Journal of the Plague No. 6: Peaches

Years and years ago, a number of things happened that were interrelated in ways I wouldn’t know at the time, or till many years later: I went on a trip to New York City to visit friends and see the Jackson Pollock retrospective at MOMA and returned to Iowa City two weeks into the semester and talked my way into a class I didn’t need to take, except for health insurance reasons, where I first met my son’s father; the UI chapter of Students Against Sweatshops was formed by two journalism graduate students whom I’d later join for happy hour every Friday so we could trash the Wall Street Journal editorial page and generally rant; I was rejected from a cooperative house in town and from a room I tried to rent at a house out in the country; I read Chelsea Cain’s first book, Dharma Girl, which is set in Iowa City and is full of places and people I knew; and I first heard the music of John Prine because I went to the Iowa City Public Library to check out a CD set of his so I could listen to the song she quotes in the book:

Blow up your TV, throw away your paper

Move to the country, build you a home

Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches

Try and find Jesus on your own

John Prine, “Spanish Pipedream”

A year or two later the New Pioneer Coop made a big handwritten sign that hung in its window with those lyrics, advertising the arrival of peaches, and I didn’t even mind that it was advertising, I guess (or think about the copyright implications, because one of the things that hadn’t occurred to me at that point was becoming a librarian—although I learned tonight that John Prine grew up a suburb away from the first library where I ever worked), because it was the coop, the place where my friend’s mom had a credit union account back in the days when the coop ran its own credit union; the phone where I called her the day I moved back to Iowa City from Indianapolis and she said there was a meeting that night to talk about what was happening in the Persian Gulf and did I want to come (and thus I became a founding member of Operation US Out) and where years later I called the man who would become my son’s father the morning after our arrest at the sit in, because those were the days before cell phones, when I still knew people’s phone numbers by heart.

Tonight I learned that John Prine has died, and like many, I am grieving. And then I read my friend’s post about voting in Milwaukee, where two out of five polling places were open today, and cried some more, because I, too, come from generations of civic nerds and election workers, and because, as many of you know, voting is important to me.

The Jackson Pollock poster I picked up at that MOMA exhibit and which my grandmother had framed for me now lives in my library’s circulating art collection, and you can borrow it to hang on your own wall, at least in normal times. It’s been years since I read Dharma Girl, but it still sits on my shelf, and I quoted from it in the account I wrote of the SAS sit in a year later. I’m Facebook friends with Thisbe Nissen, a wonderful writer who lived in the farmhouse a few years before I tried to become a housemate there, one of my former coworkers lived for a time not only in the coop house from which I was rejected by in the very room I was going to get, which faced the house where I rented an an apartment my last two years of graduate school, the years when I had drinks with my SAS founder friends, one of whom often quoted “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” but who, as a Kentucky native, most loved “Paradise,” and where every day I walked past a house owned by one of the people in Dharma Girl.

In the back of my cupboard are two jars of peaches I canned when I lived in Wyoming and on a whim bought a 30 pound box of peaches from Colorado from a man selling them out of a truck. Tonight I’m sitting in my living room sofa with my son and my mom, and I’m thinking about all the people grieving out there, and all the names of the dead we will never know. I don’t know how all these things add up, and it occurs to me that I am here doing nothing but rewriting a small tiny version of Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” which begins “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” and ends with her saying she often reflects on the things of her life “but writing has not yet helped me see what it means.”

Journal of the Plague No. 2

Many years ago, my grandmother took me shopping, as she always did, to buy my mother something for Christmas and something for her birthday. One year, when I was perhaps nine or ten, my grandmother spent a long time convincing me that what my mother would really like was a fancy frilly set of underpants with a matching bra and camisole. I thought this was insane. Who cared about underwear, which no one but you was ever going to see?

My grandmother told me that whether anyone saw it wasn’t the point: the point was that you knew your were wearing it, and it was a sort of secret that made you feel more powerful and good. I still didn’t get it, but I acquiesced, because I loved my mother and my grandmother, and my mother seemed pleased when she opened the Marshall Fields box.

All these years later, of course, I understand both what my grandmother was saying and what she wasn’t (that, in fact, sometimes other people do see your underwear, and by other people I mean “people other than the girls in your cabin or the old hippie ladies at the swimming pool,” and it can be kind of exciting), but more importantly that there are things you do for yourself even when—perhaps especially when—no one else can see them, or no one else is watching.

I’ve been sick for most of the past week and living in pajamas, which was lovely except for the being sick part. Yesterday my fever finally went down, and I put on real clothes and walked my son to the park to meet his friend. Today I put on nicer clothes and went to work.

My work at the moment is, like many libraries (though by no means all) closed to the public, but we’re all still there, trying to figure out how to reinvent library services in a time of pandemic. We don’t have any patrons in, and the only people who see me are my coworkers and the occasional delivery person, but it bothered me inordinately that I didn’t have any lipstick on, because my doctor mother told me to throw out all my old lipstick and lip balm, and I complied.

Those of you who’ve known me forever probably find this lipstick thing confusing—I often do myself—but a couple of years ago when I had to wear contacts for awhile, I started being inordinately bothered by the dark circles under my eyes, and I decided I’d rather wear lipstick to detract from them than eye makeup to cover them up, and now I’m just in the habit more days that not.

I had to pick up a prescription on my way home, and I wandered around Walgreens for a little while just seeing what was in stock and what was not, and marveling at the “As Seen on TV” aisle, and wondering if I had any excuse for buying office supplies (I don’t), and generally being impressed by the wide variety of bizarre consumer items for sale in the midst of this crisis, and then I noticed they were having a “buy 2 get 1 free” makeup sale. As with most such sales, at the rate I go through things this is not really a good deal, but years of frugality in order to pay off debts mean I almost never buy anything but food and clothes, and the temptation was too great. I picked out three lipsticks (of the kind that the New York Times once told me was the best of drugstore makeup) and some more lip balm and my prescription, and $30 later I was out the door with my day to day equivalent of a white lace camisole trimmed with pale blue ribbon, plus some lithium.

Of course, that was once more than a week’s grocery money for me, and half of me wondered if now was the time for frivolity. After all, someone broke into my friend’s office and stole her hand sanitizer the other day. As a therapist I was talking to recently said, we are going to see the best of humanity, and the worst.

I’d like to think of my purchases today as derpy—a word my son and his friends just taught me, which they say means “a tiny bit stupid and a lot funny.” Given the gravity of the decisions so many must make now—decisions that quite possibly affect people’s very lives—I hope there is still room for some derpiness—or at least for some decisions that give you your secret superpowers, whatever those are, for surely we all will need them.

Journal of the Plague No. 1

The influenza ward of the Walter Reed hospital in Washington, November 1918. (Harris Ewing/Library of Congress via AP)

I feel we should all be draping ourselves in white sheets at my house, but instead most of us are draping ourselves in wool, or at least I am, because I am freezing all the time, except of course when I’m boiling up, which usually happens in the middle of the night. Hot flash? Fever? Who can say?

My mother returned from a conference in Florida Sunday night sicker than I’ve ever seen her—quite literally delirious from fever at times, coughing, barely able to cross the room much less carry on a conversation. By the time she was strong enough to get to the doctor, it was Tuesday, and she tested positive for influenza A, but it was too late to start Tamiflu, so she was sent home with a raft of other drugs of the sort one generally only throws at the truly ill—prednisone, Zpac, and so on.

Wednesday morning I woke up feeling not too hot. I’d had a cough for several days but, but I often have a cough in the winter. By the time I’d gotten to work and finished emptying the cash drawers, I felt much worse and went home to discover that I, too, had a fever. That was the first day of the virtual appointments the UIHC was offering, and I got one with ease and got to talk to a doctor at length. She told me I was “the muddiest case” she’d seen all day, but we decided flu A was the most likely and to throw some Tamiflu at it in case we’d caught it in time. It’s Monday now, and I’m still home with a fever that comes and goes.

In my waking hours, in addition to trying to keep my child entertained, I’ve done very little but follow library Twitter for news of library closings. When this crowd-sourced document of public library closures started, it had only 29 listed. It’s up to 772 now, as I just submitted my library, which just decided to close tomorrow earlier today. I also added the library in the town where I live, which closed Sunday, so who knows how many more there are that haven’t been reported. But there are about 35,000 public libraries total in the United States, so even this is just a fraction.

Tonight will be the last Monday night (or any night) my library is open to the public for the foreseeable future, and I’m sad not to be there. Monday have been my night at the library for seven years now. In those seven years there have been only a handful of times that I haven’t made the final announcement: “The time is 8:30 and the Coralville Public Library is now closed for the night. We will reopen tomorrow at 10:00 am. Thank you for your patronage, and have a good night.”

A Mom

A black and white cutout of a mother and child under a flowering tree

There’s a photograph that High Country News published when Charles Bowden died of Bowden talking to Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and the reason so many of us fell in love with the West, and Dave Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First!. There they are: three men of the West, champions of its wild spaces and untamed, unknown, untrammeled (in the lovely word from the Wilderness Act) places through their writing and their activism. Those three are in the foreground, named. But there are three other people in the picture, though you won’t see them unless you take a long glance down Abbey’s porch from the place where the three men are standing, a long glance all the way down to the end, where a woman sits on a porch swing with a baby in her lap and a toddler next to her in a stroller. The unnamed woman is Clarke Cartwright, Abbey’s fifth and final wife, and the baby and the toddler are their children, children who won’t grow up to know their father very well, for he is old already in this photo and doesn’t have many more years of his hard living life left to live. One Life at a Time, Please, one of his books is titled, but he tried to cram fifty into one.

The last time I was in Moab I saw Clarke Cartwright listed in the phone book, and when I saw the piece on Bowden and this photo, I almost looked her up and called to ask what she thought, but I didn’t, because I figure she must get nothing but phone calls about Abbey—I was surprised to see she was even in the phone book, but then everyone I have ever looked up in the phone book in Moab has been there, and I’ve never called any of them. It’s that kind of place.

A year or so later I tried to do an interview with a man who had written a book about searching for Abbey’s grave. I never did anything with it because I wasn’t happy with how it went. I asked why he hadn’t talked to any women, and he said (as I recall) that he’d talked to everyone he could find who would talk to him. That made sense and yet I was still pissed off, and I couldn’t figure out why, and because I couldn’t work out what I was angry about, I just shoved the interview transcript aside and never did anything more with it, and I started trying to write about the picture of Abbey and Bowden and Foreman—and Clarke Cartwright—instead.

* * *

The other day (or night—I don’t really sleep anymore) a local acquaintance posted to ask if anyone wanted to start a book club for working moms about advancing their careers. Right after that—or right before it—she posted yet another link to that book about why women my age can’t sleep, and I wanted to ask if this book club for working moms would be meeting at 3 am when we all can’t sleep because of fucking perimenopause, or whatever pop psychology reasons lie behind the idea that somehow women of my generation are the first in history to have trouble sleeping at night.

That same day a local friend said his Facebook was all Bernie and he wanted some other perspectives, and could anyone offer any? It was late at night, but I typed this up on my phone:

Okay, here’s the deal. I love Bernie. But some days I wonder if Bernie has ever had to find a babysitter. I often reflect on a time when I was having a meeting with you and another friend and I had to go to make daycare pickup and you guys both said “oh, we’d better go so our wives don’t get mad at us.” And I thought of what a different life that would be—if I could be marginally irresponsible and the consequence would just be a spouse being mad at me versus my whole good standing in society.

That was just one day, and I don’t want to act like I think it’s every day of your lives. But I think it is every day in the lives of male politicians, and thus as much as I dislike identity politics, hearing Elizabeth Warren talk about having to potty train her daughter in five days so she could go to law school reminds me so much of what my mom had to do (find not just childcare but overnight childcare every fourth night for months running) to go to medical school. (And we are all of us privileged white women—and it’s still hard.)

I’ll still take Bernie over Klobuchar because I agree with him far more. But it’s not as enthusiastic a take as it was four years ago.

The result was exactly the sort of argument that makes me never want to write anything or post anything on the internet (even though I’ve been doing so publicly under my own name for twenty-one years), the sort of argument that makes me want to apologize to everyone, delete everything I’ve ever posted, and hide under my bed—or run away to Utah—until everyone has forgotten who I am or that I ever lived. But of course I can’t run away to Utah, because I am a mom.

I hate being a mom.

I hate that someone posted a “Valentine’s candy for moms” meme today and lots of people liked it and shared it, and all the candy hearts said things like “put your socks on.” I hate that I am for some reason part of a group called BAD MOMS where (get this) I was once called a bad mom. I hate Mothers Day, even when people nobly try to reclaim it for the anti-war movement (a lost cause if there ever was one), and I hate all the nouns acting as adjectives that have been applied to the word mom. Soccer mom. Helicopter mom. Tiger mom.

I want to be in the foreground in that picture, not the background. I want my name in the bold face type. I want to have (as an old Scott Carrier monologue put it) no interest in taking part in the market economy or the democratic process.

But I can’t. And I’m afraid even to type the whole sentence here that I had planned for fear of what readers may think of me and the choices I’ve made, but I will: But I can’t, because I’m a mom.

Little Women

A brown haired girl dressed as Jo March.
Me in my Jo dress, age ten.

Yesterday Steve posted that he’d seen the new Little Women movie and liked it, and I wrote that I had too much to say to respond on my phone.

Reader, I hated it. I hated it so much I almost walked out, but I’ve never done that, even when I should have (I’m looking at you, The Godfather, and Empire of the Sun–both are, I understand, great movies, but I didn’t understand the former and I had a terrible, terrible cold with a runny nose and a total of three tissues during the latter). As mine is a minority report, I feel I owe you some explanation for my dislike, but indulge me while I report a bit on my Louisa May Alcott background first.

When I was in third grade and my friend in second, we decided in September to go as Little Women for Halloween. We both got the book from the library, and every night we’d call each other. “I’m on chapter five. What chapter are you on?” (It will surprise no one that I was a competitive reader as a child.) In one of the few times in my life that brown hair has really paid off, I got to be Jo. My friend fluctuated between Amy and Beth, and her mother found some teenaged girl to be Meg and escort us around.

I’ve since read Little Women many times. I’ve read most, though not all, of Alcott’s other books, including all her children’s books (my favorite is an Old-Fashioned Girl, though Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom are also good–the Little Women sequels are dull, and Jack and Jill and Under the Lilacs are nearly unbearable). I’ve read some of her blood and thunder stories (as she called them) and an unintentionally hilarious novel called Moods in which the heroine is deciding between marrying a character based on Emerson and a character based on Thoreau. She chooses the former and is miserable, but it’s clear that marrying the Thoreau guy would have been miserable, too. I have toured Orchard House, where she spent most of her life, first growing up and and later taking care of her parents, for the real-life Jo never married. Alcott spent most of her adult life supporting her family, including her parents, as her father was, well, misguided would be the kind way to put it.

I’ve also seen four the the five film adaptations of Little Women, missing only the miniseries.

My grandmother used to tell me that whenever her mother, my great-grandmother Hazel, saw her reading Alcott, she’d say, “I don’t know how you can stand all that moralizing.” It’s a good question. Moralizing is, on the whole, not what we call in librarianship an appeal factor for most people. I find it unbearable in other books, although in the 21st century, it rarely shows up in any genre outside Christian fiction. But for those of us who love Alcott, the moralizing is integral: it is part of the appeal. There is a scene early on in Little Women where Marmee gives each of the girls a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, each bound in a different color of leather. Who would not want such a thing?

“Girls,” said Meg seriously, looking from the tumbled head beside her to the two little nightcapped ones in the room beyond, “mother wants us to read and love and mind these books, and we must begin at once. We used to be faithful about it; but since father went away, and all this war trouble unsettled us, we have neglected many things. You can do as you please; but I shall keep my book on the table here, and read a little every morning as soon as I wake, for I know it will do do me good, and help me through the day.

Modern film adaptations, knowing how poorly this sort of thing goes over, tend to replace the moralizing with political speeches. That’s not historically inaccurate–the Alcotts were abolitionists, and they hung out with a crowd that was fighting for the progressive and civil rights issues of its day. Thus in the 1995 adaptation with Winona Ryder, you get Marmee (as portrayed by Susan Sarandon, surely a political choice if there ever was one) discussing the evils of corsets, and in the current version, Laura Dern’s Marmee speechifies from time to time on the evils of slavery and the rights of women (and gets schooled briefly by a black woman in a scene I’m still trying to decide if I find token or not not). And Amy–in perhaps the most unbelievable scene in the movie–delivers a lecture on women and property.

I don’t think you could do a completely faithful film adaptation of Little Women that anyone would want to watch, and so my issue with the current version isn’t its diversions from the text. Nobody, but nobody, ever represents Professor Bhaer as he is in the book–much older and much more German, in what I suspect are horrifically stereotypical ways. The book has never done a good job of convincing anyone that Jo marrying him is a good idea, but, as my mother once said, Alcott doubtless had to make character she herself could imagine leaving her father for–in other words, someone as similar to him as she could imagine.

What bothers me about the new movie (you were wondering if I would ever get there, I know) is the lack of chronological order. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of chronology–while we are all forced to live that way, few of us think about our lives that way, drawn back ceaselessly into the past as we are. But Little Women is nothing so much as a coming-of-age story: when it starts, the girls are girls. By the end, they are little women. The effect of the flash backs and flash forwards is to rob many of the most poignant scenes of their poignancy and to rob us of our understanding of the shifting alliances among the sisters.

Would a viewer who had never read the book fully understand the drama of the pickled limes, as portrayed in the book, or the betrayal Jo feels when Aunt March chooses Amy over her? The advantage to chronological order is that you see growth over time: you age as the character does, whether over the course of seven Harry Potter novels, 500 pages of Little Women, or two hours of a film. To disrupt that growth deprives the viewer of the chance to watch a life unfold in real time.

Most people I know loved this Little Women, so clearly there’s much to be said in its favor. But I’ll let others do that, and let this minority report stand as is.

Dear Elizabeth Wurtzel

Where and when I read Prozac Nation

I’m so sorry I never got to write to you. I thought about it a million times. I wrote about you (or rather about your work) in one of the earliest posts on this site, back when it was just a website where I hand-coded html files and then ftped them to my site, hosted by my local ISP, via a 28.8 modem.

It was about Bitch, a book I still love, despite its messiness. It occurred to me the other night that you were quite possibly the first person to say that Hillary Clinton should have said, back in the day, “yes, I am a bitch, so what?”, thus predicting a debate we’re still having about how angry women are allowed to be.

I quoted you on Bob Dylan and the sound of redemption back when I was pregnant, an assessment I have always agreed with.

I once stayed a night or two in an apartment building on the Upper West Side that I am almost certain was the one you grew up in, but I didn’t ring what I thought was your mother’s buzzer to find out because I’m not a jerk.

I bought More, Now, Again on my next trip to New York a couple of years later, just after it came out, because I saw it in a display in a bookstore I walked into, and I hadn’t seen it here yet at home.

I thought about writing you so many times to say what Prozac Nation meant to me, to tell you it was the first thing I read about depression that reflected how it truly felt to live inside my head, to say how it allowed me to be depressed and angry and love rock and roll and be all the things William Styron wasn’t, because though Darkness Visible was a beautiful book, he was an old man whose life I couldn’t imagine, whereas you were like someone’s cool older sister, just six years older than I am, the kind of person who’d be home from college on winter break when you were over at your friend’s house and who might magically talk to you or play you some music or tell you what to do with your hair. But then I didn’t, because I didn’t get around to it, and because I figured you got a million letters like this a day, and who needed one more?

Then you wrote that piece about copyright for the Wall Street Journal and I thought about writing you to tell you how wrong you were, because I’m a librarian and I have opinions about copyright. But I didn’t get around to it, and then months had passed, and I had a little kid by then, and what was the point.

Earlier this week I learned that you’d died. I was looking at the books session of the New York Times online because I have to give a talk about the best books of 2019 and I figured I’d kill some time on the desk by looking at their lists, and there it was — Elizabeth Wurtzel, ‘Prozac Nation’ author, is dead at 52. It was so stark. I told myself not to cry. I read the Times obituary, and then I read all the other remembrances and obituaries I could find, and then I came home and got out my copy of Prozac Nation, which I stole from my mom’s house one summer because I liked the cover image, and I looked inside the cover, because I used to have this thing of writing down where and when I’d read and reread a book, and I saw the first entry: On the road, August 1996. A few months later I’d slide into my first major depressive episode, or at least the first one that was identified as such to me. How did I know?

I wish I could write to you now just to tell you of that discovery. I started rereading it that night, and on almost every page there was a sentence that made me wish I could write to you about something. Yes, yes, me too, me too, me too. And God, yes, what a beautiful sentence that is.

I’m sorry I never got to do that.

Love,

Laura

The Rev. Dr. Dr. Judith Crossett, Professor Emeritus

Edited and slightly expanded, these are the extemporaneous remarks I made about my mother at the 2019 University of Iowa Department of Psychiatry retirement party last month.

My mother was working on her dissertation for a PhD in English when I was born but was already casting about for something else to do. At her postpartum exam, she decided to become a doctor. How she came to that decision is her story to tell, but after she had me she finished her dissertation, got her PhD, and then she went back and took all the pre-med requirements she’d missed as an English major. She started medical school when she was 32 and I was three-and-a-half. She became a single mother halfway through med school when my dad died by suicide when I was five-and-a-half, but she finished, did her residency, and went on to the career you’ve heard about.

There were not a lot of female medical students in the early 1980s, when my mother was in medical school. I believe her class was only about 30% female. As you know, med school classes are now routinely over 50% female. There were even fewer mothers, if any, and I would warrant she was the only single mother in her medical school class. As a child I knew many people whose parents were doctors, but I knew only one other doctor mother.

And yet it was a cool way to grow up. I got to spend a lot of time at the hospital and check out all the nifty equipment. Once I volunteered to let everyone look in my ears through a new machine that required you to lie on a table while they lowered a giant piece of machinery down on you—all the medical students were too scared to try it out.

One Thanksgiving when I was six or seven my mother was on call, so we spent Thanksgiving at the hospital. That meant I got to eat at the hospital cafeteria—which, as you may know, means you get to choose your dessert first, and you get the mashed potatoes that come out in a perfect circle from an ice cream scoop. The nurses let me draw on the white board, which was a novelty back then, and type a story on the computer, another novelty in the mid-1980s, and they made me popcorn. I got to sleep on a Murphy bed, which I am afraid means my mother, whose bed it was supposed to be, got no sleep at all, as I was a restless sleeper and kicked in my sleep, but I had never slept in a bed that folded out of a wall.

I could tell many more stories like that, but I didn’t just come here to talk about being the daughter of a psychiatrist: I also came because I am a psychiatric patient and have been for twenty-two years. I have what we now call treatment resistant depression. But I have been lucky, as all your family members have been and will be lucky. When I was twenty years old and it was 8 pm on Christmas Eve and I needed to talk to a psychiatrist, my mother was able to get Dr. Barbara Struss on the phone to talk to me, and she was able to get me an appointment with her for the morning of the day after Christmas. Because of my mother’s connections (and income), I have been able to see, often on short notice, such amazing practitioners as Dr. Struss, Dr. Sharon Koele, Dr. Peggy Baker, Dr. Laurie Kenfield, and many others.

But not everyone has those advantages—in fact, most people don’t. And some people don’t have any access to those doctors and services at all. I know that because I work at a public library, and I see those people every day. We had a patron who was terrified she was going to look up child pornography. She would call us multiple times a day asking if this or that site contained child porn. She lost her job at a big box store—unsurprisingly—for obsessing over this question. We see paranoia, depression, obsession and compulsion, anxiety, and other hallmarks of psychiatric illness from people who don’t have jobs, much less health insurance or connections, every day. While it’s true that the Free Mental Health Clinic may help provide excellent training to medical students and residents on helping just such patients, its real purpose is to help those patients—those patients that we—or our insurance industry—have decided are not worthy of our help. I’m very proud that my mother had a role not only in founding it but in ensuring its success over the years.

In addition to being a very privileged psychiatric outpatient, I’ve also on two occasions been a psychiatric inpatient. Now I know from talking to my mother that in reality your psychiatrist spends more than five minutes a day on your case: in addition to talking to you, they talk to members of your treatment team, write daily progress notes, and keep a close eye on what is happening to you. But what it feels like when you’re an inpatient is that your doctor talks to you for five minutes a day and that’s it.

But your nurses! Your nurses are there when you wake up in the morning. They are there when you go to bed. They’re there when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep. They’re—[interruption due to applause, so I’m not sure what I was going to say next]. Basically, the less money you make on the psych ward and the more time you spend with patients, the more respect you get from those patients.

My mother started her speech by quoting the maxim that every encounter is therapeutic. It can be, and it should be, if you choose to make it so. I know that she’s been making that the case for patients here for decades, for, as I always tell her, whatever she felt she may have lacked as a medical student and a resident by not having started out life wanting to be a doctor, by not having majored in biology or chemistry, I think that she more than made up for for her patients by having lived and experienced life. She has been a better doctor because of being a single mother, not despite it. I’m very proud of her today and always.

2017

2017 was the year that people started telling you to call your senators. If you had already called them, you should call them again, and again. It was unclear how many times you needed to call them, or whether any number of times would be sufficient. It was possible that you could devote your life to calling them and it would not be enough. And indeed, how could it ever be, when the news kept coming, fast and terrible?

It was the year I began to be afraid to look at news alerts on my phone and yet could not look away from them. It was the year that the question on my psychiatrist’s diagnostic survey about how often you felt something awful might happen no longer seemed as though it belonged on a psychiatric questionnaire. Awful things were happening every day—US citizens were denied entry into their own country; refugees were turned back at the gate, white men gunned down scores of people gathered in public places and marched with burning torches; women seeking legal medical procedures were told by the government that had legalized those procedures that they were no longer available. Who in their right might did not believe that something awful was about to happen?

It was the year when information began to disappear, when data scientists began to save things we had always believed our government would keep secure, when librarians began to wonder if government information was something we could still tell people to rely on.

It was the year I lost my keys and my driver’s license, when cash was stolen twice from my wallet and medication from my home, the year I lost six days of my life to a psychiatric ward and another to an accidental overdose on antipsychotics, the year I went to get an abortion and learned I’d already lost the pregnancy.

It was the year that my mother moved into my house with all her earthly possessions and the year my son started kindergarten and an SSRI.

It was the year my son ripped up books and broke windows, the year I wore long sleeves all summer to hide the bite marks on my arm. It was the year men were everywhere found to have harassed and groped and raped women and when others began to pontificate on the nature of toxic masculinity or argue that the crimes of some men should be overlooked in order to preserve the good work they had done, and I began to wonder if it would be possible to raise a white son not to do these things. It was the year that people yelled a lot and the year that I began to lose my faith in the ability of words to convince people of things.

The other day I found one thing that survived the year: a book called Ant and Bee and the ABC, an English book for “tiny tots” that once belonged to my mother. In it Ant and Bee lose their hats and go looking for them in a place called Lost Things Found in Boxes. There is a box for each letter of the alphabet, and they look in each in turn, looking for their lost hats, but there lost hats are not there. Not in Box J with the jack-in-the-boxes or box E with the elephants; not in box Q with the queens or box L with the lions. Spoiler alert: their hats are in the last box, the box that comes after all of the alphabet, a box called Box Funny Things. In the end, they get their hats back and give them to each other, because Ant’s hat fits Bee better and Bee’s hat fits Ant’s better, and they go on to have many other alphabetical adventures in further books.

My house is still full of unpacked boxes. Perhaps when I unpack them I shall regain some of the things I have lost: for of course the last thing that came out of Pandora’s box was hope.

On Garrison Keillor

There are a lot of Garrison Keillor haters on my Facebook feed. I knew that was true even before he was cut loose by Minnesota Public Radio due to allegations of sexual harassment, but needless to say the past few days have been a Keillor-haters festival. I keep almost posting “I hope all you Keillor haters are happy now,” but I try not to get into arguments on the internet.

Let me be clear: I write this not to excuse his actions nor to doubt them. It is not particularly surprising that a man has made unwanted advances on a woman, particularly a man who has been married and divorced as many times as Keillor has, particularly a man with the kind of status he has achieved. If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that such behavior is the rule, not the exception. That powerful and popular men are now being taken to task for it is amazing and gives me some faint hope that perhaps the men who are not so powerful or so popular but whose actions are every bit as egregious as those of Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, or Matt Lauer may also see justice, although I have my doubts.

I write here not to defend Keillor’s actions — or really to say much about them at all, except that I strongly suspect MPR has more information than has been made public.

I write instead to defend the work. If you hate Garrison Keillor, you should stop right here, for I doubt anything I say will convince you otherwise. But in dismissing his work you are also dismissing mine, for so much of what I know about writing, about storytelling, about loyalty, about humor, and about love comes from his work.

I heard Garrison Keillor on the radio before I knew what a radio was. When I was very young we lived in a town without a supermarket, so once a week my mother and I drove twenty miles to get groceries and do other errands of the sort one could do in the city. These trips were largely dull for me, for what two or three or four year old enjoys going to the dry cleaner, the grocery store, and the state run liquor store? (The last of these was particularly dull, with its harsh light and its rows upon rows of bottles.) But as we drove back to Mount Vernon, my mother would listen to a man telling stories on the radio. Gradually I began to recognize his voice and to know a bit about the place he talked about and the people who lived there. The first monologue I remember talked about a dentist who had let his teeth go bad to make his patients feel better.

Later we moved to that town with the grocery store (the store I still shop at, in fact), but we still listened to the man on the radio. In grade school my best friend and I acquired — perhaps by stealing them from my mother or grandmother — the first set of tapes of Lake Wobegon monologues, and we listened to them over and over and over, particularly Spring, as “Me and Choir” was our hands-down favorite. Ninety percent of what I know about comic timing comes from that single monologue (for the remaining ten percent, I’ll give credit to “Alice’s Restaurant”).

To this day she and I can quote entire scenes from those stories and cap each other’s quotations. They are a shared language as sacred as any sacred text. In junior high we attended the 4th Annual Farewell Performance in Iowa City. In high school my mother took us to see the short-lived interlude, American Radio Company of the Air, before Keillor came to his senses and brought A Prairie Home Companion back.

In college I met a woman who could quote from A Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra while waiting around for orchestra tryouts. She organized a group of us to go down to New York City to see one of the December performances at Town Hall each year. When I got back to the Midwest for break, I’d go visit my old friend in Minneapolis and we’d see the show at its home at the Fitzgerald Theatre in downtown Saint Paul.

There were many years when the show was not as good as it once was, years when l listened largely for the music and years when I cringed at some of the skits (“Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian,” I’m looking at you). But even then there’d every now and then be a glimmer of some of the magic of “Storm Home” or “Gospel Birds,” some of the sad majesty of “The Royal Family,” some of the family dynamics that make “The Tollefson Boy Goes to College” so perfect and so poignant.

Keillor is at his best in front of a live audience. His books fall flat, even when he reads them out loud — he needs that interaction of talking to people from an empty stage, looking out at them past the bright lights in the dark. Sitting in those audiences is a privilege I’ll never forget; listening (and listening again and again) to the recordings is something that never fails to bring me back to the seasons of my childhood, the way that leaves collaged themselves around you in the fall, the way that snowflakes caught on your mittens in the winter, the way the world seemed open and full of possibility in spring.

Early this week I posted Claire Dederer’s stunning essay “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” Her questions are my questions, and her answers are mine. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

But I do know that if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will: you will love a man’s work and learn that its creator has done a terrible thing. And then you will have to figure out what to do.

I don’t defend my conduct. I explain it,” said Oscar Wilde. I cannot defend Keillor. But perhaps I have explained a little about what his work has meant to me.

On Wilderness #52essays2017 no. 19

When my great hero Edward Abbey lived with his family in Hoboken, NJ, he wrote that “we had all the wilderness we needed.” I think he was lying. Notably, he did not remain in Hoboken, NJ (nor with that wife and family — I think she was wife number two, but with five of them I get confused — he’s not my hero in all aspects of his life) but rather went back out west and settled in Utah and Arizona, disappearing often into the desert and coming back to town to write and teach.

I live in Iowa and I have nowhere near the wilderness I need. I can’t track down the source, but I once read that Iowa has less uncultivated land than any other state in the country, and I believe it’s true: everything here that isn’t a city got turned into farmland, most of it now firmly in the hands of Big Agriculture and Monsanto. Much of the country here is very pretty, but it’s not wild.

I have days (and this is clearly one of them) where I think leaving the West was the worst decision I ever made. When I first heard of Meeteetse, Wyoming, I was sitting in a library in Franklin Park, Illinois scrolling through librarian job ads. I looked up Meeteetse on Google maps and saw it there, a tiny speck of a town just miles from the edge of the Shoshone National Forest, and I was sold. It didn’t matter that I was only halfway through library school: I was going to apply for that job. I was going to escape the smog and the traffic. I was going to ride to the ridge where the West commences and gaze and the moon until I lost my senses, and that’s what I did.

I used to lie on my back at night and gaze up at the stars — on a clear night — and most of the nights are clear in the high desert — you could see the Milky Way from my yard. On weekends I’d pack up and head out for the National Forest. Drive thirty minutes, hike a few miles, and then you were in the Washakie Wilderness, 704,274 acres touching three counties where no motorized vehicles were allowed and you could hike for hours or days without seeing another human being. I’d see moose back in there, and bear tracks, and sometimes I’d feel bad for even the impressions my hiking boots made in the land, feeling I should leave it untrammeled for the creatures whose home it was.

That’s the strange thing about wilderness: people don’t really belong there. Humankind’s dominion over nature is so complete that it’s antithetical to our sense of ourselves to say there are places where we should not go, or visit only briefly, places that belong to bears and birds and wolves and lodgepole pines. And of course a lot of people don’t think that, often especially people who live near those places, who resent that people in New York and California have more say over what happens to the land they live by than they do.

People say the West begins at the 100th meridian, or where the rainfall drops to less than ten inches a year. I say it begins where there’s more federal land than there is private property. And it’s there that I face the great paradox of the wilderness: it was saved by people who’d never set foot in it and probably won’t. The people who voted for the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act mostly don’t come from places where there is wilderness or endangered species — there aren’t enough people in most of those places to provide for more than one or two House votes per state, and many of those votes, like many of the people they represent, resent federal wilderness protections. Somehow people convinced those men (and they were mostly men) to save land they’d likely never seen. I am forever grateful to them.

I started this essay by quoting Ed Abbey. I read Abbey long before I ever had a child or before the full brunt of what it means to be female, and especially a mother, came to bear down on me. I have a harder time with Abbey and many of my other heroes (Charles Bowden comes to mind, as does Jack Kerouac) now because their adventures were largely possible because they skipped out on the duties of parenthood, and they are celebrated for it in a way no woman ever would be.

A year or so ago I was trying to do an interview with the author of a wonderful book about Ed Abbey, but I abandoned it because I couldn’t make it stick together. I couldn’t get over my own resentment of someone who was still free to “crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus” until “traces of blood “ began to mark his trail. I don’t get to do that anymore, and it will be many years before I can again. All that is fodder for a very different essay, but I wanted to acknowledge it here as part of the thing I want and can’t have, due not only to geography but also to fate. In the meantime, I keep my topo maps on the top shelf, waiting for the day when it will be time to get them down again.