Archive for the ‘Thanksgivings’ Category

One year left. In a scant five days I’ll be back down to Ioway. Am I excited? In some ways. I’m ready for the structure of my teaching and learning, ready for the deadlines of Workshop and for the peculiar atmosphere of Ioway City where all my friends and colleagues are all interested in literature and poetry, all trying to figure things out. I’m not excited about another year away from Regina and Henry. Or another year of driving six hundred miles a week. I feel very fortunate that I never had any accdients last year and I’m hoping that my luck holds out for another year.

I’ve had some great weekends of late. Visited my Grandpa in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and was able to spend some quality time with him and also my brother Alex. We took a sauna, had a nice bonfire, took some good walks, and observed more birds than I can remember in recent years. Just this last weekend we returned to Eau Claire and met my uncles there for a tour of the Leinenkugal’s brewery. Also had a nice dinner with my Mom and Dad.

I’m presently reading Josh Weil’s “The New Valley.” It is such a stupendously beautiful book that I read it with equal parts envy and wonder. His style is akin to a young Cormac McCarthy, with elements of Breece DJ Pancake thrown in for good measure. The blurbs on the jacket of the book are the kinds of compliments that any young writer would kill for. Here’s to hoping that my debut book is even half as well received – if and when it comes out.

Which reminds me… In recent months I’ve become reticent to talk about my upcoming publications either on this blog or through Facebook, but I guess I’m doing a disservice to the very publications that believe in my work by neglecting to mention them. In that spirit: the newest issue of “Ploughshares” features my first published short story entitled “Apples” which is loosely based on someone in my life that many of you who might read the story will recognize. I also have a poem forthcoming in the journal “Alimentum” and another short story appearing on “The Kenyon Review Online.” I’m excited about all of these publications and thankful to their editors and readers.


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This summer has flown by. Even with the withering heat and humidity, the days seem to race by. Everything has been easy and fluid – no forced sorties down to Ioway. No grading papers. No requisite workshop letter-writing. No emails to answer from students. Just pleasant mornings with Henry. Cereal and milk and oatmeal and peanut-butter toast (pop-up). Long neighborhood walks to playgrounds or trips to the pool. Lunches in downtown Minneapolis with Regina. Weekends in Eau Claire. Things are idyllic.

Today my friend Marcus Burke called and he asked whether or not I was dreading the return to Iowa. “Dread” is a strong word. There aren’t many times in your adult life when you get the opportunity to return to school. To meet new friends, learn from great professors, and have all the access to great writing resources that we have at Iowa. And I do miss my friends and my routine down there. But I think the driving will be more difficult this year. The novelty of it (driving) will be gone, and that scares me. I never felt tired behind the wheel last year and I was lucky with the road conditions. By all rights, I should have slid into the ditch about a half dozen different trips – but I never did. I’ve never had a speeding ticket or an accident, and I feel like I’ve been fortunate with those odds too. Above all, I’m looking forward to my next workshop, and pressure to produce on a regular basis. I’m looking forward to reading my friends’ newest works.

The headline of this post is “To Be Two.” Henry celebrated his second birthday in style with pile of loot, some cupcakes, pizza, and a trip to the Children’s Museum in Saint Paul. It was a great day. And I’m pleased to report that as each day passes, he seems to be more and more of a boy. Eagerly listening to books being read, joking, teasing, curious about the world, playing, speaking more, and just generally honing who he seems to be. How miraculous! As a little family, I can’t say that we’ve ever been happier.

Presently reading Louise Erdrich’s “The Bingo Palace.” Just finished John Grisham’s “The Testament.”

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It feels that way – that pretty soon I’ll be back on Highway 35 heading down to Ioway. In truth, I still have a little less than two months here in Minnesota with Regina and Henry, but I am astonished at quickly the time has flown by. And I haven’t been as effective as I might’ve liked when it comes to my novel, blogging, or exercise. But I am trying. Today for example I worked on the novel quite a bit, took several walks with Henry, ran errands, and posted two letters to friends. So I’m not being lazy exactly.

I never wanted this blog to be meaningless, or necessarily disposable. I never wanted to feel that I HAD to write/blog something every day. Because the truth is that I don’t have something meaningful to say every day. Nor does something eventful happen to me every day. I have tried to maintain this blog in the hopes of staying in touch with family and friends. And also in a way as a kind of tool for talking about The Workshop, my writing, my successes and failures. I need to keep doing that I think. This blog doesn’t take up that much of my time.

Rather than write you a novella about my summer, here is a bulleted list of significant happenings:
1. Lacerated the hell out of my right shin. Took about 25-45 stitches. Hard to say exactly how many because the ER docs (really cool guys) didn’t count the stitches they had to sew deep inside my leg to bring the tissue together that was closest to the exposed bone. Right now I have a very ugly 5 inch long U-shaped scar that doesn’t want to heal quickly at all.
2. Reading. So far this summer I’ve read about eight books. In some ways, this has gotten in the way of my own writing. But reading for me is also now about learning, and I need to read in order to push my own craft. In particular, I’d like to promote: Dean Bakopoulos’ new book “My American Unhappiness”, James Alan McPherson’s “Elbow Room”, Thomas McGuane’s “Ninety-Two in the Shade”, and Wells Towers’ “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” Three of the four books are by my teachers/mentors/friends. Go read those books.
3. Henry has a second birthday soon. He is gaining more language with every day and continues to grow and thrive. He is a joy to be around and every day I am cognizant of how fortunate I am to have this summer with him.
4. Writing. In the coming months I’ll likely have two short stories published in major journals and one poem in a journal called “Alimentum”, which is a publication dedicated to food writing. I’m very proud of these publications. I think I’m getting very close to my goals. At this point, I’m praying to find a good agent who cares about my work and is aggressive. If I can find that person, I’m pretty sure that I’m about two to years away from dropping several books. So pray for me, or send good vibrations, or whatever. I need the support.
5. Travel. We’re traveling mostly in the Midwest, but so far we’ve seen the Swans in Ashland, Iowa City, and several times we’ve visited Eau Claire. We just need to visit the Walters family and my Grandpa, and then I’ll be satsified. Mike and Hilary: if you still read this blog, I haven’t forgotten your trips up here. I feel guilty as hell. We’ll get down there and when we do, we’ll have some stellar coffee and a few bottles of wine too.

Okay. Enough for now. Hopefully Regina and I will be in a canoe this weekend. At least for one day.

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A new essay up on The Christian Science Monitor.


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2011 looks like insomnia, so far. Up nights, watching documentaries on Netflix. Scribbling down notes for new short stories and stalling out every time I touch my novel(s). No handbook to do this stuff. You just enter a dark tunnel and hope for the best. Hope that the batteries in your flashlight don’t die. That’s the upshot of short stories – they’re short. The tunnel is short. You can be afraid of the dark and still make it. But everything I’m thinking about lately is longer. And I keep thinking, god Nick, you really ought to wrap that it into something longer. But the tunnel I’m in right now is very dark indeed.

I get a day to myself tomorrow, Henry at daycare. A day for me to make hay. I’m caught up on my letters. Some reading left to do, some prep work before the next semester begins. But I’m in good shape. Good shape to start kicking some doors down. To start pumping out some great writing. I’m right there.

Also, I think I have some good news to share, but I’m too superstitious to say/blog/write about anything at this moment. But it’s good news.

And I’ve been working out. With a Jillian Michaels DVD. It’s something. She kicks my ass every night. In the basement. I say to Regina, “I’m going to do Jillian now.” But the thing is, Jillian always does me.


Happy birthday to my Mom. Who I think today turns 50. Happy birthday Mom. No son in the world could ask for a better Mom than you. Truly.

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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 is Veteran’s Day and I write this letter to you from Iowa, where I sit in a comfortably appointed office on the grounds of a major land-grant university. I taught class this morning, to young men and women of the age that in other times of American war, would surely have been conscripted or volunteered for battle. Young, smooth faces. They give me great hope for America. They are sincere, kind, able. They may not love books but it is my job to try and make them love books. My life right now, my wonderful life, is about books. The only things I have to focus on are my family and books. On words. On such silly things as books and stories and poems. I am so fortunate.

There was always a part of me that wanted to be a soldier. That wanted the challenge of conscription, to be assimilated into something vast and mechanical such as the military. To have my body re-made, to learn warfare, to learn new skills, perhaps to lead. I thought, and think, that perhaps there was something bigger in me waiting to emerge, some version of myself more hard, more worldly, more rounded. I don’t know. I was sure that if I joined the military I could maintain myself, my individuality. And I have always loved fraternal endeavors, the camaraderie of teams and shared experiences.

But the truth is, I’d be a terrible soldier. I’m not in shape, not lean. I dream too much and maybe I’m too sensitive.

I watched the film “Restrepo” last night and just the act of passively sitting in a safe, American theater watching such violence, reality, and paradox was overwhelming to me. How could I watch my friends die? How could I march into a village of strangers and enemies and not be afraid? How would I manage my grief and sadness? How does anyone survive these things? How do you keep yourself from falling apart? Do you? Ever?

The truth is, I’m not smart enough to understand the machinations of war – why we as a species are always fighting. But I think that there is always real evil out there and that sometimes you have to stand up against that darkness. If you can’t see the dangers out there, the darkness, then perhaps your eyes are shut. We need warriors. We need codes. What I know is that there isn’t enough to go around, and sometimes people get hungry or angry and this is what war is essentially about.

We have family right now in Afghanistan and I’m thinking of CJ right now. I was thinking about him last night. I’m thinking about my friend and colleague Scott Smith. I’m thinking about Regina’s law-school friends: Ben, Nelson, Pete, and Emma. I’m thinking about my Grandpa and my own father. All those soldiers.

I think it is inside me to kill, to defend, to fight. I know that it is inside me. I think back to a night in Madison when a man once punched out the window of my car and I chased after him and beat the shit out of him in the middle of State Street. I beat him until a crowd surrounded me and pulled me off him. His blood was all over my garments and my fists were raw. In that moment, I didn’t know what was happening – I just did what my body told me to do.

But the notion of losing my friends, the fear of being chased or hunted. I don’t know. I’m strong enough to know that I’m not that strong and I thank those of you out there, right now in the deserts and mountains and cities for what you’re doing. For being warriors. For having a code and brotherhood and sense of things most of us cannot comprehend.

I just want to say thank you. I want to say that I believe in you. That I’m thinking of you. That I know that in some other time, I might be beside you. That I know that right now, I’m fortunate and comfortable. I believe you are protecting me. I believe that you are protecting my family. I will believe in you. I will believe that what you are doing is just and right. The best that I can do today is to be aware of where I am on this planet, to be aware of my family tonight, to know the oak trees of my neighborhood and to recognize them, and to know that you are somewhere else tonight. Somewhere dangerous and strange. But I am thinking of you. That I hope you are safe. That I hope your friends are safe.

You will be home soon too and when you do come home, know that I am waiting to hear what you have to say and what you don’t have to say. I am listening to you.

I don’t know what the right thing to say is, but I thought I would say this. I thought to say, thank you. It is all that I can do right now and it is no doubt not enough.


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