talk about.

There’s never a One Thing to point to, not unless you’ve been savvy and taken a video. He never broke your arm or left bruises. He still thinks of himself as a person who treats women fairly; he never hurt you, just tried to isolate you from your family and then yelled at you til you wanted to walk into the river, and cops can’t prosecute that. Besides, your memories are so hazy.

Later, you learn that this is something your body does deliberately, and it really bums you out, the way you’re suddenly comparing yourself to a Real Victim.

You say, I should write about it. You want to have some proof that it happened, even though there was, in that room, only him and you, and it’s not like he’ll ever corroborate. But what would be the point? Maybe he’d message you awful things, try to take down your computer from the inside, come and try to beat up your lovely boyfriend. It’s not worth the risk.

And then… he’s the DFL nominee. And you see his face everywhere. And your child is angrier and angrier.

Alternatively, and then…

His second-to-most-recent ex-girlfriend sends you a Facebook message out of the blue. “Hi Jessie,” she says. “I don’t know if you know who I am.”

You definitely do. Four years ago, when they started dating, you stalked her profile out of a sense of real obligation. You remember marveling at how beautiful and accomplished she was. How lucky for him that she is perfect and that he likely had nothing to complain about anymore.

She says, after explaining that they dated for a while after you two separated:

“Now I’m just starting working up the past….I realized lately it still depresses me in some way. This sounds a little bit strange and I understand if you don’t want to, but I thought maybe we could talk a little bit about our experiences? It’s hard for me to put it in words, thought maybe our conversation could help me understanding what happened.”

You exchange anecdotes: how he was very good at interrupting your job interviews, calling and picking a fight just before you were about to walk in. How the night before she had an exam, he’d shut off her alarm clock because it disturbed his rest, and she’d oversleep. How when you expressed a desire to meet other Americans in the city you both lived in, he was genuinely confused, distressed: why, he said, would you want to be friends with other people? Aren’t I enough?

You are both so goddamn relieved to be talking about this with someone else. You feel like you should form a Facebook group, should pull in his other exes, all the women he told you were so crazy.

She finds out you’re a writer. She asks you to write about it, please – she’d like to tell his current girlfriend, just drop off the link and leave it.

You’re not sure. You’re afraid. Is this the right time? Why bother? It’s all in the past –

And then it keeps coming up again. Not in the form of you, your current relationship, but in other people’s lives: this woman rising up to claim Keith Ellison, and the world rising up, in trade, to deny her, to say, you’re lying, you’re a sleeper agent, you’re conveniently timed, you’re not even good at presenting evidence, you’re obviously… Even good men are so shocked, so skeptical.

You don’t have to believe her. But you should believe me, believe us. Because believe me: I have nothing to gain from revealing this.



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Questions re: gun logistics???

Dear President Trump,

I am so excited about my gun, I can’t wait! I’m glad you’ll be sending them to us teachers. We are so trustworthy and so eager to protect our students. Hooray, hooray.

I just, I mean, I’m sorry, sir, but I have a few tiny little questions. The main one is, I guess: where am I supposed to keep it?

Sorry! It’s just, female professionalism and all…  I usually wear things that don’t, like, have pockets. So: if you want me to keep a gun on me, am I supposed to start? Should I go out and buy a bunch of dresses baggy enough to hide a holster?

Haha. No, of course not! I might be kind of old, at twenty-eight, but these gams have a few years of shapeliness left, all right. Of course you wouldn’t want me to wreck my lines like that.

Okay, so…. no pockets, no holster. What if I just held it? Like through the lessons? It might help me keep order! Ha. But I should warn you – I am kind of flighty and quirky. I lose things like my phone and my coffee mug about four times a day, and I stop class to make my students find them. (They love this game.) The same thing is going to totally happen with the gun – I just know that I’ll forget it’s a gun and like set it on the whiteboard ledge or something. And I guess I don’t need to know too much about guns to have one, but that seems like a real faux pas.

Okay, so: the desk, right? Because that seems like an idea! Desks have a lot of pockets. (Ha, sorry. So excited. On a desk they’re called drawers. Desk pockets!) A drawer it is! Much safer.

I’m just trying to plan my day, the way we teachers like to –  you know, really walk through the activity before we do it. So. Bam bam bam, oh no, it’s a shooting. I stop close-reading that story right away, perk up my head, throw down the marker, and run for the gun! Right?

Second question: do the students know I have a gun?

I mean, I can see it either way. On the one hand, maybe it’s better if nobody knows the gun is there, because then any teacher could at any time be the one with a gun. Perhaps you don’t always want to arm the bald Republican gym teacher! Maybe it should be, you know, me, the one with the MFA. Students will learn to eye my desk with suspicion and awe. (As they should!)

Or else they won’t, and one day they’ll just find it while a sub is in and they’re hunting through the drawers for candy. Who knows?

Maybe it’s better if they do know I have it, because that way it’s going to be like you say – they’ll come to school all relaxed and chill and confident, no hint of the sitting duck about them. They’ll know that their English teacher will be poised to leap into action the second the bullets start flying!

But then, hm. When the hallways start a-war-zonin’, the kids are obviously going to want to help me find the gun, right? They are so helpful.

Yeah. Mostly I teach middle school, and they love being heroes. But they’re not qualified to wield a gun, not like me, the teacher, with her advanced degree in creative writing.

So probably the gun should be locked in there, the desk, behind a code. I mean, we have codes for iPads, why not guns! Boop boop boop, there’s the gun, I turn around, I destroy the intruder, I am a hero.

A question: that’s going to take me a little bit of time, even if I totally remember the code the first time through. (Which I probably will not, because hopefully – God willing! – the gun code is not going to be one I’ll use a lot of the time. Sorry! Plus, you know, panic.)

Do you think I should rearrange the seating chart? Like…. really consider who should be closest to the door?


Anyway, thanks! I hope you have some answers. (I know this is kind of long for you, but I really tried to write it with short enough words. As we English people say, know your audience!)

So excited!!!!!


Ms. Hennen




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My Night Job

For a while, I thought that to be a writer meant that you could not have a day job that brought you joy. I had been seduced by Ann Patchett’s tales of feverish slogging on the floor of a chain restaurant, the vest festooned with pins, the endless bus-trays of dirty dishes; I read in Truth and Beauty that she’d lied on her resume to get the work, had put in instead of her Iowa degree two years at a community college and multiple waitressing jobs.

So I tried my best to be that person. After finishing grad school and my teaching fellowship, the first job I applied for was the State Fair, ripping tickets as my arm (as I’ve had my character Claire say when she works the same gig) learned to hurt. From there I went to French Meadow, making people coffee as I dreamed of my future fame. How jubilant they would all be to learn one day that their latte girl had written all of their favorite books!

I thought, it’s true, that this novel-process would be faster. That’s how I made it seem, to everyone; like the book was just steps away from being printed, and that soon I would be whisked away on a cloud to New York, where I would be feted and dined and wined. I chattered with eager plans of my future advance: the burnt-orange Beetle I would buy, its lovely stereo, the house I might or might not purchase.

Instead, it’s four years later, and here I sit: still not-famous, still revising.

It’s only: there came a day at French Meadow when I simply could not go into work anymore. It was January, and I started to cry. I stared into the massive mirror that was one wall of my room and I thought, I am just a barista, I am a forever-nothing. The rage that seized me – I still remember it, how full-bodied it was, how it trembled my hands and shook my lips. I wrote a feverish letter that I never delivered, and I quit.

I went back to substitute teaching, because that felt like doing something instead of nothing; even if the days were fuller and the paycheck less, even if I no longer had mornings to write, I wasn’t striving all the time to return the restaurant to zero, to make it look as if it had never been filled with customers. I was talking and my words had meaning.

I still don’t know. It’s true that my best work was done when I was in Germany, in a relationship that felt like a trap and a day job full of vacant hours. I sat at the nanny-family’s giant wooden table and I wrote fiction to save myself, adding pages to a novel I didn’t think would ever go anywhere, crafting odd little dark stories about a woman trapped in the walls and the dissection of a formaldehyded-cat. I don’t feel that desperation anymore, and I worry sometimes that what I now do is taking the energy I used to expend in prose and using it elsewhere.

But I don’t think I can be any other way.

“You are really terrified of routine, aren’t you?” said my new intern as we drove back from the Loft on Friday, our car full of unsold books and a bag of cash we hadn’t used. I laughed, because she’d only known me for two days – how was it possible for someone to be so right?

I am. Faced with the choice between a life of drudgery interspersed with bits of brilliant fiction and a life that’s like my life now, which is a chain of pearls, wonderful novelties and interesting faces, productivity waning but everything else really going quite well, I pick the latter, and I insist, stubbornly, that it’s got to be in a way good for me, for the writer I still know I’m becoming.

This is self-indulgent, isn’t it? I’m being the sort of person I hate: someone who talks endlessly about their artistic process. If you’re here, if you’re reading this, I beg you to forgive me. I’m still figuring it out, the balance between stories-that-are-interesting-to-me and stories-that-are-interesting-to-everyone. Vonnegut once said that if you are writing, it is not wise to “open a window and make love to the world” – he believed you should write to one specific person, one interested friend, and then the rest would follow. But I’ve always been unable to do that, since undoubtedly that one interested friend would soon become exhausted. There are just so many words I want to say, so please, world, bear with me.

My job, currently, is to plan events. As of three months ago, I work at this platonic ideal of a bookstore; it smells like a horsey potpourri of moldering pages. It has little ladders on tracks, for God’s sake – I haven’t yet swung on one like Belle, but believe me, it’s coming. It is the sort of good soft place in the world that with its mere presence begets more delight.

I do not always love being there – sometimes I am too overwhelmed by spreadsheets, by the harsh fluorescence of the upstairs and the sheer volume of emails to be answered and the wealth of social media postings I could make – but in those times, I have learned to merely walk downstairs and spend some time petting the books, caressing friends’ covers and opening, here and there, something that looks interesting. Then I breathe and go back up to my job.

This is a real-person career, something that tests me, uses skills I didn’t know I had. There is an endless amount of things I could learn. There is always something I could be doing. I return home exhausted and scroll Reddit for an hour before falling asleep. On walks, I think not of my book but of fun events I could plan. Am I in danger of falling forever into a trap of easy joy, or am I exactly in the place I should be?

My parents think so. “You’re doing it,” they whispered when they came to a talk on inequality and automated systems repressing the poor. “This is a perfect Jessie job.”

My friends think so. “That was a good introduction,” said Paul and Christine, leaning back in their folding chairs amidst the crowd that had assembled to hear from the writer of Call Me By Your Name. “It was just the right amount of quirky.”

That event, really, was what sparked this, my sudden return to the blog after five months away – because I want to remember it, when I look back, how well it went. It’s wrong to brag about your successes on the Internet, but please, bear with me: on Saturday night, I did a very good job. We knew it would be big, and it was. My boss, the bookstore owner, went folding-chair shopping and returned with twenty-four seats jammed into her SUV. She roved around dusting them off while I fluttered upstairs and down, readying the system we had come up with to call the crowd up in groups instead of a line. People started arriving at five, and the reading wasn’t till seven. At six the writer himself showed up, and I brought him to our employee lounge, where Patrick Nathan, the moderator, a delightful local author whose book has just come out, was waiting with a stack for him to sign ahead of time. It was my job to sit with them in the break-room chairs and talk about fiction for twenty minutes before roaming away to check on everything else.

At 7:05, I got to walk out and say, “Minneapolis! How y’all doing tonight!” which is something I’ve always wanted to yell, and I got to watch the crowd cheer.

I eyed the people sitting in the aisles and standing against every available shelf. I got to talk about fire exits, and then I got to say, “Hold up the little slips we’ve given you, please,” and then I got to watch everyone dig in their pockets and hoist them up above their heads.”You’ll note that they are all different colors. We’ll be calling groups up in this order,” and then I got to run for the visual aid I’d prepared and let it accordion-fold down to the floor. “It’s a rainbow,” I whispered into the microphone, and everyone laughed.

And then I got to sit in the very front and watch the writer himself, this man who created the book that the night before had left me sobbing in my bed, read the scene in which Elio declares his love for Oliver – obliquely, abstractly, but in a way that means Oliver gets it, that they’re on a path into a new and uncertain land. In the video I dutifully recording, everyone watching looks moved.

My favorite part was what came after. I called us a Lyft and we got in, me and Patrick and Mr. Aciman. We felt famous simply being by him, though the driver had no idea; I had to resist the temptation to lean over and whisper, “The man in your back seat wrote the book that became the movie that will probably win the Oscar.” We played tour guide, pointing out the place where, as Patrick said, “you can buy both a cock ring and a mocha.” (The Lyft driver went, “Whoa whoa whoa! Conversation’s getting interesting in here!”) I motioned to the stadium; we sneered at it and called it a monstrosity. (Mr. Aciman, plaintive: “But then why did they build it?”)

Then we arrived at the bar that had co-sponsored the event. I don’t think I can adequately describe, in print, the giddiness that overtook both of us Minneapolis folks when we walked in: apparently some tour buses had stopped by, and so now the whole place was packed with suburban twentysomethings and a DJ shouting into the microphone, “Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots!” And here we were with this kind man who had a punishing tour schedule, about to sit down and order martinis.

But our nervous laughter cleared, and soon we were sort of talking about fiction. One of the queens came by with two copies of his books, and he signed them gamely, inscribing in the light of an outstretched phone.


I said, finally: “Well, I’m a writer too. I went to Iowa.” (I hated myself in that moment, but I wanted him to find me significant.) “I have an agent and a book, only… it’s been through like three drafts, and I started it four years ago, and it’s really taking a while.”

“Four years?” Andre Aciman’s forehead wrinkled kindly. (Always he was like this, that evening; he did not want to talk about himself, he wanted only to respond to everything around him.) “But that is a very long time. You are…” He drummed his fingers next to the empty plate from the quesadilla we’d shared. “Not the same person you were when you started,” he said finally.

I am not.

I still think it’s going to work, the book. If anything, I’m more cavalier and savvy than I was – a better editor, less attached to it. It’s just that all my eggs aren’t in that one basket anymore. They’re spread around, and they’re not very breakable eggs, not if I can, with some emails to a publicist and a bookstore that’s willing to work with me, have a night like this.




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On Going Fast

In one episode of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon is annoyed. Well, actually, in many episodes, but for whatever reason, this particular day, she especially isn’t having it, the jostling crowd on the streets of New York. She’s trying to buy a hot dog, standing in line, when all at once a runner darts past her, bumping her elbow. Liz flings up her hands and shouts after him: “Oh, look at me! I’m going to run around in circles so I live longer!!”

It’s a very good line. I have stolen it often, every time I’m walking around Lake Harriet and someone puffs past, checking their pedometer as they sweat gloomily toward an imaginary finish line.

Running is so earnest, so German, I thought. Why do it? What’s the point?

In elementary school we were all made to run The Mile, a day I dreaded – I was always the last to finish, jogging in my plaid uniform toward the knot of relaxed, mocking boys who’d already completed it. And then there was the school marathon. My mother remembers it differently: “Why, you just kept going and going!” she has said eagerly. “I think you could be a real long-distance runner if you wanted to!”

No, Mom, I always thought. There was the cold taste of spit in my mouth, the stitch in my side, something I was sure nobody else felt – I’d kept going and going only because I thought you had to, that we’d somehow miss points on the assignment if we gave up and walked. I was a very rule-oriented child and me finishing the mini-marathon was only a mark of my goodness, not proof of some latent desire to grow up and become a jogger. Running, I knew, was for everyone else – people who were somehow fundamentally suited for it in a way that I wasn’t.

It was like at Iowa. I remember looking around at all these real novelists, people who could paint a scene with adequate detail, who rose every day to work hard while I was – who knows – goofing around at the bar or rewatching the same 30 Rocks I’d seen a dozen times. My stories were slapdash, completed in a day. My book – the same one I am still working on these five years later – was a mere silly vanity project that I’d started while I was bored in Germany. It wasn’t a real novel and I wasn’t a real writer. It was a miracle that they’d let me in.


Last Monday, I went in for a haircut and surprised myself.

“I’d like something – shorter,” I said.

The green-haired stylist nodded, fingering the ends of my waist-length red hair, the same stuff I’d been growing for ten years, ever since a truly disastrous Locks of Love cut while in college. I’d spent my early adulthood growing and growing, determined not to make the same mistake twice. Took me years to get what I’d had, I thought, and now I was never ever going to let it go.

“A bob?” she said. “A long bob?”

“Asymmetrical.” I pointed. “Well, not quite like yours, but longer on one side than the other.”

“A radical do,” she breathed. “A total change. Yes, I think we can do it.”

Radical. What a scary word.

But the length of it – how could I go on any longer?

My mother had warned me about this, back when I’d seen a picture of her with long braids and moaned the same thing – why, whyever did you cut it? She said that our hair, Gwost hair, Polish farm-wife hair, was especially massive, and that without hers, she’d felt free. I snorted, certain that when I had waist-length hair of my own, I would appreciate it adequately.


The thing was, all last year and the year before – I didn’t. I abused it, I didn’t deep-condition, I didn’t brush it enough. On good days it was, yes, lovely, the sort of medieval-princess hair I always wanted. But on bad days, I looked in the mirror and saw an insane witch. It tangled in my armpits, got wedged in every crevice. All hairstyles eventually descended into a shapeless bun, the heavy mass of it banging against my neck as I walked. The best-case scenario for exercise was two braids, not unlike the ones that my mother had worn in that photo, but even then, when I tried to run – and I did try, I kept hoping that it was someday going to work for me, and then I would be like everyone else, the fit humans dodging through crowds – it bobbed with every step, a reminder that I was filled with a unique gravity I could never quite escape.

The stylist braided, pulling from her pocket elastic binders. One snapped. She chuckled. “You’ve got a lot.” She pulled forward a braid. “This is about the amount I’d take off one human, and you’ve got three of them.”

“Are you going to give it to someone else?”

“Yes!” she said, giddy. “If we take eight inches, that’s enough for the donation bin.”

I think if she hadn’t said that, I might have chickened out, changed my mind and walked out of there looking pretty much like I had before, only $50 poorer. But the thought that my haircut would be useful in some way – that was enough to say, “Hey, all right. Let’s do it.”

And so she did.

The snick of the scissors on my neck, the lightening, it felt like – like leaping off a rock into uncertain currents. I told myself the same things people always tell themselves – it’s only hair, it’ll grow back, this is something you’ve wanted for a while, but they were useless, who cared? It was cut, and now I had no choice but to let her continue.




Last week, long-haired, I went for a walk. In jogging clothes, yes, but I knew I was not intending to jog, more just meander, the same as always. Because it was almost certain that I could not jog, that I would disappoint myself the same way I always did, and so why try?

And then, when I reached Minnehaha Creek, the wind started to blow –

And then, as I rounded the corner into the very nice neighborhood, it started to rain. Big cold drops, cheerfully malicious, larger than any I’d ever felt before.

I realized I had two choices. I could stick around and get soaked. Or I could hightail it.

So I started to run. And my two braids were hitting me in the collarbones, and my steps were not very long, and my thighs were thumping up and down, but I had a goal – I had to make it back before I was as sodden as an Austen heroine.

It was surprising how easy this was when you were fleeing something. I kept going and going. Usually in my attempts I made it only two blocks before slowing to wander and look at stuff, but now the rain was driving me, and I wasn’t even winded when I walked up to our front steps. I am, it turns out, surprisingly fit from all the walking.

I could have done this all along, I thought, if only I had realized it.

I think the haircut was born in that moment. It was something other people had told me not to do, that my hair was so beautiful, that it was so long, that if you could grow hair like that, you had to. It was a limit, just like the ones I’d set for myself, saying you can only run two blocks, why try to do more?

And then – when I had a reason, the cold driving rain, the giddiness of escaping it – I found that I could.

Yesterday, newly shorn, I set off on another run, my hair in a stubby Ned Stark ponytail. I had intended to go only to the rose gardens and back, but when I reached the lake, I thought – why don’t I go around all of it?

I did not make it, not quite. By my calculations, though, I ran three whole miles. (My limbs could have gone on for longer, but I was feeling pretty nauseous and thought I should stop before I puked on someone’s nice lawn.) Shorn, it was so much easier. I wasn’t negotiating a bun or feeling the thomp of the braids. I could legitimately enjoy the wind without seeing it as an annoyance that would loose tangles that would then get in my eyes. I darted around families, passed walkers, looked at lovely yellow birches and rust-tinged oaks.

Look at me, I thought. I’m running around in circles so I can live longer.


Also, I am a teacher now, but that’s another post entirely.


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Emergency First Aid

There was a very brief period of my life in which I was positive I was going to become a doctor. It started when my German Shepherd bit another dog – uncharacteristic for her, as she was a retiring sort, but this terrier had, we think, been harrying her for quite some time, and while they were out running around my grandfather’s farm, she took a chunk out of him. I remember it vividly, a four-inch gash, through which muscle was visible.

I rode with my aunt and uncle to the emergency vet clinic, and watched with great interest while they stitched it up. I was surprised by my own lack of shock. I thought only, “Well, that’s what the inside of a dog looks like, I guess.” (The kind of thing sociopaths think, but whatever.)

I don’t remember what stopped me. It was probably my middle-school math and science mediocrity, standard for girls at that age, who are told, over and over again by the world, that it’s all right for us to suck at numbers. I liked the words, though, and the visceral experience of medicine. I was afraid, however, of making the wrong call, the wrong diagnosis – of not knowing what to do in a situation where it really mattered.

Luckily, two semi-gross things have happened to me in the past week. And in both of them, I flourished! Allow me this brief indulgence of pride / regret over my wasted medical school potential!



This summer, I’m a camp counselor again. Duke TIP this is not – our weeklong camps are engaging, sure, but a bit light on the academia, as the elementary students tend to side-eye anything that looks like school. The camps all have fun themes; two weeks ago it was Zootopia! (we built a cardboard box city and argued about currency), and last week it was Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse.

Imagine the type of kid that zombie camp would attract, and then multiply that by 28.

Add in three counselors with liberal arts backgrounds.

Then put us, on our final Friday field trip, in the woods.

The day before had been all about preparedness. I had my BFF-forever-roomie Michelle in to talk about zombie anatomy (tl;dr – it’s not physically possible for zombies to exist, sorry, kids, but you need a working heart to pump blood to your brain) and bug-out bags – what to put in an emergency pack. They made their lists, and I was delighted by the practicality of them (Michelle’s sensible nature is contagious). For instance, only a few of them wanted to bring big-screen televisions.”So what should you bring to the woods tomorrow? We’re going to build shelters and purify water…” I asked.

“I’m bringing my medic’s kit!” said Wilbur.

Wilbur is not his real name, but it is like it in general adorable doofiness. Wilbur is seven, stocky, with red hair and a big smile and – okay, this story suffers somewhat in print retelling – the thickest lisp. It took me ages to figure out what he was saying, and only when his sister translated did I really understand.

“Your medic’s kit!” I beamed. “Won’t that be nice?” Thinking all the while: Wilbur, you goof, we’ve got first aid supplies, we three capable adults. But if you want to carry your child-size doctor bag around, you go for it, buddy.

Cut to the nature preserve. To tire them out (the zombie campers had a truly astonishing amount of energy), I insisted that we go on a three-mile walk before attempting to build shelters. “Oooh,” I said, trying to make it fun, “here are some old train tracks! Look, signs of a campfire! Traces of life before the apocalypse hit!”

The children looked at me, exhausted under the weight of their backpacks. They were game for anything, but they were only, on average, eight years old, and this looked an awful lot like work, what we were doing.

And then disaster hit. I looked up to see one of the few ten-year-olds clutching his face, tears welling up in his eyes. A cluster of friends surrounded him – these kids were flies on the meat of any tragedy. “Oh god,” I said, “what’s going on?” Thinking: obviously the one “very active” boy in the group has hit him in the face, on purpose or accidentally, and now I have to pull him aside and have yet another talk –

“I got thtung!” he said. “On the lip!”

He pulled his hands away, and holy shit. There was indeed a bright red mark in the middle of his lower lip, and it looked – well, Jacob had big lips – but this was beyond big, this was bad-plastic-surgery proportions –

I panicked. Then I stopped panicking. I pulled out my water bottle and dashed him in the face with its contents. He stood there under the rain of Aquafina, hoping against hope that it would provide some amelioration, but it did not, he started to cry again, “It thitll thtingth….”

“MY MEDIC’S KIT!” roared another, similarly lisping voice from behind me.

Wilbur dashed up, little chubby legs pumping, and held out his kit. “HOLD ON!” he said. “I’m here!”

I looked around for the other adult with the true first-aid kit, but he was far behind us, possibly lost in the woods. “Okay, dude,” I said, and cracked it open. “Let’s do this.”

I had misjudged him. Wilbur’s kit held everything anyone might conceivably need – innumerable Band-aids, gauze, iodine, tweezers. “Let’s see, let’s see,” I babbled, “what do we do for a sting, you’re not allergic, are you, no, okay, well, ha! Here! Anti-sting pads! Wilbur, you genius!”

Wilbur beamed and beamed. And as Jacob held the pad and an ice-pack to his face, I whispered, “You sweet guy. How nice of you to get stung so that we could use Wilbur’s kit.”

Behind his Kardashian lips, a hint of pride illuminated Jacob’s face. And on we marched. He didn’t end up building a shelter, but did pretend to be a creepy fat-lipped zombie for the benefit of the other campers til the ice pack worked and the swelling went down.



I am not supposed to be in the sun. Like, ever. Unfortunately, I like walking, and the Writers’ Workshop, in its infinite wisdom, sent me to New Zealand for a while, where the ozone layer is at its most porous. I am foolhardy indeed.

Shortly after my return, I started a routine of yearly dermatological checkups. As my dad explains, these are normal for Hennens – we must submit to being scrutinized by a doctor who makes small talk about our current employment status while looking at all the moles on our boobies.

They find something every year, but it’s always fine. Sometimes they have to do a deeper scrape, and there’s a week of tension while I wait for the stitches to heal and them to tell me that I don’t have cancer. Still, as long as I have health insurance (thanks, Obama; no thanks, Trump), I’m golden.

Today, my doctor – a nervous and very nice woman who isn’t much older than me – found one on my back, as per ushe, and one on –

“I swear that’s just dirt,” I said.

She frowned and swabbed at my foot some more. “Nope,” she said, squinting.

“I’ve thought it was dirt all year.” A mark of how much I wash my feet, I guess. “Or maybe like a scar from a stick?”

“We definitely have to take it out,” she said, patiently.

While they stuck the numbing needles in – first one, then another – I consoled myself with the thought that the sole of the foot is not a place any sane person would put sunblock, and unlike other forms of cancer, this could not be in any way my fault. “Last year, when you took one from my cheek, I wore gauze door-to-door while I was election canvassing, and everyone was so nice to me,” I babbled.

“There! Done.” She stuck a Band-aid over it. “Don’t stick your feet in water for three weeks, all right?”

I glowered. “But I was going to do a sensory deprivation tank.”

She and the nurse backed out, giving me looks like, all right, crazy.

Bandaged, I dressed, then headed out. I realized I was very close to one of my favorite consignment shops, and that I had an event I had to buy a dress for – Miles is DJing for an expensive party tonight in which everyone wears only white and eats canapes on a lawn, and I was his DJ +1. (Yes, I should be working on my novel instead of doing shit like this, but come on.) So I waltzed in, grabbed all the white dresses they had, thinking idly, wow, hello, my foot is a little sticky, but I bet it’s just my imagination…

You know where this is headed.

As I unbuckled my Chaco to step merrily into the first dress, I said, “Oh, holy hell.”

Blood. Blood everywhere. It was a Red Wedding sandal. It was cartoon blood, seeping through a soaked bandage, coating my heel. I froze, white dresses in hand. Set them delicately on the rack. They quivered in horror. So did I.

As I panicked, I was also simultaneously laughing about how horrible this could have been, had I not noticed the blood, had I shoved my foot in anyway. How like the world it would be, were I to be forced to buy five blood-spattered, ill-fitting white dresses. I realized that the sane thing to do would be to walk out of the dressing room and go directly home before anyone else shopping noticed the fact that I was covered in blood.

But – dammit – I was right there.

And the thing was tonight.

And I am a Hennen, and Hennens just find stuff like this funny rather than traumatic. And so I kept my foot in my sandal and wiggled into three of them, and one of them looked quite bangin’, and now I have had the experience of purchasing clothing with a horrible, horrible secret in my sole.

It was quite empowering, actually.

It’s been that kind of week.


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The House on the Rock

I have a friend who faints in art museums. This particular affliction is so bizarre, so Victorian, that I’ve babbled to many people I know about it, and they always express skepticism. “Come on. Like, is it the temperature? Something about the atmosphere?” No, I always say, because I’ve been with this particular friend in a natural history museum and I have seen them get swoony. It’s something like being overwhelmed by potential and beauty. There’s just too much, and their body shuts down. It’s got to take a break.

Though I’ve seen this in action, I’d yet to feel anything like it myself. Until yesterday, when Miles and I took a detour on our way back from Scotty’s wedding in Milwaukee and stopped at the House on the Rock.


I will assume, if you’re reading this, that you’ve also read American Gods. Indeed, that’s where I myself encountered it, and it was so incredible, what Neil Gaiman kept saying, that I didn’t believe it existed. Especially not in Wisconsin, the land of beer and cheese. Come on, could there really be a home that’s the gateway to a hidden Wunderkammer of assorted delights, among them a two-story carousel, a valley of dollhouses, a Street of Yesteryear? I insisted while reading that it was too much, it had to be fiction. It couldn’t really be that overwhelming.


I’d been there once before. A road trip from Iowa City, two hours with four friends and a whole cooler of sandwiches; but we’d made too many preparations, arrived too late, and were not allowed to see the entire thing, as the museum shuts down, like an old person, promptly at 5 each day. We’d only made it through the house itself, the sixties-swinger pad with its Tiffany lamps and infinity room poking out over the valley. The rest of it, the Wunderkammer, remained shut to us. We ended up taking ourselves resignedly to the koi pond in the middle, where we spent the last twenty minutes of museum-opening time staring at a cat that was trying in vain to snag a fish.

I was determined, this time, that we would see it all, and that Miles would be dazzled by it also, and that we would be able to watch next season of HBO’s version of American Gods filled with smugness that we ourselves had been there to that two-story carousel ridden by demigods. And so we ventured. And perhaps it’s a mark of my growing maturity, but we definitely made it there in time. The old people sold us our thirty-dollar tickets and told us to have a nice trip.


“I feel like I’m high,” whispered Miles as we ducked around outcroppings and were tripped up by benches in the house itself. “But we aren’t, are we?”

We weren’t.

In the infinity room, we eased our way to the tip of it and looked through the glass portion into the trees below. Miles charged his phone in a stray wall outlet. (Which, why was it there?) I joked that his iPhone would get used to House on the Rock juice and demand no other sustenance from now on, and he shivered. “They shouldn’t charge thirty dollars to get in,” he said. “They should charge it to get out…”


I didn’t expect that a trip I’d craved could be so overwhelming. But it is: to be there is to be seated firmly in the branch of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar fig tree, dazzled by so many options that there’s no way you can look at them all.


The House on the Rock smells. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Every room is carpeted; though they must try their best to dust the thousands of dolls, to keep the whaling ships in a condition as shiny as when they were built, there’s likely no way to keep it entirely entropy-free. Afterward, when we made a brief stop at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin (only four miles from the House; how on earth can it be that there are two incredible homes in this tiny place?), we breathed in relief, ran our hands over the modest wood, enjoyed the windows unsullied by eerie blue Plexiglas.

My petty review: the House is simultaneously awful for the claustrophobic, the agoraphobic and the afraid-of-heights. If you aren’t ducking around shin-jarring furniture and random rock bits, you’re standing on a precipice with a 180-degree view of the valley, or you’re leaving a modest passageway to find yourself suddenly in a four-story warehouse filled with tiny houses, balloons, and a neon clown. We spent our entire trip shuddering and amazed.

I asked Miles later what his favorite room had been, and he said, after giving it some thought, “Well, my favorite experience was walking into the room where the three-hundred-foot whale is fighting an equally large octopus.”


He’s an artist; he’s thinking about this in the right way, in the impression rather than the thing itself. And it’s true, I saw it in him when we entered. “What the HELL?” he gasped, and stumbled backward. It was the same reaction I remembered from a dream I’d had as a little kid, where I was standing in front of a red square that towered over me, hundreds of feet in the air, the top invisible from the bottom of it. I had the same feeling of submission then. The thing I was seeing was just too incredibly big. We were both of us plunged, in the House, into a dreamlike space.

And for that, I guess, I am grateful. Yes, that was worth the price of admission: to be humbled. Not in the sense of the word as people use it now, meaning the opposite – “I am so humbled to accept this award!” (No you AREN’T) – but in the true, Biblical sense – to recognize oneself as a mere visitor through a thing that’s much bigger than you are, that’s seen thousands of other transients come and go and that is, against all odds, still standing.

While we sat, watching the fairly boring video about the House’s creator Alex Jordan, I swore I could feel the ghost of Neil Gaiman breathing down my neck. He’d sat here too, and now, since he’d written about it, the House was his. It wasn’t mine. There was no fiction I could write about it that could do it justice.

Come to think of it, though, his didn’t either. The House is too big to be summed up. It’s only got to be experienced. The best you can write is an intense study of one small part of it, and in that way it is, I guess, a satisfying fictional experience, even if it looms, standing there, in Spring Green still, ready and waiting to make you faint.*


*(I almost did, but didn’t quite.)

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