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.”

Journal of the Plague No. 5: Students Against Sweatshops 20th Reunion

Students Against Sweatshops in Jessup Hall, from UE News. I am third from the left.

Today marks the second day of the 20th anniversary of a six-day sit-in by Students Against Sweatshops in the University of Iowa administration building, Jessup Hall. We were there after a year of research, coalition building, educating, and gathering support for our three demands—1) drop out of the Fair Labor Association, an industry sponsored “monitoring” group that did pre-announced factory inspections and then certified them as “sweat free”; 2) join the Worker Rights Consortium, a real monitoring group, and 3) draft a code of conduct for UI licensees to insure that all companies producing apparel and other items bearing the UI logo were required to adhere to basic human and labor rights. We gained endorsements from everyone from the UI Student Government to the UI Center for Human Rights to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and many in between.

We achieved the first demand on the first day of the sit-in. On the sixth day, at 11:30 pm, the UI suddenly became very concerned about our health and safety, and UI police officers raided the building, chained the doors shut, and arrested anyone who refused to leave voluntarily—ultimately five of us were arrested, charged with criminal trespass, threatened with assorted university disciplinary actions, and banned from Jessup Hall for a year. A year later, we finally got the UI to release its Code of Conduct, sort of—several companies, including Nike, Champion, and Jostens, were allowed to sign a “clarified” code that stripped collective bargaining rights from the code.

Twenty years later, we are still waiting for the UI to drop out of the FLA.

We were supposed to be holding a reunion this weekend—a time to reconnect, to visit the UI Archives, where much of the history of SAS is now preserved, and to hold a public event featuring talks from UI Archivist David McCartney on the history of student activism at the UI; John McKerley of the Iowa Labor History Oral Project, who has documented much of our movement through interviews with several of us who were there; representatives from the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Hall Workers on their fight to be recognized and win fair wages and conditions for their work; an update on the wildcat strike by graduate employees at UC Santa Cruz from Michael Marchman, who organizes graduate students in Oregon; and high school students from the Iowa City Climate Strikers. We’d have had tables from current activist groups and exhibits of SAS actions past. It would have been—and someday will be—a wonderful event.

Although our focus was on the garment industry, during its time at Iowa, SAS also fought for farm workers, prison workers, steelworkers, graduate employees, coffee growers, and so many other invisible laborers who make our world possible.

COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of our event along with many others, but I decided to record the introduction I planned to give as a message to all of you out their fighting for a better world.

Journal of the Plague No. 4: The Pinto and the Cost of Human Life

Yellow Ford Pinto in front of industrial building
Ford Pinto at Studio 1970. Photo by John Lloyd.

Some of you may recall the Ford Pinto, a small, economical car manufactured from 1971-1980. They were cheap, popular, and had a bad habit of blowing up, causing serious injury and sometimes death to their drivers and passengers.

According to reporting first done by Mother Jones, an internal Ford memo found that an $11 part would have fixed the faulty system that caused the cars to blow up. One might assume, then, that Ford issued a recall, fixed all the Pintos for $11 each, and sent everyone on their way again. But instead, having already paid out money to the survivors of Pinto explosion victims, they first decided to do a little math.

As Lewis Hyde notes in writing about the Pinto story, “In order to apply a cost-benefit analysis to a situation in which the core equation is ‘cost of safety parts vs cost of lives lost,’ one must first put a price on life. Ford was spared the embarrassment of doing this themselves because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had already done it and Ford merely cribbed the figures.

Table showing  price of human life broken down by productivity lost,  medical costs, funeral costs, etc. Total is $200,725
The cost of a traffic fatality from a 1971 NHTSA study.

Ford, in doing the math on how many fatalities and injuries they’d have to pay out for each year versus the cost of adding an $11 part to 11 million cars decided, in the end, it was cheaper to let people die.

I have been thinking a lot about the story of the Ford Pinto (which figures as a plot point in one of my favorite novels, Ghost Dance by Carole Maso), and what it tells us about humanity, particularly when compromised by corporate interests, and what it might tell us about the decisions our governments, companies, and organizations are making right now.

Last week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said “my mother is not expendable and your mother is not expendable and our brothers and sisters are not expendable and we’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable and we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life,” and, all problems with Cuomo aside, I was filled with a sense of relief, for here, suddenly, was an actual leader talking about actual human lives.

Every time I listen to the news, I hear about the economy, and to be sure, as an economic determinist, I would never argue that it does not have an effect on people’s lives—indeed, I have argued for years that capitalism is killing people faster than almost anything else. But that is not what is meant by “the economy” as described by most news outlets. They mean the Dow Jones Industrial Average, not what Molly Ivins used to call the Doug Jones Average—the way that real people are living, and, in this case, dying.

I keep trying to live by the decisions I feel are best and to call into question those that I feel are detrimental to the well-being of my community. Of course I don’t know which decisions are best on a higher level, but I know that every expert I have heard suggests the same basics: stay at home. Wash your hands. Sanitize your high touch surfaces. Stay at least six feet away from others when you do go out.

Like many, because of my job, I’m not able to follow all those precepts all the time, although perhaps my salary and my health insurance are enough to cover the cost. I hope you and yours are staying as safe as you can, and I hope, in the end, we do not decide that (as they say in Casablanca) human life is cheap.