OPINION

Why A Raccoon Climbing A Skyscraper Was The Perfect Metaphor For 2018

"In a year of so many lows for journalism, it’s hard to remember a high quite so high as a raccoon on top of the UBS to
"In a year of so many lows for journalism, it’s hard to remember a high quite so high as a raccoon on top of the UBS tower."

To mark the end of 2018, we asked writers to revisit some of the year’s most noteworthy (for good or evil) events, people and ideas. See the other entries here between now and the new year.

On June 12, 2018, a raccoon climbed to the top of the UBS tower in St. Paul, across the street from Minnesota Public Radio, and for a brief moment, that trash-eater was a star.

Minnesota Public Radio journalist Tim Nelson named him the #MPRRaccoon, and the furry garbage can king spent two days trending on Twitter. The internet declared him the hero 2018 needed. There were shirts and mugs and socks all emblazoned with his likeness. A photo of his daring ascent, taken by photojournalist Evan Frost, was declared one of Time magazine’s top 100 pictures of the yearThere is even a children’s book about the scrappy little rascal.

Seventeen days after the MPR raccoon made his climb, five Maryland journalists were shot and killed. And then there were the bomb threats at CNN and Time Warner. Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudi government. This year, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were imprisoned in Myanmar, and Maria Ressa, the founder of the news startup Rappler, is under attack by the government in the Philippines, where she just posted bail on charges of tax evasion.

All the while, the president of the United States declares journalism to be “fake news” and calls journalists “the enemy of the people.” Time named Khashoggi, Ressa, Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo its people of the year. The magazine collectively dubbed these journalists the “Guardians of the Truth” as a way of recognizing this relentless war on the media.

In a year of so many lows for journalism, it’s hard to remember a high quite so high as a raccoon on top of the UBS tower. Living in 2018 has felt like scaling a very tall building; one wrong move, and you will fall into an abyss.

I watched the MPR raccoon on my laptop in a coffee shop in Iowa City, where I was supposed to be editing essays for a literary magazine that I no longer work for. In June, I was juggling my paid work as an editor with my work as a freelance writer and journalist, writing for outlets like the Columbia Journalism Review and HuffPost. I ghostwrote op-eds and cobbled together service pieces about how to find the perfect babysitter. I taught workshops for a few hundred extra dollars, and my parents gave me money to eke me along.

In June, I was barely sleeping, working most nights, managing child care and deadlines, finding money wherever I could. I am a single mom and a writer. I filed for divorce at the beginning of 2018. My marriage ended for many reasons, but one reason was that I was asked to stop writing and I said “no.”

Living in 2018 has felt like scaling a very tall building; one wrong move, and you will fall into an abyss.

I think about that moment, that conversation, a lot. Sitting in the living room that is no longer my living room, with the green and blue throw pillows I bought to make the place feel more like home. I held the blue one in my hands as tightly as that raccoon clung to the wall. If you quit, we will be happy. I don’t remember much of the conversation itself, just the feel of my body, which no longer felt like a body, but an unwanted spirit. I remember holding onto the ruffles of the pillow. That stupid pillow. Clinging to it as if it could prop me up. Make me survive. As if it was the only firm thing in a world that was falling apart.

I said “no.” And then, a hard, hard fall.

Raccoons are experts in survival. In the urban environments that are not designed for them, they have thrived ― prowling our parks, denning in the nooks of cityscapes, eating our trash. They have sticky, dexterous paws that are good at turning knobs, opening latches, scaling walls. The mother raccoon often raises her kids alone. She is nocturnal. She is a pest.

Once, when I was staying in an RV in St. Petersburg, Florida, raccoons jumped on the roof, trying to open the air vent. Their big bodies shook the camper. I felt like I was in the garbage version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I held the air vent closed and called my brother for help. He showed up with his friend and a few BB guns and chased them off. Those furry piles of garbage know how to survive. And not just survive, but thrive.

Those furry piles of garbage know how to survive. And not just survive, but thrive.

At the height of #MPRRaccoon-mania, Bryan Lueth of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources speculated about why the raccoon would even decide to climb the building. “If I had to come up with a scenario,” he said, “I would say it was maybe holed up in an alley and it got rousted out of there by something and then ran out onto the sidewalk, and then there’s all these people around. It’s like, ‘Ah!’ The natural instinct is to climb.”

When I look at it now, at the end of 2018, Frost’s picture of the raccoon scaling that building strikes me as the new “hang in there” kitty, except with less treacle and more trash.

It might be reductive and easy to say what I am about to say. But I think that’s OK in a year when nothing, nothing has come easy. When everything has felt hard. When the bomb threats and the media closures and the layoffs and the murders and the low pay and the cries of “fake news” and “enemy of the people” wear on us and make us wonder why, why are we here? Why did we refuse to quit? We lost everything only to gain this ― this table, this laptop, this cold coffee, in a new place where we barely make rent, on a couch with no throw pillows ― and we are still struggling, still worrying, still climbing.

But if I had to come up with a scenario for how we got here, I would say this: that in threat and in peril, the natural instinct is to rise. And so, we climb.

Lyz Lenz is a contributing writer to the Columbia Journalism Review and the author of God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said the raccoon climbed a building in Minneapolis. The building is in Saint Paul.

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