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 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.