Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Who makes "resolutions" anymore? They are mostly all about a) duty and b) subtraction--a list of shoulds and should-nots. Instead of resolving to improve myself in any of the usual ways (realistically, I know by now I am not going to quit the internet), I am going to resolve to pursue those things that I genuinely want anyway. A permission slip + mandate to make myself happy and productive.

I still need to floss more. Whatever.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


I inadvertently clicked a link and this cloud of my Flickr tags appeared.

Yep, that's my life.
Astroturf, bruisecam, signage, waffle cart.

(It would be a little more accurate if I ever tagged "procrastination," a ghost label most of them wear.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


One of the most satisfying sounds in the world is stepping on this:

The hollow iced-over puddle, nature's bubble wrap.

Today I saw a beaver at Kelly Point Park, paddling leisurely down the river. Alas, no Labs on hand to make (or suffer) interspecies contact. Emmett won't swim.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Formula for a successful book: take some guiding principle of your life and claim that it makes you skinny.

For example, there's Skinny Bitch, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for months, with the description "vegan diet advice from the modeling world." Nowhere on the book's flap copy will you find the word "vegan"--obviously the keywords Skinny Bitch trigger that vital panicky consumer impulse more than, say, Vegan Woman--but that's what the inside is about. The authors write at length about the evils of processed food and soda etc., but the main thrust of the book is that skinny=healthy and veganism=the best way to get skinny.

And now this: The Writing Diet: Write Yourself Right-Size. That's right--"Use art to take off the pounds!" The guru here is none other than Julia Cameron, author of the insanely popular The Artist's Way.
I'm a creativity expert, not a diet expert. So why am I writing a book about weight loss? Because I have accidentally stumbled upon a weight-loss secret that works. For twenty-five years I've taught creative unblocking, a twelve-week process based on my book The Artist's Way...
I'm not sure I trust an author whose entire output consists of advice about how to productively tap into your creativity, yet who has not as far as I can tell ever herself written anything but these books. Does her creativity manifest itself solely as ways to find more creativity? Is she suffering an inner pyramid scheme? Nonetheless, seven zillion people swear by it. When I worked at the opera magazine, James the sweet receptionist was having personal revelations with that book every day at the front desk, which he would describe to me in a wondrous tone while I waited for the elevator.

I have never read The Artist's Way, which illustrates that a) my skepticism is shamelessly (-fully?) snobby and b) I have no right to be. (Yet.) But I do say with all sincerity: Dear James, despite my mistrust of the J. Cameron juggernaut, I hope you did find your artistic way, and I hope you got out of the strange bitter universe of thwarted aspirations that was Opera News. In fact, if you really want to make it big, you could write a book about how quitting your unfulfilling nonprofit arts job made you skinny. It certainly made me happier, but that's not an easy sell. What did make me really skinny--like 2-D, sternum-protrudingly skinny--was working seventy-hour weeks at an understaffed design magazine. ("What happened to you?" said my mom when I came home for a visit.) But no one wants to buy a book that recommends little sleep, a megalomaniacal boss with crappy taste, minimal salary, and subsisting on coffee + the Twizzlers stash in your desk drawer.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


The woman has written over 3,000 songs.

Courtesy of the delightful new blog Mincing Up the Morning, where every day you can learn which musicians have a birthday today, and watch a miniature motion picture of them plying their trade. Highly bookmarkable. Maybe even toolbar-bookmarkable.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Since first moving to Portland five years ago, I have developed a highly particular sensibility about the proletariat performance art that is karaoke. I could write a serious and lengthy essay about karaoke culture, protocol, song quality, and etiquette, and will, but not here.

The other night two friends and I hit my nearest & dearest Tier One(1) joint, Chopsticks III How Can Be Lounge, with the express purpose of singing only songs we'd never sung before. We had all hit a rut in our repertoires and needed a safe, shame-free space to experiment; the remote Chopsticks III on a rainy Monday night seemed like a good bet.

Boy was it ever. It was the three of us, the KJ, and occasionally Jesús (a compact dude in black nylon track pants who had a golden, rumbly, achingly beautiful voice that instantly halted our conversation every time.) Basically, we owned the place. In two and a half hours, the three of us combined sang at least 22 songs, most of which we had never sung before. I sang nine. Nine! When do you ever get to do that many outside of Japan and/or a private joint?

Some we failed miserably, some failed us miserably, some turned out great.

"Makin' Whoopee," Dr. John & Ricki Lee Jones
We kicked off the night with a duet. Alas, this version gelded away the totally gay intro(2) that I love so much in the Ella Fitzgerald version, as well as the "W-H-double-O-P-double-E" at the end, but the duetability was ample consolation. The magenta-lettered part sung by TJO a la Billie Holiday on helium made me double over a few times. An ideal start-out-the-night song. Standards always deliver--maybe because they're actually designed to be performed live, not as music video backing tracks.
Worth doing again?
Yes! Staple-worthy.
(Side note: Sesame Street has a version called "Eatin' Cookie.")

"Bus Stop," The Hollies
This song is low, but it's fucking awesome. With its terse lyrics, punchy beat, concision, and bracing balance of lovey content with ominous minor-key melody, "Bus Stop" stands up to karaoke's unforgiving strip-search of song structure. One of those songs you always hear on the radio but never pay attention to and then when you actually do you can't believe you overlooked it for so long, which is the ideal kind of karaoke song for singer and audience alike.
Definitely, pitched up a few steps.

"Cherish," Madonna
Originally we were going to do a Whitney rock block, but then we decided that was too ambitious. We switched to Madonna. Wrong choice: Madonna's apparent vocal mediocrity is deceptive. "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," high notes and all, is eminently more singable than this fanged Tigger of a pop song. I could barely catch my breath much less hit the bungeeing notes. Wtf? Wasn't this recorded before ProTools?
My companions staggered through "Borderline" and "Express Yourself" and we jointly swore never again as long as we lived.

"Solsbury Hill," Peter Gabriel, live version
I did not intend to choose the meta-karaokical "live" version, but in the end I was glad I did. That cavernous arena sound, the distant cheers of the fans, the way the music dramatically drops out entirely for your extra-emphatic "Boom, boom, boom"--close your eyes, and you're headlining WOMAD.
Warning: at the end there are like six screens that say NA NA NA NA NEE NEE NA NA NA FLY LITTLE BIRDIE NA NA NEE ad infinitum. Best be a little drunk.
Again? Yes.

"I Can't Say No," from the musical Oklahoma
This, I immediately realized, is a poor choice when you are one of a small handful of breeding-age females in a bar.
Again? Doubtful.

"Pure," The Lightning Seeds
I know nothing about this band except that my best friend Amy had the cassingle in her bedroom sometime on the '80s/'90s border, and we loved it. A slightly mawkish confection, but I like its sweet wistful Britishness.
Again? Possibly. I had to sing it an octave higher which made it a little twee.

"Leather and Lace," Stevie Nicks and Don Henley
I have technically sung this before but Tara had not so it was fair game. She Stevied, I Donned. Resplendent. The word "lace" became quite lascivious. Most singable of Stevie Nicks' songs, i.e. not tenor range.
Again? Forever.

"Go Your Own Way," Fleetwood Mac
At this point I was feeling the whiskey and therefore only remember this as triumphant.
Again? Perhaps for a Fleetwood Mac rock block.

Finally, Leslie declared we each got to fall back on a feel-good staple to go out on. I gratefully and promptly submitted "Fernando" by Abba, which embodies some of the finest karaoke qualities: captivating melody (of course, it's Abba), dynamic variety (soft verses/soaring chorus), a narrative (historical, no less!), not too repetitive, no long instrumental passages. Plus pan-flutes.

By the time we left, my throat was sore, and it was only 11:15. Victory.

(1) Tier One: huge book, great sound system, fair and friendly KJ, reasonably priced drinks. These include the heavy hitters of Portland: Chopsticks II and III (where is I?), the Ambassador, the Galaxy, and the Alibi, which has a mediocre sound system that turns the vocal levels too high and skimps on reverb, but compensates for this with a tropical setting and free leis. I haven't fully fleshed out this rating system yet, but the Egyptian Club is at best Tier Three, dragged down by their patently Unfair KJ, who unforgivably shuffles slips at whim and plays favorites.

Every time I hear that march from Lohengrin
I am always on the outside looking in
Maybe that's why I can see the funny side
When I see somebody's brother take a bride.
Weddings make a lot of people sad
But if you're not the one they're not so baaaad....

Friday, January 11, 2008


Coming home from Soapstone was not easy. It had snowed again all night, and I woke up to my dream combo of wooden walls + woodstove + snowy trees outside the window. Erin and I returned to the poaching scene to see if the calf was still there, our footprints the only thing stamped onto the snowy logging road. The furred remains we found last time were gone, swept up by the authorities. But we went a few yards further and lo, there was the rest of the beast, spine and ribs, newly dragged across the snow, surrounded by new pawprints, and freshly gnawed.

Nothing wasted. I respect that.

The best: hours alone, deep writing trance, river sound, coffee all day, stoking the wood stove, sinking every night into the deep outdoor tub with novel + wine, cold air smell, no text messages, uninterrupted sleep, total darkness, hysterical giggle fits with Erin in the evenings, a single purpose, all mine.

If you are a writer of the female persuasion, I highly recommend this place. (But probably only with a friend. Sharing the fortress of solitude with an unknown would feel weird.)

On my way back through the coastal range, the snow was thorough. Up at the top, total winter wonderland, b/w style--white everything, veined with black branches and a stripe of black road, and that amazing snow-light that casts pale blue shadows. Then coming down, it was abruptly back to deep soggy green and brown rock and bruised sky, then, woe, Beaverton. And the mopey Willamette Valley clime of wet and mild. Winter here is pure Eeyore.

But! The start of a new term always feels bright and sharp, new energy in the room, all that potential, I can still dream that all of them will surprise and delight me and never disappoint. One class alone has reps from Romania, Somalia, Cambodia, Laos, Mexico, El Salvador, Jordan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Today we read a selection from the amazing Material World project and compared our own country stats for a sense of perspective. For example:

US: circa 96 of men, 95% of women. (Weirdly, some sources say even less; the CIA Factbook says 99% age 15 and up; who knows.)
Romania: 98.5 of men, 95% of women.
Jordan: 95% of men, 85% of women
Somalia: 49% of men, 25% of women.

That literacy gender gap is revealing.

US: 1 for every 365 people
Taiwan: 1 for every 714-900 people
El Salvador: 1 for every 2800
Laos: 1 per 3555
("Even that seems like a lot," says the Laotian girl. "The hospitals there...")

US: Women 81, men 75
Somalia: Women 51, men 47

It was fascinating and intense. I could spend all day on the CIA World Factbook looking up this stuff. (That and fantasy travel on Lonely Planet: great worktime surfing that doesn't make your brain feel numb, as I discovered back in my hours-of-downtime copyeditor days at ElleGirl.)

Sunday, January 6, 2008


When it comes to the silver hammer of wit, Stephin Merritt can nail like no other.

MJ: Sasha Frere-Jones has implied that the fact that you don't like hip-hop music is racist. That got a lot of media play. What was the worst part about that whole debacle for you?

SM: I actually don't talk about that. I don't feel like publicizing him or her.

MJ: What were some of the first bands you got into?

SM: One of my earliest memories is going to the Jefferson Airplane and Odetta concert with my mother. My primary impression was fear. Grace Slick at one point said from the stage, "They're killing children over there." And she obviously meant in Vietnam, but I was too young to understand that, and I thought she meant, "They're killing children over there," meaning that side of the stage. So I thought Grace Slick was going to kill me.

Full Mother Jones interview here.

Until Distortion comes out (January 15), "Too Drunk To Dream" can be found at RCRDLBL, and "Old Fools" at Said the Gramophone, for starters. Side note: that's how STG writes all the time--wildly earnest prose-poems/flights of descriptive fancy that make Pitchfork seem positively Carveresque. ("I'm well-supped beside this sad beast"...?) Read aloud in a dramatic voice. Very open-mic. Check out their top-whatever lists of the year for choicest nuggets.
(They do post great songs though.)

I'm can't wait for the album, and for these shows and seeing long-lost-far-flung friends.

Polaroid, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2002.

Friday, January 4, 2008


I'm mining material from a stack of eleven journals on my desk. Out of one fell this folded scrap of paper with notes from a party while I was at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I think it was at the Farmhouse. (A huge beautiful four-square out in the middle of a cornfield.)
• non-ambient lighting
• Brie rinds w/crust of baguette
• lame music, three people dancing
• a sofa full of people facing forward, watching in silence
• no non-writers
• except S.O.'s, looking uncomfortable
• discussion--celery engineered to taste like a Snickers bar
• drunk Irish guy, confessing too much, accent thickening
• Chris Cook in pirate sleeves lying on the floor
• wild card: someone's crappy date
• lack of gays (severe)
• someone shows up w/a 19-year-old student
("This is Katie. She was in my rhetoric class last semester.")
• cluster still bitterly workshopping that week's story
("I don't know why Frank liked it so much.")

The Foxhead was generally a safer bet.

UPDATE: I realized later that this must have been something I'd planned to draw a comic of. That makes more sense.

I used to draw sloppy little comix a lot, often in bars, on the backs of flyers, ink smudged with beer or coffee. I had a bunch of them up on my long-gone site Chelsey Hotel. One was a series, initiated at my then-Oslo haunt Paragrafen in 1997 (!), about the depressed turtle Skilpadde.

Another was an anticipatory postcard I made in 2000 for my lady at the time, before I even moved to Iowa. It turned out to be fairly accurate, except that pigs don't much live in cute little barnyards anymore.

Yes, I had baby bangs then.

Thursday, January 3, 2008


What's truly scary about the woods is not the animals, or the thick endless trees, or the pure inky darkness, or the sound of snapping branches. All those things belong there and are even beautiful. What's scary about the woods is the possible people in them.

Yesterday afternoon my writing buddy Erin and I left our creekside fortress to go exploring. We followed a logging road up deep into the woods. Then we noticed on the road a couple of folded-over rectangles of carpet like damp flat burritos on the path. We paused to look into the woods. It was incredibly dark: huge stumps, blankets of heavy moss, dense trees tilting into each other. Everything seemed on the verge of collapse. Another carpet lay there just off the road, at the base of a tree. Then I realized it wasn't a carpet, but skin.

The first thing my eye landed on was the cloven hoof. Then we saw the animal's head, muzzle-skin cut or eaten away to reveal skull and teeth, but forehead and eyes and ears still completely intact (as in, fairly fresh). It took a little bit to figure out what it was: an elk calf.

The remains were sad but not scary in and of themselves. They were just the animal.

Then we saw the many crumpled and bloody latex gloves scattered around it, and how precisely the hide had been cut and peeled back, and the discarded orange pop bottle.

Then Erin pointed out a deflated rainbow-colored child's raft dumped aside the road just opposite it.

Then the Twin Peaks effect kicked in. I am not the first to note that there's a reason David Lynch set his scariest tale in the Pacific Northwest.

I think it's time to turn back now, I said, and broke into an attempted-casual jog back toward the main road.

On the extremely swift walk home we constructed narratives around the scene, speculating. Were they bad people or starving people? Several people working quickly or one working messily? Killed it or just gutted it there? When? We got all forensic and adrenalized. But after I got off the phone with the poaching authorities my hands were shaking.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


This is Reginald*, my new best companion. And sole source of heat.

(*That is what it says on the door. I do not name inanimate objects.)

And here's where I'm writing, right now.

Driving here, as I climbed up into the coastal range, snow suddenly appeared. The trees wear it weirdly here, like trying on someone else's shirt, limbs held out, snow perched atop them. In Minnesota it frosts them completely, they wear it like long underwear.

Still the sight of it--exacerbated by sleep-deprivation and new-year's-day pensiveness, I'm sure--made tears come to my eyes. Is it ridiculous to feel so deeply for a form of precipitation?

Here, on the other side of the mountains, the coast-side, it is all fecundity and decay and red dead leaves. The trees are heavily bearded in furry, yellow-green moss and they all lean one way or another. Ferns burst up from the forest floor. Everything is growing on or from something else. The river runs so loudly it sounds like a shower always going in the next room.

I slept eleven hours and have spent all morning setting the ground for the novel I am finally going to write. Biological exuberance of the long-shelved short story. I am listening to Thurston Moore's "Trees Outside The Academy" and it is perfect.