Morels, Spring 2011

This past Saturday I headed out into the woods near Strum, Wisconsin with my father-in-law Jim, there to hunt the elusive and expensive (presently about $32 a pound) morel mushroom. Meteorologically, the day was shitty: intermittent light to heavy rain, overcast, with gusting winds. Yet we pushed on. Inside his pickup truck we’d pull to the shoulders of country roads and inspect the forest floor after identifying telltale dead elms. In all, we didn’t find much. About a half to two thirds of a pound. Most of the weight coming in three big specimens.

Then today, out on an afternoon walk with Henry through suburbia, I glance across someone’s backyard and notice a morel protruding so tall and white it might have been a yard ornament. I looked around for witnesses, left Henry in his Chariot, grabbed my pocketknife and quickly poached the mushroom. A beast! Taller than a can of Coca-Cola and probably somewhere between a quarter to a third of a pound. I’ll have it tomorrow for lunch, possibly with sauteed onions or atop a pizza.

Currently reading Wells Towers’ “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” after finished Anthony Doerr’s “The Shell Collector.” Also just finished Thomas McGuane’s “Ninety-Two In The Shade.” So far, it has been a fantastic spring/summer of reading. I’m looking forward to more reading tomorrow, possibly some more mushroom hunting, and then a Twins baseball game on Wednesday.


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.”

Back (In Black)

Alright, I’ve been away from Light Travels Faster Downhill for a period now approaching two months. I have some good reasons:

1.) I’ve been thinking about my stories. A lot. As in, staying up at night, laying in bed, wrestling with imaginary characters and invisible plot lines, etc. In the last three weeks and specifically in four very trying days I completed my longest short story/novella yet; another story about a wedding in the Upper Midwest that presently spans about 57 pages.

This is very good news for me as a writer because to me it indicates that I’m stretching out ideas, developing characters more and settling into scene. The new story is rough (it debuts in Workshop next Tuesday), but I’m very proud of it. It combines elements of a story that my brother-in-law Reidar told me about, the wedding of my friends Chuck & Shannon, and remembrances of my childhood and my father.

2.) I’m beat. I’m exhausted. I’m tired of driving, tired of being away from Henry and Regina. Tired of spending ten hours behind the wheel when I could, when I ought to be doing SOMETHING, anything, productive. I’m really just dog-tired. About two weeks ago I left Minnesota on Monday afternoon and Henry began SOBBING, clinging to me like a little koala bear. It was heartbreaking. I had to wonder if it was borderline traumatic, how much he understands about my current schedule and our lives. I have so much to be thankful for in terms of the Writer’s Workshop, but at the same time, I’m also ready to be coming down the home stretch.

3.) I began wondering about this blog, its pertinence. WHY (?) am I writing blog and who am I writing it for? For myself? For friends and family? I just began rolling those questions around in my head. The truth is, I’m not sure questioning a project like this is really worthwhile. Some of my friends and relatives seem to get a kick out of it, so I’m going to keep maintaining it (this blog.) At the very least, it keeps me writing something.

4.) I’ve received dozens of rejections in the last few months and that has become a little depressing. I’ve also had some nice successes, but I think I’m the kind of person/writer who dwells on the failures to fuel his successes. If that makes sense.

So anyway, I’ll try to be more diligent.

Went to the doctor today. He seemed satisfied with my health though, they’re going to remove a mole from my back next week. So there’s that. Also, today in class, we read a poem written in 1993. I said to my students, “That doesn’t seem like so long ago to me, but I suppose its been eighteen years of pretty interesting American history. A lot has changed.”

To which one of my students said, “I was born in 1993.”

I began laughing hysterically and pulling at my thinning hair.

Tomorrow (Tuesday March 1st) PBS will be filming our workshop. That is to say, Sam Chang’s workshop; twelve students including myself.

The class is always conducted in the most dramatic of the Workshop’s spaces: a room with a great circular table and expansive views of the Iowa River. In the early evenings crows gather by the hundreds or thousands and blacken out the crowns of nearby trees. Their noises are loud, even through the windows. Other nights, hawks and bald eagles wheel past our classroom.

PBS was also recently filming my friend Marcus Burke. His apartment, how he writes and where, his walk home. I’m so happy for him – you couldn’t BUY that kind of exposure – and he deserves it all. Mark my words: you will know the name of Marcus Burke in the coming years. He’s well on his way.

So, we’ll have to see how things go. Will cameras affect how we deal with one another? Will the two writers who “are up” get an honest shake? What will happen will people stop being polite and start getting real?

Ha. No, tomorrow will be cool. No where else in the world would this happen but at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Forward Our Motto

Away from Wisconsin for the first time in twelve years, I feel more than a little disconnected from what is happening in Madison, our old home. And I have to say, that the budget problems in Wisconsin are real and daunting. But it is hard for me to look at the situation in my home state and not feel that the unions are getting strong-armed. The governor there doesn’t seem interested in solutions, just cuts. Why not raise taxes on corporations? On the rich? The property taxes of the super-wealthy? Why, in this time of strife, does the sacrifice have to come from teachers and other state workers? The dots have already been connected. And that’s politics, I suppose. He’s protecting his base.

But don’t be surprised when the streets fill with pissed off blue-collar workers, with teachers, secretaries, social workers, and like. Don’t be surprised when people fight for their rights. And don’t be surprised when your opponent realizes that you’ve handled this situation like a scared political rookie (the National Guard?). Don’t be surprised when they pull a crafty political stunt and delay your vote.

Like it or not, in politics, nobody respects you for rolling over. In recent years, nobody has perfected dodgy political street-fighting like the Republicans. And it infuriated Democrats and liberals.

This is just the first time the left has decided to fight back.

Better to go down fighting. Better to make some noise.

I’ve twice now been a union member and there are REAL reasons to belong. I’ve worked in dangerous meat-packing facilities where the corporate powers that be pushed machinery beyond safe protocol. Only the union had the power to stop production. And now, as a TA, I’m again in a union. And because of it, we have better insurance through the University of Iowa than Regina can access through her firm.

I’m not so myopic that I can’t see both sides. But what I like about this battle is that the left might lose, but they’re making some politicians squirm. And guarantee you this, next election cycle, things might look a lot different.

The Fatherhood Files

A new essay up on The Christian Science Monitor.