NET 000: Learning to Knit

a ball of yarn next to a pair of knitting needles with a small row of stitches cast on--next to them is a handout, the text of which is linked to in the post

Social media is good for sharing and reaction but bad for findability and preservation, so here, for anyone interested, is the “knitting for IT people” (or IT for knitting people) thing I designed for my IT classmates (and our instructor) out of my frustration with the “just play with it” mentality that tends to pervade when people who like computers try to teach people who don’t like them or find them scary or confusing or hard. (So pervasive is the tendency that I confess, reader, I have used the phrase myself.)

I wanted to come up with something that was comparable in terms of learning curve and where, when you start out, someone nonjudgmental and patient is there to help you out–and then just hand it out without that person there to help. It also had to be easy to transport and cheap to implement, and knitting fit the bill.

Below is a brief description of how I organized the project, the costs incurred, and the handouts I used. Please feel free to adapt, reuse, modify, and spread the gospel that while “just play with it!” has a place in pedagogy, it isn’t always the place to start.

A ball of yarn and a pair of knitting needles with a small row of stitches cast on. Next to them is a handout entitled "NET 000: Learning to Knit." The full text is in the documents attached to this post.
Knitting for IT

Materials

I picked up of balls of unidentified but probably acrylic yarn from the thrift store for $0.75 each and then divided them into two smaller balls, since making the point did not require a full skein. “This is not very good yarn,” I told my class. “There are… different kinds of yarn?” someone said.* I also brought it several finished pieces, including a lace shawl designed and knit for me by a friend of my mother’s and a pair of legwarmers my mom made for me that I wear all the time, so they could get some idea of the variety of things you can do with binary in physical form.

I also got several pairs of knitting needles, ranging from size 5 to size 8, at $1-2/pair. There was a circular needle that was perhaps a 4 in the Goodwill pile at my house, so I grabbed that, too. With the help of the Knitting Deployment System (aka my mom, who is an actual knitter), I cast on 20 stitches on each set of needles. (I wanted to do 32 or 64, but 64 was more work than I wanted to do, and 32 bit operating systems are more or less obsolete.)

On the last day of class before finals, I handed a kit with the needles, the cast on stitches, the ball of yarn, and the handout [available as a PDF if you’d like to use it as is or as a Word doc if you’d like to modify it]. There are only three other students (plus our instructor) in the class this semester, so it was an easy small network to set up. Scalability would depend on your time, budget, and, perhaps, how many knitters you know who might be willing to help out with materials or labor.

A few final thoughts

I often think that my skills in tech and knitting and sewing and any number of other things are entirely self-taught, and while it’s certainly true that I taught myself HTML from a webpage linked to by my ISP in 1999 and have been teaching myself to sew my own clothes primarily by looking at tutorials, fucking up, ripping out, starting over, and fucking up again, I also know that I have had so much help from friends and strangers along the way.

Few if any of us are lone geniuses: even writers toiling alone and in obscurity stand on the shoulders of the authors they have read. I owe so much to the people–too many to name here–who have inspired me by example, answered my questions out of friendship or care for the practice or simply because it was in their nature. We operate in communities, whether we know it or not, and the best thing we can do is to be kind to those around us–by not laughing at the people just starting out, and by helping them learn as we can.

*I got a similar reaction after explaining gauge, and that if you knit in the round you’d come out with a different effect from knitting straight back and forth, and….

Suspensions Really Aren’t Good for Anyone

an empty old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse with light shining throuhg a window on one desk

A report, an email, and a public comment to the Iowa City Community School District

A little while ago, the Iowa City Mental Health, Special Education, and Disability Advocacy Group released a report on the disproportionate number of elementary school suspensions handed out to Black, poor, and disabled students.

I believe in statistics, but I’m not very good at them, so I wrote an email to the school board noting that if you kick kids out of school, there’s the logistical problem of where they go:

Email

To the Board:

For fifteen years I worked as a public librarian in Illinois, Wyoming, and Iowa. In every place I worked, there were invariably kids hanging out in the library, all day, during the school year, on days when there was school. While libraries embrace and welcome children, they aren’t equipped to provide all the things a six or eight or ten year old needs for a full day, and thus they’re left scrambling to see what they can do.

In all that time, I never really knew why the kids were there. It is only recently that I learned that kids as young as grade school can be—and are—suspended from school. And, as the research done by the Iowa City Mental Health, Special Education, and Disability Advocacy Group makes clear, the children most affected by such suspensions (or exclusionary discipline, to use the technical term) are those already often underserved by our society: Black kids, special needs kids, and kids living in poverty. 

Librarian Jessamyn West often notes that “The hardest to serve are the hardest to serve.” I would never deny the difficulty of teaching and working with youth, but whether the difficulties are caused by special needs or simply the result of implicit bias that causes us to attribute fault and “difficult behavior” to people who don’t look like us, the solution is not to remove the “problem”—the problem is when we decide that some kids deserve an education and some do not.

I conclude, as ever, with this excerpt from John Dewey that has been my guiding light as a parent and as a citizen: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”

In the name of our community and our democracy, I call upon the ICCSD to end exclusionary discipline in elementary schools.

Sincerely,

Laura Crossett
[address]

Public Comment

Now and again I like to enjoy the special form of democracy/torture that is a public school board meeting. Here is the statement I made, which you can watch if you want.

The dark. White men with beards. Fire at night. Being alone. That your mother would die. That you’d be in trouble at school. That you’d get beaten at home for being in trouble at school. Tornadoes. Being shut in a small hot dark space. That your parents would split up. That your parents would get back together. Cops. Blood. Laundromats. Being away from home. Aquariums. Nuclear war. Dogs. That the car you were riding in would go out of control. Shadows.* 

Close your eyes for a moment, if you can, and think back to when you were a child. What was the most frightening thing in the world—whether it happened to you directly, or you read about it in a book or saw it in a movie, or whether you imagined it. Think back to that fear. Feel it. Now imagine that it’s happening—or something like it. What do you do?

I always tell my kid that the back part of your brain is where you go first when that fear strikes, and it tells you to fight or to run away every time it encounters a monster, or what it thinks is a monster. Part of the process of growing up is learning which things are monsters and which aren’t, and part of it is teaching the front part of your brain not to run away or to hit and kick, because for the most part, these monsters aren’t real.

Except that they are, in that moment, when you’re having that visceral reaction. And if that visceral reaction is fight, it can get you in a lot of trouble.

We’ve given you a lot of statistics to look at, and I know you have—or I hope you have—learned something about implicit bias in the past few years, if you aren’t already someone who is the target of it. But behind each statistic in that report is a kid, a kid with an entire life story that we can’t get from demographics. Every time we kick one of those kids out of school for the day, they miss out on an education—but so do we.

*Every fear on this list was specifically listed by friends and family as the thing they most feared growing up.

Mark Lindner, RIP

The about page of a Typepad blog, circa 2006, with headshot of a smiling middle-aged white man in glasses.

I don’t think of my library school cohort as the people I went to library school with: I think of them as the people I met on the internet. Mark was among those, and while I didn’t know him well, I was gutted to learn that he had died by suicide earlier this week.

In 2004 and 2005 and 2006, the years when I was in library school and just before Twitter, it felt like everyone worth talking to in the library world had a blog. I started on myself in May 2005 in part so I could join the club of blog people (as Michael Gorman called us) and in part so I could attend the first OCLC Blog Salon at my first ALA a couple of months later.

We were a small club in those days, one where it felt like you could get to know just about everyone: you learned about their thoughts on their blogs and about their lives on Flickr. You could get through your feeds in Bloglines during the course of a slow desk shift. We even had a Carnival of the Infosciences, where each week someone would sign up to do a roundup of the best posts of the week, and it always felt like a huge honor to be chosen. All that changed later—I don’t know if it was the number of blogs that changed, or the explosion of social media sites, so that suddenly there were double or triple or quadruple the number of places to follow people, or simply that we all got older and got real jobs and had to contend with the reality of wanting to be all Library 2.0 in a world where we mostly helped people print.

But all that was later. The Mark I remember from those early days was always one of the most thoughtful and diligent people I knew. I think he actually did all the reading for library school (Dear Reader, I did not), and then on top of that he read journal articles for fun, and was even the founder of a club that would discuss them online.

He also wrote about music, and there we had much in common, and, occasionally, about his life. He was a veteran and had a grown kids, and he worried a great deal about himself and his kids and their relationship. That made him much older than I was at the time, when I was in my late twenties and had few real responsibilities beyond attending class, working my low-level jobs, and going to the store to buy more half and half and Soft Scrub with Bleach, both of which my grandmother (whom I lived with) seemed to need on a near daily basis.

I first and last saw Mark in early 2011 at a Lucinda Williams concert here in Iowa City. He and Sara and I chatted about the pig-themed B&B where they were staying and how they needed to get out of northwest Iowa, which they did not too long after, escaping to Bend. Not too long after that I had my own son, and I lost track of almost everyone.

Just now I went hunting through my email and found a little treasure trove of early correspondence with Mark. We started off talking about our mutual dislike of Tom Friedman (for slightly different reasons) and somehow got to the war (which war? The war). I’d started out by saying that I didn’t deserve to have much of an opinion about the military, as I’ve never served, nor has anyone in my family till you go a couple of generations back. He replied

And let me tell you as a vet and the father of a combat vet, your opinion on the war counts as much as anyone else’s! I mean that with all my heart and soul Laura. Remember, or consider, that the US military is specifically set up to be governed by civilians.

Mark Lindner, email to the author, September 9, 2005 (Mark, where are you to tell me how to format a citation to an email in a blog post?)

My last message to him was in 2012, part of a group blast I sent out to announce the birth of my son. It bounced back: his email must have changed.

The Rev. Canon Thomas Hulme, RIP

A wooden gothic-style church on a car-lined street.

For many years, from perhaps age eleven or so until I finished high school, I served as an acolyte at Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City. I was not a very good acolyte, and when I got old enough to be a lector, I abandoned my acolyting days like a snake shedding its skin. But over the years I served under perhaps four or five different priests, and by far the best of these to acolyte for was Father Hulme, who died just yesterday in hospice care in Iowa City after a long career in the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa.

Many more formal remembrances of him are sure to come, and stories of his time leading churches in Boone, Perry, and Cedar Rapids, but I am focused here on only a very small part of it, the one that intersected with my life in the church, which I attended for three decades. (How and why I left that church, and have not as yet joined another, is another story for another time.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the sometimes arcane procedures of the Episcopal Church, acolytes perform various functions and tasks: they help lead processionals and recessionals, they light the Gospel as the deacon reads from it in the midst of the congregation, and they assist the priest during the consecration of the bread and wine—the long ceremonial process that turns a substance made from flour and water and some fairly gross church wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ (symbolically or actually, depending on whether you are a consubstantiation person or a transubstantiation one—but such theological considerations are also beyond the scope of this remembrance).

The point is that you have to hand the crusts of water and wine (handle facing the priest) to the priest at the right times, and be prepared to take them back (in whatever manner given); you and your fellow acolyte need to hold a small bowl (I’ve forgotten the name) while the other pours water over the priest’s fingertips and then takes the linen cloth from over your wrist (a specific wrist, I am sure) and then take it back when he hands it back to you, and then you have to kneel during a very long section of prayer (this was the part where people routinely fainted) recounting the night Jesus died and, depending on the priest, ring a bell at specific moments. The bell, we were told during training, was to alert the congregants to important moments when the whole service was done in Latin. One year at Easter the service was done in Latin, and my fellow acolyte and I just looked at each other hopelessly and rang the bell at whatever seemed like the right moments. The rest of the time you have to sit very, very still in your white polyester robe, lest Bob Towner, who trained us all (or, I am sure, his ghost to this day) rise up after the service and let you know how badly you had messed up.

I am sure, in fact, that I have messed up in recounting the various duties of the acolytes and the order in which they occur (and for the sake of simplicity, I have conflated the roles of acolyte and crucifer, although they are similar). But you get the idea.

Some priests were extremely difficult—if you handed them the wrong object at the wrong time in the wrong direction, as I was prone to doing—they would glare at you at best, or lecture you later at worst. And of course they had every right to—your job was, all in all, not that difficult, and it was meant to be done precisely. I was not good at order and precision, and the knowledge of the probable disapproval I would face made me all the more anxious and thus all the more prone to screwing up.

Father Hulme was different. He served as a substitute priest at Trinity, so it was not often that one served with him, but he was never unkind, always patient, never judgmental. I remember him saying with utmost gentleness “wine” when I handed him the water cruet instead, and just smiling if I spilled the water while pouring it instead of getting it all into the small bowl. If he was frustrated or annoyed, he never showed it, and he always seemed genuinely thankful for your service, however poorly done it was.

The last few services I attended at Trinity, some years ago, were the 7 am Tuesday morning healing prayer services that were held each week and that were led by a rotating cast of former rectors and retired clergy. They were small services, never more than a dozen or so of us at most, and they were attended mostly by old men who had been at Trinity seemingly since the dawn of time, and who remembered me from my childhood, as I remembered them. Often we would go out for coffee after the service, and I remembered how Chuck Hawtrey would always ask me about what I was reading during coffee hour at church when I was ten or eleven or twelve and then listen with real interest. I remembered how it was several of them who were carrying me to the sofa the time I fainted while I was just eleven weeks pregnant, and how I came to surrounded by these kindly men I had known forever. And I remembered serving as an acolyte for Father Hulme, and how much his kindness taught me, and how I have always hoped to emulate that when teaching people things myself.

I end with the “A Prayer Attributed to Saint Francis,” which was given to all the acolytes back in my day:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is

hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where

there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where

there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where

there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to

be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;

to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is

in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we

are born to eternal life. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer

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.

Sincerely,

Laura Crossett
[address redacted]
Iowa City, IA 52240

Laura’s Top 50

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time cover
Rolling Stone cover from December 9, 2004, via Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the tenets of my life that anything someone else can do well, I can do poorly, so awhile back when Kembrew McLeod posted his list of the 50 best rock songs for Rolling Stone, I thought, “Well, that would be a fun pandemic exercise!”

In my bizarre and varied freelance writing career, I have written about all sorts of subjects for which I have no qualifications (to wit: I started out writing art reviews), but I have never written about music (at least not for pay or whuffie). But, as I said, I thought it would be a diverting challenge to come up with my list of the 50 best rock songs of all time. Lists are impossible, and they provoke arguments, first and foremost with the list maker. (Why are there no R.E.M. songs on this list, I find myself asking? I love them; I think they are a fantastic band. My ultimate answer was that, despite my love of them, I think of them as an album band, not a song band. I rarely want to hear a single R.E.M. song—I want to sit down and listen to all of Document or Lifes Rich Pageant or Automatic for the People.)

In compiling this list, I used the following criteria, more or less:

  • No matter how overplayed the song, is it one that would make me happy if I heard it come on at the grocery store? (Mind you, some of these will never come on at the grocery store.)
  • Does it fit one (or more) of the Great Themes of Rock and Roll? Namely,
    • My baby’s gone
    • I gotta get out of this place
    • Fuck the man
    • Celebrate good times
  • Is it a song that I like in most or all versions? Though this list contains both originals and covers, I tried to avoid songs that I only like in one particular recording and despise in all other versions or covers.
  • Does is it break any or all of those guidelines? Cool. This is rock and roll, man.

As this is my list, it’s high on folk rock and low on a lot of other sub genres and related genres. I was feeling bad about that, but then that’s why other people exist, because none of us can cover everything.

And thus, without further ado, the list, in chronological order of the year of release.

Laura’s Top 50 Rock Songs (as of this moment)

Here’s a Spotify playlist of most of the stuff on the list—see the note about Garth Brooks below.

Midnight Special—Leadbelly

Folsom Prison Blues—Johnny Cash (There probably should have been a category just for train songs… don’t worry, there are more coming.)

Johnny B. Goode—Chuck Berry

La Bamba—Ritchie Valens

Will You Love Me Tomorrow?—the Shirelles (written by Carole King—I love her version, too, but I wanted some girl group representation)

Dink’s Song—Dave Van Ronk (arguably not a rock song, but Van Ronk had such a huge influence everyone who passed through the folk scene in NYC, and his guitar work and growl presage a lot of later rock)

Like a Rolling Stone—Bob Dylan (really, I could just make an entirely Dylan playlist, but you’d all hate me—I made an obvious choice for reasons of historical significance and because, well, it is a great song)

Ticket to Ride—the Beatles (Lacking any better criteria for choosing a Beatles song, I went with my son’s favorite. It is not only his favorite Beatles song; it’s his favorite song in the world.)

Respect—Aretha Franklin

Good Vibrations—the Beach Boys

I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free—Nina Simone

Sympathy for the Devil—Rolling Stones

Piece of My Heart—Big Brother and the Holding Company

The Star-Spangled Banner—Jimi Hendrix (I know, I know, it’s the national anthem, not a rock and roll song—until Jimi Hendrix plays it. Then it becomes one of the virtuoso performances of all time and the only version of the song I like.)

Sweet Jane—the Velvet Underground (I went back and forth between this and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” settling on “Sweet Jane” for its stunning cover by the Cowboy Junkies and for how often Jane comes up in rock and roll.)

City of New Orleans—Steve Goodman (Steve Goodman wrote it; Arlo Guthrie did probably the best recording of it. Did I mention there were more train songs coming?)

California—Joni Mitchell

Rocket Man—Elton John

I Can See Clearly Now—Johnny Nash

Lean on Me—Bill Withers (In the category of overplayed but always make you happy songs—in fact, a remix of this came on at CVS while I was in the post-shot waiting area after my second COVID vaccine and indeed, it did make me happy.)

Angel From Montgomery—Bonnie Raitt (I believe John Prine once said this song belonged to Bonnie Raitt, just as Kris Kristofferson said “Me and Bobby McGee” belonged to Janis Joplin. All versions of it are good, but hers is classic.)

Gloria—Patti Smith

Three Little Birds—Bob Marley

Badlands—Bruce Springsteen (How do you pick a Springsteen song? By the first line that comes to mind—“It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”)

I Will Survive—Gloria Gaynor

I Wanna Be Sedated—the Ramones

Bad Reputation—Joan Jett

California Über Alles—the Dead Kennedys (I debated on including this, since so much of it is topical—but some rock and roll is.)

Late in the Evening—Paul Simon (“It was late in the evening / And I blew that room away.” Awww yeah.)

Jack and Diane—John Cougar Mellencamp (Do you have to be a Midwesterner to love John Mellencamp? I know it’s true of Bob Seger. In any case, again, so many songs to choose from, but I went with the most iconic.)

Billie Jean—Michael Jackson (Still a fine song, even without the Moondance—although whatever else you want to say about him (and there is a lot), he was an amazing dancer.)

Holiday—Madonna

Burning Down the House—Talking Heads (My favorite Talking Heads song is “Life During Wartime,” but only the version from Stop Making Sense, and only with the video.

Unsatisfied—the Replacements

Fast Car—Tracy Chapman (Is there a more poignant song in the world?)

Straight Outta Compton—N.W.A. (I am, obviously, not a big rap/hip hop listener. I did go back and revisit the stuff I remember listening to a bit when I was younger, which I would characterize as “college radio hip hop,” and none of it really held up. I don’t remember when I first heard this song, but that “Compton Compton Compton” beat stuck with me even before I had any idea what it meant.

Wave of Mutilation—the Pixies

Friends in Low Places—-Garth Brooks (This one is missing from the playlist, because Garth Brooks doesn’t want you to listen to his music. As of this writing, the only streaming service that has it is Amazon’s, though there are covers and imitations all over the place. I assume his lack of presence on other platforms is part of his longstanding campaign against people listening to music except via a physical CD they bought new. Relics of the 90s may recall his contributions to the campaign against used CD sales—and locals may remember the giant cutout of him outside the Record Collector in the early 1990s warning you not to buy used CDs. Regardless, though, this is a great song—just reading the comments on one of the YouTube video imitations of it will break your heart and put it back together again and again.)

Come As You Are—Nirvana

I’m No Heroine—Ani Difranco

Unknown Legend—Neil Young

Product—New Bad Things (The perfect indie pop song. Really. Give it a listen.)

Fuck and Run—Liz Phair

Doll Parts—Hole

Good Things—Sleater Kinney

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—Lucinda Williams (I almost can’t listen to this one anymore now that I have a kid, but that gutting feeling is part of what makes it great.)

Underneath Your Clothes—Shakira

This Year—the Mountain Goats

The Denial Twist—the White Stripes

The greatest—Lana Del Rey (I don’t know if this will last, but it’s the best distillation of 2020 I’ve heard—my thanks to Steve for getting me to listen to it in the first place.)

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. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/226813?rskey=eRAnlw&result=2&isAdvanced=false (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.