I Hold a Wolf by the Ears: A Review

“I want to tell you about the night I got hit by a train and died. The thing is—it never happened.”

Laura van den Berg begins her sixth book, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, with this disorientingly brilliant line. The rest of the short stories in this collection keep the same momentum, whirling the reader into a dance with the beautiful and, at times, horrifying worlds van den Berg has created. The collection masterfully explores themes of womanhood, haunting and violence, occasionally making them inextricable from each other.

My personal favorite is “The Pitch,” where a woman keeps the secret of her deceased father-in-law’s voicemails from her grieving husband, whose behavior has grown increasingly erratic after finding a photograph of himself and another boy. The deceased’s final voicemail, “Did I ever tell you about my other son?” echoes throughout the piece, even as the woman starts to wonder if her husband is capable of killing her to escape his grief. In just sixteen pages, van den Berg builds a palpable amount of suspense surrounding the husband’s past and what exactly he’s capable of doing.

Another chilling story in this collection is “Your Second Wife,” where, trapped by the gig economy, a young woman makes a living dressing up as men’s dead wives and going on dates with them, much to the chagrin of her more practical older sister, who begs her to pick a safer profession. Her sister’s worries come true when a man drugs her and throws her in his car’s trunk to presumably murder her. Her kidnapping and escape are both harrowing and leave her nonplussed. The casual air with which she deals with the threat to her life mirrors how women generally move through the world, constantly in danger and yet able to keep moving. This danger is amplified for those in the service industry, like the main character, who are considered all but disposable economically.

Far more terrifying than the attempted murder is “Lizards,” a modern-day horror story featuring a woman dragged to Florida against her will by her husband, who tires of her complaints to the point of drugging her with a concoction supplied by a neighbor. The husband insists that he is not like the neighbor, whose sexism and crude sensibilities make him cringe. He touts being a registered Democrat as evidence of his evolution, even as he admits to a desire to assault his wife in her sleep. He muses, “what would happen if everyone were to one day stop pretending?”

The events of the story are interspersed with the characters’ reactions to the televised trial of a future Supreme Court justice facing sexual assault allegations, whom the husband insists is innocent until proven guilty. This story in particular is chilling because it harkens back so accurately to the beginning of the #MeToo movement, when women all across the country scrutinized the men in their own lives, wondering if they also had the capacity to harm them and fearing their secret desire for violence.

The questions brought up in “Lizards,” of whether women can ever be certain the men in their lives are truly good, are taken up a notch in “Karolina.” An art restorer on a business trip to Mexico City runs into her brother’s ex-wife, Karolina, sleeping on the streets. She has to grapple with the idea that the brother she loves and defended ferociously during the divorce—which put tension on her own marriage to a women’s trauma counselor—might have been capable of the abuse that Karolina accused him of doing. Here, we see a woman not in fear of her own safety, but haunted by the fact that she aided, abetted, and helped to cover up another woman’s abuse because of her own limited experience with a man she loved. This might be an even greater fear for women: not that harm will come to us, but that because of a blind spot, because of love for a violent man, we will hammer the last nail into another woman’s coffin.

Van den Berg’s prose is masterful enough to give the reader chills without becoming an unpleasant experience. Her work grapples with the same big ideas that capture us as a nation living in a post-MeToo world during a pandemic that has taken so many, loved and unloved. It’s no big secret that many women in North America fear for their lives every day; who amongst us has not heard stories about stalkers and handsy colleagues and men who scream profanities at people on the street? “Your Second Wife” resonates because of the protagonist's calm reaction; this violence is expected, and afterwards, the victim will either be able to return home to her daily life or she won’t. More often, though, the call does come from inside the house. Most of “Lizards” and “The Pitch” are set inside the home, and the perpetrators of fear are men who are deeply loved by the protagonists but who are still capable of instilling fear into their wives. The #MeToo movement brought hidden fears to the surface for many women, the fear that the men who we assumed were trustworthy simply aren’t, and the pandemic trapped women in the same houses as their abusers or potential abusers for over a year. Van den Berg teeters her characters on the edge of trust and fear, and “Karolina” answers the question of what happens when trust is the wrong choice. The characters in these stories are more often than not transient, on vacation, on work trips, or visiting family, which might not resonate with many during the pandemic, but the specter of death graces these pages, which is something that, as a nation, we are surrounded by more than ever. If you’re looking for stories that have a clean resolution, this is not the collection for that, but if you’re looking for stories that present our current lives in many different lights, look at fear from different angles, and emerge with a kind of messy emotional viscera, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is just the book.

Due to the amount of time Pratt architecture students have spent within the walls of Higgins Hall, most of us would claim that we know every inch of it. Perhaps unintentionally, as if it were an overplayed song, we’ve memorized the lingering smell of Zap-A-Gap, the strange pacing needed to descend the Pit’s stairs, how many pieces of chipboard we can squeeze through the vestibule without getting stuck. However, despite the hours we’ve spent hunched over our desks and crammed into brick corners, we probably know much less about Higgins than we think we do. Laced with tragedy and intertwined with Pratt from inception, each chapter of its convoluted history is simultaneously legible, and we have yet to read them all.  

In 1863, two decades before Pratt was founded, philanthropists and teachers Aaron Chadwick and Dr. Edward S. Bunker opened Adelphi Academy at 412 Adelphi Street in Fort Greene. As the school expanded, it outgrew its tiny townhouse, so in 1867, three philanthropists donated the funds to build a new Adelphi Academy, including our very own Charles Pratt. Enlisting the help of architecture firm Mundell and Teckritz, they commissioned the first wing of the new Adelphi Academy, what we now know as Higgins Hall North. The south wing, which would become Higgins Hall South, was designed by Charles Haight in 1889.

The buildings epitomize a subdued approach to Romanesque Revival, favoring molded arches and unfluted columns over bold turrets and spindles. Though the school’s benefactors were wealthy, the architecture fits a nineteenth-century definition of utilitarianism, delineating a clear orthogonal plan with generous circulation and high ceilings. Its flourishes are refined, filling the gaps without creating the gaps that need to be filled.

After Adelphi Academy’s enrollment dropped from a peak of 1200 to near 300, they relocated to Bay Ridge. The old location on St. James Place somehow ended up in the hands of John Higgins, an architect and Adelphi Academy alum. In 1965, after his death, his wife donated the buildings to Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture.

Things carried on as usual in Higgins until mid-1996 at four AM. The fire is thought to have started in the basement, somewhere near North’s boiler rooms. A fierce windstorm likely spread the flames up through Center and into North and South; the details are foggy, however, because Center collapsed into the basement and prohibited any beneficial investigation. The archives were destroyed, leading to a gap in Pratt’s School of Architecture records that has yet to be patched. Fifth-year thesis work took the brunt of the damage, though every year suffered. Classes were relocated to Main Campus, final presentations were suspended, and Pratt reeled from its losses.

Rogers Marvel Architects had already been working in Higgins, focusing on conservation and remodeling projects, but their efforts immediately shifted from dusting off cornices to ensuring the building would not cave in. As they sifted through rubble, they noticed something: During the midcentury’s fondness for a complete lack of ornament, people had shrouded Higgins in plywood, gypsum, and plaster. These sheet materials burned away during the fire, revealing the masonry behind it relatively untouched. They discovered archways over entrances, capitals atop columns, and stunning brickwork. Nestled in this old brickwork, they found burn marks that could not have been left by the 1996 fire, meaning that this was not the first devastating fire that Higgins Hall had seen.

After rummaging through records and analyzing the scars of the first fire, Rogers Marvel’s team determined that in 1889, the same year Haight’s South Hall opened, Adelphi Academy caught fire. Most details, including the cause and intensity of the flames, remain unknown. We do know that the damage was so severe that classes temporarily relocated to an apartment building owned by Charles Pratt while William Tubby, best known for designing Pratt’s library and student union, led the repairs and remodeling.

History aside, there was a hole in late-nineties Higgins. As Rogers Marvel focused on revitalizing North and South, Pratt commissioned starchitect Steven Holl to redesign Center. Holl himself led the design team, using the misalignment of the floors in North and South to drive an exploration of dissonance, presented in the duality of the facade and the bent floors connecting the buildings. In typical Holl fashion, calibrated light diffuses over studio desks, and sawtooth skylights illuminate that lucky studio of grad students.

Higgins Hall Center sits atop six concrete pillars that emerge from the hole created by the old Center’s collapse. This hole was merely finished off and called the Pit, now a pinup space and entrance to the auditorium. The rubble excavated from the Pit would become the new front courtyard and build up the back viewing deck above the auditorium that no one has ever seen used. Some consider this a clever reuse of otherwise useless material; others find it eerie, taking their classes beneath the charred bones of a building that existed before they enrolled.

Meanwhile, the Rogers Marvel team continued their revitalization efforts. Their original plan, set into motion before the fire, was completely reinvisioned; a project meant to take a few years ultimately took ten. In addition to restoring their architectural discoveries, Rogers Marvel dealt with the holes in the floors. As the fire had burnt through entire portions of the buildings, they decided to leave most of these as double-height spaces.

Most notably, between the fourth and fifth floors in South, the historic cast-iron staircase gives way to a nearly precarious steel staircase dangling between the floors. When the original staircase burned away, South’s fifth floor became entirely inaccessible, so they built the new stair from scratch to remedy this. They tried to use salvaged materials in as many ways as possible: They repaired windows, replaced lighting, and reconfigured classrooms to better compliment Steven Holl’s Center. Though many associate Holl with the revitalization of Higgins, Rogers Marvel Architects did most of the heavy lifting. Without them, the buildings would not have survived to see Holl’s addition.

Today, Higgins Hall is an X-ray. It depicts each stage of its existence in one way or another, from the cornerstone placed in 1867 to the latest basswood stick accidentally Lock-Tited to the floor. 3-D printers lean against Adelphi Academy’s original blackboards. Steel beams from an astronomy class’s telescope glide over a crit space. The students of Adelphi Academy have etched their names into the walls aside the burn marks from the fires and nicks from stray Olfa blades.

Because of this, Higgins Hall might be the best place to learn about architecture—it is a timeline with thousands of points that have yet to be added, both those that have been lost to time and those that we haven’t created yet. However messy, disjointed, and scarred Higgins may be, its secrets offer solace: Even on our worst days, we couldn’t possibly tire of its emphatic chaos.

My Seeing Eye Dog in training, Crista and I walk on the sidewalk on our way home. She pulls extremely hard, and I try my hardest to keep her under control so she doesn’t end up dragging me. I keep giving short tugs on the leather leash, but all it does is give me painful blisters, so I stop her and have her sit. 

At first, Crista rejects by trying to jump up. I sternly tell her “no” and correct her into a sit. I wait a few seconds until she’s calm enough, then say “forward,” and we continue towards the house. Shekeeps pulling, and I keep trying to get her to stop. When we get back home, after I immediately crash down onto the couch with exhaustion, Crista happily brings a bone to my feet. I watch her loudly gnaw at the bone and sigh. I’ll try again tomorrow.

The Seeing Eye, formed in 1929 by Morris Frank, is the oldest guide dog school in the country and operates out of Morristown, New Jersey. Only dogs that come from this institution can be formally called Seeing Eye Dogs. The Seeing Eye has four different types of breeds: German shepards, golden retrievers, yellow, black, and chocolate labrador retrievers, and poodles for those who have allergies. It’s also common to see golden/lab crosses as well.

Seeing Eye Dogs, along with guide dogs under other organizations, are classified as service animals. This means that they are specifically trained to perform tasks to ease a challenge faced by their owner, like performing a medical alert on someone who has seizures or reminding someone to take medication. 

I’ve been a Seeing Eye puppy raiser for nearly seven years now, and I am currently training a six-month-old black lab named Crista. We receive the puppies at seven weeks old and raise them in our homes until they are 16 months old, with the hope that they will complete the rest of their training at the Seeing Eye and be paired with a blind person.

As a puppy raiser, it’s my responsibility to make sure that my puppy is able to successfully perform their job. I prepare by taking them to different locations like malls, restaurants and other high-traffic areas. I also go on several club outings such as to the Liberty Science Center, on a train ride to New York City and attending plays. If I’m not with my club and am going into a building with my puppy, I have to make sure to either call ahead or ask as soon as I arrive if I’m allowed in with my puppy. I also have to keep a form of identification for the puppy on hand in case I’m stopped and asked why I’m on the premises. 

Training a Seeing Eye puppy comes with challenges. We work hard to make sure each puppy has the qualities needed to become a guide, and we primarily focus on obedience training. From a young age, we housebreak them and teach them to “park” on command. We teach basic commands like sit, down, and rest so that they perform the command as soon as it’s spoken. If a dog refuses to do one of these commands, we help them to perform it by gently using repetition. 

We also focus on walking our dogs. Seeing Eye Dogs need to be able to lead, so they have to always be in front of their human. I’ve had a great deal of challenges in this area, like training dogs who balked, didn’t like specific surfaces, and dogs who pulled too hard. We use several commands for this type of behavior: “hup hup,” which tells the dog to speed up; “easy,” which tells them to slow down, and many others. We also use quick, short tugs on their leashes for both correction and pacing, and keep our left hands firmly on the leash to keep the dog at our left side. 

At club meetings, we perform the basket weave maneuver with the dogs to teach them to ignore other dogs or distractions. We also perform the “come and sit” command, which is when we walk forward, then walk back while saying “come,” go forward again, and have the dog sit at our left side. This is often used as a way to reposition a dog if they are misbehaving. However, it’s important to note that we aren’t trying to make our dogs perfect or knock out their personalities. When their harnesses are off, they’re just regular dogs who love to play and snuggle. All we’re doing is teaching them how to behave and work in public places so that in the future, they can successfully do their job and help someone.

When our time with our puppies is up, they get taken back to the Seeing Eye to finish their training. Not all dogs pass the program, whether due to fear, behavior or medical reasons. In fact, there is currently only a 30% - 40% success rate due to a lack of students during the pandemic, and the rate is normally 60%. If the puppies do fail, we call them a “career changed” to signify that they went on to do something else, like police work in the K-9 unit or breeders at the Seeing Eye. Most commonly, their raisers can choose to adopt them, or they go to someone on a very long waiting list who wants to adopt a dog. 

Saying goodbye is always the hardest part of raising. You’d think that I would have been used to it by now, but I’m not. When the time comes, a white Seeing Eye van pulls up to my house, and out comes our area coordinator, Katie. We talk and are given some time to say goodbye, but then we have to put the puppy into the crate in the van and watch them drive away. It’s heartbreaking every single time. Yet, beneath all of that sadness is the hope that my puppy will eventually get to provide a service for someone who needs it. And if not, then I’ll take them back in a heartbeat. I’ve had to permanently say goodbye to two of my dogs, yellow labs Diva and Holgate. Diva was adopted by another family close to Morristown, and I don’t know what happened to Holgate.

I currently have two of my career change dogs living with me permanently: Dutch, a yellow/golden lab cross, and Fav, a yellow lab. I have only had one dog pass the program: my yellow lab Trina, who's currently in Missouri working as a Seeing Eye Dog. But who knows, if she retires and her current owner doesn’t want to keep her, then there’s the possibility that she can come back home to me.

Training a dog sounds like a piece of cake, but it’s not. It can get very stressful, especially if your dog won’t do what they are supposed to. However, we do the best that we can, and it pays off when we get to see our dog succeed. Right now, that’s all the motivation that I need as I train Crista.

2020 felt like a time warp. Quarantine days melded together, the months flew by, the hours felt like they lasted days; reality didn’t seem real. Now that vaccines are rolling out to the majority of the population, and COVID-19 cases are decreasing, it feels like there’s light at the end of the winding tunnel. Maybe time will feel linear again.

We’ve all had monotonous days, but the pandemic has made the monotony numbing and infinite. Pre-COVID, I could end my boredom by calling my friends to go see a movie or wandering through local thrift stores. There were ways to escape too much alone time. Once all of those escapes were taken away, time seemed to stop indefinitely, along with any sort of natural, comfortable social contact or future-planning. Therefore, every day started to feel like a reflection of the day before, until, suddenly, it became another year.

After talking with peers, friends, and family, I was comforted by the fact that everyone felt this weird, rapid and creeping pandemic time warp. I remember the last week before everything changed so vividly. My partner drove to Pratt to pick me up, and we then spent my spring break traveling to Maine, visiting various lighthouses and adventuring at Acadia National Park. Once our nature getaway ended, we headed back to Brooklyn where he was supposed to drop me off and drive back home himself.

But as we neared the end of the trip, we realized he wasn’t just dropping me off at my dorm—the end of spring break became the start of Tetris-ing all of my belongings into his Honda Civic and driving 10 hours back to my hometown after the dorms were shut down. Shortly after arriving home, we were confined in a lockdown and plunged into uncertainty of “when” things would go back to “normal.”

In my head, that vacation now seems like two different experiences. There was one trip where we had an amazing week-long adventure, and another that included the panic-filled moments leading up to packing my education and Brooklyn-life into a suitcase and relocating it to my childhood bedroom. Despite this, both experiences feel like they were month-long endeavors from an eternity ago.

This phenomenon relates to the “holiday paradox,” which is an idea coined by journalist, author and psychology lecturer, Claudia Hammond. The holiday paradox states that, when you are on vacation, time seems to go fast as you experience new things and create new memories; when you’re home and looking back on those memories, it seems like you’ve been away way longer, as those memories create timestamps in your brain to gauge time. Since I had such memorable moments leading up to being confined in my home, my brain holds onto those memories and makes them appear longer than they actually were.

Kevin LaBar, head of the Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Duke University, explains, “When you’re in a constrained environment, your brain is not getting as many squirts of dopamine that keep it engaged and excited, and the brain ends up in this idling mode.” Essentially, being confined to our homes during the pandemic has left us drowning in monotony. Our brains don’t have enough stimulation to create new memory-markers; therefore the days blend together in one chunk of never-ending time.

Emotions also have a large impact on the way we experience time. We have neurons in our brain that act like a metronome, keeping time in a steady beat. Heightened emotions, such as anxiety or fear, can disrupt its rhythm, making the metronome beat quicker. In a study conducted by Sylvie Droit-Volet, a French professor of cognitive and developmental psychology, Droit-Volet and her colleagues presented three types of videos to their students and gauged their reactions. One video induced fear by showing clips from various horror movies, another evoked sadness by showing clips from dramatic, heartfelt movies, and the third showed neutral videos, like the weather forecast or stock market updates. When the students estimated how long each video lasted, it was evident the one that evoked fear seemed to last longer.

The brain uses more of its resources to process negative emotions, so the memory sticks with us longer. The pandemic has filled us with such feelings. Stressful events unfolded socially and politically all while we handled work or school from home, sending us into a pit of self-reflection. We looked inwardly to handle the uncertainty of being in a pandemic while searching for a sense of normalcy. During a time of forever-churning reflection, LaBar explains, it can seem like you’ve invested longer because you just re-engage the same thought processes.

While anxiety and stress can make time feel slower, the lack of memory-markers adds to that sense of endlessness. Although, I’ve heard many people say that each day may seem like it flies by. Ever since my trip to Acadia, I’ve spent most of my time focusing on homework, working, cleaning my room, going on walks; all of these daily tasks give my brain something to complete. Then, achieving each task rewards my brain with a sense of accomplishment until suddenly it's the next day and the cycle repeats. While we are stuck in familiarity, routine is propelling our day. Repeating cycles can make it seem like time is going quicker, which muddles time even more in our brains as the feeling of slow time contradicts quick time. For example, quests in video games often feel like they’re going quick because you’re constantly motivated by the next step, even if each step involves the same process of walking and collecting to advance. Similarly, we live every day with small victories that help speed up time: getting up and brushing our teeth, feeding our dog, making a cup of coffee. These little moments help speed up the day, but since they’re repeated in pandemic-time, the lack of truly exciting moments slows that time back down when we look at it on a month to month basis.

All of this is to say that you’re not going crazy for thinking this last year has been a time-warp. This unexplainable phenomena is actually explainable. Though it will be a bit different for everyone, given different circumstances or the ways someone processes emotions, all of our brains have never experienced something as stressful as a pandemic. While I’m tired of taking things “a day at a time,” we can’t stress over the things we can’t control, or else time will go even slower.


Art by Noelani Fishman

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