Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Missing My Mindlessness (Durchslag)

I have been pining for a nice, solid, meandering day. A day where I might drop in at my friend Kate’s store (Stillpoint Gallery) and browse around touching things. I bet I’d pick up at least four different pieces of pottery, ooh and ah, put them down, and go find something else to fondle. Scarves, maybe. I would definitely linger by the jewelry counter, probably trap poor Kate and ask to try on bracelets. We might catch up a bit, my elbows would definitely come to rest in a repose of counter-leaning and moving nowhere fast. Half-hour, 45 minutes later, I’d toodle out, back to my car, inspired to run up to TJ Maxx for a really nice rummage. Then I could pop into the Wine Spot and chit chat about trying some bottle of wine and have the helper tell me all sorts of things that I absolutely will not remember once I get it home. And even if I like it, I won’t have trained myself to remember the name of it before plopping it in into the recycle bin and losing it forever.

Aaah, but the cherry on top would be a really nice lollygag at the pub, or ooh, even better, a loungy night on a patio now that the weather is warm. Yum, those twinkly little lights they always string up … and if it’s L’Albatros I’d have a big martini and we would just ooh and ah over our charceuterie plate, and I’d tell Pete how tipsy I’m getting and I would stop paying attention and just fall into his eyes instead, and get moony with the servers and shower blessed feelings of looseness and freedom all over the place … to the couple coming in as we’re leaving, to the parking attendant, to the people walking down the street that we are now slowly driving past on our way home .… Oh, gosh, there is nothing like barely grazing reality with the tip of a finger. And the shops and the patios are open.

But would it really be a moony-eyed losing myself into twinkling lights and the bliss of a loose semi-consciousness? Um, no. Nor should it be. We are in a time of vigilance. This was never going to be a great 21-day diet or a nice 30-day workout challenge. And now we are in an ever-extending time of vigilance, because we are having a huge. Problem. With vigilance. Welcome to my first official funk of the Covid-19 saga.

I wish I didn’t feel like our culture shows up like this to most things. I mean we love a good cause, and we love a good righteous indignation. We can show up for a good solid week of tirade and disdain. Sometimes we even show up for an election to show just how engaged we are. And we are mired in events that might be cultural tipping points, events that are highlighting existing and also new chasms in how we care for one another and how the systems we support limit our abilities to do so. They just keep coming: race, politics, social safety nets, waste, greed, hegemony. Pandemic. But when there is one thing—one present-focused thing—that does not require rewriting 400 years of history, and we aren’t doing that? When we just can’t seem to keep our masks on, or even deign to put one on at all? When there seems to be an almost toddler-like tantrum about discomfort? Oh yeah, I am in a funk nice and good now. I think some people imagine that this is a transformational moment in time, where things just couldn’t possibly be the same again after such events. And yet they can. They shouldn’t be, but they can. And they might. They really might.

I’ll definitely visit Kate and buy something. Without touching lots of things. And not staying so long. And I will sit on a patio soon, to support my local businesses. But I won’t be holding onto a tether of reality with a graze of a fingertip, I’ll be clenching the wrought-iron table with both hands. I’ll probably gulp my martini to ease my anxiety. I’ll worry over and hen-peck the poor service staff because I am concerned for their safety, and Pete will roll his eyes at me because I over-coddle. Then I’ll likely go home and crumple with the exhaustion of pushing my comfort zone. It might as well have been the 5K challenge I have never considered doing nor ever will. My soul-flow liberation into the social universe is just going to have to wait. And I am on an adventure toward a revised relationship with the meander. Argh.

Hallie Beth Durchslag, PhD, lives and works in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where she teaches, writes, and maintains a private practice as a Jungian-based, psychodynamic psychotherapist. Her first book, The Collective Unconscious in the Age of Neuroscience: Severe Mental Illness and Jung in the 21st Century (Routledge) is being released July 2020 (www.routledge.com/9781138057364).

Monday, June 29, 2020

Leftover Coffee (McGregor)

There are five quarts of leftover brewed coffee in my freezer, labeled by date, beginning with April 14. If our morning pot of coffee hasn’t yet gone bitter, I’ll sometimes cool what’s left, pour it into one of the plastic deli containers piled in the cupboard, and store it in the back of the freezer. I top off each frozen container until it’s full. When the plastic containers are used up, I’ve got a few empty pickle jars I can use.

The brewed coffee in our house is a blend: half high-end, half the kind my parents drank when coffee was just coffee. I want to make the good stuff last because, well, you never know. I also bought a large size container of powdered Coffeemate, an extreme measure, comparable to hoarding tins of sardines, because maybe at some point I won’t be able to get half and half. Or milk.

This is clearly pandemic-think, a scarcity mentality part Little House on the Prairie, part Walking Dead. Except rather than worrying about panthers springing out of trees, dust bowls, flesh-eating monsters, overflowing morgues or a plague with no cure, I’ve latched onto an obsession with a morning cuppa joe.


In college I was a waitress at a concrete-block steakhouse with large paintings of bullfighters and signed photographs of pro golfers on the walls. On Fridays and Saturdays, the line for a table filled a long, skinny hallway.

Every time I entered the kitchen to fetch brutally hot platters of Boston strips, there were two people in my immediate field of vision. On the right was Al, the grizzled chef with a blurred anchor tattoo from his Navy days, grilling steaks with a Camel non-filter dangling from the corner of his mouth.

On the left, tucked away by the shelves of gallon-sized jugs of industrial-grade soap, was Nell. Tall and angular, she seemed permanently bent in half over a huge stainless steel tub of dishes and pans she and a helper washed by hand. Whatever I saw of her face was bathed in steam and perspiration. Mostly I remember the top of her head—pinned-up wavy hair the color of steel wool, flattened under a hairnet.

One night at closing time, as I went to dump the last pot of coffee down the bar sink, Nell appeared at my side. It was the first time I’d seen her out of the kitchen, standing at full height.

She pointed to the coffee pot. “If you’re throwing that away,” she said, “I’ll take it home.” I must have looked at her quizzically.

“Tastes just fine when you warm it up in the morning.” She seemed impatient with my ignorance. “Coffee’s expensive!”

She held a just-washed, restaurant-size salad dressing jar. “Here’s what you do when the coffee’s still hot so the glass don’t break.” She put a table knife in the jar and poured in the coffee. The jar blossomed with steam but didn’t crack.

I knew nothing of Nell except the way her body bent in half over someone else’s dirty dishes. I was a college girl, the world unrolling before me like a carpet of unearned opportunities, a product of the G.I. bill and my parents’ long, slow climb to a life you could still call middle class.

Like my parents, Nell was of a generation old enough to remember saving up wartime ration tickets for sugar and butter. But my parents’ lean years had eventually eased. Nell was likely born poor, trapped her whole life in a broken system that forces a woman too old by any standard of human decency to sweat over pots and pans to make rent. The distance from the restaurant kitchen to the dining room was a matter of yards. But there was little chance she’d ever find a seat there, eating a steak cooked to her liking.

I’m not sure if my containers of frozen coffee are a paranoid hedge against want. It feels a little over the top, given that I’m sitting in my own kitchen, stocked with plenty of food. But maybe that’s the point of it, a sharp reminder of the difference between imagined and real need. The difference between scarcity mentality and scarcity.

The first time I saw Nell outside the kitchen, I realized how tall she stood. She had no time for foolishness. Dumping a pot of perfectly good coffee wasn’t just wasteful. It made no sense at all.

She still has more to teach me.

Marsha McGregor's essays have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, BrainChild, Zone 3, Fourth Genre, Literary Mama and four anthologies. Since 2008 she’s been a contributing columnist for Cleveland Magazine. She leads writing workshops for Literary Cleveland, The International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG) and library systems. www.marshamcgregor.com.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Working Through the Pandemic (Ebenbach)

So much of a person’s experience of this pandemic is determined by work. Doctors and grocery deliverers, for example, have to work harder than ever and put themselves at greater risk during an already stressful time. Still—at least they have a sense of purpose; restaurant owners and performers, meanwhile, are sitting in idle anxiety about when/if/how they’ll be able to get back to it. And many other folks, in order to keep their jobs, have had to figure out how to do what they do—therapy, religious services, education—in a whole new way.

As for me, I teach at a university, and I’m also a staff member at the university’s center for teaching and learning—which means that I work with faculty and grad students to help them be the best teachers they can be for their students. More inclusive, more aware of their students as whole human beings, etc. Well, the “teacher development” part of my job has changed a lot over the last few months, including in ways I didn’t expect. Specifically, at first I had to learn how to live almost entirely in the moment, which was kind of great, and now I have to learn how to live almost entirely in the future, which is kind of terrible.

When spring semester went virtual all of a sudden, nobody knew anything about the future. Would Covid peter out in a month? Would we still be dealing with this in the fall? Nobody knew. All we did know was that a huge number of faculty and students had to get set up to do learning online right away, whether or not they’d ever used any of the relevant technology before. We were working overtime just trying to help people to do the things that were right in front of them. It was exhausting, but in a way it was also nice—I had a sense of purpose, and was so focused on the tasks at hand (mine and the faculty’s) that I couldn’t spare a thought for the future.

Now things are really different. We got through the spring, and now at the center for teaching and learning we’re all working overtime to get the faculty ready for the fall, which may be totally online, or partly online and partly in-person, with the in-person people (so to speak) masked and six feet apart. Our university hasn’t decided yet, and it’s a complicated question—but most schools (including ours) seems to be leaning toward hybrid models, which is to say that many classes will have some people who are physically there and others who are attending virtually. To me, this sounds like dropping a pedagogical disaster right into the middle of an all-you-can-eat buffet for the virus. I don’t know one person who thinks that this kind of hybrid class would, medically or educationally, be as good as a class that’s completely online. And yet it’s probably going to happen at a lot of schools this fall.

The whole thing fills me with anxiety and dread, honestly—and, because of my job, I can’t not think about it. All day I have to talk to faculty about their anxiety and dread, and try to brainstorm ways to make the fall a little better. Which brings me back to my own anxiety and dread. (I’m going to be teaching, too!) In other words, it’s June, but I am nonetheless deep into September. And, with the way this academic situation is shaping up, I don’t know anybody who’s excited to be in September.

Consider staff on my campus: a lot of people will probably have to be laid off if we don’t bring in revenue from tuition and housing. That means opening the campus up—but it also means saving those jobs via exposing the workers to unsafe working conditions. It’s a nightmare only capitalism could love. In other words, there’s a bigger conversation we ought to have about why we allow money, because we live in a country with an inadequate social safety net, to drive us into the pandemic in ways that are mentally and physically unhealthy.

But for me personally there’s also a question of what happens when I shift from a present of trying to deal with what’s in front of me—hard enough—to contemplate the possibly even harder future ahead. I’m in no hurry to think about that, but that’s my job—so I’m going to have to.

David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including the poetry collection Some Unimaginable Animal, the novel Miss Portland, and the short story collection The Guy We Didn't Invite to the Orgy and other stories. He teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University, where he is also a Project Manager at their Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. You can find out more, if you want, at davidebenbach.com.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

How I'm Surviving the Pandemic (Averbach)

I think we can all agree that social distancing sucks. It you're lucky you're conducting meetings from your bedroom while two kids and a dog zoom across the bed. If you're less fortunate you're spending endless hours trying to reach the unemployment office or your health insurer. You're not going out to eat, not shopping for a new swimsuit and not using the tickets you bought to the season opener. Cut off from human contact, the TV and refrigerator have become your new best friends. Your jeans are getting tight and the bills are piling up. Life is depressing, right? Only if you don't keep a Second Life in reserve for just such an emergency.

I'm weathering this storm by simply checking out of real life and moving into a 3D computer-generated virtual world called Second Life. I've been an on again, off again resident of this world for eleven years and watched virtual reality develop into a place you could almost call home. In real life my roots are showing and I desperately need a haircut. In Second Life it's always a good hair day and I'm always ten years younger than my daughter. Many of my Second Life friends spend their second lives at the beach, but I prefer the small coastal village called Thistle where I can forget about face masks, and social distancing as I walk down beautiful winding streets alive with trees that rustle in the breeze and birds that flit between their branches. I spent this afternoon helping a neighbor install a dock on her virtual property and then chatted over a glass of virtual wine as the sun sank into the virtual ocean. I'll probably go dancing tonight at the Blarney Stone, a popular Irish pub that features excellent live music and tomorrow I'm attending a poetry workshop taught by an instructor from the University of London. In short, it's really nice inside my computer and I'm not coming out until real life is safe again.  

Patricia Averbach, a native Clevelander, is the former director of The Chautauqua Writers Center in Chautauqua, New York. Her second novel, Resurrecting Rain, was just released by Golden Antelope Press. It won a Royal Palm Literary Award from the Florida Writers Association and was a semi-finalist for the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award under the title New Moon Rising.