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On My Mind

Melted

The light changes. A cover has opened, slit of sun beaming into the darkness, a ha-ha neiner-neiner taunt transmitted from the world of wind and spit. In the quick second between dandelion shaft blinking back to onyx, a gentle violence occurs, crinkling followed by thump.

A book has been returned.

***

With that thump, the movable floor inside the Returns bin lowers almost imperceptibly; a single book isn’t that heavy, after all. But then the flap clinks, signaling another, another, another, dark to light, light to dark, typeset words in freefall. Absorbing the weight of pages and ideas, springs stretch, and the catching floor gradually sinks.

It’s designed to protect the books, this bin is. When it’s empty, the floor rests near the top, quick purchase for incoming books slithering through the slot. As Returns accumulate, the floor gradually descends, earlier Returns nesting and bolstering newcomers so no volume sustains damage from a traumatic plummet.

Eventually, when enough readers have honored the socialist agreement that cooperative sharing benefits the collective, the thing is full.

It’s time to empty the cart.

***

Heavy with books come home, the chockablock bin is rolled from sidewalk through the open garage door into the space where library workers await the next scheduled curbside pick-up. In between appointments, they busy themselves with the unseen tasks — parents emptying the dishwasher at 10 p.m. while the kids sleep — that keep the place functioning.

In May of 2020, it’s only recently that the library, hobbled by lockdown and lay-offs, has begun to accept Returns; after months of being asked to hold onto their items because there isn’t enough staff to process even a portion of the 57,000 books checked out in the weeks before closure, fretting patrons can finally hand back the books they’ve been fostering — a permission joyfully greeted by hundreds of conscientious worriers whose pandemic anxieties latched onto the abuse that is an overdue book. With so much still unknown about transmission of the novel virus, and per Institute of Museum and Library Services guidelines, all Returns spend three days of quarantine in the bin before rejoining the organized cacophony of the stacks. The bins fill and fill, with extra bins transported from the (closed) branches, lest Returns outpace processing capability.

For 72 hours, the jumbled books hang in limbo, neither well nor sick, welcome but not admitted, the romances discreetly smoldering, poetry tautly observing, YA sullenly pouting, memoirs pointedly recounting, board books happily clapping, references clinically mapping, fantasies wildly conjuring, mysteries slyly twisting.

Laced throughout, there are murderous thrillers, their pages potentially hosting death.

***

He reaches into the bin, beginning to sort the Returns onto three carts — this one upstairs to Reference, that one to Fiction and Media, this little guy back to Youth Services. Sorting provides a kind of relief, a bit of variety to the hours, along with posing an elegant challenge: Will these six novels stack nicely and work well into the cart? Can he frame them as just-so pieces of a puzzle, thereby maximizing how many books ultimately fit onto the tiered cart shelves? Even more, there’s the satisfaction of seeing long-requested books re-entering the circle of circulation, passing from one set of hands to the next, fulfilling the promise of the communal contract.

Wait.

He pauses to examine the book in his hand. It’s by James Patterson. So many of them, always, are by James Patterson.

What’s going on here? Why is this plastic cover so rough?

He holds it closer, then further away. Why are parts of this cover…melted? Any why, if it’s been held to flame, is the entire cover not scorched? Has some punk with a lighter been working on fine motor skills, selectively burning spots of the book’s cover?

Confounded, reminded anew that just when he thinks he’s seen everything, there’s a surprise, he sets the damaged book aside. He doesn’t yet know who, but somebody will pay.

Shrugging, he reaches in and pulls out a second book from the same clump of Returns. It’s another James Patterson, this one titled The 18th Abduction, except the 18 seems to have been abducted by fire, not only melted from superficially but also burned into the cardboard of the cover.

Well now. He reaches in again, pulls out a third bizarrely melted James Patterson, then, on the fourth pull, the relief of a tragically wonky Catherine Coulter. At least the arsonist patron has range.

Previously, this worker has seen a bra returned in the book drop. He’s seen a single shoe in the bin. There was the ten-inch Buddha head someone left in the library, the base of a lamp decorated with figures of stallions. He knows from experience that when a patron asks if they can borrow a pair of scissors, the follow-up question should be, “Do you want them so you can cut your nails?” This worker has loaned the library phone to someone who needs to arrange pick-up of their pet’s ashes, and he’s been told that every Minnesota state senator will be called and complaints filed if the angry patron isn’t allowed out check out books. He’s heard monologues about the surveillance tactics of gangstalking; he’s handed out Kleenex to mop spontaneous tears.

But melted book covers is a new one.

A reader himself, the worker imagines a scenario. The burning on three of the abused volumes feels deliberate since it’s focused on the lettering, so he pictures a guy in his fifties in a wood-paneled apartment, soft body flopped into a tan velour recliner, brain plagued by Covid boredom. He’s at the point where he not only spends his days in the chair; he sleeps there, too, in that stained, smelly recliner, sipping from a half-drunk can of Red Bull on the side table at 3 a.m. when he gets up to pee. He watches some shows, cruises some illicit internet sites, but mostly, there’s nothing to do, no place to go, no one to talk to. He’s read all the books — read them twice — and he’s in Month Two of lockdown, frustrated and fragile and maybe not completely in control of his impulses anymore. So he’s flicking his lighter because he smokes, of course he smokes, why wouldn’t you smoke when all the world’s a hellscape, and he’s holding, sort of slackly at first but then with purpose, one of those g.d. James Patterson thrillers, and before he quite knows what he’s doing, because he’s just lounging in his recliner like he always does, wishing for something to be different, even a little different, he’s using his Bic to develop a new craft, one involving detailed burning of public property in faintly musty private spaces.

For sure, the library worker decides as he reaches into the bin for the next book — this one blessedly unmolested — that’s what happened. Recliner Guy found a way to bring sparks to tedium.

***

It ends up being a woman in her eighties.

Perplexed as he looks at the patron information on the computer screen, the worker revises the scenario he’s already cast, deciding her black sheep son has been using her card to check out books as fodder for his craft, and now Mom is going to have to pay for the damages. There’s no way an octogenarian with delicately wrinkled topography and a lemon-colored cardigan over her shoulders even in 78 degrees would burn books.

Poor lady, having to cover her ne’er-do-well son’s vandalism. He better apologize properly, or she might need to limit his recliner time and start replacing his Red Bull with Ensure.

***

The Arrowhead Library System sends out a weekly newsletter called The Weekly Weeder. A few weeks after discovering the melted books, he’s perusing the Weeder when his eyes are drawn to an article linked from CNN.

Slowly, his eyebrows rise as he reads the words, “Please don’t microwave your books to prevent transmission of Covid.”

Huh. In a twist worthy of a Catherine Coulter suspense novel, it turns out Grandma did the damage.

Reading the article, he sees examples of books from other library systems where the microchips and aluminum antennae of their RFIDs had, when microwaved by uneasy patrons, burned through covers. In the case of his library, the melting had occurred at the flash point of an elderly, at-risk patron intersecting with foil-embossed titles. Where, he wonders, would metallic material look best on the cover of Grandma Had a Microwave?

Weeks before, when the mystery remained unsolved, the library had sent the book-cooking patron a bill. In short order — no phone calls of explanation, no pleas for understanding, no attempts to pawn the behavior off on her son — a check arrived.

The cover of Grandma Owns Her Damage would, of course, have every letter embossed with metal, the “s” a dollar sign.

***

Technically, she owns the books now. However, even though she’s gone on to check out new items (James Patterson has written 147 novels), she hasn’t attempted to arrange pick-up of the burned books.

So there they sit, stacked in his work area next to his curated Special Collection of Patron Left-Behinds:

the stallion lamp base,

a child’s bike helmet with a unicorn horn shooting out the top,

a pair of glasses from the 2017 solar eclipse when supplies ran short, and enthusiasts resorted to hoarding (perfect justice: cloudy that day),

and

seatbelt webbing fashioned into a waist belt and printed with the words THE PUNISHER.

And so, as it goes in the public library, some perfect weirdos with a complicated backstory

have found a home.

***

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On My Mind

Covid Diaries: Mice

May 19th

Out walking this afternoon, I received a message from my sister that made me cry. As an Early Childhood teacher, she’s been missing her wee students these past months, despairing over any meaningful education happening through technology:

So, I had to go close down my classroom the other day. I was so afraid that I’d just bawl, stepping into it and seeing how everything was frozen in time from March 13 and thinking of my kiddos… but I ended up bawling because my classroom has become infested with mice. With no one in the building, they’ve taken over. I found two nests (barf)…one in our stuffed animals basket (apparently some of the beanie babies are STUFFED WITH BEANS) and another in the cozy corner pillows. After a couple of shrieks as they scattered at me entering the room, i let the custodian know that I really just.could.not… and he said, ah, but you must. So, I’d planned on sanitizing all the toys the kids had touched and store them, I ended up sanitizing every-damn-thing. There was mouse poop on literally everything. In the doll house. In the musical instruments. On the train. In the seashells. On all of the puzzles. On the glue bottles. All over the dolls and their bed… Many things got dumped. The mice literally were running the perimeter of the room while I was spraying bleach and wiping down every damn shelf and hard item (anything soft, I just threw away, cuz pee potential)…In the middle of all this, as I’m crying, I almost called you because I think you, of any other person I know, at least at one time if not still, could understand all my revulsion and fear…I spent 7.5 hours cleaning that room..I wasn’t even all the way finished when I left. My aide went in two days later to finish the bits and pieces I left and her text to me was: O.M.G.

My fear is the stupid custodian is not gonna go in and get rid of the stuff that I told him I really could not touch (Like the pillows in the cozy corner I just cut it… I lifted one and saw the nest and just dropped the pillow and could not even go back to that center…) and what if he waits to vacuum up all the poop off the floor… It was so horrible I’m crying again. Just the memory…

I thought I would be all emotional about going back to my classroom …and not being able to finish the year in person with my students (It’s their first year of school ever). …but that all got sidelined by the mice…

They are throughout the school… But in my hallway apparently my room is the hub. The principal told me that she put her purse on the ground and when she went to pick it up a mouse jumped out…

After spending 7/2 hours in there cleaning and bleaching all the mouse poop covered stuff in my classroom maybe I won’t catch coronavirus but I’ll catch hanta virus.

May 20th

11:35 p.m. Both kids come down to the kitchen at the same time, but I can’t hear what they’re talking about because I’m watching Married at First Sight, and that’s important work. After a bit of joshing in the next room, they head downstairs together. By this point, I’ve turned down the volume and torn my attention away from how inappropriately possessive the father of newly married Elizabeth is as he speaks to her new husband. I try to crack what is going on with the kids. It’s something about Leggy needing Paco to go into the basement with her. She has to put her laundry in the dryer. Has she coerced her brother into doing the task for her? But when they come up, he has his own laundry in hand.

Finally, I get some answers. She needed to move her laundry to dry, but up in her bedroom she had been reading a Reddit thread – some cockamamie childhood tale about a door knob falling out, a light bulb going dark, and the door knob moving, on its own, twenty feet…the stuff of adolescent slumber parties – and had gotten so creeped out that she couldn’t face going into our basement (ominous as wet, cementy Minnesota basements often are) by herself. So she convinced her brother to go deal with his laundry so that she could simultaneously deal with hers in our scary basement.

A few minutes later, when she sends us screenshots of the Reddit story that started the whole thing, Paco messages me: “My sister is very funny.” A minute later, as we shake our heads over how innocuous the Reddit story is, he adds, “Sis gonna sis.”

May 21st

After the noon HIIT class, I read Ducks, Newburyport on the back porch, mostly waiting for Paco’s AP World History exam to be over. He’s definitely prepared for both AP tests, but yesterday’s first-run, the English, showed him how quickly 45 minutes can pass. So he had a good sense of what was coming today – except the prompt and source documents, of course. He has a strong affinity for history, so I was hoping and hoping it was going well for him upstairs.

When he came down, he was grinning and happy it was over. Even better, the prompt he’d gotten was one he felt well-equipped to discuss. When he let me read the essay he’d written in response, I had one of those glorious parental moments of seeing how much the little bubby who used to chase bubbles in the kitchen has ripened into Quite Something. From writing to content, he handled that prompt with sophistication and control.

Even more, these two test days have been, he noted, the only time in the past few months where he’s felt like he really did something. The motivation and satisfaction of mastering a challenge  – that’s something our teens have been stripped of during this time of limbo. Just when they’re ready to go for it, whatever it is, they’ve been put in Park.

May 21st

My knees have been feeling so good lately, and about my body I’ve been feeling so bad, that I decided to try running this afternoon on the flatness of London Road. It was slow, and I was ready to stop if anything started yapping, but hey-whoa-ho, it felt like just the right thing. So I shuffle-ran, thanking the hugest gifts of this time, yin yoga and full-body cardio and strength workouts, for helping my hips and connective tissues boost those cranky knees. When I reached Brighton Beach, a freighter was heading away from port, chugging peppily out to sea under the blessing of a blue, blue sky. “Hey, I’m a freighter!” I thought, turning around and chugging peppily home.

May 22nd

The best, best, best part of today was hanging out in the kitchen for a couple hours with Leggy after I messaged her a picture of the flourless chocolate cake batter bowl that needed licking. She came in with questions – “Do you have a dream in life? It seems like people have dreams they work toward, but I don’t know if I really have a dream” – that parlayed into more conversation, with B chiming in, and soon we were looking up the lyrics to “Blinded by the Light” and talking about her summer options and how to game out hours, since she’ll have an internship and has been offered a remote job with the Carleton Archives. I have missed my girl during this time we’ve been living together. Talking, just talking, sitting at the counter, hearing out hopes and thoughts, agh, it was the best.

May 23rd

Set an alarm today so as to be up and ready to hit London Road when Jen ran by. I’d told her yesterday, when she posted that she would be running her virtual Grandma’s Marathon today, that I could stand on London Road and ring a cowbell for her. It became a plan. When she hit 54th, Hank, who was biking behind her, texted me. I trotted down to London Road, ready to ring and snap photos. Then Byron got home from his morning hike and came down, too, just in time.

That sensation of seeing a small runner coming from blocks away blurring into the recognition of closer and closer, the smile, the work, the hi, the backside, the getting smaller while heading toward a distant finish line – well, it was all so familiar from our many Junes as fans on that course. Even though Jen was only one runner, seeing her scratched my Grandma’s spectator itch. We have so many memories associated with that race; Byron joked he should bring his wind-up transistor radio down, which is an annual tradition as he listens for reports on the frontrunners. When I told Leggy yesterday we were planning to go yell for Jen, she said, “Mmmm, scones. Can we make scones?” – because for a series of years, that was part of the tradition. One year, the kids took them down to sell to passers-by, but other years, we took a heap down to share with neighbors. Today, it was only Byron and me cheering for a lone runner and her support crew, but still. I got my Grandma’s on.

May 23rd

Read a chapter of a “fall right into it” book, Valentine, before falling into a delicious afternoon nap. After waking and tea time, I mowed while wearing one of my flying squirrel loungewear suits, imagining neighbors might not know what to do with the sight of a drop crotch.

May 24th

My trusty gym magazine reading, PEOPLE Magazine, has been arriving all along, of course, and each time an issue slides through the mail slot and topples onto the porch, I’ve picked it up, barely looked at it, and tucked it into my gym bag, per longtime habit. This means, of course, that I now have a goodly stash of tabloid trash tucked away, aging ungracefully. When this week’s issue showed up, Queen Elizabeth was on the cover, and somehow her 94-year-old face, a steady beacon to millions through so many world events, made me leave it out on the dining room table. Hey, Liz, how you doin’? I’d say six times a day as I walked past her brightly lipsticked mug. Then, suddenly, today was the time to snatch her head and take it out to the back porch. There, in the new warmth of “summer’s only a month off,” I sat on the couch and read the mag cover to cover, learning that it was opioids that killed Melissa Etheridge’s son, Brian Austin Green and Megan Fox’s break-up might stick this time, and that new rom com with Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani on Netflix is one I might need to dive into.

I wasn’t on the elliptical at the Y as I read, but back porch sunshine set me up right. That reading of PEOPLE magazine satisfied more than I would have anticipated. All my imaginary friends are still out there, as it turns out, just trying to find an empty beach to surf on.

May 24th

Folding laundry, I finished listening to an Esther Perel podcast episode, this one about an American couple in Lagos, Nigeria, who moved there with their kids to do good work – and then Covid happened. When the embassy semi-mandatorily evacuated expats, this couple decided to stay, partially because just getting to where they were had been such lengthy, hard work. So now the husband works from home in his office all day, often ‘til 4 a.m., because he wants to be there for his team, while his wife, alone and feeling abandoned, creates the concept of “family” for their kids and handles the minutiae of their lives. Daddy’s in the next room, indeed, girls, but he can’t see you today because he’s calling a colleague to see how they’re doing.

May 25th

When sheltering at home and social distancing were first starting, a movement began – among Live, Laugh, Love types, I’d guess – to put stuffed teddy bears in windows or other visible spots. So, uh, that people out walking with their little kids would have a Thing they, um, could Do. At the end of a driveway in our part of town, there’s a cutesy non-functional dog house. In that dog house are a couple teddy bears. Byron says they are representatives of the next era our society will enter: the epoch of forgotten and decaying teddies.


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Is That All?

What was that, there on the sidewalk?

I was finishing my daily constitutional when I spotted a heap of oddities mounded on the cement in front of our house. Bending close for a good peer, I realized it was a wadded-up pair of latex gloves and a couple crumpled bills. Had a neighborhood kid dropped his stash of pandemic protection and long-hoarded money? Had it fallen out of someone’s pocket or bag during a dog walk?

Gingerly, I stepped over the jumble. No way did I want to touch someone’s used gloves. And is there anything dirtier than money? Nah, sis, I told the items’ pleading eyes, using the unspoken language that exists between humans and random crap. Hang tight and handle yourself. Someone will be back for you.


A few days later, movement on our front steps caught my eye through the window. Huh? A human being coming to our front door? What sort of madman not (grudgingly) employed by the federal government goes around opening people’s doors and leaning into their front porches during quarantine?

It was our neighbor, Ben, being helpful. Eyeing the pile of latex-and-currency stranger germs he’d placed inside our confines, I shook my head. Damn if you can’t protect yourself from good people.

Eventually, Ben emailed:

Ever stroll onto your front porch and find a pile of wadded up gloves and some cash? I bet you have recently. Here’s the rest of that story…

We were walking down the sidewalk on Sunday and found the gloves and cash on the sidewalk in front of your house. We figured that maybe they were in your pocket when you last went for a run and they fell out when you pulled something out of your pocket.

Or, it was someone else completely and you’ve spent the last 24 hours utterly confused as to how money & gloves ended up on your porch. 

If it wasn’t yours, just put in in the potluck competition prize fund.

Stay well!

Ben

For more than a week, maybe two, maybe seven – who even knows anymore – Byron and I left the gloves and bills on the porch, tacitly challenging each other in the age-old waiting game of “You touch it/No you touch it/No YOU touch it.”

Eventually, weaker willed than a man who bike commutes and never eats multiple pieces of hot, buttery toast at midnight, I caved. My face screwed as the blue gloves dangled from the tips of two fingers, our meeting brief but meaningful before they met their fate in the garbage can. The five- and one-dollar bills went straight into the kitchen sink, where I, someone who’s never taken any care at all with her spendy delicates, hand washed Washington and Lincoln, scrubbing their smug slave-owning, mass-Dakota-Sioux-executing faces raw with Dawn dish soap.

Later, as they dried on the kitchen counter, I looked at their rumpled forms occupying prime real estate and considered the many intersections of filth and good intentions. No better symbol for that than battered cash unwittingly gained.  


As I put a few things into the trunk of the car, a man came up – close, too close – an untied mask dangling around his neck. Launching into familiar lines, he explained he was homeless. He wondered if I had any money.

Normally, without thought, I’d have issued a quick “Sorry, I don’t.” Unless the homeless have Venmo, I make for a poor panhandle.

But. Hey. Wait a sec. I bit off the usual response just as it reached tongue tip.

“Yeah, sure,” I told him, the ease of that response throwing off his patter; he was already explaining how he and his girlfriend had hit a rough pa – before he realized the masked lady with the red car was unzipping her wallet.

I pulled out all my cash, an exceedingly clean $6, and appreciated Ben’s neighborliness anew as I handed his kind gesture to a better recipient.

Shifting from foot to foot, the anxious mask-dangler in the parking lot looked at the bills in his hand, then back at me.

“Is that all?”

Yes, friend, you are a bit breathtaking, and that is all.

I shrugged. Nodded.

“All right,” he agreed, his attention already elsewhere.

The urgency of his hustle across the parking lot toward a blowsy blonde intimated that $6 might not have been all he hoped for, but it was enough to get them nearer to a score.

As he hotfooted away, I half-wished they’d use the money for something more lasting than a hit, but, really, it was none of my business. The money was never mine to begin with.

Pushing bags of bread and cookies deeper into the trunk, I thought back to the years when I lived off $25 a week for groceries. One week, I came up a dollar short at the checkout, and as I embarrassedly pulled a couple oranges off the conveyor belt, the cashier told me with a smile, “Give me those oranges, and don’t worry about it. Maybe you’ll pay me back sometime.”

What he wanted me to know was the simplest of truths: if I had a need, and he had the ability to give, then we both were set.

Near the sliding doors to the grocery store, the blowsy blonde reached for $6 someone had dropped a month before onto a sidewalk, tucking it into her bra so she could light a cigarette.

Fifty feet away, I slammed the trunk, got into the little red car, and lowered my mask, pulling a full inhale of unrestricted air.

Past the far side of the lot, diamonds of sunlight danced across the water of the big lake. It was a beautiful day.

That was all, and it was enough.


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Covid Diaries: Tea Party

May 12th

My right eyelid has been twitching for four days.

May 12th

Apparently Allegra’s never heard of flying squirrels before? When Byron asks me which point of the latest Sawbones podcast had me snorting when we were hiking the other day, he wonders, “Was it when Justin was going off on flying squirrels?”

“FLYING SQUIRRELS?” Leggy asks incredulously.

Oh, indeed, Sis. We explain. There is kitchen enactment of the fear a gliding rodent can engender. But still: she is dubious. Several minutes of skepticism about flying squirrels – and then, inexplicably salmonella – are aired. Simultaneously, she circles her brother’s space, asking questions, poking, probing, prying, as he works on a make-a-basket-out-of-rolled newspapers project for art class.

“I don’t know how to please you,” says a jokingly beleaguered Paco eventually.

She’s come downstairs for afternoon tea, having, minutes before, been huddled under a huge duvet on her bed, complaining about how cold the house is. Her feet are freezing! Also, well, yeah, she’s not wearing any socks. By the time she hits the kitchen for puer sipping and squirrel doubting, she’s wearing striped socks below her shorts. From stained sweatshirt to wacky socks, she’s a fully participating student in Pandemic Style 101.

May 13th

Ellen read to us during yin about various facets of fascia. I will hold Frog Pose indefinitely, if it means a get a free lecture.

May 14th

One student’s final submission in the Novels class is a piece of writing in which the student, a nurse, connects a moment from The Chosen (“No one knows he is fortunate until he becomes unfortunate. That is the way the world is”) both to an interaction she recently had with a patient at the chemo infusion center and to the fact that her close friend’s five-year-old, who’s been in a medically induced coma with no brain activity for weeks, was taken off life support – only to have brain activity found once the coma was reversed. At the bottom of her writing, the student tacked a note:

Jocelyn, words cannot express my utmost respect and genuine caring for you. It has been such a pleasure to be in your class this past two semesters. I really do hope to keep in touch. You are a phenomenal human being and have enriched my life tremendously. Xoxo

I cry at the chemo story. I cry at the child on life support. I cry at the grace of this woman.

Then I click to the next submission and cry again when I read the note Student K has included:

As I was reading The Chosen and it suddenly dawned on me that Reuven was inadvertently learning how to hear silence, I literally started sobbing. This novel has some profound and subtle themes and symbols that wrecked me. What a way to end an incredibly moving and thought-provoking semester. I will truly never read a novel the same way again. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. <3

I’ve taught this Novels class off and on for 20+ years, and every time, I am left with such gratitude that this particular course, one that affects so many students in profound and lasting ways, has been part of my teaching life. I love this class beyond all others.

May 14th

This family loves tea, but with the recent order from The Tea Source arriving today, I had an honest moment with myself: the collection of varieties in our pantry might qualify as hoarding? Every afternoon as we survey the shelves of tea, the question for our brains is, “Do we want Earl Grey Lavender, Earl Grey White Tip, Chocolate Chai, Rhubarb Oolong, Raspberry Beret, Hazelnut Orange, Moroccan Mint, Evening in Missoula, Montana Gold, Masala Chai, Afghani Chai, Fireside Chai, National Parks Department, Lavenderberry, Sticky Rice, Long Life Shou Puer, Georgia Sunshine, Margaret’s Soother, or…?”

Tea choice for the family is a challenge akin to giving monkeys in the zoo a rubber hose: it’s an exciting break from monotony.

May 15th

Leggy has been stretching and doing abs on the living room floor post-run, so we’ve been chatting to a soundtrack of Van Morrison. As she finishes, she picks up her blue stretchy band from the floor, looks at me, and says, “I love you.” For a second, I think she means me, but then I realize she was talking to her stretchy band, a piece of recuperative equipment that’s been with her for months. I laugh and tell her I realize she doesn’t mean me. “I mean, I love you, too,” she says, “but I also love this band.”

Making a case for the band’s continued presence in her life, I suggest, “If you ever get married and have a traditional wedding, you should carry that band down the aisle with you as your ‘something blue’.”

Squinting, she asks, “What do you mean?”

“You know, how some brides want to make sure they have ‘Something old/Something new/Something borrowed/Something blue’.”

Shaking her head, Leggy says, “I’ve never heard that before” – and suddenly, I am sure of it: we have done a good job raising this kid.

May 16th

Cleaned the bathroom, started laundry, emptied the dishwasher, and swept the kitchen floor – all before my morning coffee. What am I, new here?

May 16th

At lunchtime, Leggy cracked an egg into a hot skillet. Watching the white run wildly around the pan, she chided the egg: “Hey, there’s supposed to be room for two in there! You must be an only child.”

May 16th

My first library e-hold finally came through the other day, The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare. At last, after two-and-a-half months, I have in my hands a book that’s pulling me in, taking me away, calling me back when I set it down.

May 17th

Byron’s on a Zoom call with his Wolf Ridge friends; they all were student interns together in the early 1990s, living communally an hour and a half north of Duluth as they became environmental educators. Eavesdropping on the sidelines, I laugh when Fergus in Scotland tells the group he recently read Call of the Wild and White Fang back-to-back, and it made him feel connected to that special location where they originally met, “a cold wolfy kind of place.”

May 17th

As I deliberately untether from constantly checking work email and online classes – because the semester is over, and I am DONE – I am spending much of the day at the puzzle table, making huge progress on building skyscrapers. While I work, I am listening to a podcast about the Dutch fertility doctor who, unbeknownst to them, inseminated his patients with his own sperm. The program goes on to look at other cases of doctors in other countries doing the same, noting that no fertility doctor has been treated as a criminal or gone to jail for this immoral, unethical practice. If we looked at photos of these men, and there are a surprising number of them, I’d wager they’re all white.

May 18th

It was leg day in the noon class, and I knew something was off with my form when my lower back started to hurt ten minutes into class. That’s the hard part about exercising alone – there’s no one to holler at me to stick my butt out.

Relatedly, in Sphinx Pose tonight, Ellen challenged us to strive for the most relaxed glutes in our respective time zones. While competition would be fierce in EST, due to a high number of attendees who live in Massachusetts, I felt I might have a fighting chance for the CST trophy. Alas, my rear alternated between clenched and loose; at best, the honor system only allows me to make a case for the bronze.

May 18th

Paco came down last night to give me a hot YouTube watching tip: there’s someone calling themselves Saxsquatch who’s playing, with some skill, a variety of tunes while wearing an ape costume. We come to easy agreement: this human being has myriad gifts.

May 18th

Paco will write two AP exams this week, one for World History and one for English. He’s putting in good prep time and was already clued in when I told him what I’d seen from a mom friend on FB: the College Board, offering exams online for the first time, had used a variety of prompts and even a variety of provided sources for the same prompt when administering last week’s sophomore exams. That’s a good strategy for catching cheating. Reminds me of junior high biology when Mr. Leland, unbeknownst to the class, alternated two different tests when he handed them out. Boy, did Joni get busted for copying all my answers since none of them aligned with the test she’d been given.


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Covid Diaries: Giant Gay Love Story

May 5th

During one pose in yoga tonight, Ellen told us about a book she has read several times before and is now listening to: The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. I love it when she tells us stuff while we are letting our fascia relax; if my brain is listening to a story or anecdote, my body forgets to tense. The chapter Ellen summarized pertains to the achievements that can happen when people are freed of the fear of judgments, for example grades. Benjamin Zander, a teacher, apparently told a class once, on the first day, that they all were getting As – that he’d already filed their As, in fact, so no matter what, they were assured of that grade. Then, at the end of the semester, Zander gave students an assignment to write up an explanation to him of how they’d earned their A. For the high-achieving, driven students in his music performance course, the liberty from worry-based motivation allowed them to unlock all sorts of amazing results. As I listened to Ellen recap this, two things went through my mind:

  1. I can’t believe that she is 100% one of my favorite friends and that I love her as a top-tier human being — because I have zero interest in books like this
  2. …unless I’m holding a yoga pose for four minutes, in which case I’ll apparently listen to anything with willing ears
  3. …which means she could pretty much talk about anything, especially if we’re in Dragon Pose, which is so tough I’d tune in to a tale of toe fungus
  4. …so I’m super glad she’s not interested in talking about timeshares
  5. If I told my students the first day of class they already had As on file with the registrar, I would never see at least half of them again.

May 6th

Texted the kids a photo of dirty dishes on the kitchen counter, left a half hour after I’d finished washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen. I don’t see much merit in authoritarianism, so I merely pointed out that taking care of their own dirties not only improves my temper, it’s the right thing to do.

May 6th

Chuckle every time I remember something from a student’s research paper about safety changes in hockey in recent years: as new types of helmet padding and chin straps are developed, they are first tried out on rats.

1) I feel for the person whose job it is to put the helmets on the rats, especially as they snug up the chin strap

2) I might need to reread Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle because I keep picturing Ralph S. Mouse.

May 6th

Less than a minute after Byron comments from his yoga mat that we need to use, frequently, Ellen’s phrase “fleshy compression,” I hear him start to snore. He sleeps as he holds the last pose before savasana, wakes up to move into savasana, and then starts snoring again before she suggests, “See if you can start to slow your breathing…” I know work is exhausting right now, and he’s always ready for an afternoon nap, but still. As someone for whom the divide between wakefulness and sleep is the door of a bank vault, I cannot fathom what it would be like to have the two separated by a gossamer veil.

May 7th

Reading aloud bits of a research paper on Gen Z to Paco.

Me: “Apparently half of Gen Z respondents in a survey said they’d like to one day own their own business.”

Paco: “Sounds like a lot of work.”

Me: “Apparently a defining trait of your generation is its passion.”

Paco: “Mm.”

May 7th

Research papers are coming in. As much as I feel swamped by the deluge, their submission also marks a slowing to the intensive, tiring hand-holding I’ve been doing with a few students. I’m ready to have my hands back by my own sides.

May 8th

Maggi and one of her colleagues had “intake convo #1” with Allegra about this summer’s internship with Maggi’s company. The generosity of this friend toward my girl makes me push thumb and forefinger into eyebrows and close moist eyes. Mags and her team have brainstormed a few ideas of what Leggy can do for/with them. My favorites are an archiving challenge called The Prince Project (completely unrelated to the company but completely Maggi, Maggi, Maggi) and a brand identity envisioning they’re calling The Lichen Manifesto.

May 9th

I’ve written a “found poem,” excising a representative cross-section of lines from emails I’ve received in the past couple weeks.

Instructor Inbox, Week 16 of the Semester

I am very sorry but I did not end up doing the peer review for my classmates papers

Much to my startled dismay, I realized I had completely forgotten about the quiz that was due on Tuesday

I am very sorry for missing these past assignments, and I very much hope you can help me to get them done

If you could give me this extension that would be amazing

You see

Time got away from me and I missed the window by 10 minutes

I just noticed we had a quiz, I am literally crying

I’m not sure how to fix fragments or how to find them

I just wanted to double check what outline you were referring to?

The only reason it was a minute late was because i was about to submit it and my computer had a huge fit

I apologize for being late it was my sisters wedding yesterday 

So

I have some concerns for my semester!

I was wondering if it would be okay if I turned in tonights assignment in by Tuesday

I believe I am missing two assignments and one quiz

Please let me know how I can attain a higher grade

Here is the paper in case you do allow me to turn it in this way for this circumstance

Any advice would be appreciated

Also

I was wondering if there was a way you would be able to re-open the quiz

I did not know I was doing that bad

I need validation that I am not rambling

Thank you again for the second chance!

You can trust

I will be doing everything I can to raise that sucker up to a passable grade

If there’s anything I can do to get back at least some of the points, I will

I gotta balance my work better

If you could just give me one more day I will deliver a better essay

I only need another 200 words 

But here’s the thing

I have a slight problem

I was gonna reach out to you sooner to possibly ask for a small extension

I have alot of 0s on assignments

I need to have a B or higher in your class

I hope you are able to work with me

Because, well

My other classes are kind of messy and crammed so I feel like I’m getting lost

I had so many due dates

It has been a crazy, not-so-great week

I had bills to pay

I don’t know how to post it as a doc

Therefore, I was wondering

If you have time do you think you could take a quick look through it to see if everything is ok?

Is there any way we could post our discussion questions later tomorrow

If there is any way that I could turn in my missing assignments and get some credit if not full credit? 

If there is any chance I could redo anything or if there is any extra credit work I could do that would be nice

If extra credit or something would be an option

If there would be something I could do to better the grade

Is there something I can do to fix that?

If I get 100 points on the essay and a good score on the test that would leave me at a C right?

Why cant things be easy

I was wondering if there is any way that I could turn in my missing assignments and get some credit? What can I do to resubmit this and resolve that problem?

Is there anything I could do so that I won’t need to redo my whole paper?

Is there any chance that I can redo any assignments or do any extra credit type of things

If you offer extra credit or if I could write a paper or something

Can I have a couple more days for the assignments?

The culpa, she is mea

I’m so sorry I didn’t get back to you in a timely manner!

Thought I would apologize for that

I’m terribly sorry I was not able to turn in the paper on time

Sorry for the late email but I cannot seem to find how many points that quiz I missed was worth

I am sorry for breaking the promise I made before about the quiz

I apologize for not getting this in on time I honestly feel like I’m losing my head

Truly

I bet there are a lot of other stressed students flooding your email too

If there is anything I can do to try to make up any points that would be great

I will definitely turn those reviews in soon

Is there anything I can do to improve the score or do extra credit by chance?

I was confused but then I realized what I had done

I really need to pass this class

I apologize sincerely and hope you will show me mercy

I appreciate that you believe in me!

May 10th

Leggy came down, open laptop in hand, a smile in her eyes. She wanted to talk to both B and me. She’d received notification that she’s been accepted into a winter domestic off-campus study program called Public Health in Practice. The plan is for coursework the second half of fall term followed by two experiential weeks in Minneapolis and Washington DC in early December, all capped off by more coursework and a library presentation during the subsequent winter term. While we all know that unless a Covid vaccine is developed by then, this program as likely to be canceled and become yet another “Zoom interview” for “a thing I almost did in college” as it is to actually happen, something about the forward thinking – the sense of hopefulness – feels a balm.

May 11th

It’s a good thing I bought a new mattress for Leggy’s bed in February because she’s currently spending 22.5 hours a day on the thing.

May 11th

“Whenever I watch you guys pack up a box of bottles and cans, sliding in cardboard dividers with precision, I think liquor store employees should enter competitive puzzling competitions. You have skills,” I told the guy behind the counter.

“It all comes from playing Tetris,” he shrugged. “I spent my entire youth playing Tetris. It made my mom crazy – she’d yell at me for wasting all those hours. But look at me now!” He stopped speaking, and we looked at him now, mask over face, body behind plexiglass. Yes, he’d sure shown her.

Because I’d loaded up so hard, maximizing the public trip, the box of bottles was heavy. Rotating my aching shoulder, I told Tetris, “Yeah, that would be great if you’d carry it out to the car.”

It wasn’t far, but as soon as he dropped the weight into the trunk, he yanked his jeans fast and high. “My damn belt broke this morning, and now my pants keep falling down.” Had I realized his conundrum, I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself: I’d have violated his right to distance, grabbed his loops, and hoiked them back up ‘round his hips. Fortunately, we’d been too busy talking about the wind off the lake for me to notice his lurching gait.

May 11th

I learned from reading Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants that, as many have long suspected, a high percentage of people who appear unconscious and who are uncommunicative are actually hearing and registering everything going on around them. Thus, during yoga tonight, I started laying some groundwork in case I’m ever alert but unable to speak. As we did Sphinx pose, I told Byron, “I’m best able to relax in this position if my legs are spread apart a bit and not too close together.” So now he knows, should there be a reason for me to be ragdoll propped through coma yoga.

May 12th

Student N – perhaps it is relevant that she’s a lesbian — and I are laughing as we DM about an expectation she had when reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. After a little back and forth, I tell her to take it to the class and see what everyone else thinks. When I checked this morning, she had a lengthy, well supported post in place for her classmates to consider. Subject line: Am I the only one who thought The Chosen was just one giant gay love story?  


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Covid Diaries: Bad Lighting

April 28th

My biggest take-away from the Zoom board meeting today is that people are completely unaware of the power of good lighting. On the other hand, I can say a few folks’ hair is actually looking better due to these lax times. Important moral: less upkeep can result in a more natural, accessible look.

April 28th

Just as I sit down to my puzzle for a little piecing together before dinner, I discover that Martin Zellar is starting a FB Live concert. Although I’ve loved Marty hard for decades, I haven’t been so much in the mood for him in the past few years. But as soon as he starts singing, I’m lost to memory and nostalgia. As soon as he starts singing, my heart gets swoopy. As soon as he starts singing, I send a message to the family chat – and then I have to let Christa know – I have to let Colleen know – I have to sit with Byron as we skip watching our nightly show so, instead, we can sing while we eat our mini pork pies. The whole feeling, as I look at all the names of people I know who are also tuned in to the concert, as I send messages to my girls, as I get all schmoopy with my beau, is unexpectedly moving. I feel like I am at the show with my people.

April 28th

I’m sobbing at Guy’s Grocery Games, which is disturbing. But the winner’s name is Ky, she’s just getting started in life, and when she wins, she’s shopping for the money to give her fiancée the wedding she wants. After months of trying to parse out my new and unaccustomed feelings to Guy Fieri – because I loathe him, except I don’t at all any more – I had a breakthrough tonight: he’s a douche, but he’s not a dick.

April 28th

Right before bed, I check my work email one last time. And there’s a long message from a big-hearted student. How much can a person cry, I am left wondering.

I have been thinking about writing this email all day. I would to begin with how much I wish I could have met in person before the stay in place order was in place. I greatly appreciate your energy on D2L and your openness of utilizing YouTube. I definitely got a sense of who you are through the videos. You have a great sprite, attitude, and sense of self; it all radiates through what you post. I deeply appreciate as we are stuck with having to communicate through electronics. You had the key to open my world to reading.

Long story short, I have moved all over the states due to order from the Military. (My dad being a Marine.) When I lived in Oklahoma I was told when I was very young that I was an amazing reader, but as soon as I moved to California the expectation of students was much higher. That being said, I was told I was bad at reading, simply said to a seven year old. I put myself in a room and closed the door from reading and this women, my teacher, took a key and locked me in there. The only advise given to me and my parents was to read more. To get better is to read more. (As I am older now, I understand that is true, but to my young self I was like no way.)  I was the only one sent home with more materials than all the other kids, I was brought down in front of my classmates, and put in the lowest reading group. This followed me as well. I moved to Alabama where I was taken out of my own English class and put into a closet with two other student to work on reading comprehension. When I moved here, Duluth Minnesota, my fun elective was taken from me and I was put in a different reading help class. It ultimately was humiliating and I began my hatred of reading there in California which I believe followed me. I avoided reading at all costs and became extremely picky towards books and teachers. In all honesty, I truly despised English teachers all because I held on to what happened with one teacher.

Times are changing though, I have been learning a lot about myself and how to love myself. That I am my own perfect, others do not need to think so for me to be happy. On thing I new I need to work on was my acceptance of reading. 

I have two English teachers that stand out to me. One was this kind lady, who was only the substitute while the real teacher was on maturity leave, her name being Lynn Peterson. She had worked with high school students for many years. Somehow someway she got through to me. It was all in her sprite, attitude, and sense of self. She never let the student get under her skin, she stood her ground when needed, and she had an eye for those who were there for the material and to learn as suppose the grade itself, if that makes any sense. I was one of them. She saw me as like an under dog, under appreciated, and saw lots a potential. She opened the curtains for me. She alone made me want to understand why people liked to read, how to get into reading, and being okay with not being as advanced as everyone else. She made me feel like I have it within me to understand reading. In the most literal way, she taught me how to comprehend what I was reading. I never in my life understood comprehension, not through my teacher in California, not the closet in Alabama, and not the not fun elective here in Duluth. She’ll forever be someone who shown some light to reading for me.

You are the teacher who will resonate with me. I can not tell you how much this means to me because truly deep down I want to read and enjoy it. With your books you have picked for this semester I have had my brain picked so much, in a good way of course. I connected so much to all the books. I was able to understand the lesson, symbols, and a lot more in each and every book. The point of this whole email is to say thank you. No one has ever had the key to unlock the door for me. You and your class unlocked the door and I feel extremely welcomed into the world of reading. I greatly appreciate how personable you are. How willing you are to help and guide me. You have such kind words to say to me that isn’t bringing me down. Your words pick me up and make confident in reading. It makes me feel that I do have worth and I am capable of being able to understand what I am reading. I thoroughly enjoy the discussions and how much I am taking away from doing them because I have such a hard time critically thinking and applying what I read to life or simply to school work. I have taken a way so much from your class and you. I value how you actually teach the material. Not everyone can make reading understandable. 

I love to write. I love getting writing assignments and all sorts of stuff and one thing that keeps coming up in my life is how reading can aid my writing, so the fact that this class worked out for me give me hope and new outlook. I am ready for the future. 

Needless to say, I am extremely thankful for taking your class, and how much you put into teaching. I thoroughly did not expect to enjoy the class because of my disliking of reading. My opinion turned around so quickly after that first book. I also took your class because I have heard your name before from other students who I value their opinions, and they were very correct in the way that I would like your class and how you teach. 

I do wish I could take more classes of yours, but I am graduating and going on over to UWS. I enjoy the books you gave this class because it is a lot of real life events. Not some fluff book of romance. This opens my world up to how much is actually going on out in this world. You have such awesome books, what are the chances that you have a book list or some place that you log books you’ve read that are still in connection to the books you gave us for this class. Or how would you recommend way that I can find these books on my own? I would like to continue reading after this class is done since I have deprived myself from such a world. 

April 29th

Paco and I walked the cemetery and down Vermillion to a bit of the Superior Hiking Trail. It was the most glorious sunshiney afternoon, and when we hit the trail, he became almost giddy with joy, noting every detail of the amazing beaver dam and all the trees downed by those strong teeth. Toward the end of the walk, he said, “I just want more time on trails. I feel like I might even want to go camping?”

April 29th

As we wait for additional yoga blocks to arrive, Byron continues to use the Norton Anthology, Volume 2, to prop his body when necessary.

April 30th

Twitter tells me there’s a new documentary, My Darling Vivian, about Johnny Cash’s first wife, and I’m reading a long thread of comments about her claims to being Italian when, in the eyes of people of color, this woman was clearly black. I tell you what: there is nothing more gratifying than Black Twitter. However, Paco told me last week that Scottish Twitter is pretty hilarious, so I need to dive into exploration there. LOOK, I HAVE A GOAL

April 30th

I had an audience for part of the noon HIIT class. Allegra sat on the scratchy ottoman and took notes for an assignment on how exercise has changed during the pandemic. I kept offering up things that are part of exercise for me now (“I don’t drink key lime fizzy water when I do fitness classes at the Y” and “I don’t go open a window when I’m hot and at the gym”), but she shut me down: Do I not know what “observation” means? Interviews come later.

April 30th

Paco’s robust head of hair was ready for a trimming, so I put my tongue between my teeth and a ½” guard on the electric clipper. Most of the cut was scissor work and following precise client-dictated directions about ears and blending; he wet and dried his hair several times before we called it good. For now. I’m extremely glad I have, throughout our lives together, cut the hair of everyone in this family before. During his first year of life alone, I cut Paco’s hair nine times. He’s always been a gifted grower.

April 30th

I live some of my best hours during late-night watching. Hasidic Jew Shulem Shitsel, newly retired from teaching at the school, clutches at his chest, in pain. After a CT scan, the doctor puts a monitor on him, tells him to go buy a notebook, and advises Shitsel to start a journal of his activities and how he feels – so that they can correlate the monitor readings with these recordings. Ever the good student, even at 62, Shitsel gets home, sits at the table, pulls out his fresh notebook. Opening it from the right – a Yiddish speaker, he – our hero begins to write. The music, soft, repetitive, compelling, creates a mood. Slowly, he scratches, in a way that fills me up, “I am home.”

I feel it too, always and ever, the contentment of this: I am home.

Later in the show, the rabbi sits up from his single bed, alone, so alone next to the empty single bed of his late wife, and scribbles in his journal: It is midnight. I can’t sleep. I feel fine. I don’t feel well. My chest feels tight. Every heartbeat feels like a huge hammer. Maybe it’s because I’m anxious. “Happy is the man that feareth always.”

May 1st

Two delightful surprises were on the front porch this morning: two dozen eggs from Raquel – dropped off when she came into town to pick up her library curbside book order – and a pot of chrysanthemums from Chuck and Shari, left for May Day. Gad, I used to love May Day as a kid; we’d make little pouches, probably in construction paper, but I even remember using paper towels (?), and go around the neighborhood ringing doorbells and knocking before dashing away, beset with giggles of excited anticipation. Has it been a few months now since I’ve been beset with such giggles?

May 1st

For her Anthro class, Allegra’s doing a pandemic ethnography. Her chosen topic is how exercise has changed, which is why she sat and watched me do some of a noon class the other day, why she was out with a notebook this morning on the Lakewalk, and why she watched the first few minutes of our yin yoga class tonight – always a hustle to get to the floor in time for silence and the poem. I hope she recorded the fact that I was eating Triscuits and drinking tea during “silence.”

May 2nd

The amount of time I’m spending with three “please help me pass this class despite my behaviors since January; I swear it’s due to Covidlife” students is grinding my patience to a dusty nub.

May 2nd

Paco’s starting to dig trenches out back today so that we can grow some veggies in addition to all my flower starts. Primarily, he’s interested in growing potatoes. Not only does he love potatoes because mmmm, potatoes, but I get the feeling he’s taken by the character of them – the shape, the feel, the steadfast nature.

May 2nd

We walked almost two hours on Skyline, the most beautiful day of the year, summer really, in shorts and sunscreen. There has been no space in public spaces as everyone discovers the world outside meetings and schedules, but today, when I anticipated another afternoon of trying to find six feet from others, we were largely alone. Six, maybe seven, bikers passed us. We saw a cluster of three walkers once, okay twice. And then, as we neared the car, there were Bernie and Julie, daycare providers for both our kids when they were tiny. In tow were two of their three kids, teens now. We stood together on the gravel road, after years of no contact, and talked about unemployment and how to connect with preschoolers over Zoom.

May 2nd

We had a good long Zoom family chat with Elaine and the kids, with Fahri mostly in the background – except for one detailed bit where he explained, while Elaine translated, how he’s been making yogurt. I swear, when farmer’s markets open up again, he could open a yogurt stand. It was fun to watch him eating and then sipping tea out of a tulip glass, a hungry, thirsty figure moving purposefully back and forth across the backdrop; when we called, it was time for the iftar meal, so we he was going deep on the liquids.

Perhaps my favorite part of the whole call was when young John had posed to the group a conundrum – you’re on an island with four people, yet you have a boat that holds only two, so who do you take with you off the island? – and as he talked through his own answer, he weighed the options of his family members: “If I took my sister with me, we’d just argue, but if I took my mom, she’d be bossy. And if I took my dad, he’d boss me, too. So I think I’d take Selin because I’d rather argue than be bossed around.”

Mostly, it was great to connect with these people who are family, who are negotiating their way through This Time in a state [Georgia] where deaths are climbing, yet the governor is re-opening the economy because money trumps life the same way guns trump safety in what people claim is best country on earth.

May 3rd

It’s been more than a week since I finished watching, but still: I miss the nuance – almost poetry — of the close captioning on Deutschland 83 and 86.

A person sitting in front of a window

Description generated with very high confidence
A picture containing indoor, person, table, sitting

Description generated with very high confidence

Another thing I keep thinking about, even though it’s been more than a week since I finished listening to Mob Queens, the podcast about Anna Genovese, wife to Italian-American mobsters, owner of drag clubs, source for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, yet whose life story has been largely lost to time, is the way the hosts conclude their excavation of a fascinating subject:

In storytelling there’s this thing, the hero’s journey, the heroine’s journey. Well, patriarchal storytelling is usually linear and almost always win-lose, whereas matriarchal storytelling is a wheel, and it’s almost always win-win…In matriarchal storytelling, the heroine doesn’t have to kill the villain because she knows he will learn, or he will do that to himself. The heroine is always ahead of the audience; it’s the other characters who have to catch up to her.

May 4th

During yin yoga mat talk last night, B and I kept wondering aloud if the stream had frozen. We’d get into a pose, Ellen would talk, and then the screen would suddenly get quiet and motionless. From our perches on the floor, we’d roll an eye up to the screen and decide, after taking stock, that the stream was not working. It took two or three times of us saying, “Yup, it’s frozen” and then having Ellen start talking at that very moment before we conceded: the stream was not frozen. Ellen’s just really good at stillness.

May 4th

This is the day Paco would’ve gotten his braces off.


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Covid Diaries: Of Libraries and Naps

April 21st

As Paco squeezed three tablespoons of grape jelly onto the peanut butter coating his wake-up toast sandwich, he told me, “I had a moment with my sister last night.” Apparently, having heard the sniffles that have developed to accompany the deep chesty cough that’s been plaguing him, she went into his room to ask if he needed a tissue to blow his nose. In short order, he was complimenting her on the massive 42-hour, 600+-song playlist of Great Music from the Last Century that she’s been compiling. He’d been listening to it all day and mentioned that he’d never really spent much time with The Beatles before. And there it was: an unflinching glare of “you’re in trouble with me” incredulity. Whaddya mean you’ve hardly listened to The Beatles? She didn’t blink; she didn’t break. Once he’d been properly apologetic for his failing, she issued a list of supplemental Beatles-based homework to go along with his playlist listening, starting with a full play-through of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

April 21st

Paco looked at me tonight and said, “You’re wearing something different than you were earlier.”

“Yes,” I told him. “I did a thing called ‘showering,’ and I changed clothes.”

“Huh,” he mused, as though he hadn’t known such things could happen.

April 22nd

When I walked into the kitchen, Byron was working on his laptop at the counter. He had something to say. “All the library techs, 24 of them, were laid off today. That’s 50% of the library staff.”

This, during the week when there’s actual work to be done at the library as they prepare to launch curbside pick-up of books next week. As a result of these unexpected layoffs — happening hot on the heels of the mayor declaring the library “essential” and deciding the library would begin offering curbside — the librarians will be the ones handing books to patrons. B predicts a good handful will use their vacation, personal, and sick days so they don’t have to show up for work they worry is unsafe.

April 22nd

These library layoffs are lodging in Byron’s eyes. He looks sad and bleary – glassy with something like survivor’s guilt. The rationale behind who was laid off was complicated, for sure, but to many it feels like there was a bewildering lack of transparency from the same city leaders who have been so supportive of curbside book pick-up. Why lay off those who were best prepared to handle the curbside process? Why rev up business at the library and then lay off 50% of the organization?

April 22nd

Development: I’ve started wearing my loose, flowy dresses to bed and calling them “nightgowns.”

April 23rd

I checked in with my Personal Student of the Year, Adison, wondering if he has any employment right now, and he tells me he’s on leave from one job, laid off from the other:

I’m not working at all. Financially, I’m flourishing! Our dear government really pulled through for the little guy this time, specifically with the expansion of unemployment benefits. If you didn’t already know, the benefits were expanded to part-time workers, and there is an additional $600.00/week on top of the standard 40% lost wages. I’m making 4-5 times more money on unemployment than I was working! More than Andee even, who still works full time- crazy!

April 23rd

More and more shoppers are wearing masks, but so many of those who are masked completely violate the six-foot social distance. The most eye-brow lifting grocery violation so far is one Byron witnessed: a masked woman pulled down her mask, touching it from the front, so she could lick her finger and open a plastic produce bag before pulling her mask up again.

April 23rd

During yin tonight, Byron fell asleep in every pose. The cutest was a seated pose where he was clutching a big pillow to his stomach. When the pose ended, he still sat there, head down, looking somehow like Winnie the Pooh.

April 23rd

I’m soooo into watching Deutschland 86 – been a lot of years since I wore blue mascara as a daily habit. As I type this, there’s an East German mother who, first held prisoner by her own government, now freed to the West, is longing for her children to make it across the border, and it’s got me pushing my fingernails into my palms.

April 23rd

Ah, happy day: around midnight, I got a message from one of last semester’s students for whom I’d written a couple letters of reference. He wanted me to know he found out he was awarded both scholarships:

Especially during these times, that was a super nice thing to receive today. It’s a big relief for my academic future, all thanks to you!

Effusive thanks from a teenage boy in a time where everything feels tipped toward the negative had me teary in the darkened kitchen.

April 24th

There was a gift bag on the back porch this morning; inside were four chocolate crosses – sale goodies post-Easter – with a note from Linda that we each are to hang one above our beds, as it’ll ward off Covid. A sounder idea than injecting disinfectants.

April 24th

During my walk this afternoon, I did, as I have been lately, a little shuffling thing that’s more than a walk, not quite a run. For someone who hasn’t been able to run this past year due to knee problems, this slow-motion scuttle feels like a triumph. In the noon Fit in 4 classes, too, I am able to jump – gently – for the first time in a year. PT made no difference with my knees, nor did a cortisone shot.

The only things that have changed are: 1) the passage of time, which would be necessary if there was been some sort of injury, and 2) yin yoga, the aim of which is to generate a healing response in the body’s connective tissue, six times a week for the past month and a half. It’s anecdotal evidence, for sure, but I’m going to give yin some serious credit for my return to bouncing.

April 24th

After a full day at work, Byron stopped at HOOPS to pick up our crowler order, and the manager lady had managed to lock herself out of the taproom with her phone stuck inside. So a few folks waited while someone came to let her in. When B got home, it was yin time. I knew he’d been awake since 5 a.m. and was bushed.

As we sat down on the floor for tea and class, I said to him, “This has been the hardest work week for you since you started at the library.” He agreed, adding, “The past six weeks have been the hardest.” His nap during savasana at the end of class offered up at least five variations of a snore.

April 24th

Having finished Deutschland 86 and mourned its passing all day, realizing as I reflect on it that it’s a better show than I even knew as I was in the midst of watching it, I bucked up and started Shtisel. In turn, this meant I was googling at 1 a.m. “How do Hasidic men curl their payot.”

April 25th

We would have been seeing Cloud Cult live at the Norshor Theater tonight. Standing in the kitchen the other day, Paco looked at the calendar hanging on the wall and noted of April, “Everything single thing is crossed off.”

April 25th

Byron slept until 8 a.m. This has happened maybe three times in twenty years. That’s how tough it was this past week at the library.

April 25th

We are longtime fans of chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s writing, so the first thing I did today was read her NYT article about the closure of her restaurant, Prune, and the case she makes for, perhaps, not re-opening. It’s a detailed insight into the restaurant world, a case study that illustrates the decisions and hassles so many have been facing the past six weeks – but taking that further and looking at how the restaurant business has been broken for years. As I finished reading, I admired her even more. She proves herself someone who’s willing to face hard realities and consider ways to pivot.

April 25th

By the time Paco, B, and I got home from a long walk and a confusing curbside pick-up, Leggy was, for the first time in days, ready for company. I’ve missed this version of her, livening the kitchen with the thoughts that have been brewing in her head, threatening to call Paco on her phone when his tired self doesn’t respond to her verbal “Paaaaaaaaaco” calls (two weeks of cold and cough and plugged ears had prompted him to retire to his bed after the outing).

When we told her he was tired and needed to stay in his room – that she should go up there instead of making him come down, she voiced the motivation behind her insistence: “These days, he’s my only peer.” I knew that but hadn’t framed it up so directly before. I told her to head upstairs and join him on his bed — but then we worried since she was holding a cup of tea, and Leggy plus hot liquids is a disastrous recipe in any setting.

Ten minutes later, we found her in Paco’s newly cleaned bedroom, surveying him with the first of hundreds of questions. Soon it was a family survey. First question: “Do you think everything happens for a reason?” Other questions were “Do you believe in God?” and “What do you think about philosophy?” Allegra’s lucky her only peer is extremely good natured. Also, one of the first things that happened when she walked into his room and sat down: she spilled her tea.

April 26th

I tell you what. My research-writing students this semester are flipping a collective finger at Covid. While it’s not uncommon to lose 25% of a community college class enrollment during course of a semester, these students right now are unshakable. I teach this class every semester, and I’ve never seen the like. There are two sections of 25 students combined into one class online, and both sections were full when we started in January. So: 50 students. In the first bit of the term, two students were dropped, one for not having the pre-requisites and one for non-payment. That put us at 48. After or around the weird Spring Break time (when one week of break was extended into three weeks as the world inhaled a shaky, shuddering breath), one more student dropped. And that’s it. Enrollment hangs tight and steady at 47 as we cruise toward the finish line, each student turning in all the work every single week. I don’t know what to make of it, it’s so unprecedented. Basically, I am benefiting from the random luck of the draw that is class enrollment, and this time around, those who enrolled realllllly want these credits completed.

Putting a special shine on the steady head-down vibe of the class was a series of emails from one student. Listen, her topic is what it is, and this semester doesn’t seem like the time to get overly rigid about the word “scholarly,” especially when the student has landed on a subject that is bringing her energy and joy in the midst of Covid blight. Her chatty emails today lifted me all afternoon:

This is quite the challenging project (The research paper draft).

I was so excited about this, that I just had to tell SOMEONE… but I mentioned in my research proposal that I had been “scam baiting” a Nigerian scammer online.  It started in January – and I had been trying to get him to admit that he’s a scammer – but I attempted FOUR times over the past three months and he got super mad each time and insisted that he was not a scammer and that he really was this famous person that he was claiming to be (but it was blatantly obvious it was fake).  Well low and behold… on Friday… I got a complete confession from him!!  He admitted to being a scammer and agreed to let me interview him about scamming!  I did pay him for his time (I told him I would not pay him any money if he was scamming me, but that I would have no problem paying him for his time).  It was a huge “win” for me to get him to fess up.  I’m reworking part of my draft to incorporate some of the info he gave me.  Although, everything he told me was right in line with all of my other resources.  I guess I was just more caught up in the novelty of the whole thing that I got a scammer to admit what he was up to.  Maybe I should start my own reality TV show called “Nigerian Scammer Whisperer”?  Funny stuff. I used a fictitious identity – so it was a safe project.

I have TONS of sources for my Works Cited page.  Hopefully my Works Cited page isn’t longer than the paper itself (only joking). But I’m worried that I have too many. Is that a thing?  

Anyway – I just had to share

Our conversation went back and forth for a few hours, and as I read more and more details about the elaborate counter-scam she ran on this guy under the guise of “academic research,” there were a lot of things I could have said to her. But. Well. All I felt compelled to do was assure her a long Works Cited is never a bad thing and join her in a huge laugh.

Then it occurred to me: her exuberance and joy were something I haven’t seen from anyone – really, not from anyone – in six weeks. The pure woo-hoo of her energy is scrubbing something clean in me. I’m as excited about this trashy research paper as she is.

April 27th

I wonder what the weekly CSA produce-box pick-up on our front porch will look like when it starts. Our house is the pick-up spot for subscribers on the east end of town for 18 weeks through the summer and early fall. Do we prop the front screen door open? I think we do. Are there even boxes this year? Usually, people come in to the porch with bags and take the produce out of their boxes, so maybe that still works? It’s a brain game, this puzzling through of “Who will touch what, and what can’t be touched, and what will need scrubbing, and what signs will need to be posted in the yard about social distancing?” I foresee long emails from Farmer Rick.

April 27th

People are writing emails to the city council regarding the library lay-offs. When I discovered this, I texted Byron – him, sweatily downtown in the library answering unending phone calls from those wanting to book curbside appointments, three days behind in the rest of his work, trying to figure out how they’ll streamline the curbside process at the same time juggling dizzying logistics about moving held books from the branches to the main library — except, hey, wait, that guy doesn’t want that hold from the branch anymore because he placed it March 18th and then, realizing it could be months before he got his hands on it, went ahead and bought it for himself, so why should they drive that book from a branch to the main library? Before they move 600 held books from a branch to Main, they need to sort out which patrons even still want all the books they’ve requested in the past two months, but also: itchy readers want their books now — except, too, the branches each have ONE person showing up because the rest are rightly peeved about layoffs and are taking vacation or personal days, plus also too, some of the people who weren’t laid off don’t want any part of curbside because they worry about safety, and then hey, hi, ho, some of those whose lay-offs start in two weeks are coming in to help launch curbside even though they’ll be exposed to the public despite not having healthcare by the end of May — all of which is to say Byron’s naps during yin yoga are an exhausted pause in the midst of WTF.

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On My Mind

Covid Diaries: Unclear What to Do Next

April 13th

I appreciated the moment in yin yoga when Ellen asked cat lovers to imagine a basket of kitties, dog lovers to imagine a basket of puppies, and those who don’t love either to imagine something that inspires in them a feeling of tenderness – “Pop tarts, maybe.”

April 14th

My mood was flat. I mean: fine. But flat. Because it’s all the same every day, see. So I knew, even though I uncharacteristically had no motivation, I needed to go outside. First, I put on my winter coat. Immediately, I was warm. I’d been so cold all morning. But I was warm. Then I did my typical dickin’ around of downloading podcasts and drinking water and using the bathroom. Sideways, then, my body slid into the piano bench, and I turned some pages. It was doable, the riddling out of notes. Slowly. Quietly. I played “Ave, Maria.” My dad, dead now 17 years, stood at the door of the cathedral and sang that as my almost-sister-in-law walked down the aisle in 1991. His tenor soared high to the rafters, oblivious to all the sour years that lay in front of them.

April 14th

It has occurred to me more than once that several periods in my life, particularly the Belarus months, were essentially pandemic training.

April 15th

Chatting with my sister, the early childhood teacher. She reports her work day runs, with many breaks, about 7a.m.-9p.m. as she connects with parents and kids whenever they are able:

I pre-record videos and I pause after I ask questions and a couple of the moms say that their kids are answering me and talking to me, which I think is so freaking adorable! I do remind them now I can’t see them, but I don’t think all of them really get it completely

April 15th

We started Picard a few nights ago. Fortunately, the costuming – ooh, happy salivation over all that linen with all them buttons — keeps me on board even when the dialogue, characters, and plot beats feel straight out of a Marvel movie. Do all great pilots have to be immature misogynistic egotists?

April 16th

Came home from my afternoon walk to a happy Byron: the mayor has declared the library “essential” and will be communicating with library staff about her decision to have curbside pick-up happen. I’m fully delighted that this community resource, while taking all recommended safety precautions, will start serving the community again.

April 16th

The podcast Verified has me riveted; in a sense, it’s true crime because it pertains to the prosecution of a Couch Surfing host in Italy who drugged and assaulted women who stayed with him, but it also raises issues surrounding “sharing economies” (definition of sharing economy: an economic system in which assets or services are shared between private individuals, either free or for a fee, typically by means of the Internet). I hadn’t heard sharing economies, also known as access economies, discussed overtly before – think lending libraries, Airbnb, Couch Surfing, Uber, where transactions often are private or peer-to-peer. Wikipedia tells me one of the premises of a sharing economy is:

Stranger danger can be overcome

In many cases, the sharing economy relies on the will of the users to share, but in order to make an exchange, users have to overcome stranger danger. Access economy organizations say they are committed to building and validating trusted relationships between members of their community, including producers, suppliers, customers or participants. Beyond trusting others (i.e., the peers), the users of a sharing economy platform also have to trust the platform itself as well as the product at hand.

What’s so interesting about this podcast is the way it considers human trust versus digital trust with regards to just that issue: When, how, and why should we push past the feeling of stranger danger that has been drummed into us since childhood? To what extent should we ever trust an app (aka a company)? I have to say: Couch Surfing does not come out well in this series.

April 16th

I’ve started alyssum, marigolds, zinnias, nasturtiums, candytuft, celosia, calendula, cosmos, chrysanthemums, snapdragons, coreopsis, rudbeckia, and salvia – 16 trays and two planters. I haven’t started this many seeds since 53” of snow fell in April of 2013, making it the snowiest month on record for Duluth. As far as panic responses go, pinning hope on a garden is one of the healthier ones. *she typed, sipping her second whiskey of the evening*

April 17th

I’m answering a student email about wanting to take an Incomplete because she didn’t do a whole bunch of assignments in January and February (short answer: NO) when Leggy comes down to make toast. I tell her I can’t stop thinking about how perfect the topic was that she was writing on yesterday for her sociology research methods class; she was analyzing tweets people made about their year-end Spotify wrap-ups (aka “Wrapped”) as a means of discussing the personas we present through social media. Basically, at the end of each year, Spotify’s Wrapped sends users a summary of the music they listened to during the year, along with detailing how many minutes they listened. For example, I learned from my 2019 Wrapped that I’d listened to Led Zeppelin more than any other artist – REALLY? – followed by vastly lesser-known Kentucky Gag Order. At our house, we had a discussion of how many minutes each of us had listened to Spotify and what artists led the pack for each of us. Anyhow: when Leggy told me the topic she was writing about, I had a moment of thinking, “That is a seriously cool professor.” But it turns out the topic was her choice. Of course. Because there is nothing more Perfectly Allegra than analyzing data surrounding tweets pertaining to Spotify.

There’s also nothing more perfectly Allegra than today’s homework-related task: in one of her classes, they’re doing peer editing. Just before the toaster oven dinged, she wondered if peer editing means only responding to content – or if she can point out grammar errors and suggest better sentence structures. That definitely is dicey territory in peer editing, as folks get defensive. I suggested she contact her peer and say, “I’m also have some grammar suggestions, so would those be something you’d like to see, too?” Wielding the knife, preparing to butter, she mused, “It’s so funny how my brain can’t even take in the content if there are problems with sentences. I could read the whole thing and not even know what it’s about if there are grammar problems.” THAT’S MY GIRL

April 17th

I hear Paco’s 3-D printer at work upstairs. When I ask what he’s making, turns out it’s mask extenders for healthcare workers at one of the hospitals in town. It’s a robotics thing. The team contacted the hospital and asked if there was any need they could help fulfill. One request: mask extenders keep personnel from getting sore behind the ears since they move the point of connection of straps from ears to the extender (behind the head). Initially, I had lobbied for the robotics team to make curbside-delivery robots, but as it turns out, complex machinery is best built with people together in a room that contains machining and programming equipment.

April 18th

Because he’s one of my best girlfriends, Byron had spent some time with the social media account I’ve been eye-roll watching and, oh how we love him, greeted me this morning with, “So, I fell down that rabbit hole last night. I have notes.” Then we talked for a while about the various presentations of narcissism, and there was nothing I’d have rather been doing while sipping my morning coffee.

April 18th

Paco and I went for a couple-hour walk over to Lester Park. First, we stopped at the post office, so he could mail a letter to a friend here in town. Those hand-written letters they’re exchanging will be lifetime souvenirs of a very specific era. My favorite part was when he stood in front of the big blue mailbox, having looked it over, and announced, “Okay, help. I don’t know how this thing works.” He’s so tall he couldn’t see the flap and handle to open the thing.

April 19th

I wonder if Catholics feel lately like they’re getting a preview of Limbo as they shelter at home, hanging indefinitely in a kind of nothingness, waiting for resolution.

April 19th

We started discussing Peace Like a River in the Novels class last week. Students always respond well to it – that’s part of why I assign it, this book where the setting is so familiar, especially after we’ve read a handful of books with locations that are foreign to young people in Northern Minnesota – but I feel this semester like they are writing their posts almost from a place of relief, like “Oh, this is comforting. A book about harsh winters and hunting. This feels right.”

April 19th

Himself and I went for a walk through the Congdon neighborhood. On our way back, suddenly we were at a little park with a plaque. We were standing on Minnesota’s oldest cement, a couple of blocks’ wroth preserved from 1909, nine years before the Spanish influenza killed 10,000 Minnesotans. The current Covid-19 death total in Minnesota is 121 people. It’s poor thinkers who look at those numbers and think the threat now is lesser. It’s these actions that change numbers, knotheads. Here’s a snippet from MinnPost.com about what happened in 1918:

The hospital at Fort Snelling admitted its first case of influenza on September 27. Within ten days, 850 patients had been admitted, most with the flu. Two hundred of those developed pneumonia, with sixty-one deaths. Most of the patients were men under the age of twenty who had enrolled in the Students’ Army Training Corps (SATC) at the University of Minnesota. Close contact in classrooms and barracks was likely the cause of the explosive spread of the infection. 

If what we’re living ultimately seems like a lot of fuss about nothing, the point is that the fuss made it closer to nothing.

April 19th

Late last night, Leggy messaged me, asking if I like poetry. When I told her it depends, but I definitely like it more than I used to, she directed me to the On Being website and the poetry of Richard Blanco (Full disclosure: On Being has long been to me “That Tiresome Earnest White Woman Thing”). Apparently, she first arrived at On Being when someone on Instagram posted a poem by a different poet called “What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade” – which I promptly sought out, read, and loved. When I messaged her to say “Wow, that’s a great poem,” she replied immediately, “Right?” Then she typed “Layli Long Soldier is an indigenous poet. Did you know 38 people were hanged under Lincoln’s orders, on the same day he signed the Emancipation Proclamation?” I am not mad at the in-house messaging that takes place at 1:30 a.m.

April 20th

I think I was a little cranky in some feedback to a student last night. I keep thinking about it. The student’s already read it. My issue: she deserved my crankiness. Yet we are being urged to treat our students with extreme compassion right now. And I have been. But it was late, I was tired, and she was acting like Week Fourteen of the class was the first time she’d stumbled into the place. An extreme compassion that could be extended to teachers would be allowing them the right to express annoyance when faced with annoying behavior.

April 20th

Ellen reads a poem at the beginning of class each night in yin yoga. The poem she read tonight she will read each night this week, which is something she hasn’t done before. I’m glad we get to hear this one again and again; the closing line brought an unexpected rush of emotion from me. At the end of class, I typed a comment saying I loved the poignancy of the final line. When Colleen chimed in that the closing had gotten her full-on teary, it felt beautifully like we’d been in the same room together.

Bird Left Behind

BY SOPHIE CABOT BLACK

As for her, the circumstances must be ordinary

And so the return. Door unlocked. The path mowed

Right to the oiled gate; the pasture

Cleared of stone and alder. All untouched

Enough to enter. The man or woman

Off down the valley or working above

Treeline. No other sound but a few strays

Hurrying through the dusk as if the end

Will begin, certain and with nothing

More to say. She does not know she does not know.

Having come back to find her kind

And none being left she took herself up

Into a tree unclear what to do next save only

Sing the song she wanted sung back to her.

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The Covid Diaries: Can Can

April 7th

Leggy had her first chemistry lab. The prof gave them the data they would have gleaned from doing a thing in the lab, and then she worked in a Zoom breakout room with her partner to make sense of it. I’m not complaining because kudos to the prof for instructional creativity, but still: this process feels like a freeze-dried lab. I’m disappointed that she’s not in the basement with a blow torch.

April 7th

Byron sat down in front of me on the ottoman tonight and said, “Here was the highlight of my work day.” Then he hit play on an audio file on his phone. It was a voicemail from a patron, telling the staff that she wanted them to know some things and take heart during this time of shutdown: the library has always been one of the most important places in her life, from when she moved to town to when she had her kids. B and I were SOBBING as we sat there, listening to this woman detail all the ways the library has saved her – perhaps she worries about becoming ill or dying and wants to be sure she’s shared all her appreciations. As she closed, she said, “I always tell people that, other than my wedding ring, my library card is the thing I value the most.” Five minutes later, I heard Byron standing at the kitchen sink, still sniffling.

April 8th

S. messaged, asking about Allegra’s cancelled summer internship on the Cheyenne River Reservation, wondering how they knew to cancel it so early. For them to have canceled a July/August commitment in mid-March was definitely thinking that was wayyyy ahead of other institutions’ “We’ll just stay home for two weeks and then reassess” attitudes. It’s almost as if Native Americans know that when the white people announce it’s not so bad and will be better soon, that’s exactly the time to anticipate a grinding, rasping trudge, bodies littering the path.

April 8th

When I asked Student G about including her messages in this journal and sharing them with others, she responded:

As a child, whenever I would fight with my sisters I would tattle to my father in hopes I would be consoled and my sisters would be punished. My father being the wiser would always say to me “were you a part of the problem or a part of the solution” I would get embarassed because I was an instigator and not a peace maker. To this day, I strive to be a part of the solution if I am able to help, just like in Leonard Cohen’s song ” I’m Your Man.”

April 8th

I noodle away at the keyboard, Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thais, and certain runs of notes make me teary. Then laughy. Because that song, more than anything, is Oksana Baiul at the 1994 Olympics. Who knew anyone could beat our tragic heroine, Nancy Kerrigan? Swanlike arms trumped swollen knee.

April 8th

How many pieces of toast at 11 p.m. is too many? Listen, if you get sick, the couch that is my body can either be upholstered or covered in plastic. I hereby invited you for a recuperative lie down upon Jocey Toast Longue.

April 9th

One student writes to me of her job at Walmart:

The place has simply been a zoo with all sorts of people freaking out about Corona, yet the same people are leaving their houses (with their entire families!) for hardly essential items like ice cream and flat-screen TVs. 

Another writes of her job at Target:

It really is stunning how buying Care Bear adult onesies and touching everything in my department is essential.

April 9th

I’ve been reading A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (it’s got a rating of 3.66 on Goodreads, a perfectly accurate assessment). The narrator mentions chewing some pink pills to reveal cavities, and that mention spiraled me into hey-whoa-wow-I-forgot-all-about-that memory retrieval. At first, I remembered we chewed such pills at school – yet another institutionally sanctioned method of embarrassment, as potentially humiliating as the Presidential Physical Fitness Test – but then, after I turned off the light and put my head onto the high stack of three pillows aimed at keeping my shoulders from aching (I BLAME YOU, PRESIDENTIAL PHYSICAL FITNESS TEST ARM HANG), the memory got clearer: at the start of our dental visits, we’d be asked to chew the plaque-revealing pills, thus compounding the emotional stress of lying back in that chair, a tense passive receptacle of adult judgment. I still remember the chiding the dentist gave me each visit for daring to drink pop — because “that carbonation is eating the plaque off your teeth.”

Anyhow, there are a lot of reasons why sleep is complicated.

April 9th

Although I don’t always remember my dreams, lately I’ve been having warm, sweet, kind dreams, full of long-time friends – usually people I went to college with – and we are always in situations of pure joy, so glad to be together, so delighted we have things to offer one another. The other night in my dream, I had driven a long time to a lake; it was dark outside, softly summer with crickets chirping as I walked from the car toward a comfy old cottage. I knocked and knocked on a rattly screen door that felt like a guy named Hans had nailed it together in 1932, and when it opened, there was my great pal, Steve Theobald, a big smile spreading across his face. “Hey, Joce! I didn’t expect you. How long can you stay? A week, I hope. Are you hungry?” Behind me, as I stood in the doorway, a silver spotlight of moon crinkled across the lake, and I fell in love with my friend all over again.

April 9th

I tried playing The Can Can on the piano today, a stilted, lurching effort hilariously at odds with the intention of the song. Every time I squinted at the music, trying to suss out the next chord, I pictured a short-tempered French minx, skirt hoisted, leg quivering in the air, smile plastered, brain screaming, “Merde, you lunkhead, play the damn note!”

April 9th

When I was chatting with C. yesterday, I circled ‘round a conversational cul de sac about competitive race walking, telling her how I took a Community Ed class in it years ago and have, since then, tried to walk fast in a few races. This naturally led to a screed against a local man who enters races as a competitive walker, except – and many in the know have told him – what he does technically isn’t walking; it’s running that looks like walking. He’s beaten me a few times, and I hope his 1st place medallions rub a festering hole into his torso, one that can’t be cleaned with rubbing alcohol because hoarders have cleared the shelves. I don’t know what happens when a chest hole stays infected for too long, but my guess is the flesh will turn gangrenous, ultimately exposing the blackness of his heart.

There might be a global panic occupying most people’s minds, but for me, it’s never the wrong time for an extended airing of a petty grievance.

April 10th

Spent a long stretch completing academic alerts and emailing students who currently have Ds and Fs. For nearly all of them, the problem is not a new one – not something that’s developed since our three-week Spring Break. They’re just continuing the way they were before. I heard back immediately from a couple of them, and I keep being surprised how much students appreciate the individual “tap” even when it’s to say, “HEY, YOU’RE FAILING.”

April 10th

Paco practiced his bass while we did yin yoga class in the living room, which allowed the unforeseen opportunity to have my knees bopping near my ears to the beat of “Come and Get Your Love.” Sounds like a conception story, really.

April 11th

Leggy stands in the kitchen eating cantaloupe out of the Tupperware container. “Ahhh,” she sighs. “Tastes like Carleton.” She goes on to wax lyrical about breakfasts on campus being the best meal of the day because melon.

April 11th

Same as last Saturday, I walked the big Glenwood/Skyline/Seven Bridges Road loop today, about 2.5 hours total. There were lots of people out but fewer than last week. I heard somewhere the other day that historically, after periods of mass illness or economic depression, people have reacted, once the crisis has passed, with lavish hedonism. I expect the same of us – because we’re nothing if not increasingly worse versions of ourselves, fainter and fainter xeroxes – but hope that the perks of this period stick with a few who might not otherwise have experienced them. I hope some of these teens still make bread when they’re forty. I hope some of the people keep knitting. I hope Sharla and Bob down there keep going for walks. I hope Samantha does a puzzle. I hope I one day meet a Samantha.

April 12th

Today’s another Christian holiday where many are feeling sad they can’t gather. I am finding it a relief to have a reason not to have to be social. Oh, if only this period of isolation were happening over Thanksgiving and Christmas! The stress it would save.

April 12th

P. 297 of Ducks, Newburyport:

…the fact that now Ben tells me bird flu only has to mutate a few more times to cause a global pandemic like the Spanish flu and that, if that happens, civilization will grind to a halt within a year, the fact that I know it’s terrible of me but I can’t help hoping the guy with the scary dog will be one of the first to go,

I wish Boris Johnson had died. He’s a guy with a scary dog called power.

April 12th

Folding laundry last week revealed that it had been a one-pair-of-underwear stretch of days. I wish I could remember what extravagant occasion merited donning a pair. Maybe I put on pants that weren’t the ones I’d slept in? I tell this to C., and she types back about her six-year-old: C. has stopped wearing underwear too. I found that out in the woods.

April 12th

At the start of every yin yoga class, when we all sit together in silence, listen to a poem, and then sit silently for another minute, Ellen asks us to check in with ourselves: How does it feel to be you today? Every single day, a response burbles up: “REALLY GOOD.” The other night, the great good fortune of that response really lodged with me. For others, it might be “Achy” or “Worried” or “Lonely.” I’m so appreciative of that significant a-ha: I had never before stopped to notice that my default setting is “REALLY GOOD.”

Later in class, we laid on our bellies and put our heads down on our hands in Crocodile pose, a perfect position to shed some tears. When Ellen talked about setting an intention for the meditation portion of class – and I’d be bailing when we got there, tbh, because Sunday nights are when the mass of student work crashes onto my shore like a tsunami – she gave some examples, explaining that an intention should be in the present tense, express something like a wish, and use simple language. Allowing myself the exercise, I wondered, “What would that be for me tonight?” The answer made me weep, face to the floor cushioned on my folded hands.

The intention my brain wished for was: I am sure my kids are all right.

April 13th

Went for a brisk walk, the temperature moreso than my movements, and listened to Invisibilia and Heavyweight. At the start of the most recent Heavyweight episode, Jonathan has a phone call with a ten-year-old boy named Simon who, with school not in session, is currently staying home by himself all day while his parents still go out to their jobs. He says when he gets scared, he opens the front blind, looks through the big window, and remembers outside is still there. Then he plays “When the Saints Go Marching In” for Jonathan on his recorder, and as I listened my eyes were so teary I couldn’t see the sidewalk.

April 13th

I’m closing in on the end of the pumpkin Kusama puzzle, basically trying every piece in every space methodically until I get a hit. For how challenging that image is, I’ve quite enjoyed riddling it out. At the same time, I’m ready for the next one — even though I have shivers of anxiety about diminishing the cache of yet-to-be-done puzzles in the upstairs closet during these weeks of back orders and slow shipping.

Whenever I finish a puzzle, there is a great moment of pause between finish and start where I wipe down the table – so many toast crumbs! – and give the whole place a reset before it all starts again.

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On My Mind

Journal Snippets

March 29th

B and I just finished doing the nightly online yin yoga and guided meditation class with Ellen. In the class, we were to set an intention, and mine was to stop avoiding writing because I don’t know what I could possibly say. This typing is me, trying to act on intention.

March 29th

Like everyone with a Netflix account, we started watching Tiger King, which is rather a perfect documentary since it’s insane and real, but I spent most of the hour wishing every egotistical dumbass on the screen would get the virus instead of John Prine.

March 29th

Allegra says, “Lego people are creepy; they live in houses made out of their flesh.”

March 30th

People keep posting how many days they are into this thing, meaning how many days since their lives changed, perhaps in terms of staying at home and isolating, but I don’t know how to do a count. Perhaps the reality of my Corona experience set in on March 17th, the day we all should have been watching the Nordic ski World Cup races in Minneapolis, but instead, I went to Northfield and packed the contents of Leggy’s dorm room into the car. When we finally got home that night, and B and Paco came out and helped unload her college experience into the middle of the living room, I was reminded that we four know how to be a foursome – the isolated, lonely, magical, transformative year in Turkey forged us in fire. But then, when the car was empty, and I went out to move it from the front of the house, a wave of grief swept over me. It came out of nowhere, as it’d been a good day, full of sunshine and cupcakes and Leggy. And it was devastating. Our girl has found her special place at college, only to be returned to the small dormered room that feels like high school to her. She isn’t going to Russia for a term. She isn’t solo traveling to Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia after Russia. Her internship on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, planned for six weeks in July and August, has been canceled. This virus clipped her wings.

I sat in the driver’s seat in front of our house and cried for all those canceled plans. I cried because she is home and healthy and safe. I cried because she is so fortunate to have that much to lose.

March 30th

I’ve been peri-menopausal for some months now, some days with 20 or more hot flashes. Sleep is more of a challenge than ever. They don’t tell women much about menopause, but they certainly don’t tell us that heating up and cooling down dramatically all day long is some exhausting shit.

March 30th

The Fender speaker for Paco’s to-be-delivered bass arrived. “I have so much time,” he noted last week. “I miss playing an instrument.” One of his selling points for buying a bass was that he’ll be able to play the Seinfeld theme song.

March 31st

The explosion of Facebook Live and Zoom performances has been a kind of silver lining, as I’ve seen things I wouldn’t have otherwise. Last week, we watched Charlie Parr’s surprisingly well produced performance at Duluth Cider; his Go Fund Me for that show was set at $3,000, and by the next day when I looked, he had over $15,000. Also fun was watching Maria Bamford do Mike Birbiglia’s Tip Your Waitstaff Instagram Live show and, from that, learning that she was offering three “workshopping new material” performances on Zoom, too. We registered for and watched one. It’s fascinating to see a comedian developing new material. She said we could make suggestions in the comments. I only made one (hilariously: that she read Langston Hughes’ “Salvation” because it might give her ideas as to where she wants to go with her bit on performative religiosity), but I could have given her a bunch more notes about the set-up of her Harvard Lampoon bit. For the interested reader: at the start, it needs more context and exposition.

April 1st

Ducks, Newburyport is the most fortuitous random library book pull, grabbed off the shelf a few days before the library closed. It’s about a thousand pages, most of that a single sentence, and its stream of consciousness anxious tone mirrors the way the world is feeling these past weeks. I’d read and shared an interview with Lucy Ellman last month – oh, her fierce intelligence made me laugh – so it’s a joy to have page after page of her brain wrought fiction to occupy a few minutes of each day. Byron’s reading it, too, so we have staggered bookmarks in the thick volume. It makes me think of Laura and Mary reading the same book at the same time, their heads tipped away from each other as each reads the opposite side of a page.

April 2nd

The place that feels most normal right now is my online classes. We’re back to business as usual, and when I’m grading discussion posts, it’s like January again. Adison wrote a wonderful explication of tea and tea making in response to a classmate who didn’t get the phrase of “like making tea in a bucket” used in Memoirs of a Geisha.

April 2nd

The nightly yoga class with Ellen goes so fast. Tonight when she told us to get into a comfortable seated position, I was cross legged on a pillow, eating a piece of Leggy’s birthday cake.

April 3rd

It’s already at the point where I guilt-stream FB Live classes because I can’t bear for teachers to be doing this new thing with no viewers. I want them to feel like someone’s watching even though I’m mostly grading discussion posts and remembering how cool I once thought KC & the Sunshine Band were.

April 3rd

How can it be that there’s only 25% more people in the house, yet we run the dishwasher 200% as often? This is English major math, btw.

April 4th

As the sunlight started to fade, I sat out on the back porch and scooped dirt and planted four trays of zinnias. It’s unclear if nurseries will be deemed “essential” businesses, so I’m going to start a crapton of seeds this year in case I have to rely on only on my own product. Have I started a thousand zinnias yet? No? Then I need to do more.

April 4th

One of my students has emailed to ask:

Can I have a couple more days for the assignments? My nutrition laid on the overload for homework, I am now a teacher to my children cause they are now homeschooled. My 1st grader had 11 things due yesterday. Her homework is triple the amount my 3rd grader. My hours were cut in half, As of Monday, I’m officially laid off. I am having a really hard time breathing right now. I don’t want to just not do my school work but at this point, I’m really drowning. 

After I replied OF COURSE and other nice words, she added:

I am definitely trying, and I’m an alcoholic. I have been sober a year and a half, it feels like I’m on week one again. I’m stressing hour by hour. Change is so hard. I also feel bad for the kids, they are being short-changed by having a mom who can’t do trigonometry 3rd-grade homework lol

Also in student news, I love G. so much. She messaged to say she enjoyed my video about thesis statements, made when we lived in Turkey:

while I watched the video it felt like I was viewing an avante garde Bob Ross episode. “every thesis cave needs a little friend, lets just put a few pidgeon alcoves right here.”

April 5th

Yesterday on Instagram, I posted a picture of Paco next to a sign our neighbors had hung so that everyone going by on the avenue would see it: PRAY HARD. My caption was “Alternately, wash your hands and keep your distance” (#science). I can’t stop laughing this morning at the question posed by a teacher in Belarus: “But why is this slogan on the tree???” It’s a perfect example of one cultural viewpoint shedding light on the nonsense of another.

Byron says all the “positive captioning” we see on signs and even in sidewalk chalked art is the “Live, Laugh, Love” of Corona.

April 5th

Went for a 9.2-mile walk, according to my phone. If I believe my phone, and I don’t really but am choosing to right now, I’ve walked almost 18 miles in the past 25 hours or so. I’m solar powered.

April 6th

No eggs at Super One.

Not many people wearing masks at Super One, either. I used my Buff over my face. Weird to have “first time masked” life experience. Perhaps 10% of the people in the store were following the CDC recommendation to wear a mask.

April 7th

I’ve been typing a lot at the overwhelmed student this morning. She writes:

I don’t know why i feel so lost right now. I have been completing assignments and doing the homework with no problems. As of late im just drowning to move forward and function and I cannot figure out how to catch a break. 

April 7th

Started 72 more zinnias.

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