An Open Letter to Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds

Depression era woman holding a toddler in her lap
Estherville, Iowa. Wife of Homer Sharer and one of their five children. The Sherers are former tenant farmers and hired hands, now living on unemployment relief. Photo by Russell Lee, 1936, from the Library of Congress.

Dear Governor Reynolds:

It is my understanding that you have decided to discontinue additional federal unemployment payments to Iowans who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic because you want people to get back to work. As one of those Iowans, I’m writing to you because I would very much like to go back to work, but I’m having some difficulty figuring out how I might do so. I have a child who suffers from significant mental illness. As I know both mental health services and childcare are both interests of yours, I thought perhaps you might have some advice.

Five days after I was laid off from my job, my then eight-year-old son was transported to the ER by the police and then admitted to the children’s psychiatric ward for a ten-day stay. Upon his discharge, there were no follow up plans for his care other than the same (now remote) visits he had had with his psychiatrist and therapist. His psychiatrist found a partial day treatment program for children which met for 2.5 hours a day and was a 40 minute drive from our house. I applied and was placed on the waitlist. We got a spot in the program shortly after the derecho. Less than half an hour into the day the second day, as I was driving aimlessly around Cedar Rapids—between the pandemic and the storm, there was nowhere to go to spend the hours my son was at partial day treatment, I got a call that my son had tried to escape and they didn’t know what to do. So that was that for that program.

I was in many ways lucky: with the help of our school’s student-family advocate, I applied and was approved for Medicaid for both of us, which meant that we were finally able to get services including BHIS (behavioral home intervention services), which I’d tried to get years ago but had not been eligible to receive, even if I was willing to pay $180/hour out of pocket, and a care coordinator (variously called a PIH or an IHH or something else depending on the agency you use).

Unfortunately, most of these services have waiting lists, too, and by the time we got a spot, my son had already spent another week in the hospital.

His school has bent over backward to provide accommodations and to help in any way they can, and I have nothing but good things to say about the staff there, particularly our principal and all the special education staff.

But services are one thing: a child willing to cooperate with those services is another. A psychiatrist can prescribe every medication under the sun, but none of them help if you don’t take them. It takes me an hour to an hour a half per day to get my son to swallow one pill. My son is prescribed six pills per day. I could easily spend a full workday just getting him to take medication.

Similarly, his therapist and BHIS provider can go above and beyond to attempt to engage him in therapy, but no one can keep him from hanging up on the Zoom call or refusing to engage with the provider who comes to our house.

His school can offer every IEP intervention and accommodation known to special education, plus a few new ones, but they cannot make him go to school, either in person or online. And neither, I am afraid, can I—he’s much too heavy for me to carry, and he does not respond to threats or bribes (neither of which is a terribly effective method of getting people to do anything, or so I have gathered from both the psychology classes I have taken and from life experience).

Getting a job outside the house would thus require reliable childcare, which costs $15/hour in the area where I live. Taking a job that pays less than that is not an effective money-management strategy, and getting a professional job of the sort I used to have would be difficult, given the number of appointments my son has each week—although of course with the kind of pay I once had, we would lose Medicaid and thus lose at least half those appointments—and any job I got would require an employer flexible enough to allow me the time to get my son to all those appointments, regardless of their location.

Working remotely sounds like a better solution, but many remote jobs require that you be able to work from a space in your house that is free from interruption. I do not have such a space in my house. While I might be able to create one, using it would again require childcare, as someone would need to be on hand to answer to the needs and demands of a child who is not very self-sufficient.

There are remote jobs that can be done on one’s own schedule, but I have found it difficult to concentrate on content writing or call evaluation while dealing with near-constant interruptions. I suppose the answer is that I should get up at 3 am each day to work and let my child sleep in as late as possible—a tempting idea at times, but not one that would get me enough sleep or be good for him.

So given that my child will not go to school, will not take medication for ADHD or anxiety, will not attend therapy or other intervention services to learn skills to deal with his difficulties, and will thus not stop taking his anger and anxiety and frustration and fear out on me—and that half the services he receives are dependent on my earning less than $23,000 a year—I am wondering what kind of job you would suggest I might pursue, or that other Iowans in my place might? For I am hardly the only one facing the circumstances I do: the difference mainly is that I am much luckier than most. I have savings; I have very little debt; and I have family who would likely help me out.

But many Iowans are not so lucky. I am sure that, absent the money they might now be receiving from additional pandemic unemployment funds and the gutting of the Iowa Workforce Development system over the past decade, they, too, would appreciate your help.


Laura Crossett
[address redacted]
Iowa City, IA 52240

Journal of the Plague No. 14: Black Lives Matter. Black lives matter, too.

My neighborhood is rife with Black Lives Matter signs—homemade ones, ones made by the local high school and various local churches, premade ones ordered by neighbors and friends—and has been since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

Of course, my neighborhood is also the sort of place where people have only starting grudgingly putting out Biden signs in the last few weeks, and where plenty of people still have their Bernie and Warren signs up (plus a Kamala Harris one that shares space with a Warren sign down the street from me) from the caucuses that happened a lifetime ago. We are Precinct 14, baby, and don’t mess with our voting record, you Precinct 18 Longfellow snobs who are only a couple of points ahead of us.

I say that, and then I think about how none of these signs are up in my yard. Partly that’s just sheer laziness—I’ve got old political signs in the garage that could be repurposed—partly it’s pandemic indecision (is it okay to go to the store to buy sign making materials, or am I needlessly endangering myself and others?), and partly it’s my usual White Liberal (TM) unease.

I know (from seeing the house’s residents) that one of the signs is in the yard of a Black family, but the rest of the signs that I know of (more than half, I’d guess) are in the yards of white people. That’s hardly surprising—I live in a fairly white city in a very white state, and while our school is integrated by local standards, the students of color live primarily in a neighborhood a short bus ride away. Historically, parts of the neighborhood where I live were even designated white, and some conventions die hard.

I don’t—and can’t—speak for Black Lives Matter, the movement, which I believe to be about, among other things, the historic and current state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies: Say Their Names, the signs and marchers say, because so many of their names have been forgotten or were never known. Can you name a person who was lynched? Maybe, if you study the subject, but probably not. But I do think a lot about the ways in which Black lives matter while Black people are still alive.

I still think about the Urban League study done in Chicago (I haven’t yet been able to track down the study itself or the story I wrote about it for Third Coast Press but will provide a link when I can) that found that more qualified Black candidates were passed over for less qualified white ones, repeatedly and consistently. That was true whether they showed up for in-person interviews or whether they merely sent in resumes with “Black” names and addresses.

I still think about the New York Times Magazine story I read about Black maternal mortality rates, which cross economic boundaries, and which, in the absence of any any physical explanation, are thought to be caused by racism itself—“wearing,” they call it in the article—the constant feeling of having to be on guard, of being followed in stores, of having white people cross the street when they see you, of being overlooked—not to mention the very real toll of worrying about your sons and husbands and male friends and family day and night.

I don’t know what, if any, impact putting a sign in your yard has against all of that. I do know that on Saturday when I drove to a small town an hour or so northeast of here, I stopped seeing Black Lives Matter (and, for that matter, “we’re in this together”-type COVID signs) the moment I left the city limits, though I saw signs for both Democratic and Republican candidates in about equal measure.

These days when I walk the dog, I’ve been slowly rewriting the lyrics of Phil Ochs’s classic “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” for the present moment. “I cried when they killed George Floyd/Tears ran down my spine/And I cried when they shot Philandro/As though I’d lost a brother of mine/But you protesters got what was coming/You got what you asked for this time/So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal,” mine starts. Other than updating some references and language, though, I keep realizing it doesn’t need much rewriting. “If you ask me to bus my children, I hope the cops take down your name” could be said just as easily by the white moderate today as it was in 1965, at least to judge by the number of coded conversations I read on school and “mama” discussions groups on Facebook.

I started this post days ago. In the meantime, at least one more Black man has been shot by police.* I just now read reports of multiple Black Lives Matter signs shot full of bullet holes in my town, though none I know of in my neighborhood. I do not know how to count how many Black people have been rejected for jobs or housing, how many have been followed in stores, how many have received subpar medical care, how many junior high girls have been disciplined for dress code infractions (hint: it’s a disproportionately higher number than for white girls, at least in data collected from the school district here a few years back), or how many Black kids have entered the juvenile justice system.

Some of those numbers we can track; others we’ll have no way of ever knowing. I was able to attend a chunk of an implicit bias training my city offered last week before childcare duties took over, and among other things the presenter showed was a non-fatal but still consequential traffic stop wherein two young Black men in a rental car were stopped and arrested on the unfounded suspicion that the car was stolen and that they had drugs in it. It’s appalling, but then so is the story a friend once told me of her workplace (one of those much lauded small local businesses) wherein a Black man came in with resume and, the moment he left, the boss tore it up with a remark I won’t repeat.

I hope we—and by we here I mean white people—can start thinking about the ways Black lives matter in our own lives. Most of us aren’t cops and never will be; most of us don’t carry guns. We don’t carry fountain pens much anymore, either, but Woody Guthrie had it right—“Some’ll rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.” That pen (or the trash can where that resume landed, or the Black woman getting followed around the store, are often just as harmful as a bullet.

*That Walter Wallace’s family had called for an ambulance to get him to the hospital for help and then the police showed up instead is particularly horrifying to those of us who have gone through such calls ourselves. The Utah teenager who was shot after his mother called for an ambulance is not a story I should have read on the first days of school, but it’s one that caused many people I know to wonder if he only came out alive because he is white. The Washington Post keeps data on fatal shootings; mental health status is among the leading causes.

Journal of the Plague 13: Weeping

[Image: “Harmony weeps for the present situation of American affairs” from 1775 via the Library of Congress], thus perhaps proving that nothing changes much.

Last night before bed I read the last part of Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World and wept as I used to do in the middle of the night reading it up with my baby:

I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove

warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand,

because life is short and you too are thirsty.

I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language,

guessing at some words while others keep you reading

and I want to know which words they are….

I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read,

there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

Rich, Adrienne, from “(Dedications)” in An Atlas of the Difficult World (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1991), p. 26.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, I reread Ross Gay’s A Small Needful Fact and wept some more.

And then this morning I woke up at 4 am unable to sleep, wondering if it was worth even trying to go back to bed and deciding it was not, as this was likely to be my only time alone in my house today, and then I started weeping again, weeping about our dog dying (our dog is two years old and in good health, but that never stopped anyone from getting hit by a car—nor did being young and in good health stop anyone from getting killed by men with guns, or a boot on the neck, or a car driven into a crowd, or a body left hanging from a tree or burning in a ditch or dragged behind a car or sent to a gas chamber or any of the needless horrible ways that human beings (mostly white, mostly male) have seen fit to kill those they see as other).

I looked up weep in the OED just now, which offers as the main definition

To manifest the combination of bodily symptoms (instinctive cries or moans, sobs, and shedding of tears) which is the natural, audible, and visible expression of painful (and sometimes of intensely pleasurable) emotion; also, and in modern use chiefly, to shed tears (more or less silently).

“weep, v.”. OED Online. September 2020. Oxford University Press. (accessed September 29, 2020).

but which also offers, among many transitive variants

esp. to weep away: (a) to spend, consume in tears and lamentation; (b) to remove or wash away with tears of commiseration. (Said also of the tears.)

John Brown once said that “the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.” I think history has proven him false on that. I would not say that weeping washes away sin, no more than any other action, except perhaps as a wound weeps (another OED definition) and thus perhaps begins to heal.

Journal of the Plague No. 12: The Shape of My Days

Siamese cat and black mixed breed dog on grey sofa with assorted sweaters and stuffed animals
What is this dog doing here?

Since the 4th of July, Sophie the dog has woken me up most days at 4:30 am, as she’s become terrified of the night time and won’t usually go out after 5 pm. I thought initially it must be the noise and the dark, but she has no issue walking the in the dark at 5 am, with the traffic on the nearby highway, the sirens going off, the cars backfiring as people leave for early jobs, the motion sensor lights that go on as you pass them, and only the smallest amount of trouble with the man in our neighborhood who delivers the newspaper in his ancient Dodge truck with a dying muffler. I wonder, therefore, if her distaste for the evening has something more to do with smell—with the smell of the illegal fireworks and the smell of grills and the smell of burning things.

But I haven’t figured that out yet, or how to solve it, so she and I get up very early and walk for a mile or two, and then every morning we get home and I pray that perhaps I’ll have even half an hour—though in truth just feeding all the animals takes that long—to sit and eat my breakfast and drink my coffee and read my goddamn New York Times morning newsletter and look at my Facebook memories and see if anything has blown up on the Internet or in the world while I slept—but it’s rarely the case. Quite often I get a Facebook call from my son while Sophie and I are out walking wondering when I’m going to be home.

And so instead of my fantasy morning I instead get breakfast for everyone who’s willing to eat breakfast and medicine for everyone takes medicine and try to think of new ways to keep Sophie the dog occupied when she enters her morning manic phase, which involves searching the house for new treasures—usually inappropriate and often dangerous—to add to the collection in her living room bed and eventually I give up and take my coffee and the dog out to the yard, where we play Frisbee and I wonder why I bother to bring the coffee out in the first place, because it’s not like I get to sit and drink it.

Then we come in and do some dog training exercises, and I reheat my coffee for the nth time and explain to my son that it’s too early to text his friend about playing Minecraft while FaceTiming together, because normal people do not get up at 5 am, and it is barely 7.

Every day I start with a list of things I need to do, just as I did at work, though the list is a little different these days. I no longer run cash register reports but I do spend a lot of time on the household budget. I don’t order books, but I do place grocery orders online to pick up later. Every day there are administrivia tasks—filing my weekly unemployment claim on Mondays; people to email daily, though I can’t ever seem to get to them all; screen time and chores to negotiate with my son; Medicaid applications to fret about, even though there’s nothing to do right now but wait and see; all the assorted local elected officials I periodically contact with my thanks or with my suggestions; bills to be paid and to consider if there’s a way to lower.

And then there are the basics of running a household: every week I make a menu plan for dinners designed to incorporate our CSA veggies for the week, to incorporate some of the meat in our freezer, and to include one of the handful of things my son will eat. Every day I intend to dust the animal fur off the floor and to clean one other thing—my bathroom, the stove, the kitchen floor—and every day I usually fail, or get only part of the way through.

Often my son will take a nap mid morning, due to his early rising, and if I’m home and have no appointments, I do, too—it’s rather like having a baby again, where you try to sleep whenever the baby sleeps. But all too soon that’s over, even on the days when I get to take advantage of it, and we’re fully into online gaming with friends mode, which has been his primary form of socialization for many months now. For a little while a few of the neighborhood kids have been getting together in someone’s backyard or other to play for a few hours in the afternoon, but with the recent uptick in cases in our county, I don’t know how long that will last.

Some days are yogurt making days, some granola making days, some bread making days. I joke with people that I’m now in pandemic stage one, where it seemed like everyone had time to do all these domestic throwback things. I remember being asked to send in a description of what I did in my leisure time for a social media post for my work, and all I could think was “What leisure time?” I was either working from home or working at the library or taking care of my kid—and I kept a sourdough starter going for many years over several states in my 20s. It’s not a thing I feel a need to repeat. But back then I also did make all my own bread and granola and yogurt, and that part I do enjoy returning to now that I have, if not leisure time, time when I’m at home and can sometimes be a room away from my kid for a time.

Every week I fill out the weekly unemployment claim form, and it asks if I was ready, willing, and able to work the week of X-Y, and I always say yes, although of course that’s a conditional—yes, if childcare magically fell from the sky. Yes, if the hours were very flexible. Yes, if I knew more about what was happening with school in the fall—because honestly, I don’t know how our district’s current plan (calling for at home online instruction, though the governor has since issued an edict about how much schooling must be done in person, and it looks like we’ll be tied up in court for some time) would jive with anyone with a young child and a daytime job.

Today marked the fifth person I know who has or had COVID-19—one family member in a neighboring state; four in my immediate geographic area. Of those, one is, months later, still very week, undergoing multiple times a day breathing treatments, and having to rely on family, friends, and neighbors to pick up all the day to day things of the sort I now do all the time. I don’t—yet—know anyone who has been hospitalized or who has died, but I assume that is yet to come, just as I assume it will be a long time before I’m able to work again.

So that is how I spend my pandemic days now that I have no job outside the home. I am very fortunate: physically we are all in good health; my health insurance from my work got us through the worst of the crises in this house; and family, friends, and complete strangers have been incredibly generous in offering help. I also have some savings and nothing but mortgage debt, which puts me in a better position than most 44-year-olds I know.

Yesterday I was getting a much-overdue oil change for my car and decided to take a walk through downtown while I left the car at Russ’s for the job. It was eerily empty, and the shop windows were filled with so many Black Lives Matter and Say Their Names signs that it was notable when a business didn’t have any. I gave a few dollars to a couple of homeless guys (as I always do when I have them) and chatted with them (as I always do regardless of whether I have any cash with me or not) and realized as I was walking back to the shop that I should have asked them if they knew if there was a bathroom that was open anywhere, as I really had to pee. But I didn’t, and now I still have errands to do because I didn’t think to ask, and by the time I got back to my house to use the bathroom, there was no way my kid was letting me leave again.

I don’t think my story is representative. I wouldn’t interview me if I were a journalist looking for a take. But I wanted to record a bit about what I do each day for posterity, or at least for my own memory, for it is in these bits of daily life that I believe most of our history is formed.

Journal of the Plague No. 11: Layoffs

You can’t apply ONLINE (or as they put it “on-line”) for unemployment insurance after 6:30 pm in Iowa on weekdays.

As many of you already know, I was laid off from my job of the past nine-and-a-half years yesterday. I’d planned, when I moved back to Iowa, not to stay for more than five years, but, as the song goes, life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans, and thus instead I’ve been in the same house for nine years (five years longer than I’ve ever lived in a house or apartment or trailer in my life), I have an eight-year-old kid, and I spent almost a decade at the same job. It’s a strange world.

We will (thanks to the cycle of upper middle classness, which is much like the cycle of poverty, only you don’t really have to worry about much because you have a savings account and home internet and computers and family who will help you out if it comes to that, and you are generally — at least if you are white — treated as if you have money even if you only have the accoutrements of once have had it) be okay, but the tiny glimpses I am already getting into the world many Americans have always inhabited (and that many more are experiencing for the first time) are eye opening even for me.

Take, for instance, the Iowa Workforce Development’s unemployment insurance online application. It requires, I believe, nineteen screens of information. Late yesterday afternoon I’d gotten through about fourteen of them (it’s true that some are easy, e.g. “Are you a veteran? Yes/No”) when I had to abandon it for several hours for various reasons related to having a child and a dog and some cats and a mother who all variously needed dinner and walks and to have me watch eighteen minute riddle videos on YouTube and so on. By the time I got back to the application, I got the message at the top of this post. When I went back today to finish up, the fourteen screens of information I’d entered were all gone.

One of the things I’m proudest of at the job I held until yesterday morning was making faxing free. It came about because people were always coming to the desk needing to fax timesheets for something called Promise Jobs. I’ve always tried not to look too closely at things people are faxing or scanning, as they often contain confidential medical or financial information, but one day I finally sat down and looked up Promise Jobs and learned it’s this outfit you have to sign up with in order to get food stamps TANF in Iowa. And you have to turn in a timesheet, and they were usually six pages, so we were charging $6.00 to people who were trying to get food stamps.

By comparison, unemployment is relatively easy — I have to make two “job contacts” per week, which doesn’t sound too bad until you start reading the handbook of all the other things you have to do and fill out. Add in figuring out your health insurance, updating a resume you haven’t thought about in a decade, and caring for your child (because of this whole global pandemic thing which means there are few to no options for childcare), and you can see why just plain unemployment could be a full-time job — and as noted before, I’m extremely lucky.

A year after I started my most recent job, I was quoted in a dated yet still relevant book by my friend Jessamyn West called Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide:

I love the internet. I love that libraries are one of the few places in the world that provide free internet access. But when we talk about electronic resources and the wonders of the web and putting the world at people’s fingertips, I think it’s good to remember that for a significant number of people, we’re giving them an hour of that world at a time, quite probably on Internet Explorer 6.

Laura Crossett, “at your fingertips,” lis.dom: March 25, 2009, quoted in Jessamyn West’s Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide, Libraries Unlimited 2011.

So yes, I’ve had better days, but fifteen years in public libraries have made me realize — or start to, I hope — how good I have it.

I don’t know what’s next, except that regardless of anything else, I will continue to advocate for the underserved, do my best to practice solidarity, not merely charity, and work in whatever capacity I can to help end the systems that perpetuate a system where an unemployment rate of 13.3% is devastating for so many and survivable for only a few.

Journal of the Plague No. 10: Commencement

From the official Grinnell student newspaper, the Scarlet & Black, May 15, 1970. My apologies to the photographer, who is not identified, for not giving them credit.

Fifty years ago today, Grinnell College, like most colleges and universities across the United States, was closed in the aftermath of the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State. When Grinnell announced in March that it would be closing the campus after spring break, I wrote to the archivist there to confirm that 1970 was the last time the school had closed before the end of the academic year. It was, he said, and still a sore point that they hadn’t gotten a commencement until their 20th reunion—and likely to worsen, as there was a good chance their 50th reunion would be canceled as well—as has indeed come to pass.

My heart goes out to them, and to the class of 2020. If I was raised on anything, it was the sacredness of academia. I was too young to attend my mother’s PhD graduation, I clearly recall her MD graduation some years later, sitting in the balcony at Hancher Auditorium with my whole family, who had come from Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Illinois to watch my mother cross a stage, receive another diploma, and become yet another kind of doctor. A few years after that, we all gathered in Ohio for my cousin Felicity’s law school graduation. To this day, if you invite me to your graduation and I can make it, I will—I prefer them to weddings, baptisms, and almost any other civic or religious ceremony marking a rite of passage I can think of. I recognize that my fondness for commencements is a peculiarity of mine, but I think it has a reason.

As pictured above, although Grinnell did not have a formal or real commencement in 1970, my father (in perhaps his final act on the campus) and three other professors, including his good friend Hip Apostle, a math and philosophy professor who dedicated his free time to translating the works of Aristotle with a consistent English vocabulary, held a symbolic commencement for the few students left on campus who wished to attend. They even got the notoriously stingy campus bookstore owner to get them some caps and gowns. My dad is the one in the paler colored gown up above—Harvard, in its pretentiousness, makes its PhD gowns in a dark red color (crimson, no doubt).

There are no real parallels between 1970 and the present aside from the closing of campuses and the general sense of paranoia and doom (I should note that I was not alive in 1970, but I have read so much about that era, and talked to so many people about it, that I often start to feel that I was, though I wasn’t born till the last American troops left Vietnam five years later.) But this photo of the symbolic commencement at Grinnell has nonetheless been haunting my mind these past two months, ever since Grinnell was the first college in Iowa, and one of the first in the country, to shut down its campus.

A year before, in April 1969, my father, already a notorious and not always popular figure on the Grinnell campus, became briefly famous statewide for what we call the flagpole incident. I’ve written extensively* about the history of those days, but in short, a group of students turned the American flag on campus upside down as a protest against the Vietnam War and, after it was righted (and turned upside down and righted again—leading to the excellent Scarlet & Black headline “Flag flip flops, flap follows”), my father held a vigil beneath the flagpole for several days to prevent anyone from turning it upside down again, an action that made the front page of the Des Moines Register and led to a job offer at Cornell College, where my father taught for the remaining eleven years of his life.

The flagpole incident, as we call it, is so well known to this day that last summer, in the Before Times, my son and I were at the Farmers Market in Iowa City, and he was wearing a Grinnell tshirt. “I like your shirt!” a young woman yelled over at us. “Thanks!” I said. “My mom went there and my dad taught there.”

“What was your dad’s name?” she asked. “Oh, this was a million years ago,” I said, “but he was sort of well-known—John Crossett.”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I grew up there, went to school there, know all about.” And this was forty-nine years since the man taught there.

At the same time, though, I still get emails regularly from people who tell me my father was the best teacher they ever had. “He really taught me how to write,” said one I got just a few weeks ago.

My father began his teaching career in 1958 at Hamilton College in New York state, continued it briefly at Parsons College here in Iowa, then went to Grinnell from 1962-1970 and then to Cornell College from 1970 to his death in 1981. He was a conservative who taught through some of the biggest upheavals in academia and in the world, and yet despite his difficulties is still remembered by innumerable students today. My hope for the class of 2020–and for all of those studying at this time—is that you, too will find a teacher like that—one willing, as my father was, to keep the spirit and ritual of education alive even when the circumstances, be they fear of riots or of global pandemic, alive.

*See the title essay in my MFA thesis if you are really curious.

Journal of the Plague No. 9: Poorly Sewn Masks

If you’d like to make a scientifically-researched, beautiful, super-hygienic mask, you can follow my friend Iris’s excellent mask-making instructions. But if, like me, you haven’t sewn anything in thirty years, you can still get in the act and make yourself (and perhaps some people who are very dear to you and will forgive your lack of skill) a functional mask, with optional nosepiece.

(It helps if your mom lives with you and remembers everything she has ever learned, including how to sew, but, at least if you have a sewing machine with a cult following, there are also lots of friendly strangers on the internet who will help you out.)

This pattern starts with the one published in the New York Times but adds a few tweaks and comes with real life illustrations.

First, what you need:

  • Two squares of cotton fabric cut to measure approximately 9.5” by 6.5”. You do not need to cut them very well. I’ve been using an ancient sheet (I’m guessing from the 1960s—my grandmother dated most of her sheets but weirdly not this one) and some calico I bought about ten years ago thinking I was going to make baby slings.
  • Something to make ties. I found some ribbon I’m going to experiment with, but in the meantime we’ve been using doublefold binding tape. Making it into a tie is sort of a pain, but it’s weirdly satisfying.
  • A sturdy twist tie, if you want to make the optional nose piece. The top piece from a bag of coffee beans is perfect.
  • Some pins and possibly some tape.
  • An iron is handy.
  • A sewing machine, though you could do all of this by hand.

Making the Ties

To make the ties, I cut the binding tape into two pieces, each 12”-13” long (again, the exact measurement isn’t very important—we are a large-headed family, and these have been plenty long for us).

Unfold the tape, cut it half so you have four pieces, iron it flat, and then pin it as shown above and iron it again. (NB That’s if you have double wide tape—if you have the normal kind, skip the cutting it in half step.)

Then you sew the ties shut with what you hope will be an elegant and neat seam. Unless you’re me. Then you just sew them shut and figure no one is going to look closely, except possibly at the picture you decided you’d post on your blog.

They’re not pretty, but they’ll do.

Now you’re going to attach your ties to your cloth pieces. So exciting! It will start to feel like you’re making an actual mask!

Making the Mask

Pin the ties pointing inward (protip: make sure the pin heads are pointing out—they’ll be much easier to take out.

You’ll want to pin the ties to the edges of the inside of one of your pieces and have them facing in, which is counterintuitive but will make more sense once you sew the whole thing together and turn it inside out. If, like me, you have poor 3D vision, just trust me on this one. Then you want to bunch all the ties together in the middle. I will sometimes even tape them in place at this point, as you don’t want to sew them into the seams of your mask by accident.

Put your other mask piece on top. If it’s a pretty piece of cloth, like this one, you want to make sure to put the pattern part face down. Again, it seems wrong, but you’re going to turn this whole thing inside out in just a bit and all will become clear.

Pin all the way around your mask pieces except for a gap of perhaps four inches or so on the bottom, which you don’t want to sew shut yet, because it’s what you’re going to use to turn the whole thing right side out.

Once you’re done, open the gap and turn the whole mask inside out. Unless you are a much better seamstress than I am, it won’t be very even, but happily that doesn’t matter—this is a mask, not a wedding gown.

Then you end up with something that looks kind of like an actual mask!

If you’re using the optional nose piece, you’ll want to take the coffee bag closer or heavy duty twist tie or whatever you’re using and and stick it through the hole all the way up to almost the top of the mask—just about a quarter inch or so from the top. Some will have some glue left on them, which is helpful for keeping it in place.

Adding the Optional Nosepiece

Even if my twist tie is fairly sticky, I like to kind of pin it in place so I know where to sew the seams to keep it in place. It’s hard to see in this picture, but there’s a line of pins between the two red lines. The twist tie is where the leftmost red line is, and I’m going to sew above and below it.

The next step is to stitch all around the edges of your mask (and, in this case, underneath the nose piece as well). This will look particularly professional if you run out of dark-colored thread little ways in and end up with silver thread on a purple background. Again, though, it doesn’t really matter what it looks like.

You’ll see I’ve sewn the gap at the bottom together—it occurs to me that if you wanted to design a mask that could hold a filter of some kind, you could leave that part mostly unstitched and just hem the edges to keep them from looking totally bedraggled.

Mask with topstitching around the edges and underneath the nose piece.

Next up, you’re going to make three horizontal folds in your mask and pin them in place. I find it helpful to iron them into place, too. Then you’re going to sew two seams down where the red marks are to hold the folds in place and help hold the ties in place.

Mask with three pleats folded and pinned.
Pinning and sewing the seams on your mask. Pin it into three folds. In theory they should be even; in reality that never seems to work for me.

Your Finished Mask!

I wash my masks in hot water along with all my towels and linens. In the Before Times, I usually used cold water for just about everything, but I’ve starting using hot water and more intense cycles for the things most likely (in my house, at least) to catch germs. That may fall more under the “makes me feel better” than under the “actual science,” but sometimes the former, if not dangerous or toxic, has its advantages.

Journal of the Plague No. 8: Ashes

Singer Featherweight sewing machine with fabric, scissors, and manual
My great-grandmother’s Singer Featherweight.

It’s 6 pm and everyone in my house but me is asleep—well, me and the cats, but they’re only awake because I just fed them. I’ve finally figured out (I think) my new Bluetooth headphones of the sort that all the kids seem to wear, or at least figured them out well enough that I can listen to music or watch old episodes of M*A*S*H on my headphone jack less iPad and not disrupt the rest of the people in the house. I know there was a time when we all just sat down and watched the same goddamned thing on TV or listened to whatever was on the radio, but those days seem just as far away as the days when I went to work from 9 to 5 every day and my kid went to school and I went to yoga at an actual studio once a week and stopped to say hi to my friend at a different library afterward.

I had a meeting (a Zoom meeting, of course) with some staff from my son’s school today and found myself pretending that of course he’d be going back to school and so would everyone else and it would be just like before, except with more hand washing and more dealing with everyone’s emotional fragility. But of course there’s a possibility that there won’t be school, and I will have used up all my leave time, and… well, as I said, I’m trying not to think about it.

It occurred to me the other day that what makes Zoom meetings so awful is how much they resemble the panopticon. If you’re in a normal meeting, sitting around a table, or sitting in a classroom, you know there are people who can’t see you or your face at all. And even those who can are often looking down, taking notes, or doodling, or looking surreptitiously at their phones or whatever. But a Zoom meeting almost compels you to look straight at your camera the whole time and thus gives you the idea that everyone is looking at you constantly, and that you must always adjust your expression, moment by moment, to reveal some version of interest or enthusiasm or at least attention. It’s exhausting and reminds me of what it must have been like to have drawing room conversations as an upper class lady in the 19th century, or perhaps a tiny bit of what it is like to live in a totalitarian regime (not that I would, in any other way, liken any of those things to each other—but Zoom meetings produce a sort of anxiety I couldn’t place for a long time).

My household has been lucky—our physical health has been good. We have plenty to eat and enough money to buy more. We have a multitude of functional computer equipment. At least one of us is still doing important, life-saving work part-time. We have good friends in the neighborhood and around the country who check in regularly, and we are reasonably good at pantry stocking, cooking, and sewing (and even housecleaning, when we bother to do it), all of which turn out to be useful skills.

In this we are like all of my family members—at least all the ones I know of—during the Great Depression, who were employed and, if not always as well off as they had always been, were not starving. My father reported that his bicycle was stolen and he didn’t get another one for years, but I believe that was the extent of my family’s financial hardship. But just as it’s hard not to be affected by an abusive person or an alcoholic in your household, it’s hard not to be affected by the hardship of the world at large. I cry whenever I think about New York City. I want to scream every time I hear someone complain about meat rationing or insisting that meatpacking plants are somehow the most important thing in the entire economy, because God forbid we be denied our cheap ribeyes.

We can bring to life a new world from the ashes of the old goes one verse of “Solidarity Forever” (which I’ve been using as my handwashing song), and sometimes I see people ask what positive changes we think this pandemic will bring about. Well, I want to say, given that it hasn’t brought about any yet, my hopes are dim. But maybe I’m wrong. Let us hope so.

Journal of the Plague No. 7: Poetry

Photo of lavender and white asphodel flowers against a green field with rocks
“Asphodels. Asphodelus aestivus” by gailhampshire is licensed under CC BY 2.0

poetry makes nothing happen

W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

Many years ago I went to what I like to refer to as the unfamous writing program at Iowa, but I hung out with a fair number of poets from the famous one, and both in and out of seminars, the Auden vs. Williams argument was perpetual. Does poetry make nothing happen? Or is it the thing that prevents us from dying?

Passionate arguments were made on each side, by people who themselves were spending two years of their lives doing nothing but reading and writing poetry (and drinking, smoking, staying up too late, getting involved in ill-advised relationships, and the other things one does in graduate school, although sometimes with good reason—I remember a friend telling me he’d left a workshop, gotten in his car, and driven halfway across Nebraska because he was so upset, which seemed like a perfectly natural reaction at the time).

When I applied to a writing program, I thought I’d be solidly in the men die miserably every day camp. I hated my limited experiences of the working world and wanted nothing more than to go back to a life where reading and writing were valued above all else.

Then, of course, just before I started graduate school, I got involved in Students Against Sweatshops. That summer I sent my union membership card back in the mail the moment I got it. (That year’s vice-president later told me he said, “We got a card back already!” in great excitement, and then the president looked at it and said, “Oh, it’s just Laura.”) By the time I sat down to read and discuss Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, it was hard for me not to scream “great writer and all, but he was on the wrong damned side of the revolution,” because regardless of where the revolution ended up, I couldn’t imagine not joining it at the time.

I tended, then, in these arguments, to come down on the Auden side: poetry makes nothing happen.

No side ever won, as I remember it, though these memories are distant, and based on too many nights of bad beer and secondhand smoke and too many drafty classrooms the next afternoon, marginally hungover and trying to impress everyone.

I never in my life imagined a time when I’d stop reading, but other than the book discussion books I read for work, I’ve barely read more than two pages together in the last month. Books are hard to come by for many people right now, especially if you lack money, internet, or an ability to read ebooks (confession: I hate ebooks) and you don’t have hundreds of them lying around on shelves in your house, many of them unread or worth rereading, as I do.

But as one of my coworkers noted today and as readers advisory experts have counseled for years, reading isn’t just about access: you have to be in the mood to read a particular book, and nothing seems quite relevant or right at the moment. In the weeks after 9/11–and trying to stop another war is another thing I did not have in mind when I applied to graduate school—I mostly lay on my sofa and listened to the radio (and swore at NPR for being such freaking nationalists) and read the hundreds of emails pouring in from the listservs I was on locally and around the country.

We didn’t stop the war—in fact, it continues to this day. We had some marginal success with SAS (and USAS continues fighting on campuses across the country to this day). And we didn’t have poetry, and I don’t know how much we had happen. But we had each other, and we had the things we said to each other, the things we repeated, and as C.S. Lewis says in another essay of his that I love, if you find a man who has read a book over and over again, no matter how bad you think the book is, you may be sure that it is for him a kind of poetry.

I am still looking for poetry that fits this pandemic, though it may not be able to end it. But I’ve come to believe we cannot win the argument—no one can. Poetry makes nothing happen, and we die miserably every day without it.

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.”