Archive for the ‘Excess and/or Senses’ Category

Last week, settling down in front of my laptop, trying to think of some kind of Facebook status update, I thought I know these roads like the back of my hands. But I’m becoming tired of Facebook, so I didn’t write anything at all. Then, on Friday, back in the car and driving north to Minnesota, the highway stretched out before me like a spool of black tape, I thought What a perfect expression! That’s my new favorite expression!

Because ALL I DO IS LOOK AT THE BACKS OF MY HANDS. For ten hours a week, driving, the road so familiar I could draw you a map from Arden Hills, Minnesota to Iowa City, Iowa – every little hill, farm, rest stop, river, casino, truck stop, pasture, forest, grain silo… Also, as a writer, you’re always staring at your hands. Waiting for them to move, to create something.

Today marks the last time I need to drive south for several months. We visit Iowa City in June for the big reunion, but otherwise, I wouldn’t have to come back at all until August.

In other news:

Completed William Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow” – incredible. Presently reading Anthony Doerr’s “The Shell Collector.”


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A new essay up on The Christian Science Monitor.


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…this year or any other year for that matter, is the following:

1.) Superlative coffee. Don’t try any funny business. I KNOW GOOD COFFEE.
2.) Cigars, preferably high quality, but I also have uses for White Owls and Backwoods. My favorite being Dunhills.
3.) Beer, even bad beer which I can alternatively use for cooking. I’m partial to beers from: Lake Louie Brewing, Ale Asylum, Rush River, Rogue, or the old standby, Guinness.
4.) Photographs of family – perfect.
5.) Gift certificates to bookstores. Any bookstore.
6.) Wine, preferably high quality but again, I can use the bad stuff for cooking. I’m thinking Oregon, France, Argentina.
7.) Smartwool socks.
8.) Clementines – I am currently addicted to clementines.
9.) Postage stamps – I will use them.
10.) Original art from artists that I know or follow. You don’t know any of my favorite artists? Ask me. Don’t try to “turn me onto” something new. That might backfire.
11.) Expensive olive oil.
12.) Rare Wisconsin cheeses. Don’t mess around.
13.) Expensive balsamic vinegar.
14.) Long underwear.
15.) Antique panorama photographs.

This list looks exhaustive and maybe presumptuous. But who cares? Everyone in America gets gifts every year that they abhor. Useless things that get thrown away or that people have to tote around with them for the rest of their lives like anchors of guilt. I’m just being honest here. You want to give me a gift? Give me something that gives me pleasure. That allows me to a take a quiet moment and engage my senses. Give me something to eat, drink, or smoke. Because I will consume your gift.

And I will remember your gesture.

Merry Christmas. I am, at present (no pun intended), drinking a chocolate stout from Rogue Brewing. Case in point.

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My first semester of graduate school is over. Hard to believe how quickly the time has rushed by. All the evenings driving through the Midwest. Through torrential rains, past windmills, infinite fields of Ioway corn, nuclear sunsets, small-towns, frigid cold, snow. The early days of teaching: the anxiety and disorganization. The first few workshops: discovering my friends, writing like mad, finding a groove. Discovering that this is in indeed my life’s work. An obsession that is meant to be. Everything in my life a grand blessing.

I proctored the final examination on Friday afternoon after leaving the Twin Cities around 9pm the previous evening. Friday was a blur: caffeine fueled and without much food I administered the exam, graded papers, tallied grades, handled administrative minutia, and then a took a massive breath of air. Finished. I packed up my office, donned my jacket, and walked out into the cold outside the English building and beside the Ioway River. My friend Stephanie had invited me over for dinner and all I could think about was finding a bottle of wine and unwinding with her and some other friends.

But then I heard a man’s voice from the nearby parking lot.

“Hey!” he said. “Come over here. A woman fell.”

I walked towards him. I could not immediately see who had fallen. Just him (a man in his fifties) and a younger black woman, the passenger side door of an automobile ajar. When I came close to the car I saw that it must have been the woman’s mother, fallen, sitting heavily in the snow, mush, water, and salt of the dirty parking lot. She looked embarrassed, confused, sad. She was probably in her seventies. An old black woman. And she weighed about three hundred pounds.

We tried in vain for about five minutes to get her up. Me and the man at her arms, and the daughter behind her. Then the daughter suggested that I switch places with her; that perhaps I could horse her up better. So I positioned myself behind the old woman, reaching my arms underneath hers. I could feel many great sacks of fat hanging loosely from her body. The soft folds of her arms and belly. The man helping me took her arms and began counting to three. But I hadn’t found a place to put my hands. A purchase, so to speak.
So I just grabbed her and I wrenched her up, off the ground.

But, my hands were on her breasts. She wore no brassiere, and her garments were loose, and my hands were on her breasts, heaving her up. Of course, I was appalled, embarrassed. We set her in her wheelchair and I said, “I apologize ma’am. I didn’t mean to touch you there.”

She looked at me and said, “Thank god you came to help me. You’re an angel.”

I helped push her wheelchair into the building, and then I said goodbye and walked away.

It was true that I hadn’t eaten anything all day, that I was running on caffeine fumes, and this combination generally results in a kind of emotional imbalance for me. But my heart felt overfull. I feel this way often, and maybe most writers do. The world is almost too much – too beautiful or too terrible. Too real. Too wonderful. I walked towards my friend’s house and I could feel the old woman’s breasts in my hands, the weight of them. And a part of me wanted to wash my hands immediately. But I thought about my Dad, also in a wheelchair, and all the many times I have transferred him from a car to his chair. The weight of his body in my arms. The terror of an icy surface.

I was so happy to see my friends that night, all of them: Stephanie, Rebecca, Christina, Adam, and Jamie. We had a fantastic night. Too much booze, food, everything.

The next morning, Bloody Marys and a bittersweet good-bye brunch. Hungover and sorry to part ways.

I don’t know if what happened was really a Christmas story, but it is that time of year. All of my emotions a melancholy tangle of happy and sad and thankful and sentimental. When the tangible beauty of the world is enough to make me weep with happiness. A tree alive with lights. A river freezing shut like a scar. My friends, catching airplanes home. My Dad’s voice on the telephone, talking to Henry.

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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 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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