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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

1.

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.

 

2.

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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…”

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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.

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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.”

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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.*

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*(I almost did, but didn’t quite.)

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Hidden Lovelinesses of 2016

  • When 2016 began, I was seeing a sort of Kerouackian wanderer bum. It wasn’t a relationship, we were quick to clarify – more just a thing where we’d drink beers and listen to each other tell stories. His were better than mine (it wasn’t fair; I told myself, he’d had more time to acquire them) and so that was what I was doing when 2016 began: sitting on my frozen porch and listening to him tell a story. Probably it had mud bikes in it, or voracious reptiles. Probably I was happy at the end of it. This all could have gone on for a while, but the thing about being a Kerouackian wanderer bum is you’re perennially leaving town. You have to, or else you’re just a bum. “I’ve got to go,” he’d say, his voice tinged with regret. “It’s just – I can’t stay here any longer. God, I wish it were different.” Two weeks later though he’d be back, and I’d open the door and let him in. This continued until he left for good. I wasn’t really sad about it. I had the stories.

 

  • Prince died and my brother and I took the bus downtown, noticing as we got on that the silent crowd was packed in purple and glitter. I felt, quite selfishly, at the epicenter of things, a feeling that intensified when we got to First Avenue and a whole street full of people was crying. Here we are, I thought. We are at the center of grief. What an unusual thing for Minneapolis to feel.

 

  • My friend Lisa visited. It was a stupidly gorgeous photo-real spring day, so we sat on our porch, just being quiet, which Lisa is very good at. She let me braid her hair, which is thick and brown and beautifully curly, with flowers from the bush next to us. Then we both painted our toes: she chose light blue, and I chose purple, for Prince. On my feet it stayed there like a bruise all summer, and there’s still a little bit left; every time I look down, I’m glad that I think of that day first.

 

  • For the last four hours of class, the gym teacher’s note said, there is no plan. Just have them run laps and then they can play on the playground. Which meant that I got to play on the playground too. I don’t know if you’ve ever played on a playground for four hours, but believe me, it’s worth a shot.

 

  • I got to watch a guy who’d become famous for being killed be awesome at his job for the last two months of his life.
    • Much of what was good about 2016 boils down to this, come to think of it. I got to be there. I got to watch.

 

  • My family and I went to Aspen. I was expecting to not like Aspen – I mean, I’d seen Dumb and Dumber, I knew what type of people visited Aspen – but much to my surprise, I wound up liking Aspen very much. We ate a picnic in a peace garden and wandered through the shady streets with their little mountain brooks. We couldn’t afford anything, but it was more funny than anything. It made me wonder what else in this world I might like if I tried it.

 

  • I got rejected, over and over again in so many ways. I thought of many ways to write this blog post – The personal rejections? Is that too much for a writing blog? The professional rejections? I mean, wouldn’t that make anyone not want to employ me in the future? No rejections at all? But that’s a lie, and maybe won’t admitting that I got rejected so repeatedly and so wholeheartedly in 2016, from things that I thought I was going to get and that I knew I was qualified for, maybe won’t that make me look, I don’t know, modest and retiring, two things I know I am not but strive daily to appear to be?  – but ultimately I think it’s best that I just say this: the rejections led me to this apartment, which is the most beautiful and the cleanest place I have ever lived; to this point in my novel, which is both closer to being done and further away from it than it’s ever been; and to this relationship, which is the sort of thing where the guy says, “On our trip to California, I don’t know if we’re going to manage to go horseback riding on the beach, but we’re definitely going to the mountains. I hope that’s okay with you?”
    • Tl;dr – I am now regularly waking up next to the kindest person ever in a place that I like, and then I go and do work that I love. None of this was true a year ago.

 

  • After the polls closed, four of us Democrats drove back from Willmar in a furious haste, excited for the election of the first female president, for our local candidates to win. We were giddy. For the past month we’d worked every day, twelve hours at a stretch, and we knew it had to be leading up to something good. Still, I, the driver, was nervous. I was also in charge, so I said, “You guys, I cannot listen to the radio’s results. I just can’t. I just want to roll up to the party when she wins, and that’s that.” The rest of the van listened. They shut off the radio, hooked up the auxiliary cable, and they played this rollicking selection of songs from their phones: The Book of Mormon, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Crosby, Stills and Nash, South Park  – anything was fair game. The car was ebullient in a way it had never been: it was carrying us forward, and nothing bad could possibly happen to us. Twenty days from Inauguration I still feel it, the mood in that car, and there’s nothing anyone can say that will convince me what we felt and made together was a lie.

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Meeting Thief

A thing people don’t know about Lan Samantha Chang, esteemed director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is that she’s hilarious. Granted, sometimes it isn’t on purpose – i.e. her scrutiny-face when she turns around at a reading to see who is and isn’t there – but usually it’s intentional. God, she kills. I miss getting to watch Sam be funny, which is why, last year, when visiting Iowa City, I enticed Dini (Parayitam!) to sneak with me into a meeting for second-years who were soon, like us, to be graduates.

To be clear: we were not supposed to be there.

Here are my notes, anyway.

(We insert ourselves amidst the clamoring crowd. As two mid-twenties women in casual dresses, we fit in quite well – we suspect we will be able to attend unnoticed, especially since Sam just last year peered around a workshop I wasn’t enrolled in and went, “Where’s Jessie?” So many people come through Iowa every year that temporality is not really an issue for them. When you get in, your file stays on file til you die, and probably after. Do we want to be noticed, or don’t we? We can’t tell.)

Minute 1: (Sam has not noticed, and neither, we think, has anyone else. Dini and I are aquiver with delight. It is as if we never left! The dream is real!)

She says, “I called this meeting because people told me they were worried about what to do after graduation.”

(We are wrong. Everyone who knows us has noticed us, and is laughing. Alice’s giggles are a delight. Stephen Markley seems most amused.)

“When I was a second-year,” Sam continues, “I was extremely anxious. It doesn’t seem to make people feel better if they’ve achieved great things.” (My marginalia: good advice)

“(As a writer), to establish a way of creating stability in your life is good.” She passes out a list of fellowships and residencies. (Marginalia: I knew I came here for a reason! I have just graduated and have zero idea what to do with my life beyond waving my degree around triumphantly at every possible opportunity.)

“Regarding the financial aid portion of these applications,” Sam says, “they probably want you to tell how or why you’re broke.” (Laughter, a lot of murmuring about the bar.) “Nobody gets the Stegner. A lot of people say, well, I’ve just made my annual contribution to Stanford University…” (Knowing laughter.)

Minute 8: Off-topic question regarding MFA exam, literally the one academic essay we have to write in our entire career, and results thereof, and when they will be announced. “Well, I know it is possible to fail it,” Sam says dreamily. “Someone did three times once, you know.”

(General gasp of shock.)

From the corner, Ethan Canin, quite cheerily: “It’s someone you wouldn’t expect it to be!”

Sam: “But it is possible to publish it, you know. Tony (Tulathimutte, of Private Citizens fame) got his in The American Reader.”

(Crowd does not know what to think.)

Minute 11: Sam just called Noel out on his tendency to insert extra spaces between paragraphs. “But you said double-spaced,” he says.

“Yes, well. Not like you. You have a way of putting an extra space in between paragraphs? It’s lengthened your work considerably…”

(Probably too much laughter)

Minute 13: Dini and I realize that Liz Weiss, who also has, hello, graduated already, is here, and thus we are no longer original. Dini writes, “She wins.”

Sam is talking about the academic job market. She seems stumped. She says, “Well, one other person who might know about the academic job market is…” (Loooong pause, pleased expression.) “Well: me! For one thing.”

Segue to fellowship talk: “What we also give out is – we also give out cash?”

Minute 14: Sam mentions the New Zealand fellowship, which I have just returned from, but does not mention me, so that’s all right.

Minute 15: Dini is sure Connie Brothers has definitely noticed us.

Will Jameson, from the back: “Can you talk more about the cash?”

Minute 20: Panicked realization, on my part, that I have not written any thank-you letters for any fellowships I have received ever.

Sam, talking about workshop donors: “They do come here and we are nice to them. We try to show them our most presentable side.” (Question from audience: Like who? Like, which of us is the most presentable side?) “They tend to be people who…” (searches ceiling for example) “… look at how other people do their hair?”

Minute 21: Inexplicable drawing of a dinosaur saying, “so lonely”

Minute 30: Sam to student, whose name is lost to time: “Do you have a question?” Student: “Oh, no. I’m just, like, listening really hard.”

Minute 32: “You know, what you can do is, you can get a… job?” (Tone: as if it’s a crazy suggestion.) “Right, like there’s this one student who graduated last year, and she’s doing amazingly, she’s working at a law firm, and I was totally willing to write her a letter of recommendation, because structure, you know, it can work so well for some people.” (She stares around the room, her eyes saying GET A JOB, while Dini and I look at each other in glee, realizing that she’s talking about our beloved eternal roomie Jeri, who is now ensconced in Sam’s mind as a shining example of employability.)

Minute 40: (eagerly) “I know you guys are really stressed out! Do you wanna talk about stress??”

Minute 42: Someone asks about the PhD. Sam says, “After a certain point, being in school makes you old.” (Laughter.) “How does being in school make you old? Because time passes when you’re in school, and you are older when you graduate than when you started.” (Audience seems unable to decide if this is really Zen or really stupid. Is resolved with following metaphor.) “It’s like being a sailor who comes back from sea to find that your sweetheart has married someone else…” (Audience sits back in appreciation)

Minute 45: Someone says, “Well, you could always move to Spain or Uruguay. You know, somewhere cheap.” And Sam nods her approval. Meeting concludes on tone of general geniality – we all feel as if we know more and less than when we started. As Dini and I stand, Connie Brothers makes a beeline for us through the crowd, ready to laugh at the fact that we were there.

 

 

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New Management

This morning: cut to me, bourgeois, slicing an avocado, piling it with egg, garnishing with tomato – sitting in my kitchen, nibbling cornbread, telling myself enjoy your food, Hennen, don’t just wolf it, this is your problem, you want everything to be over so quickly, the only solution is to slow down – a pleasant revelation, and I’m enjoying it, when something says wait, hold on, and I realize: it’s the first day of school, and Phil, my friend, is still dead.

I’m talking Philando Castile, here, whose beautiful and frequently-misspelled name is now something people chant on streets around the world. Everyone knows him, unless they’ve gotten the facts mixed up with the facts of another young black guy shot by police (I can forgive them, because there are so many): stopped for a taillight, reaching for license, conceal-carry, girlfriend’s video went live, covering everyone’s news feeds in the video of him in a white shirt that got redder and redder as he died. Horrible, but it’s true, the world has seemed to move on rather quickly. I myself have been able to ignore it some days, to believe him to be fading into memory, a famous dead man I knew once. I can walk past posters with his name, fashionably-writ, just fine. I thought this was just how it would be, because I have another job now, and we are no longer coworkers.

But still –

Across town in a windowless cafeteria, another guy is putting trays of baby carrots in the salad bar as children gather at the door. His hands shake on the tongs as he casts back a stray piece of lettuce – everything’s got to be perfect. Like Phil, he’s gotten up at 4, fully aware of the weight of the day. Probably for a time this morning he’s been able to lose himself in his own tiredness, in the awkward routines of a new cafeteria. But now the children are here.

The St. Paul Schools – they wouldn’t just toss someone brand-new into this, wouldn’t they? Or someone who looked too much like Phil – someone six feet tall with dreads that barely fit under the shower-cap-like hairnet? Someone with glasses? Someone with slow speech and a slow smile? It’s a problem, to look too much like Philando Castile, and so probably they’ve found some white guy. Or maybe a woman – maybe they’ve drafted Vanessa, who’s usually in back, ladling out the portions and sprinting back and forth from oven to tray-line. Surely it’d be a comfort to the children to see someone they know standing in his old spot – someone who can hug them as they pass through the line and say, I know, I know, I’m sad too. Still, what would it do to her to have to stand there and push buttons – when this isn’t her place, when it’s wrong, all wrong, when he should be here, when he isn’t?

But lunch must be eaten. The moment is here. The children are waiting in the door.

The new guy doesn’t know the way. There’s been nobody to train him in: his predecessor was shot in his front seat two months ago, reaching for his license while saying in that slow voice that he was carrying a handgun, saying it in his slow voice so that what ended up happening wouldn’t happen. It was on Larpenteur Avenue, where it happened, the same street as the State Fair – on my way there yesterday I passed a banner that said “WHAT WOULD PHILANDO CASTILE HAVE WANTED TO COME OF HIS DEATH?” What a question to ask – as if he could have predicted this. But he had; he’d been stopped, what was it, thirty or three hundred times. He knew what people saw when they looked at him. He couldn’t wear the hairnet everywhere, after all, or be surrounded constantly by a crowd of adoring kids.

The new guy looks to the door. There, clustered, are the children. The new librarian – not me, I was just filling in, I was only ever meant to be temporary, but I did think I could come back and visit everyone, only now it turns out I can’t, not everyone, at any rate – doesn’t know what to do. The answer: do what Phil would have done, which is to raise one hand, like Neo in The Matrix beckoning Agent Smith, and to grin, and say, “Come on.”

Whatever else I am wrong about, I do know this: that there must be a moment on this first day of school in which everyone waits, uncertain, for someone who must, surely must, know what to do next.

But it’s hard, because nothing anyone can do would be enough.

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The Notebook

As per my yearly moving tradition, I am procrastinating by going through old notebooks. I have a whole box of ’em. I only ever rummage through them at moments like this, never, say, when seeking inspiration or solace – but lord, it is nice to realize that Past Me is capable of making Current Me laugh.

I’ve been posting doodles on people’s Facebook walls, probably to an annoying extent. And I’ve been pestering my roommate with snippets – my list of all the dudes I made out with while “studying” in Ireland, say, or my list of ways in which confidence can be defined. (“Confidence is biking at the edge of a pier to get a better look at the fish. One-handed.” “Confidence is road head.” Her: “Huh.”) I like her, Past Me – she’s filled with most of the same anxieties as Present Me, oddly enough, although I do have the smug benefit of knowing how things will turn out, so ha ha. She has a lot of ideas for things. Not all of those ideas are good.

But the beginning of this short story about a basil plant…

 

 

The basil plant is dying, and Marge is relieved. The promise of endless basil had been, in the supermarket, tempting. And the plant had been $3.99. And she had been planning spaghetti for supper that night, and she did always feel slightly inferior when she used dried herbs in a recipe from her cookbook, which always ordered, snootily, that they be fresh.

So she’d bought it, and that night, she’d apologized profusely as she’d snipped off four leaves. “I am so sorry, little plant.”

“OUCH,” the plant had said, looking up at her, wounded. “Those were my best leaves. Now how am I supposed to photosynthesize?”

“You’ll grow more!” she said, excited by the possibilities. “Then we’ll have pizza… and lasagna… and … um… other things that require a lot of basil…”

“My name’s Steve,” the plant said, rustling its other flat green leaves into place to cover the hole. “”You mean: your recipes will require a lot of Steve.”

 

 

(And that’s all Past Me wrote. HOW DOES IT END?)

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