Midwestern Robot

Unmasking wonder

After COVID, one thing I have to relearn is how not to walk around with my mouth open. Behind my mask, my jaw hangs like I’m constantly amazed, even if all I’m doing is choosing a pasta sauce. 

In the early days, when I noticed I was doing this, I’d shut my mouth. Images of hollow-eyed old men at the care home terrified me. I didn’t want to look like one of them, shuffling toward a visitor with a gaping jaw and a urine smell. But then I’d remember I was safe behind my mask.

Out in front of UPS yesterday, a man stepped right into my personal space to open the door. “I’m in line,” I said.

He snapped back, “I’m going to the mailboxes, so don’t even.”

I would have been totally justified in snapping back, I didn’t know that. But it’s hard to snap when your mouth is hanging open. A customer left while he was in there, so I was about to move to the inside line when the man came back out. “You’re also blocking the door,” he added.

I’m following the rules, I could have defended myself. I’m six feet back from the next person. “Thanks for letting me know,” I said instead. “Have a great weekend!”

He scoffed and pushed past me. The person in front of me commented, “Some people.”

She hadn’t heard my earlier snippy comment, but still, it made me feel better. Behind my mask, I marveled at the man’s insistence on correcting me, the other customer’s kind defense, and a new customer approaching with two huge bags of packages. How do people prepare like that? This was my second shipping trip in three days.

I will learn to keep my mouth closed again, but I’ll miss the privacy of my mask. It reminds me of the yoga lesson about how turning up the corners of your mouth can change your state of mind. Cultivating a half-smile can actually cause happiness. What if all these open mouths are teaching us wonder?

Read about a family, learn about an era

The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This detailed and long-ranging history of an extraordinary family is, at least for me, the best way to read history — through the perceptive eye of a uniquely-placed narrator. Buckley weaves social and family history into a journey as suspenseful as a novel, but grounded in hard truths. Seeing how individual members of the Calhoun family navigated the Jim Crow laws in the South and more subtle forms of racism in the North, and how their descendants initiated change and activism during the 1950s and 60s, was sobering and awe-inspiring.

I found this book because I was curious about Lena Horne, but this was a much richer read than a biography. Or, maybe, it’s the way I wish more biographies were written, with close attention to multiple relationships, in the context of which certain portraits of individuals stand out.

View all my reviews

Check out the life of UP copper miners in 1913

book cover

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fascinating glimpse into a little-known — at least to me — part of labor history, and Michigan history, and American history. If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell, this fictional riff on a 1913 miners’ strike in the UP will be right up your alley. They even mention Mary Barton at one point. In a similar way, this brings the struggles and triumphs of working people, and the incredibly unjust machinations of the moneyed and connected into sharp and personal focus.

It’s written in present tense, which at first distanced me. I felt a sense of cynicism and fatalism or something that almost turned me off…but I kept coming back to it, to read a few pages more, and a few pages more… and then the style paid off hugely. I felt inside of a complex and somehow even-handed narrative that was exactly right for the story and the characters. It left me wanting to learn more about the actual history and also read more of this writer.



View all my reviews

3 destinations for road trippers

Jasper and Nola in Jasper's car.
This is Jasper. He’s 99. We’ll meet him on Day 14.

This past fall, Dave and I took a road trip that has resulted in all sorts of feelings about where we’re living and how we’re living. To track my take, check out Trip Report on Literate Ape.com. Or gather tips for your own RV adventure by reading Dave’s posts on OdometerDave. And if you check out our YouTube channel, you can watch the action and tell us about your own experiences in the world of what-if.