Running Boy Wolf Speaks

Last night, I was fortunate to attend the opening reception for a local emerging artist, Dacian Cavender-DeMuth (also known as Sungcinca), at the K.K. Berge Gallery in downtown Granite Falls.*

I was impressed by Cavender-DeMuth’s relative lack of formal artistic training; he has studied at the Montessori school in Montevideo for only a few years, but is largely self-taught, mostly due to the fact that he is six years old.

Sungcinca (second from right) explains one of his earliest works.

Still, his show — titled Running Boy Wolf, because, as he explained in his artist talk, “I am a boy, and I am a wolf, and sometimes I am fast” — wove together myriad themes of spirituality, ancestry, and (occasionally) ninjas. Dapper in a blazer over a Hawaiian-print shirt, Dacian shared with us, an audience of around thirty adults and children, his inspiration and artistic process, receiving occasional help from his artist’s assistant, his father, our friend Scott. (He also took breaks for bathroom trips and more sparkling cider.)

In case you’re wondering what people out here in Granite Falls get up to, this is it.

Because I am not a photographer, I took very few photos of the art itself, but I did take copious notes during Dacian’s talk, which was even better than I thought it would be; I’d been excited to attend ever since an opening a month prior at which Dacian had asked multiple probing, relevant questions of the artists, including “But why did you do all this?” and “You made a sculpture of a mammoth, but why is it not very tall?” Plus, Miles (my now-husband) had spent some time with the art in question, helping Scott and Dacian’s mother our friend Autumn to frame and mat it. He assured me that it was very good.

Dacian’s talk ranged from the mundane — discussions of his process, such as the time he, at three years old in this very gallery, broke the rules for an assigned project — to the ephemeral. (Forty minutes in: “Yetis exist! But no one knows they exist. But they are spirits! And you can travel to that spirit world!”

Audience member, jokingly: “Thought you were gonna get into string theory for a second there, bud.”

Dacian’s artist assistant, Scott: “Give him one more glass of juice, and who knows?”)

Cavender-DeMuth explained at its beginning that he had chosen to do this show, the first in the gallery by a kid artist (though there will apparently be more — my heart!), because he fervently believes that kids’ art is as valid as adult art. Waving his hands, he said, “If you have kids, give them real paintbrushes! Real art supplies!”

“But what if they get dirty? Or broken?” said his Montessori school teacher, raising her eyebrows over her mask.

Dacian was temporarily stumped, and leaned against his father (who was wearing an adult version of the same outfit) for support. Then he said, “Well, who cares? Wash them!” And he was right.

While taking notes, I realized that this gallery opening with its matted art and loving title cards was something my parents might have done. Good parents are like this: they tell their children that they can be anything they want to be, right now, and then help them accomplish it. When I was Dacian’s age, my own mom ordered dollhouse parts for me from a catalog, helped me painstakingly shingle my new kit’s roof, and then facilitated my and four other dollhouse-owning friends putting on a show in a conference room at the Shoreview library, our houses illuminated by Christmas lights and set out as a neighborhood, tables covered in a roll of green felt for turf.

Our show was not as successful as Dacian’s — my friends spent most of the day lolling about and playing, while I sat at a table with my teeth gritted, waiting for an eager audience that didn’t really show up — but I do remember it fondly. I will also remember this.

Other highlights:

1.

Friend Dani Prados, the artist whose opening we’d attended the month before: “What’s the difference, Dacian, between creating a piece of two-dimensional art and a piece of three-dimensional art?”

Dacian, making a gesture I could only describe in my notebook as ‘exasperated mobster hands’: “It’s a piece of art! What’s the difference?”

2.

As his assistant Scott explained, Dacian distinguishes between ART and just simple finger-painting; he carefully curated the pieces that would appear in this show. (It reminded me of the time a group of us grad students asked Marilynne Robinson what she does between books, if, as she’d said, she doesn’t write fiction unless exceptionally inspired; she said, wearily, “Well, I soil pages.”)

For him, some pictures are simple messing around, childish play. Others are “a blue painting that is a portal to the spirit world where all of us will go!!” and spark him to then tell us how he thinks the world will end — basically, people will stop having babies, and then there will be no more people.

(Dacian’s mother Autumn: “Let’s be clear, we have never let him watch Children of Men.”)

3.

Dacian, when asked to explain the exceptionally beautiful rotated finger-painting four-part artworks behind the audience’s heads: “It’s a portal to space. And space is time, and time is space.”

(There was an audible oooh in response; Miles, the philosophy major next to me, nodded knowingly.)

4.

Would he sell his art? It depended, apparently; he’d gone into the show intent on selling nothing, “No originals! Only prints!”, but now, a few hours in, I could tell he was weakening.

Perhaps he was tempted to — faced with an audience of eager buyers — sell out, even though he (being six) is not entirely sure of the value of money. Or perhaps he was remembering that at the cabin, he’d told his grandparents that he would indeed sell it… and now, as he explained, he didn’t want to be a liar.

Finally he decided: “If you are family, you can just have it.” (Scott clarified: it is important to Dacian that his art go to someone who knows its story — possibly since, as he said at the end of his talk, “all my arts are spirits. Maybe. I’m just saying that. But who knows?”)

“If you are a friend…” He opened his eyes, looking around the room, realizing that his parents have a lot of friends. “One dollar, or how much you want. But NOT for free.”

That’s that, then.

5.

Near the end of the talk, an audience member: “Is there a question you wish we would ask?”

Dacian, hoarse: “Why did you all COME here??”

I should have told him that I could literally not think of a better way to spend an evening, but I was too busy scrawling it all down.

There you have it, folks. In Cavender-DeMuth / Sungcinca’s words, “I want everyone to know that kids can make art. Anyone can make art. You can do anything you want! You can choose any path in your mind.” (We all clapped over our plates of ham sandwiches, finger rolls, and apples cut to look like goofy open mouths with strawberry tongues.)

Dacian raised a finger. We waited.

“Except being mean and evil.”

The audience laughed.

“I’m NOT KIDDING,” he roared.

Duly noted.

*I now teach writing classes at this gallery on select Tuesdays, by the way — if you’re interested in spending an evening scrawling in response to prompts that have worked for me, shoot me an email at jessie.rose.hennen (at) gmail, and I will tell you more. They are fun, painless, and go down as easily as multiple glasses of child-friendly sparkling cider.

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The Very Not Secret Garden

There are books one reads as a child and then, as an adult, forgets — or not quite forgets, but fails to remember. They become as internalized as a dream. They are memories, but stolen memories; when a child reads, after all, she becomes the characters, takes their actions as her own.

AnEpisodeOfSparrows.jpg

I think my copy of An Episode of Sparrows, a 1955 novel by a writer named Rumer Godden, came from my auntie Jeanne or my mom, but it might also have been something I happened across at a garage sale and picked up for no reason. It, along with the first-edition Nancy Drews and a coverless copy of Heidi, was just always there in the old-smelling region of my bookshelf. I read it repeatedly, as I read most things, but unlike the Narnia books, no one else I knew could discuss it with me. It was mine alone.

An Episode of Sparrows takes place in the ruins of London after World War II. Its heroine is a salty girl named Lovejoy, raised by her aunt and uncle, who own a failing restaurant. Her uncle is full of big dreams; he spends all their money on fine-china tablewear and a stained-glass window and roses for vases. Her aunt is more practical, harried with cooking and finances, realistically unsure how they are going to make a fine restaurant happen in a city still starving.

Basically, Lovejoy has a lot of time to herself. Usually she misuses it, but one day, in the course of her daily routine terrorizing other neighborhood children, she happens upon the bombed-out backyard of a church, where there is, as she breathes, “a patch of earth.”

Lovejoy suddenly realizes she can grow things in the earth. Of course, she decides that no one else can come to her garden — it will be a small thing purely hers. She steals a trowel and a hand fork from a shop, digs up a woman’s rose bush and plants it, rings it and the seeds she has stolen – wheatgrass, or “cress,” as the English charmingly call it – with shards of cracked pottery, and hoards and tends.

Then the neighborhood boys discover her garden, and of course it is wrecked. (Probably out of revenge; the reader is left with the impression that Lovejoy has done some shit.) Lovejoy vows to give up gardening entirely — until the leader of the boys, feeling guilty, decides to help her rebuild. But this time, he tells her, they’ll go about it right: no stealing.

This entire plot summary is from my memory, and upon checking Wikipedia, I find it’s more or less accurate. An Episode of Sparrows lives in a part of my brain not unlike those time capsules teachers were always having us bury, or the letters we wrote to our future selves. It’s easy to know why I remembered it so well: reading it, I just was Lovejoy, rummaging in the bomb-black earth for shards of glass.

Probably inspired by the book, I tried to start a vegetable garden once. I think I was ten, Lovejoy’s age. It went all right, at first. My parents helped me buy plants and put them in the earth next to our playhouse. I was an excited gardener, but not a careful one; instead of weeding, I’d kneel in the dirt and pull up the carrots to see if they were ready yet. I usually ended up eating them, even though they were gritty with earth and the size of spaghetti noodles.

The tomatoes did okay, but the corn ruined it all for me. It grew, certainly, reaching the promised knee height by the fourth of July, then eye-height in August. Stalks sprouted coyly out and turned into cobs. I was a farmer! Finally, I felt it was the day.

Corn for dinner tonight! I announced. My mom waited with the grill and a bag to shuck the husks into.

I plucked them — five ears, a dumb harvest for a whole summer’s impatience, but whatever, it was my first one. Tenderly I peeled back the first leaf.

And here’s something none of us non-gardeners knew: apparently corn kernels – if not properly pesticided – turn into massive sacs of black, pestilent crap. (This too is a visceral childhood sense memory, but one I try to bury, though not successfully.)

Trembling, I poked one of the kernels, and it spat mold at me. In a panic I peeled back the other ears. No food, just black leering sacs, fetid and rotted and a punch line to a summer-long joke.

I threw them in the trash, my trust shattered. Gardening, I decided, was not my thing. This, I know now, is a lazy gifted-kid way to approach the situation — “Well, if I’m not good at it IMMEDIATELY, it’s not worth doing” — but at the time, it felt like a sign. I think I even stopped reading An Episode of Sparrows, I was that mad at Lovejoy and her eventual success.

After the nice boy comes to help her, Lovejoy earns money (somehow) to buy actual earth. They befriend the priest of the church, and he’s not creepy at all; he helps them build raised beds. The neighborhood boys come to clear the rubble. Unlike Lovejoy’s uncle’s restaurant, the garden is a success.

The lesson is obviously that only by working together with people will you accomplish something great, but that really was not my takeaway from the book. I was most fond instead of the scenes with Lovejoy alone with her rose and the shards of china, building a tiny empire for herself. (This is probably why, as an adult, I write books — a vain solitary pursuit if there ever was one.)

As a child and a teen, I had a lot of hobbies — not just the garden, but dollhouses, music, drawing pictures for a children’s magazine that would pay me $30 per art (usually mailed at the very last minute by my mother, who had to cram all of my cray-pas pictures into an envelope and then speed to the post office). It was the same in college, where I had a horse and was an art major and spoke German. I like to joke that I’d have been very successful in finishing school.

But in my twenties, those slipped away, as I suppose they do for most people who have left the arms of their indulgent parents and must now make their own millennial way in the world. My new hobbies were going to the bar and talking for a very long time and clicking through the Internet. I still read, of course; I find it funny when people speak reverently of reading as being a noble pursuit, because for me it has never been a noble pursuit, more a compulsive tic, a thing I have to do before I go to sleep or else who knows how on earth I will get to dreamland; but I claimed I had no time to do anything but read. I sneered at the word hobby — oh, yes, the thing men on Reddit are advised to pick up to make themselves more interesting!

I think I’d have kept on in that way forever… if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re getting married this fall, and if we want flowers in our garden then, we have to plant them now, apparently.

So last week, my mother-in-law Mary took me on a trip. It was raining, and a Tuesday, and cold; we passed field after field of the same soybeans and corn, forgotten little towns, until we came to a place between town and field, a little house and a set of Quonset-hut-style greenhouses.

I am not going to reveal the name of this place. I am just going to say that it is run by an insanely healthy-looking family (I was eventually rung up by a tween, whose apple-cheeked mother whispered at her “You’re with a customer, stop eating pretzel sticks!” while she did the math for my purchases, one sticking out from between her lips), who plants everything in midwinter, tends it til it blooms, then opens for business for two months precisely. They are usually sold out by Mother’s Day. It was a Tuesday but the place was packed, mostly with women in their seventies.

In the greenhouse, I grew deranged. Mary, a very good gardener who has taken many classes, helped me select ones that would do well — “You need a thriller, a spiller, and a… what’s the word? Oh, yes, a filler!” she said triumphantly, handing me tall grass, a loose-leafed green, and a petunia — but she could not contain me; it wound up feeling like one of those shopping sprees, the supermarket sweeps featured in certain nineties TV game shows.

We talked to the healthy woman about wedding flowers for bouquets – “I love larkspur, and zinnia, and mums,” I babbled, “as well as snapdragons if those are in season?”

She looked at me in surprise, and said, “Wow, you do know plant names!”

I basked. They had emerged from me, sprouting from that time-capsule place deep in my brain, or possibly some deep epigenetic memory encoded by my garden-crazed grandmother.

Coming out, I was poorer (but not by as much as I thought I’d be), and filled with trepidation. How sure I was that I would murder all of them, every tomato and petunia and King Tut grass that I was carrying out!

But okay, Lovejoy — with a garden, it does help to have help.

On Mother’s Day, Miles and Mary and I set out on a gardening rampage. We’d already potted the decorative flowers, and now it was time to clear the way for the vegetables. Mary and I pulled out sticks while Miles went at the earth with a tiller. We put in the hostas and garlic chives from Mary’s garden, dragged pavers from under the fire pit to make a spot for the grill, and found fences in the outbuildings to keep the rabbits out.

Five hours later, we were sun-dazed and in need of beer. But we were also surrounded by plants, or places where plants would soon be — we just had to have faith and believe the seeds would sprout.

“Look at us, these assholes,” Miles and I chanted at each other, “who do they think they are, planting a garden and caring for their husky puppy and wearing sunscreen? What are they trying to prove?”

This morning, wandering around to look proudly at everything, I thought of Israel and Palestine and the bombing that’s currently happening; I don’t pray often but I am praying for their Lovejoys, all the people trying to make something good out of a ruin.

Possibly that’s because someone on Reddit, this morning, posted in the suggestmeabook subreddit — “Please help. My country is being bombed, and I need something to read to distract me in my shelter.” People in the comments showed up, mostly suggesting gentle fantasy, and everyone concluded with something like, damn, man (everyone on Reddit is presumed male b/c the patriarchy), that blows, hope you’re okay. Every suggestion seemed to be invisibly predicated by the knowledge that some situations are so bad no book can cure them — except perhaps?

It’s hard not to feel guilt, looking around at the garden. We have space, and enough money and time, and fresh earth, and a mother-in-law who shows up with a serrated trowel. But I suppose I should only truly feel guilty if we make this garden and don’t share it, because holy crap are we going to have a lot of tomatoes and zucchini and chives, weather and my natural laziness depending.

Planting a garden isn’t so much a hobby as it is an exercise in believing in the future. I’ve concluded — mostly based on my other new hobby, which is (ugh! I hate me!) working out — that I’m more of a marathoner than a sprinter; whenever I get on the damn exercise bike, I can see my stats as compared to other people’s, and I always start off very behind and end up swiftly gaining on everyone in the last ten minutes or so of class, mostly thanks to my massive ass, which loves biking. I am hoping that my novels are the same way; I might not be my immediately-famous friends from grad school, but I might be a sleeper hit if I tend my beds just right and remember to fertilize.

No one talks about An Episode of Sparrows; it’s like I dreamed it. But it really mattered to me, and maybe something I write will one day hit someone in the same way — it’ll be the book equivalent of the row of sunflowers I planted the other day but whose location I forgot to mark, a surprise crop bursting forth from the earth.

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Pandemic Quarterly Report

I’ve had this monster of a blog post queued up on my site for a while, glaring at me from my Drafts folder. If you’re reading this the day I posted it, it’s March 12th: the one-year anniversary of Shit Getting Real! You, citizen of the world, know what I mean.

If you live in Minnesota, your own “wait, we’re really in a pandemic” bellwether moment probably occurred pretty close to mine, though obviously if you live in China or New York or Italy, your epiphany that things were about to actually change was much earlier. My realization possibly came later than most Midwesterners’; I kept holding out hope that somehow we here in flyover terrain were going to dodge it. There were a lot of factors I hadn’t taken into account – the transmissibility, the incompetence of the federal government – but still I find I’m somewhat unable to forgive myself for not seeing any of this coming.

Obviously, there were omens. Minneapolis started seeming eerie in early March, though nobody was yet hoarding toilet paper. The night of the 10th, I went to my friend Anya DeNiro’s reading at the Strike Theater; I remember her delicately disinfecting the mic and wearing full rubber gloves (even if there was still a vocal, unmasked crowd in attendance). Afterward, we went to the bar where Miles worked as a DJ and sound guy for four years. No one was there, but it wasn’t that unusual for a Tuesday. We squeezed into a booth, drank martinis, and talked about writing, trying to convince ourselves that everything was still normal.

(That would be the last time I ever went to LUSH, which I’d visited at least twice monthly for five years: it shut down forever in June. Weird to think of that cavernous dance floor, newly renovated, now just sitting there – all those high leather booths we complained about now covered in dust.)

On Thursday the 12th, I went to meet with students at the tutoring center. All week we’d been Lysoling the tabletops; the room reeked of bleach, but the kids kept showing up, because no matter what happened, they’d still probably have to take the ACT.

Midway through the five hours I was there, my boss sent an email. I remember he worded it in an admirably relaxed manner, but the subtext was: SHUT IT DOWN. SHUT IT ALL DOWN.

So there it was, The Moment.

You had one too, probably — a wild hour in which you grabbed what you needed and shut the door behind you for the last time. Unless, of course, you’re an essential worker who’s been serving people this whole year long, you – like me – had a day in which you drove away, telling yourself that surely sooner or later all of this would be figured out. Two weeks, tops, I said in my emails to students. But til then, we’ll be on Zoom. It’s easy to use if you’re not familiar with the platform!

(I sure wasn’t. My only Zoom prior to March 13th had been a first round of interviews for an academic job posting; I remember sitting and watching my pasted-on smile in the mirrored window, the eyes above it saying I do not like this, this is not at all like being in the same room.)

And then, all at once, I was home. Forever.

I started to realize that I had a real phobia of nights in. Miles and I usually spent ours bopping from readings to events to parties at friends’ houses. Evenings spent home on the couch: what was even the point? What was I doing, just waiting for sleep and then morning?? Like an idiot???

“Three days in, the cats have won,” I posted on Instagram on the 15th, over a picture of Ed and Bernard sitting on Miles’s back as he sprawled facedown on the bed. The subtext: here we are in the formless void, the miasma of our own human dust. 72 hours in.

But twelve months later, the pandemic has not yet killed us (or our forthcoming marriage). We’ve been lucky; we believe we had the virus early on, back in February, when it was circling but no one really knew that it’d hit certain people in Minnesota yet. I was knocked out for twelve days; Miles lost his sense of smell and taste. Since we were idiots, we ended up giving it to many of our friends and family at a housewarming party, but all of them overcame it and (as of yet) no one who was there has come down with it since. Again, we were lucky. Our worst enemy has been boredom.

I’ve come to realize, though, that the pandemic for us has definitely had its phases. Probably yours has too.

Gentle reader, please allow me to narrativize. All dates are approximate, but the experiences themselves sure aren’t.

  1. Livestreams, Night Rollerskating and Tiger King: 3/12 – 5/27

When I feel nostalgia for anything that happened in 2020, this period is it. We were at home and leery of everything and wearing gloves but not masks, and yes, when we went to the store, all the toilet paper shelves were empty. And yes, it was tremendously scary to realize that there was no end in sight. And yes, the worst federal administration in history was not only not helping, but denying that it was even a thing.

But Tiger King was on Netflix, and everyone had opinions!

And Miles, god bless him, had figured out how to DJ from home. He immediately set up a weekly livestream and (of course) figured out how to rope in other lost musicians. “Do you want to do a reading?” he asked, and I was like, dude, who wants to hear literary fiction? Especially in a pandemic? But I did try, intoning a chapter from my book into the mic in our well-lighted Northeast living room.

“Cool!” he said. “Do it again next week!”

Well, I had time, since most of my students had canceled. In between freaking out about money, I began to wonder if maybe people would appreciate sketch comedy instead of ponderous novel chapters. Our friend Madi, who, being a comedian, could no longer perform in person and was similarly at odds, agreed to help. Elizabeth Ghandour, a musician without an audience, also wanted in.

Jessie’s Dollhouse was born.

It went from a half hour of loosely-collected material (I read short stories, Madi read a speech piece they had written in high school, we chatted live onscreen for a while) to – by the end of May – a full two-hour parody of A Prairie Home Companion with a segment called The News from My Fucking Living Room. We set Madi up with a table and random kitchen implements to create sound effects and / or teach us how to walk like animals. Elizabeth provided musical accompaniment. I listened to a lot of recordings of Garrison Keillor and inhabited my alternate-universe self, Jessica Feeler, a winsome host who kept alluding to the fact that she didn’t grope people, not anymore.

Afterward – because they’d re-blacktopped the road outside our house and we still had Kat’s blue suede rollerskates, which I’d borrowed for an elementary-school play I’d helped a group of kids write but never ended up performing – we took turns learning to twirl circles in the street.

2. Police Murder, Civil Unrest, and Hamilton: 5/28 – 7/30 (ish)

“They killed someone else, and it’s bad,” Miles said.

He’d woken up earlier than me, and he’d watched the full nine minutes of the video of Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck. (To this day, I haven’t; Miles is basically my Werner Herzog listening to that tape of Grizzly Man getting eaten.) He was pale, thinking of his dad, who’d been badly hurt by police in California in 2018; I was thinking of Philando Castile, murdered by Jeronimo Janez in front of his girlfriend and her kid but never receiving justice. Nine minutes, everyone around them screaming at Chauvin to get off, while Floyd died.

“Hold on,” we said, looking at the map on the Star Tribune article. “Isn’t that right by Madi?”

It sure was: Cup Foods, the site of the killing, was a block and a half away from their house. We met them and Eric in the front yard; masked, we twitched nervously as a growing crowd walked past. They had a nice collection of medical supplies and bottled water out already. We spray-painted our signs and went to Cup, not up the street where people were, but up the alley — it was odd, too odd, to be in such a large group. How much we’d already changed after three months inside.

We clustered by a fence and watched the speakers, joined the chants. The crowd began to move, heading away from Cup Foods and east – hundreds if not thousands of people, families with kids in strollers, people our age, people in their seventies, everyone’s faces grim and horrified. I realized at once that I had no idea where Madi was, and then suddenly did – they were way up on the roof across from Cup Foods, a gangly figure tying a sign to the top of the building and leaning fearlessly over its edge to take photographs.

Miles and I left when the sun started to set and the rain started to fall. Madi and Eric stayed, and they’ve been there for months now. Eric’s bought a house in the autonomous zone; Madi (among everything else they do) helps run the community meetings, and persuaded me to come be a note-taker at several of them. I wish I’d gone to more. Every time I went last summer, leaving my pandemic home-hole and tying on my mask and walking into George Floyd Square past its ever-changing murals and deposits of flower-condolences from all around the world and barbecue smoke and chalked list of names, Phil’s front and center, it was a new experience.

Northeast, our home, was largely untouched by the unrest, though one night we drove with our friend Keke through the neighborhood and definitely saw people mid-loot of the gas station. It wasn’t so for other people – we messaged our group chat via video one night, and Andrew checked in from his upper-floor apartment above the Midtown Global Market. He panned around; the ground below both of his windows was full of fire, like he was Saruman and the Ents had come to destroy Isengard. “Come stay with us!” we cried, and he was like, dude, how do you propose I get there, exactly? Take an Uber?

How strange it was, though, to feel our dull little state at the center of a global movement. On nights we were at home, we watched Hamilton, over and over. It felt familiar, all these people discussing fervently how to create a new and better world. “I want to be in the room where it happens,” Michelle and I sang to each other, biking home through an abandoned city from boarding up our friends’ art gallery, the sky above us blue, clear and bright, the air fragrant with smoke and pollen.

3. The Bad Place: summer-fall

I’ve written about this before; I won’t do it again. I don’t know how to say it right. I don’t know if there is a right way to say – hey, I was in this tragedy that wasn’t about me, but which has affected me nonetheless. I want to do it without making it about me, but I don’t know if there is a way.

But in late August, right as we were packing up our things to move from Minneapolis to Miles’s family farm (our landlords had sold our house, again, and we were tired of it, and I worked from home, and Miles can make art anywhere, and so we figured why not go live somewhere that wouldn’t kick us out for a while), I went to meet my brother at the park, and instead wound up watching a child drown in the river. We tried to help. We failed. We were there for the incident and the aftermath, but we got to walk away.

I realized I’d spent the year lying to children.

I’d told my students that coronavirus? It’d blow over like Ebola. I’d said to the elementary-schoolers – of course we will put on your play! I’d said to high-schoolers: of course your test will happen, of course it won’t be canceled, of course it matters what you get on the ACT amidst all this. And I told the drowned boy’s sister, wailing on the bank, that he would be saved, when in reality he was leaving her forever.

That day on the bank of the river, I was weirdly calm and rational, though not rational enough to reach him with a branch.

But all summer? In patches? I’d been panicking.

The anxiety attacks I was experiencing are the number one reason I think we did actually have the virus before it was cool: a new anxiety disorder is a known consequence, a Long Covid symptom. I’d never felt anything like them. When they hit, the world zoomed and my hands went far away. My heart rattled, my breath grew strange; I lost all color and started to sweat. I’d think, they won’t happen, not today, and then they would. I’d feel like I was going to explode and pass out, but never did.

They might have been a symptom of a disease, but they were also a pretty logical reaction to everything happening in the world – everything I’d told myself I was making it through just fine. I was overworking myself, frantic with the impulse to hoard cash in case society collapsed. I was feeling like I wasn’t doing enough, not about any of the horrible things.

And then came that day at the river when I really did not quite do enough, and that was it: we got out of town, our cars packed tight with as much as we could fit, the cats mewling in the piles around me.

As we left Northeast for the last time, I turned a corner and a giant pile of cat food cans collapsed all over my lap, and I pulled over around the corner from our former house and just – didn’t panic, not quite, but laughed, laughed in this hysterical way I’d also never heard come out of myself before, either.

4. Ed’s Place, Pet Hoarding, and Groundhog Day: 9/5 – now

Here on the farm, I’ve written a lot: a whole novel by hand (it’s called Dryad and I like it quite a bit), multiple essays, and some short stories, even. One of them is called “The Forever Present” – it features a woman and her husband who have absconded to a farm in the middle of a formless void. They spend their evenings with their four cats, murdering Time, who is personified as a whiny and deeply annoying man. They are both aware of their luck and, also, not.

I am surprised to find that I have become comfortable – or more so – with boredom. Every morning is the same: I wake (to the whining of our dog or the circular meows of our cats), I let them out, I make coffee, and then I go upstairs to one of my two offices to do morning pages. Sometimes the dog joins, sitting at my feet in a rare restive state. I make a list. I work on the novel or go grocery shopping at the Marshall Aldi (Miles and I can now be in and out and $120 poorer in around 30 minutes). Then I meet with kids over Zoom, coaching them through their college essays or their standardized test prep, because yes, a year into pandemic, they still have to do all of that.

At night, we don’t always watch TV – a change from last March, when it was all we did. We have dinner; I sit on the couch that all the pets covet, swaddled in a half-peaceable nest of them, reading thrillers on my Kindle app. We video-chat friends. And then we go to bed, and we do it all over again.

There are some minor variations. Miles has built us a small bar out of a former corncrib. We call it Ed’s Place, after the most dominant cat, who does not enjoy being there but runs it nonetheless. It has a woodstove and a VCR. Sometimes friends from the city get tested and come out and occupy it with us on the weekends; Elizabeth and Christine and I did our first livestream from it a few weeks ago, and I was amazed, watching the recording, to see how cozy it all looked, a little NPR tiny desk in our backyard. Last night, we trained the dog to fetch wood from the pile outside and drop it by the fire. It’s pretty good in there.

I have developed a lot of coping mechanisms; I’ve got time. Some of them aren’t healthy – the Reddit scrolling, the wine. Others, however, are: I have a yoga room, now, and I take Vitamin D and GABA, and I dose myself with CBD, and I am relieved to find that the panic attacks aren’t in me anymore. When I feel the edge of one, I am now able to breathe through it and remind myself that I’ve gotten through this before and can do it again.

It’s a good now, this stream of nows. I know I’ll long for it, maybe, in the future – now that the vaccine is coming and society might not collapse the way I thought it would last year.

We’re surprised to find that we may decide to stay here. It’s not what we had in the city, that string of parties and events; it’s quieter, more controlled, and a little bit more the grown-up version of us.

If the virus had never developed, obviously life would be better: many more people would be alive, and the rest of us would not have had this year of ever-present stress, the consequences of which are yet to be determined. But we personally would never have come here; we’d never have met the two new cats, Kelly and Zeke, who wandered up after harvest, and we wouldn’t have Campion the husky puppy, and we wouldn’t know how much we were quite capable of handling, in that we are alive and have found a measure of happiness amidst it all.

We’re getting married in September, come what may. We’re making plans for the farmland, tentative ones – we’ve seen how our friends from the city like being here, how Madi and Eric, for instance, leave the square and sit for an afternoon on the couch, enjoying the quiet. I’ve bought a dumb Peloton-lite bike, and it turns out cardio is very good for me, which is not something I ever knew before.

In this chrysalis of a year, we’ve been changing even as we’ve stayed home, and we’re pleasantly surprised that we rather like what we’ve become.

I hope that if you’ve read this far, you too will come out okay. I miss you all, but we’ll be back.

Ba da da da da, da da da da dayyyayaya da da dah da dah dah daaaaaaaaaaaa

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Dog vs. Winter

After months of applying and being either ghosted or told that the creature in question was alas unavailable, we finally succeeded in setting up a meeting with one. In early January, we drove twenty minutes to Marshall, nervous the whole way. Grinning, sure, but behind our grins was the sentence – what the hell are we doing?

He was in a shopping cart at a sporting goods store, curled up against the metal in a little purple leash. We marveled at how relaxed he was while talking through our masks to his foster mother, a very nice lady named Cathy. I poked a rawhide through the bars of the shopping cart. He gnawed it while looking at me with one blue eye and one brown eye, totally silent, and then I got out my checkbook, wrote a $300-ish check, and we took him home.

If it didn’t work, Cathy explained, it didn’t have to be permanent. The agency had a two-week return policy on puppies; no one would be mad at us if we gave him back to her within fourteen days, and he’d be sure to find a new family. I might have whispered this to myself as we drove home, but by the time we reached our driveway, he was sitting in my lap, and now, if I am to be honest, the return policy has not once crossed my mind, not in the last two weeks that we’ve been dog owners.

This is, I guess, our life now.

We have named him Campion (after a character from the excellent-and-deeply-weird Ridley Scott HBO show Raised by Wolves; Campion is the human child of two android parents who have come to an alien planet, and, as modeled by the android parents in the show, Campion is really fun to yell), bought him multiple enclosures and roughly 12 squeaky toys (as well as others given us by all the friends and family who are thrilled we’ve gotten a dog), a giant bag of food, and an advanced pooper-scooper.

He has joined the four cats — this marvelous dog, our half-husky, half-Australian Shepherd monster, black and white, ten weeks old and ready to party. His needle-like teeth and excellent reflexes are counterbalanced by the fact that he’s clumsy as hell and has a habit of falling off of couches, then getting surprised.

Another excellent trait is that he’s very fond of strangers. My brother and his girlfriend visited us this weekend, and within half an hour Campion was camped out on their bed posing for Snapchats. We walked him outside and sat him down in the tiny bar Miles has created out of an outbuilding; unlike the cats, he enjoys going to the bar, and curled up on my brother’s lap next to the woodstove for two full hours as we talked. He is exactly what I wanted: a cuddly-ass but soon-to-be-scary-looking wolf.

Of course, it isn’t all cuddles; he requires constant supervision and doesn’t enjoy being left alone, even for a second. (We’re working on it – I keep grunting, “Our dog will not be a Covid puppy.“) There are the obligatory bathroom breaks at 5am, even if he does tend to only require one per night, which is pretty weird for a dog who’s only been existing in the world since the November election. There’s his tendency to stop mid-chew-toy session and instead attack a person’s hands. And he does chase the cats, though thankfully the cats have learned to — instead of running — stop in their tracks, stare him down, and then bat the heck out of his nose if he doesn’t quit.

But the other best thing about him is that he – as I wrote on Facebook last week – has been successful in getting me outside.

It’s no secret that I’m one of the seasonally-affected. My parents have seen how, my whole life, I’m a different person in the winter than I am in the summer. I write less; I’m more prone to brain fog and snappishness and late-night ennui. I’ve always felt put-upon in winter, uniquely offended by its presence. Which is perhaps justifiable; the world, in winter in Minnesota, just gets smaller. All the real estate of the warm world is closed off by snow and ice, and we’re left with interiors only.

I don’t like feeling trapped, and I knew I would feel especially penned-in this particular winter. In previous years, I’ve talked myself through the cold season by saying, oh, but your friends are willing to come over, and there’s a nice bar down the street. And now all of that was gone. For five months, I started to realize in late fall, I’d have to just be alone with the SAD version of me.

“Well, what else am I up to?” I started to say to myself. “Why not just try curing it?”

I had time, so I decided to be uniquely Type A about it. In late November, I devised an aggressive plan that required a lot of tiny vitamins and routines. Happy lamp, CBD oil, GABA and 5-HTP, Vitamin D, daily yoga, journaling time, an online therapist, a lot of expensive tea, hobbies like making illustrations and studying for the LSAT just because — when I list them out like this, there’s a certain embarrassment to it, all the shit I was throwing at the wall just to see if it might work.

But I can’t be too embarrassed, because somewhere around Christmas, I started to feel like it was.

For whatever reason, I have not been as fucking sad this winter, even with the pandemic and threat of fascism. I still occasionally doomscroll while drinking wine, sure, but the anxiety-sads — they aren’t as loud as usual. Every so often, this winter, I’ve been surprised by pleasure, an unusual thing.

We never quite considered returning the dog, but I was worried, that first week, that he would hurt rather than help my seasonally-affected sanity. Having a puppy makes it a bit difficult to sleep through a full night or do yoga in peace without kennel-bound yipping, for instance.

I’m glad to find that so far, the opposite has been true. I think sometimes: I should have gotten a dog before now. And then I think: no, this is the right place and right time. In the Cities, we were living beneath or next to people who would have been annoyed at his noises; we would have to clip a leash to him every time we wanted to take him out. This time last winter, we were always running from night out to work to the store; he would have been alone more often than he should have been. We were flightier people, less patient, and we lived in the wrong location for a half-husky puppy’s happiness.

Here, we can do what I just did — put on my boots and coat and hat, push Campion out the front door, and walk with him into the grove where our wedding will hopefully take place, marveling at the blue-blue sky and white-sparkling snow while he sniffed in the brambles, looking for a place to poop.

Both of us heard a noise and looked up; he sat in the snow, tail swishing, and watched as a pure-white propeller plane passed slowly over us. It was a new sound for us both, and echoed against the chilled earth. “Wow,” I said, something banal. Ed the cat walked up, twining himself against my legs.

Then the plane was followed by the biggest bald eagle I have ever seen – a white-headed AMERICA BIRD who circled over the three of us, definitely debating who to eat.

And I called Campion close, and Ed sat on my shoulder, and we watched for a while, and then the eagle decided there would be better prey down the road.

I surprised myself by, in that moment, not thinking of anywhere else at all — not longing for spring, or greater success, or the ability to walk to a bar and meet friends, but rather just existing in the sparkling snow, and being kind of happy that I was where I was. It was, I think, a skill that only a dog could finally teach me.

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Wildlife, pt. 2

We’ve been out here on the farm for nigh on three months now. As I’ve previously written, time passes strangely here; due to the fact that we’ve put a temporary kibosh on visitors (b/c holy cow, will you look at that covid spike??), one day is much like the next. This was one of my childhood fears, I guess – that I’d eventually live a life filled with routine – and I’m surprised, again, to find that it’s not too bad.

However, some things have happened. In no particular order, here they are.

1.

Kelly the stoop kitten made her slow way into the house, being kept first in the temporary airlock of my office overnight, then in the morning herded into a carrier and carted half-willingly to the vet. Zeke, the additional stoop cat who showed up one night and walked in as if knowing we’d take her, came along. We are now up to four house cats. As Miles said the other night, “If it weren’t for the pandemic, we’d never have met Kelly,” so perhaps all of this is for the best. (It isn’t, but we can pretend.)

They now, vaccinated and de-uterused, have their routines. Kelly and Zeke have an aura of gratitude about them that is missing from our entitled-ass first cats, Ed and Bernard. While Kelly and Zeke wait patiently on various soft surfaces in the morning, Ed and Bernard stalk onto the bed, growling, until we wake up. They don’t do this at completely horrible times, but their methodology leaves something to be desired – Ed in particular has taken to stalking my water glass and batting at it, occasionally tipping it over, until I wake up to let him outside.

Kelly and Zeke, on the other hand, meow gently at me and look up with an expression of enormous gratitude. Kelly in particular likes making tiny biscuits with her soft claws. Miles and I have come up with a song for them, as well as a backstory, in which she is some ancient, vengeful thing reincarnated as a street kitten in order to learn patience.

It’s been a long pandemic.

2.

Miles’s car died unexpectedly while we were getting gas. We sat helplessly at the pump for a while. The battery charger lent us by the attendant was not, in the end, full of charge. Plus there was a gas truck pulled up right in front of the car, making a jump difficult.

It was a nice day, and his birthday, so we were able to laugh. Eventually he went out to try for help, but the elderly man who’d just come to the other pump didn’t quite know how to jump a car. (Which made me feel okay; I’m 31 and don’t know how, and he was, like, 86.) The man was willing to try, despite his wife having loudly thrown him under the bus — “Aw, nah, he doesn’t know how to do that,” she said — and then another car pulled up.

Dear reader, it was the town’s mechanic, the same man who has worked on Miles’s car for years. Within four minutes, we were on the road.

3.

In a similar vein: because of how many cats we now own, the town vet and I are on a first-name, relaxed, casual email-and-texting basis.

4.

Our errand on the car-death day was to get a Christmas tree. It was Miles’s birthday but he said that he didn’t mind, which I appreciated, because knowing what I now know, there is no way in hell I could have done it myself, or quickly.

We drove fifteen minutes to the Christmas tree farm, which was so big that its entrance was not immediately apparent. Having grown up accustomed to the full-service suburban Christmas tree lot, I expected to be greeted and shown to a yard full of roped-in trees, then yammered at while I tried to guess which one stood the best chance of making it to the end of the month.

No.

“Do you have a saw?” the sprightly young woman said.

We did not.

“Here,” she said. “Just come back when you find the right one!”

Reader, there’s no way I could have predicted exactly how large this farm was. We drove for what seemed like miles, squinting past a giant family of trees – more like an extended family, as some had long needles, some short. Otherwise, what was the difference? We didn’t know. We aren’t tree people. The only problem was that all the normal-sized ones seemed to be gone.

Eventually we settled on a blue spruce. The sawing itself was not so bad, but getting it into the car sure was. It’s currently in our living room, and this thing could murder us all if it fell down, as it continually threatens to do. It looks just great with the Wal-Mart baubles I got. As my friend Kat said, “That is a political-rotunda-sized tree.”

We counted its rings as the last sinew of bark fell. Sixteen years, this tree has waited for us. I was a freshman in high school when it was planted. And now look at it, ready to be murdered by a cat — again.

“Eight feet!” yelled the seven-year-old boy who showed up with a hunk of PVC pipe to measure it through the windows of our car. We weren’t so sure it was, but can you really question a child? Even a hustler child?

5.

I didn’t expect to be looking for snakes while I picked out a Christmas tree, but I was. Last Saturday, we went for a drive and were directed to the ruins of an actual castle. I thought “castle” was overstating it, but when we arrived, it was pretty accurate. The building in question was an 1880s McMansion built out of rock by a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. Shortly after its construction, the Dakota justifiably burnt it to the ground. Now, you can clamber around on its ruins, totally unsupervised.

Standing on the ramparts, Miles and I smiled at each other, the prairie wind blowing our hair. “What a fun and strange turn this day has taken!” we said.

And then I said, “Why, what a very big snake there is down there! Just where we stepped!”

It was the final week of November – snake-sleeping season, I foolishly thought. But not for the biggest diamond-patterned dude ever, I’d say five feet long (though who knows how big it was; judging by the tree, I’m bad at estimating sizes), snaking his snaky way up in our footsteps.

VERY not cool, greater MN. The farm is guaranteed snake-free – it’s far from water, which seems to be what draws them – but it still hasn’t stopped me from side-eyeing branches for weeks.

We can’t decide if I’m a snake magnet, or if they’ve always been hanging out around Miles and he just hasn’t noticed before getting together with me, the snake-phobe. Either way, this is literally the third hike we’ve had interrupted, and it is IRKSOME… though I suppose that we, humans, are the colonizers, and the snakes are just doing the equivalent of burning down our ugly mansions.

6.

I went out to throw away the garbage the other night, and found two sweet kittens underneath the bin, waiting to be fed.

And then I heard meows.

And then their dad showed up.

And then their mother did.

That’s the news from the farm, where all the wet food has been eaten and the seasonal affective disorder is being controlled via copious use of the happy lamp. Stay safe, everyone, and please come vibe with us when this is all through!

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Four Cats

You wanted a dog, but instead, you have four cats.

Friends joke that you could tape them together into a dog, if you liked. They’d be about the size of the one you want – a midsize pup who doesn’t shed, or not so much, and who likes to lean on your leg while you write. The cats weigh between eight and eleven pounds each, so the math adds up. They all seem to like each other, besides; you have the feeling they wouldn’t mind coming together, Transformers-style, to become a dog for a while, if only for a morning.

It’s not the cats’ fault that you don’t have a dog. For that, you can blame the pandemic, which has caused a run on lots of things – not just toilet paper, but washer-dryer sets, and plywood, and (apparently) canine companions. Only cats are free.

Ed the flirt.

You came to the farmhouse with two cats, who were good boys when you moved in but who, ten weeks in, have become deeply spoiled, rotted by too much Outside Time and the constant proximity of their humans.

Each morning, the two original cats wake you. One cries anxiously, the other peremptorily; one sits between your legs, staring at your face, and the other trawls the nightstand, occasionally raising a paw to knock over your glass of water, you think with malice. They have needs: first, you must open the door; then, once they have sated themselves with leaf-chasing, you must summon them back into the house for Wet Food.

Bernard the anxious.

The two bonus cats are much more modest. They know gratitude, having spent some time in the school of hard knocks, the brambly woods. “Chill out,” they tell the two original cats. “What’s so great about outside?”

In month nine of the pandemic: no one’s sure who’s right.

There are things that are okay about all of this, you grant. The good parts: waking late every day, in a king-size bed crawling with cats, next to a kind and good man. Getting to mow your way through whatever TV you please. (You’re nearly out of TV, which you didn’t think possible.) Sweatpants. Feeling entitled to order yourself decadence: a crate of wine, expensive CBD oil, the shampoo you always wanted but never felt you could afford. Now you can afford it, because all the places where you used to spend money are closed to you. You feel virtuous, with your saving, but aren’t really.

The not-good parts of all of this have been extensively covered. No need to dwell on them.

One of the other good parts: you are surprising yourself by starting to want new things. All of your relatives and friends to be alive at the end of this, of course. All the people who are hurting to receive relief. Everyone to just chill for a damn minute and hunker down.

Kelly the modest.

And then there’s the vanity. Last year, at this time, if you are honest, what you wanted was to write the type of book that everyone you follow on Twitter seems to be writing – a book that would rocket you around the country, no, the world, being lauded and praised and cosseted.

And then everything closed down, and you were shut in your old apartment for what you thought would be two weeks. Then two weeks became three, and then three became four, and soon you were realizing that there was not going to be any rocketing around the world for you, not anytime soon. That you were what you’d always feared you would be – stuck in place, on the couch, flipping from website to website. And all the libraries were closed.

But mercifully, the Internet of books was still available. If you waited enough time, the novels you wanted would be sent to your phone, and you could read them there. Often you had to wait weeks – it seemed everyone else was locked in place, too, sick of Twitter and Reddit, and reading for the first time in a while – but this made you treasure them more, all the dumb thrillers and how-to manuals that you started off by reading.

Not all of the novels you were sent were good. Some of them, in parts, made you close the Kindle app and wander away.

But others let you do what you’d done when you were a child, stuck in the back of a minivan on interminable Highway 94, heading from Wisconsin to Minnesota or vice-versa – they let you forget where you were. These books were like a hug, or like the feeling of sudden laughter. (You do still laugh, these days; yesterday, you and a student spent five minutes just exchanging giggles over Zoom, though today you can’t recall about what.)

And you started to realize that this was a good new thing to want: to write a book that would also feel like that, for someone. A book that wasn’t about you (even if its narrator was you, albeit a you who had made different decisions). A book that didn’t try for poignancy – it just was sad, in parts, and then funny in others.

And you moved here, and the two cats came, and in the mornings, now, you get to do it.

Zeke the rapacious.

Sometimes, up there in your room with your notebook, you write so hard that the cats’ yowling doesn’t even register. You haven’t done this for a while, writing so hard your hand hurts after. It feels delicious, the way you imagine a cardio workout might feel, if you were ever the sort of person who’d done one of those.

You wanted fame and glory, but instead you have four cats.

You wanted to travel, but instead you have a farmhouse.

You wanted real books, but instead you have this app.

Your life, these days, is a series of menu substitutions. The restaurant’s run out of ingredients, and it’s sorry, it’s tried, but the dish dropped off on your stoop in no way resembles what you ordered. You’re quite surprised to find that it still tastes good. And anyway, it’s here, and there’s a pandemic on, so just eat it, Karen.

It’s more subtle – it’s got sixteen delicate little paws rather than four running-jumping ones – but at nights, when you crawl onto the couch and it creeps into your lap, you’re surprised to find yourself, in moments and snatches, grateful that it chose to come to your door.

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Wildlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

Bum bum bum!

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

Mary said, “Was it you?”

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

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

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

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

Mary whapped him once more for good measure.

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

Where, I asked him, was the finger now?

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

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

“Yup. In a paper bag.”

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

5.

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

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

Kelly had transformed.

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

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

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

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

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What’s Cookin’ in the Rural Township?

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

(There are a lot of interesting segues.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(NO)

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

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

SHEEPDOG STEW

Olive oil

An onion, chopped

Garlic

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

Salt and pepper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Murder?” people sometimes ask.

“Yes, but it’s a very lovely murder.”

“Okay…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost immediately, of course, he’s dissatisfied.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

d-tartt

 

 

 

 

 

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A Bougie Test Prep Tutor Speaks

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

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

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

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

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

HOWEVER!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“No,” he gasped. “Noooo!”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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