Friday, December 30, 2011


Went to the Walker Art Center yesterday. My favorite thing in there right now is a video piece called “Flooded McDonald’s” by Superflex. It's part of the John Waters-curated exhibit "Absentee Landlord." (Brilliant.)

The film is exactly what the title says. An empty McDonald’s looks like it’s been abandoned mid-day. The camera lingers on each thing in the room: Meals both fully intact and half-eaten, a container of glistening french fries, trays of refuse, an empty cup on its side on a seat, a chair, a tall Ronald statue, a full coffeepot. All these objects become characters in the film.

Then water begins to rush in beneath the crack of the door. It’s thrilling to watch it pour in, clear and fast. It fills the room quickly. The first things it picks up are crumpled wrappers on the floor.

As the place fills, things start to move. The rising water animates everything. Ronald rises to his feet and begins to bob. Eventually the cup on the seat gets lifted. Ronald tips over. The food is liberated from its tabletop inertia and joins in the flow, traveling to corners of the restaurant it shouldn’t be. The chair. The coffeepot is suspended so just its lip remains above the surface, floating along still full of coffee. The swinging doors of the trash cans begin to flap in and out. There’s a merriness here as everything falls from its place, displays collapse and all the bright litter is animated. Little kids in the room giggled.

Flooded McDonald's from Superflex on Vimeo.

But as the place continues to fill, the water goes from clear to dirty. It darkens, clouds, fills with bits of trash. French fries drift by, ghostly cups, the chair a tilted shipwreck. The water reaches the big electric M on the wall and it blinks a few times, buzzes, goes out. Eventually it rises to the backlit menus and those too go dark. By the end of the movie the screen is a hazy brownout, water to the top of the field of vision.

It’s like watching death, I whispered to my companion, who said, I was just thinking that.

Also, it’s like America.

That alone was worth the admission. I also liked Mike Kelley’s framed carpet and map of his junior high, and the Glenn Ligon coloring-book painting, and this dolphin oracle you could ask questions by typing them on a keyboard. After you hit return, an ellipsis appears, and then the dolphin squeaks and chirps and writhes a little while its subtitled answer materializes. It is terribly charming.

The answer to "Are you messing with me, dolphin?"
The much-hyped graphic design exhibit exhausted me in about two minutes. About ten years ago I developed serious design fatigue. I had worked at a design magazine run by a megalomaniac tyrant who had us all on 70-hour work weeks. I was eating too many Twizzlers out of my desk drawer and getting skinny, severely underpaid and overworked, and I got so sick of Good Design. I mean, I love good design. But I tired of the fetishization of it. (See also: the hilariously/cruelly named Design Within Reach.) This exhibit was a tornado of type and logo, and it was crammed into a few big rooms where every surface seemed to swim with letters, but not in a beautiful or harmonious or interestingly-clashing way; it was like walking into a world of internet sidebars. Most of it was advertising. That’s the problem with graphic design. Almost all of it exists to sell you something. The embedded museum shop was indistinguishable from the exhibit.

But speaking of Facebook, this breakdown of the eight elements of status updates was in one of the newspapers on display.

Last stop before heading back north was Birchbark Books, which is owned by Louise Erdrich and is now one of my favorite bookstores anywhere, beautifully selected and appointed and staffed by an extremely relaxed dog named Dharma.

It's one of those stores where the selection is perfect instead of vast. And there are handwritten recommendations by Louise Erdrich all over. Doesn't get much better than that.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Well, blog. We have a lot to talk about.

One thing is that I abruptly and semi-impulsively deactivated my Facebook two weeks ago. I had 900-some friends and all but a handful are people I actually know or have known in my many lives. I think I even like almost all of them. But the noise got to be too much. Facebook was like too many radio stations playing simultaneously. I forget half of what I hear but I remember almost everything I read, and so all that trivia was printing itself all over my brain.

And the pleasure had gone out of it. The first, most potent pleasure of Facebook for me was finding the long lost. There were so many: from my entire childhood in Park Rapids, from Norway, Iowa, New York, Oberlin, the Stegner crew, music-world people, writers and editors, Portlanders, et cetera. But pretty soon, everyone was found. And the thrill of the discovery quickly sagged into the mundane. I loved the initial burst of information, when it was like running into someone unexpectedly in a bar in another city: the catching-up. Where are you? What have you been doing? You look great. These are my dogs! But then it didn't stop. It went from catching up to keeping up. Keeping up with people, keeping up appearances. We were back in that bar every day. It started to feel less like a bar and more like a storage unit.

There are the friends who click Like and there are the friends who show up. (I've been both, I'm not exempt.) But I am more interested in the latter these days. I want your real face. I want your microexpressions and your voice. I want us to see the same thing at the same time, and I don't mean on YouTube. I want laugh and conspiratorial whisper, not just quip and complaint. Maybe 90% of Facebook and Twitter are quip and complaint.

When I worked at magazines in New York around the turn of the millennium, the (permanent) trend kicked in of articles shrinking while their photos grew. We were supposed to relocate more of the info to captions and sidebars, fragmenting the content like pre-cut food. "Quippy kickers," they called it at one publication. To dig into the substance of an article--the body of the text, as it is notably called--takes time and effort, and maybe people just wanted to look, not read. To snack, not eat. I think Facebook does the same thing. Magazines got shorter and so did we. Our images grow and grow while our (visible) content shrinks. We just sample each other. Swish and spit.

My departure is probably not permanent. I know myself too well to claim that I'm Gone for Good. But the time away has felt great.

Meanwhile, friends (yes, friends, not friends™!): let's write.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


My essay about fear, power, and the first time I shot a gun is now up at The Rumpus, if you'd like to take a look.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


From Raygun in Iowa City.
In June I took a respite from packing to drive out to Iowa City for the 75th anniversary-reunion-celebration of the Writers' Workshop. It was worth the nine-hour drive across I-80, whose stretch of Ohio-Indiana-Illinois makes one think things like, This is what we're fighting for? I swear once you cross the border into Iowa everything looks better. I loved living in Iowa. It was one of the prettiest, most underrated landscapes I've ever lived in. Deep emerald in summer, endless gold in fall, snow-blanketed fields washed pink by sunrise and sunset in winter, a huge blue sky.

All you people who didn't come because you felt insecure or underpublished or worried that people were going to be competitive and size you up (what? at Iowa?), it was in fact so not like that! It was so friendly and relaxed, no résumé checking at all. No one murmuring disdain about your last workshop disaster or cackling over Conroy's lacerating one-liner. No velvet rope or VIP rooms. Just a big loose-knit party. Here are my ramshackle notes from the weekend.

1. The best thing in Indiana is Joyelle and Johannes, who opted not to reunite with the masses but graciously fed me lunch.

2. First stop after checking in with my excellent hosts Kembrew and Lynne and new tiny Alasdair: Marilynne Robinson at the Englert. Choice quote TK when I find my little notebook.
3. O George's Bar of the flocked wallpaper and utterly transfixing scrolling backlit Hamm's sign! In a narrow dark booth that night——Peyton and Pauls and I devised, or derived, titles for bestselling novels. The dim scrawling in my notebook includes
The Justice of Riga (name of an actual sword!) 
The Executioner's Son, or should it be Daughter?
Orphan Season
American Teeth
American Lesbian
The Lesbianists
The Leper's Guide to Sanitation.
4. Next we hit the immortal Foxhead. When we were at the workshop, the Foxhead was the poets' bar and George's was the fiction bar. Now it's the opposite. I always liked the Foxhead a little better, but George's had that enchanting Hamm's sign and would make you a toasted cheese sandwich (a hamburger bun with pickles and a slice of American cheese) for $1.50. (Still!)
Foxhead outside
Foxhead inside
Two Foxes
5. Because my whole life is a small town, of course I ran into Jarrett who I used to know in Portland. He now lives in Iowa City and runs a coffee cart called Wake Up Iowa City. That was my first stop in the morning with Lynne.
I love Upper Midwest punk. There's something very low-key and homey and unpretentious about it. 
Do you have to-go cups? we asked. "Just bring the mugs back whenever you're done," said Jarrett, "or do whatever with them." This pair were too good to risk, so we opted to gulp down the strong black French-pressed coffee right there.

6. And then off to some panels with grandiose titles. (What Makes Literature Immortal? How Realistic is Realism? etc.) And the Golden Microphone goes to: Allan Gurganus, hands down. Thank you for your bracing sardonic wit and appropriate irreverence. ("Back then, 'diversity' meant admitting a Quaker from Maine. Who wrote prose poems.")

I took hardly any pictures of Official Events, but the Christian Science Monitor has a long thoughtful article. (At the end of the slideshow of famous and famous-ish writers is a nice shot of a group of us chatting on the museum steps--captioned, appropriately, "other alumni.")
The Dey House, partly, its massive new addition too large and luxurious to fit in the frame of my 50mm lens
7. At noon my phone rang. Malena and Antoine's flights had been canceled in Denver the night before. They then got in a van with four Iowan women, none of whom had ever met before, and drove all night, twelve hours!—only to hit a deer 15 miles from Iowa City, at which point I was called to retrieve them from the side of I-80.

8. My beloved tiny house at 723 1/2 East Jefferson Street still stands. The sunny yard to the west (my bedroom window) is now a giant vinyl-sided, student-tenant-crammed addition to the modest gray bungalow that once was, and the shady yard to the east (my kitchen windows) is now a parking lot to a new apartment building. I guess I lived there at exactly the right time, with Jamie Schweser as my landlord ($360/month!) and awesome lesbian neighbors Mel and Kara in the main house's basement apartment. (They duct-taped corncobs to the rearview mirrors of my U-Haul on the day I drove away.) I wrote so many stories in that house.
Sometimes I would roll the television cart into the bathroom and watch movies in the 3/4 (exactly me-sized) clawfoot tub while my cat Foot Foot walked around the rim of it. I fell asleep watching Breathless and woke up when the water had gone cold.

9. Anyway. Iowa City has gotten a little fancier. There are more coffee shops and restaurants. The Record Collector and Daydreams Comics are still going. The public library is much fancier, and the new workshop building is stunning, replete with sumptuous wood-and-leather library. But mostly it still feels exactly the same. For example, La'James College of Hairstyling is still in business, 
and the Hamburg Inn No. 2, though much cleaned-up and remodeled since my time here, is still very much itself, pie shakes and all.
 At Artifacts--which is still called Artifacts but no longer owned by Mark, who opened up another place three doors down--we discovered the world's most fascinatingly repulsive lamp. It is very heavy brown ceramic and it costs $125.
10. On the last morning I met Cathy and Malena and Shannon for breakfast at the Hamburg Inn. I saw them a block away walking up to the restaurant together, these three wonderful brilliant people I have now known for eleven years, and for the first time all weekend my friendly nostalgia swelled into a wave of emotion. For a moment I pretended we all still lived here, and I was just meeting some of my favorite friends for breakfast. The force of the recall knocked the tears right into my eyes.

I paused to let myself miss them, our time there, my sweet little Iowa life. Then I picked up the pace and hurried to meet my friends. There was a wait for a table and the morning was chilly, but I didn't mind. All nestled together on the outside bench, we stayed warm.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Nice try, J. Crew. Minnetonka Moccasins ditched Minnesota (surreptitiously as they could) years ago for cheaper labor. 
And get a better proofreader.

Thursday, June 30, 2011


The end of the school year was a sweet one. For the last meeting of my Beyond Genre workshop (full title: "Beyond Genre: Fabulism, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction"), we convened in the town cemetery at 7:00 pm. Then I set them loose to collect names of the dead and bring them back to life on the page.

So we prowled around the tilting tombstones with notebooks in hand. But finding names was so entertaining it was hard for anyone to stop to actually start writing character sketches. Chauncey Wack! Rufus Jump! And his son Giles Jump. Halloween K. Peabody! Darius Darling. Narcissa Pay! 

Living in such a tiny town, walking my dogs down the same streets every day, I always liked veering off to take the cemetery route. There was always something to read. Other lives to imagine. One of the best parts of teaching is that you can share these things with a little audience. You love a story, and then you get to teach it. You find a lovely spot, and then you wait all semester for an evening that's temperate enough to bring the students to it. And they bring chocolate-covered Oreos. What a job.
Names in hand, before we headed back to the seminar room.
My friend Ginger Brooks Takahashi came during commencement week to give a talk about her art. She said that it's important for young artists to know that there isn't just one Art World, there are many art worlds and ways to be an artist. Smart and true. 
In college Ginger and I played in a band called Endor, along with Gillian and Lena. We had a handful of songs and did a cover of "The Metro" by Berlin. All that survives is a very scratchy tape recording of a co-op basement show and some photos wherein I'm wearing a suit made of duct tape. But it was one of the most rewarding things I did in college. Ginger has a punk soul and a great pop sensibility, an excellent combination. She is also brave and enthusiastic. Which in a way are sort of the same thing.
Last radio show at WOBC.
On Commencement Day itself I didn't walk in the ceremony (I don't own the requisite regalia--Iowa's graduation is an informal affair--and didn't rent it this year). I headed down to Tappan Square anyway to scope out the crowds and bid farewell to some of my students. I was seeking, I think, a sense of closure. I had hoped that the ritual would give me a sense of finality. But when I got there, though the president was just launching into the C names, the ground was already strewn with trampled programs and people wandered around, talking and mingling. It was as apt a closure as any—a handful of people going through the formal motions in the background, while real life chatted and shuffled around and made kind a benign mess.

Nothing ever really feels over.
Classic OC.
Thanks, Oberlin. What good stories you've given me.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Do you ever wake up with a song in your head, and you can't do anything until you've played it? This morning that song was "Electrocution" by Bill Fox.

Bill Fox: "Electrocution"

A year or two ago I was looking for this song "The Dress You Bought in Cleveland," which meant something to me in 1995, and came across this comp of Ohio bands, I Was Up All Night Listening to Records. I'd never heard of Bill Fox but I couldn't stop playing that song.

Well. Apparently Bill Fox is (not)famously brilliant--Guided by Voices' love for him is all over their sound, he's like a proto-Pollard--and (not)famously reclusive. A lengthy Believer piece had a writer lurking around Cleveland for weeks trying to find the guy, and failing. As it turns out, he works at the Plain-Dealer selling ads.

He played here a few weeks ago. A forty-minute set in a gymnasium, early evening light in the high windows, a couple of handfuls of people sitting on the floor before the huge stage where it was just Bill Fox and his guitar.

His voice now was hoarser than the recordings, which have a crackly sweetness to them--it was strained, a little laryngitic Westerberg-ish. Between songs he hardly said a word. He played some of beautiful songs from Shelter from the Smoke and Transit Byzantium. He did not play "Electrocution" or "Bonded to You," my other favorite. And he played several protest songs in 6/8 time that I wasn't that into. But he clearly meant every word. And I was just glad to have him there.

I like knowing that someone like Bill Fox can be hiding out in Cleveland, a city half leafy and homey and half in ruins. A treasure in the rubble who has no interest in being found. He's like that cave in the new Werner Herzog movie: all this beautiful art concealed behind a landslide, its secrecy its saving grace.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Classes are out and I'm writing and writing. It's such a treat. I can be a little obsessive and it's a great pleasure to fixate fully on my work again instead of my students and their stories and needs. I wandered over to This Recording to read what other writers say about writing. Chekhov's words I instantly copied and put many asterisks by (and, I confess, felt the urge to send to my students). The one I'm lingering on now is Toni Morrison:
You learn how to use time. You don't have to learn how to wash the dishes every time you do that. You already know how to do that. So, while you're doing that, you're thinking. You know, it doesn't take up your whole mind. Or just on the subway. I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in that packed train, where you can't do anything anyway. Well, you can read the paper, but you're sort of in there.

And then I would think about, well, would she do this? And then sometimes I'd really get something good. By the time I'd arrived at work, I would jot it down so I wouldn't forget. It was a very strong interior life that I developed for the characters, and for myself, because something was always churning. There was no blank time.
And I looked at my iPhone sitting black and serene on the desk. How my blank time has changed since it entered my life. And I'm going to grandiosely generalize and make that an our, since every line I stand in is a row of people finger-stroking a little screen. Even waking up in the morning--that moment of easing into consciousness as the world materializes again, sorting the dream from the day and trying to make sense of it--has changed. Too often I cut it short, reach for the nightstand, and look for what the device has brought me in the night. Which is? E-mail.

For years now I've clenched my fists under the table at the friends who can't stop texting during the board game, who pause dinner conversation to attend to the clinking-glass sound of their iPhone, and so on, whose attention is divided between the here and the there.

It's annoying. But even worse, I think, is what it does to solitude. I tell my students that you can write everywhere, in your mind--in the shower, walking across campus at night, during the orchestra concert, etc. I solve a lot of story problems when I walk the dogs (notably, a two-handed affair). But alone, walking home or waiting in line at the post office, how often do I compulsively, absently pull out the iPhone and check something or other? Vs. what did I do before?

Nothing will doom writing, per se, I'm not saying that. But I think a lot of us are missing out on those unplanned moments where we go places in our minds. We look at the weather app instead of the sky.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


I emerge from weeks (months!) of bloglessness to shout this out. Amy won a James Beard Award in journalism! I can personally attest that Amy's gifts in the kitchen are equaled only by her eloquence and humor and grace as a writer. I have been a vegetarian since 1989, and still I will read with relish and delight Amy's accounts of, say, cutting up a whole pig in her yard or cooking steak in the Spanglers' sauna.

Go read her blog here for aforementioned and more. And here are the articles that won her the prize:
"From the Bean Patch, Plenty" ("Their pods pack as much insulation as an arctic-rated sleeping bag"
"Low-Tech Wonder" ("My first aioli separated. I fixed it, but sat through dinner beneath a black-mood cloud, undone by a broken sauce but loath to admit it.")  (I've got to make the recipes for romesco sauce, chimichurri, and hazelnut praline) (or just go over to Amy's when I'm home in MN and gaze at her hopefully from my kitchen stool perch)
"Walleye: Plentiful and Only a Phone Call Away" ("It turns out that walleye's firm flesh steams beautifully, and within 15 minutes after getting to work I was dipping moist, snowy chunks of sake-steamed walleye in a spirited ponzu sauce that I Midwesternized with a little freshly ground horseradish in place of wasabi.")

Proof you can live in the middle of the woods with six-month(+) winters thousands of miles from a coast and be the most kick-ass chef and food writer ever AND be recognized for your genius. (As does the brilliant artist she's married to, Aaron Spangler.) High fives, old friend.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


All of January and nary a post. I was writing in my snowy den. My third January in Ohio was an interior one, literally and figuratively. Snowfall was too erratic to even snowshoe. The landscape was sometimes white as a page, other times brownish and deadish. Much like the writing cycle. We stoked the fireplace and got a lot done. I use Scrivener and on many days the little toolbar that shows your progress toward your target went from red to green, and sometimes even blue (exceeded!)

If you are writing a novel or collection or any kind of long-form project, you have got to try Scrivener.

I did start a Tumblr upon which I will post the Incident Reports. I like Tumblr so far, mostly because I like looking at queer old vintage photos and following various excellent book stores, whose Tumblr authors are just the kind of smart, witty readers & writers one would wish for as tastemakers in the bookselling world. Of Another Fashion, an outgrowth of the brilliant Threadbared academic/fashion blog, is an amazing archive of the style of women of color. I also really like the Lazy Book Reviewer and Things Organized Neatly. Things Organized Neatly exemplifies the purest form of my Virgo paradox, which is cluttered chaos on the macro and obsessive/aesthetic on the micro.

More coming soon.