Together Apart is an Orion web series of letters from isolation. Every week under lockdown, we eavesdrop on curious pairs of authors, scientists, and artists, listening in on their emails, texts, and phone calls as they redefine their relationships from afar.
This exchange took place in May between writers and humorists John T. Price of Iowa (“Lil’ Sprout”) and Michael P. Branch of Nevada (“Rooster”). As the use of these nicknames implies, they are long-time friends.
You know I love you like a brother, but if you tell me you’re making sourdough, this ends right here.
Eryn and the girls have been baking sourdough since your boys were in short pants. Now that everybody’s doing it, maybe we should stop. Sourdough just isn’t cool like it used to be. I’ve noticed so much conformity during this quarantine. Everybody staying home. Everybody wearing a mask. Everybody trying to avoid bumping off their neighbors with a poorly aimed sneeze. What would Emerson and Thoreau say about all this mindless conformity? What a herd of lemmings we are!
Oh, about the lemmings. Did you know that the widely-accepted lemming mass suicide narrative is complete horseshit? It turns out that to spice up the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, the filmmakers just shoved a ton of these poor critters off a cliff. Disney trifecta: kill harmless animals, do it for profit, and make sure humans will in perpetuity mistakenly believe that lemmings are self-destructive rodent psychopaths. Now that’s quality edu-tainment for you. I guess nature itself just wasn’t interesting enough for the evangelical Disneyites.
I’ll get back to you about the sourdough baking around here. I can’t make any promises, but you’re a close friend and I respect your opinion. It does seem like it should be stopped.
In fond hopes that your whiskey inventory remains robust during these trying times,
Thanks for sending me the photo of those two beautiful loaves of sourdough—they are truly delicious looking, perfectly rounded and floury. No doubt they would have been tasty. Too bad I must still insist on you destroying them, but those are the kind of sacrifices we make for our friends in this time of austerity. Sourdough, after all, is not listed among the “essential foods.” Unlike factory-slaughtered meat here in Iowa.
Speaking of, the children surprised us with dinner this week. Apparently, Alden (our ten-year-old) had heard us commenting loudly on the amazingly beautiful, healthy meals other families were making together and then posting on Facebook for the less evolved of our species to gawk at. Inspired, Alden and his two teenage brothers raided the cupboards and fridge to put together a lovely spread: canned beets and peas, Pringles Salt-n-Vinegar chips (talk about your sour dough!), and no less than two kinds of Hamburger Helper. I had picked up several boxes of the latter in an early March stock-up, to be used only if America went full-on Soylent Green. Let me tell you, though, the gray palate of the stroganoff HH and the tangerine sunset of the lasagna HH looked gorgeous next to the crimson, green and crunchy-cream of the other delicacies served on our red-chipped dishware. I won’t talk about the taste. I’ll just send you a picture.
That’s a fascinating factoid about the lemmings and Walt Disney. Especially since I feel like my family is currently living under the benevolent rule of a pet rodent. More on that later, maybe. In the meantime, I’m going to pour one of those whiskeys you mentioned and check out White Wilderness for survival tips—I’m sure I can find it on Disney Plus, alongside the other informative nature movies for children, such as Old Yeller, Bambi, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Until next time,
Hey, Lil’ Sprout—
That story of the meal generously prepared for you and Steph by your boys is very moving. But judging from the photo you sent I suspect what was most moving about it was your bowels. Perhaps in this current moment of financial instability it is best to retain liquidity. Two kinds of Hamburger Helper? I didn’t know they made that stuff anymore, let alone in the pyrotechnic color palette you’ve described. Soylent Green might have tasted better. And even if it didn’t, at least you’d know for sure what color it was—and what it was made of. “Tangerine sunset of the lasagna Hamburger Helper” will haunt my dreams. Has anyone ever suggested that you should be a writer?
You’ve explained that Alden, in cahoots with his teenage brothers, perpetrated this culinary atrocity. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that my girls are both teenagers now? My youngest, Caroline, recently cooked for me (for breakfast, no less) a greaseload of fried spam, geometrically arranged on the plate to resemble “a beautiful flower.” Despite their extremely limited life experience, there is no subject on which my girls do not consider themselves experts. Nor are they shy with their opinions, or their corrections to mine. This was charming for the first nine weeks of quarantine. Something about week ten, however, has put me in touch with my inner Jack Torrance.
Speaking of Jack Torrance, have you ever wondered whether writers respond differently than do normal humans to the disturbing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scene in Kubrick’s The Shining? That’s the explosive moment in which we discover to our horror that Jack Nicholson’s character has snapped, that his would-be book is a twisted farce, that he has succumbed to the debilitating psychosis that is fatally enveloping him. To me that just sounds like a typical writing day. When I flip through the pages of any manuscript I’ve produced, that’s essentially my feeling about it. Sure, I bounce a ball off the walls of my scribble den all day long and drink whiskey with ghosts. We all do, right?
You mention factory-slaughtered meat there in Iowa. Since I’m in Nevada, where we shun laws, social mores, common sense, and hog raising, I feel like I’m missing something in our culture’s current meat narrative. The President recently invoked the Defense Production Act to declare industrial meat production essential, and to send workers back into dangerously crowded packing plants. I love bacon as much as the next voracious omnivorous backslidden reprobate former vegetarian, but how is meat essential? Hannah, my seventeen-year-old, who is a legit vegetarian, asked me the other day why the country would invoke the DPA to produce pork chops but not protective masks for the front-line healthcare workers who are risking their lives for the rest of us. All I could come up with was to point out that pork chops are incredibly delicious, while masks are slightly uncomfortable. How about we invoke the DPA for mask producers—or, for that matter, solar panel installers—and just eat tangerine sunset Hamburger-less Helper for a while?
One final thing. I’ve somehow never noticed until our last exchange that you use two spaces after a period. Were you raised by wolves? Dude, two spaces after period is archaic, like teaching students in a classroom, believing in participatory democracy, or thinking that chugging bleach might be unhealthy. All major style guides now call for a single space, save one: the American Psychological Association. What do you think this two-space-after-a-period habit says about your mental health? I confess that I worry about you sometimes, Sprouty.
More later on Disney animal movies. Simply by mentioning Old Yeller and Bambi you’ve triggered my PTSD. You call yourself a friend? Those films make Disney’s mass murder of blameless lemmings in White Wilderness look like a Baptist picnic.
As ever, and then some,
Roosty, my friend,
Let’s see, where to start: bowel movements, know-it-all teenagers, The Shining, necessary meats, fried spam, or two spaces after sentences? Instead of addressing them individually, I think I’m going to kind of pair them up and, as I say in class, “let them converse with one another.”
Regarding BMs and know-it-all teenagers, we have two toilets for the five of us and only one of them works consistently. My oldest, the twenty-year-old ex-linebacker now university genius, wisely advised me the other day: “You need to get that toilet fixed.” To which I replied, “You need to get a colostomy bag.” I don’t know about you, but I’m seriously sick of sharing my living space, hours on end, with so many other bodies and their bodily needs. I mean, these people are always eating and breathing and sweating and sleeping and pooping—it never ends!
The Shining is one of my favorite movies, even before we started living it. As you recall, last fall, when we were both at that Western Literature Association conference in Colorado, my high-school kid Spencer and I took the night tour of the Stanley Hotel, which was so cool. That place is loaded with ghosts—and none of them need to use a toilet! My kind of housemates. And I agree that Jack is tragically misunderstood. I actually think he’s pretty much following the “good writers” playbook most of us were raised on. Weren’t we told that the secret to successful writing is “applying ass to chair” (Hemingway?), and that if we feel blocked, we just need “to write our way through it?” Jack was doing just that, wasn’t he, before Wendy interrupted his flow? Since the COVID lockdown started, I have a new appreciation for how what used to be occasional interruptions of our writing by loved ones can become, for them, a sense of entitlement. Jack was just letting everyone know that, hey, these are my boundaries and I’d appreciate you respecting them. And let’s not go calling him “psychotic”—if you look closely at his manuscript, he uses two spaces between sentences. The man was eminently sane.
That’s an important point about the necessity of meat, especially when compared to producing protective masks. But does it have to be an either/or? How about invoking the DPA to make protective masks that smell like bacon? That way we can do the right thing and shut down those factory death traps, while also satisfying a universal human craving—even vegetarians I know eat faux bacon-flavored tofu. I guarantee that 99.9% of Iowans would start wearing masks today. Hell, it might even inspire our President to finally wear one. The man likes his grease. Some say he’s made of it.
I know that was kind of a cheap shot, but something happened to my parents yesterday that made me revile this anti-masker trend even more than I already do. My folks live about four hours away, in the small town where I grew up, and are now in their eighties. Both have major underlying conditions, including my dad’s diabetes, so they’ve been extra careful. Well, their dishwasher broke down (not the toilet, but still important to them), and they purchased a new one from a local business. The two guys who showed up to install it weren’t wearing masks, claiming they didn’t have any. My mom (being my mom) called their boss and, sure enough, he had supplied all employees with masks and hand sanitizer. So they put on the masks, except one of them refused to actually place it over his mouth. When Mom asked him to do so, he barked something rude at her and went out to the truck, refusing to work. The other one lectured my folks on how they “shouldn’t be so afraid all the time—it isn’t good for you.” My parents have both survived cancer. Mom said they had “a talk” with the boss again, and that I shouldn’t get upset, but seriously, it felt like someone had marched into my parent’s home and physically assaulted them. And I was too far away to do anything about it, except yell at a basement wall.
I know you have parents to worry about, as well. This COVID situation has accelerated the “sandwich” thing for a lot of people, I think, worrying about our folks and our kids. And the filling I’m providing for this particular family sandwich is feeling less than hardy nowadays—more like an iceberg lettuce sandwich or just a thin swipe of stone-ground mustard. Or fried spam.
It’s a lucky break to have a friend like you, especially these days. Your last note made me laugh plenty, but I’m also simpatico with the rage I detect in it. Well, the Midwestern version of rage: a polite suggestion that the ill-mannered among us might wish to rethink their poor attitude in proper consideration of others.
I cannot easily imagine sharing a broken toilet with a linebacker (or a university genius, for that matter). Although, happily, that does remind me of my favorite recent toilet sharing story (toilet sharing narratives being an emergent subgenre of environmental creative nonfiction). Did you catch the stunning audio on the first-ever remote Supreme Court deliberations? During oral arguments somebody responded to a particularly unconvincing point with a loud flush. It was the best moment the Court has had since Brown vs. the Board of Education back in ’54. (The low point was Brett Kavanaugh giving beer drinkers a bad name. I switched back to whiskey for a fortnight in protest.) I love the idea of one of the justices dropping a deuce in the middle of deliberations, if only to remind us that everyone has bodies—that no robe, either of the ceremonial or the bath variety, can ever fully cover that up. The Citizens United ruling notwithstanding, I guess the Court does give a shit after all. Personally, I’m hoping it was RBG, and that it was the kind of healthy poop that suggests she’ll live another 87 years. Or, at least, until noon on January 20, 2021.
I’m truly sorry to hear about your folks’ bad experience with the dishwasher guys. Remember when we used to worry that strangers wearing masks would invade our parents’ houses? Those were the good old days, twenty years or so BC (“Before COVID”). My parents are in their eighties too. They live nearby, and we’re doing all their shopping for them and helping out in any way we can. It seems to me there’s an unspoken belief among some people out there (people who no doubt refuse to wear masks and then tell old people to quit worrying) that the life of an older person is somehow worth less than the life of a younger person. If the most vulnerable COVID demographic were dishwasher repairmen, I’m guessing those guys might view the problem differently.
For my jackalope book I’ve been researching the 1918 pandemic, which disproportionately struck young people. In addition to killing close to 50 million people around the globe, the virus was so severe among people ages 15-24 that the outbreak probably killed 8 to 10 percent of the young people then living. Almost overnight the life expectancy rate in the U.S. plummeted by 12 years. If that were the situation today, would so many people be cavalier about not wearing masks, or about forcing workers into the “essential” industrial production of meat? (Never mind that 375 million vegetarians around the world were doing just fine without it.) In any case, you’re certainly right that quarantine has intensified the “sandwich” pressure: trying to protect the young and old bread on either side of us while we’re in the middle, feeling thinner and less resilient by the day. In this extended metaphor I’m currently generic brand peanut butter on my way to becoming expired low-cal mayo.
I’ve been meditating on your innovative new interpretation of The Shining, in which you recast Jack as a hardworking, self-disciplined writer who simply would prefer not to have his creative process disturbed. There’s genuine merit in this critical reappraisal, because it validates the behavior of those of us who go insane when we’re interrupted while writing. Which, around here, occurs approximately every 90 seconds these days. (Caroline: “Dad, have you seen my Aces ball cap?” Me: “You mean the one on your head?”) But your argument on Jack’s behalf would be more persuasive if not for your acknowledgement that his All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy book manuscript uses two spaces after each sentence. That’s a sure sign of psychosis, as I’ve maintained all along.
Quarantine has intensified the “sandwich” pressure: trying to protect the young and old bread on either side of us while we’re in the middle, feeling thinner and less resilient by the day. In this extended metaphor I’m currently generic brand peanut butter on my way to becoming expired low-cal mayo.
Let me know when you’ve re-screened all the Disney movies in which beloved animals are gratuitously made the victims of grisly murders. After all, watching those films when we were boys shaped the men we have become. Men who, in their 50s, relish the contemplation of Justice Ginsberg’s Zooming feces. Men who are demonstrably inadequate as sandwich filling. Men who are so soft-hearted that they’d wish to spare a worker’s life by dreaming up the idea of bacon-scented virus protection masks.
El Gallo del Desierto de la Gran Cuenca
I feel the same way about our friendship. It’s been a total balm during this time and others. The laughter, the honesty, the bourbon. From what I can tell, this is one of the happier side-effects of this pandemic: a renewed appreciation for the people who sustain our spirits.
To honor that, you’ll notice I am using only one space between sentences, which is really difficult. It feels claustrophobic, and I’m majorly claustrophobic. But that’s the same excuse the dishwasher repairmen (and some other people I know) used not to wear a mask, while also lecturing my parents on how they have nothing to fear but fear itself. You have inspired me to put that anxiety aside for the sake of the larger good.
I couldn’t agree more about the disrespect for the lives of our elders. It’s not just the casual dismissal of the threat—“it only kills the old and unhealthy”—but the condescension toward their emotional needs while isolated from society and loved ones. For instance, our news station ran a supposedly feel-good story about how a local rancher brought a bunch of llamas to a quarantined care facility to cheer the residents. From the looks on their faces, however, the results were decidedly mixed. I know the intentions were good, but if I were an octogenarian in COVID lockdown, the last thing I’d want to see is a llama staring through the window at me, chewing cud in the fresh air and flaunting freedoms I may never again enjoy. I mean, fuck you, llama!
But I don’t have a perfect record in this regard, either. I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories our grandparents used to tell of the hardships they faced. Steph’s grandfather Lloyd, for instance, not only contracted the flu in 1918 as a young man, but also survived typhoid and a ruptured appendix when these were poorly treated and mostly fatal. With the appendix, they stuck a glass drainage tube in his abdomen, like they were tapping a maple tree, which still didn’t stop him from assisting with the homebirth of his first son. And I’m complaining about toilets? Oh yeah, he said he didn’t have one of those until well into adulthood. Then there was the Depression. When he and other grandparents told me these stories when I was young, I confess I thought some version of: “Oh, these old people with their poverty and plagues. Let’s go out for pizza!” But I’d give anything to talk to them. Obviously, a lot of people are facing similar uncertainties right now, or are about to, and I think those earlier generations might have some wisdom to offer. Then again, maybe they’d just say, “Ok, Boomer.” Who knows?
Take care, buddy,
Let’s get this one out of the way: bringing llamas to an old folks’ home ought to be considered elder abuse. Obviously you can’t trust a llama—an animal that looks like the product of a botched tryst between a horse and a camel—not to mention that they often go around pretending to be alpacas. In my part of the Intermountain West llamas are often used as guard animals for sheep, because they’re so mean that even Old Man Coyote won’t mess with them. And if you get too close they’ll spit a bucket-load of green shit all over you. They have three separate compartments in their stomach where they store the gastric juice that they projectile barf onto coyotes. Or old people’s windows.
Speaking of animals, have you noticed that there seem to be more of them around these days? There’s an interesting discussion happening now among biologists about the fact that many of us feel like we’re seeing and hearing more birds and other wildlife than ever before. Is quarantine making it safer for animals to move back into human spaces? Or, are we humans simply noticing more animals because we aren’t mindlessly rushing around and making a shitload of noise, as we did before we were housebound? Is the increased wildness a wildness of animals, or a new wildness in our attention? Or both?
Yesterday on a walk on the public lands near our house I saw an osprey (wingspan five feet), a bald eagle (wingspan seven feet), and a white pelican (wingspan nine feet). While none of these birds are rare, you’ll walk a long way in the high desert before you come across giant, fish-eating birds. I’ve hiked more than 25,000 miles on these public lands, and I’ve never before seen these three birds on the same day. I can’t figure out whether there’s a cool, weird, quarantine-induced change going on, or if the appearance of these birds is the product of changes in my own awareness.
Here’s a possibility. When 2.6 billion people went into quarantine, and our archaic, destructive carbon economy ground to a halt, it cleared the air. The high desert is justly celebrated for its long vistas, but I have never seen anything like this in my life. Air pollution monitoring in Nevada showed a huge decline in particulate (and various forms of toxic crap) on the very first day of the governor’s stay at home order. Since then it has been day after day of the sharpest, most clearly delineated long views I’ve ever experienced. Maybe that is where these birds are coming from? From vision itself?
Speaking of changes during quarantine, have you heard that “Social Pisstancing” is now all the rage? People are understandably nervous about using public restrooms, because they don’t cotton to hanging out in a place where virus-infused precious bodily fluids are being aerosolized by toilets that don’t flush so much as they detonate, as if specially engineered by Navy Seals to safely dispose of unexploded ordinance. As a result, many men’s restrooms have shut down every other urinal (thus, the “pisstancing”). As for women’s public restrooms, I never met a woman who wanted to use one in the first place. But we all gotta go, which explains the recent boom in sales of portable urinals for women. Eryn and the girls, anticipating an upcoming road trip, have researched this fascinating device thoroughly. Actual names of these difficult-to-visualize products include “Wee Willie Winky” (somehow endorsed by Shirley Temple), “Go, Girl, Go” (not just a place to pee but also a cheering section), “Tinkle Belle” (is the male version called “Peter’s Pan”?), “SPIL PRUF” (maybe it should have been called “SPELL PROOF”), “PeeBuddy Reusable” (I figured it would be reusable, but I don’t want to see that right in the name), “UriBag” (sounds like a serious slur), “Feminal” (let’s hope this is a mashup of female and urinal rather than female and terminal), “UriWell” (A well? How much pee do you have, lady?), and “Gotta Tinkle!” (complete with Earth First!-style exclamation point, as if having your bladder about to rupture in the car didn’t convey sufficient urgency).
As for your concession to use only one space after periods, I note that you’ve missed a few. Then again, I’d expect that sort of inattentiveness from a guy who’d ever have used two spaces in the first place.
Hang in there, Sproutster, and don’t let the spewing llamas get you.
Above is my proposed name for a travel toilet for men. I know there are some of our kind, especially nowadays, who think urinal is just another word for nature, but I confess I’ve always had issues with this concept. Maybe it’s different in the arid lands, but we really don’t need the extra water. Last year we suffered catastrophic floods that sent raw sewage flooding into the Missouri. You’re welcome, Kansas City! Like COVID, these climate-induced floods are likely going to be a reality for longer than many are willing to accept. Plus, there’s so little wildness left out here, a good stream of pee can pretty much ruin half of it for the rest of us.
That last statement is why our sons sometimes call me the “Depress-Ness Monster.” I’ve been doing my best to shake it, but it can be difficult sometimes. Your descriptions and photographs of the magnificent high desert country, the miles of open lands where you camp and walk alone and with your loved ones, lift my spirits every time. They really do. As you know, Steph grew up in the High Plains Desert of southern Idaho, and my admiration for its beauty only increases every time we travel there to visit her family. But what also seems to increase, unfortunately, is the grief I feel over what has been lost here. I may have told you that, in Iowa, less than one-tenth of one-percent of native habitat remains—the most altered state in the union. As someone who has tried to help restore some of the tallgrass prairies, on the ground and on the page, this is a statistic that relentlessly haunts.
However, what you said so eloquently about “a new wildness of attention” has also been occurring here, bringing unexpected solace. Locals we know, some of whom would never self-identify as environmentalists, are posting way more pictures of birds and backyard wildlife. A few weeks ago, a couple of dear friends (one of whom was recently diagnosed with cancer) invited Steph and me to a “socially distanced” campfire in their yard, just the four of us. Their “yard” is eighty acres of Loess Hills grasslands and woods that have been in the family for generations. The Loess Hills contain some of the wildest and most ecologically unique places left in Iowa, and it was awesome to hike there with you during your visit last year. These hills were created from the dust left in the wake of glaciers, blown by hurricane-force winds and deposited on the edge of the infant Missouri River. Only one other place in the world has loess hills of this size, along the Yellow River in China, but they have mostly been destroyed. So these pretty much stand alone in the world.
The majority of what remains of Iowa’s native grasslands and oak savannas are found in the Loess Hills, and they are a refuge for all kinds of wild surprises. For instance, our friends told us around the fire that recently they spotted a mountain lion moving across the valley. Lions have been returning to the hills over the last twenty or so years, and local response has been interesting to say the least—this is a human population, after all, that hasn’t lived alongside large predators in over a century. We had a neighbor who, after reading about a lion sighting, began banging metal pots together whenever he went outside at sundown, to fend off an attack. I mocked him at first, but I guess this is further evidence of how the presence of such creatures makes us all a little more reverent of the dusk. I felt it again, listening to our friends talk about this big cat, and then amplified when a group of coyotes began howling at the moon. It was a chorus I’d only heard once before in my entire life in this state. A gift I will always associate with corona-times.
Say hello to Eryn and the girls for me!
Hey, Lil’ Sprout—
Your passion for your home landscape—for its protection, appreciation, and restoration—gives me hope. It takes guts to love a broken landscape the way you do, and your writing helps the rest of us to imagine how we might love our own damaged landscapes. A 99% loss of native habitat is an ecosystemic bloodbath—the kind of environmental train wreck anyone would want to turn away from in horror. But that prairie schooner has already sailed, hasn’t it? What remains is our capacity to respond. There’s a beautiful kind of eleventh-hour heroism in that. I know how bummed out you get sometimes, and how concerned you are that you’ll depress your readers as well, but that grueling work of witnessing has to continue. That you do it with so much heart and persistence and levity is a small miracle that helps keep me going. When you took me hiking in the Loess Hills on my trip out to see y’all last year, I got a palpable sense of why you’ve dedicated yourself to that land. Cactus Ed Abbey opened Desert Solitaire with the words “This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places.” He was definitely talking about the Loess Hills. And the Great Basin Desert. Keep doing what you’re doing, Sprout. We need you.
I’m glad to hear that you’ve found “unexpected solace” in stories of recovery from your home landscape. It feels like unexpected is the only kind of solace we’re getting these days. There must be a grace note in that, if I can just remember how to listen for it. I loved your mountain lion story, and I understand why you found it so heartening. Felis concolor is the Comeback Kid of devastated habitat! Where cougar is on the prowl, hope prowls too. (And if cougar eviscerates the pro-development members of your local city council or county commission, yet more hope!) I admired the way you phrased it: that the return of the lion had made you “more reverent of the dusk.” Reverence isn’t a performance; it is inspired by a visceral sense of sharing our place with the more-than-human. More importantly, Reverent of the Dusk would make an amazing thrash metal band name. You know, just in case you ever need a change from the writing life.
What remains is our capacity to respond. There’s a beautiful kind of eleventh-hour heroism in that. I know how bummed out you get sometimes, and how concerned you are that you’ll depress your readers as well, but that grueling work of witnessing has to continue.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about our correspondence over the years is that you always help me laugh, especially when things suck most righteously. Today I was reminded of Mark Twain’s 1871 letter to his publisher, in which he wrote, “Do you know that for seven weeks I have not had my natural rest but have been a night-and-day sick nurse to my wife? And am still—and shall be for two or three weeks longer—and yet must turn in now and write a damned humorous article.” My family is fine, but in the midst of this interminable quarantine I’m working against some writing deadlines that require me to be funny on cue. Normally I’m more than willing to do that, because I appreciate being forced to find humor in whatever darkness I’m struggling with.
But here’s the thing, John. The one hundred thousandth American died today. Each one somebody’s father, husband, brother, son. Each one somebody’s mother, wife, sister, daughter. 100,000. It isn’t a real number, of course. It is probably an undercount by 30,000 or so, and it doesn’t tally lives lost around the world. Or, still worse, all those yet to come. But, psychologically, it is a hard number to get around, especially if you’re looking for a joke on the other side of it.
When quarantine started, happy hour here began at the civilized hour of 5:00. When baseball season was cancelled and I nearly wept, I rationalized that since I’m writing a book about the jackalope, which was invented in Wyoming, I could start happy hour at 5:00 Wyoming time. As the death toll rose, I decided in solidarity with you to begin these modestly consoling festivities at 5:00 Iowa time. Today, as that hundred thousandth mother and son shuffled off this mortal coil, I rolled it back to 5:00 time in D.C., where a man congenitally incapable of humility or empathy unaccountably remains at the helm of the unspeakable tragedy we are now living.
Sorry for the dark turn, Sprout. I’ll make a comeback tomorrow—like a cougar, but with better jokes about portable urinals. For now, until we resume our badinage and persiflage, this is Roosty over and out from the high desert. Hug your boys tonight, brother.
You know you never need to apologize to the Depress-ness Monster for whatever turn of emotion you take during these awful times. Laughter, as Twain also implied, is rooted in despair. Heaven, if such a thing exists, has no need of it. For me, humor is an articulation of that despair, a defense against it, and an escape from it. And, as you’ve written elsewhere, humor can also be a weapon. That is one of the challenges Twain was facing late in his writing life—not just the expectation of humor, but of a certain kind of humor. He had lost a young son to a pandemic, two grown daughters, his wife, while also watching our nation engage in an expansionist war (promoted as a liberation), dangerous religious zealotry, ongoing racist violence, and medical quackery. And he struggled through financial ruin. Sound familiar? Understandably, his humor went decidedly gallows, which wasn’t welcomed by those who valued him only as entertainment.
As the casualties mount, and the injustice, humor may seem the last thing we have the capacity to reach for. And yet, just yesterday, when I heard about Christian Cooper’s horrifying experience in Central Park, the first thing I thought of was Drew Lanham’s 2013 piece in Orion, “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.” It is a humorous piece, but one born of pain and rage and truth. That piece, because of the subject and the humor, drew me (and so many of my students) into that truth and has kept us there. I can guarantee those students are thinking of it this week, as well. That’s a powerful thing.
On the relatively privileged home front, the intensity of our family conversations about the world has certainly increased. I continue to be moved by the compassion and moral conviction of young people, as they face a future full of the human and environmental disasters previous generations failed to solve. In our house, I think one way the kids instinctively deal with these feelings is humor—they relentlessly tease Steph and me about odd behaviors they hadn’t fully observed or appreciated until quarantine. Nose hair trimming, wearing sweat pants inside out, drinking pickle juice straight from the jar, etc. And vice-versa. Translation: “You are not alone with this fallible human existence thing and never will be.” That’s something I’ve always appreciated about the humor you’ve shared with me over the years, and with your readers, even when confronting some very challenging issues. It has made me, and many others, feel less alone. For that, I am very grateful.
Speaking of Twain, another aspect of your life I’ve enjoyed hearing about recently is your new pup, Huckleberry. I think what we’ve said about people experiencing a renewed need for connection with wildness is also happening with our domestic animal companions. I’ve noticed a lot more pictures and updates about pets on social media, as I think people have increasingly relied on them for emotional support. Around here, the creature who has risen to surprising dominance that way is our guinea pig—this is the rodent I mentioned earlier. Alden originally named him Wynter, after he got him from Santa for Christmas, but then we watched a fascinating documentary on the species, which is native to the Andean regions of South America. Locals enjoy them as pets and as food, but also use them in healing ceremonies—according to some beliefs, they have the power to absorb the pain and sickness of others. Afterwards, Alden decided that, out of respect, Wynter should have a Spanish name. Thus, the legend of El Doble-Ve (“The W”) began.
Since the pandemic hit, this domestic cavy has elevated himself into an awe-inspiring mix of Therapy Pet and Demigod. Everyone wants to hold him, feed him, love him. Worship him. Especially Steph. She tutors at-risk students at the local community college, and when they went online, she got in the habit of letting him perch on her shoulder during Zoom sessions. On the rare occasion when she forgets, her students ask if he is okay. Where is El Doble-Ve? Steph’s health risks, plus the distance from her elderly parents, understandably leave her a little strung-out with worry sometimes, like so many. When that happens, she asks one of us to bring her El Doble-Ve for “cuddle time.” It drives the dog crazy from jealousy, and the boys and I can sort of relate. But I’ll be damned if that creature doesn’t have some kind of weird power. Sometimes, when I’m sitting there watching the news, replaying the latest horrors in my mind, I’ll look over at him nestled in someone’s lap and he’ll be staring right at me—right through me. As if to say, “Oh yes, my friends, bring to me all your troubles. Let El Doble-Ve take away the sickness.” And you know, for a minute or two, he kind of does.
Not unlike our friendship, Mike. I hope you know how much I value it—I’ve been trying to say that more to my friends and family. So many offerings of gratitude to lay at the feet of El Doble-Ve. I shall do so again tonight, for you and your loved ones. I’ll send a picture of him for display, that he might bless your household. Someday soon, I hope we will be able to lift a few drams together, toast life and the blessed Earth, and break bread. Even if it is homemade sourdough.
Your forever pal,
Thanks for these heartening words. You’re right about Twain, and about so many fine humorists who, out of the barest necessity to survive in this broken world, shaped their sadness into laughter. In Letters from the Earth Twain wrote: “Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very, very best he is a sort of low-grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm.” I’ve never felt that cynical about our species—not even now—but you can understand what a burden humor would be if, in mourning the loss of beloved family members, you had to sit down every morning and hammer out a spate of punch lines. You’ve put all of this so beautifully in your last missive, and I think of the function of comedy (literary or otherwise) just as you do. Humor is a shelter I cobble together from the fragments I glean from the explosions and collapses of other structures. Such a refuge won’t keep off the rain, but at least it casts a little shade, and I can glimpse the stars through its crooked rafters.
A quote often misattributed to Twain proclaims that “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” (Whenever I want to deploy a quote of uncertain provenance, I just attribute it to Emerson. Works every time!) It was instead another of my heroes, stand-up comic Lenny Bruce, who actually did say that “Satire is tragedy plus time.” But the rest of Lenny’s observation, which is rarely quoted, goes like this: “Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.” He meant that the culture will permit you to satirize someone or something if enough time has passed, while he instead believed that satire should be an immediate and relentless response to injustice. That’s why his routine most nights was to go onstage, tell the hard truth with his brilliant and uncompromising comedy, be arrested for obscenity, spend the night in jail, and then courageously go out and do it all over again the next night. The true obscenity was not his act but rather the racism and anti-Semitism he so mercilessly exposed.
I loved your story about the great healer El Doble-Ve, jefe de los conejillos de indias! Isn’t it wonderful how these more-than-human beings can calm us? It sounds like your whole family, and the extended family comprised of Steph’s students, has genuinely benefited from having that little guy around. During this pandemic-induced seclusion I’ve even taken to giving the wild birds individual names, which is a sure sign the sour mash is running low here as we enter week twelve. Yesterday I shot a video for quarantined fourth graders on “How to Use Journal Writing to Turn Your Boring Life into an Awesome Story.” Isn’t this essentially what you and I are trying to do all the time? I used Huckleberry, our puppy, as an animated prop throughout. When it came time to tell these kids that attentive writing involves capturing impressions from all five of our senses, I demonstrated this by first looking at Huck, then petting him, listening to him yawn, sniffing his damp coat, and, for the denouement, giving his furry, speckled head a big, wet lick with my tongue. Fifty years from now, some former fourth grader whose life will have by then become a story might remember Huckleberry—long after they’ve forgotten Mike Branch’s “Howevermany Principles about Howtodo Whateverthehell.” And that suits me fine. We need Huck and El Doble-Ve—and all these critters, wild and domestic—to soothe our loneliness during these times of isolation and uncertainty.
We also need these friendships. John, our correspondence during this challenging moment has been a real gift. You’re such a fine friend, writer, husband, father, son, and tangerine sunset lasagna Hamburger Helper eating guinea pig wrangler. And while I value our friendship deeply, what I find most gratifying about the string of missives we’ve exchanged during lock-down is that you’ve finally come around to recognizing the importance of homemade sourdough bread. I’ve just put a loaf of ours in the mail, from the high desert to the tallgrass prairie, from my family to yours. Be sure to save a nibble for El Doble-Ve.
Stay safe, brother. See you on the other side. O
John T. Price is the author of three nature memoirs, including Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships (Da Capo) and Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father (Shambhala), and the editor of The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (U of Iowa). A recipient of a NEA fellowship in prose, his essays have recently appeared in Orion, Fourth Genre, Brevity.com, Terrain.org, and the anthology Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance and Democracy (Trinity UP). He is the Regents/Foundation Professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he directs the English Department’s Creative Nonfiction Writing Program. He lives with wife Stephanie and three sons in the Loess Hills—the seventh generation in his family to reside in western Iowa—while working on a new book of nonfiction.
Michael P. Branch has published nine books, including three works of humorous creative nonfiction inspired by the Great Basin Desert: Raising Wild (2016), Rants from the Hill (2017), and How to Cuss in Western (2018). Mike has received the Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame and the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award. His essays have appeared in venues including Orion, CNN, Slate, Outside, Pacific Standard, Utne Reader, Ecotone, National Parks, High Country News, Terrain.org, Places Journal, Whole Terrain, and About Place. He is University Foundation Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno. Mike lives with his wife Eryn and daughters Hannah and Caroline in the Great Basin-Sierra Nevada ecotone. The book he is currently writing about jackalopes will be published by Pegasus Books.