Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Years after the fact, I can joke about high school theater and its devout practitioners. The drama we threw ourselves into and created, our over-emoting, our line-quoting, all the ways we fell in love with our own adolescent performance. It's an easy target. But yesterday I attended the funeral of my beloved English teacher, play director, and speech coach Martin Carter, and was hit hard in the heart by how important and wonderful that freaky funny little microcosm was and is.

Maybe things are different in urban and suburban schools, where the stakes are higher, competition stiffer, and the top talent really might go on to be professional actors. But in the homogeneous middle-of-nowhere small-town school where physical prowess reigns and strict gender codes keep kids brutally in their place, the theater department is a rare refuge. A place to escape and a place to pretend to be someone else. To try on other lives for size. To construct another time and place to inhabit where you are implicitly important to the story. And Mr. Carter was genius at bringing us in and making us feel like we mattered.

He had a lot of pain in his life--he'd been orphaned young and raised in a foster home, and his only son was in and out of trouble and died tragically--and the way he carried that was neither a hard bitter scar or a needy open wound, but a steady pulse of sensitivity, the openness of his marvelously expressive elastic face, his slouchy, purposeful stride. It fueled his drive to make life better for the kids he could reach every day. He was a magnet for misfits, nerds, smart kids, shy kids, weirdos, kids that were or felt different in any way.

He had a big classroom next to both an outside exit and the door backstage—a gateway and escape. In it he taught literature by day, coached speech practice after school, and gathered us for play rehearsals in the evening. Mr. Carter's room was like a living room for me and my friends and our fellow speech-and-drama nerds. It was where you could go to find each other, to take a break, to eat lunch in his office in peace. In the back of the room were three closet-sized dressing rooms, in which I smoked my first and last puff of clove cigarette (I fell down from the headrush). In the makeup room, our faces were slicked with thick sticks of stage makeup, a heavy perfumey grease that was near impossible to wash off. Newly crow's-feeted and cheekboned, we blinked at ourselves in the wall of mirrors, trying to touch without smearing the new faces on our faces, these garish caricatures of adulthood: Is this what I'll look like? In the costume closet, surrounded by decades of discarded prom dresses, we turned off the lights, gathered around my Ouija board and summoned spirits who spelled badly and alluded vaguely to ominous deaths.

No matter how ridiculous, we were always welcome.

When we would go down to the Twin Cities for the state speech meets and one-act play competitions, or I would visit Amy who had moved to a cushy suburb, it shocked me how well-trained and equipped other schools were. The immaculate sets, the cushy auditoriums and classrooms, the students' exquisite poise--even the techies scurrying around were super-cool, dressed to the alternative nines. We were a ragtag northern bunch, with our nice clothes from the Fargo mall, rayon dresses and teal button-ups and cheap shoes from Baker's, many of us still permed and mulleted. I people-watched with awe and fascination and occasional seizures of inferiority. We were so small.

But Mr. Carter elevated us all. Everyone knew him, and he knew everyone; he was sort of a legend. And he took for granted that we were as good as or better than anyone else there, no matter where we or they came from. And, it turned out, we were. He loved to win, yes, and he often did--but mostly he just loved us. The real prize, always, was him.

Photo from the Enterprise from 1993, the year he technically retired--yet his funeral was full of current high school students. "I see Mr. Carter pretty much every day," one girl told me. Teacher for life.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Over on the University of Minnesota Press blog, a brief Q&A with Lisa Uddin, who writes about zoo shame, i.e. "why people feel bad at and about the zoo":
These decades [the 1960s and 70s] of intense revitalization transformed many U.S. zooscapes from the so-called “Naked Cage” template of animal display – widely condemned – to early incarnations of the naturalistic, immersive enclosures that typify zoo design today. Zoos also began revitalizing their animal collections in this period, breeding select species whose populations in and outside of captivity were dwindling. This spatial and biological overhaul often gets discussed as an institutional turn to wildlife conservation. What is missing from these accounts is analysis of how the turn was also fully contemporary with the smoldering racial tensions that defined the urban experience in the long postwar period, and, more specifically, the shame that made cities unbearable for so many Americans... I am considering how zoo renewal variously reflected feelings about race and urban space, how it amplified those feelings, and how it offered channels for relief. The shame of American zoos, I argue, is part of the shame of American cities. 
The last time I was at a zoo was in the summer of 2008, when I went to see some bands play at the Oregon Zoo (friend of a friend playing, got in free, otherwise it would pain me to pass dollars through a zoo's ticket window.) The Cowboy Junkies were playing when we arrived and I wasn't ready yet to succumb to a blanket on the grass, the soporific was already heavy in the July afternoon air, so I wandered the perimeter and came upon the elephants.

The elephants were walking back and forth in the same easy meter as the Cowboy Junkies. I thought of a beautiful essay a friend of mine wrote about watching these same elephants sway in time to the music. "They were dancing!" she said, and that fit so well with what her essay was about, a moment of relief and beauty and redemption after an ugly, rattling event. But what I learned later, by accident, was that elephants sway when they're distressed.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I was thinking recently about how what you listen to while your brain is still forming, up through your early twenties, is extremely important. I'd been walking the dogs on a leafy lovely day and suddenly this stupid plinky song from my churchgoing childhood reappeared in my head like a little religious Chucky. It would not leave. I remembered every word, every verse. When I tried to dispell it with another song, an even more insipid Sunday School song popped in. ("Stop! And let me tell you/ What the Lord has done for me." With hapless leader Mrs. Crandall wielding a cardboard stop-sign prop.)

The best antidote to this was going to see Guided by Voices on Halloween night. I got Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes when they came out in 1994 and 1995, and I fell instantly for the off-kilter lyrics, tumbling melodies, songs that launch right into their best parts and cut out before they're over. Their brevity just makes them sweeter--the songs know to leave the party while it's still good, even if the famously inebriated band members don't. And I found I remembered every word and melody, even ones I hadn't heard for years.
I think these guys are legitimately grandfathered past the no-smoking law.
Guided by Voices seem to embody something particularly Ohio in a way that makes me feel a surge of affection for the place: their exquisite tunefulness wrapped up in unpretentious bar-band raucousness, the bass player's Spinal Tap-worthy ruffled shirt and open vest and vertical-bass moves, the wiry guitarist in his Dead Kennedys shirt hands-free chain-smoking through the entire show, Tobin Sprout playing diligently, delicately off to the side with a sort of wary bemusement on his face, Pollard the fourth-grade schoolteacher downing a half-dozen too many and singing his heart out, barking out the title of every song--"This is a song called 'Echoes Myron!'" "This is a song called "My Valuable Hunting Knife!'"--before launching in.

I last saw GBV play in 1995 and this show was, to my surprise, ten times better. Or maybe not to my surprise, because at that show they got so drunk they could barely play. This time, they were still drunk, but more joyful, and louder, and more loved—the crowd was mostly thirty- and forty-something Ohio folks, true fans, old-school, fists in the air, singing and bouncing along. They totally ruled the college kids in quantity and quality. All I need to tell you is, a student in front of me pulled out her Blackberry and checked her e-mail during "I Am a Scientist."

I stayed until halfway through the third encore, by which time Pollard had shifted from the onstage beer cooler to drinking straight out of a tequila bottle, a fight had broken out during "Motor Away," and I knew where the night was headed. Best to leave while the party's still good. Still great, in fact. Their songs are forever lodged in my auditory cortex, and for that I'm forever grateful.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Why watch Guided by Voices ten yards away when you can watch them on your camera ten inches away?

SAM COOMES: People used to come to those shows, when it was underground rock, to get loose and lose their shit. Now the motivations are different—they come to make YouTube videos on their iPhones. I don’t know what the fuck is going on…. In your mind you think the older generation is complaining that the kids are too crazy or too weird and they can’t understand it, but now it’s kind of the opposite: The older people today are complaining that the kids are too well-behaved and clean and commercialized. It’s a strange turn of events. Satyricon definitely represents that old era for me.

--from the Willamette Week's oral history of doomed and beloved skanky rock dive Satyricon.

See also the terrifying NYT Sunday Styles piece last week about the iPhone as baby-hypnotist.

Monday, October 18, 2010


I went to a candlelight vigil last week for the queer and perceived-queer teens who have taken their own lives. Vigils often feel a little awkward to me but I felt it was important to show up, to be visible and present. After the fifteen minutes of silence, people got up and spoke. One said, Remember that even though this is getting a lot of attention in the media now, we can't let it fade out with the news cycle. It will keep happening long after the news forgets it. Another person shared what her mother had always told her: It is not your task to complete the work, nor are you free to desist from it.

Corin Tucker's new song and video "Riley" aren't about this specifically, but they still connect for me. The song is a shout-out of support to a young person going through a terrible time, from an adult who may not be a regular part of the kid's life but still cares deeply. Riley, we're still around.

I like that we. I think of all the struggling kids I've known over the years, from the queer SMYRC youth to the girl rock campers to the high school students I would meet with every week after school to sit down and write. Some of them did reach out to me when things got desperate at home. Many didn't. I tried to give them tools to empower themselves--writing prompts and journals, cooking dinner together, permission to be loud, scream circles, a model for forging the life you want, not the compulsory one you're taught. I'm trying to resist the rescue narrative because that's not what happens, it's not saving people one at a time so much as it is being present for them. It's showing up. Every day or week or month or summer. I hope these kids and now-adults know I still think of them. I hope they know there are a lot of us out here rooting for them, people who may not be in their inner orbit but who stand in this outer circle, ready to catch them if they fall. If they call.

(Props to Corin for her moving new album and Aubree for the beautifully-shot video.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


So a few weeks ago, I read Freedom—the first Franzen fiction I've ever read, I confess. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. And I liked it. It's compulsively readable, swiftly paced, ambitious, it's quite funny, it's character-driven. Plus, as a fourth-generation northern Minnesotan, I couldn't help but love the pivotal role (fictional) Nameless Lake up by (real) Grand Rapids played in the book.

I'm fascinated about why the guy is a magnet for repressed writer rage, because I too have long felt a kneejerk irritation at the sight of his contented smirk and writerly spectacles. (Recently snatched right from his face and held for ransom!) Per the more recent woman-writer outrage so prominently acted out on Twitter, he ends up standing in for all lauded straight white bourgeois male writers; I guess someone's got to fill the late Updike's loved-and-loathed shoes. Meghan O'Rourke wrote a good piece on Slate about how the whole tempest stirs up deeper questions about unconscious bias not only in reading but in writing.

But I also have to say, for such a gifted creator of characters and the interplay between them, ultimately there's something off-putting about the women in Freedom. Patty Berglund is, I'll grant, a pretty great character, full-fledged and complex and full of drive and yearning. But the other ones?
• Lalitha is the delicately-accented brown beauty who is defined mostly by her twin passions for a) Walter and b) Walter's cause. Walter actually reflects in one moment in the car that one of the most satisfying outcomes of women's liberation was that Lalitha could accelerate the car with confidence.
• Neighbor Carol is a working-class woman whose youthful sluttery with a man in power has landed her a lifetime supply of hush money that only enables her bad manners and bad taste in men, housing, and aesthetics.
• Jenna is a mumbling sexpot who seems destined only for a Real Housewives franchise twenty years down the road.
• Connie is a total cipher. I have never read a more passive character in my life, which is I suppose partly the point, but when the character's one act of transgression is to halfheartedly let her manager sleep with her a few times... come on. And how I wish I could unread the line about the "clitoris of Connie's intelligence."
• The daughter Jessica is the exception—smart, together, capable, self-sufficient. She is utterly, almost comically, ignored. For the entire novel.

It's not like the main men in the story—Walter, Richard, and Joey—are angels. But they're so interesting. They get things done. They're complex. They're captivating, even when they're doing things you grit your teeth at. Even when Richard is lamenting "the yawning microcosm of Patty's cunt," another line I wish I could delete from my memory.

Ultimately, I think Freedom is really a love story between Walter and Richard. The women are mostly there to get in the way of it--productively for the story if not for the women.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


From the free local mailer The ADvocate [sic], an unfortunate mismatch of headline and photo:

Friday, September 3, 2010


At last, the Park Rapids Enterprise, my hometown newspaper and former employer, is back in my mailbox twice a week! How I have missed you, Incidents report! Here is a double-dose to make up for lost time. Just to set the tone here, the headline on the August 28 issue was A LONG HOT SUMMER: AGGRAVATION AND ALCOHOL, with sordid mug shots of four mothers busted for DUI with kids in the car. (Inside the issue, lighter fare: "RU ready 4 Gr8 high tech angling?")

Here we go, a selection of the finest:

Miscellaneous: Aug 23: Three females were "possibly smoking pot" on the Akeley beach; A Park Rapids caller reported someone pounding on her bathroom window; Someone appeared to be breaking into a garage in Park Rapids, call canceled, a bridal shower just concluded and they were throwing something a way; A Laporte resident stated she was in the Twin Cities and asked individuals to watch the house, advising them not to throw any parties, she now states there have been parties at the residence [Shocking! —ed.] with underage drinking [ibid.] and she wants everyone removed; A gun was found in a Park Rapids shopping cart; Aug 24: A toddler was on the highway in front of Bullwinkle's in Nevis, callre removed child before mother came to find child; Juveniles were reported breaking bottles and laughing in Park Rapids; A Park Rapids caller let her dogs out and heard a gunshot in the alley behind her house, saw two males running and a truck window shot out; Boys in a vehicle were driving by, threatening caller, her animals, and fiancé in Lakeport Township; Screaming was heard in Arago Township, responding officer requesting another squad for a search; Aug 25: A possible Internet scam via e-mail was reported in Rockwood Township; A Lake Emma Township caller reported the neighbor running a boat about 15 feet from the dock at high speeds while they are swimming, "they are having other issues with the neighbors and are in a civil dispute"; A Park Rapids caller reported receiving a phone call telling her she won $5 million, he called again and said he would come to her house and show her the check, she is afraid and told him not to come; A Park Rapids caller thinks a male is taking pictures of kids and downloading them on a computer; A Park Rapids caller reported receiving threatening text message from her daughter's boyfriend's extranged wife; Animal related: A Guthrie Township caller reported the neighbor may be letting the horses out; A bear was hit on Highway 2 just inside Hubbard County, bear left the scene, minor damage to vehicle; Car vs. deer was reported in Lake Alice Township.

Whew. That is only one of them, and only the half of it. I left out all the standard cell-phone fights and problematic dogs and restraining order requests and reckless trucks. Are you ready for more, reader? I am. One week earlier...

Miscellaneous: Aug 16: A caller reported people putting firecrackers into mailboxes, when she let her dog out they were scared off and it now appears they locked their keys in their car that's running in the middle of the road.

Really, why go any farther? That one stands alone.

Okay, just a couple more:
Neighbor kids were reported hitting the side of a trailer house, "she has yelled at them to stop but they won't," parents aren't home; A Crow Wing Lake caller reported "suspicious activity, someone taking empty dog food cans and using them for target practice"; A Park Rapids caller reported a young child and an open bottle of liquor in a vehicle in Park Rapids; A tape deck and medication were reported stolen from a vehicle in Park Rapids; A Park Rapids caller thinks someone stole a vehicle and brought it back; A Park Rapids caller reports she has asked the neighbors to keep their dog on a leash, now the neighbor's dog is "stuck" to her dog that is tied in the yard, dispatch suggested she throw cold water on the dogs. 

And people think small towns are boring.

Monday, August 23, 2010


David Mitchell on his process:
Mitchell: When you’re 27, you’re more apt to be like: “Oh God, I need to do this two-thousand-page scene before I go to bed.” “OK, well. Let’s do it, then.” And you do it.
Rumpus: And you think it’s brilliant and you don’t want to change a word.
Mitchell: Precisely. Now it can take painstaking weeks—God knows—to excrete a single sentence. It can be like having a hemorrhage, but one hopes the quality is superior the greater the excretion.
It's a great interview. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet isn't yet seizing me the way Cloud Atlas did, but I'm into it, so far.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


The great writer and guitarist Sara Jaffe has a blog and you should read it. Her posts are seldom but deep. My hope is that if her statcounter blows up she will post more. Post more, SJ! (There are strangely a lot of Sara(h) Jaffes out there who make music, but this is the one who used to be in Erase Errata and who coedited The Art of Touring.)

Incidentally her profile picture is a painting of Denton Welch, whom you should also read if you can find his stuff. English writer and painter of the 1930s and '40s who died too young. I love his short stories. Darkly funny and discomfiting, they emanate queerness in that way that repression, so terrible for the soul, can be channeled so deliciously in art.

Here's what William S. Burroughs had to say about him, via a charmingly '90s-style Denton Welch fansite:
He's only got one character and it's always him. Well, there are other characters, what it all pivots
around is an eternally 15-year-old boy. His writing was all done after his accident. He had this accident when he was riding his bicycle and some woman ran into him from behind. That happened when he was 20 and he was an invalid the rest of his life and died at the age of 33 from complications. ...
Such a marvelous writer, the way he can make anything into something. Writers who complain that they don't have anything to write about should read Denton Welch and see what he can do with practically nothing.
While I'm at it, writing about reading before I get back to my writing, I have adopted (via CLMP) two literary journals as texts for my Poetry/Prose Workshop this semester, Tin House and A Public Space. I have no idea what we'll be getting, but I love both these magazines, I love that I got to write in the syllabus "Whatever poems turn up in A Public Space" or "Stories TBA from Tin House", and I love the break from ye olde anthologized pieces. (Which are amply represented as well.) The element of surprise and the element of Now-ness. Good for all of us.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


I have never liked video games much. I find them immensely stressful: you chase some impossible quarry, and/or flee from something that wants to kill you, and always you die trying. Over and over you die. What a nightmare. Even Pac Man overwhelms me.

But I love old-school arcades, the way I love rinky-dink carnivals--the lights and sounds and dimness, the unlikely euphony of all those machines going at once, the mismatched machines and people--and I really love pinball. I love the friendly analog thunks and pings and dings that soundtrack it, I love pulling back the spring on the thing that shoots the ball out of the chute, I love that nothing is pursuing you, I love that you can score millions and millions of points. Pinball wants you to succeed.

So a couple days when we stepped into the Pinball Gallery in Lyons, Colorado on a rainy drive out of Estes Park, I discovered my personal heaven: an ALL-PINBALL ARCADE. The place holds someone's personal collection of machines from the 1950s to the present, ranging from 25¢ to 75¢ to play, all expertly maintained.
A prematurely lost ball cruelly doused my blazing run of luck with the Simpsons game.

No matter how newfangled and barky and gimmicky a pinball machine gets, it always comes down to a real ball and real flippers. Forever analog at heart. I'd move to Lyons to be near this.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


How did you get here, Googlers of the world? Some recent search phrases that have (mis)led lost souls to ye olde Practice Space:

hockey player names that sound like food

are beagles supposed to eat Cool Whip

1950s housewife fetish

is my head an antenna

leaving a message listening practice (this one was from Berlin)

what could i get at walmart to practice deep throat

vibrating sounds gay

space basket

homoerotic wrestling stories

devotionals for deer hunters

pedal bumping girls

8 yr old using buoyancy in a sentence

stomach small girls video flet vacuum

are capricorn girls admirable

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Quote of the day comes from an interview with David Shields in the Tin House Summer Reading issue (which really lives up to its promise, by the way--I've been reading it on the porch in the afternoon with cold drinks, and at night in bed with the fans breezing, engrossed):

"The great book...takes us down into the deepest levels of human insecurity, and there we find that we all dwell."

An elderly Steinway baby grand filled a third of the little cabin I was holed up in at MacDowell. When I was feeling stuck I sat down and hammered out some elementary chords to sing this lonesome song, which is the song for chapter seven, which takes place in Bemidji.

The Replacements, "Here Comes A Regular" (alternate version)

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I'm reading a fascinating new book called North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd (just out from the University of Minnesota Press.) It's about (per the flap copy) "the complex origins of the state--origins that have often been ignored in favor of legend and a far more benign narrative of immigration, settlement, and cultural exchange." Specifically, it's about the dynamics between Native people and Europeans in the 200 years pre-statehood, up until the brutal U.S.-Dakota War in 1862, which she dubs Minnesota's Civil War. 

Early on, Wingerd writes:
But heritage does not suffice as history. As scholar David Lowenthal points out, heritage is crafted to affirm what we wish to be true about ourselves, whereas history strives (albeit imperfectly) to discover the truth about the past. History, of course, is far more complex and problematic than heritage. History must come to terms with injustice and tragedy as well as achievement, asking hard questions that heritage, steeped in nostalgia, tends to obscure.
This is something I'm thinking about on the Fourth of July, an ambivalent holiday for me. Fireworks, pretty. Barbecued veggie burgers, fine. Day off, delightful. But the explosions send poor Emmett under the table trembling, and, when I'm inside soothing him and unable to see them, the sounds make me think of what it would be like to live in a place where explosions do go off outside your door, and how terrifying that would be. (Much sympathy to the PTSD veterans.) After all, they are mimicking war. And, to take it back to Wingerd's words, the Fourth is such a holiday of heritage, not history: a day when people celebrate what we wish to be true about America, what we want to believe about the nation and its origins. There's a wilfull innocence to the American independence narrative, almost teenaged in its naive the-students-take-over-the-school triumph (but now look who's the principal), and this must be the genesis of American love affair with the idea of the rebel. James Dean, teen movies, the cowboy, the so-called Minutemen at the border (a shame their fame usurps these ones), the rock-star figure, the Tea Party, figures that are almost exclusively white and male--they're all born from this.

And I too love the rebel figure, albeit in other forms than above. I just wish the collective American imagination could encompass all the people who protested and fought for freedom and the liberty to live their lives within these borders we made up, who were imprisoned, enslaved, cheated, banished to reservations, and killed for doing so. In America. 

On a pettier tack, the other thing that gets me on the Fourth of July is that I can't stand the American flag, on a purely aesthetic level. For me: irredeemable. It makes me think of tacky straw hats and marching-band music. As a kid I used to look at the FLAG entry in our old World Book Encyclopedia and gaze with envy upon the bold, interesting flags of places like Aruba, Bhutan, South Korea, Swaziland. (The CIA factbook has them all on one page--almost all the Caribbean nations have really cool ones.) 
Emmett Johnson: scared of fireworks.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


The song "Beautiful Things" by Quasi brings me pure pleasure. I listen to it every day. In Oberlin, I would listen to it on headphones while I walked the dogs down leafy streets in the bright morning, through neighborhoods both ramshackle and grand. Here in the woods I wake up with the light and it is the first thing I want to put on. I bike down the sunny dirt road from the library to my studio and it goes through my head the whole time as I wind around potholes and the breeze lifts my hair, which is maybe the best way I can describe what this song feels like.

It's the rare song that is truly genuinely happy without sounding cartoonish or twee or saccharine. It's a cover of song by the 3-D's, and from Score!: 20 Years of Merge Records: THE COVERS--which came out last summer, technically, but I'm declaring it my anthem for summer 2010.

Quasi, "Beautiful Things"

Monday, June 14, 2010


I had this thing last night where I felt a little mopey and left the party at 9:30 to come back and ostensibly work. People were playing Scrabble and pool and ping-pong and lounging around the big old leather couches drinking wine, but I felt conversed-out and unsure. Maybe I said I was going to work just to justify going home. 

So I sat down at my desk and turned on the lamp and listlessly added and subtracted a sentence here and there, just to have done at least something before I went to bed to read. I was transcribing things from my notebook, and it felt like transcription. And stitching these pieces in there felt like labor: requisite transition, requisite image, requisite zoom-out shot of analytical prose.

I sighed and glanced at the clock. 10:22? I'd done more than I thought. That gave me a little puff of energy so I thought I'd just go ahead and do one more thing. The next time I remembered to check, it was 11:30 and I had three new pages.

Time is the thing I had been wrangling all day--well, in fact, the main thing I keep having to wrangle with, writing long-form for the first time. What is a novel but a massive undertaking in time measurement and management? And I didn't expect to find it at that hour, but my favorite thing in writing is exactly that feeling of losing time altogether. It's maybe one of the only actual unequivocably pleasurable parts of writing, being so present in the work that the world falls away.

Whereas when that happens on the internet, it's total despair. I tell you, life without the internet--here in my remote outpost, I only use it once or twice a day, at the library--is life with a totally different experience of time. The day seems so much longer, in the best way. If you're in a chronically wifi-ed environment, without the luxury of premillennial levels of disconnection, download MacFreedom and you'll see what I mean.

You know what else moves shockingly fast? A fox. 
The Magnetic Fields, "When the Open Road is Closing In"

Sunday, June 13, 2010


I wrote for six and a half hours yesterday. On ONE scene in chapter six. I wrote so hard I got mad. I got up from my desk at 5:15 to take a shower and spun around and walked right out of the bathroom and sat back down, I could not do anything until the damn scene was concluded.

By the time I collapsed into my seat at dinner I felt like a border collie that had been herding sheep all day. Exhausted from corralling all these wayward bleating misshapen things, ready to flop onto the floor panting and lie there for hours, also satisfied that I had at last fully done the work I feel wired to do.

A quote Wallace Stegner kept me going: Hard writing makes easy reading.
God let's hope.
By the end of the day, put me in a bucket, I'm done.
But that's still hours away. Half the chapter-six sheep are still out wandering, and the fence keeps moving. Back to work.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

CHAPTER THREE seriously appended with some essential back story yesterday. Turns out it wasn't so finished after all. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I'm holed up in the woods writing and I won't say much more about that because a) I have to get back to it and b) you shouldn't talk too much about what you're writing or you won't want to write it. When people ask me what this novel is about, I have figured out the easiest thing to say is "people making bad decisions for good reasons," or "family." 

Generally I write exclusively to the epic sweeps and dulcet murmuring of Sigur Ros, though Amiina and Múm work for me too--the magic combo of Icelandic + verbally minimal/incomprehensible leads me right to that clearing in my tangled brain, ever since that very first listen of Ágætis Byrjun

But making soundtracks and theme songs for characters and stories is irresistible. A tool of both procrastination and characterization, equally fundamental parts of the process.

Today I restructured chapter two and here is its song.

Friday, June 4, 2010


The New Pornographers, Challengers
ME: They are the indie rock Muppets.

Vampire Weekend, Contra
COMPANION, with slight frown: This is a little bit too Lion King for me.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I'll be in Portland this weekend to read at the Loggernaut 5th Anniversary party. I read at the very first Loggernaut back in April 2004 with Charles D'Ambrosio and Alicia Cohen--it was in the back room overlooking the patio of the restaurant Gravy on Mississippi Avenue, and by the time Charlie read it had gotten so dark in there that he had to perch a votive candle next to his manuscript, and we all listened raptly in the dark, his face lit by the tiny flame. I had read first, the baby shower scene from my long story "Your Heart Is A Piece of Tape." (Are baby showers not the weirdest feminine ritual ever? Everyone turns into babies, cooing and clapping. Maybe tied with bridal showers. Any shower that doesn't involve a direct spray of hot water is trouble.)

The series really took off--these readings were always my favorites to attend in Portland. They take place every other month, with three readers who read for an attention-span-friendly 15 minutes each, with a theme. For this one the theme is "Now & Then" and I'm going to read some nonfiction about kitchen haircuts, inappropriate relationships (not involving me), and small town weirdness, flipping back and forth between half my life ago and now. I'm still writing it. Come if you want to hear how it turns out.

It's at Urban Grind on NE 33rd and Oregon Street, this Saturday, May 1, at 7:30 pm. Also reading: Arthur Bradford, who wrote Dogwalker and directed the series How's Your News?, the eminent Barry Sanders who blew my mind when he read about ghosts and Sarah Bernhard for Loggernaut a few years ago, and poets Rodney Koeneke and Mary Szybist. Plus, they say, a super-secret special musical guest. Plus cake!

Monday, April 26, 2010


This bleakly hilarious report from the future arrived at Publisher's Weekly, courtsey of one Marjorie Butternook, MLIS, also known as Gary Shteyngart (who, incidentally, is one of the funniest readers I've seen.) Book Expo America 2004: Reading Lives!

She told [eight-year-old] Download he had to keep his Brain Nozzle on standby. “Read a little,” she said, “and then every once in a while try closing your eyes and entering the mind of the author.”

“What's an author?” Download asked.

“It's someone who's not you who wrote the book.”

“But I'm special,” Download said.

“I know you are,” Ruthie said.

Roger Conover, editor of MIT Press, told an anxious Q'er at his talk here last spring that people in publishing love to work themselves up about the apocalypse, that their own Imminent Doom has always been a favored conversation topic. Maybe it is essential in all the arts—we have to / can't help but believe the art is dying, irresistibly (and maybe grandiosely) drawn to the anxiety of immortality. Which is any art-maker's secret impossible hope.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


The great thing about seeing bands at the tiny 'Sco is that you couldn't be more than a hundred feet from the stage if you tried. Also, subsidized by the institution, shows are nineties prices. And also, the students sometimes really cut loose and shake it, a refreshing switch from the rigor mortis of Portland audiences, where nodding is a dance move. The crappy things about seeing bands at the 'Sco: the mounting smell of poor hygiene cooked to the surface, plus students yammering at high volume through the whole thing, only pausing to raise the plastic beer cups in their red-stamped fists and holler whoo before turning their attention back to the more pressing matter of Where Is Harper I Thought She Was Coming With James. (Actual conversation overheard at length.) Unless you squeeze into the enthusiastic first few rows (caveat: see hygiene), you're stuck with the live Banality Remix version of the song and trying to suppress some intense Mad Librarian impulses.

What one really needs in this situation is something so loud no one can holler over it, something that immobilizes people in their tracks and drives away the tourists. Thank you, Talk Normal.

When Talk Normal kicked in to their thing, the first thing I scrawled in the dark on the back of a student's manuscript (it was all I had on hand) was SCARY. I meant that in a good way. This was super-loud, heavy, distorted, reverbed, squalling noise. You wouldn't guess it, looking at them. Talk Normal are two smallish youngish women. The guitarist has a Thurston-like vibe of effortless slouch and overgrown bangs. The drummer hits heavy on the tom and bass. Sometimes she flips her drumsticks around and hits with the blunt end and it sounds huge and stern, ferocious and focused on her small kit. Sometimes she rests a guitar on the drumkit and does cacophanous things to it while she pounds and sings.

I rarely listen to noise at home. I only like to hear it live, or through headphones while I'm walking. I think it's music you either listen to upright or flat on your back. It is not sedentary. It has to be all or nothing. I like how noise makes me feel what it feels and at the same time sounds like how I feel. Does that make sense? It's more about feeling than listening, for me. The same way that poetry can feel truer to raw thought—fragmentary, splintered, spliced—noise is like deep feeling, disordered and surging.

All of which is to say Talk Normal kind of made my night.

I've had Tune-Yards' Bird-Brains for a while and I like it a lot, despite my knee-jerk loathing of toggle-case, which reeks of whimsy. (I refuse to reproduce it here.) But seeing her live, I flipped to love. The lo-fi production on the record (all done with a digital voice recorder) makes the music sound odd, clipped and flattened, and that works in a way, but live the songs become big and radiant and and warm. Not discomfiting little curiosities but exuberant feel-good dance songs, expanding to fill all the space around around her ukulele, elemental drum and vocal loops (the girl sure knows her T1).

During the last song the girl next to me started swinging her very long hair and after a few mane-lashings I escaped and watched from the doorway. I didn't stick around for Xiu Xiu--I don't care enough, and I have a one-and-a-half band attention span, and Talk Normal and Tune-Yards got it all. Gladly.

Monday, March 22, 2010


I've been on a serious baking kick since the new year. "Baking" has unfortunate and unfair connotations of Betty Crocker and checkered aprons, but a) my apron is a hot black-and-white abstract print with a red and pink trim, and b) not a brownie nor mix has crossed my spatula. What I am obsessed with is whole-grain breads.

The first whole-wheat loaves I baked were when I was eighteen and stepped into it as a co-op job. This particular eating collective eschewed anything refined (no sugar, no white flour) (yet there was someone who believed that cinnamon had a rightful and prominent place in spaghetti sauce, and made it that way regularly), so I dutifully churned out big whole wheat logs with the Hobart, sweetened with soy milk and brown rice syrup. They came out chewy and dense, and cooled into blunt instruments.

This is not the case with today's bread. This hardcore Peter Reinhart book (a gift from my clever enabler/beneficiary) tipped me over the edge, and now I'm all, autolyse, biga, soaker, enzyme strands, and does it pass the windowpane test? The making of a single loaf spans days. I have made 100% whole-wheat, endless combinations of multigrains, naan, paratha (plain and aloo-stuffed), wheat thins both herbed and plain, focaccia, and scores--literally--of pizza crusts.

(On the right there I'm brushing garlic-chili oil over a brand-new naan; below, stuffing paratha with potatoes before rolling it flat again and cooking it on a griddle.)

But the winning loaf, the most exciting yet, was the SPROUTED WHEAT LOAF I made this week, which took longer than anything yet, and involved
1) soaking wheat berries for 24 hours
2) rinsing them and leaving them for another half-day until
3) they started to sprout tiny white tails and then
4) grinding them to a pulp, which tasted amazing, the texture of steel-cut oatmeal but cool and sweet and with a fresh faintly grassy flavor,
5) and finally baking that into a bread, which came out like this
and tastes beautiful.

I'm seriously one step away from getting a grain mill to grind my own flour. Then all I will have to do is start up a little wheat patch in the yard, and it's Willa Cather time.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


I went to the Park Rapids Enterprise homepage to renew my subscription, suffering severe Incident Report deprivation, and found that not only has the Akeley (pop. 412) bank been robbed, but there is an important poll for readers to answer.
Guess which one is winning? I will draw back the curtain in the comments.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


These were savvily placed side-by-side at McNally Jackson bookstore in New York. I went to New York for a week in January to meet up with my friend Mona. (She flew from Cairo, I flew from Ohio. New York seemed at least metaphorically equidistant.)

In the first few hours before Mona arrived, I browsed McNally Jackson for a while and then went to find a seat to write at Housing Works Used Bookstore Cafe. I wondered, How did I ever live here? Did I love it? I know I did love it. I mean, there's a lot to love about it. But everyone in McNally Jackson's cafe looked roughly the same, and everyone in Housing Works looked roughly the same. Different ethnicities, sure, but the same scuffed polish, bookish stylishness, turn-of-the-thirties, knowledgable and aspiring. Basically they all looked like they had MFAs, were getting their MFAs, or aspired to an MFA. I'm not exempting my own MFA'ed ass here. But it was totally disconcerting to be among such a blatant Demographic, and it gave me not the feeling but the reminder of the feeling of panic and self-doubt and competitive anguish I used to feel when I lived in New York and tried to comprehend My Future As A Writer.

I think it's good to have a handful or two of writers in your everyday life but too many might mess you up. This is one reason why the Stegner program was way easier on the soul than Iowa. This is also why I like to keep company with people who make other things. Scholarly research, videos, music, art, advertisements, movies, coffee, drinks, photographs, baskets, hand-hewn cross-country skis*, whatever. I feel a lot calmer now than I did back when I lived in New York and was supposed to be in the Center of It All. It didn't stimulate me, it distracted and paralyzed me. I have only written one story ever that took place in New York, about my very first job at the very strange magazine Opera News, and it's an oddly-structured mess. I can't even revise that story because every time I go back into it I come out feeling disconsolate and unmoored all over again.

But anyway, then Mona showed up and the rest of the trip was more like this.

And this.

I have known Mona since 1996. She was one of my best friends in Oslo. I used to wonder, Who are the people I will know my whole life? Sometimes I am surprised at the ones who fell off, or my younger self would have been, but more and more I love how the answers become clear.

*I'm not just making this up. My polymath woodsman brother Nate made me a pair of cross-country skis by hand for Xmas. It blows my mind too.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


1. When people call coffee "java."
(Endemic to quippy newspaper and magazine articles where the writer apparently believes it's a faux pas to use the word coffee twice, and to the names of bad coffee shops. No coffee shop with "java" in the title is any good.) Runner-up: "joe." Who in real life calls it "joe," honestly?

2. The term "gal pal."
(Again, common to bad magazine writing.)

3. The word "gal" generally.

Friday, January 29, 2010


My friend and Portland neighbor Nicole Georges has posted this drawing she did for a magazine a couple of years ago.
And you kind of can't beat the The Onion's obituary for J.D. Salinger
CORNISH, NH—In this big dramatic production that didn't do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author J.D. Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud. "He had a real impact on the literary world and on millions of readers," said hot-shot English professor David Clarke, who is just like the rest of them, and even works at one of those crumby schools that rich people send their kids to so they don't have to look at them for four years. "There will never be another voice like his." Which is exactly the lousy kind of goddamn thing that people say, because really it could mean lots of things, or nothing at all even, and it's just a perfect example of why you should never tell anybody anything.
On the one hand, it's terrible to lose two greats on the same day. On the other hand, as long as you've got to leave this life, why not go hand-in-hand, temporally speaking, with another luminary? I'm fascinated with these accidental pairings: Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. Zinn and Salinger. Who else?