Monday, November 23, 2009

If It's on the Menu

Assuming there get to be more hours in the day, I’d like to take up crochet again, and work on a few essays and my novel, and set to work again on my reading list, amply revised since my fictional summer to better suit my taste for memoir. There’s only so long I can go without once again wondering what’s going on in the lives of people I know too much about to have never met. That in mind, I’d also like to make more of an effort to meet these individuals.

To kick off the month of November, I traveled north to Vancouver, B.C., to hear from one of my most beloved friends-I’ve-never-met, David Sedaris. Of course, I needed something for him to sign since I’d left my copy of Barrel Fever at home, so I stopped by my favorite used bookstore in town before hitting the road, purchasing—along with Sarah Vowell’s wry, her-storical spree, Assassination Vacation, because I have never learned to practice self-discipline—a fine copy of Naked, the only of Sedaris’s work I’ve yet to read. The only collection, that is, save for Holidays on Ice, which I own on audiobook, as read by David and his sister Amy Sedaris, and am waiting (endlessly, seemingly) until my long drive home for Christmas to enjoy.

That evening at Vancouver’s Centre only whetted my appetite for David’s devious storytelling. He’s the type of person who tries to write fables but, for their lack of moral fiber, must condescend to call them stories about animals. “I wanted to title the book Fables,” he said, referring to his forthcoming collection. “Now I’m thinking of calling it, Let’s Explore Diabetes with the Owl. Because,” he explained, “Let’s—it’s an invitation, you know?”

I spent an hour and a half waiting in line with my friends for David to sign our books because he’s personable in person, takes a little time to chat with everyone. He’s inviting, you know?

“What did you talk about in line?” I heard him ask the girls in front of us, whom my friends and I had spent the previous forty-five minutes criticizing for their hair and dress and diction. I’m not saying I’m proud of it, but I really hoped David would ask me the same question, that we might share—together, him and me—a notion of camaraderie at another’s expense. Instead, we talked about his visit to Western’s campus and the woman who, later, followed-up his reading there with a letter describing just how offensive and unfunny everyone thought he’d been.

“Now,” David leaned over the table he sat at, with a glint of familiarity in his eyes, “I was there.” His words were confidant but hardly self-absorbed. He shook his head knowingly. “And it had the same reaction as it always does,” which is to say, I’m funny. I know I’m funny because millions of people think I’m funny. Had I not been so head-over-tea-kettle about him, I’d have agreed. He returned my book to me with his signature and a doodle of “someone throwing up” on the title page, and I stepped aside, elated.

||

November is a month during which people have a tendency to give me things, no strings attached. Some call this a birthday; I call it Novel-berfest, which is a misnomer, really, since I give preference to nonfiction. But, a name’s a name, and there’s no sense in changing the only-slightly-true. Now, added to the stack with Sedaris and Vowell are Elizabeth Emerson Hancock’s PK memoir Trespassers Will Be Baptized, Augusten Burroughs’s irreverent holiday essay collection You Better Not Cry, and, quite possibly paramount, Eating the Dinosaur, essays by neurotic pop-culture analyst Chuck Klosterman. Arguably Klosterman is neurotic and analytical about more than just pop-culture, but we’ll let that alone for now.

Eating the Dinosaur not only comes with the same Klosterman attention to detail (all of them, any detail he can put his fingers on, along with some he’ll spend pages trying to nail down), the same bevy of footnotes (the man knows how to footnote), and the seemingly-wildly-arbitrary-yet-oh-so-understandable-once-explained corollaries (such as the relationship between the Waco, TX disaster and Nirvana’s final studio release); but, this book also has its very own apocrypha, concerning its title, homophones, and one very prominent news anchor. Indeterminable hearsay at best, I still like to think that this book might have been published as Eating with Diane Sawyer. Although it begs the question, What would have become of the triceratops diagram of edible meat cuts on the cover? One can only imagine.

Whether Klosterman had any intent to implicate Sawyer in the title of his book is inconsequential to me. I take my books with a pillar of salt. Do I believe David Sedaris is actually as witty on-the-spot as to argue French diction with an American guest in non sequitur Japanese? Sure. Did any of Augusten Burroughs’s nightmare of a childhood happen as he is published to claim? I have no reason not to think so. Would I go on record saying all things Klosterman, Sedaris, Burroughs, Hancock, Vowell, and many, many others (myself included) write are categorically grounded in absolute fact? There’s not a chance in Waco, Diane. (Except maybe Vowell—I get the feeling she does her homework.) Just because an item's on the menu, doesn't mean I'm ordering it. But if you want (and I just assume you do) I'll go on and on about these things under my own shaded assumptions of veracity, because, let’s be honest, there’s no sense in changing the only-slightly-true.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sunday, September 27

Here the trees are rusting just
a little sooner than last year, a little
brighter shades against the clear
blue sky. The way the leaves age
and crumble away just so, and how
nothing is quite the same as this
brisk midday || passed your way.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Other Son

The prodigal was never the problem, I think. The spite, the bitterness wasn’t because the lost being found warranted celebration. Indeed, I stand with open arms to the one son’s return and might even join the festival were not the father’s attention to the other son so cavalier. You are always with me, and everything I have is yours, sounds like rebuke for having never taken advantage, for waiting in bated hope and expectation for a simple and singular token given from adoration and not coercion. So vogue, now, blaming the father; but, suppose he never gave even reason not to.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Divide Wisdom, MT

The hills seemed highest there,
to me, who was never before
nor since able to tell mountain
from foothill. You, always wisest,
would have urged me remember
my raincoat, one never knows
when the clouds will arrive.

And did they.

Along the divide, the storm
began, as sky blue slipped to
slate haze before my eyes.
Then, there were only hills
and highway--me, alone,
southbound, thinking aloud,
unsure the taste of the words.

They weren't right.

The imagined conversation
clouded me up more than any
we'd ever actually shared. By
now I might not recognize
a thought of you rooted in
the truth. And I fear the sun
because it came to you just

when I left.

This postcard just to say,
the weather even here proves
I will always have a small
excuse to write to you, just
enough to say you hold shelter
in my thoughts. I return by
week's end. Enjoy the sun.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Forecast

Something like a torrent came today. Hard to say if anyone expected all the rain, how it showed up overnight, like the flu. They say grace is like that, like rain. Maybe because they both come at no one's behest: Heaven just about its business, shedding sheets of love, water, blessing. The only thing about it is duration, when the shower won't let up and everything soaks through. Fabric starts to smell or the basement floods. It all gets musty, moldy. It's partial to suppose this life, graced, is changed enough, like that's the whole of it. Not wrung, nor washed.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dear August

Closer to Idaho than you might expect is the remote lake community of Wallowa, OR, proudly self-proclaimed “the Switzerland of America” (?). We went there once, summers ago, for a family reunion with my father’s family, and Dad—the poor man—had such difficulty spitting out the name. “We’re going to Lake W-wall-aw-wa with the Wheelers." (Dad might not not be able to manage Wallowa or parmesan, but the man can nail a Scandinavian accent in some of the most absurd ways.) Once we had procured the necessary quantity of road food items, we packed up the station wagon and the car-top carrier (yes, we're that sort of family) and trekked south to a politically conflated, phonetically temperamental retreat town west of Hells Canyon.

What we found there was a startling landscape of blue mountains rising over the lake and evergreens, our hotel nestled into the woods like an ornament on a tree. (I've never been to Switzerland, but--allegedly--I don't have to now.) The timber siding was rough and stained, and inside there was a great room, with couches near a hearth. The winding pine stairs led to subsequent levels, revealing dim hallways to rooms reminiscent of the Wild West. This was my first experience with footed bathtubs and windows without screens, and it’s safe to say I was out of my mind thrilled. By this time, I’m sure, I had read a lot of Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and I probably figured I was residing in a version of the House of the Seven Gables that existed within a town second cousin to Sleepy Hollow. I was the kid who could never quite distinguish between real life and Narnia. My world was intrinsically tethered to the stuff of books and imagination. (Also, TV and movies, which sometimes made things harder on me: I was convinced until an altogether embarrassing age that Roger Radcliffe, Anita, Pongo, Perdita, and all the others lived normal lives when the cameras stopped rolling on the set of 101 Dalmations, the 1961 Disney animated version.)

Maybe because of the chances we get to run away to places like Lake Wallowa, everybody puts together their summer reading list, as though summer is a season that magically affords us more time to read. It doesn't, at least not in quantities that would necessitate the practice of lists--unless you have a career in education or someplace like the INN Ministries, where I will be starting as an intern come September. And because this new job begins a full three weeks before I've grown accustomed to my summer ending, I am realizing that my summer reading list of fiction--ambition at its best--was doomed from the start. Let's look at it, shall we? (Note: titles in bold are those I have actually read thus far.)

Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
How to Be Good – Nick Hornby
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
The History of Danish Dreams – Peter Hoeg
Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
Downtown Owl – Chuck Klosterman
Wickett’s Remedy – Myla Goldberg
So Brave, Young, & Handsome – Leif Enger*
Nighttime is My Time – Mary Higgins Clark*
A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby*
The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak
The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano
The Brothers K – David James Duncan
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky
Out Stealing Horses – Per Petterson

Now, when you factor in the required reading for my internship:
In the Name of Jesus – Henri J.M. Nouwen
Stone Crossings – L.L. Barkat
The Reason for God – Timothy Keller*

And the other books I flirted with on the side:
Where’s Your Jesus Now? – Karen Spears Zacharias
Angry Conversations with God – Susan E. Isaacs*
Blessing of the Animals -- Brenda Miller
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It -- Maile Meloy

It's really no wonder I'll only manage about half what I hoped to before the end of August. Now, summer isn't over, and I do intend (denoted by *) to read the remaining novels by Enger, Clark, and Hornby, along with Keller's and Isaacs's nonfiction. But I look at the titles left over, ones that I really hoped to read (The Brothers K, American Gods, The Talented Mr. Ripley) and wonder when I might actually read them. There are always new books I'm finding, authors I'm falling in and out of love with. I know myself, well, and can claim no fidelity to any of the works queued here. My reading list is a living document, so I am quite certain that more of these than not will go entirely unread by me.

The weekend we spent at Lake Wallowa was one in August almost a decade ago. The days were hot, and my brother and I explored a creek bed in the forest behind the hotel. There I came mere feet from a full-grown buck, faced with the question, If I make a sudden move, will this beast run away, or will it maim me? The nights were balmy, full of games and laughter and the curious smell of liquor. Meanwhile, I probably read one of Kevin J. Anderson's blessings on the Star Wars franchise, the Young Jedi Knights series (junior high: it was an awkward age for everyone). As our trip drew to a close, I, like many a Garrison Keillor fan, was woebegone. I knew I could not yet be satisfied by such an enchanted place. I had bathed like a gunslinger. I had stood face to snout with my own mortality at the hands of a menacing woodland creature, and nature had turned its funny white tail and bolted. Today I feel just like I did packing up the rustic hotel room I shared with my brother that summer, stuffing titles back in a bag for a later time, with full knowledge I might never return.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Darigold Wager

We are all gathered around a table in Boundary Bay's taproom. I'm with my roommates and a few other friends and we are discussing bids. Ansel has agreed to the Gallon Challenge (warning: to follow this link may cause lightheadedness, nausea, and vomiting), a test designed to pit man against, well, milk. The contest requires an individual to consume one (1) gallon of milk (of 2% fat content or greater) within an hour, and keep it down. And, I think, it's the keeping it down part that causes everyone the trouble. No one knows why exactly the average human is unable to hold down an entire gallon of milk in that amount of time (or maybe everyone does and just never told me), but, like licking one's elbow or watching back-to-back episodes of My Super Sweet Sixteen, there is a morbid curiosity—or perhaps a pride in disbelief—that keeps people trying.

The taproom is loud with conversations at other tables and the clink of dishes as servers shuffle plates and glasses around, so we are shouting like stock brokers the specific times at which each of us thinks Ansel will break under the pressure, literally. I picture an abdominal swelling reminiscent of Violet Beauregarde in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, only a skosh more revolting. But Ansel's determined: "I can do it. I can do it."

Ben, the challenge commissioner, guesses 8:42. Bobby guesses 8:50, and Emily guesses 8:40.

The challenge is to take place the following night at precisely 7:30pm. Ansel will have until 8:30pm to finish his gallon and, diverging slightly from the traditional rules of the challenge, must not expel the milk before 9:30pm. Now, if there is one person I know that should be able to excel in this sort of contest, it is Ansel Sanger. The man is no stranger to milk. He is the primary milk consumer in our house, drinking pint glass after pint glass in a single sitting. To him, there is nothing quite as satisfying as a tall, cold glass of milk, and osteoporosis doesn't even run in his family. I'm sure, if there's one person I know who can rise to the Gallon Challenge, it is Ansel.

I place my bid at 8:23. No, I'm not convinced he'll make it the whole hour. Because if there's one thing I know about Ansel it is that he is competitive, very competitive. His love of milk wouldn't even make the top 5 list of things characteristic to him, and I suspect he will not pace himself properly for optimal endurance.

Other bids include 8:10, 8:28, 8:46, and 9:10. Molly is the only one who thinks Ansel will not puke, but I feel good about my time. We finish our beers and leave, feeling a little like you might just before a raffle drawing, or when you receive sweepstakes mail: unshakable, with a flurry of excitement in your belly. You may already be a winner!

In the historical records of my house, the Gallon Challenge has surfaced time and again in conversation. From the beginning, Ansel was certain that he would emerge victorious should the challenge ever be set before him, and Ben always offered that he would buy the very gallon used. But, like many things spoken of around here—pool tables, helicopters, house cleaning—the event was never initiated. Now, in our final weeks living together, the gauntlet was finally thrown down.

The morning of the event, I woke to realize that the only milk in the house was reserved for Ansel to guzzle later that night, leaving me with a dry bowl of Frosted Mini-Spooners and a sour mood. I would not be around that evening when Ansel would test the limits of his digestive tract. Mercifully, I would be at work. Later, while standing at the bookstore counter, I felt my phone vibrate and, with no one looking, I peeked at the text message I had just received. It was from Bobby: Dave wins! 8:23 tons of puke!

With no real prize to speak of, my first thought was, "Gross. Nobody wins," but then I reconsidered. No, in fact, I had won: Not only did I guess the precise time for Ansel to vomit, I also did not have to watch any of the proceedings. I did not see the repulsive pint-after-pint drinking. I did not hear the eventual and incessant complaints Ansel surely made as the milk turned to rocks in his gut. And I missed the actual vomiting. Indeed, I won in spades. Getting the time right, well, that's just the icing on the cake. I felt unshakable, a little flurry of excitement in my belly. Everybody likes to win. If I were the gambling type, I knew my game, provided casinos and basement poker tournaments eventually expanded into competitive milk drinking. Still, I knew my game, and I had my cash cow—so to speak.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Cold Season

Would you believe I've been looking
for rain, here, with few days remaining
in this fleeting season of summer?
Our days are numbered that we might
share with the sun in a clear blue sky
and the hours growing warmer,

and I have kept an eye out for the clouds.
Only I wish for the conditions and doubt
that might send us all deep inside
our dark homes to sleep and read and pray
in preparation for the coming colder days.
Would you believe that the sight

of slate gray spanning horizon to zenith
and down is one I am quite taken with?
I'm partial toward the colder weather.
Today's weather is nothing I'm prepared for,
affection I will not yet yield to. No, I prefer
heat built from my own small effort.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

How I'll Spend My Summer Vacation Epilogue

or, I Have a Crush on Lauren Winner

I have a little crush on Lauren F. Winner, and it's not just because I wish I was raised Jewish. I don't think I understood right away—when I first picked up Mudhouse Sabbath last summer, at the behest of the INN University Ministries staff—just how wonderful a mind and writer Lauren Winner is. No, not until Girl Meets God did I realize what an elegant command of language Winner has, in addition to her wealth of knowledge on her subjects. By all appearances, come to think of it, my crush on Lauren Winner is grounded in the same basic appreciations as I have toward Chuck Klosterman's body of work. I suppose that's the usefulness of the term man crush; I just never thought I'd be the one to use it.

ANYWAY, since reading Girl Meets God, I've devoured volume after volume of excellent fiction and nonfiction alike. The bookshelf above my bed began to sag precariously the other day, so, to prevent a midnight clobbering in the event of a Pacific Northwest earthquake, I moved the ones I was less attached to out to the bookshelf in the living room. Sometimes I fear people tire of my constant, insatiable reading habit, but when I discovered a copy of Lauren Winner's book Real Sex—provocative!—The Naked Truth about Chastity—yet traditional!—in a box of free books, I took it for my never-ending reading queue anyway. I'd never seen a picture of her on any of her other books, but there she was on the inside jacket, a modest black and white portrait, horn-rimmed glasses and everything. Her marital status aside, her geek chic sensibilities confirmed for me that the two of us are meant to be together. (An aside: Some will be able to attest that this isn't the first time I've made declarations to this effect regarding women whose work I admire, including in no particular order: Audrey Tautou, Zooey Deschanel, Alison Sudol, Sloane Crosley, Tina Fey, that one barista at Avellino, Gertrude Chandler Warner, and Cosette. This, however, in no way diminishes my feelings for Lauren.) But none of this is really my point.

Perhaps the greatest dovetailing between Lauren Winner's life and mine is her own voracious capacity for reading. In one section of Girl Meets God she discusses the enormity of her bookshelf, the tremendous stack of books she's dying to read, and the agony it was to abstain from literature for the duration of one Lent. I remember being flabbergasted at even the notion of such a task at first, but lately I've been wondering if it might not be such a bad thing for me. So often I hole up in my bedroom with my nose in a book. When I'm not there, chances are I'm at a coffee shop with a book. Even when I'm spending a day in the park with friends, my instinct is to sprawl on a blanket and read without stopping until we leave. I blame my work. I blame the fact that I employed by a bookstore and need to know what I'm selling; I blame the fact that I want to write books for a living and, ipso facto, must read them in order to do so properly. All these things are true—having books to recommend is necessary in bookselling, reading other writers' books helps craft how I will write my own—but what's to say about moderation?

I suppose it's easy to live life in books—those already written, mind you; it's a hard thing to put your own life in a book. All the events are already planned out, set in unwavering motion, and I just get to kick back and watch them play, an existence of mere observation without personally experiencing the consequences therein. Significantly more difficult is to actually live in the moment of one's own life, even for those of us who don't tear through used bookstores like toddlers in a candy shop. We look ahead to the future, living in moments yet to come in a list of and thens that detail prospective career paths and vacations and retirement. We relive whatever golden years we can think of—college, high school, before Ross and Rachel broke up, before Michael Jackson died, when the Sonics were still in Seattle, our own infancies—and forget about the potential of the present. I'm guilty of just as many of these (except maybe the bit about the Sonics—or the break-up for that matter). Unlike Lauren Winner, I won't be taking hiatus from my summer reading—the list is much too long to quit—but I think I'm going to try and be a bit more relaxed when it comes to actually achieving my literary goals in favor of enjoying the opportunity these months afford me to connect and spend time with friends. Friends that, I hope, will forgive my gracelessness at conversing over anything besides books.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How I'll Spend My Summer Vacation

You should know that since graduating college in December, I've been reading with a similar compulsion to two-packs-a-day oral fixation (cigarettes, gum, toothpicks), so this summer, I've decided to lay down some parameters: fiction. I'm planning to get current with a lot of fiction—so, actually, I've decided to lay down a parameter. Some time ago, I fell in love with nonfiction—memoir, personal essays, and the edu-tainment of Mary Roach. Until last fall, when I read Myla Goldberg's Bee Season, I hadn't read a novel since...let's move on. After spending a considerable amount of time contemplating the shelves at Village Books, I've put together a list of 15 or so books I hope to read this summer. Really, the project began as sort of an acquainting—afternoon tea, really—with novelists I'd never read, most specifically Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman, but then it spiraled out of control from there. And now, I know you're thinking that if my idea of getting current with fiction means acquainting myself with Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman, then I've really got my work cut out for me. I'll concede there, but, to be fair, I just saw Good Will Hunting for the first time two months ago. I've always figured I was a little behind the rest of the class.

What I wasn't expecting was the godsmack delivered by Hornby's How to Be Good, like Hornby had read my mind and scripted it directly into the mental interior of an adulterous doctor, married to the very definition of Type A Personality, mothering children like night and day, housing a spiritual revolutionary, and, I imagine, resembling a pre-Seastories Minnie Driver. So, those specific details that aren't like my life at all aside, I'd like to think that How to Be Good is about me. Both Dr. Infidelity and I struggle with what it means to truly have a positive influence on the world around us; we sometimes get tired of the people in our lives; and, we get right beastly with ourselves over it all. Eventually, it drives us both to church, Dr. Mom and I getting rather varied results. While she resolves by settling on a sort of good enough, I manage what I can and hope there's someone bigger than me picking up my slack. I think, in practice, it looks very similar; the contrast lies in our mentality—and, boy, have I got mentality to spare.

Now I'm nearly finished with Gaiman's recently awarded Graveyard Book, but that's a story for another time. I'm still thinking a lot about Hornby and am planning to revisit his catalog later in the summer for A Long Way Down, the suicide-jump comedy. What I'm still rolling over is the idea of the novelist who explores a point, or way of thinking, without seeming pushy or one-dimensional. Perhaps encountering benevolence and philanthropy from the perspective of the skeptic—the irritable, unbelieving martyr for sensibility—lends merit to a story that could so easily succumb to lecturing if left in the wrong hands. As a writer, reader, and person of faith, I'm still figuring out how to blend conviction and well-crafted story-telling, but Hornby gives me hope, not that I can attest to any specific beliefs held by Hornby himself. No, what I see in How to Be Good is the complement to what I felt in Leif Enger's Peace Like a River—where spirituality was the backdrop for a beautiful story of family. I like them apples. These books make me excited about writing, reminding me that my voice is worth raising in whatever way I can manage. They also make me excited about reading: after I finish The Graveyard Book, I'm thinking I might reestablish my ardor for Myla Goldberg with Wickett's Remedy, or press on into the unfamiliar with Peter Høeg's History of Danish Dreams. All I know is that this summer my bookshelf is All Fiction All the Time, except for the occasional essay collection. I just can't give them up cold turkey.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

To Helena, once again

the bellows are blowing with force
I am still surprised to consider ferocious
for how long I have weathered them here.
They say it has rushed along
the coast, down from the Alaskan cold—
this chilled edge we have to summer.
Nearly, I went over the edge, I
am ashamed to admit, taking offense
at the nip of wind, as it mussed my hair.
Surprising, this chip on my shoulder,
you know. That is, you'd understand.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Tandem

"Never learned to ride a bike without holding on," I mention casually over breakfast, one hand around the edge of the table, the other cupping my chin. "Vertigo: it affects lives." She's not looking at me, so I don't carry on about the infections I had in childhood that led to numerous surgeries on my right tympanic membrane.

She surprises me: "Have you been tested for Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo or Ménière's disease?" She has these quizzical hazel eyes. Now I recall saying something about ear infections before, when we compared histories of minor surgery. That was my last good excuse.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Poem-A-Day Appendix: From Wednesday, April 22

Storm. Mark Strand.

The rogue is a recurring character in my life lately. Maybe it's because I just finished Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. Or maybe it's because I listen too much to The Decemberists, who wax poetic about the lives of rascals modern and historical, and have lyrics to a song called "Here I Dreamt I was an Architect": The structure fell up at our feet/and we were free to go. When I read Strand's words let's go, the guards have left/the place is a ruin, I feel excitement and urgency suddenly contrasted with sobriety over his languid companion who, in response to earnest pleas, pulled up the sheet/to cover her eyes. At that moment, I see our hero become wide-eyed Don Quixote, horse-whispering and riding into the distance—a lunatic who cannot see that the storm has only given way to a lazy Saturday morning, the guards being no more than postman and milkman attending to their tasks.

Friday, April 24, 2009

My Evening with Anne

Summery Friday afternoon and I'm speeding toward Mercer Island the second I leave work. Co-piloted by my friend Jake, we hope to beat I-5 traffic in Seattle because we've got tickets to see Annie. Not the buoyant, red-headed orphan. You know, Anne Lamott, novelist, writing guru, and accidental spiritual advisor to a generation of Christians. I just call her Annie, for short.

We arrive at the Presbyterian Church where Anne is speaking in time to park in the marshy springtime grass serving as the overflow lot and meet our friends who are holding our tickets for us. I'm dressed in my nice jeans and a green, quarter-zip sweater with a polo underneath. Even early this morning, I wanted to look nice for Anne. This will be my first time ever seeing her in person, and, well, I'm not going to look like a slob. A copy of Bird by Bird lies waiting in the Timbuk2 bag slung over my shoulder. My heart pounds as we take our seats in the gym/auditorium.

When Anne speaks, she has a voice that is the sound of soothing, a soft drone with a sharp edge of humor, and life. She had planned to take this year off from lectures, but a series of events and relationships brought her, specially, to Mercer Island. I feel lucky—lucky to be seeing her at all, luckier that it was not supposed to happen. She talks about faith and writing and life, and I'm elated to discover that this woman has tapped into an elusive ability to write exactly how she speaks. Her pacing and rhythm are the same; the punchlines occur as I always imagine them on the page. Foolishly I had been worried she might not be as funny in real life. Instead, I find her just as funny, thoughtful, and impertinent as ever, going so far as to suggest that those who do not shop for books at independent bookstores will not be allowed into heaven's room of desserts.

Afterward, with Jake, I stand in line, waiting to hand her Bird by Bird for an autograph, worrying about what I might say to her. Jake holds a worn copy of Traveling Mercies. These are the two most important books Anne could have written, in my mind. What to say, what to say?

The point becomes moot the moment we step up to the front of the line where Anne is sitting. She sighs, with the makings of a smile on its way. "You two," she says and the smile arrives, "are the most adorable boys I've ever seen."

I swoon.

She takes our books and pens her name, continuing about the "flush of youth" in our cheeks, but I can only manage incoherencies in response before moving on.

The drive home, I am warm and comfortable. As a writer and a person of faith, I need reminding that the world is not entirely against me, and if it is, then at least I won't have to experience menopause. This evening, Anne let me see life a little bit through her eyes—crazy, tired eyes—and I rediscovered what I learned in Bird by Bird and Traveling Mercies: that she and I are crazy in the same ways, and tired of the same things, and are working out how to cope day by day. And maybe, just maybe, we can let ourselves enjoy the things that are truly, wonderfully good.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Poem-A-Day Appendix: From Sunday, April 12

Twilight in Barcelona. Roberto Bolaño.

Bolaño's verse carries itself with grace and beauty, almost in spite of itself. No Spanish speaker myself, the effect of the original is lost on me, but the translation enchants me. I have never been to Spain; I knew nothing of Santiago Rusiñol or Erik Satie before Googling them and finding that Satie was a Turn-of-the-Century bohemian composer in the French district of Montmartre, somewhere else I have never been. Maybe this poem preys upon my ignorant wanderlust, casting a spell over me with foreign names and unfamiliar tongues. But maybe, upon finding an image of Rusiñol's painting of Satie, I recognize the germ of Bolaño's line The magnetic Barcelona twilights are like that, like Satie's eyes. Living in a city on the bay, one where our own twilights drown into the sea, I imagine we can resonate with Bolaño's own charmed reflection on the few passing moments between day and night, a gratuitous secret, indeed.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Poem-A-Day Appendix: From Wednesday, April 8

High School Senior. Sharon Olds.

I know nothing of motherhood—or fatherhood, for that matter—but I've been seventeen before. This poem acts, for me, as a window for a specific kind of transition. Through it, I can see, perhaps, how my own mother felt as June 2005 approached, but I can also see the faint reflection of how I've felt about important people in my life leaving, moving on. On a more distinctively poetic note, the structure Olds uses, however subtle, is striking—the enjambment of the phrase I could not imagine/my life with her between lines 20 and 21; the imagery of wild animal mothers feeding children who depart immediately; and, finally, the visceral picture of the love she feels for her own daughter, alive in her heart changing chambers, like something poured/from hand to hand, to be weighed and reweighed. Love moving in cycles like blood, connective tissue.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Poem-A-Day Appendix: From Sunday, April 5

Things We Agreed Not to Shout. Paul Guest.

There's something sweet and poignant about this litany of words and phrases that have been deemed inappropriate to yell. Paul Guest manages to weave between the lines a level of domestic intimacy that resonates far beyond My credit rating and Judas Priest lyrics. Also, let's just ponder a moment what circumstances determined that there would be no shouting Finnish curses on the firstborn. This is a poem built on rhythm and gut feeling.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Evidence of Things

[Jim has inspired me to attempt fiction in strict brevity: a short story in 101 words.]

This morning, I woke with stigmata; up my arms, out my tear ducts. Neighbors say it's a curse on this town: God has arrived in diminutive plagues. My vessels: blood rivers. Now we await our firstborn's demise, or something like it. We figure miracles'll kill us if they don't crush our souls first.

Sure, we never understood the blessing of the Blood. Thought He swelled into flesh only to wither away again. We have the hard, hard hearts. Mine seems to be crumbling to fragments; meanwhile, along my arms, here, is violent cleaving of flesh and faith, or something like it.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Published: Your Bright Wounds

Check out my most recently published poem--"Your Bright Wounds"--at Chronogram!
(Pay no mind to the banner in the middle. That's not part of it.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Chance of Rain

When it rains here, we soak
up to our ankles and down
from our hoods. You wouldn't
believe all the water filling
in the cracks of our streets and
rushing down the sidewalks
in thin sheets of current. We
could almost be swept away.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Music Review: Sixpence None the Richer

My Dear Machine
1. My Dear Machine
2. Amazing Grace (Give It Back)
3. Sooner Than Later
4. Around

If you weren't looking for it, you probably missed the return of Sixpence None the Richer, humble and unheralded. Four and some change years ago, Leigh Nash and Matt Slocum parted ways, announcing the inconspicuous demise of Sixpence by wrangling its stray offspring and foster children that had found their way onto movies, TV shows, compilations, and the occasional contraceptive patch commercial, dumping them all onto one greatest hits disc. Even then, the general public seemed to have stopped paying attention after "Kiss Me" moved from Billboard Top 100 to soft rock radio stations, and was probably more surprised that the band just now decided to call it quits.

After four years and a carnival of side projects (that most always made nods toward their work together), Nash and Slocum agreed to revive Sixpence proper. The result: a sharp, four song EP called My Dear Machine, with their trademark whimsical artwork to boot.

The project opens with the title track and a warm guitar riff. "My Dear Machine" seems like an ode to the band itself with lyrics like "My dear machine, standing idle for so long, now it's time for another drive" and profuse apologies like those of a negligent lover. The song is earnest and catchy, and the horns are to die for. As the creative forces behind everything done under the name Sixpence None the Richer, Nash and Slocum seem to balance each other out. While Nash's solo album Blue on Blue fell too far saccharine, Slocum's work under the unfortunate moniker Astronaut Pushers seemed almost too hip for its own good. "My Dear Machine" is an exemplary product of pairing her pop sensibilities with his unique musical concepts and makes the most sense to anyone still listening—to them, to me.

They take a turn toward a familiar melancholy with "Amazing Grace (Give It Back)." This track contains my only complaint. And, no, it isn't the use of language too strong for many Christian circles. The title here, in fact, does no justice to the swirling resonations of doubt and candor. I can't imagine John Newton foresaw just how often songwriters would lift the title to his hymn when he penned it, and, while no one can copyright a title, this tired gem should at least be put to rest. And the parenthetical backup is no stronger, but this is all trivial quibble when this song embodies a certain paradigm shift for the band.

Since "Kiss Me," the band has almost seemed to try too hard to straddle the fence between mainstream and Christian music. They don't always fit the mold of contemporary Christian music, but they're a bit too religious for the mainstream. When Divine Discontent, their last full-length album before the big split, was released, Christian radio took the Jesus-take-the-wheel themed "Breathe Your Name" as a single, while mainstream radio took the cover of Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over." A happy compromise, for sure. Now, years later, the band seems to have a new resolve to completely uproot the fence, hunker down in the murky midlands of faith and real life. They remain true to their spiritual roots while approaching it in a manner that might easily be called "worldly" by the stuffier listeners. I call it "honest," because anyone who has committed their life to Christ has told Him "You're so damn hard to find" at least once, or something like it.

More hard truths show up on "Sooner Than Later," harkening back to the older mood and sounds of songs like "Within a Room Somewhere," from 1995's This Beautiful Mess. With a melody so memorable and words so sincere, this track stands out most to me. How often do I ask of God, family, friends, whoever "Won't you do me a favor: when it's my time to fall, please catch me sooner than later"? The ill-fated marriage of trust and doubt, hope and despair pop up again and again with Sixpence and is probably why, again and again, I find their music so agreeable.

Finally, "Around" closes the EP out with sounds like clockwork, begging for consistency, for companionship. Again, a song that could be aimed at the band itself: "We need you to be, need you to be around." The words fade, and all we are left with is the lush, haunting guitars and violins, and clinks and plunks. And then, when everything ends just around the EP's 15 minute mark, I am left with uncanny satisfaction and desire for more.

Sixpence None the Richer is yet again on the move, at the end of 2008, in addition to My Dear Machine, the band released the Christmas project The Dawn of Grace. They are setting up tour dates. And soon, hopefully, there will be more full-length albums. I look forward to the work Leigh Nash, Matt Slocum, and their rotating crew of bandmates offer in the future. For folks who thought they were done with each other, My Dear Machine proves that roads don't always part forever.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lake Padden, Bellingham, January 2008

Submitted for consideration at Memoir (And).