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.