Friday, January 10, 2020

What Happened 12/21/19: Lorri McDole, Emily Strasser, Penny Guisinger, Marianna Gracheva, Whittier Strong

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.


What Happened around December 21st, 2019

It turns out to be the only day in December I have nowhere to go and no one I have to talk to. In other words, I’m at my favorite place, home, in my favorite state, alone.

I’m supposed to write about what happens today, but for me, what often happens on these quiet days is ruminating (obsessing?) about what’s happened recently, especially when those things seem to coalesce into a loose-limbed theme. 


We’re celebrating a friend’s 60th birthday when Rustan, sitting across the table from me, says he and his girlfriend are taking a trip to Norway, where he was born. They’ve also reserved a night in an ice cave in (where else?) Iceland.

Like an igloo?

Well, not exactly. It’s an actual room, like there are beds and everything.

Cool, I say, intending the pun, but also, I’m an insomniac. Sleeping in a cold room is supposedly better for sleep. I wonder: that much colder, that much better sleep?

That will be a fun experience, I say to Gwen, his girlfriend.


Rustan is surprised.

Really? I have not heard this before? He says this, like everything, with a polite Norwegian accent.

Which is when I pull out my old schtick and my usual sarcastic accent: You know how you learn something new about your partner? Gather ten friends and listen to them talk to someone else.

Which is when my husband pulls out his exclamation point accent: Yeah, and Lorri doesn’t know I’m thinking about going vegan!

WTF? Six months ago, he swore allegiance to keto. Since it’s my job, mostly, to shop and cook, these unconsulted changes tend to piss me off. Plus, with our children grown and halfway out of the house, I’m looking for ways to make the shopping/cooking/cleaning parts of life easier, not harder.

Longevity, baby! My husband answers. I want to live to 100!

I make conversation the rest of the night, but my mind goes through this endless loop: Wow wow wow. Why why why. Why does he want to live to 100? Why don’t I?


Our son turns 21 and we take him to a nice dinner. My husband, daughter, and I have whiskeys and lemon drops. Our son has water. We call him—he calls himself—a hypochondriac, but we take his palpitations and chest pains seriously, with a stance I’d describe as “irritated diligence.” He’s seen two cardiologists, had numerous EKGs, worn a few week-long heart monitors. The doctors see only the normal blips that anyone can have, but everyone knows that when it comes to hearts, anything can be nothing or something or everything. The worst times are when I take him to the ER. He thinks he’s dying, but the triage team just sees this Justin Bieber-looking kid. No one believes anything bad can happen to someone like him, someone his age, and we wait longer than anyone to see yet another doctor.


Our 5-year-old grandson’s brother dies at birth. He was the baby of my daughter’s ex-boyfriend and new girlfriend, but of course, we were all waiting for the new baby. Grayson has had two grandparents die “because they were old.” This is how you learn that simplified explanations, especially when it comes to children, usually bite you in the butt. What do we do now, explain that Griffin died because he was young? Grayson is interested in bodies and skeletons, zombies and ghosts. We don’t let him play with guns (although he makes them out of legos and empty paper towel holders anyway, just like my son did) but like most boys, he falls on the floor, pretending to die, several times a day.

Daddy says I’ll die when it’s my time, he tells me. But when will that be?


We attend my father-in-law’s 90th birthday party, a huge event like the kind my husband would want, for a birthday or a celebration of life or anything, really. Lots of singing, reminiscing, people. My husband’s specialty is people, he loves them, and no, I’m not being sarcastic.

Later, he asks what I want, and I know he’s not talking about birthday parties.

No open casket. I assume I’ll be dead, but I can’t bear the thought of people looking at me when I can’t fight back. No reading any of my stories that involve people who might still be in the room (my husband is the kind to read my stories out loud, if given the chance). And no reminiscing! At our wedding rehearsal dinner, when someone asked for stories about me, my mother told, or rather acted out, how she held my long hair out of my face while I puked on the side of the road during a car trip. That my mother would choose that story out of my whole childhood to share on the night before my wedding still fills me with an outsized shame all these 28 years later. 

I joke that since I don’t sleep much, it feels like I’ve lived longer than other people my age, so maybe that’s why the actual age of 100 just sounds way too fucking old. But the new year is upon me, and I wonder if I can find some ways to at least try to court longevity lust, so I can maybe accompany my husband, who’s exactly my age, all the way to the end.

When Grayson’s brother died, he said, Baby Griffey won’t be joining us, a gut-wrenching phrase too grown up to come from his little-boy body. I try to imagine him saying, Ma (he calls me Ma) has gone to join Baby Griffey. I have to admit, that socks me in the gut, too.

But what do you WANT? My husband asks again. Oh, right.

Okay, I want you to say that I was funny, or at least sometimes funny, if I’m lucky enough to go before you. Say that I went in my sleep, even if I didn’t, because don’t you think that would be fricking hilarious, an insomniac dying in her sleep? 

Lorri McDole’s writing has appeared in The Writer, Prime Number Magazine, Cleaver, Sweet, The Offing, and Brain, Child. Her writing has been selected for several anthologies, including Flash Nonfiction Funny and Into Sanity. Her essay “Storms of the Circus World” was a finalist for the Talking Writing Prize for Personal Essay. She sometimes writes things she swears at herself later for publishing. Her mother and grandmother were often funny, if also irritating, people.


I wake in my childhood bed, the light wet and grey. Rainy outside, but still lighter, more decisively daytime, than this hour in my northern home.

I haven’t slept well. Perhaps a side-effect of the new antidepressant I’m trying. Or perhaps the bad feeling itself, the cause of the new antidepressant, has kept me rolling with excess energy all night long. Waking, I remember that I have to grade, and the diffuse unease rolls itself into that anxious task. I want to finish before Ellie arrives this afternoon.

Wrapped in a blanket and clutching coffee, I plant myself on the couch in the sunroom. Outside, the view is striped with bare gleaming trunks towering over the house, and the freakishly tall camellias wave their pink blossoms at the second-story windows. My mom flips the paper at the breakfast table.

I don’t like grading at the best of times but since the bad feeling came on, even the regular things have felt insurmountable. It started just after daylight savings, when I spent a morning reading a Facebook page devoted to climate grief, preparation, and adaptation. People posted  lists of fruit trees they’d planted, vitamins they’d stockpiled, and the things they’d given up—new clothes, flying, contact with friends who didn’t get it. Some posters hadn’t done anything, but were just sad and afraid. Everyone, though, had read and been convinced by a certain paper by a British sustainability professor arguing the inevitability of near-term societal collapse, and urging spiritual, psychological, and practical preparation.

I read it in the summer, when the generous, sun-drenched days of a month-long writer’s retreat in the South of France made me resilient and expansive. Afterward, I called Ellie and wept, and they wept, and our cheeks shone at each other through the screens. We resolved to realign ourselves toward this most important thing. I watched the families on the beach below my apartment, waiting out France’s hottest day in history beside a turquoise sea, and I felt tender and transcendent, in love with the whole foolish, exuberant world.

But in fall, when the day gulped and swallowed its tail, and I read about homesteading and foraging and the fires in Australia, where Ellie’s parents and brothers still live, where we’d spent the previous December, and the bottom fell right out of me.

A friend’s therapist says that climate change becomes a stand-in for everything we fear in our own lives, but I think I become afraid of everything in my own life when I cannot look at the real scary thing.

After a week or two, my depression spun into a hard kernel of anxiety that attached to all the daily things. I did not think about climate change but I became panicky before teaching. Before calling the mechanic to check on my car. While writing an email. My to-do lists ballooned into every minute. The sun fell like a ball rolling off a table. How does anyone do anything in these quick-darkening fall days?

My class had a particularly rough time. Deaths in the family. Medical emergencies. Pets dying. Immigration trouble. Abuse. Cancer diagnoses. Those crises on top of all of the normal struggles of doing school while working more than full time, supporting siblings and parents, moving, breaking up, raising kids. Maybe I’m a sucker but I believed them all. Life seemed exactly that hard. By November I’d lost half my class.

Composition is meant to prepare students for the types of writing they will do in their future college courses. I taught thesis statements and topic sentences and MLA citations, but really I just wanted to wrap us all in blankets and ask my students what they thought we should be preparing for.

This solstice morning, I spend too long agonizing over the borderline cases. I have to tell one student, who wrote his final paper about how high school does not prepare students for college, that I cannot give him the C he needs to retain his scholarship. Another student, who I know does not have internet at home, still has not turned in any of her final work. It will take a miracle for her to pass but I delay submitting grades anyway.

It’s time to pick up Ellie. I am determined not to be late this time.  The outside air feels good and living, like a wet breath. I am alive, I am alive, I tell myself, breathing in and out.

I park at the airport and walk to the arrivals hall, where friends and family clump together and crane to look as each wave of new arrivals crests the top of the escalator. I like to watch people’s faces as they search for other faces. I like to see the moment when a blank searching look snaps to animated recognition. Most of all, I like to see the person I’m looking for before they see me.

I do see Ellie first, so I get that good moment; their eyes flash and crescent with the quick delight I love in them. I step out to catch them, and I hold their warm length to me for a moment before I get self-conscious about being in a crowd.

Back at the house, we pull out nuts and crackers and cheese. Alex, who was my first love long ago, is coming over with his wife and mother and son. Time is stunning. We sit around the Christmas tree on the same couches my parents had when Alex and I were in love in high school, before he became religious and I became gay. Now I want Ellie and him to meet. I can’t explain why exactly, but it has something to do with coherence. I want my dear ones to know each other. Or I just want to see them in the same room. I like my past self and my present self to touch base now and again. It seems fitting that this meeting should happen to fall on solstice, the crease of the year.

When they arrive, the baby doesn’t want to come inside. He squirms away from us strangers and runs to the edge of the front yard and stares at their car. So we all shuffle our shoes back on and tromp to the little playground at the end of the street. The baby is soon happily distracted by climbing and running and sliding, and all of us busily engaged in corralling him. His mother speaks to him in German, and he responds to every question with an enthusiastic “Ja!”

Between strategically placing hands in front of potential baby dangers, we catch up. Alex is getting an MBA, which we all agree seems an unlikely choice for someone so hopelessly earnest. He says it’s something to do with wanting to understand, “how they think.” He hopes to leverage it somehow into working on climate change.

 “I feel like I’m still asking all the same questions we were asking in high school—idealism vs practicality.”

Having a kid, I guess, brings the stakes into higher relief. It seems like another way of asking the question that’s had me frozen this fall—should we live for the world as it is? Or the world as it might become?

Alex catches the baby at the bottom of the slide, lifts him giggling, already wiggling his feet in the air for another run.

Later, when we’re lying in the dark, Ellie tells me they’re feeling sad about the fires still burning in Australia. Their father has just sent them a photo from the news: a billow of fire consuming the skeletons of trees and lapping across the bend of a road, the sky completely obscured by yellow-lit smoke. We traveled that very road on a bus nearly a year ago, on our way to their father’s house on the coast.

I don’t know what to say to Ellie. Right now, I am feeling a little bit okay, just treading water here in the day. We had arepas and red wine with my parents. We watched a TV show based on a book I loved as a kid. And I’m glad to know that tomorrow the sun will come back just a little. That when we return to our northern home in a week, the brunt of winter still before us, we will at least be through the worst of the darkness.

I don’t know how to think about the fires just now. There is nothing to say. I reach my arms out, and we curl into one another.

Emily Strasser is 2019 McKnight Writing Fellow. Her essays can be found in Ploughshares, Guernica, Colorado Review, Catapult, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, The New York Times, and Tricycle Magazine, among others. She served as a 2018-19 Olive B. O'Connor Fellow in Creative Writing at Colgate University and is currently based in Minneapolis. 


The short day starts with long drinks of coffee because even the long days start that way and it makes them feel shorter. We are relaxed. It is the first day of a weeklong vacation during which we will not travel. We have not had a vacation non-plan like this in a long time. Maybe ever.

The short day will comprise a long evening because we have a gig to play that night and it’s in a bar where all gigs are played because if it’s some other kind of place it’s a show or a concert. Gigs are in bars, as every performing musician knows. I am barely a musician and I barely belong in a bar.

Kara, my wife, my duet partner, my former drinking buddy, is fully a musician and has no problem being in a bar because, despite the way we used to knock down bottle after bottle of wine together, she is a take-it-or-leave-it drinker. I have never understood that quality in another person beyond how much I envy it. It’s evidence of cosmic-level injustice that the people who want alcohol more than anyone else are the people who can’t have it. This will be the longest night of the year.

Steaming mugs of sugared and creamed coffee on the table in front of us, we practice a couple of new songs in the vague light of a December midmorning just below the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole. We have played and performed together for over a decade, and Kara’s playing has gone stratospheric while mine remains lodged at ground control. I have become better at plucking out bass notes before hitting whole chords, but my strumming remains predictable and uninspired. She says I don’t give myself enough credit. I wish I could have a drink. I used to drink through gigs, but also concerts and shows and dinner and lunch and flights and movies and …

I learn a new harmony line on the third try, which is surprising in that it usually takes weeks of listening to the line and practicing singing it against the melody by myself in the car before I can reliably produce it during practice and another month before I can carry it onstage.

“That was quick,” I say, feeling a little impressed with myself.

“It was,” Kara answers, and even though she says it as if there’s an exclamation point at the end, I don’t think she’s as impressed with me as I am. This is often the case. She tunes a high string, and I tune a low one, and I think about the beer she will enjoy with my full permission in just a few hours.

In just a few hours, we pack up the gear. We put the sound system in gig bags and load the bags into the car. We put the guitars in their cases and load the cases into the car. We pack up the print-outs of songs, the music stand, and the stand light and put it all in the car. We forget both mic stands and I have to make a harried drive home to fetch them, and while the road passes under Kara’s Toyota and while I sing loudly along with Rocket Man (a song I’m trying to learn), I try not to think about the beer I won’t have or the harmonies I will miss or my inadequate strumming. It will be a long night, but mostly because nobody listens to us anyway. The bar is almost empty and the few people there have not come to listen to anything other than each other. After each song, even those in which I nail the harmony, even the one where I played a tentative lead line, we are met with either silence or the muted sound of obligatory applause. The silence seems less dismissive than the faint praise.

Ultimately, that long night will, like every night, break against whatever light comes up over Earth’s halfway point, and then we will have coffee at the start of a longer day that comes before the next shorter night.

Penny Guisinger is the author of Postcards from Here. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, and others. Pushcart nominated, a Maine Literary Award winner, and twice named a notable in Best American Essays, she is the director of Iota: Conference of Short Prose and a former assistant editor at Brevity. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program.


What happened on December 21st…or what we all need to happen

It’s that time of year again. The holiday season, the time of joy, giving thanks and counting your blessings. I wrote this first line a few years ago inspired to talk about all the things Christmas seemed to mean to different people, but somehow there was little else to say—a tradition of watching Doctor Who, baking a pie with a coin for good luck inside, or plain old gift giving and caroling. Maybe the clue is in reflecting on life in a day, something we do not do much. Maybe that way we can see the value of this one day in the grand scheme of things, and many other ordinary days, that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

That morning, December 21st, 2019 something very mundane happened, and I had my answer. A Fed Ex truck pulled over in front of the house, and my roommate and I leaped to our feet like five-year-olds to look out the window. It made me smile, because I suddenly realized what that power was, driving that simple impulse and everything else in the whole world. Hope. A totally irrational force that does not care if we are expecting mail or if the people we want to hear from the most do, in fact, know our address. A flicker of light in our mind defying reason and common sense, even if only for a brief moment. And no matter how many New Years come and go, promising clean slates, but also taking that promise back as life happens and we fall into our old (or new) patterns, or how many Christmases turn out to be hard and disappointing, or just another day no different from the one before despite what the lights and decorations seem to herald, one thing will still persist – we will choose to believe in the irrational over and over. Sometimes, however, if we are lucky, instead of waiting, it is in our power to make miracles happen for others.

That same day a message came from my old college professor in Russia, someone I was fortunate enough to meet ten years ago and who is to this day one of the most inspired teachers anyone will ever have. She wrote that she had a ten-year-old student who hated English and called it the enemy’s language. Her parents wanted her to learn, but she herself seemed intransigent in her aversion. In an attempt to change her perspective, my professor invented a pen friend for her, a girl Masha’s age from New York City. Every class Masha receives a letter from Laura, a friend somewhere on the other end of the world. My professor writes about something that would interest her—school, hobbies, a trip to the zoo. Masha is probably not one to be easily tricked, but deep down she believes Laura is out there and cares enough to write to her. So, she hopes for a letter each time, and as my professor says, slowly and painfully, they are making progress.

She felt that Christmas was just the time to create a little miracle for someone in need of a little help. The message had a little note attached to it and a request for me to record what the note said, to be Laura for Masha, making her friend just a tad more real through human voice. It did mean sustaining a lie, but nothing has brought me more joy this Christmas than helping someone shatter ungrounded ignorance and close-mindedness in a kid, sharing the love for English I’ve had throughout my own language learning journey, and sending hope across the ocean.

It’s the little things that matter, maybe more than the grand gestures. As I am finishing writing this, I notice so many. Seagulls soaring and diving down towards something they saw, traffic lights changing to green and cars galvanized into motion, a little girl turning to give me a look as she entered the coffee place and passed by, a man sitting outside holding a sick puppy in his arms, working the puppy’s legs with so much care and love. Things that shouldn’t escape our attention, so dynamic and meaningful, smaller constituents of the bigger picture we cannot yet see, all of them, quite possibly, somebody’s miracles. 


What Happened on December 21

I’ve barely slept in two days. I’d hoped that today, finally, I could catch some rest, but it was not to be. So now, I lie in my underwear, taking a quick break from tidying up, drafting this essay on the left side of my screen, Deep Space Nine marathoning on the right, me wide awake as midnight approaches. This insomnia would be ironic on the longest night of the year, save for the fact that I’ve suffered sleep problems my entire life. Even so, I knew this was how the day would play out. This is just how it goes before a big trip.
     In less than three hours, I’ll hop the bus to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, from which I will pay my first-ever visit to Montreal to spend Christmas. I’m staying with two friends, Jean and Geneviève, whom I met during a birthday visit to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island last July. Across the room, on the other side of the pile of swept debris I’m about to dispose of, sits a suitcase stuffed with six packets—each containing a sweater folded over shirt, socks, and underwear; stacked atop the six-pack are a pair of jeans, a pair of olive khakis, and a few pairs of long johns.
     A few hours ago, I packed and repacked these packets until I had put together the perfect ensemble for each day. A bright color-block pastel sweater for the midnight mass I’m attending to hear Jean’s father in the choir. Festive reds for Christmas Day. I will undoubtedly change the order of outfits once in Montreal; itineraries were made to be broken. Even so, I have scheduled the most masculine threads I can muster for my two anticipated evenings in Gay Village. I find it strange and sad and bitter and painful that, to navigate that world, I must abide by some heterosexual stereotypes. Doubly bitter, doubly painful, in this year, when I finally recognized that, when it comes to the phrase “gay man,” I don’t 100% fit either word. Doubly strange, doubly sad, in this year, when I built up a wardrobe that fits me better, something a little feminine and a little masculine and a lot of neither.
     And the clothing is fitting me better. A little over two months ago, I finally got a YMCA membership and started a sprint workout three days a week. I also received a free nutritionist consultation, where I was completely unsurprised to learn that a diet consisting almost entirely of Corn Pops and Cocoa Krispies was less than ideal. The plan was to save my heart from its troublesome family history and to discover some way to thwart lifelong fatigue. A surprising side effect is a dwindling waistline and the first-ever traces of musculature across my midsection. I look in the mirror and wonder who this slowly reshaping, ironically more masculine-looking person is. I am a writer, an artist, a geek. I am not supposed to be the kind who works out at the gym, let alone who prepares an additional strength regimen for the new year. But this was the year I came out as nonbinary, and bisexual yet homoromantic, and coming out is all about being who you are, not who you are supposed to be. And I suppose who I am is a bit of a jock. Coming out of closets, coming out of locker rooms.

This afternoon, I dropped off my lovebird Buddy at the sitter’s. Pet care is one of the trickier parts of travel, but I’ve been most fortunate to have a few friends who can come through when I leave town. But as I left, I realized that a single refrigerator-clearing smoothie was insufficient for the day. That is not how I normally eat these days—I aim for a healthy balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates in each meal – but travel preparations and insomnia conspired to throw things off. So on the way back home, I stopped at Burger King for a giant cheeseburger and onion rings. I last ate like that last summer. And that burger tasted like the past, like a shadow. No crunch from the tortilla strips that top my now-frequent salads, no creaminess from the avocados the nutritionist recommended to me because I had been eating such a carb-heavy diet that she wanted me to up my fat intake.
     I’ve assembled a loose itinerary of Montreal restaurants. Of course I’m going to have some smoked meat at Schwartz’s. Of course I’m going to have poutine and hot dogs. I’ve identified the best spot for gnocchi and located an Irish pub that serves steak-and-kidney pie. But I’ll also be stocking up on soy milk and kefir and avocados at my friends’ house. And I’ve scheduled for myself two days at the gym. It used to be that, when I traveled, I shoved my laptop in my backpack. But today, just before I assembled Buddy’s travel cage, I filled it with running shoes and shorts and T-shirts.
     I worry that these ramblings sound arrogant, or shallow, or just not the person I want to be. Or maybe it feels like this because I convinced myself for so long that I didn’t deserve healthy food, energy sufficient to meet each day’s expectations, visits to far-flung friends.  But something transformed deep in my core this year. I turned 45, and, by all reasonable measures, my life is over halfway completed. Perhaps the flashier clothes and the newborn gym obsession are the signs of a classic midlife crisis.
     Yet I don’t feel like I’m revisiting my twenties; more like living them for the first time. That decade was for all intents lost to me, as any hope for academic or vocational progress was subsumed by a mission to transform into a heterosexual, guided by quacks and self-published books. Why did I stick with it for so long? As I understand now, I had enough desire for women to make it seem possible. I wasn’t disgusted by women sexually in the way many gay men claim to be, so much as disgusted by the way society had shown me how I was expected to treat and pursue them. But far more importantly, I longed to be a father, and the only path I could see, as an evangelical in the 1990s was to marry heterosexually, and the only way to do that was to purge myself of all “homosexual temptation.” A wasted decade I wish I could regain.

Earlier today, after one of several failed attempts at a nap, I logged into a message board dedicated to sports design, a part of my daily routine. I made a rare wander into the portion of the board dedicated to everything except sports design. In a thread of minor gripes, a member had posted their dislike of people talking about their pets as if they’re children. I chimed in with a post that I would never refer to Buddy as my “fid”—feathered kid—as some bird owners do.
     Yet as I picked out Buddy’s toys for his sitter stay, and struggled to assemble the travel cage, and chased him down within in his large cage so I could ever so gently bundle him up to transfer him to the travel cage, I recognized that I indeed give care to something small and fragile and charming, genetic mismatch notwithstanding. I can’t transfer my values to him, and I’ll almost certainly outlive him (at age four, Buddy has about ten years left at best), but I am investing in something bigger than myself, even if that something is only six inches long.
     With my newfound physical energy, I seldom ride the bus and now walk my neighborhood. I see so much pain, so many needs, and each day, I try to fulfill them in some small way – a fiver to a hungry man, a kind word to a stressed store clerk. Indeed, on the way from the Burger King to the train, I pulled my last American cash from my wallet and handed it to the man begging in the median near the train station. That outward focus, I hope, is the counterbalance to the excesses of a midlife crisis.
     And I hope that that is who I am, and if so, that I will continue to be myself.

Whittier Strong is an online educator, proud parrot parent, and Canadaphile living in Minneapolis. His writings appear in The Rumpus, Arkana, QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology, and elsewhere.

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

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