Class, it seemed, was over. Students began to leave, first on their own, then on the university’s order. There remained only the matter of the exams. Almost immediately people began to whisper of the possibility that winter finals would be canceled. I hesitated. However trivial a final may seem in the context of world events, canceling one means far more than canceling a test. A final exam is more than just part of the key struggle to retain some kind of normality in the face of chaos. A final represents an opportunity to synthesize knowledge, to bring together readings and concepts from across the term. If one believes in the significance of one’s material, then this synthesis is a critical moment of a course.
And so first I made the examination optional, then open book; the date of the exam was postponed twice. It was hard not to feel that I was negotiating with the growing epidemic. And then, as student after student emailed, describing challenges returning home, I realized it was time to admit defeat.
As I wrote my letter to my students explaining the cancellation, I paused. It’s a large class, and during the week’s upheaval, I wondered where they had gone: the students who came laughing into class together, or sat quietly in back; who shared stories of their own struggles with mental illness; who turned in recorded songs for their assignments; who introduced me to books I had never read. So instead of ending class altogether, I gave them one last assignment: Go outside and take a photo of the natural world we had talked about so often, and share it with others in the class.
I joined Tesco seven years ago this week, after a disastrous 12 months working as a manager for a small business in which I was bullied by the owner. I deliberately looked for as simple a role as possible where all I had to do was clock in, do my shift, clock out and go home without worrying about what the next working day would bring.
Now I find myself on one of the frontlines in the fight against coronavirus. While health professionals care for fast-growing numbers of very sick people, my team and I serve the huge numbers who are worried that they will not be able to buy the food and other products they need to keep their family fed and in good health.
For close to 17 years, Robert Plaut bought a cup of prepared oatmeal from a local deli, his work cafeteria or Starbucks for breakfast. “I didn’t think too much about it until last week,” says Plaut, 41. But like a lot of people — forced to work from home to help slow the spread of covid-19, the coronavirus disease infecting thousands across the globe — the ViacomCBS employee went grocery shopping in his Queens neighborhood last week. Among the items in his cart? A cardboard canister of Quaker Oats. “I know oatmeal is boiled in water, and I read the package and figured it out. But then I realized … I needed to learn how to make lunch and dinner.”
At getting on for 94, Jan Morris is realistic that this will probably be her last book. For the past 70 years she has roamed far and wide: as a journalist she was at the triumphant ascent of Everest in 1953 and was there too for the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Most famously in the early 1970s she described what it was like to be in the advance guard of gender reassignment when she transitioned from James to Jan via surgery in Casablanca. Her historical writing has tended to the epic: her trilogy on the rise and fall of the British empire, Pax Britannica, is a monumental work that feels as if it had access to every heartbeat under the searing sun.
Morris has now turned to a new way of writing that allows her to stay put. She has started to keep a diary, and it is the second instalment, covering 130 days from the beginning of spring 2018, that makes up Thinking Again. Don’t imagine, though, that there is anything reduced about this new world. Morris has long admired the diary form for its capaciousness, and sticking within a small radius of the converted north Wales barn where she now lives allows her to roam far and wide in her imagination, unfettered by time or space.
Together with her fellow life-writer Kate Kennedy, Lee has co-edited a rich and eclectic collection of essays about the role houses play in people’s lives and our fascination with the homes of our creative heroes. As a biographer, Lee knows that “the writing of lives often involves writing houses”.
The description of a house can vividly reveal the experience of childhood or the story of a relationship: “How a house is lived in can tell you everything you need to know about people, whether it’s the choice of wallpaper, the mess in the kitchen, the silence or shouting over meals, doors left open or closed, a fire burning in the hearth”.
I attended my first “Weird Al” Yankovic concert last summer, more than 40 years after hearing him on the Dr. Demento radio show, the nationally syndicated showcase for comedy songs that made the accordion-playing musician famous. The concert was a joyous evening, blessedly free of profanity and politics. Sitting among the crowd, full of rapturous fans of all ages, I kept thinking how great it was that Weird Al was still at it. Not until I read Lily E. Hirsch’s new book, “Weird Al Seriously,” did I fully appreciate that such sentiments unwittingly underestimate Yankovic and his art.
that I often tend to in prayers,
amidst rubbing my feet together
to wake up in time, the yearlong sun