Tuesday, January 14, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Susan Briante, Weyshawn Douglas Koons, Anonymous, Caleb Klitzke, Rick Joines

On 12/21/19, we invited writers and readers to write about "What Happened" that day, however they interpreted it, as an exercise in mass attention, and promised to publish as many of the resulting essays as possible. So here we go! For more details and a full list of the contributors, click the What Happened page.


Who visited me in my dreams? No registry. No calling card. No cookies to trace.

My daughter’s dreams extend. When I wake, she tells me: You wanted to go see the graves of children. And I didn’t want to go. In a plaza by the statues, where I have been before. Once I saw a boy with a kite. In this dream, three girls were dancing. It was beautiful, but I didn’t want to see the graves. I think she might be trying to tell me a story about parenting or mortality and all the suffering from which I cannot protect her. But if I could, I would follow her even into her dreams.

Instead, I wake blank and listen. When I try to get up, tight bands pull from the back of my neck to my forehead. Within the hour they shift from the base of my skull to a ring around my right eye. The queasiness comes next. I try naproxen sodium and two anti-nausea pills. Water and coffee.

The cat calls under the hallway door. Sun seeps in around the blinds.
Today, Midwinter Day,
and what little light
is left to us
becomes too much. 

 “Migraine is something more than the fancy of a neurotic imagination,” writes Joan Didion. “It is an essentially hereditary complex of symptoms, the most frequently noted but by no means the most unpleasant of which is a vascular headache of blinding severity, suffered by a surprising number of women, a fair number of men (Thomas Jefferson had migraine, and so did Ulysses S. Grant, the day he accepted Lee's surrender), and by some unfortunate children as young as two years old.”

“Almost anything can trigger a specific attack of migraine: stress, allergy, fatigue, an abrupt change in barometric pressure, a contretemps over a parking ticket. A flashing light. A fire drill.”

Today, believe the migraine came as a result of the news that my book would not be published until August, an impending (but temporary) move, dehydration, the twisting of one cervical disc in my neck toward the left, and last night’s martini.

Gianna rubs my shoulders. Farid brings me black coffee. I send them off to breakfast with friends. And in the empty house, I cry in bed with the cat purring beside me.


Last year at this time, I wrote an essay about my father and Frank Sinatra’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This year I remember my mother getting teary eyed over Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here.” She’d say: “I don’t know why it makes me sad” as if no one else could hear its melancholy chords. My father would try to convince her it was happy, the song that plays when the kids are skating in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Of course, she’s right. The song is incredibly sad. Meant to capture all of Charlie Brown’s unease at the holiday season. But my parents, who survived a lot, had so few skills to withstand their own emotions. Just weeks before she died, while she writhed in an emergency room, my father pulled out a line from his high school football days: no pain, no gain.

Last year when I wrote about “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” I wanted to find a version of the song with just Frank Sinatra’s voice and wondered what I thought I would hear. This year with this feeling of straps tightening down from the base of my skull to my eyebrows, I know I wanted to hear Frank Sinatra’s voice with no uplifting strings, no reprieve from its sadness.


I leave the house to get food for our Christmas Eve meal. I purchase one and a half pounds of salted cod that I will soak, changing its water twice a day for the next three days in order to prepare a baccalá salad as part of a Christmas Eve meal that replicates the ones of my childhood.

On the drive back from Roma Imports, I curl over my legs in the passenger seat, rest my head on the dash, take off my glasses and let the world blur.

In the back seat, my child is angry: we were supposed to bake cookies, she was supposed to have a playdate. By the time she gets home, she throws things. Then she picks up a book and reads on and off for the next three hours, while I try to sleep and listen to an astrology podcast and a guided meditation: the voices of women telling stories comfort me.

By six pm
I am up again
but the sun is down

 “A migraine is the most glamorous of headaches,” Sadie Stein writes in the Paris Review. But there’s nothing glamorous about me in a hoodie standing over the stove stirring mashed potatoes, while my daughter continues to be mad, and my husband pours wine I cannot drink.

“Migraines foster the sort of pure narcissism only intense, essentially benign pain can,” Stein theorizes. And she’s mostly right. Pain blots out everything but the self in pain. Despite the podcasts or pills, I twist and turn. I pull at my ears and cheeks and hair. Sometimes I vomit. Mostly I hope for more sleep. Any number of catastrophes could occupy my mind on a normal day (concentration camps at the border, the climate changing at a devastating rate, the presidency), but for hours today I could not feel or be anything but the pain.

The astrologist talks about slowing down as powerful Jupiter enters wise old Capricorn. She wants me to “sway, rooted in power and presence” like a tree. She talks about the Ursids peaking, and the star named for the wounded healer, and she helps me fall back to sleep.


In my dream, the principal at my daughter’s school walks along a chain link fence. A German shepherd jaunts along with us playfully. I can’t tell you what they are, but I know I am wearing the wrong shoes. I can’t tell you, where we are going.

But I don’t care because I can feel you next to me.

Susan Briante's newest book is the forthcoming Defacing the Monument.


Date Bar

Wood smoke wanders through the trees as I walk up the path to the house. It’s a typical winter day in the Pacific Northwest, wet and gray with the clouds and mist hanging low. The sun was supposed to come up just after eight o’clock this morning, but I’m still waiting. White lights on the Christmas tree sparkle through the window, shining bright. The bag I carry is full of treasure, four pounds of pitted dates, oats, brown sugar, and butter.

Mom called a week ago. “I can’t do it,” she said. “I’m done making date bar.”
     It was the last of the holiday baking she still did. She always loved to bake, especially around Christmas. She filled multiple tins with sweet treats that would be opened to fill platters the minute company walked through the door. There were thumb print cookies with their holiday red and green icing, rum balls rolled in powdered sugar, chocolate chip cookies, and fondant that was so sweet it felt like I was eating thick icing. She made hard candy flavored with cinnamon oil in trays that looked like red sheets of glass. The candy looked so enticing my little brother couldn’t resist touching it, even though he was warned, melting the skin on the tip of his finger and ruining the whole tray one year. Fudge was tucked away in the fridge and vied with date bar as my two favorites. The air in our house wafted Christmas for weeks.
     “I’ll give you the recipe so you can continue the tradition,” Mom said.
     I already had the recipe, but she wanted to give it to me again, so I wrote it down and later compared the recipes, making sure they were the same. The original was written in Mom’s smooth, italic handwriting on a recipe card in red ink. Although it’s smeared, it’ll be the one I keep.
     Later that day I called my son, who lives nearby. I told him Gigi wouldn’t be sending us date bar this year, but she hoped we would continue the tradition. We kicked around days that worked. There was only one, December 21st, winter solstice.

My son Jess and his new bride Kristen come inside, cheeks rosy, full of good Christmas cheer. We drink hot ginger tea while we chop the dates and set them on a low burner to cook down while we make the pressed crumble mixture that lines the bottom of the pan and then covers the top. The thick smell of dates on a slow boil takes me back to being a kid, sitting on the counter, measuring ingredients, pouring, mixing, and tasting, always tasting. I would lick the bowl, the spoons, and the beaters, running my index finger along the inside of each beater to savor every drop.
     We talk about Gigi, my Mom, their grandmother, the Grand Dam, and wish she was here with us. She’s poured her love into these same ingredients for the last sixty years. Jess is going to overnight date bar to Gigi in the morning so she’ll have it for Christmas. We vow we will carry on the tradition. I hope winter solstice will always be the day that works.

I wake early on Christmas morning, before my husband, Eric. Our kids are grown with kids of their own. We will see them later in the day, but for now it’s just the two of us. I light the votive candles, over two dozen of them, while the espresso machine warms up. I wake Eric with a steaming breve latte and a warm slice date bar. We move to the couch and sit in the soft flicker of light, amazed the days are already growing longer. We toast my mom, Gigi, with our lattes. Even though she’s settled two thousand miles away in the Ohio River Valley, there’s a little piece of her here with us.

Weyshawn Koons lives on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest and graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction.


December 21st, 2019

What happened:
Morning darkness
out of bed fast
tea and coffee
rain. A short fuse put aside. Eyes closed, exercised.
Shopping for groceries and gifts because its the holidays
love happened.

I saw: 
pink lights in the bathroom
order in a new home
love bloomed
your face 

I heard: 
the heat go on
“I was going to call…”
your voice at the end of the day  next to me


What Happened on December 21

A student emailed asking what her final grade was, and I felt guilty I hadn’t already finished my work for the semester, writing back that I’d been sick but was working on it. On YouTube, I watched NBA Desktop and learned that Kevin Garnett believes the NBA made the Celtics lose to the Heat in 2012 because the Celtics didn’t fit their “agenda.” I ate eggs in a tortilla with cheese and salsa.
     I returned to the bedroom to put on socks and get ready to walk Gibbs, my black lab mix (which means pit bull), and talked about last night’s dreams with my girlfriend Claire—hers about an island where there was a festival she wasn’t excited to attend but happily got to avoid with a friend, mine about crawling through tight passages of an old house before coming upon my dad and Johnny Cash recording a cover of “Earth Angel.”
     It was pretty warm for Minnesota, upper 30s. I drove to campus to pick up a couple books and some papers I needed to finish grading. After, I drove to Stillwater to do Christmas shopping. The many cutesy boutiques lining St. Croix Trail, that my mom would call “shopp-e shops,” offered enough options to cover up my last-minute nature. I had to drive up the hill to park and ended up in front of a paper and Sharpie sign reading “Book Sale,” so before buying for others, I found gifts for myself.
     Inside was a studio with folding tables and a few bookshelves. Spine-up books lined the tables with more rows on the hardwood beneath next to a wooden crate of leather baseball mitts with thick fingers like in A League of Their Own or The Sandlot. There was a tower of empty cardboard boxes and a man wearing thick-rimmed glasses with his legs crossed by the door telling me this was a “pop-up sale” because he needed to make room in his house. One corner held books put back into boxes with paper signs saying, “On Hold.” The man said that meant he found some titles he wanted to keep.
     As I browsed, a couple spoke to the bookseller about their upcoming wedding and mutual past as curlers. The bookseller said someone named Spider Fred could’ve been a pro but didn’t follow through. I took notes on my phone. The couple said he should come by the St. Paul Curling Club, a windowless building on Selby I often wonder about and am a couple blocks away from as I write this. I paid the bookseller twenty-three dollars for nineteen books and left with them in a box.
     Walking through the bricked downtown Stillwater, I left my coat in the car and carried paper bags with twine-y twisted paper handles gradually unfurling from my sweaty fingers. I felt a retail high that reminded me of buying new Pumas in eighth grade. I liked the feeling but thought I shouldn’t. Two stores gave me free apple cider even though I didn’t buy anything. One gave me a cookie, and the lady said “Ope, saw you drop crumbs there.” And I said, “Ope, did I?” And she said she was kidding. But we both knew I had dropped crumbs.
     At home, I showed Claire my haul, except for the things for her, and she thought I got good stuff. We walked across the street from our apartment and got dinner at Brasa, celebrating that the twenty-first was our six-month anniversary but not quite because she said “anniversary” is only for yearly things, so six-month-iversary or something. I got the rotisserie chicken with mac and cheese and cornbread. Claire got the yellow curry and cornbread. Next to us, a gray-haired man with double hoop-and-ball earrings was maybe arguing with a woman with a crop cut who had done a lot of tanning. Claire was better at following what they were talking about and nodded toward them so I would listen, but I couldn’t quite hear. We wondered if they were father and daughter as we left.
     We went to see Knives Out and sat in the very front row because the rest of the seats had been picked and were gray on the little screen when we bought tickets. Luckily, the seats reclined, and we watched the movie laying on our backs. We both really liked the movie and laughed a bunch and were surprised and had fun talking about it on the way home.
     I walked Gibbs one more time listening to an Australian podcast about Christopher Lee. We fell asleep with The Office in the background.

Caleb Klitzke sometimes writes, sometimes repairs wooden canoes, sometimes teaches, and once got an MFA from the University of Arizona.


Of December 21, 2019

We wake around 6 AM, a little grumpy. I scramble eggs. Butter toast. Make coffee. Fill a water bottle. Put snacks in my backpack. My wife drives us from Arkansas to Missouri. Two of our nephews are competing in the “Neosho Battle for the Belt.” My father-in-law sits in back next to the oldest nephew who started playing Dungeons and Dragons a month ago. His earbuds dangle. We arrive to find a parking lot full of pickup trucks.
     My sister-in-law has saved a swath of seats for us on the bleachers. After a quarter of a century with my wife’s family, I know someone will be unhappy with their seat selection. My sister-in-law is shy of average height. Her chosen perch will not do. She cannot video over the scorers’ tables and the coaches standing mat-side.
     There are fewer people and some gaps on the bleachers on the other side of the gym. She packs up her bags and moves. This shuffling takes a few minutes. Meanwhile the attendees sing the National Anthem. Someone gives a lecture about good sportsmanship in the form of a prayer.
     My wife does not like the new spot. It is too high. The angle is wrong. The light above has burnt out. We test several areas until she finds one with a good view and good light. Her sister stays where she is. The rest wander back and forth.
     This is my first “real” wrestling match. When I was younger than my nephews, my aunt took me to a professional wrestling match somewhere in East Tennessee. I remember how the crowd snarled and glared into the gladiatorial ring. Like here, in the Neosho High School gym:
     “Get up! Get up! Get up!”
     “Mash that boy’s face in the ground!”
     “Head up! Head up!”
     The beginning of Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon plays in my head: “At the first bullfight I ever went to I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the horses.”
     The Neosho High School gym has an arched wooden cathedral ceiling. Padded mats lay across the entire basketball court. Six matches occur at once. Three sets of little kid matches clump together on one quarter of the court. The bigger kids’ matches spread out across the rest. Pairs of wrestlers tumble into one another. The boundaries depend on the imaginations of the referees.
     I am not an aficionado. It is difficult to know where to look. Families fill the stands. Coaches and scorers and referees mill around. A continual parade of nachos, doughnuts, pretzels, and sodas zigzags through the bleachers. Camo ball caps. Headbands and too much makeup. Farm equipment and second amendment T-shirts. Parents adjust singlets and tie shoes. Between matches, kids play games on handheld devices. Recently pinned kids walk by, crying.
     I am not sure how to make sense of the rituals and tragedies. I played football, baseball, basketball. I have visceral reactions to the artful violence in those. The one time I went to wrestling tryouts in high school, I got down on all fours and a guy I’d known most of my life draped himself over my back. I decided pretty quick wrestling was not for me.
     Kids walk out to wrestle. They pick up a red or green strap and Velcro it around an ankle. I did not notice this until an hour or two into being there. I figured out later that the colors matched the colors on the scoreboard. I never figured out the scoring.
     Some matches are over as soon as they start. The loser flops down. The winner flops down on top of him. The ref counts and raises the victor’s arm. Handshakes mark the end.
     But every once in a while, amidst the chaos and the noise and the clumsiness, two kids walk out to their spots on the mat. The ref blows the whistle. The wrestlers crouch and swat at each other’s heads. The ref circles and holds up two fingers, or one, or three, or make other gestures I do not understand. Coaches on all fours yell toward the tangled bodies of boys.
     Then one kid grabs a leg. He flips the other kid over. It is obviously a “move.” A set of moves follows, in combination.
     Most people stare into their phones, dip nachos in molten cheese, cheer about other matches. Everywhere I look, clocks are counting down.
     The kid who was about to get pinned spins out and is atop the other kid, quick. Their faces express agony. Their struggle is simple, real, and beautiful.

Rick Joines is Assistant Director of First Year Writing at the University of North Texas. He has a creative nonfiction essay forthcoming in 3Elements.

Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will

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