“Holy Jesus,” Evelyn said under her breath. She looked back in the app store, scrolled through the description. Was this allowed? She looked to the see who made the app, but it was some company she’d never heard of. Just another sign of a world run amok.
“What’s a brute force attack?” Evelyn called to Jed.
Jed came down from the stepstool clutching the juicing machine. “Not something you should do. Why?”
She looked at him out of the corner of her eyes, never taking her eyes off Mrs. Cassidy’s phone, as the first letters of her reply began to appear.
But then the words stopped, and Mrs. Cassidy spoke instead.
“Who’s that?” Jed asked.
Evelyn heard keys jangling and the clap of heels on hardwood.
She keyed up the volume.
The teenage boy spoke.
Where are you going?
“Who is that?”
I’m going to church with your aunt. You know that. I always go to church on Friday nights.
“Oh, right!” Evelyn yelled. “With Davon? And the dude you’re meeting is Jesus.”
“Is that a new podcast?” Jed said, putting the juicer down and coming into the room.
Finally breaking her intense, huddle-like crouch on the sofa, Evelyn closed the app and tossed her phone atop the coffee table. “It’s nothing,” she said. “Just a nutty YouTube Donna sent me.”
Jed released a disappointed groan. He liked it when Evelyn, who he hoped would be his wife one day, shared her online interests. Granted, it might have been a case of mutual enabling of internet and social media addictions—he, after all, constantly shared Reddit stuff—but never mind; in 2021 we turn the other cheek to these coping mechanisms. They are the norm now. By speaking to each other of the social posts we’ve seen and made, we include people in our lives of viewing and being viewed.
“It sounded like an argument,” Jed said.
“Oh, no.” Evelyn laughed. “Are you making smoothies for two?” She pumped her eyebrows mock-seductively, and followed Jed to the kitchen. She would look in the crisper drawer to see what is not wilted yet. And she would make sure Jed put enough almonds in the smoothies, and not too much maple syrup in hers.
MY IN-LAW’S BASEMENT has a floor tiled in black and white linoleum squares, like a chess board. It’s a very hard, cold, smooth floor, covered by Santa Clause red shag rugs, and a six-foot pool hall style pool table in the center of the room. There’s a bar, behind which the shelves are piled 100% floor-to-countertop with massive, fluffy beach towels for the grandchildren to use when swimming. No one drinks at the bar, which is a good thing in this family. No one sits there. It’s a bar that’s just there. Who knows, maybe Wisconsin builders put bars in all basements of homes they made in the 80s. But I imagine back in the day Gerald poured one for himself before heading for a dip.
The living space of this basement is L-shaped, and the non-living space is comprised of a furnace and storage room, which also houses the treadmill and weights that I use often during my stays, and which my father-in-law uses religiously every morning at 7 AM.
No description of this basement would be complete without mention that the bathroom decor is vintage Coca-Cola. To the nines.
There’s a massive TV of a slightly older style that must weigh 200 pounds, and two full-size red leather sofas. There’s some stone flooring that holds a wood-burning stove, and moving to the back of the room, a tall glass display case of additional Coca-Cola memorabilia, a record player and some records, old children’s toys, Christmas decorations not put away from last season, and then, at the far back, my desk, a desk with folding legs and a white plastic top, which if it were to rain upon would form a nice puddle at everywhere but its edges. My laptop, monitor, keyboard, and mouse go here. My sunglasses, my reading glasses, my car keys, my coffee mug. And my view is a huge picture window, flanked by two standard windows looking onto a patio and a section of gray fencing and gate to the pool. The fence gate has lost a battle with time and gravity, and a gnarly batch of overgrown vines stretches onto the concrete, which is stained by its fallen berries.
There are no curtains on this huge picture window. My mother-in-law does not believe in curtains. The upstairs living room windows, as if in concession to a rejected idea, have rods that hold two-inch long “curtains,” or really just the gestational stage of curtains. Or just the fringe, omitting the curtain itself. It’s almost obscene how short this flap is.
At this desk, in this basement is where I work. In here, I put on a headset and run Zoom classes and talk to aspiring writers6F6F about character, point of view, plot and more. They see the tinsel-covered tree behind me; “Where are you?” they ask. “Is that your house?” When they signed up for an online class with my NYC-based employer, they would not have expected some with a Christmas tree.
By day, in this checkerboard basement where it’s always Christmas and I urinate to the sight of a charming Norman Rockwell scene, I send emails, make spreadsheets, build web content, read students’ short weekly writing to prompts, and read their workshop short fiction drafts, and write the all-important feedback and analysis.
I haven’t mentioned the refrigerator. Full-size, it sits in a corner past the bar, adjacent to the bathroom door. It holds 3 bags of apples containing about 20 apples each, and often multiple cartons of eggs, which are sometimes 18-packs. Gerald eats eggs every morning after his workout, and if you’re lucky I’ll not find space to include a description of how he prepares them. In the freezer: the salmon that my brother-in-law Walt7F7F caught in Alaska, even though he doesn’t eat salmon. You see, this is the second fridge, after the one in the upstairs kitchen; and the third fridge is in the garage. Is this a Midwestern thing or an American thing? Part of the challenge of my stay (after negotiating daily life around people with irreconcilably different political views) is learning the unwritten code, the mysterious system that governs where overflow items flow, whether down to the basement or out to the garage. That system was authored in a looney bin by Elmer Fudd in a 1942 cartoon strip titled “Mr. Pig Throws Darts at a Numbered Board.” For example, the garage fridge holds 2 dozen Chobani yogurts. No other dairy items or staples. Not one. Just 600 beverages. But if you put yogurt in the basement, you’re looked at like you’re some kind of rabid animal. “Whose is this? Did you buy this? Ben, is this your yogurt?”
The most generous thing I can say is, it must be one of those cases of slight contextual change yielding total un-recognition.
Speaking of things I am challenged to recognize, let us discuss humidity and its antithetical, nearly savage, yet infrangible relationship to basements. What we have is a case where houses' foundations are built in ground, which is naturally moist, at least in this region. Foundation blocks are made of concrete; concrete is porous. Moisture moves to dry places. What ensues is a kind of puritanical fervor in the homeowner which sends him to the basement morning, noon, and night questing for the arid conditions which will calm his fears. The dehumidifier has entered. This is a machine that must run; their buckets must be emptied so that the house does not fall to rack and ruin under a tempest of mold. This kind of obsession I see as a particularly American, one that seeks to mitigate loss of post-war gains—in material goods, in status, in legacy, in estate. “Obsession” and “illness” are harsh loaded words, while often the fervor is propelled by benevolent wishes for the family children. Which, if you’re running deep analysis, not the kind of hackneyed social observation that some writers engage in, you can say this is a biological imperative; we are hard-wired to act in the interest of the continuation of the species, etc. Estate-minding just like an Anglo-Saxon of the middle ages, or perhaps a tribesman of whatever indigenous region, or indeed Barney Rubble himself is our nature. In the world of Wales, WI, I believe you could find many a homeowner willing to stand on his well-seeded lawn and go on record that running a dehumidifier “just makes sense.”
I don’t want to cast aspersions on sensible homeowners or heads of family across the ages; it’s just part of what’s expected in a contemporary writer, a bit of intellectual grousing, setting himself apart via his superior intellect. Am I wrong? Is there no precedent? “Conflict good [sic],” that kind of thing. But what these facts of science amount to for me is that my workplace is interrupted as if by a type of serviceman, usually twice a day—and that is my father-in-law coming down the stairs and then flying past me in a whirling Type-A gust into the furnace/workout room, where I’ve turned off the dehumidifier hours ago. This is usually during his lunch break, when he dashes home for lunch or some forgotten item. I shut if off hours ago immediately after he finished his workout, because I’m either going to be running a Zoom class, in which case it’ll sound like I’m on an airplane, or I’m just trying to listen to music or concentrate on reading student stories.
The really sweet thing is that though I know it drives Gerald insane, he never turns the dehumidifiers on when I’m in his basement, which he respects as my office. But if I run to Staples or Mama D’s, both machines will be on when I come back. And the ultimate sign of my father-in-law’s outsized forbearance: I realize nearly every day that once I’ve knocked off work, I’ve gone upstairs and am now visiting with my wife or noshing something and realize only when he arrives from the garage that once again I’ve forgotten to do the guy a solid and press two buttons before coming upstairs. He often goes straight to the basement, then comes up, and never once in 4.5 months of putting up with my shit, has he said, “Hey, idiot, think you could turn those back on just once?”
If there is a victory to the whole summers-in-the-Midwest thing it may be discovering that these kindnesses can transcend our deepest divisions. Or was it only my father-in-law’s passive aggression? Have I seen a kindness lurking where none exists? And if so, is that so bad?
 Copy from the website AspringWriterSyndrome.com:
I think of aspiration as a positive thing. Sorry to use such a tired speech-maker’s trope, but the word derives from the Latin root aspirare meaning “to breathe.” Aspirate. In that sense, to be an aspiring writer is to be a writer by nature, one who is unstoppably alive. We breathe involuntarily. For some of us, the choice to write is foregone or automatic; it is no choice at all.
While I respect and work with all writers, writers who see the sense in this are the type of writers who I align with most. I get them, and they get me. We work well together, and part of our work is to identify what they wish to do as writers and to work together based on where they presently are in relation to their goals.
I don’t see it as a demerit to identify as an aspiring writer. I’ve achieved several of the goals I had as a beginning writer. Yet I now have new aspirations. It will always be this way with me. It’s not a come-down to admit this. I aspire to make literary art that endures. I aspire to write the kind of books that open minds, like my mind was opened by books I read as a young person seeking to understand the world. That remains an aspiration. I think it’s a credit to a writer to have such hopes.
I’ve worked with writers who declare no such high aims. Some writers distance themselves from aspirations because of what ensues once you declare them. Once goals are declared, failure is possible. Once goals are declared, being judged becomes possible. In short: the armor is off, and you’re vulnerable. A thousand endeavors offer the same conundrum.
Doing a coy dance across the room from one’s aspirations usually ends up in the aspirations leaving with another partner.
So if you’re on board with this sentiment, you’ll likely not be offended by Aspiring Writer Syndrome, Inc. If not — if you don’t — maybe we can help you get to a place where you understand that you, too, have the condition. After all, it is a condition whose treatment is to write, and write better. Worse things could happen, no? Although in some forms the condition is life-threatening, when managed correctly, it is life-enriching.
 See Appendix A: Family Diagram (In-laws), Nominal Transpositions