Archive for January, 2010

Sexing Things Up

Over the weekend, Regina’s parents came down from Eau Claire and provided us HUGE amounts of help and labor.  Jim essentially finished our kitchen, living room, and bedroom trim while Lynn washed windows, cleaned the kitchen, and entertained Henry.  By Sunday night and after filling their van with dozens of boxes, our house now looks entirely different.  More austere, less cluttered.  We own hundreds, maybe thousands of books, and most of them are now out of our house.  Our old television has now been relegated to the basement.  We are our own best entertainment these days.

We paid a “staging expert” to look at our house and tell us how to make things look more attractive.  Initially, I had my misgivings – in particular when she looked at my computer and the screen-saver image of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and said, “That looks live ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams.’  Great painting.  All those dead stars.”  When she walked into our bedroom the first thing she proclaimed was that we “needed to sex the place up” with “lacy window dressings, like lingerie”.  Regina and I looked at one another in humorous disbelief.  Later, Jim and Lynn suggested that we mount (no pun intended) mirrors to the ceiling and walls to further “sex things up”.

But the house does look great, and in about a week’s time, a Keller Williams real estate sign will be staked into our front lawn.  Knock wood.

Just me and Henry today.  We’ve had a terrific day so far – great naps, good exercise, some rolling around.  He did however puke breast-milk all over my shirt this afternoon, but I don’t think it was intentional.  A few days ago he also peed on me for the first time in weeks.

No MFA news.  Most of the programs (if not all) that I applied to this year received record amounts of applications.  For Wisconsin’s MFA program, they received over 600 applications for just 6 spots.  The odds at Vanderbilt are even more incredible.


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This is the ultimate thanksgiving, and a moment we all ought to revisit a few times a year. Imagine, eighty years ago, the notion of a professional athlete, an American icon, standing essentially alone before a stadium of heartbroken fanatics, all mostly lower-class, who have paid their hard-working wages to be with their hero before he dies, as he in fact, gestures towards them in a final and ultimate way. Baseball is cliche, but Lou Gehrig is authentic and original forever. If Henry asks me what it is to be a man, I might introduce him to this footage, which is essentially a primer on bravery and sensitivity and gratitude. Godspeed America, this spirit still dwells within all of us. I can’t believe it is all gone.

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The good news is this: I just won a poetry contest.  The magazine is small but was recently favorably reviewed by The New York Times.  They are going to publish ten of my poems and I’ll be the feature of their next issue.  I can’t say anything right now about who the publication is, because they’re getting ready to announce the results of the contest themselves.  But I am excited.  I sent them a manuscript of fifteen poems, and some of the poems were kind of gutsy, stylistically.  But they said they loved the tone and the voice.

In other news, I have a new essay coming out in Fresh Cup regarding my coffee plant and the importance of home gardening.  I’m always happy to be publishing with Fresh Cup and their very professional staff.  Good people.  Additionally, Volume One back up in Eau Claire has published my Brett Favre essay.  They did a very nice job with the layout of the piece, and I’m happy to be working with them again.

And – Henry was weighed a week ago at the doctor’s office and he is now 16 pounds and 6 ounces!  This is great news for us.  The doctor was supremely impressed by his weight gain, length, and melon size.  If only the doctor could explain why Mr Henry Bear is so resistant to sleeping all the way through the night.

Today is a Dude Day – just me and Henry.  Regina is back in school with only one semester left.  It feels like our lives are speeding up again, moving toward some indefinite point on the horizon.  MFA programs should begin reporting soon in earnest.  Knock wood please.

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My undergraduate thesis was about lists.  Everyone loves lists.  In no particular order, I give you, my twenty favorite books, not including poetry:

1. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (the last book my Dad gave me)
2. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey (the best novel of all-time)
3. Blood Orchid by Charles Bowden
4. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (the best writer of all-time)
5. Dead Cities by Mike Davis
6. The Meadow by James Galvin
7. Big Bad Love by Larry Brown
8. Beloved by Toni Morrison
9. Poachers by Tom Franklin (includes the best recent short story I’ve read)
10. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
11. Five Skies by Ron Carlson
12. Winter by Rick Bass
13. Heirs of General Practice by John McPhee
14. The Last Opium Den by Nick Tosches
15.  Jim the Boy by Tony Earley
16. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
17. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
18. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (the scariest novel I’ve ever read)
19. The Road Home by Jim Harrison (my favorite writer)
20. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

NOTES: For the literary elitists out there – I know.  20 titles and only one female author.  It is one of many blind spots, and I’m trying to rectify that specific hole in my reading.  Also, the list is very white, very American, and very 20th century.  All of these things are true, as is the fact that such distinctions also describe me.  I am eager to read more Russian writing (my forebears), more African writing, and more Latino writing.  I could have added some 19th century Brits to the list but I would have been lying.  The classics largely bore me to tears with the excpetions of Whitman, Melville, and James et.al.

Other fabulous books: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, Blood Meridean by Cormac McCarthy, Black Sun by Edward Abbey, Sea Wolf by Jack London, A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Rivethead by Ben Hamper, The Beast God Forgot to Invent by Jim Harrison… and so many others.  Please post any horrific omissions you think I may have made or suggestions for future reading.

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Seven years ago I spent a summer on the Taku River in the northwestern-most corner of British Columbia, miles from the Alaskan border.  I had read about an environmental organization called Round River Conservation Studies in Rick Bass’ book The Lost Grizzlies.  His description of the group so enthralled me, that I knew as soon as I closed the book that I needed to make a connection to this group.  I enrolled in their summer student program, where I would study conservation biology.  So in late June I crawled into into a scorching hot automobile with my good friend Carolyn Stolzenburg and we began driving west across America.  I remember that in western Minnesota we hit a storm so powerful that we pulled off at a truckstop for refuge.  There may have been a tornado.  In the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming there was snow and moose and the world seemed empty except for us, our faces pressed against the glass.  In Cody, Wyoming we picked up a stranger, a man named Tracy Hruska, a fellow Round River alumni who would later become one of my best friends.  A man who has repeatedly traveled across the country to visit me, even just for hours at a time.  We made our way through Yellowstone, through Butte, past the great open-pit mines, through the desert, and mountains, and trees, to Seattle, and then to Bellingham, where under a splendid American sky and in a beer garden with a view of the ocean we drank until we were sick.  In the morning, Tracy and I boarded a ferry and began a three day journey up the Pacific coast, through fjords and past glaciers to the port of Skagway.  We then found a bus that transported us over the Canadian border to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory where we found a hostel.  There was only one bed left in the hostel and we took it, with smiles on our greasy faces.  Around midnight, with the sun still in the sky, we drank beer until closing, and then retreated back to our single bed, two grown men.  In the morning, I met Doug Milek, the student director of Round River, who is also now a lifelong friend.  Every day was like that – an adventure marked by encounters with rare and important people.  People who don’t give up on landscapes, or creatures, or friends.  Diehards.

For a month I lived beside a creek in my tent, The Hotel Wisconsin, a small rectangle of nylon that I inherited from my Dad.  The floor of the tent was littered with my books, pens, diaries, river-stones, and dirty clothing.  At night I lay in my sleeping bag and read James Galvin’s The Meadow (a paradigm-shattering tome) while Arctic mice tried to climb the slopes of my tent, always eventually skiing down.  Everywhere the sound of water.

In the mornings: a campfire, coffee, mountains, the river, a story from the great Tlingit elder Uncle Jackie.  Sometimes cribbage.  Then we would divide in groups and go into the wilderness, collecting bear hairs from snares mounted to their rub-trees.  The smell of grizzly bears on my fingers.  Grizzly bears everywhere.  Sometimes I was terrified of them.  Other times, they were just like our neighbors.  In the evenings: campfires, salmon, coffee, the stars, the aurora, stories.  Our faces bathed in smoke and the colors of fire.

One time, Doug and I explored a cave high in the face of a cliff far above the river and in the mountains.  It had been used by travelers immemorial.  I saw the ancient fire-pit and the ashes.  There were Sitka Spruce larger than any white pine I have ever seen.  I saw rivers the color of milk.  Chocolate lilies.  Sea otters far up a fresh-water river.  The border of America and Canada, cut out of the wilderness like a line made by God.  I caught a fish with my bare hands.  Twice a week we took saunas in a plastic hut and then dove into the river and frequently the river was choked with the corpses of dead salmon, the water slick with their oils and fluids.

I learned to observe the world more acutely than I ever had before.  I counted species of plants painstakingly, on my knees, calling out the names of things alien to me, examining their leaves.  I saw the world as it should be, not as it is, or as it has become, or as it has healed over.  But a kind of paradise and yet still threatened by industry and greed and progress.  When I came home my blood boiled with passion and indignation, I was ready to go to war over the Taku River, over Flanaghan’s Slough, over grizzly bear, and caribou.

If you read this blog, there is a good chance that you know about my experiences along the Taku.  Maybe, you were even there with me.  But I write this entry because I owe a debt of gratitude to Round River Conservation Studies because they altered my life and changed my perception of the world.  They are also proponents of my writing, and without fail plug my poetry and essays.  If you ever have extra money in your pocket and are in need of a charity, this is your group.  They are special and unique and they are producing leaders and scientists and good people.  When Regina and I have money, which in the past we have, we give what we can to Round River.  You should too.

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For the longest time, I resented the Green Bay Packers and the near religious fervor Wisconsinites felt towards their local professional football team.  As a teenager, I wanted to be different and apart from a communal emotional attachment to a squad of grown jocks.  I was fostering a teenage image – a person that I thought was cool, desirable, individual.  The Green Bay Packers did not fit into that image.

But if you live in Wisconsin, it is more fun to live through the gloom and despair of late autumn and winter as a Packers fan.  Sundays become a ritual, just as a small child, summer evenings had their own ritual: my bedside AM radio tuned to the Milwaukee Brewers’ broadcast and the warbly voice of Bob Uecker.  My Dad telling me around midnight to shut the radio off and go to sleep.  And now, we cook too much good food, buy some beer, and relax with friends and family, watching our too-small teevee and rejoicing in every touchdown, interception, and tackle.

Today Reidar, Lump, Rassa, and her friend came over to our little bungalow for the game, which was epic in its drama.  What a fantastic young team the Packers are!  Clay Matthews.  Aaron Rodgers.  Donald Driver.  Although there is palpable letdown from the game’s aftermath, one has to think this team has a bright and shining future ahead of it.  Already I am eager for next season.

I am reminded of my time working as a meatpacker when the Packers’ season ended and we would all gather in a small ante-room before beginning work, huddling for warmth.  We were colder for not having the Packers to look forward to next week.  Is it silly for grown men to feel emotionally vacant after something so trivial as a football game?  Certainly.  But at least this sentiment is universal.  The feeling in Green Bay tonight is equalavilent to the feelings felt in Manchester, England after a loss.  Or in Rio de Janeiro after a World Cup loss.  We’re all the same.  All our diversions are the same.  Men chasing balls of leather.

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Notes on Young MC and AC/DC

Henry and I like to dance.  Allegedly, this is supposed to be good exercise for me, and him, though mostly we both wave our hands in the air like we just don’t care, which is true, because we don’t.  Bar none, the best music to dance to is late 80s/early 90s hip-hop, and specifically here I’m motioning towards Young MC, Naughty By Nature, The Beastie Boys, and others.

The rapping is molasses smooth, the lyrics are smart and comedic, and the hooks are tight and funky.  I don’t have to worry about Henry getting an earful of nasty lyrics and in this way, we move around our library dancing together and sometimes he’ll even spontaneously giggle.

Another masterful stroke of genius came from my co-worker Josh, who presented me with an album over Christmas that is lullaby covers of AC/DC classics.  The album has the austere, surreal sound of the  “American Beauty” soundtrack and Henry loves it.  Without fail he either coos at the sound system in our car, or falls asleep immediately.  In either case, I continue to listen to the lullabies.  Imagine “Thunderstruck” played on a minor glockenspiel with bells.

In other news, I have recently received a bevy of rejections from the likes of The Cream City Review, Poetry, and some others.  I have mitigated this bad news by sending more stuff out the door.  Waiting for MFA news.  Keep your fingers crossed and knock wood.

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