Archive for September, 2010

It isn’t an easy thing, to sit down and survey your life, the last year.  Tally your highs and lows with honesty.  But I feel very blessed, even as I spend this night away from Regina and Henry.  Much of the last year was spent at our little home in Madison, nurturing Henry and learning how to be a parent.  Evenings over at Star Liquor.  Spare time working on graduate school applications and my writing.  Posting envelopes to distant literary magazines and presses and knocking wood.  Crossing my fingers.  Hoping for the best, a way out, or at least up.

The big break came in February when Sam Chang called and offered me a spot here.  I can’t tell you how that changed our lives, the confidence that came with that telephone call.  Someone out there believed in me, in my writing.  There was light.  Then the stress of trying to sell our home, of dealing with the worst real estate broker in the world, of recalculating Regina’s professional choices.  So many decisions.

Regina graduated in the spring and that wonder and awe in witnessing her achievement.  How proud we were of her.  Henry gaining weight, giggling away, our happy little boy.

Leaving Madison and our friends.  Moving up to Minnesota.  Making unromantic fiscal decisions.  The reality of spending some of our time apart when we never have before.

It hasn’t all been wonderful or easy.  But I know that our families get it. That we’re making sacrifices, trying to get ahead.  Trying to better ourselves.  Trying to follow the light out.  We’re clinging to one another, holding on.  Love as our mortar.

This first month in Ioway has been more than I ever could have imagined.  I have to say that Jim McPherson’s workshop and the people that I study with, they make me so happy and proud to be here, to be their friend.  To call them my friends.  To read their manuscripts and understand that what I am seeing is the birth of a star, many stars.  Such nice, decent, funny, incandescent people.

Last night, Jim treated us for dinner.  My friend Chanda Grubbs made me a cake, presented me with a gift.  Jim was too tired to actually eat with us, but he bought our meals and drinks.  Then we went to the Foxhead and drank too much.  Sashayed a few blocks to the nearest dance/gay bar where we watched karaoke and laughed.  I ended the evening with a rap.  Biz Markie’s “You Got What I Need”.  We went out into the night for more fun, the stars overhead blue and fuzzy.

Thirty one years old.

The best advice that I’ve heard came from my professor/mentor Rebecca Walkowitz when she was still teaching at the University of Wisconsin.  I was a headstrong, Middlewestern kid in her class.  Blue collar through and through with a frisbee-sized chip on my shoulder.  I didn’t think that change was good, or necessary.  One day I went into her office.  She wanted me to pursue grad school, grants, even higher education.  I didn’t want it then.  Said I didn’t want to be farther from home, my friends and family.

I remember, she took a long breath and said, “What if we all just stayed eighteen?  Twenty?  Twenty-five years old?  What kind of world would this be?  Do you want to be who you are today forever?  Or do you want to change and grow?”

She had put me in my place, gracefully shamed me in the way the best mentors do.  And I think about her all the time.  My favorite college professor.

So I’m thirty-one today.  Thirty-one years old.  I feel like I have many wonderful things to be proud of.  But I also feel like I haven’t done anything yet.  That I’m just getting started.  Just warming up.  Just figuring out who I am, what my own voice sounds like.  What I believe and disbelieve.

I’m surrounded by the best people in the world.  That’s one thing I know: nobody gets anywhere all by themselves.  I have my Mom and Dad to thank.  Regina and Henry.  My brother and sister-in-law and grandparents.  My in-laws.  My best friends who have been with me since age 11.  You know who you are – those forty or so people who look at this blog with regularity and leave me sweet messages.

But now I am tired.  I miss my family and it is time to fall asleep.  Time to lay in bed and think about writing.  About imaginary people.


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I’m teaching/showing this scene towards the end of my class…  The theme of the class is Things Fall Apart.  In my estimation, one of best scenes in all of cinema…

You know what it takes to sell estate? It takes brass balls to sell real estate. Go and do likewise, gents.

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I had a terrific weekend spent in the company of my family and the Hanson family of Marion, Ioway.  Nights spent drinking cold canned beer.  Mornings around the table, eating with children.  Eating good, hot food.  Outside, always cold rain and the sky alive with lightning and thunder.  Football on the television.  Amongst family.  Driving the back-roads of Ioway.

We spent Sunday afternoon stripping a neighborhood apple tree; filling a child’s wagon with apples freshly picked and some windblown and fallen.  We dressed in warm garments.  We washed the apples and John Ryal supplied an ancient apple press long used in his family.  We took our turns cutting the apples, filling a hopper, cranking on the press, emptying the mash, carrying the juice into the house for cider.  Our fingers sticky, the air like apples, the skin of apples on the earth, children eating apples.  We filled many Mason jars with cider.

It is best to work.  To stay busy.  There is always something to do, something to be made out of nothing.  It is good to work with your family.  It is good to work on a Sunday afternoon, even if we are told otherwise.  In America, there are more apples than we could ever hope to eat.  They become fertilizer and they feed the desperate autumn wasps.

I took Henry to the doctor on Monday.  He weighs more than 24 pounds now.  I held his little hands while two nurses pumped sharp needles into his little legs.  He was in so much pain his face became red and he cried so hard that he did not make a sound.  It made me want to tear the world apart and protect him, even if I was protecting him.  Even if he needed the immunizations.  My baby.  My son.  How was I appointed to be his defender?  My Dad was a ferocious advocate and I remember how you could feel his love, how intense it was.  How it felt to be protected by him.  I love that aspect of fatherhood.  That now, I have a family.  People to take care of.  To protect.  Today was Henry’s first day at daycare.  Today we are both in school.

I workshop a story today.  In two weeks I meet with a publisher and maybe nothing will happen.  But maybe it will.  If you believe in prayer or positive thinking then I would appreciate your thoughts.

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Yesterday I drove Henry to his grandparents’ house in Eau Claire.  Filled the Bullitt with apples and soda and hit the road.  Drove southwest into the Driftless Area, tractors on the road and the yellow dust of combined corn in the air.  Amish in their fields.  I followed a shit spreader for some time, down the road.  High bluffs towering over me, the towns everywhere sleepy and essentially American.  Crossed the Mississippi into Wabasha, Minnesota and felt the gravity of the river pull me down Highway 61 towards Dubuque.  But I resisted and took the faster route.  Due south.  Eventually through Chester, Ioway along the northern border.

On Mondays the sun is always burning against my right cheek.  I listen to AM radio as it fades in and out, sometimes catching snatches of football games.  Scanning past the political vitriol from both sides.  Occasionally I listen to the words of invisible preachers and their flamboyant sermons.  I watch the sun die over the American West, sometimes as surreal as a nuclear explosion: purples and pinks and reds and oranges and always awe-inspiring.  I see deer in the fields, fawns near their mothers.

Driving isn’t so terrible.  I see so much America.  I listen to myself and the road.  I think about my family and my station in life.  I watch the skies for hawks.  I wave to farmers.  I think about my Mom and my Dad and my kin.  I think about my brother and my friends.  Sometimes the sun is in my eyes and I have to squint.  Night-time can be a salve, a balm.  I watch the sky for falling stars.

I’m working on a novella right now and it is all I think about.  It is about Eau Claire and fame and childhood friendships and growing old.  I think about the story when I lay down in my bed.  The characters are still talking, to me, in my head.

Henry is beginning to walk.  Henry is beginning to walk.  Life is speeding up.  How do you slow things down?  How do you slow your life down?  How do you record everything?  Henry’s life is just beginning.  How miraculous.  Everything is still ahead of him, everything a big surprise.  Everything is still hopeful and good, out there ahead of him.  Henry is beginning to walk.  How sweet.

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I Can Conjure Autumn, Part 2

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I Can Conjure Autumn

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My Wednesdays are surreal.  Only two classes, both of which I’m taking as a student.  No teaching duties on Wednesdays.  I sit in two different classrooms and listen to the lectures of two flat-out geniuses.  Big brained people.  But two, totally different minds, personalities, and styles.

I’m taking a class on the poetry of James Merrill.  The class is taught by James Galvin who wrote, among other things, The Meadow which I mentioned in a long-ago post regarding my top twenty books of all time(s).  The Meadow shattered many of the paradigms of what I thought I knew literature to be, or to look like.  But it isn’t pretentious.  It is beautiful and wonderfully crafted with sweet, sweet characters in a well-carved environment.  Galvin writes about the American West the way I WANT to write about the American Middlewest.

Galvin’s teaching style is part barroom and part Ivy League.  He expects you to know poetry, the machinations of poetry, the history of poetry, the theory and practice of poetry.  He’ll read aloud in Italian, map the beats of a poem spontaneously on the board and tell us about meeting Merrill or other godlike names of poetry.  And then he’ll tell a dirty joke.  He’ll say “fuck” like a Wal-Mart greeter says “Hello!”.  He grins with teeth missing.

And the Merrill class is basically built around a series of poems that were crafted used a Ouija board.

So Galvin is the BAD DEVIL on my shoulder, grinning and cursing.

Then, an hour later, I walk over to Marilynne Robinson’s classroom where I listen raptly as she spills what seems to be several lifetimes worth of knowledge about The Bible into our ears.  When I say “spills”, what I mean is that her knowledge is like water.  It flows out of her.  It fills the room.  It fills my brain.  She has drown me with information.  And she does so with the sweetest smile on her face.  She giggles sweetly throughout class, chuckling wryly as she remembers another archaic nugget of information to direct our way.  I fill pages of paper with notes.  She answers our questions patiently, thoughtfully, nodding.  If she doesn’t know the answer, she makes a note of the question and during the next class session, she has an answer.

A few students have put forth what I consider to be, dumb questions in her class.  They have filled her classroom with bullshit asides, I think in order to hear their own voices.  But she has never put them down.  She’s like an oracle, a humble oracle.

So I also have Marilynne Robinson.  The GOOD ANGEL on one shoulder, giggling, a copy of The New Testament in her hands.

Today, this dichotomy shook my brain.  The Ouija board and the Book of Matthew.  Meanwhile, my students are confusing “Leaves of Grass” with a botany text, rather than an American epic poem.

Ioway is a strange place where my greatest challenges are synthesizing the voices of geniuses and digesting beautiful books, beautiful poems.

Is this heaven?  No, it’s Iowa.

Godspeed Ioway.

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