Thursday, December 31, 2009


Everyone is reflecting on the decade and I guess I should too--holy cow, what a boom-and-bust decade, for me and everyone else, in every sense. (Happy to report I'm currently in boom mode, and not taking it for granted for a second.) On January 1, 2000 I was standing around a giant bonfire at Amy and Aaron's house in the woods, where they have solar panels and an outhouse, hiding only half-jokingly from Y2K. Then I flew back to New York City, where I lived. I lived there ten years ago! In my $750 one-bedroom apartment on a cozy little mafia corner in the Gowanus trough of Brooklyn. It had an eat-in kitchen and a bathroom with a tub and a hard bristly stick-on carpet and a living room and a large bedroom that faced Third Avenue. Tiny little baby roaches would race for the drain every time I came home and turned on the light. Foot Foot would sometimes catch the bigger ones and try to play with them. It was my first apartment all my own. I loved it. I was the research editor at Out and the merch person for the Magnetic Fields and had very short bangs and had not yet mailed in my application to Iowa.

But I am too impatient to think back about the last ten years because it wasn't until a few days ago that I suddenly actually realized it was the end of a decade (again? already?) and the thought overwhelms me. What I really want to think about right now are two forthcoming albums I am really excited about:

1. The Magnetic Fields' Realism arrives in January. I anticipate a perfect January album. (Every year I end up listening to some album on constant repeat in January; always a month of writing, solitude, solace. Then that album becomes forever a January album, evoking snow and woodsmoke, long drives, long nights, lamplight. Distortion shared it with Trees Outside the Academy in '08. Last year was the Blood Bank EP. ) This one: in the style of orchestrated '60s Brit-folk. "I can't stand the sound of an acoustic guitar for more than three minutes at a time," says Stephin. Well, bring it.

2. Quasi's new one comes in February on Kill Rock Stars. I've heard these songs live a few times now and they are the kind of songs that sound like classics on the first listen. A gentleman called Brewcaster put up several videos from their excellent June show at Disjecta in Portland. Check out "Little White Horse" and "Never Coming Back Again" and "Bye Bye Blackbird." Agh! I love them! To the point of teenaged hand-waving incoherence.

For the neoennial occasion: "Merry X-mas" by Quasi (from the unjustly overlooked When the Going Gets Dark.) Oh how do you do?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I'm home in Park Rapids, day nine of ten, perched at the Bella Caffé (sic). When I grew up here (insert creaky voice and waving of cane) we didn't have a coffee shop. How different things would have been. Now there are two: Bella, which serves fair-trade coffee and has a lovely sun room full of absurdly robust plants (e.g. a five-foot tall geranium) contributed and tended by my friends' dad in exchange for free coffee, and Jackpine Java, which has a fireplace and where all the tables and chairs are hewn from pine logs, and where half the space used to be a taxidermy joint but now features Tanning & Scrapbooking. By taxidermy joint I mean it was a veritable frat party of stuffed northwoods creatures, lounging and awkwardly socializing around more hewn-pine furniture for sale, including two buck heads mounted for corner display, facing each other with their antlers locked, and a fake pond scene with an improbable congregation of stiff grouse, raccoons, rabbits, a fox, and an upright black bear with a surprised look on his face, holding a bird feeder between his paws.

You can kind of see the sign here behind the snowplow pickup.

I am here to grade portfolios, but first I had to pick up the new Park Rapids Enterprise and turn to the Incidents report. Here is today's selection.

Mailbox and Christmas light damage was reported in Helga Township;
A couch was left on railroad tracks in Farden Township;
A Park Rapids store requested an officer for a party who's asleep/passed out in the store;
A Park Rapids caller reported he left his vehicle to be worked on two years ago and it has not been returned, "may be a problem to get back";
A 911 Park Rapids caller reports a male "assaulted her old man, has a wrench";
Suspicious activity was reported on Central Avenue, "possibly running a business out of his home, several cars late at night at this residence";
Exhibition driving was reported in Park Rapids;
Harassing text messages were reported in Park Rapids;
A Nevis vehicle was rummaged during the night;
A female reported going to a male's house in Helga Township to retrieve property and he answered the door with a baseball bat;
Two children were reported locked in a vehicle in Straight River Township;
Mail was opened and moved to another mailbox in Akeley Township;
A Lake George Township caller reported his ex calling three times, he has an order for protection;
A four-wheeler was reported towing four kids on a toboggan on city streets in Hubbard Township;
A male was reported rolling around and yelling in Park Rapids;
A Hart Lake Township caller reported two young guys with slurred speech stopping by her house, looks like they've been four-wheeling their truck in ditches and she thinks they are stuck, reporting party called to say they are now running over fence posts;
A Farden Township caller reported hearing a gunshot, back window has a hole in it;
A party was refusing to leave in Henrietta Township;
A person was reported kneeling by the side of the road in Nevis Township;
St. Joseph's reported a man was assaulted with a willow stick;
A deer was reported caught in a fence on CSAH 36, extricated but now it appears unable to move;
Four horses were reported out at a Helga Township intersection;
A Park Rapids store requested an officer as they are terminating an employee for theft but the employee is claiming he was being threatened, which is why he didn't ring up the items;
A caller reported putting her truck in the ditch on the east side of Highway 71, she thinks she can drive it out, requesting officer for traffic control.

Home sweet home.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I'm back in the Minnesota northwoods and my parents' house is full of activity. Bread baking, soup on the stove, wine and aquavit poured, people sprawled in a post-cross-country-ski post-sauna comfort-slump. Family friend Brita Sailer, standing in our kitchen, just now: "Has anybody heard about the storm? Are we gonna get any, or is it going to just go south of here?"

My mom: "I heard that we are going to get six inches."

Brita: "Well, I guess that's better than nothing!" [Face lights up, rubs hands together.]

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


The semester is drawing to a close and with it comes things like having your students over for dinner, which I did for my nonfiction worskhop, as I always do for my upper-level workshop. These twelve were particularly fabulous—adventurous, candid, going to some pretty real and raw places without sentimentality or self-mythologizing, but instead tough and clear-eyed writing. And, best of all: hilarious.

My friend here pointed out that I use the word "funny" as my default appreciative term. She asked me why that is. I had to think about it for a second, but this was my answer: It's not that I'm a sucker for the easy laugh, or need the instant gratification of humor. I think wit--sharp wit--in writing is a sign of intelligence and depth. I especially like wit when it's the searing agent for the rawer redder stuff that is anger and sadness. It spikes everything. It makes the sad stuff sadder and the dark stuff darker. It gives it complexity. Not everyone can be funny, I know, but all my favorite writers are deeply sad and deeply funny.

So. I assigned David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again to my nonfiction workshop this semester, and the final thing I had them read was the title essay. It's 97 pages long, as engrossing as a novel and as funny in its obsessive detail as anything I've ever read; this is my third go of it, I think, maybe fourth. 

The first time I read it, when it came out in 1997, I dreamed about David Foster Wallace for a week. I had one dream that he was hanging out with me in my room in Brooklyn and started trying to climb the blinds. I had another dream I was making him pancakes on the kitchen counter with an iron. That sort of thing.

The second time I read it was in 2001, in my second year at Iowa, while I was taking Frank Conroy's workshop. Again I dreamed about it/DFW all week. But what struck me anew this time was the section in which Wallace quotes Conroy, who shilled for Celebrity Cruises by writing a quasi-literary rave about his experience on board ("I prostituted myself," he told DFW). This section (it's section 8) deconstructs Conroy's essay for a full six pages along the lines of
Conroy's essay is graceful and lapidary and attractive and assuasive. I submit that it is also completely sinister and despair-producing and bad.
Extensive and detailed examples follow. Pages of them. Yet Wallace also says that Conroy was "frank and forthcoming and in general just totally decent-seeming about the whole thing" in conversation, and that Stop-Time "is arguably the best literary memoir of the twentieth century and one of the books that made poor old yours truly want to try to be a writer."

So, at the end of the semester, Frank invited our workshop over to his house for dinner. Maggie, his wife, was there, sparkly-eyed and lean and cool, and his teenaged son ducked in and out, and their big yellow lab Gracie whose name I heard as "Crazy" obligingly traveled among our petting hands. For dinner they served a vegetable stir-fry on noodles, covered in a delectable sauce whose secret Frank revealed with relish: "Add half a cup of tahini near the end!" We sat around a big beautiful old table, and I remember the light was warm and low and comforting, and I remember that we--or at least I--well, I'm pretty sure all of us--got quite drunk, not least of all Frank, and I had just read the essay that week, and at some point in dinner I could not resist any longer and I asked him about what he thought of the David Foster Wallace essay.

Frank was very magnanimous about it. Others at the table had read the essay too, of course, and of course we wanted to know what he thought of David Foster Wallace as a whole. After all, he'd spent the whole semester drilling MEANING! SENSE! CLARITY! into our heads, ruthlessly and publicly tearing apart our sentences, proclaiming "You must write prose which cannot be bent!" and generally delivering edicts with verbal exclamation points (one of which was that you only get seven exclamation points to use in your lifetime, per Henry James.) And here is DFW, unwieldy and knotty and verbose and uncontainable.

But Frank liked him. He said he was wonderful, and "wildly inventive," and hearing his praise was a surprise and also a relief. And it was, peculiarly, a thrill to hear this writer speak of this other writer in this firsthand way: my actual teacher, addressing my actual very favorite writer at the time (I was a real headbanger for DFW in those still-pretty- sparse-internet days, tracking down every little piece that came out in every literary journal, etc., dying for the next book.) I don't know why it mattered. But it did, for some reason, to me.

Now Frank is gone. David Foster Wallace is gone. I miss them both. I miss knowing they are in the world. But reading "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" I hear Wallace's voice so distinctly and remember how hungry I was for it in my twenties, how much I could love a writer, a voice, a book. And as December kicks in strong and the year and semester wind down, and now I am the one opening the door to my students bundled in scarves and hats, I also remember the rest of that evening at Frank's, when we all retired to the living room, and inspected his little Grammy up on the shelf (for writing liner notes for something; it was small and old and looked much more modest than you'd expect), and Paul played a song on the guitar that was about Steve Marlowe, and then Maggie brought out baskets of musical instruments and we embarked upon the funniest sort of dozen-person impromptu jam session. My oddest and by far favorite moment was when Frank handed me the melodica and said, "You blow! I'll play!" And so I put that long ribbed plastic tube in my mouth and blew, and Frank played the little keys, eyes wide and wild behind his wire-rimmed glasses; I blew and blew and kept blowing even though it made me dizzy, even though it was ridiculous and a little embarrassing and I wanted to laugh, I had to keep the air going, I had to keep it going for Frank.