Mar 17

Depression #52essays2017 no. 11

Like many people, I suffer from depression and anxiety, but I tend to feel I’m the only one. In my right mind I know that’s just another lie depression tells me, but I’m not in my right mind when I’m depressed. I’m in my mind that says this is the worst thing in the world and I don’t know how much more of it I can stand.

I’ve been in that mind a lot lately, which makes writing hard because it makes living hard. It makes everything hard. Figuring out which shoe to put on first is a major ordeal, as someone I know once put it.

I don’t have any dead people or things to write about this week. No objects are striking me with their history, and the dead aren’t telling any tales. There’s just me and my wretched brain that wants none of this.

I first became seriously depressed the fall of my junior year of college. There were contributing factors — I was romantically disappointed, my friends were all abroad or had moved off campus or had become biochemistry majors, which was in its effect much like leaving the country. I was completely lost in most of my classes. Greek history and calculus were like swamps I was trying to move through when I tried to pay attention to them, so mostly I stopped paying attention or attending to the swamp at all. If it hadn’t been for Homer and a colonial American history class, I might not have made it through the semester at all.

I feel I’ve told this story before on this blog, but it bears repeating. At the end of that semester I had to pack and store all my belongings because I, too, was moving off campus at the beginning of the next semester. I had to do all this during finals week, and the girl who was moving into my dorm room kept wanting to know when I would be out. “I have a 9 am final on Friday,” I kept telling her, “so not till after that.”

I packed and packed and moved all my crap to my friend’s basement, leaving out only a few things: the books I needed for my finals and my anthology of Romantic poetry and prose edited by Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling. I don’t know why I kept it out, but one night that week late I got it out and sat on my bed and opened it up and read “Frost at Midnight.” I wouldn’t read Dante till the next semester, and it didn’t solve all my problems, but reading that poem was, for a moment, like emerging and seeing the stars again.

My house is still chaos, but that book is one of the few I can locate. Perhaps my next treatment for my current slump will be to pull it out and read Coleridge again. It’s spring, not winter, but I can only hope that it will help.

Mar 17

Telephone #52essays2017 no. 10

Unpacking ought to make me happy, particularly seeing the books, my old friends, but instead it fills me with dread and makes me wonder yet again if a match wouldn’t be a great boon to the endeavor that is my life. It’s tempting to get a dumpster and just trash everything and maybe set it on fire for good measure, since 2017 is turning out to be as much of a dumpster fire of a year as the last one was. But I can’t really countenance throwing away books, much less setting them on fire, so I’ll settle for unpacking them bit by bit and putting them back on the shelf.

I own a four volume set of George Orwell’s journalism, letters, and essays. Once upon a time, back when I had oceans of time in graduate school, I read the first half of one volume. The flap of that book has been marking my place halfway through for over a decade now, though, and I perhaps ought to give up on the idea that I’m ever going to read any more of it, but I won’t. After all, I have the day off today and my son is in daycare. Perhaps I’ll read some more today.

I’ve written already to my seventeen year old self, but it’s my twenty-seven year old self I think of more these days. She was a mess, but she didn’t realize how lucky she was: in a writing graduate program with very few requirements, earning enough money as a teaching assistant to live quite nicely, nothing to do with large swaths of time but read and write. I’d kill for that existence now, or so I think. Perhaps it would leave me just as depressed and paralyzed now as it did then.

I have spent half a lifetime being treated for depression and anxiety, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. Lately it’s been less so, which is part of why this week’s essay is so late and so scattered. I can’t wrap my head around much of anything, much less write it down.

My study is impassable at the moment due to boxes of books and boxes and piles of… other things. A bag of assorted cords and cables. A battery charger, A toy truck, An ancient lockbox. I’m not sure what else. It’s of course classic writerly denial to believe one can’t work because one’s study isn’t clear, but I cling to denial as hard as the next would be writer, and so the clutter is distressing me. I’m working on it: this morning I unpacked four or five boxes of books (discovering the Orwell in the process), but there are yet more, plus, of course, the toy truck and the lockbox and the battery charger and the assorted cords and cables, none of which have a home.

There’s also my old telephone, which I should just pitch and will once I can get myself to throw out with it the things that people wrote on it over the years. It’s a basic off white phone from AT&T, and its model number was 700, so my friend wrote on it in Sharpie “700 Club Member Complimentary Phone.” That started a trend, and soon other people were writing things on it, some swapping in the word phone for another in a line from a book or song (“The phone was forced to lie flat and bare as the palm of his hand,” “I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my phone and I was free,” Telephone Planet, Singin’ in the Telephone), others just making phone references (“ALL CALL BRAK!”). I had to go get the phone to remember all those — there are more, but some have worn off over the years, and the whole thing is dingy.

There. I did it. I put it in the trash can. This essay will be the memorial to my first telephone, which I got in high school and used up until I gave up on landlines all together when I moved back to Iowa six years ago.

I had other phones in there, because eventually I wanted cordless phones. I had a purple one I was quite fond of for a time, and later a svelte black one. But I always kept the 700 Club phone around, it being important to have a phone that wasn’t cordless in case your cordless phone died.

I used to spend many hours on the phone talking with friends, and now I never do in part because now I don’t have those swaths of time anymore and in part because now I rather hate the phone. But I’m nostalgic for the days when I didn’t.

Feb 17

Tennis #52essays2017 no. 9

I’ve realized that all these essays I’m writing are about dead people or their stuff, or both. My family is full of dead people, and they owned an awful lot of stuff, much of which, despite recent winnowing, is still around. From a writing perspective that’s good news — I won’t run out of material. From a reading perspective it may be less so — how many essays about cancelled checks and tobacco pipes and bourbon decanters do you really want to read? Will this be a history of my life in 52 objects? I thought of that as a conceit and may use it, but I don’t promise to stick to the plan.

The pipes showed up a little while ago, unearthed from somewhere in my mother’s basement. I hope she’s pitched them by now, because if I see them, I’ll want to keep them, and I have no earthly purpose for keeping pipes. I don’t smoke and don’t plan to start, and they aren’t for the most part fancy pipes of the sort one might display handsomely if one had an overly large house and a pipe rack and were fond of dusting.

I have a small house and no such rack and hate dusting, so I would be much better off without them. They are no substitute for my father, and he is long gone.

My father always smoked a pipe. He did keep his pipes on a rack, but in my memories of him he always has one in his mouth or in his hand. I’ve known other pipe smokers since, and pipe smoking is surely the fidgetiest hobby known to man — so much cleaning and tamping and lighting it’s a wonder anyone ever actually smokes from them.

But my father did, no matter where he was. He smoked a pipe while teaching, back in the days where one could do such a thing in a college classroom, and he smoked while playing doubles tennis on the college courts. You got to those courts by going through our backyard and through another yard and then you were there, red and green courts with a few bleachers where I’d sit with my yellow plastic mug, and the tennis players would give me water from their thermoses. This was Iowa in the summers long ago, and it was hot, and they kept this ice cold water in thermoses that they all brought along to the courts.

I was quite young then, three or four years old at most, and I can’t quite imagine that my father simply left me sitting in the bleachers for an entire game, but that’s how I remember it, by myself with only incidental grown ups milling around.

I never became a tennis player despite those early years at the courts. I went to camp for a million summers after that, and one year I spent every evening after dinner trying to learn to serve a ball over the net and failing every time. No one much tried to teach me, but I may have been unteachable. I did not want to play tennis; I only wanted to pass the tennis part of my camp honors without failing miserably and being an embarrassment to myself and to tradition. I never did learn, though, and they let me do my serves from the service line instead of the baseline, so I was half way to the net and had only to get the ball over a few yards. That I could do, sort of.

I can’t imagine how much I was left to myself as a child. My own child, at five, seems hardly older than a baby, though I register him for kindergarten tomorrow. But there I was, watching the balls fly over the net and later, after my father died, trying to hit them myself with his heavy old racket. That racket is long gone, too, and I don’t miss it, nor will I ever play tennis again. But I still remember my father, long pants, button down shirt, pipe perched in the corner of his mouth, hitting the balls over and over again.

Feb 17

Letter To My Seventeen-Year-Old Self #52essays2017 no. 7

a bunch of mixtapes

All of my mixtapes, many of which I made at age 17.

Dear Laura,

You won’t always hate your body. You will grow into it. It’s not that you’ll grow any taller — sorry about that — but you’ll grow comfortable in your own skin (the breast reduction will help). They say you find love when you’re happy with yourself, and weight loss will work this way for you: once you’re happier, you’ll lose some weight. (The rest, unfortunately, you will lose because you will be very, very sad — when you gain this back, you will think it a small price to pay for not being so depressed.)

The music you’re buying now — those few used CDs you pick up at the Record Collector among the dozens and dozens you want — will fill you now. In later years it will come to haunt you, so that just listening to In My Tribe by the 10,000 Maniacs or Lulu by Trip Shakespeare will fill you with such aching and heartsickness that you’ll know you’ll never truly forget what it was to be seventeen. You will never forget this sense of aloneness, of loneliness, of being on the verge of something that never quite comes. You will never forget it, and you will never feel it again. You will almost miss it, almost miss being that girl looking through the CD bins, that girl at a party who is recognized by one of the record store clerks as the girl who browses but rarely buys, that girl who hopes that such recognition will be the break she needs but who will end the night as she does so many others, alone and listening to music, confused and on edge and not sure why except that nothing ever really seems to happen.

But things will happen: love and travel and adventure and heartbreak, all the things you think will never happen to you. They’ll happen, and they’ll be wonderful and terrible by turns, but they’ll never have the poignancy of what you have right now, the thing you have and don’t realize. It’s not innocence, that condition that you were spared. And it’s not nostalgia that makes me say this to you now. I would not go back to that time for ready money. It’s that there’s a quality to these teenage years that isn’t replicable, something about hope in the midst of despair, some belief that better things are to come.

You will look back at Bill Clinton and start to think he wasn’t all that bad, but don’t let go of the radical fire in your belly. You’ll need it to fight bigger fights in the years to come.

You’re starting to slack off in school now, unbeknownst to anyone, because you can get away with it, but later you’ll wish you’d worked a bit harder. In some respect book learning won’t do you much good, but you might have found more uses for it if you had stuck with it more.

You are going to have to get a job. An actual job, working full time, where you have to show up and frequently do dull and repetitive things. You will try to avoid this for as long as you can, rather to your detriment.

Remember to thank your mother. She does more for you than you know, and while it’s probably not Constitutionally possible for children to be properly grateful to their parents, you should put forth some effort.

I’m scolding now, and that’s not what I set out to do. This was meant to be an It Gets Better, which is a thing we say in 2017 that wasn’t around in 1993. It’s meant as a message to LGBT youth, although as with so much else it’s been coopted by the wider culture, including apparently by me. But it’s worth noting that though the threats now are very real and although the progress wasn’t all that we could have hoped (where’s that federal nondiscrimination law, eh?), there are positive things that happened for LGBT people that you never could imagine. Maybe moral progress is real, though the events of 2017 will make you doubt it all over again.

But back to you, because, selfishly, this letter is about you: things will get better. They’ll also get worse, and you’ll have things happen and fall into pits of despair you can’t yet imagine. But this inescapable loneliness you feel now will not always be there. Things will start to happen to you, and you’ll make things happen too. And one day you’ll wake up and find you’re 41 and still thinking about being seventeen. You’re reading Mrs. Dalloway right now, so you know in fiction about how all times can exist concurrently in the present one. In the years to come you’ll learn that’s true of life, too.

Hang in there.


Feb 17

Papers #52essays2017 no. 6

a sword in front of a stack of papers and books

a page from Histoire de la Revolution Francaise from the British Museum

It is not possible to describe the amount of stuff there was in my grandmother’s house.

She would admit, I think, to being a hoarder of paper, though she was never diagnosed as such to my knowledge. But there were piles of paper everywhere. Old real estate listings and business cards from ever Realtors office she’d ever worked at. Book and movie reviews for her novel study group and later for the movie selection committee she was on at her retirement home. Recipes. Lists. Lists of things to buy and things to do and things to consider. Lists of home improvements and the contents of folders and filing cabinets. Lists of lists she’d already made. All these were settled around the house like snow on a landscape, and to find one among the many was akin to digging for a single snowflake.

One day when I was living with her I came home from my early morning dog walking job to find her frantically sorting. She was trying to find her property tax bill, or more precisely the piece of paper that she needed to file to be relieved of her property tax bill, as her income was low enough that she merited such relief in the eyes of the township.

I looked at her, an old woman behind a dining room table piled high with papers, the one paper she could find the one that said they were putting her house on the market in fourteen days, and the first thing I did was make her take a Xanax. Somehow we got through the day. We got a loan from the bank to cover the taxes. We went to the township office to file a new copy of the piece of paper. We went somewhere else for a purpose I no longer remember but that had to do with yet another piece of paper. We made it through.

I think of that day now as I prepare to move my mother into my house. One tactic for getting pieces of paper — and other things — out of my grandmother’s house was for us to take them, wholesale, to our own houses. Some of those boxes have been sitting at my mother’s house now for almost a decade, and some of them now will be making their way to my house.

This week we have been frantically sorting, trying to separate the letters and photos we want to save from the bank statements and lists we don’t. Even so there’s too much. I don’t know what to do about it, but I cannot yet throw away my grandmother’s letters, even the ones she didn’t send. Especially the ones she didn’t send. I can’t read them, either: they are too heartbreaking, too much the symptoms of a woman lost in her own life and not always able to fight back against the tide.

I feel bad writing about her that way. She was amazing, not pathetic, although my renderings of her always seem to come out the with more pathos than glory.

Perhaps the best way is to describe the other things in her house, the things that were not the snowfall, not the things that nearly buried her.

She also kept possession of her father’s rock collection, stored in glass topped wooden boxes of his own design. Each box held a series of wooden panels, and on each was a rock in the rough, a polished slice, and a cut and polished cabochon. He did all the work himself. The rocks lived at his house, and in later years they went on display in the schools and libraries of his descendants.

There were masks in my grandmother’s house, and bongo drums and maracas, and a dollhouse built for my mother. There were antique toys of intricate design and a glass topped table full of curiosities, including, among the things of actual value, the plastic airplanes Delta used to give out, one of which she’d let you take with you if you were good. Also in the coffee table was a small turtle, its head and tail suspended by thread. If you looked at it hard enough, she said, it would move, and it did, almost fooling generations of us into believing it was a real turtle. To this day I don’t know if it moved because we looked at it or because she nudged the table a bit while we were staring. Its movements were tiny, nearly imperceptible.

When people tell me to get rid of things, it is these things they are talking about. Oh no, they say, you can keep the stuff that means something. But everything means something. Everything in that house did.

A legacy is what’s left to you — money or goods or a cowlick or a personality trait, admission to a college or admission to a society of hoarders. It is a burden as much as it is a gift.

I look around at the things and do not know what I will do with them in my small house, but I know I am destined to cling to them, to not let them go.

Jan 17

Blue Skies #52essays2017 no. 5

Blue Night, London by Joseph Pennell from the LACMA

The sky is blue, the NASA website tells me, because the white light from the sun gets scattered by the earth’s atmosphere and the blue light waves, which are shortest, are scattered the most. I picture the light coming down and refracting and scattering into all the different colors and the blue covering everything else up. I keep reading the description, but I still don’t quite understand how it happens. I wonder if this page for children about why the sky is blue is part of the science that the new administration seems to dislike so much. Surely the blue of the sky is innocuous, and this page will remain. I wonder how the color of the sky might be affected by climate change, and if changes in the earth’s atmosphere will ever affect the color of the sky.

I saw that blue again today for the first time in a long time. A cold wind came up and suddenly there was a rift in the clouds, and in that rift was blue, and around that blue sun was shining out. It was the most beautiful color I’ve ever seen.

Today I wore all black for some online action that I forgot to participate in, save for a blue necklace. I don’t own any black jewelry was my rationale, but maybe I wanted that sliver of hope. It’s a small necklace, just a few clear blue stones dangling from a thin fine silver chain.

Black and gray are my natural colors, the ones you find in my closet and the ones I wear most days, but they aren’t the colors I want to see in the world. When I went out just now I was dismayed to find the clouds had rolled in again, low thick stratus clouds, the kind that promise more rain and sleet as the temperature hovers right around freezing. They aren’t foreboding like thunderclouds or elegant like cirrus clouds; they are just dim and gray and depressing, and they obscure the light. They are fitting for this moment in time.

I grew up with my mother singing me a song called “The Brown Bird” which her mother sang to her, having learned it off the B side of a Maxine Sullivan record of “Blue Skies.” Research has led me to understand that the song is actually called “A Brown Bird Singing” and that it was the B side of either “Dark Eyes” or “Speak to Me of Love,” but I know I taped it and “Blue Skies” off ‘78s of my grandmother’s when I was in high school. The ‘78s are long gone, but I probably still have the tape somewhere. If I digitize the tape, I wonder if I’ll still hear her voice coming through or if it will sound more like the cloudy dub of a dub of a dub tapes that we passed around in high school. I know digital sound works differently, but, like the light scattering and making the sky blue, I don’t really understand how it works.

The stones on my necklace aren’t pure blue. They’re a grayish blue, a smokey blue. The aren’t like the sky. Or maybe they are — they are the sky just before it clears, the blue coming out from behind the gray. My necklace is today in the atmosphere, if not today in the world.

I read that computer programmers are trying to preserve climate data from government websites. They are downloading datasets about air quality and temperature and atmospheric conditions — all the things that tell us that climate change is real, things they fear will be made to disappear during the current administration. The article I read says that sometimes the data isn’t readable by humans — as it downloads it comes out as text, elements separated from the elements they go with. But eventually they will be able to put it back together to give us a picture of the atmosphere through time, a picture of our sky.

Writing often seems indulgent, particularly if you write primarily about yourself. It seems particularly so when the things you depended upon being true in your own country — that it would respect facts and laws — are crumbling beneath you. Writing about the things that are crumbling beneath you seems pointless when you ought to be calling your horrible senators or taking to the streets. But we resist in the ways that we can — by calling and marching, but also by continuing.

I continue to look to the sky for the sake of my soul. When it is cloudy I continue to believe that somewhere behind the clouds it is clear and blue.

Jan 17

To Write #52essays2017 no. 4

Writing by Gari Melchers, circa 1905-1909 from the LACMA.

To write I need an opening line. Preferably I need an excellent opening line, one that gets me in the middle of something, ties me up in knots I have to untangle my way out of, or lays out a road so open and wide I have to follow it, like a two lane highway on a summer’s day.

Rarely do I get such a line, but even the lesser lines are ones I get attached to, as if they are talismans. It’s very hard for me to throw an opening line away.

I didn’t have any opening line when I sat down to write today. I had nothing but dread and loathing, neither of which is a place that produces great writing, or any writing, at least not for me. But my friend Pooja people to take part in this write in today, and I had to try.

A year or so ago I decided to give up on the pretense that I would ever write about anything other than my dead father. I even say to people now, “Oh, I have another dead father essay if you’d be willing to read it.” I thought that perhaps by surrendering I might somehow open the way for new material, but that has not happened. I keep coming back, circling around. I’m not sure if I’m digging a hole to somewhere or if I’m mired in muck like one of the circles of hell (the suicides, I think, appropriately enough). But it’s the hole or the muck I’m stuck in, like it or not.

I wrote last week about how my father would likely have voted for Trump. There’s an outside chance he’d have sat out the election, but there’s no chance in hell he would have voted for Hillary Clinton. Trying to write about your father while trying not to think too much about his presidential picks is a neat trick. The only way I avoid it is by sticking to the parts of my father’s life that overlapped with my own. He died when I was five and a half, at which point politics hadn’t yet entered my world view.

The only way I can deal with the current political reality is sort of the opposite—by taking a very, very long view, one long enough that the next four years (or even eight) are just a blip in history, the wink of an eye or the toss of a hand. I think of the Trump administration in terms of how much space it would take up in my AP European History textbook. I had the seventh edition of the book my mother had used the second edition of when she was in college—Palmer & Colton’s A Short History of the Modern World. She used to say you couldn’t underline the important parts of that book because you’d be underlining everything, which I found to be true. I imagine a short paragraph about Trump in a subsection called Authoritarianism in the 21st Century, and then I feel a little better.

But not much. We don’t live in the lines of a history textbook. There are more of us than fit there, and our lives are too big, and many of them aren’t even deemed worthy by the authors. But we keep slogging along, even on the days when we have no inspiration. We keep showing up and doing the work.

Jan 17

Nightmares #52essays2017 no. 2

a night mare visiting a man in his sleep

“A Dream” from the Internet Archive

I am alone in a grassy valley, and a train car carrying all of my family and friends is pulling away from me up the hill. I try to run after it, but I can’t catch up. No one hears my cries. Around me there is nothing but miles and miles of grass and hills, no sign of human habitation — “Christina’s World” without the barn; the sunset in My Antonia without the plough — nothing. I am all alone.

I have other recurring nightmares, the same kind everyone has—the exam where you’ve never been to the class; the public event where you are naked; the one where you try to run but are frozen in place — but none has the force of that earliest nightmare I remember. I realized the source of it earlier this year while reading to my son. My mother had found my very favorite Little Golden Book, one from her own childhood called Gaston and Josephine about two rosy French pigs who go on a trip. On one page, they too get off a train for a bit of fresh air and the train pulls away, leaving them in the blue grass. In the book they are soon found by a friendly farmer, but my dream never left that page. I was all alone forever. That the source of my nightmare could come from a source of delight shocks me. I loved that book, whose pictures I would describe as gay—gay in the sense of bright and cheerful, back before we had that word to denote a sexual orientation.

But nightmares are funny that way.

Recently my son built a nightmare catcher: a quarter cup measure tied to the banister with a piece of string. He swings it each night to catch any errant nightmares that might be roaming around, catch them and trap them before they can get to him in his bed. But still he worries that a nightmare will come.

“I’m thinking about a nightmare,” he will say to me as he lies in bed. “Let’s think of something happy!” I tell him with forced cheer. “Like ice cream or scooter rides or Paw Patrol!” ??”I can’t think of anything but a nightmare!”

?That is how they work, is it not? When our minds can think of something else, we no longer have the nightmare. We lucidly dream, and the bad things go away.

A nightmare used to mean a real thing, or real as the people writing of it understood reality. “A female spirit or monster supposed to settle on and produce a feeling of suffocation in a sleeping person or animal” is the earliest definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary. Of course it was a female spirit, I think. When has mythological evil ever been male. Also fig. the definition continues. It’s two hundred years before the monster drops away and it simply becomes a bad dream, one that merely makes you feel strangled.

I don’t feel strangled in the dream on the grassy hill, though sometimes I am out of breath from running. Often I realize I will die on that hill, quite literally. There is no food, no water. The train is gone and there is not another one coming. I can walk along the track to try to get to wherever the train is going, but I know in the dream I will not make it. The distance is too far. The sun is too hot—it’s always a sunny hot day in this dream. I will be dead. It’s hard to say which is the more frightening: the fear of abandonment or the fear of death. My dream contains both.

I do no know when I started having this dream. We read the book early on, but when it lodged in my brain is another question. It would be tidy to say the dream began after my father died, or maybe it would be tidy to say it began before, that I had in my child’s brain a premonition.

In a few months my son will be the age I was when my father died. I’ve often been told by well-meaning people that I must not remember my father, and that therefore it must not bother me that he is dead. In fact I remember my father quite well — the way he wore his hat, the way he drank his whisky sours. If I were to die now, what memories would my son carry of me? What dreams would he have, and what nightmares would stay with him?

I hope against all these things, of course. I hope the nightmare trap will work, that the evil spirits, female or otherwise, will get caught in that old tin quarter cup measure and not make it up the stairs to where my baby sleeps. But I know it’s a poor thin sort of protection.

Oct 16

If there is a bear: Dr. Gordon Mixdorf, In Memoriam

I thought Dr. Mixdorf was rather grouchy when I first met him. Grouchy and a hardass. I had him for American Studies II my freshman year of high school and I couldn’t really figure him out. He had an impressive agenda–he taught us about institutionalized racism and union history, topics not often addressed in general high school American history classes then or, I suspect, now–but he often seemed humorless. Then again, I thought, who wouldn’t be if they had to teach American history from that godforsaken book with the sunset and the Statue of Liberty on the cover? One day, though, I was walking out of class when he stopped me. It was late 1990 or early 1991, the lead up to the “first” Gulf War, and I was wearing my black armband with my all time favorite button that read “Are you willing to die for Exxon?”

“Nice button,” he said.

Two years later I had him again for AP Government. The first day of class he assigned us a ten page paper due in a week. My topic was reapportionment and redistricting–topics I’m fascinated by to this day. The day we turned in that paper, we got another assignment–another ten page paper, and a 20 minute presentation, this time with a partner, due in a week. I went to the University of Iowa libraries with my partner Laura to read up on Rousseau. We were so overwhelmed by the library that we spent most of our time at the photocopiers, madly making copies, as we couldn’t check books out.

Things never slowed down much after that. Somewhere I still have the set of drawings Amy made for me of our year in AP Government, which features coffee (which I think we all learned to drink that year), stacks of papers, bad grades we mourned, good grades we were proud of, and “a bed that was never slept in.”

I didn’t much like high school, but for 53 minutes (really more like 50, since I was late every morning) at the beginning of every day of junior year, it wasn’t so bad. Our textbook was written by a James Q. Wilson, and at the end of the year Daw-An made us all JQW tshirts–“outdoor gear for the rugged individualist.” We read the Articles of Confederation and the early constitutions of New York and Virginia. We gave a lot of oral reports, and thus I got a line I still use today when Dan said, “The minority whip is a man named Newt Gingerich, whom my father describes as somewhere politically to the right of Darth Vader.” I got sick of doing straight reports at some point and so instead wrote a play about Harry Truman and the steel mill seizure, complete with a “To seize or not to seize” soliloquy, and I made everyone in class take a part. Dr. Mixdorf tolerated that and even dealt graciously with my argument about why I should get a better grade on a paper comparing Japanese and American political cultures in which I quoted Pretty Woman.

He showed us a documentary about the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, which is where I first learned about focus groups. When they showed the Reagan bear ad, which concludes, “Isn’t it good to be as strong as the bear?” Dr. Mixdorf intoned, in a perfect stage whisper, “If there is a bear?”

crumbled browning one a plate

Down Becca Down Brownies I made with my son tonight.

I made brownies for that class for some occasion or other that I no longer remember. I’d set them out on the table in the middle of the room where Dr. Mixdorf kept copies of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in the vain hope that we’d read them. He mentioned there were a few brownies left and then, as Rebecca started reaching for one before he’d finished, said, “Down, Becca, down!” They’ve been called Down, Becca, Down Brownies ever since.

As the other Laura said earlier today, Dr. Mixdorf made you want to work hard and do well, and that’s a rare quality in anyone, particularly in a high school teacher.

Dr. Mixdorf died two weeks ago, and I made a version of this post on Facebook. I was astounded not so much by how much I remembered (before I got knocked up, I used to remember everything) but by how much of my AP Gov class of thirteen I was still connected to in some way. A year or so after we graduated, a bunch of us got together while we were home on winter break to watch the movie The American President and go out for ice cream and coffee afterward and talk about the movie and college. I don’t remember if we talked specifically about Dr. Mixdorf and how much he taught us, but surely we should have. I am sorry now that I never had the chance to tell him.

Down Becca Down Brownies
Essentially, these are the recipe for brownies on the back of the chocolate box, plus an egg.

4 oz. baking chocolate
1 1/2 sticks butter
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour

Melt the chocolate and butter together. Combine all the other ingredients in a bowl and pour into a greased square baking pan. Bake about an hour at 350 degrees. Cool slightly and eat as soon as possible.

Sep 16

Welcome, Mutha Readers!

If you’re here, perhaps it’s because you read my essay The Family Bed on the wonderful Mutha Magazine. I write and blog, shall we say, infrequently, but if you’d like to read more, here are a few things I’m particularly proud of.

My son with the eggs he was moving "very, very carefully."

My son with the eggs he was moving “very, very carefully.”

Thanks so much for stopping by!