Archive for March, 2011

I cannot be a French Socialist Dale Earnhardt

Kline in Fish

Over the weekend, I shaved my beard down to a mustache and soul patch (modeling the fantastic, spastic Kevin Kline in a Fish Called Wanda). Initially, I did so to entertain my son who enjoys disparate configurations of facial hair. Immediately upon shaving, however, I felt different, on the inside not just out. Yes, I liked the way I looked, but there was more. “Is this really who I’m supposed to be?” Looking in the mirror of my mother’s guest bathroom, I thought, “Oh yeah. I am delicious.”  Then I walked the silken streets of Linden Hills, past Tibetan incense shops, restaurants that serve frittatas, tortillas de patatas and migas, stores purveying toys made of wood, and also children’s bookstores, feeling tough and ready.  My muscles were loose, my mind clear.  “I am a French Socialist,” I thought.  The bourgey masses in their puffy North Face coats parted.

On Monday, I drove to Mankato to start the work week.  The trip went fast, because my mustache allowed me to drive like Dale Earnhardt. Imagine the blur of snow-melt flooded valleys and leafless spring hillocks. Beautiful.

Once in town, a clerk at the Qwik Trip, where I bought a banana and some gasoline, gave me the evil eye.  “That’s right. Too tough for you,” I thought.  I slept so well that night.

Too Tough?

On Tuesday, I went to campus ready to rock the stache all over my students, to teach with both Earnhardt abandon and French Socialist intensity.  But my students thought the stache funny. During an exercise in prose class, I walked the room and found several students not participating at all, but rather drawing pictures of my face. The stache in these pictures grew big and cartoonish, not in a caricatured French Socialist Dale Earnhardt way, more in a Daffy Duck goes to Paris way. I felt less tough.  My graduate students were more mature about the stache, but even less encouraging.  They told me flatly that I looked like a pervert (which made me reassess the reasons why families parted as I walked Linden Hills streets).  At break, however, one quietly said she thought I looked more like a musketeer than a pervert.  That was nice. But, my love of the stache dissipated. Who wants to look like musketeers? Dorks.

The day fled without further incident.

That evening, the MSU campus hosted a large invitational indoor track meet for area high schools. On my way to the car, I stopped in and watched a long distance race (I love distance races — so dramatic).  The young women running at the front of the pack were good.  They ran like spirited gazelles.  They seemed to know each other and they challenged each other with little bursts of speed that eventually separated them from the rest. Very exciting.  Because there were so many high school kids in the facility, it was difficult to see what was happening in the race on the back stretch.  I began to jog back and forth to catch sight of the back stretch pyrotechnics.  Real competition. Side by side running into corners. Fantastic!  As the race neared its end, the two gazelle young women lapped other competitors.  Their speed grew. They grimaced and gutted it out.  Whoever had the best kick, would win the sucker.  The bell rang. Last lap.  I couldn’t help myself.  I ran the length of the straight away closest to me, trying to catch the moment when one’s superior kick would mentally defeat the other.  It didn’t happen.  They both sprinted in sync!  As they came around the final corner, I met them.  I picked up speed and ran almost along side them, dodging other spectators.  In the last fifteen meters, the young women in green lost gas, her muscles gave out while the other bounced forward.  I whooped!  The winner!  The crowd cheered, at least the ones who weren’t around me laughing and pointing.

Pointing at me?  Holy Christ.  I’d just run the final straight away alongside a couple of high school track athletes.  I turned to scurry out of the facility.  A dude in a green track jacket said, “Nice mustache.”

At home, I shaved it all off.  You can’t be a French Socialist Dale Earhnardt when your essential vibe is mega-dork.  You can wear that mustache if you’re into musketeers, I suppose.  But, I really like high school track and my stache made me look like a pervert.

New Tralfamadorian Zoo at Mall of America

Scott, "The Human Doing," Waves to me and my Kids. Nice Guy.

This is Scott.  He is living for a whole month in the Mall of America.   He’s lives in a glass apartment between Kemps Ice Cream and the Nestle Toll House Cookie Store on the very edge of the Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park (his bathroom is very dark glass — the orange space behind).  He would like to lose weight and live healthier.  He is live action, human marketing for Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s “do” campaign.  He eats, exercises, does some stretching, sleeping, yoga, TV watching, blogging, etc. right there in front of the many many mall goers, showing how to do it all right.

Nearby Rep

Of course, I’m all for it.  Scott has come un-stuck in time.  If it weren’t for Michelle Bachmann representing a district close to this one, I’m sure a voluptuous (and healthy) Montana Wildhack-like lady, wearing yoga pants, would be in that glass box helping Scott (and the rest of us) “do” love better.  Now is always and the woman would get pregnant and the Human DO would feed her right and provide her perfect vitamins and help her with prenatal stretching and soon she’d give birth in the new underwater world.  Her baby would swim with dolphins (in a glass pool, so we could see and cheer).

Me, the kids and Grandma, saw Rango at the Mall (surprisingly decent movie shown in very gross movie theater — sticky chairs, audience texting).  We ate at a restaurant decorated to look like continental drift rammed Tahiti into the Florida Keys (delicious).  Then we walked between Sponge Bob’s legs to get to the Tralfamadore Zoo.  Scott really did look like he was having a good time.  Being on display seemed pleasant to him (it was to Billy Pilgrim, too).

And I am not mocking this stunt even remotely.   If we all learn to eat, exercise, love, and blog, facebook and tweet well, we will feel well (Scott sits on a yoga ball).  Insurance companies should lead the way (why do they exist, otherwise?).  The Mall of America has the hallways and the high ceilings and the necessary parking (and the dolphin tanks).  We all want to be happy.  I really did like waving at Scott.  And I really like that he waved back.  I’m not even remotely kidding.

The Winds of Change: No Omelets.

There are things I can’t do: I can’t eat too many omelets, because I have high cholesterol, which I just found out this week, which I find hard to believe, because I’ve never eaten a lot of omelets.  Up until now, I thought that’s how you got high cholesterol.  Omelets.  Apparently not.  Because I eat no more than two omelets a month, in a traditional month, and still got high cholesterol.  But then I read about treating high cholesterol without medication, which I’d really like to do, because some of the potential side-effects of these medications are terrifying (eyeballs explode, crap dinosaurs), and I found out that you shouldn’t eat too many omelets, because omelets don’t help you if you have high cholesterol at all.  Omelets can really hurt, in fact.

I am forty-one.  Last night, I told my intro to creative writing class that I’m forty (not even the truth, that I’m 41).  They were all like, “What?! No way!? Forty-year-olds are boring and fat and they wear elastic pants and they’re mad at us for texting, because they don’t know how, and they’re tired at nine and they can’t sleep through the night because of back pain and they’re soft in the middle because they no longer care about personal appearance and they’re angry about their parking spots and they drive slow in the fast lane, in their old cars and they don’t know how to play beer pong and they sit in their donut-cushion rocking chairs and they take viagra so they can make dumb jokes at the grocery store and they walk around the mall in their ugly walking shoes, etc.” I was pretty offended.

Those eighteen-year-olds have no idea about anything.  When I was eighteen and in college, I ate nothing but soft serve ice cream and cocoa puffs for three weeks straight.  It was awesome.

I can’t get out of bed this morning.  Four years ago I could break dance like an old man.  See? (Thanks, Megan)

Now I can’t break dance at all, because it hurts my wrists and groin too much.  But, I’m not even remotely an old man.  I am middle-aged, I suppose.  But, things are happening fast lately.  I can’t do things, like stay up all night.  I can’t eat a lot of omelets.  I have medical conditions and medical procedures.  I can’t smoke cigarettes in my bathroom, because I know better than to smoke, because it’s bad for my health and the smoke just gets stuck in the fan filter and smells smoky, especially when moist, like after you shower.  These are the winds of change.

A Sad Little Love Letter on Dear Teen Me

I really like this site, dearteenme.com.  They post YA authors’ letters to their teenaged selves. I’ve got one up today that I really like, based on true events, the best I recall them. It is here.

George Saunders in Mankato

Tomorrow is a really big day.  George Saunders, great story and essay writer, is doing The Good Thunder Reading Series. (Look at the list of authors from this year! Chaon, Henley, Komunyakaa, Reif Larsen, whoa — I’ve eaten Chinese Food with lots of people I like to read.)  George Saunders is visiting my department.  I’ll be eating some Chinese Food with George Saunders.  I’m pretty psyched up.  Why?

George Saunders compares the techniques writers use to build tension in a story to a Hot Wheels rubber ball spinning gas station that flings a Hot Wheels car around a Hot Wheels track.  The car in the comparison is the reader.  He suggests good stories fling readers (sometimes off the track and into your sister’s face).  Saunders conjectures, not without sort of questioning himself, wondering if he’s an idiot, that Serious Fun could save the world — he’s been at a waterpark in Dubai.  Saunders watches President Clinton take pictures with a British family in Africa, watches Clinton bend way down to be at the same level as the short kid, and understands the Clinton Genius.  Saunders writes the funniest short stories.  Saunders writes longing essays filled with kindness.  Saunders uses just great, down-on-the-ground, American diction while poking his finger into high philosophical pie. I like George Saunders.

Saunders

A huge reason to apply to Mankato’s MFA program: Good Thunder.  You might get to eat Chinese food with George Saunders.

Chinese Food

36 questions to ask about your characters

As I sit here in my kitchen on a very hard wooden bench writing (struggling to write) the sequel to Stupid Fast, I’m reminded of how helpful seemingly mechanical exercises can be to the creative act. Every time I write a story, I get stuck.  Every time I write, I lose hold of characters and they start making choices and saying things that feel artificial.  Every time this happens, I remember a list of questions I started back in grad school (thanks to an exercise the awesome Sheila O’Connor put us through) that helps me get a handle on who my characters are (it really, really grounds me).  I’m just about to put this sucker to use for myself, so I thought I’d copy and paste it here for whomever.

These questions aren’t the only ones, of course.  But, they’re generally all I need to really understand the character I’m working with (they uncover back story, obsession, identifying quirks, ways of being, world view, etc.).  Write as much or as little as you want.  Create characters you’re not yet writing about.  Make up more questions (and send to me if you’d like).  This is a good time (and I need to have a good time writing, because I’m stuck).

  1. How old, exactly?
  2. Who do they live with?
  3. Where do they live?  Describe the physical place, home, neighborhood (not people, yet).
  4. Describe the kind of people who live where character does (not in the house, but in the neighborhood).
  5. What day is their birthday?  Birthday important to them?
  6. What is their level of education?  Where did (do) they go to school?  If college, what did they study?
  7. What is their parents’ socio-economic level (education, wealth, cultural background)?
  8. Parents religious?  If yes, what religion?  A big deal to them?
  9. Religion important to character?  Explain.
  10. What is ethnicity?  Is ethnic background important?  Describe.
  11. Parent relationships important to the character?  One parent more important than other?  Who?  Why?  If bad, describe.
  12. Do they have brothers or sisters?  Describe relationships.
  13. Are they married?  Good marriage?  Bad marriage?  Middle?   Describe what you know.
  14. Boyfriend/Girlfriend (even if they’re married)?
  15. Describe general history of romantic relationships.  Any bad/good history that informs how they live now?
  16. If they have children, describe relationships with each.
  17. What is their job?  Do they like the tasks?  Do they like co-workers?  Customers?  Describe.
  18. If possible, name and describe three closest friends in order of importance.  History is important.
  19. Who, if anyone, do they go to if they have a problem?  Do they go to different people for material problems (money, mechanical issues, etc.) and emotional problems?
  20. Where are they on a typical Sunday at 10 a.m.?
  21. Where are they on a typical Friday at 9 p.m.?
  22. Do they do their own laundry?
  23. What is their favorite food?  Why?
  24. What is their favorite possession?  Why?
  25. Do they keep a clean house?  Do they make their own bed?
  26. Describe the state of their bedroom.  What does it say about them?
  27. Do they know how to cook?
  28. Would they dance at a wedding?
  29. Do they like music?  What kind of music?  Can they play music?  Can they sing?
  30. Do they read?  What?
  31. Early riser or late nighter?
  32. Would they rather be good than rich?
  33. Would they rather be powerful than good?
  34. What do they want most? Describe concrete goal.  Describe emotional need.
  35. What’s stopping them? Describe.
  36. Do they think the universe is good, bad, or indifferent?  Or, do they not know (implies questioning)?

Student drawing of me teaching (exhausted students in background--how you must feel)

Post-Colonscopy Grecian Vision of Health

I admit it.  I was terrified.  All through the night, the rocket fuel fired me like roman candle balls at all angles in the tiled bathroom.  There was little sleep.  There was shock and awe.  But then, at the clinic, I was attached to some drip bag and fed a delicious mood enhancer, which caused me to remember how beautiful the world really is.  As the doctor did his best, I dreamt of green hillocks and running barefoot among the free-range sheep.  When I awoke, I looked in the mirror and this is what I saw:

Andy Sturdevant's Venus

Thanks to the doctors and nurses of the Mankato Clinic for their care. And to Andy Sturdevant for often reminding me of who I am.  To those of you facing this psychologically challenging test.  Don’t worry.  Colonoscopies are not that terrible.  You catch business early if business there is.  If not…peace of mind.  They provide peace of mind.

Later, Steph will take me to Paglai’s for a delicious pizza.