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Happy 100th birthday to my grandfather, Philip A. Dunn, but I am posting this photo more in the interest of my grandmother, Kathryn’s, hat. There are a lot of things I would like to ask my grandmother, since we never met, but today I am wondering mostly about this incredible work of art on her head. First of all, is it a hat? Or is it a headband? Was this a style at the time, or did she craft it herself from silk flowers, from a pattern all her own? Was it a winter look? I see what might be snow in the background—perhaps an early Easter bonnet? 
With a hat like that, who needs to say anything? I can see my grandfather here, lips parted, ready to issue an edict or a point of direction at the photographer. My grandmother just gazes. Maybe there is not quite a twinkle in her eye, but there is very much a wide dimple in her cheek. Anyway, the hat says it all.

Happy 100th birthday to my grandfather, Philip A. Dunn, but I am posting this photo more in the interest of my grandmother, Kathryn’s, hat. There are a lot of things I would like to ask my grandmother, since we never met, but today I am wondering mostly about this incredible work of art on her head. First of all, is it a hat? Or is it a headband? Was this a style at the time, or did she craft it herself from silk flowers, from a pattern all her own? Was it a winter look? I see what might be snow in the background—perhaps an early Easter bonnet? 

With a hat like that, who needs to say anything? I can see my grandfather here, lips parted, ready to issue an edict or a point of direction at the photographer. My grandmother just gazes. Maybe there is not quite a twinkle in her eye, but there is very much a wide dimple in her cheek. Anyway, the hat says it all.

Geoff Dyer, from “Out of Sheer Rage”

"Then there are my knees. Oh, don’t get me on my knees. What’s wrong with my knee? Everything. Everything that can go wrong with a knee has gone wrong with mine. Muscle, bone, cartilage, tendon. My knee exists in a bewildering variety of hurt: the pain is throbbing, aching, stabbing, dull, acute. Where does it hurt? Above the knee-cap, to the side of it, below it, and in the knee-cap. Oh my poor knee. Knees, I should say. Plural. Both knees are in bad shape but it’s the right that takes the biscuit. I waited for years to have something done about it, about them, because with all of this moving around I was doing I was never in a position to seek sustained medical treatment. In New Orleans I happened to make the acquaintance of a knee specialist who diagnosed chondro malacia of the patella. He recommended strength-building exercises which I did for two days and then gave up. Since then I’ve been waiting for my life to stabilise sufficiently to seek serious, sustained medical treatment. As soon as I moved to Dullford I registered with a doctor who made an appointment with the knee specialist. Six months later, the big day: my meeting with the knee specialist; a tall man with a perceptible limp. I’m sure it comes from having played too much squash in my late twenties and early thirties, I said. I played squash for eight or ten hours a week and it was too much. No, said the doctor, the knee-cap, the patella, is misaligned, it’s not tracking properly. When my legs straightened out as an adolescent or a boy or whenever it was, my knee got left behind, apparently. It’s turned inward. Invasive surgery was not required, said the doctor. I was surprised, a little disappointed. I wanted a new knee. Instead I was sent to see the physio who told me to do the same strength-building exercises suggested by the knee specialist in New Orleans. These simple exercises, she said, would help to pull the knee back into place. And yet, incredibly, after waiting all these years to have my knee sorted out I am not doing the exercises. I have waited three years to get my knees repaired, I thought to myself as the train tugged itself into motion once more, and I am not doing the exercises, the simple, strength-building exercises which are necessary to prevent my knee causing me untold and probably intolerable pain in the future. These exercises are intended not just to repair my knee; they are intended to save my knee—and I am not doing them. For the first two weeks I turned up with feeble excuses about why I had not done my exercises. Then, on the phone, I made feeble excuses about why I had not turned up to my appointments; then I stopped phoning and made feeble excuses to myself. Instead I stay at home with my knee, my aching knee, asking myself why I can’t do the exercises. In a fraction of the time spent sitting here thinking about my knee and how much hurts I could get on with the exercises which would eliminate the pain in my knee, I thought to myself as the train gathered speed, but instead of doing the exercises I sit here thinking about how I should be doing them. And I shouldn’t be thinking about my knee or the exercises, of course; I should be getting on with my book about D.H. Lawrence, instead of which I am fretting about my aches and pains, My knee is not the problem, that’s for sure: it’s a symptom of this larger disease, this inability to carry on with anything, this rheumatism of the will, this chronic inability to see anything through.”

Lydia Davis, excerpt from “The Letter to the Foundation”

"I am not always a bad teacher. My difficulty teaching is complex, and I’ve given it a lot of thought: it is probably due to a general lack of organization on my part, to begin with, combined with overpreparation, then stage fright, and, in the classroom itself, poor articulation of ideas and a weak classroom presence. I have trouble looking students in the eye. I mumble or fail to explain things clearly. I do not like to use the blackboard.

I do not like to use the blackboard because I do not like to turn my back to the class. I’m afraid that if I do, the students will take advantage of this to talk to one another or review notes from another course, or worse, they will stare at the back of me, and certainly not with admiration. All of last year I did not use the blackboard. This year I began to use it. When I do use it, I am so uncomfortable, and my handwriting is so poor, that the words I write are small and faint and hard to read.” 

Another Extremely Local Political Update

I urged one volunteer not to call another volunteer to come volunteer because not just six to twenty weeks ago I encountered him in the Olympic sized pool on campus, already off to a bad start; me bean-headed in my cap, squeezed and doughy in my racing suit, he drippy and exposed in long trunks, both of us squinting at the other through foggy goggles. We floated at one end, catching our breath at the bulkhead. Letting go of my hold for a minute, I used my legs to stay aloft, both feet issuing streams of bubbles as they snapped out and in again, and, to both of our abject horror, scraped this volunteer’s leg or thigh with my long toenail.

Most injuries in the pool are fatal. You can suffer from a spinal injury by diving into the shallow end and hitting your head on the bottom. You can drown. I had no idea there was a third option: the lone toenail scrape. It is not fatal. I splashed and blurbled and apologized at the top of my voice. The volunteer, who may or may not have recognized me, gazed at me silently, the coldest stare I have ever seen. 

I just hope to god it doesn’t cost us the election. 

I take back ALMOST everything bad I’ve ever said about Boston

The thing I like about Boston is that when you’re there, you know where you are. There is nowhere else you could be. If you are in Chicago, you might look around and say, “This looks like New York.” If you are in New York, you might look around and say, “This looks like Delhi.” If you are in Albany, you might think you are in Cleveland, and so on. I don’t think there are too many places left, in America anyway, that hold onto their identity in such an obvious way. From the minute we stepped onto the free shuttle bus from the airport, it became clear that we were in a large college town, that we were among the young and overachieving. A young man with a soft and eager face took the liberty of explaining the lesser-known rules of German verb conjugation to a visiting professor just off the plane from China. When we got out of the subway, we had to walk through Harvard Yard to get to our destination. Tourists clamored to get their picture taken with the statue of John Harvard, placing a hand on his worn bronze shoe, hoping to rub off a trace quantity of the Ivy League. It was difficult, even for me, to tell tourists from locals; everyone everywhere wore T-shirts and baseball caps that announced their location: BOSTON (Red Sox), printed in bright red against a navy background or vice versa, indicating the intense and primary patriotism associated with the area. History felt alive all around us, and Bostonians have made an industry out of it: men in three-cornered hats and women in petticoats beckoned at the entrances of various historical sites. For some reason this contributed to the feeling that at any moment, the citizens of this city might band together and dump somebody into the harbor. Somehow this felt refreshing and not threatening. The constant presence of the water changes everything, too: last weekend especially, the summer breeze felt saline and somehow softer by the coast. The T took us over the Charles River and above a dozen white sailboats, pert and friendly, each bright sail reflecting a white glare like staring straight into the sun itself. Anyway, I would go back again.

First Day

It is the first day of school. Rain is beating down and thunder is crackling across the sky and now the power is out now for the third time. It’s dark in my apartment, for morning, and wonderfully silent. I am sitting here waiting for the lights to come back on and wondering if the university has lost power too. All week the new freshman have been arriving with their plastic tubs, dragging them from the dorm elevator across the old linoleum floors and hoping they will fit under their standard issue extra-long twin bed. They have spent several long minutes self-consciously reorganizing the photographs of their oldest friends on their brand-new cork boards. At night they toss and turn, listening to the sound of their arms and legs wrinkling the plastic cover of their standard-issue mattress, listening to the whistle of unfamiliar snores. At night they lay awake, staring up at the unfamiliar cinder block ceiling, painted with the kind of white paint that emanates a glow of its own. 

The other night I said to J, “later, when you get home,” then blushed. I meant my place, where we spend most of our time. We don’t live together. “I know what you mean,” he said. Outside, a pack of students stomped by, letting out guttural cries. I have never been so glad to be an adult in all my life. All this month and maybe next, the freshman will refer to where they stay and sleep their “dorm room,” making a purposeful emotional distinction between this new universe and the house their mother raised them in. The first time they call it “home” by accident, it will feel like a kind of a betrayal. It will feel like an exciting loss.

fuckyeahiowacity:

analogian:

Rally to end police violence #iowacity #pedmall

#HandsUpDontShoot

Here I am, gazing into the distance in my bright orange rain slicker. A small but mighty rally. A few too many poets got up to recite, but it is Iowa City, after all. 

fuckyeahiowacity:

analogian:

Rally to end police violence #iowacity #pedmall

#HandsUpDontShoot

Here I am, gazing into the distance in my bright orange rain slicker. A small but mighty rally. A few too many poets got up to recite, but it is Iowa City, after all. 

Just a man in his underpants

The book I am reading about mindfulness says that when I have a bad feeling I should say, “I see you bad feeling, I hear you, and I send you away.” It works, for about twelve seconds. It works, because for twelve seconds I am imagining myself as a hot librarian, telling a gray demon to be quiet; it works because I imagine myself, hands on my hips, sending it spinning away through a dark alley. I am wearing high heels and it is knocking the metal lid off a trash can as it scrambles away. Then I am back at my desk and the sour knot in my stomach has returned. It takes more than twelve seconds to become a hot librarian, and it will probably take more than one book on mindfulness to eliminate my anxiety. In the meantime, I am collecting these tips and developing some of my own.

Last night we were watching a totally horrible television show about vampires. One of the vampires, who is evil, chained up a human man so that he could drink his blood. The guy is shaking and shivering and begging for his life in a pair of white underpants. His abs ripple and quiver as the vampire drags him by his neck to the torture device he has rigged for the purpose of drinking blood. The camera zooms in on the actor’s face as he prepares to die. The actor turns a pale shade of gray. Amy, who especially does not like torture, shrieked, and covered her eyes. The scene could have been gruesome but I had little sympathy for the character, since I had not been paying attention to the plot. To me, this man was just another ambitious young actor calling his mother at the end of a long week. “Mom, I got a part,” he’d say, breathlessly. “Sweetheart, that’s great!” She’d say, asking too many questions about the hours, the pay, the possibility of more work. Then it is finally Sunday night and she waits patiently for the commercials to end. “Get back in here,” she yells, calling for the father to return to the den with the popcorn bowl. “Here he comes,” she says, leaning forward to watch her only son writhe and beg in in his white underpants. “Isn’t he wonderful?”

There you have one type of imagination, helpfully replaced by another. I often forget that my imagination is a tool, waiting at the ready. Usually it takes off on its own, shading over reality with dark markers, staging dramatic scenes of unrest, building never-ending hallways that I crawl through in my dreams. But then in the morning, at my desk, it’s easy enough to make a new scene if I remember. I get up for a glass of water and decide to walk toe-heel to the kitchen. Suddenly I am a modern dancer, serious in my own step, ridiculous in my own kitchen, and then I can laugh even though I am in here all alone. 

Difficulty

It is extremely hard to keep up a blog in a town of this size. I was going to write a semi-snarky review of the play I saw last weekend at the community theater, but as I was walking home from the gym, thinking about it, I saw one of the actors coming towards me on the sidewalk. We were both muttering to ourselves. I was going to write about wearing a disguise to the food co-op but if I reveal it, I’ll have to buy a different baseball cap. I was going to write about the book I am reading but I don’t want to give anything away—all three of my friends here have the book on reserve and are waiting for me to return it to the public library. I could write about my friends but they are the ones reading this. I could write about therapy but I’m not going to, for crying out loud. I could write about feelings, but my colleagues have already read everything I’ve ever written and my neighbors have already heard all of my telephone calls. I’d write about my neighbors but they are suffering enough as it is, listening to me sing through the thin wood doors of this renovated sanitarium. So music is out too; the rhythmic string quartets I play at high volume when I am trying to write and the Lilith Fair-type dirges I harmonize to when I am trying to figure out what I am feeling.

I was going to write about how last night we snuck out of bed to look for the super moon, about how I put on a bra just to go down the fire escape, just in case we saw anybody we knew. I was going to say how crazy we looked, walking with our heads tilted up toward the darkened sky. “It’s better to do a crazy thing now, before any of my new students recognize me,” I explained, but there was no one out except for us. The sky was clouded over and our eyes searched for any brightness, landing hopefully on each streetlamp. I would write about how incredible the full moon was when we finally found it, but we didn’t. After walking around the entire block, trying to look at it from every dark direction, we gave up and let ourselves back inside. 

Am I Getting The Most Out of Life?

Have I woken up early to seize the day? Did I get up early enough to hear ten minutes of world news, ensuring my full participation as global citizen for the next twenty-four hours? Did I rise in time to meet the automated timer drip on my coffee pot, or did I lay in bed squandering the local roast’s freshness? Were the blankets placed irregularly on the mattress, resulting in an uneven distribution of warmth? Did I check the weather website before bed, or did I just guess that I should leave the fan on, and did it become actually quite cold during the night, and did I wake up slightly chilled and therefore mildly achey? Were my dreams of the highest quality, or did I eat chocolate last night, ensuring several hours of nightmares about lost time? Did I recall any symbolism? Did I google the symbol and at least come to a greater understanding of self?  Will I eat fruit with breakfast, will I remember to take my multivitamin, will I exercise, will I meditate, will I prepare my corporeal form to best support my inner spirit, will I be prepared to experience most fully all this day has to offer? Will my actions somehow pave the way to greater understanding, such as the insight that might come from spending an hour this morning reading a high-quality piece of literature? Or will I wait for my aging computer to find the wireless internet signal, will I watch, entranced, as it performs the digital image of a rainbow orb, spinning into infinity?

How to Sharpen a Pencil:

First, write an entire book

Post-MFA Summer Reading List

It’s a rainy day at the beach and I am stuck inside contemplating my suitcase. For once, I have made what I hope is a manageable reading list. It manages to be manageable because I’ve already read some of these (this summer—no cheating!) and I am at the beach for two weeks and I am unemployed until September. If I am unable to read ten books then I should ask for a refund on my post-grad AWP membership.

Here is my list of my highly recommended OR highly anticipated books: 

1. The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison

Essayists rejoice: this book is a best-seller! What a rare bird indeed—popular AND intellectually stimulating nonfiction. We can only hope this is a good omen for future publishing amongst our ranks. The first few essays are really engrossing and leave me itching for more. (This is an inside joke because one of the essays is about Morgellon’s disease, a condition where people think they have things crawling under their skin.)

2. Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer 

In the grand tradition of to-do lists, one writes them in order to cross things off. I’ve already finished this book. Check. It is the quintessential post-MFA read: Dyer writes in a lackadaisical frenzy about not being able to do anything at all. I will tell you that by page 20 it was already one of my favorite books—if that’s not enough recommendation, then know that Steve Martin says it’s the funniest book he’s ever read. 

3. Lady Chatterly’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence

Dyer’s book is about how he can’t write a book about D.H. Lawrence. I will see if I can read a book about D.H. Lawrence. I haven’t read Lawrence’s fiction yet, only essays, but his essays are incredible so I hope for the best with this (banned, lascivious) book. 

4. The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem

OK, this one is a cheat: I’ve been reading it for two years and finally finished it this month. It’s 511 pages long though, so whatever. A wonderful, epic, sprawling, autobiographical novel about growing up white in a black neighborhood. Delicate and moving and gorgeous.

5. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

I’ve heard so many good things about this Italian novel, the first of a three part series. The opening is spare and absorbing—can’t wait to keep reading it!

6. The Artist as Critic, Oscar Wilde

McNally Jackson sells these adorable re-printed copies of this book and I finally broke down and bought one. It’s a short play about art. I need all the over-the-top aphorisms I can get right now so, of course, Wilde. 

7. The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner came and read in Iowa City and the sections she read aloud (she’s a great reader!) were hilarious. Excited to start!

8. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

After this book won the Pulitzer, you simply could not get a copy of it at the library so I had to read her earlier novel, The Secret History, instead. I could not put that book down—gorgeous and gripping, a rare genre indeed: the lyric thriller. I’m expecting more of the same here!

9. Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis

My favorite—I read half of this, but the cover is so gorgeous (and the book is so heavy) I had to leave it at home before departing on this vacation. Her micro-stories are perfect for reading one, resting one’s eyes, then reading another.

10. Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett

And last but not least, another ideal post-MFA read. This is Patchett’s memoir of her time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop with her BFF Lucy Grealy. It’s sad but beautiful but most of all wonderful; especially the parts where she describes little things about life in Iowa that I know so well. 

You don’t get blue like this on the east coast. The camera on my phone doesn’t do it justice. This image shows a deeper blue than my memory does; the windshield adds an anti-UV tint. Let me try to explain: there is something about the horizon stretching out infinitely that gives the sky a watercolor wash. There is something about the great expanse of land here that opens up and gives way to these little superfluous cloud puffs. They float along as we drive beneath. They do something, I don’t know what, to the water particles in the atmosphere—these reflect or refract or thicken the sky, giving it a milky undertone. White-blue. Blue-white. I want to call it “blight” but that’s already a word and it means something different. David Foster Wallace called it the “color of old jeans.” It’s subtle. If you’ve lived under it your whole life you might not notice how it gets lighter as the sky chokes with humidity. You might not notice how on a nice day, the pale of it seems soft, as though its sweet creaminess were somehow influenced by the smell of the wildflowers on the side of the road. It is the kind of thing I can’t help but imagine myself missing when I eventually leave this place. It is the kind of thing that I already imagine enjoying when I return for a visit, looking out the window like my mother does when she comes here, staring intently, “I just want to drink it all in with my eyes,” she says, her hands gripping the steering wheel. 

You don’t get blue like this on the east coast. The camera on my phone doesn’t do it justice. This image shows a deeper blue than my memory does; the windshield adds an anti-UV tint. Let me try to explain: there is something about the horizon stretching out infinitely that gives the sky a watercolor wash. There is something about the great expanse of land here that opens up and gives way to these little superfluous cloud puffs. They float along as we drive beneath. They do something, I don’t know what, to the water particles in the atmosphere—these reflect or refract or thicken the sky, giving it a milky undertone. White-blue. Blue-white. I want to call it “blight” but that’s already a word and it means something different. David Foster Wallace called it the “color of old jeans.” It’s subtle. If you’ve lived under it your whole life you might not notice how it gets lighter as the sky chokes with humidity. You might not notice how on a nice day, the pale of it seems soft, as though its sweet creaminess were somehow influenced by the smell of the wildflowers on the side of the road. It is the kind of thing I can’t help but imagine myself missing when I eventually leave this place. It is the kind of thing that I already imagine enjoying when I return for a visit, looking out the window like my mother does when she comes here, staring intently, “I just want to drink it all in with my eyes,” she says, her hands gripping the steering wheel. 

On Teaching Writing

The other night I was out at the bar. There are only about five bars in this town that I, as a graduate student, find myself in. This particular bar is large and deep with many booths and long, flat tables, like a high school cafeteria. There is a big plastic dolphin hanging from one wall and lots of televisions with basketball playing and a jukebox whose music barely makes itself known under the din of a Saturday night. On football mornings in the fall, the bar gives away two kinds of free chili: MILD and WARNING VERY HOT. 

I was standing at the bar waiting to order a drink. This bar, unlike the other four bars I might have found myself at, seemed filled with a convivial spirit—maybe it was the size, maybe it was all the shouting, or maybe it was just Saturday night. I did not, as I often do in this small town, recognize everyone in the establishment. I only recognized the bartender, who is my next-door neighbor. I caught his eye and he waved an energetic hello. “Do you know that guy,” asked the guy waiting next to me. He didn’t wait for me to answer. ”Isn’t he the greatest?” My eyes, after meeting his, needed somewhere else to go. They fell to his hands, which were covered in assorted silver rings. He was still talking. “One night I was in here and after a few drinks, I needed to drive home.” He went on to explain which town he lived in and where it was in relation to Iowa City. I was held hostage by the whiskeys I’d ordered. The man went on, lavishing praise on our friendly bartender. “So this dude right here, he made me a pot of coffee. We sat here and talked and talked about albums.” It wasn’t until he pronounced that last word, albums, that I realized what I had been doing. Cut, I’d thought. Irrelevant, I thought. Think of your reader, I wrote, on the imaginary sheet of paper that had materialized between me and this man. Vague, I wrote, next to the word “album,” and then I circled it with a ferocious swirl of ink. This could mean anything, I’d write, what kind of music do you mean, I’d say, is it The Sex Pistols? Run DMC? Yehudi Menuhin? Hugh Masekela? More details, I’d underline, describe it in relation to something else! Be specific! 

Lucy Morris, from “Some Recent Notes”

"People sometimes link youth and its attendant mistakes to a sense of invincibility, but if there was a guiding principle of my own early twenties, it was much more a sense of inevitability. Of course I would end up staying for another drink, or sleep with the person who presented themselves to me, or spend some idiotic sum of money on nothing. Prolonged, public decision-making may have been something of a recreation among my friends — that weighing of options among people who still thought options would always be limitless—but I mostly remember a feeling of being carried along by the events around me, the decision made before I was even aware that there was one to make."

Read the rest here.

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