Friday, December 26, 2008


I hit the thrift stores of Park Rapids today with Amy and my brother Nate. My favorite store in the world is Rich's Antiques, which consists of two neighboring white houses joined by a connecting addition, all of it stacked floor to ceiling with weird and awesome junk/treasures. It is miscellaneous heaven.

I found some great midcentury dinner plates, a hefty, crusty Griswold cast-iron skillet ("Buy it!" Amy commanded, and I listened, she is the chef), a small snowy painting, and a pair of handmade birchbark lampshades.

But the real find of the day was at Bearly Used, the thrift store a block away on Main, where I uncovered not only a quilted flannel for two bucks and a Pendleton shirt for four, but a T-shirt jammed into a crowded upper rack. Grabbing the soft brown edge of it and tugging it into view, I glanced at it indifferently before I realized what I was looking at.

It was a Swan Island T-shirt.

The late great Swan Island was my friends' band. They were based in Portland. Who in Park Rapids had a Swan Island shirt? They played only one national tour, and it was a couple of years ago. They never came anywhere near here--the closest they got was probably the Twin Cities, 200 miles away. The band didn't print a whole lot of those shirts. And, strangest of all: I designed that shirt.

Funny to stumble upon this artifact from my life that was relatively recent--the summer of 2006--but seems so distant now, in both time and place. That was a time when it seemed I saw Swan Island play every week--Mississippi Pizza, Holocene, the Wonder, basements, wherever. I drew that volcano design in black ink on white paper in my unfinished, cluttered garage (which Melissa dubbed my "man-shack"), during a hot week in August, with the garage door rolled up to open a wall of outdoor light, the pear tree in back heavy-limbed with fruit. I did not even have Emmett yet to curl up on the couch behind me. I was living on the last money left from my Norway job.

After making a good go of it, and a couple of great videos, Swan Island played their farewell show last January. The garage is now finished, transformed into a luminous pine-walled studio, and I am thousands of miles away from it. My life in Portland semi-exists still, but tenanted, tenuous.

And stranger still to be faced with my own design, lines drawn by my hand, staring back at me, somehow transported from my adopted hometown to my original one. The nostalgic pang surprises me; it's a shock to realize that something so recent is already gone. The shirt has been worn and washed many times, it's soft and a little shrunken and fading around the seams, but the gold ink still glitters.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


R.I.P. Harold Pinter, master of mundane menace and domestic dread, one of the most singularly distinctive writers of the last century.
The playwright Tom Stoppard said that before Mr. Pinter, “One thing plays had in common: you were supposed to believe what people said up there. If somebody comes in and says, ‘Tea or coffee?’ and the answer is ‘Tea,’ you are entitled to assume that somebody is offered a choice of two drinks, and the second person has stated a preference.” With Mr. Pinter there are alternatives, “such as the man preferred coffee but the other person wished him to have tea,” Mr. Stoppard said, “or that he preferred the stuff you make from coffee beans under the impression that it was called tea.”
I have read and admired a number of his plays, but equally significant to me is his influence on some of my favorite writers. Sure, Pinter can be easily parodied--like Raymond Carver, like anyone with a singular and instantly recognizable style--but I can't imagine DFW's pause-laden stories "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men" or the disturbing, ominous "Far Away" by Caryl Churchill existing without him.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


A few weeks back my friend and childhood neighbor Tresa Undem wrote a column in the Enterprise, the newspaper that once employed her dad (reporter and cantankerous columnist) and me (hotheaded teen overachiever.) I wish I could link it here but the editorial page is print-only. It was funny and moving and it made me miss her dad, and it incited me to finally articulate some long-brewing thoughts--about Al, of course, but also about small towns and politics.

So I wrote a letter to the editor, and they printed it, and this is what it said.
I knew Al Undem from the time I was in kindergarten, spent summers in the cabin next door, and eventually worked with him at the Enterprise when I was in my late teens. My ideological opposite in many ways, Al loved to give me a hard time. He challenged me, teased me, and he taught me a lot about writing. But most importantly, despite his vehement disagreement with my core political views (I was a diehard liberal; he declared Reagan the greatest president in history), he took my thinking and my writing seriously. He read it and he gave me feedback, he showed me the ropes, he challenged me, and he supported me. He was my neighbor and my mentor and my friend.

One thing that bothers me about the kind of rhetoric that many politicians, most recently but not exclusively Sarah Palin, deploy in their campaigns is the idea that small towns harbor a single kind of people—that small towns represent one particular kind of politics and values. If there's anything I learned growing up in Park Rapids, and working at the Enterprise, it's that small towns have all kinds of people. Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, moderates, wingnuts, hippies, hunters, vegans, religious people, non-religious people, town people and country people, pro-WalMart and anti-WalMart. Our small-town politics will never be uniform, but what we do learn from growing up in these close quarters--which apparently many politicians have not--is how to live with and learn from and even love the people who are think differently from you.

Forget us vs. them. In small towns, we can't help but be both. And we're better for it. Al Undem--always next door to me, it seemed, whether at the lake or the desk across from me--reminds me of that. I miss him and I always will.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I am up in the woods, playing board games, reading books in my long underwear (currently A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, holy cow it's riveting), eyeing two expectant boxes full of student fiction portfolios, and tromping around in knee-deep snow. My friends are the ones up to more interesting stuff. To wit:

Amy made a fabulous gingerbread house, northwoods-style, complete with sugar-glass windows, rifle and woodpile;

Megan took some beautiful pictures of Portland covered in snow (!);

Donal posted pictures from the Empire State and City replete with his trademark skewed haunting-ness;

Cathy's fantastic (in both senses of the word) poetry narrative Dance Dance Revolution has come out in paperback;

Mike and Donal have a dark and seductive new website for their movie, October Country;

and my dog developed his first-ever whisker icicles after a brisk morning snowshoe.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I saw Australia last night. Going to the movies is a special kind of pleasure in a tiny town like this one. There's only one screen and one movie at a time, so stripped of the numbing effect of overabundance, you have to wait for a movie you actually want to see--or can at least tolerate seeing. The price of admission is $3, except on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when it's $2. (Or you can get a book of nine tickets for $24. Nine!) And you step into a lobby that has been untouched since the sixties at latest--the walls are quilted pleather, the carpet dark red and swirly-patterned, the seats leather and creaky, and the screen enormous.

For pure ridiculous entertainment value, Australia was worth almost every cent of the two bucks I paid to see it. Though it takes place in 1939, Hugh Jackman wears tight, low-cut trousers and sexy rugged leather belts. Nicole Kidman's impassive wall of botoxed forehead and newly squishy lips leave her with tears and a vicious strut as her sole emotive tools. The script is like a little kid who is so pleased with something he's said that he repeats it over and over until all the adults are rolling their eyes--if a line is important, you can bet it'll be uttered at least ten times. (I would like a count of how many times "I will sing you to me" crops up.) (Said singing sounds like, "Mango, tango.") The movie has a forehead-slapping, head-in-hands, groaning-in-disbelief case of Noble Savage. Aboriginal mystical dances in silhouette against the sunset! Cue the didgeridoo! And the kid, the poor kid, he is so very cute, but...

CJ: The boy was a little bit Jar-Jar Binks.
MICHAEL: And a lot Mowgli.
CJ: What was with his weird pidgin dialect? No one else was speaking that way in the movie. ["Him want to speakum to bad coppers."]
MICHAEL: It sounded like Tonto.

Ayako and I had to cover our faces to muffle our giggles at the romance montage (swimming naked in a waterfall?) and the dramatic reunion among the smoke and wreckage. We didn't want to ruin it for the still, silent viewers ahead of us. But it was camp hilarity like I haven't experienced since The Day After Tomorrow.

CJ: That ending music climaxed for like five minutes before they finally let us go.
ADAM: The movie was in climax the whole time.

Let's not even go into how Kidman is lovingly and excessively called "Mrs. Boss" by her aboriginal staff and aforementioned kid, or how the Chinese cook's name is Mr. Sing-song.

P.S. "Chunder" is Aussie slang for vomit!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I think the genre that is social-networking self-portraiture, i.e. Arm's-Length Photos You Took Of Yourself To Put On MySpace/Facebook, will one day be the subject of thorough analysis and maybe some kind of applied theory. In the meantime here are some field notes.

The Old Days (2002-2005 or so, a.k.a. The Friendster Era):
• Characterized by frequent cellphone photos, identifiable by graininess, low light, a photo-of-a-VHS-video quality, and a frame that is almost all face.
• Inexplicably popular: photos of oneself without a shirt on, BUT! only from the shoulders up. Like, hey hey, I'm topless under this frame. Sober, rational adults were known to succumb to this temptation. The accompanying facial expression was serious, smoky eyed, mouth downturned--i.e., "sexy." Drawback: composition calls to mind a highly realistic wax bust rather than a pinup.

The Dawn of Myspace (2004-2007):
• The Helicopter Shot becomes the dominant form of self-portraiture. The subject holds the camera up above her head and looks up into it, usually widening eyes and maybe forming a dainty pout. Creates the illusion of big eyes and tapering chin. And tapering body. Single most inaccurate form of self-representation out there. Everyone looks like an anime figure.

The Screen Is Mirror (2007-present)
• The current predominant medium is the Macbook built-in camera. If the sepia effect, the colored-pencil effect, the mirror effect, or any of the selections from the built-in effect library haven't tipped you off, you will know this photo by
a) the faintly bluish glow it illuminates the subject's face with in low light
b) the fact that, as with the old-school photobooth, the subject is nearly always gazing upon their own visage on the screen instead of the camera lens itself. The gaze tends to be down and to the right.

• This provides the single most accurate avenue to other people's Mirror Face since the ubiquitous group mirrors of high school (locker room, restroom, etc.). You know, the multiple tiny adjustments we all instantly make when we look in the mirror--the widened eyes, the tilt of jaw, the pursed lips. The face we choose to see vs. the face everyone actually sees. Here it all is, on the Macbook.
Furthermore, most people don't bother to flip the photo to reflect reality, so it is in fact a reversed image of their face, which means this is what they think they look like all the time. But it's not, not quite.*

(*Side note: at the Pink Pony in New York (sadly, new Frenchy version, not old coffeehouse), there is (or was in 2002) a True Mirror in the restroom. The True Mirror is actually a box with a series of mirrors that manage to reverse the usual mirror image to reflect the way you really look--not backwards, which is the way you usually see yourself. I went to wash my hands, and the moment I looked in the mirror was one of the single most disconcerting experiences of my life. My whole face seemed slightly distorted, wrong, as if it had melted slightly to one side. All my little asymmetries seemed radically magnified. When I reached up to adjust my hair, my hand flew to the wrong side. The lettering on my shirt was legible. I felt horrified and then kind of nauseated. That was my face?
I went and got my friends, Norwegians who were visiting, and we all crowded into the bathroom and freaked out at our own faces. Of course everyone else's face looked perfectly normal to us. It was like, "No, that can't be what I look like!" / "Yes, that's exactly what you look like" / wails / giggles / reassurances / face-making.
Once I got used to my actual face I left feeling better. I had a whole new face I didn't know about. I wasn't just limited to what I saw in the mirror. I realized my face was pretty much out of my control and that was liberating, in a way.)

Timeless Tropes:
• Photos where the subject thrusts their lips forward--once again, to be sexy. Whether ironic or serious is unclear; usually I think it is both ("I am playing at being sexy, ha ha, but seriously it's pretty sexy right?") (Aside: The word "sexy" is starting to look peculiar to me.)
• Photos taken at arm's length and slightly up wherein the subject is not looking at the camera but looking off to some angle contemplatively, pensively, as if not taking a picture of oneself but caught in the act of Deep Thought.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Björk talking about her television in her fantastic Icelandic accent.

Like many Icelanders, she has trouble saying the "sh" sound, and often says "ss" instead. I find this adorable. My Icelandic comrades when I studied in Oslo liked to play guitar and sing songs, and I quietly lost it when they took on the Beatles' "She." ("Ssseeeee....")

I can't help but be a little bummed by her impeccable British English in the later videos.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


A friend and I were recently discussing which movie stars we think are hot. Lest this sound vapid, let me clarify: it was a genuine challenge, due to the queer factor, or maybe it's the punk factor, or the andro factor, or whatever. We honestly couldn't really think of any. Most actors and actresses are obviously beautiful, but they're mainstream-hot, straight-hot, facialist-and-stylist hot. I can objectively appreciate their appeal, but they lack the scuffed-up edges and androgynous streak that I find genuinely foxy. It's strangely easier for me to identify boy actors with a kind of femme sensitivity (early Johnny Depp, River Phoenix) that translates to my sensibility.

Last year I went to a pre-release screening of I'm Not There at the Portland Art Museum. While we were shuffling in, I was captivated by The Cutest Girl I'd Ever Seen in Portland, standing in front of me in line, apparently with Gus Van Sant. She was tiny, with this wispy chocolate-brown hair curling toward her cheeks, wearing a little cotton shirt and short shorts and tall flat-soled elfin boots, and had her arms folded over her chest in a modest rather than defiant way. Dude, why have I never seen her around? I wondered. Portland is a pretty small town. I figured she must be straight. And maybe reclusive too. Sigh. I had never seen anyone So Cute.

But actually, I found out later, this is who it was.

She was in town making Wendy and Lucy with Kelly Reichardt.

Of course the movie star I end up finding completely irresistible is one in total Northwest mode, un-made-up and tousled and plaid-clad, accompanied by a mutt. Type runs deep, I guess. But I wish more actors looked like this, in life or on screen. Even in movies and series designed to appeal to lesbians, the actors tend to be either styled to the max (the L Word cast glossy-maned and eyelinered within an inch of their lives, even the supposed drag-king character unveils Rapunzel-length tresses), low-budget mulleted and hideous, or mining the dusty ruts of James Dean derivative, Dinah Shore Weekender, and B-list boring femme.

Wendy and Lucy has nothing to do with the gays, it's just good art with an appealing and real-looking protagonist (inasmuch as an actor is designed to look "real"), and I guess that follows with the rest of my taste too, which is that most music and literature and movies that are meant to be Filed Under Gay/Lesbian feel crappy and contrived to me, and the things I love most may or may not be gay-authored or -themed but speak to a sensibility, aesthetic and story-wise, that often has to do with being an outsider or misfit in some way.

Beyond Michelle Williams, the movie looks beautiful. (And parts of it were filmed in my neighborhood, which I miss.) I can't wait to see it, though I know it is going to break my heart. Jon Raymond read from the short story upon which it's based at Loggernaut and already said heart was sinking in just fifteen minutes. Even the trailer, at the point where she begins to cry--agh, I unfortunately know why, and the mere two seconds of it sprung tears to my eyes. Its prescience re: hard luck and broke-ness is intense. Sadly to say, it couldn't be more timely.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


3. Snow fell all evening and shortly after midnight, I took Emmett out for a long romp in it. It was thick and deep and the flakes falling were big as pearls. I take these long cold super-late walks almost every night now. I love them. They clean my mind.

2. This afternoon I spotted what I first thought was a pack of greyhounds right across the creek. Then I realized they were deer: a doe and three adolescent fawns (post-spots.) They bounded in big exuberant circles, kicking up snow, cavorting. Deer, playing!

1. Tonight my mom called me back from the message I left her; it's her birthday and she may have been tipsy. This, if you know my mom, is pretty funny. "I have been partying all weekend!" she said. Birthday brunch at a friend's house with nine of nearest and dearest; more friends dropping by to return loaned dishes, and more bottles of wine being uncorked; an inner-circle celebration of Brita Sailer's reelection to the Minnesota house, for which my mom was campaign manager this year. Whenever people ask, "What do you do in a small town?", imagining endless boredom I suppose, I think of my parents and their whirlwind social calendar and am thankful to mostly live in a place where I can get away with not having as action-packed a life.

Today, Pearl Harbor day, she turns fifty-six. When I got Emmett two years ago I attempted to make today his birthday as well, as revenge for mom assigning her beagle my birthday. (Yes she did.)

But then I realized I had counted a month wrong and he is actually probably a January dog. With a rescue mutt, it's all guesswork.

So today is just for my mom, who can't imagine ever being bored; who has nicknamed her pets Stinkweed (the beagle) and Sticky Note (the cat); who will bake a cake on any occasion or none at all, and claim it is for dad, and then eat it herself; who buys Cool-Whip by the tub; who grew up in a town of 800 people and many moose; who, at age 16, wearing a brown vinyl jumper and white go-go boots, was asked out by Frankie Valli's saxophone player (she declined); who reads literary novels faster than I can keep up, yet also gets a kick out of "The Girls Next Door"; who never hesitates to exaggerate for dramatic effect; who decided at age 49 to open a bookstore, an independent bookstore in a small town no less, and made it a smashing success; who teaches tiny kids with messed-up bodies how to move in this world; who unconsciously hums along in harmony with anything she hears; who is probably owed a grandchild or two (sorry, Mom, one of us is bound to get you one eventually); and who totally leaves me panting in her wake on the cross-country skate-ski trail.

When I was younger, "You're just like your mother" provoked me to protest vigorously. Now when I think about it, I'm more like, I sure hope so.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Thunderant introduces "Feminist Bookstore," Episode Two. Slays me! Click to watch.

If you haven't yet seen the first one, do immediately.

(And check out that incredible flute playing in the theme song. Ha.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


At what point do you suppose voicemail will stop instructing us on what it is and how to use it?

You know, You have reached the voice mailbox of number FIVE. OH. THREE. THREE. THREE. THREE. TWO. OH. MY. GOD. The cellular customer you are trying to reach is not available. To leave a message, press one, or just wait for the tone; to send a numeric page, press two; to leave a callback number, press three; to listen to your message, press four; to twist the tips of your nerves into tiny raw knots, press five; to accelerate your own inevitable decline, press six; to squander the last of your anytime minutes, when you are finished recording, hang up, or press pound for more options.

Thanks, but after ten years or whatever, I THINK WE'VE GOT IT.

Monday, December 1, 2008


In a cafe in Louisville a couple days ago, I was privy to the mad genius of a man with a wild beard, a pot belly, and a fishing T-shirt, holding forth solo at a table by the door. I paid no attention at first. But after a while, I started to listen, drawn in by the repeated evocation of Elmer Fudd. I strained my ears and this is what I picked up. I started transcribing.
I look in the mirror and I see the Elmer Fudd staring back.
You don’t see the Elmer Fudd staring back.
He doesn’t see the Elmer Fudd staring back.
Nobody sees the Elmer Fudd staring back.
The world around us, it’s all…

[pause to listen to unspoken question]

I don’t have anybody who can truly see.


There may be, but I’m not aware of them.

After working through it for a while longer, along with some digressions about Will Smith and villainy, the guy genuinely nailed it. If I had to distill his brilliance down to one line, here it is. Think of all the people this exactly encapsulates:
The guy is a cartoon. But he doesn’t see the cartoon. He doesn’t see the Fudd.