Sunday, November 29, 2009


The Lie Lacks

It feels like the lie lacks truth of a certain sort. Thanksgiving is when we are to remember only the good, or if need be, the bad through the working of good. Yet even if Thanksgiving is really a social mask for maudlin positive thinking, it does possess a certain flower, a feeling of warmth and joy that finds its root in good food (stuffing and pickled beets) and games (dominos and ping-pong) elevated to the position of ritual. I don’t care how many rotten apples are involved; hot apple cider is undeniably good.

We went to Portland in the rain to see my Aunt Mary and her jiving husband Uncle Lee Gingerich. Mary’s brothers Stan and James were there with their wives telling jokes and responding to jokes with lines they forgot were first written by Credence Clearwater Revival. We learned of James’ deer ‘horn’ collection, of how to kill a cougar with a bow and arrow. We heard stories of bar fights during the Vietnam war which ended on their head two stories below the balcony on which they started. We heard about how one little boy chopped off the other little boy’s fingers as a scary joke turned non-fiction next to a narrow river at a place called “Sweet Home.” We were informed that an evening of Bible study was to be cancelled for the Oregon St. vs. Oregon football game this weekend.

So far we don’t have so many stories of physical suffering to dwell on and rehash on Thanksgiving. Maybe we’re just learning how to tell Thanksgiving stories which ring true, like corroding cast-iron bells. That offer responses to life filled with laughter in the dark. But we know we like these stories of survival filled with pell-mell passion and misunderstood longing. We like Thanksgiving dinner with its overabundance of brown and dark red foods set on a long Amish-made table as a way of contradicting the lack of family experience that exists the rest of the year. Sitting around an Amish-made table playing Mexican Dominos for hours makes you forget about the rain.

These amazing pictures were made by: Lisel Jane
Top left image by: Lottery Monkey

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mentors and Tormentors

On Friday we went to see 54 year-old poet Mary Karr read from her funny new memoir against the depression of her mother’s drinking which made her try to drink away her own depression and find an oblivious tall rich man, about her relationship with David Foster Wallace, her love for Don DeLillo and Robert Hass for their coolness, and about saving light moments and beating out a more human time from the drudgery that normally counts as life.

I told Mary Karr that I’m a big fan of Robert Hass too, and asked her why she likes him so much and she looked us in the eyes and quoted this poem which it turns out was her first poetry column for the Washington Post:

By Mary Karr, Sunday, March 2, 2008;

To take up this column, kicked off 12 years ago by my mentor, Robert Hass, is to inherit my poetic father's former post. However flattering it may be to follow him, his shadow feels daunting.

Harold Bloom argues in The Anxiety of Influence that each writer struggles against influences in an Oedipal fight to slay overbearing patriarchs. But Hass taught me that dialogue with one's historical betters is more privilege than threat. In poetic ancestry, an alleged tormentor may make the best mentor -- and vice versa.

In this poem, young Hass crosses that campus near where his hero Randall Jarrell had translated his own patriarch, Chekhov. Jarrell -- a tennis player famous for charm -- captured the misery of housewifery in the effortless '50s. "Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All . . ." He later shocked everyone with his suicide. By cross-dressing in Jarrell's angelic tennis garb, Hass questions the faux ease of academic life and the perils of inherited habits: Old Dominion

The shadows of late afternoon and the odors
of honeysuckle are a congruent sadness.
Everything is easy but wrong. I am walking
across thick lawns under maples in borrowed tennis whites.

It is like the photographs of Randall Jarrell
I stared at on the backs of books in college.
He looked so sad and relaxed in the pictures.
He was translating Chekhov and wore tennis whites.

It puzzled me that in his art, like Chekhov's,
everyone was lost, that the main chance was never seized
because it is only there as a thing to be dreamed of
or because someone somewhere had set the old words
to the new tune: we live by habit and it doesn't hurt.

Now the thwack . . . thwack of tennis balls being hit
reaches me and it is the first sound of an ax
in the cherry orchard or the sound of machine guns
where the young terrorists are exploding
among poor people on the streets of Los Angeles.

I begin making resolutions: to take risks, not to stay
in the south, to somehow do honor to Randall Jarrell,
never to kill myself. Through the oaks I see the courts,
the nets, the painted boundaries, and the people in tennis
whites who look so graceful from this distance.

Even Los Angeles -- city of cool -- sounds like lost angels, and the Californian Hass vows to honor his ancestors with a distrust for any false charm or inherited boundaries. That's what this column's for. That's what I hope to live up to. (Robert Hass's poem "Old Dominion" can be found in "Praise." Ecco. Copyright 1979 by Robert Hass)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Of Jennifer

Jennifer was in rare form yesterday – bouncing off the front passenger car seat because she had tried to drink all the coffee in my big black clunky mug shaped with the impression of a hand (the one Mary Roth-Yoder wanted as a wedding present). We stumbled over each other into the movie theatre to watch Matt Damon play the seamy informant in a giant corn syrup factory like a weak representation of a Nobokov/Kafka story: malevolent brainy protagonist lost in layers of legality and corruption with a seedy mustache, secretly sexiest man of the year. We sat in our favorite chairs in theatre no. 4 of the “crusty” Crest Cinema Centre where movies tickets are cheaper than popcorn and were happy (most of the popcorn eaters were not loud or too far away to ruin the movie). Jennifer rocked in her chair and spoke of having a footrest.

Jennifer was in rare form today – bounding out of the YMCA she said she “feels so powerful” after lifting weights which she admits “are not that heavy.” Like she “could punch through walls!” She says her pre-exercise days were actually not that different, but she likes these days better. Given a choice, she would choose against grand narratives, and want to see her past as unconnected to her present (just like, Vendela Vida, coincidentally). Nope, now she is walking fast as though low-blood sugar was a faint illusion that has never haunted her like a bad dream involving a strange man and her mom and a place she used to live before . . . (sorry, dream reports are sometimes vague, in another time and place Jennifer would be known as Gennavieve, Queen of Vague). (Interesting side note: Mary Roth-Yoder’s brother-in-law and his wife just had a baby named Gennavieve. Congratulations Zeb and Lisa!)

Jennifer was in rare form last weekend – when we sat down at
Spring Hill for dinner. Spring Hill, which was brought front and center to us, by the Dillsburg, Pennsylvania foodie Shayne Edmunds, was last year’s 3rd best new restaurant in America according to Bon Appetit. And no disappointment either. As a steak man (who practices a rare form of carnivorous asceticism), I tried the wagyu and it was in rare form with perfect char, accented nicely with some sort of mustard sauce, potatoes a couple different ways (creamy, fried, crispy). Chard and bacon. Jennifer tried the vegetable tasting platter and loved every form of perfectly seasoned cassoulet of beet, radish, arugula, and potato she tasted until it was gone. She says she will surprise me by taking me back there for my birthday, but she doesn’t know that I might surprise her first. There are a lot of holidays between now and January 20th – the anniversary of George Bush Jr.’s return to the mountain bike trails of his Texas ranch and (perhaps not coincidentally) my birthday. So many more chances for Jennifer to charge after her favorite things.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Songs, beards and other forms of Anti-Gravity
Jennifer said as we were getting our weekend of wild celebration started on Friday night that she thinks beards make men look kind. Something about an obscured face makes the stranger focus on the quiet eyes, on not talking too much, on listening and thinking. This weekend we heard a wild man from Portland named McDougall sing a wild row of train songs to a mean claw hammer banjo, we heard David Bazan howl into the void, all solitary beards. And we listened to ZZ Top who have been growing their beards together for 30 odd years, odd years of cattle running across the stage, refusals to be interviewed, and a guitar made out of a plank from Muddy Waters’ Delta shack.
Jennifer said that the sound of the Phillip Glass Ensemble breathing when they play Symphony No. 3 and the sound of their bows on the strings underneath the music is what makes the music seem human and true. Over the past few weeks my friend Shayne Edmunds has been feeding us a steady stream of CDs which he calls things like “possibly the best album ever recorded.” Shayne collects vinyl LPs of old rhythm and blues (scratchy recordings which fuzz and pop with electricity like unique objects too hot for a phonograph needle) and turns them into CDs for people like us. One of these CDs was ZZ Top’s First Album, a first rate blues record, played by a man who learned the old songs on the knee of his family’s cleaning lady down in 1950s Texas.
Jennifer said the weight of her nearly six-digit student loan didn’t seem real until she saw that little train of zeros in the bottom right column of her 30-year payment plan on our computer. She thinks society is a giant black octopus that drapes itself over our heads and sucks life from us. And she thinks she just spent the last three years paying the octopus to let her go free. So we celebrated reinventing ourselves as debt free people for this weekend, and talked about beards, the way the scratchy recordings make music better and not from a factory, ate the finest known food in Seattle (food that tasted better because the menu told us what farm it came from on the West Coast) and danced around the second -hand furniture in our living room like primitives who had just discovered fire.
Photos from Zach Ramey and this place.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Of Seattle’s Golden Breeze

Last night around nine o’clock we went out to an all night coffee shop and tried to read Nabokov and study Uyghur. But we only got through a few sips of our decaf chai and the street was flooded with naked pumpkin-headed men deliriously flapping by. Then they were gone and we were wondering if we saw them at all. Did we see that golden breeze like a streak of laughter down the street? We think we did. And the pictures from the Naked Pumpkin Run (NPR) of Seattle prove it, but they don’t show the surprise which makes such a costume a timeless treasure.

I also saw through the window of a tavern a sad dinosaur sitting in the corner of the bar with his beer, his legs crossed. Another short moment in time where the weird seemed true and the strange seemed natural. A lonesome dinosaur in a world of human freaks.

We didn’t dress up last night like a pirate or a gorilla, but one of these years Jennifer will be a mini whale and I will be a David Lynch teddy bear and we will laugh ourselves to sleep because the world is funny.