I’ve been trying to write this fucking essay for three weeks, but my brain won’t stay allegiant to my body. I feel like the inside of my head is a giant scribble, like Charles Schultz’ confusion thought bubbles or Rowling’s Obscuris.
I keep rolling the word around in my head, like that will somehow make it dissolve: pandemic. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. We’re having a pandemic.
The problem, I think, is that I have no frame of reference. It’s like trying to imagine a new color. And sitting down to write, the world is so loud that it’s hard to hear my own thoughts. I feel this ball of energy gathering — this terrible welling of grief and fear, tragedy and panic. I know this is crazy, or fantastically pessimistic, but it feels like we’ve been careening toward this for years. Maybe it’s an artifact of all of the government preparation for the inevitable disaster we received. As a Generation X kid, I spent so much time preparing myself for Soviet invasion or nuclear war that it’s bound to have permeated my subconscious in some insidious way.
The mud in Southeast Alaska is everywhere. From Vancouver to Skagway a lush, near-ostentatiously green forest covers every conceivable surface with a teeming, tumbling, vulgarity of foliage. The Tongass National Forest is like a skunky Eden, ancient pine and spruce trees standing clustered tight as hair on a head, their verdance made that much more outstanding by the complement of thick, gray sky. It’s a North American rainforest. It rains 300 days a year, in one fashion or another, in my hometown. If the Inuit people have more than 200 words for the various elegant permutations of snow, the fishermen in Southeast Alaska have half again as many swear words for rain.
There is the putative rain that everyone knows, a tumbling shower from amassed clouds, a mixed blessing of ruined hairstyles and refreshed lawns. Then, there is the torrential downpour, bending fat blossoms under the combined weight of nectar and water, cracking peony stems and laying ferns flat against the ground like splayed bodies clinging to the surface of the earth. Drizzle — the most onomatopoeic word for a weather phenomenon, that half-hearted report from the heaven that everything, everywhere is gray and dull — is the meteorological equivalent of “meh,” spelled in water. But there is another type of rain, a sort of surreptitious precipitation that starts as gentle and refreshing as the misty spray from a waterfall, tiny cool droplets tickling the skin and seemingly innocuously disappearing. But there, along your eyebrows, a heavy bead of water leans ominously toward your eye, the ponderous descent changing its trajectory to head it straight along your nasal fold into your mouth. And there, along your temple, droplets as sure and regular as cold, portly beads of sweat begin to accumulate and race down your face into the neckline of your inadequate sweater. And your sweater! Wool and practical, has suddenly gone from misted with tiny, fruit-fly-sized droplets to saturated, impregnated on the very molecular level with water. Water fills your boots this way. Water drips from your nose like a dysfunctional faucet. Water drips between your teenaged breasts and makes the underwire of your bra cold and wretched. By the time you get to school, just a 30-minute walk — you are as wet as a newborn calf, and every bit as disoriented and gangly.
I have moved a lot of times. Like, a witness-protection number of times. By the end of my freshman year of high school I had moved across the country eight times — twice in that one school year alone. I whipsawed between various small communities in Maine and Alaska, spending the preponderance of my time in Alaska.
But 1988, my sophomore year, was a real cake-taker. I lived in three different cities, and attended two separate high schools in two states. I moved from Juneau, Alaska to Kennelwick, Maine in early November. Kennelwick is not a real place, by the way — just in case I inadvertently reanimate anyone else’s decades-old trauma.
Changing schools in November is like showing up for a surprise birthday party at the same time as the birthday girl. It doesn’t matter why you’re there, or how awesome you are, you’ve arrived with such impossibly shit timing that literally no one is happy to see you. To whit: The school year was well underway and the brutality of the initial social sorting process was fading, but the blood was still drying. The cliques had already galvanized, defensively, prepared for the inevitable breakups and infighting bloodshed typical of a closed, captive society. High school is like the Thunderdome, only with less clothes made out of human skin.
All names in this story have been changed. You know, just in case.
In my hometown of Petersburg, Alaska, there is one road that stretches from one end of town to the other, traversing but not circumnavigating the island on which my hometown is located. I think generally people tend to think of islands as little round circles of land in the ocean, which one might conceivably drive around and around forever, like a brass ball in a roulette wheel. But that’s not how things are, and islands are often shaped inconveniently, or pockmarked with gigantic mountains or bodies of water or even volcanoes, which can make logical traffic accommodations wacky. Anyway. In Petersburg, the road goes from one end of the long, arrow-shaped island to the other. This straight-line trajectory has even led locals to refer to driving toward the rural end of the island as “going out the road.” Interestingly, the city limits do not extend to the end of the road, but rather, end some several miles earlier. This means that the city police cannot legally enforce the law beyond those city limits, creating a kind of rogue, lawless wilderness on one end of the island.
This is, as you can likely imagine, terrific news for teenagers.
I still own all the underwear I’ve ever bought, probably. Like, 85 percent of it. But why? you might legitimately ask yourself. The answer is simple. Underwear is inexplicably expensive. And it takes a long time to wear out, since I don’t do very many things that would cause excessive wear-and-tear, like, say, a lot of butt-scooting on the carpet or skivvy-only horseback riding. I know I’m not alone in this, because over the years I’ve shared this fact and discovered that pretty much everyone is stockpiling ancient underwear.
As a result, I own underwear that is so old that it’s vintage — essentially archaeological artifacts. I’ve got garden-variety skivvies, of course, but I also have floppy and faded high-cut bikinis from 9th grade, lady boxers whose elastic waistbands announce their brand affiliation, and transparent lacy stretch briefs that make my ass look like a low-rent bank-robber. What I don’t have is g-strings. Not anymore.
Ahhh, the g-string. The g-string came to popularity in the late 1990s, first on strippers, then on twenty-somethings, and then, finally, on Donna, the 60-year-old cashier at ShopKo who is suprisingly racy and not interested in what you think about her undergarment selection, thank you very much and have yourself a lovely day minding your own fucking business.
Just about a year ago, I wrote an essay detailing my own reasons for abstaining from alcohol. (If you’re also a stickler for reading a series in order, you can find “1,186 Days” in the archive. Don’t rush. We’ll try not to get too far ahead before you rejoin us.) It was a relief to talk about it, frankly, having stewed it over for a few years. It was also surprisingly cathartic to put it on paper, since it was substantially more chaotic swirling about my brain box than it was organized and detailed in that essay. Ah, the curious, inscrutable liberation of constraint.
Before I published it, I labored for months over the implications of my admissions: would friends judge me? Would they rewrite the stories of our relationships with this new information, indelibly staining our shared moments with my arrival at this murky end? Would they see evidence in my behavior, view our debaucherous moments with hindsight bias, convinced they could see now the unfortunate trajectory that would lead me to quit drinking? Would they feel weird around me? Would they glumph me into the world of addicts, a ticking time bomb that might dive headlong into a vat of gin and tonics and never resurface? Would I lose friends? Job opportunities? And did any of this matter to me, really? Because in this case, the truth was the truth. The only variable was other people seeing me as I actually was. So I published it.
Tig Notaro famously did a stand-up routine in which she announced she had cancer. It was lauded as one of the most incredible moments in stand-up history, and she was extolled as a pioneer in comedy for really working the fine edge of the tragedy + time = comedy equation many comics venerate as the best method of joke construction. I’ve listened to the routine — it’s as good as it’s rumored to be. Better, maybe, because of Notaro somehow putting into the fewest possible words the absurdity of human life in an undeniable way. A laser cut around the heart, but in the shape of a fart.
In this magnificent routine, Notaro jokes that people always say that “God never gives you more than you can handle,” and then goes on to imagine the angels watching God handing down Notaro’s few months of life, questioning God’s sobriety: in just a few months, Notaro almost died from an intestinal infection, her mother died in a household accident, and then she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in both breasts. The space between these events was long enough for her to make the phone calls necessary to tell anyone that one of the things had just happened. It’s preposterous. And inexplicably shitty.
A recently published study in Scientific Facts Daily has scientists around the world shaking their heads in befuddlement and dismay. Marshaling the combined data from more than 50 years and 73,000 scientific papers summarizing more than 100,000 scientific studies, the work concludes that scientific studies on the efficacy of consuming more or less of certain food types, adding nutrients or nutritional supplements to one’s diet, or using certain medicines to treat disease are all “pretty much wrong.”
“Like, almost completely wrong, every time,” chief researcher Dr. Martina Ferkes-Boothe, an international expert on hypertension, indicated. “Seriously,” Ferkes-Booth continued, “If I wasn’t a scientist myself, I’d think someone was making this shit up. First, we tell everyone not to eat fat or cholesterol, or they’ll have a heart attack and die. People were choking down those cardboard Lean Cuisine low-fat pizzas for like a decade. Totally wrong. Could have been eating real cheese, instead of that weird soy snot, the whole time. And don’t even start in on butter made out of yogurt. So many fucked up mashed potatoes. I feel just awful about it now.”
Monsters are, as you doubtlessly already acutely understand, terribly frightening and dangerous. Many films have been made, detailing the paralyzingly ghastly and gory imperatives on which monsters operate, resulting in rooms fairly brimming with ichor and carnage: Soggy glumps of eyeballs, hanging from sticky ropes of optic nerves like morbid tether balls; piles and piles of viscera, settling and emitting gas like teams of farting snakes; ripped and abandoned limbs, arms and legs stacked like macabre log cabins of ruined flesh and protruding bone, still twitching and dripping the last of their darkening blood. Every shadowy corner, every looming closet, every rickety and ramshackle basement staircase adumbrates the uncanny atrocities monsters are hoping to wreak. They are eager to wreak. It’s their whole mission, in fact. (There’s a perfectly empirical reason for the word “monstrosities,” and it’s precisely what you’re thinking.)
One might reflect on this reality with floppy despondency, and in fairness, one would not be mistaken to do so. Flop and despond, if you need to get it out of your system. But as you’re able, kindly recover your wits, and devote your attention to the following introductory tutorial on the rules by which all monsters must abide, lest they be subjected to the same harrowing and disastrous fates to which they are so devoted to imposing on the human population.
It’s a perfect day outside — not too hot, not too cold. He doesn’t look when he hears my voice, like he has forgotten that he can turn his head to see who’s entered the room. I’ve gotten into the habit of coming up behind his chair, placing my hand on his shoulder, and lowering my body to a half-crouch before him. I meet his eyes, and wait to watch as recognition transforms him. It’s a silly thing, but it delights me to see the love on his face grow like the sunrise, changing the angle of his shoulders as he leans forward in pleasure and relief. It’s me. He doesn’t know my name, but he knows me. I have spent a not inconsiderable amount of time wondering if my father loves me. How my father loves me. Why my father loves me. But this, this is simple: my father loves me. It is one of the few gifts this fucking miserable disease has given me. But if I’m being honest, it’s a good one.
Today I brought fresh raspberries from the neighbor’s yard. They will taste like sunshine and outside, and I know he’ll love them. I attempt to broker a handoff, but the berries are so ripe we both end up with our hands covered in juice. His motor skills are dyssynchronous and irregular, now. He can pinch and grasp, but it’s like he’s playing one of those camp games, where some other guy puts his arms through your sleeves and gestures for you; he smooshes the berry, he pinches it, he grabs my hand and pulls it to his cheek. I laugh, because it’s better if it’s funny, and it kind of is. It can be, anyway.
At first it’s impossible to understand — this thing happening to you. Imagine yourself at 12, or maybe 13 — or God help you, 19 — whenever puberty finally gored you with its long-awaited tusk. Maybe you’re the girl waiting for her breasts, standing with her shoulders back behind Tammy, the girl who got her boobs in fourth grade, praying it’s somehow contagious, and your proximity will tit you up before your Cup Noodles even fully soften. Maybe you’re the girl who thinks she’s pissed herself on the playground, only to look down and see her crotch a deep, angry red: you’ll have to be done with four-square now, because you’ll need to change into your gym clothes, or call your mom to come get you. Maybe you’re the girl who imagines the lips of other girls, who stands as close to Laurel as possible in lunch line, to smell her delicious hair, and you’re waiting to develop what all the movies and all the people say is inevitable: an exclusive taste for boys.
Maybe you held hands with Ben one time on the way home from swimming, and you were too young, and it made you feel dirty to do it, like you stole the money out of the collection bin at church, or got caught touching your privates in the unlocked bathroom by your father. You are on one side of this thing, but also on the other. You are neither and both.
It’s been three years since I drank alcohol. More, actually: in fact, for the past three years, two months, 29 days (counting today — I’m feeling optimistic) I have abstained from alcohol. For 1,186 days, I have not had a single drink. Not a single beer, shot of tequila — not one lone glass of wine.
Which is sort of amazing, because during the 20 years before that I drank my face off.
Typically, I drank between three and five beers a night. By the last year I was drinking, most weekend nights, I drank five. I’m not the Incredible Hulk over here, either. I’ve always been a tallish, thinnish lady, and I never had miraculous, superhuman tolerance, like Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Marion in that bar in Nepal. Five beers made me drunk. Which was the whole idea. I was a heavy drinker.
In spite of my volume of alcohol consumption, I’m not an alcoholic. Some of you might be thinking, “So, you just quit drinking for nothingAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH???” And I get that. I’ll give you a moment to shriek into the throw pillows of nearby Barcaloungers for a moment while you assimilate that terrible and inexplicable chunk of information.
My husband Jesse and I were talking about Leviticus (the Quentin Tarantino chapter of the Bible) last night. We don’t spend much time musing about Leviticus (lest you think we are piouser than we are) but were discussing this letter from a gentleman sardonically applauding Dr. Laura’s use of Leviticus 18:22 to rebuke homosexuality. Naturally, we began inquiring into other modern applications of less referenced lines of the book.
After discussing our own Leviticus reflections (scariest band name, ever), we started re-imagining the Christian adage, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Jesse suggested, to comply with Leviticus, that we change it to, “Hate the sin, scorn the sinner?” We agreed this was too far from the spirit of the book. Leviticus is very specific (e.g., “How to Build an Altar in 1,347 Easy Steps”). And the truth is, it’s tough to read cubits allegorically, no matter how stoned you are.
I suggested, if we were going Full Monty, that we just go straight to “Love the sinner, hate the sin. Then smite the sinner. Usually to death.” Jesse piled on, “If a sinning sinner smites a loving sinner, that sinner should be smitten, also.”
I moved to Duluth in March of 1998. It was during the El Nino winter, in which every single human with whom I interacted informed me that this winter was NOT NORMAL FOR MINNESOTA. It came up in every conversation, which, over the course of the six months that normally would comprise one Duluth winter, provided a more vigorous facsimile of the suspended, punishing experience; only instead of shivering from the cold, I was shivering from collective dread, carefully cultivated by the city’s entire populace. In the wake of such calamitous portent, simple freezing fucking winter was actually a relief. Thus it was that I spent an entire terrifically warm winter in Duluth scared shitless, forming alliances and hoarding dry goods, waiting for real winter to come, like Duluth was some kind of folksy, sitcom version of Game of Thrones.
In fairness, Duluth is a really strange place. It was going to be strange, whether or not the winter was briefly co-opted by an exotic air current. I have a hundred examples of Duluth’s magnificent wackiness, but that’s too many for today. So here are three.
Back in January, Don Ness emailed me something like, “Hey, Anna. I’m hosting a party at the NorShor Theatre on March 3 and I’d like you to tell some stories. Would you do a reading?”
Ness, as you probably know, is the former mayor of Duluth and, as you might not know, a positive master of understatement. I figured he was inviting me to perform at a little reading party. You know, 50 people or so in the NorShor’s mezzanine. And then a friend of mine messaged me a poster for a Low concert in the NorShor’s 632-seat theater. I zoomed in to see the date, to see if I could go, and saw MY NAME ON THE BOTTOM OF THE POSTER — and I, embarrassed and panic stricken that my name had somehow gotten on the bottom of this poster, looked at the date, and was like, “And I can’t even do it then, because I’m gonna be at Don Ness’s party!” Took me like ten seconds to figure out this was the thing Don had invited me to. Lord.
The truth is, when Don asked, I responded that it meant a lot for me to be a part of such an event — and I knew he knew exactly what I meant by that. I was honored to do it. The following is a transcript of what I read to that 632-person crowd.