January 20, 2009
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We have the dubious pleasure of a bus stop/staging area at the end of our driveway. A group of African refugees—several women in vibrant colors with very small children—will laugh the entire time they are waiting. You have never heard such extended pleasure. It’s as lovely as birdsong. They are fine compensation for every weirdo with his paper bag of beer. 

The drivers give the dogs treats and are frequently chivalrous with elderly passengers. It could be a field of study this single bus line.

I have grown used to strange sights, but yesterday I twice passed a large brown object without properly looking at it. In my peripheral vision, I dismissed it as a discarded rug. In fact it was a deer. Tossed onto the snow, the visible eye open and blank, the hooves sadly tangled. Blood on the muzzle. 

We are close to the High Drive trails. Deer, moose, eagle, hawks, heron, porcupine, and skunks are commonly sighted. I have three times, on that trail, had deer thunder past me. Once the dogs and I were frozen as two stags rushed down the bluff so close that they might have turned and nudged us. A terrific, delicate creature.

In the snow outside my house: too delicate by far. We have encroached so deeply into the wilds that the undeveloped pockets cannot even be sanctuaries. A month ago, a moose broke a bank window, ran around the lobby, and broke another window on his way out. This was five minutes from me, in a congested business section of town. The authorities didn’t even bother to look for him, but said he’d find his way back out, because he had found his way in. A curious stance. Like the parent that shouts to the child at the top of the tree, “You got yourself up there, now find your way back down.”

My discomfort about this brings no more relief than my shame or my anger or my love. 

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On the bridge

January 17, 2009
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I can’t explain how I’ve gone so long without knowing about Marc Forster’s 2005 film, Stay. This week, I’ve watched it twice, and the second viewing was even more affecting than the first.

Since the Greeks, we’ve read tales of grievers’ attempts to bring back the dead. Orpheus descending into Hades to recover Eurydice. (Re-imagined by Rilke, Eurydice has found her fulfillment in death, and does not even recognize Orpheus when he turns on the path, and loses her again.) In more recent times, the X-Files had an episode of a Jewish woman summoning her murdered love, and bringing back, instead, an avenging horror. Or Buffy, when Dawn tries to raise her mother, and does raise something, though she thinks better of it in the final moments.

The dead must have their peace. Zombies, the inferi, golems, and specters—the price for manipulating death is heavy and horrible.

Stay twists this story. A dying young man, clinging to his life—despite injuries to his brain and his perceptions—finds existence broken and painful and incongruous. Forster’s work is always visually gorgeous, and in this film, particularly so. And throughout, the performances are filled with tenderness. In the end, beauty cannot save us, but it might make letting go easier. 

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January 16, 2009
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Our modem died over the weekend, and we spent a week without the internet. Not a tragedy, I know, but I have felt disconnected and isolated from news and events ever since. And I have been over thinking, over dreaming, and generally stirring myself into a fierce frenzy.

At issue is conviction.

I would rather see humanism prevail than feminism. Civil rights rather than gay. I am as skeptical of conviction as I am of any other militaristic attitude. I find entrenchment a worrying position. And we have become so narrow in our focus that we cannot always turn around anymore.

My skepticism could be the effect of any number of things: being raised by fundamentalists, and hearing the message that Christ accepted all with forgiveness, while witnessing the practice of deliberate exclusion; or the alien’s perspective developed by years moving from base to outpost; or it could be my natural sensibility.

If art can’t bring humans together, what will? And if our lives are a quest, what are we after: improvement, knowledge, beauty, delight, contentment? In the whiteout—Spokane in winter with no internet—I’ve become reacquainted with borders, and I don’t like it.

I want to be read to sleep. I want to feel again, that nothing will ever embrace us as language does.

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To remember

January 15, 2009
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I’ve been reading Clive James’ provocative collection of short essays, Cultural Amnesia, and here’s a little taste:  “Nothing creative should be excluded for the sake of any other conviction.” 

I have never read James before.  He reminds me of Jacques Barzun.  His argument admirably stated and intriguing, his prose striking, his stance frequently anti-establishment.  I feel tethered to all the world while I read him.

As much as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is an argument for memory, here’s another, from James’ Overture: Vienna:  “We could, if we wished, do without remembering, and gain all the advantages of travelling light; but a deep instinct, not very different from love, reminds us that the efficiency would be bought at the cost of emptiness.  Finally the reason we go on thinking is because of a feeling.  We have to keep that feeling pure if we can, and, if we ever lose it, try to get it back.”

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The Artist as Slacker

January 7, 2009
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Some people have to be at work by 8 a.m., and stay there until 5 or so. Some of them have to talk to customers. Or punch time cards. Sometimes they work for assholes, or sit in tiny partitioned cubby holes. Some commute for hours—leave in the dark, and arrive home to a similar situation.

There are whole days I don’t go outdoors. Days where I might produce 7 pages, though I have sat and worked and thought and worked and thought and typed and said a great many things out loud that I hope no one ever overhears.

I’m working when I’m thinking. I’m working when I’m reading blogs, or online journals, or listening to music. I have a lot of theoretical conversations about intentionality and character and tone—some of these are aloud, and still to myself.

I lie awake at night working. Sometimes I think through an entire street. Sometimes I only see around one corner. Sometimes I spend more time destroying than creating. Frequently I forget to eat.

I only take breaks if the dogs insist. And they are old. And have learned to wait until Brooke comes home.

How productive is any of us? In a day? In a month? How much do we contribute? What is our value?

I will make this story. I will make this story as true and experiential as I am able. And you will read it. It will exist between us. And each time, it will be remade. 

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Adolescent Brain

January 5, 2009
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What do you remember of your adolescent self? Ali Smith channels hers beautifully in The Accidental, and Stephanie Vaughn’s short story Dog Heaven has exactly the right mix of girl remembering story, and woman remembering girl. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, this adolescent point of view, and I think one of the most striking things about adolescent brain is its immediacy. In eighth grade, this boy described to me how he’d wound a bunch of firecrackers together with a candle, and used silly putty to attach them to a wall. Then he’d lit the candle and left the scene. Once the candle burned low enough to catch the firecrackers, the whole thing blew and he was long gone and most of the “evidence” was destroyed. Hearing this story, I thought, Oh, I can totally do that. I said so out loud, and everyone said I didn’t have the nerve, and the next day I brought firecrackers and a birthday candle and one of the boys brought silly putty, and I set the whole thing up in the girls’ locker room. 

It took a long time to get the candle to stay lit—it kept snuffing out against the putty. And then there was the smell of burned plastic that filled the locker room, and kept bringing girls in asking what was up. And then I finally got the thing to light, and we all ran out, and our gym teacher came in, and everyone was careful not to look at me, and she found the whole mess and none of the firecrackers had gone off. 

I got suspended for two days. The principal kept referring to it as a bomb. They were cats! It wasn’t a bomb. It was just a really bad idea. And if I’d taken a moment to consider, I would have realized that firecrackers always leave evidence, and the kid who told the story in the first place was a liar, and everyone knew that I was the one doing it and someone would certainly tell even if the evidence was obliterated. A little reflection would have saved me. But I was fourteen, and I’d practically been dared. 

And I didn’t want to be saved. I didn’t need saving. I could do anything. 

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Love and Fiction

January 3, 2009
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When I read through the latest rewrite of my novel in November, I was embarrassed to find that several key character details were based on a close friend of mine. When I’d envisioned the character, these details were supposed to be placeholders, developed, later, into other, less recognizable details. But the character got away from me. From the earliest pages, she was so wholly her own that I forgot I’d based any of her on someone close to me. 

Post rewrite, it all came back to me.

Of course, by then, I’d already sent my friend a draft, and had no recourse but to confess the whole thing and apologize. Naturally, I didn’t do that. I waited instead for her response. Yesterday I got it.

In the second paragraph she mentioned five details that were particularly familiar to her, and then wrote, “It makes me feel better about having a closeted minister’s daughter in my own novel. All’s fair in love and fiction, right?”

Yes. Yes, exactly. The truth is, this character isn’t based on my friend at all. They aren’t alike … except for those five details. In grad school, we’d see ourselves, occasionally in the work of our peers. Sometimes a sentence from something we’d written the previous year, sometimes an incident from a party we’d all been to, sometimes the description was so obvious that we all shifted uncomfortably and stared hard at the draft before us. The problem with “Write what you know” is that we frequently do. Nothing is sacred. No one is spared. But usually, in my own case, the disguise is a little less absent.

I love that she has a closeted minister’s daughter in her novel. I can’t wait to read it. 

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Extreme Sports

December 28, 2008
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I’ve just watched a documentary about extreme winter sports: Warren Miller’s Playground.  Skiers cliff diving, half-pipe jumping, snowboarding into trees, parachuting down the north face of Alaskan mountains, etc. Sweet, terrifying athleticism. I am so not extreme. I never caught a wave over eight feet. Whenever I mountain biked in the back country, I hit a tree. I sucked at skateboarding because I was afraid of crashing (most especially down stairs). Two days ago, Gavin and I jumped off the deck into the peaked snow of the backyard, and that was about as extreme as I get anymore. 

But I enjoy the thrill of it. The iron burn of your lungs during a sprint. That electric fever when you crouch on your board. The terror of your back tire sliding away as you blitz down a path. It’s not that they’re fearless, of course; fear is part of the momentum, and an element of the reverence. 

I’m more prone, in my thirties, to delight in my life. That childlike delight that adolescence is supposed to crush out has been rekindled now and is brighter, I think, than ever. Maybe some part of it is memory—the pleasure of comparison, and past achievement, but another part is simpler still: I am aware of my mortality, as I could not have been in childhood, so living—living!—is a gift. 

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Surfing it isn't

December 28, 2008
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The sleds of our youth are German: a sweet wooden one with a multi-colored webbed seat, and curled runners; and a racing car of red plastic with a sophisticated steering mechanism that includes a wheel and horn. Yesterday my brother and I humped these up Howard Street in addition to my son on his new inner tube. 

The inner tube is fast beyond all reckoning–riding up the snow burm, spinning in wild circles, whooshing down the hill. We caught air. We slid through the intersections and blew our caps off. 

On the German sleds, we crashed. Toppled sideways, came to abrupt halts on the exposed brick of the street, our overly large selves tucked up like canon balls.

By the third run, Gavin, in his latest mantra, proclaimed he’d do it himself, and on the wooden sled, raced down the hill, crashed midway, righted himself, and raced the rest. Then he dragged the sled back up and plunged again.

Our faces chapped, our gloves a burden, the day sunny and crisp. Even these short sprints are a pleasure—quickly renewed—until each of us is sprawled lazily on the ground, staring into the trees as though it were August.

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December 21, 2008
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My four year old is a random trekking companion. But two days ago, we walked for miles through the snow paths and side streets of the South Hill, while Gavin told a story of an avalanche that buried cars and houses and trees. 

Groups of young men with shovels were moving up and down the hill, digging people’s cars out, and excavating driveways. We watched any number of cars get stuck, and neighbors come running out to push and pull and get them on their way. It was the best of us, and the world hushed and beautiful. 

At dusk, he told me to stop and then said, “We’re blue. Everything is blue.” And he was right, the winter light had blued the maples, a guy with a snow blower, the bungalow houses, and both of us, in our boots in the middle of the road. We stood admiring the unlikely day—the way that everything had come to a solemn halt—and then we meandered down another side street, stalled a bit longer as the blue blackened around us. 

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