Friday, January 30, 2009


Well. I fell into a January torpor, fingers numbed by deep subzero temperatures, brain numbed by too much free time, and pleasantly distracted by books and travel and a very hot log-fired sauna.

Many posts in the hopper, coming soon.

In the meantime, here is a tip, in case you decide to drive on a lake.

Make sure you drive with your door slightly ajar. That way, if your car falls through the ice, you can hop out right away.

You won't necessarily have time to roll down the window and swim out. True story, per my Dad: Someone drove over a place where the ice had cracked and the crack had then branched. When his car hit this spot, a third crack connected the previous two to form a triangle, which broke and sank beneath the weight of the vehicle. This guy, whose door was prudently ajar, jumped out just in time to see
his car plunge through the hole;
and rapidly sink;
and the thick triangle of ice bob back up and snap right back into place like nothing had happened.

This made my breath come short. The thought of looking up at that impenetrable ice ceiling, and the light illuminating it where the snow was washed off.

You can bet that if I ever drive on a lake--I have walked, snowshoed, skied, and dogsledded upon them, but never motored--I will be that annoying person who insists on holding the door open despite the -46 windchill. And I will not budge.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Suburb followup. I think where the suburbs get interesting is where they diverge from what they're intended to be. My colleague Julia Christensen embarked on a fascinating project exploring how abandoned big-box stores get repurposed.
America is becoming a container landscape of big boxes connected by highways. When a big box store upsizes to an even bigger box "supercenter" down the road, it leaves behind more than the vacant shell of a retail operation; it leaves behind a changed landscape that can't be changed back. Acres of land have been paved around it. Highway traffic comes to it; local roads end at it. With thousands of empty big box stores spread across America, these vistas have become a dominant feature of the American landscape.
Basically, she explained at a recent reading I attended, it's cheaper for Wal-Mart to build an entirely new building, so they can turn the lights off at the first and on at the second simultaneously, than to simply add on or renovate. But the abandoned Wal-Mart is sold under a strict covenant that it cannot house anything that remotely resembles the original tenant--not so much as a potato chip may be sold there, or anything that would compete with Wal-Mart, which sells pretty much everything. So people have gotten creative and turned old big-boxes into churches, go-kart tracks, charter schools, museums... you name it.

See some examples, or better, peruse the big beautifully-designed book.

Today the New York Times mentions her project as well as the general problem of abandoned half-built suburbs and exurbs. ("What Will Save the Suburbs?") Mere raze-and-salvage isn't going to do it; the building materials often aren't even good enough to be worth saving. A commenter makes an astute point that the soil beneath the tracts is more valuable than the buildings will ever be--I've seen houses sprout up like weeds all over the rich fields surrounding Fargo, ND and Iowa City and Beaverton, OR. Farmland is too easy to develop--already flat and cleared, and the only farmers who can make money from growing food are the ones hooked into the agribusiness mega-naut.

I've got to finally read The Geography of Nowhere, which my brother gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago and I've put off reading because I was worried it would depress me.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


My childhood home, which you can't even see for the trees.

I am not a great driver. I just don't like it much. I had a two-car accident in 1995, exploding airbags and all, that has forever made me conscious every time I get behind the wheel that I am steering a multi-ton metal death machine. I have no fear of flying, but every time I sneeze on the freeway I'm convinced that single shut-eyed second is the one where I'll crash into my death. I keep my hands at ten and two on the wheel.

Yet there is one area in which I am a better driver than most people I now know: on snowy and icy roads. This is no innate talent, but a necessary skill, like swimming and knowledge of hypothermia, that you need to survive in northern Minnesota. I realized it as I came to the end of my three-day drive homeward a couple of weeks ago, turning off the highway for the final mile of road that leads to my childhood home. Though it's twisting, hilly, and uniformly white with thick-packed snow, a road that visitors tend to creep along hunched over the wheel, I sail right down it like a rollercoaster, confident and steady.

I simply know it so well.

There have been times when I ached with envy at the opportunities my friends and college classmates who went to posh suburban high schools or private academies enjoyed. (AP classes? A black-box little theater? A glass-blowing wing? Cutting class to lounge in a coffeehouse or go shopping?) There were times when Park Rapids felt like the smallest, most boring, most disconnected place in the world. No music venue, no coffeshop (then), no bookstore (then, except in the corner of the Radio Shack), no gays, no underground culture, not even a mall for sixty miles, and of course no internet back then, just a three-block Main Street lined with pickup trucks and keggers at remote gravel pits and long drives through the country to get to each other's houses. My friends and I spent a lot of time hanging out in each other's basements and garages and the parking lot of Subway. Some of the boys formed cover bands that would play at the bowling alley or the building that housed the hockey rink when it was thawed for the summer. Sometimes for fun we would just go to one of the 24-hour grocery stores late at night, make up a list of weird things to find, and roam the aisles, pushing each other in shopping carts.

But now I feel lucky that I grew up in a place that that is so much itself. Fewer and fewer Americans live in rural places, only 21 percent now, and I am glad that chance and parental choice landed me among that shrinking number. In fact I think my upbringing outside the city limits plants me in the 16.4% who the census says lived "not in place." No place at all. Yet nearly every story I write emerges from a setting in northern Minnesota. The place is as much a part of the story as the characters.

The problem with the suburbs as story settings is that although they provide ample social commentary fodder, there is a certain uniformity to all of them, no matter where they are. I know some suburbs have become increasingly diverse in recent years, but though their human contents have changed, their layouts and physical presence largely have not. I generalize a bit here, but so do suburbs, so let's call it even. Unlike the cities they face and the countryside at their backs, which tend to have distinct personalities and eclectic structures and the possibility of surprise, most suburbs are designed for homogeneity and comfort, built on proven patterns and templates and plans. This placelessness tends to translate into fiction, too. I feel like when I read a suburban story, I am likely to encounter similar themes of ennui and tedium and social sniping and class aspirations and anxious parenting and stifled marriages. But it doesn't matter a whole lot if it's suburban New Jersey or suburban Minneapolis or suburban Phoenix. The foliage may be different but the suburb's character is pretty similar.

Of course there is infinite mystery in the human mind and heart no matter where you are or where you live. And being from a small town or from a big city does not automatically make you more interesting or a better artist. As Wallace Stegner said, Anyone who has lived through childhood has more than ample writing material to work with. I just feel more deeply connected to writing that has a strong sense of place, more wildness and uncertainty in the surroundings, where you can turn a corner and come upon something never expected.

Related reading: the fantastic article "No Place Like Home" by David Guterson in Harper's Magazine, originally published in 1992. The then-brand-new gated community he describes is so stunningly controlled and rigid that it swings far enough to qualify as great fodder for fiction--something fabulist and terrifying.