Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Coffeeland Diaries

A few weeks ago, there was a bonfire at David's house - six or so of us balancing on old packing crates to keep above the mud, swigging beers and gazing at the stars. During a lull in the conversation, I asked Meredith, "What would you say to your fifteen-year-old self if you were to run into her?"

In the silence, everyone else looked at me, too. It was late enough that cheesy cocktail-party-esque conversation-starters were possible, apparently. "Well..." David said, and we all sat back, looked into the fire, and thought about our answers.

When I was fifteen, I applied at the Caribou Coffee  in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. In the interview, the manager - Elke, long black hair and an arresting manner - looked at me with laser-blue eyes and said, "Why do you want to work here?"

I was, and am, not very good in interviews. "Two of my friends said it was cool." Alaina and Maggie H showed up places carrying massive free drinks, their pockets full of tips. The manager waited, and I said, thinking it'd help, "Plus I don't really like coffee." I wouldn't steal, I meant. Back then, coffee was something my father drank, pots of it on Sunday morning with his newspaper. I'd sipped it once and assumed it was something I'd never understand.

"Fine," she sighed. "Come in on Tuesday. Can you get some khaki pants?"

I was thrilled. I would be working the closing shift from 4 pm to 11, as well as weekend mornings, 6-12. That's okay, I thought! It's fine! That's just what Work is like!

This Caribou was a freestanding store, a little brown island just off an exit ramp. Most of its business came from massive SUVs that rushed off the highway and yelled "CAN I HAVE EIGHT CARAMEL COOLERS PLEASE" into the microphone. During several training shifts, it turned out I was hopeless at the bar (not only uncoordinated, but prone to zoning out, terrible at steaming milk, and completely unable to hold multiple ideas or objects in my mind simultaneously), so Elke decided I'd stand at the drive-through register and collect orders.

This, it turned out, was harder than it seemed. The headset I wore tended to crackle and pop, the voices at the order-screen were nearly inaudible, so I had to crank it up as high as possible, wincing at the electronic ding that meant there was a new car. "Welcome to Caribou Coffee!" I would cry, smiling, "what can we get for you today?"

"Medium Garblegarble latte, with garblegarble," the car said. I punched my mitten at the screen and hoped.

Sometimes it would be fine - little cars were happy to accept whatever large mint-flavored coolers I shoved at them - but on occasion, I'd hand drinks into an SUV, and the woman driving would be the type to take an experimental sip. Her highlighted hair swung at her cheekbones. Her face got all knotted up.

"Noooo," she'd say, and I knew it was all over. "No, this is definitely full-fat. Right? Take a sip," to the friend next to her, and pass it over. Of course the friend would agree. "Full-fat," she said, her lips pursed, and my stomach fell.

Sending a drink back, in the drive-through, was a horrible business. The baristas were generally frantic, trying to keep up with an endless flood, and our line stretched back through the parking lot, I could see over the monitor. In those moments, I would be torn between Elke's voice that said "Act with speed!" and Elke's voice that said "Please the guest!" and generally my innate will to please would win out. "I'm so sorry to hear that! I'll get you a skim one!" I tried to act like it wasn't my fault.

"With sugar-free syrup," she said, pleased with herself. As I turned to set it aside, she'd add, "But be sure that you add the extra whip!"

They'd get angry if I shut the window again, I thought. I let the heat from the store sweep out over the line of cars, felt the Arctic wind that blew off the highway sneak around the SUV and whip my face. Finally my co-worker thunked the drink down next to me. Skim-sugar-free-whip-on-top latte firmly in hand, the SUV pulled away in a haze of smoke fumes and righteous fury, and straightaway the next customer drove up, usually a minvan full of children, all wanting coolers. At the wheel, the mother was already saying "Excuse me, I don't know if you realize, but we've been waiting for about ten minutes back there..."

I don't know how I wasn't fired. Certainly, I worked there for a year and a half and was never promoted, never made shift supervisor or anything like that, but neither did they edge me out. Apart from the fact that I didn't steal money, I think my only asset was my ability to keep calm when strange things happened. Once, a truck roared up to the window without having stopped at the speaker, and the man inside yelled, "Hey, did you know that Caribou is owned by the Saudis now?"

It was true that a Bahrain bank had just bought a majority share in Caribou, I'd read it in a section of my dad's paper while eating a bowl of Quaker Oats that morning, and so I said, "Yes..."

"Well soon enough they'll have you WEARING A BURKA!" and he pointed his finger at me and sped off.

On another occasion, I was lucky enough to be working the counter on a Sunday morning. An old woman hobbled up, her hair artificially sandy, her lips drawn on with chocolate-colored pencil. She set a rolled-up poster on the counter and unrolled it with arthritic hands. It was for the movie version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." The woman looked up at me. Her eyes didn't quite focus. She said, "The Lion is Jesus!" and then turned around, hobbled out. She didn't order anything, either.

I stayed because my friends were there, and because, by the time I'd been working there for a month, I was addicted to the free coffee. When we made Coolers, there was always something left over, and I'd take them like shots, the little Dixie cups of sludgy milky coffee-shake. I graduated to lattes, then to cups of straight black coffee. Nobody cared, at the time, and especially nobody cared late at night, when it'd only be three of us working, making smoothies for cars full of stoned teenagers - I'd get blatant, dig my hands into the bowl of Snickers bits, snarf chocolate-covered espresso beans, make new and interesting drink combinations. (Raspberry-vanilla-mint? Sure! Lemon anything? Why not?) I liked the illusion of freedom: here I was, left alone in this corporate entity I'd visited since I was a little girl (hot chocolates with the gummy monster on top when my dad splurged on coffee on weekends).

I kept thinking, for a while, that I'd get better at the job. I'd whip out drinks and chat and smile with people, earn the legendary twenty-dollar tips. Men would flirt with me and I'd just act mysterious. Customers would stop just to know my name, that counter-girl full of witty comebacks. But  it was never that kind of job. It wasn't a place at which one could rise to the top - rather, it was a temporary holding pen for teenagers, a resting zone for thirty-ish middle managers, who blew in and blew out.

After several months, Elke was fired. The rumor was that she was an alcoholic, but I think it was just too perfect, what with her name and all, and plus, I'd never seen her drunk, just forceful. She was replaced by a kind man who tried to get us Christmas off and who was then told by Corporate that we had to stay open; he, in turn, was replaced by a pinched Dwight Shrute type, who took away our free drinks and made us dump expired scones in a garbage can instead of taking them home.

I quit, at that point, but I still dream about it, sometimes. I am afraid of going back there. Never since have I experienced that level of frantic activity, those sinking pits of despair. Writing may, at times, be tough, but it's a slower, more indolent kind of tough - you're failing nobody but yourself when you don't do a great job of it.

That night at the bonfire, I imagined pulling up to the Caribou and being confronted, at the drive-through window, by a young version of myself: a girl wearing heavy foundation to mask the acne scars, with hair that looks like it hasn't been washed in a while, eyebrows that she still shaves in the middle rather than plucking, dark-black eyeliner. She looks scared. It's been a late night and she has a calc test in the morning, something that gives her the same kind of anxiety as this does, all the cars in the drive-through, rushing at her like equations. I can tell that she wants to be at home. Her hands shake from the cold, from cold drinks, from too many chocolate-covered espresso beans.

In my fantasy, I pick up my medium-sized light roast with a little bit of cream, and as our hands touch, I say, "You know, work doesn't suck like this forever."

"Excuse me?" she says, raising her hairy brow and smiling in the way she does when people act crazy around her.

"It gets better. I mean, it's not like you're a bullied gay kid, or anything, on the whole your life's pretty great, you've got a horse and parents who are nice people and...." I'm rambling. I'm losing her. I clear my throat.  "Okay. I'm just saying: you probably should go to Morris, even though it's in the middle of nowhere."

"What's Morris?" I forget, she's a junior, she isn't even thinking about college yet, and if she is she's still laboring under the delusion that she's gonna go to Harvard. With those calc grades? Please.

"You'll understand later. It's great, I promise. Okay, go to Morris, go on that date, move to Germany when Nader asks you, and then, in a year, please apply to Iowa... Basically, just do all the stuff you're going to do without me helping you. God, am I fucking this up, the space-time continuum?" I take an anxious sip of my coffee. Way too much cream.

"Anyway: in, like, eight years, Jessie, your job is literally going to be this. You tell your fifteen undergrads to meet you outside when they're done filling out course evals. In a couple of minutes, they trot out, grinning at you; you're already there, sitting on the grass underneath three shapely little trees. Everyone's happy because it's May. You all sit in a circle and you talk about a really brilliant short story, then you break up into groups and they discuss their own writing. Sure, they kind of clam up when you come around, but that's to be expected, you're the prof, they don't want to seem dumb."

"Okay," she says, and I can tell she's getting nervous, what if other cars come, and so I wrap this up. It's sort of a self-congratulatory wank, anyway. "The point is: in eight years, you're going to have the best job in the world."

"But does it have free coffee?" She smiles at me, sort of side-long. She reads too much fantasy and has, by now, accepted the weirdness of it.

"It does." I sip, and wince, thinking of the Dey House coffee, the viscous black acid that might or might not have been in the pot for a few days. "Just really terrible stuff." I try to reach up and pat her hand, but the Beetle is too short, and maybe if we touched the world would implode, or something. "Take it easy." I still only tip fifty cents, and I hope she's not discouraged by that, and then I roar off into the night to drive to North Carolina and teach seventh-graders about The Magician's Nephew. For a second, I wonder if I have aged horribly, and then put it out of my mind.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


My sixth-grade teacher was a woman named Mrs. Landy, who slightly resembled Mrs. Doubtfire in both her curly blonde hair and her irreverent pleasantness. Since we were a Catholic school, teachers had more leeway than they did in the public sector (we were told how lucky this made us, especially during the anti-abortion unit) - Mrs. Landy used this to her advantage, and her "swear class" was legendary among the lower grades. One morning (it wasn't sure when, but usually in the fall) she would sit up on a stool at the front of her classroom and cheerfully give the definition of, and diagram, any profanity her students could think of. "It's important to use words correctly, even bad ones," she said.

She also took no guff (or, well, shit) from sassy middle-aged boys. I was a timid girl with glasses, braces, acne and one eyebrow - it was mad empowering to watch the way Mrs. Landy handled jocks. Sure, she laughed them off at first, but then she came down on them in a whirlwind of thick glasses.

She made them journal. She made everyone journal. In her class, we each fillled three composition books that year. ("Just write anything," she said. "I don't care if you're doodling song lyrics. Just write.") At the time, it felt hellish, but in retrospect, it worked some magic. Last month, I self-indulgently reread my sixth-grade journals, reviewing my wrath at my friends, my wonderings about will-boys-ever-like me, my experiments with various handwriting. Throughout, Mrs. Landy's neat cursive comments remain consistent in the margins. ("Sounds fun!" at a retelling of my trip to Kentucky, or or "Very creative," when I began and promptly abandoned a novel).

She was also guaranteed to have the newest books from the Book Fair on hand. Mrs. Landy had the best library in the entire middle school. Three curving plywood boards stretched across the far wall of her classroom, propping up hundreds of precisely alphabetized Young Adult Fiction titles on rickety cement blocks.

I have those shelves to thank for the syllabus I drafted last week. This summer, I'll be teaching a group of talented 7th and 8th graders at an institute run by Duke in North Carolina. The course is called "From Wonderland to Hogwarts" - it's an introduction to fantasy, and our reading list is composed of my old favorites.

"Ella Enchanted" is on there, with its silly pathos and fairy tricks, and "The Ear, the Eye and the Arm", which, with its dystopian future and elephant masks with human teeth, terrified me more than "Goosebumps" ever did. I debated over which "Chronicles of Narnia" to assign, but eventually settled on "The Magician's Nephew", figuring we could compare it with Genesis and see what Lewis was really getting at while we thought he was just entertaining us.

"Enchantress from the Stars", my middle-grade favorite, was the only book I never questioned assigning. I'm still impressed by this book, which manages to be simultaneously a fairy tale, a dystopian future, and a Star-Trek-esque novel about wise aliens.

It was published in 1970; the following year, it was a runner-up for the Newbery Medal, the Pulitzer of children's literature. Oddly enough, none of the characters in the book are children; I was always confused about what exactly made it for kids. As it turns out, so was its author. (More on that later.) The book's badass protagonist, Elana, is semi-psychic, and is nearly done studying anthropology - the culture of alien races. She belongs to a Federation of advanced aliens who have sworn to help protect younger, sillier planets from destroying themselves or being destroyed. However, they've got to do this without letting the younger races know that such a Federation exists, lest said planets' collective self-esteem be mortally crushed.

With her father and fiancee, she lands on Andrecia, a planet of medieval-era humanoids which is under siege  from another set of alien invaders. These guys are a sixties-esque group of imperialists with space-suits, thrilled about the habitable planet in their neighborhood, and to facilitate settlement, they're destroying forest with a giant clear-cutting machine. They're clearing area for a camp so that the medieval humans can be "resettled" (read: exterminated). They have no idea the Federation exists, since they're not advanced enough to be let into the clique.

In order to help the first race fend off the second, without tipping either of them off to the Federation's existence, Elana winds up having to disguise herself as an enchantress. She meets a handsome young woodcutter, she sets him the classic fairy-tale three tasks, and he attempts to slay the invaders' "dragon" - meanwhile, she's telling us about the Federation, and one of the invaders is bemoaning the fate of the simple Andrecian folk.

The entire novel works on three levels, from three perspectives.  I loved the idea that three people can look at a thing and all of them, in their own way, feel correct. (Of course, Elana - with her empathy and anthropological training and super-cool wavy hair - ends up faring better than the medieval fellow and the imperialist, but even she is occasionally won over by, say, anger or passionate woodcutter lust.) Still, it was an antidote to the cliqueishness of middle school, the constant feeling that other groups knew better, and that adults knew best of all. It didn't talk down to me the way some other books on Mrs. Landy's shelves might have.

I must have reread it seven times that year - it's a mark of how much I loved it that, although I haven't encountered a copy since, I was able to recite the plot with only a small bit of help from the book's stubby Wikipedia page. Lois Lowry, who I ended up meeting in November (how great is Iowa City? She answered my question about "where is Anastasia Krupnik now?" and signed my trembling copy of "The Giver") is also a fan - she wrote the introduction to the republished version, and the post-script is the author's own.

In that post-script to the new edition, Sylvia Louise Engdahl wrote that she had an email address (hooray) and would welcome any messages. I'd always scoffed at the idea of writing a fan letter, imagining Ms. Engdahl's secretary discarding it immediately, but as I aged and my self-esteem increased and my monobrow dropped away and I became a writer too, more or less, I began to think that maybe Sylvia Engdahl might appreciate hearing from a reader. And then I wound up assigning her book, which gave me a reason other than "I just liked your stuff, yo".

So, after finishing the syllabus, I crafted a message (I am always so scared of writing to writer-people that anything I send turns out sounding a hundred times weirder owing to the constant revisions). Apart from the whole "my class is gonna love this book just like I did" bit, I added in a post-script:

"In an interview on your website, you said something along the lines of - you didn't start off intending to write a young adult novel, it was just more that you had an idea and it worked out in a way to which younger readers gravitated. I know exactly what you mean.... though I do intend to write stories for adult readers, in workshop, for whatever reason, I often hear that they sound as if they're intended for young adults. I suspect it might be due to the fact that I read so many great fantasy/sci-fi books like Enchantress growing up, but who knows, maybe it's just that kids will suspend disbelief long enough to really enjoy an idea."

I was kind of reaching, with that last bit - God knows - and I certainly didn't expect what happened to happen, which is that two days later, I woke up on my friend Meredith's couch (there had been an Iowa Review reading session, and then a poetry reading, and then a lot of wine, and my house is far away) and scrolled through my email on my phone to find a message, that read, in part:

"It means a lot to me to hear from my readers, and I'm happy to hear that you will be using Enchantress from the Stars with gifted 7th and 8th graders.  Often it's given to younger readers, and while you yourself were mature enough to like it as a 6th grader, many children of that age find it confusing."

My brain didn't quite compute what was happening, though it did register the compliment. I scrolled on:

"I think that if you're told that your stories sound as if they are intended for young adults, it's not only that they would appeal to young readers but that they don't sound like today's adult science fiction, with which people in your workshop may be familiar. Devotees of the science fiction genre want fiction that is much further removed from reality than mine and tend to consider anything intelligible to general audiences as too simplistic to be considered "adult" by their standards."


She continued, "Personally I believe that there is a need for stories about future and hypothetical worlds that will be enjoyed by adults without a background in science fiction and are told in terms of life as we know it here and now -- I don't write about alien cultures and alien species that are portrayed as different merely for the sake of being different, and I don't want to confine my audience to readers of a specialized genre."

I had been right, I realized. She wasn't talking down to me - she was just trying to write the best book she knew how, and doing it in uncomplicated language, and because of that, because it had a fairy tale tucked inside it, publishers marketed it to children. After "Enchantress", she was sort of pigeonholed as a young adult author, and had to make it very clear in the afterword of the semi-sequel, "The Far Side of Evil", that this was not intended for much younger fans of Elana, taking her, as it did, to a jail cell in a torture-riddled Gestapo planet on the brink of nuclear war.

Fortunately, I read it at the proper age. "Far Side" is on my desk right now, next to a stack of student papers and near the box of journals I started in Mrs. Landy's class. I'm fortunate to have encountered badass women like Engdahl and Elana and Mrs. Landy, and I wouldn't be writing fiction (be it genre fiction or young adult fiction or just a blog entry about it) without them.

PS: Also, as I'm now a college English instructor, I could totally teach a "swear class" and have it be lecture-appropriate. I am so grateful for surviving sixth grade.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Danielle showed up when I needed her most. I was living in Munich in a large, raggedy student housing complex. It was beautiful but it was lonely; my neighbors were all German boys who meant well, but spoke rapidly and confused me with their requests. When she showed up that first day and rang my apartment’s nasal doorbell, I assumed she was German too, an impression that continued after we started talking, since she introduced herself in absolutely flawless Deutsch, said she’d moved in across the hall, and asked to borrow a cup of milk.

Natuerlich, I said, and poured it out for her, wanting to be friends but not knowing how to make small talk, exactly. But Danielle saved things, like always: she squinted at me, cocked her head, and said, in English, Wait. Are you American? 

And all at once everything was better. I so badly wish she could tell me whether I’m being accurate, whether it was really milk she wanted or a screwdriver or what, could laugh about it with me now. Danielle’s giggle consumed rooms – it filled the cement halls of that apartment building, along with the jingling of Bruno’s collar as he ran up and down the hall, turning a series of toys into fluff. My boyfriend Nader and I went on walks with them in the English Gardens, and occasionally Bruno would spend the night with us, drooling on the bedsheets as he waited for Danielle to return. When she appeared at the door, his tail would thwack the sides of it in violent paroxysms of happiness. 

It’s rare to have someone who you’re always so happy to see. She was game for everything; we went to both Oktoberfest and Fruehlingsfest together. We giggled in our dirndls when strange men asked if we were sisters; we semi-ironically rode through the haunted house roller coaster, our mixture of shrieks and laughter filling the place. She came to my improv troupe’s practice once and slyly whispered one-liners that brought down the house. Over curry or pancakes or cocktails, we could talk for hours. 

Although our friendship began because we were the two Amis at the end of the hall, I think we would have had just as much fun in other towns. And we will, I guess – I really do believe she’s still around, part of the grass and the woods and the trees, the wilderness she loved so well.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Baxterian Wonderland

"Happiness is tough to write about," says Charlie Baxter, peering over the top of his little glasses in our literature seminar. "Happy stories resist standard storytelling practice - happiness here doesn't arise from the characters willing themselves into action, but from happy accidents, from wandering into things. Characters don't search - they find. Events can seem haphazard because they're not linear, but still, something happens that the protagonists need."

Yesterday, hearing this, I had to resist the temptation to throw my hand into the air, Hermione Granger style. In lieu of turning his seminar into a lengthy ramble, here's the story of my happy accident this weekend, of our haphazard wandering.

This Saturday in Iowa was particularly balmy. As I stood in a tank top, hanging wet laundry on a rack in the sun, I wasn't sure exactly what to do with it: beautiful days have that effect on me, especially ones so close to the dead of winter. "It's going to blizzard soon," I'd been warning non-winter-natives darkly all week. "Just you watch." This unearthly beautiful day wanted something, but I couldn't think what.

My phone rang then, thank God, and it was Christine. "Can Justin and I come hang out on your back porch?" That's a start, I thought. Soon they were sitting on my rickety lawn chairs, sipping coffee. But they had the same feeling: the day demanded action.

"Let's go look at cows," I said. "Of course," they said, God bless them, and we headed out up the driveway.

A half-mile or so from my house, the suburbs break away into rolling hills dotted by little dark cows. "I'm warning you guys, we're not supposed to be in this field," I said, "but I think if we're sneaky about it it's going to be okay."  I didn't know who this little trail belonged to -  still, it was worth being shot at, it was that beautiful.

I turned around to look at Christine after she'd snapped this picture of us. "We're almost here, the cows are over there," I said, then finished with "- Oh my God a deer!"

Two does, startled by our appearance, were bounding hell-for-leather out of the field and across the road. We stood in horror as one leapt a low barbed-wire fence and sprinted across: as the other one attempted to follow, a little black car motored up, and we made frantic "Stop!" motions with our hands at it. Could they see us from the top of the hill? They could; it stopped to let the deer cross safely, and as it drove on, hands waved at us out of the car's windows.

Baxter has a theory that he calls "Wonderland" - that sometimes, like Alice, characters enter a place where the normal rules don't apply. Generally this is triggered by some sort of strange happening, like the white rabbit bounding across the lawn muttering at its watch. Those deer were our white rabbits, and Wonderland was about to follow; as we stood there laughing in happiness, a white truck puttered towards us.

I froze. Its low rumbling was an implication that we were not on public property. As the farmer inside got out, all dusty jeans and suspenders, I chattered apologies. "I am so sorry," I said, "we just wanted to look at your cows, I live right over there, I just love cows so much..."

"Those aren't my cows," he said, "but we are on my land." He seemed pretty jovial about the whole thing. His blue eyes watered and twinkled over a sharp nose. "I'm building a sculpture, see?" and he waved his hand at the concrete square I'd noticed on walks. "Come on over and take a look." Our group threw anxious glances back and forth, but followed.

The four of us stood on the perfect square and gazed out over the road to another hill, upon which perched a big distant rock. "Now, look at that boulder," he said. "It's a visionary stone, see, and the sculpture's going to be a big old giant, just sitting here contemplating it."

It looked like a normal boulder to us, but we nodded. "What's it made out of?" Justin said.

"It's a rock," he said.

"No, this," Justin said.

"This is concrete," the man said.

"No, the sculpture."

"Oh - limestone," and he scratched his head. "Big old blocks of limestone, just as soon as they dig them up from the quarry."

Apparently this was serious business. "Cool," Christine said. "We're from the Writers' Workshop."

"Good God," and the man got visibly excited, "I've been trying to get you out here for years! It's just never come together, is all - Well, look, if you're from the Workshop, where are you parked? There's something you really gotta see."

"We walked," I said, eyeing him.

"All right," he said, "you gotta see Whitman's Glade. Come out with me. Come in my truck." He waved a hand at his large white pickup. "Come on!"

We're three people, I think we thought, we can take him, but Christine was already running for the truck. "I have always wanted to do this," she said, and she leapt into the back, where she sat amidst tools and wire. Justin followed, and they perched there, giggling at the Midwestern-ness of it.

"You know, I have four seats in the cab..." the man said.

"They're too excited," I told him, and I clambered into the front seat so I could snap a picture of them through the back window.

On the mile-long drive there, I learned that the man's name is Doug, that he owns the four hundred acres of rolling hills near my house, and that he is not in fact insane but a genius (or maybe a little bit of both). "This is sacred ground," he said. "Don't know what happened here, but it's something big. It shouldn't be built on." 

I was reminded of the woods behind my house when I was a kid, and the cookie-cutter developments that moved in immediately after we did. I'll never live in the suburbs when I'm a grownup, I said then: how relieved I was when I moved to Iowa to find that my barn was surrounded by woodlands and hills. How unspoiled, I'd thought then, and "Thanks," I said now.

We drove past a wild, ramshackle barn covered in Halloween decorations - a spooky goblin hung out the upper loft window, its black robes streaming in the breeze - and pulled through a gate and into a parking lot, where three or four cars rested. "Must be a visitation going on today," he said. "You need a code to get in, see."Christine and Justin clambered out of the back, still laughing, and together we walked into the property.

A tiny lake with a little seashore greeted us, along with about a dozen children in baseball gear, who'd apparently come to take pictures.

"You can swim in it," Doug called over his shoulder, and "There are stepping stones over there. Hey, ring the bell!"

I ran up to it and swung on the rope. It donged throughout the property, and as soon as we left to walk into the woods, the baseball players swarmed it; throughout the visit, I could hear its loud, solemn rings and their laughter. "Come on," Doug said, "let's go see Whitman's Glade."

From the far shore of the lake, the cabin near the bell-tower watched us while the tiny baseball players frolicked in the sand. "It's a contemplation place." It was a small, well-built little thing, a lot like my own red barn; the ceilings inside were built from the beams of an old Iowa City church that'd been torn down. "Everything is sacred."

Doug led us onto a little trail - it was something less than a road and something more than a deer trail. The ground was full of fallen leaves, my sandals rustling through them; the trees were stark and bare and lovely above us.

These four-hundred-acre woods are the closest thing to Wonderland that I've ever experienced. They're like a haunted trail without the haunting, or with a good kind of haunting. The interstate fades to a distant roar, like the ocean; the birds have gone south for the winter, and the only signs of people are the little enigmatic signs, hand-painted arrows leading to God knows what. "Whitman's Glade," said one, and soon we were in a sort of paved courtyard, covered in fallen leaves and ringed by rocks. At the far end, three sculptures waited for us. (Thanks Justin for letting me steal your pictures.)

A white mailbox stood off to one side, packed with books, a lone pink crocheted hat, a dried-up teabag, a small container of nutmeg, and a few odd chain links. Doug cleaned it of the chain links and teabag, put the nutmeg in his pocket, and left the hat; Christine took out the abridged poems of Walt Whitman, and for a few minutes we all stood gazing in different directions as her voice read "Song of Myself".

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

There was a silence, and then, "Well," said Doug, "let's go see the stones."

I'm not even going to attempt to explain the backstory - I suspect you wouldn't believe me if I said it here, or rambled it out as I have been. These are old stones, though, older than the New Testament; they weren't carved in Iowa City, but were rather brought across the ocean on a boat; nor is their height their full height, since they're rooted half in the earth, half out of it.

I honestly don't know how long we sat there, separate but together. As Doug said, "If you come here alone, and sit, you'll be in Iowa City - but you'll be a million miles away." For a day, we were.

We're going to try to hold a reading or an event there, either in the winter or as soon as it gets warm; if you're interested in visiting on your own, they request a day or two of notice, and then they can unlock the gate for you. It's not an open park, exactly, but they are interested in fostering writing of all kinds - and it's definitely worth a walk, any bit of it, the stones or the statues or the lake. It's a Wonderland, all of it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Potential Literary Cat Names

I am having a devil of a time deciding what to name this little kitty.

So far, I can only come up with puns or thinly-veiled literary references.

1. Meowgaret Catwood

2. Sylvia Cat-th (although I do hope she doesn't stick her head in the oven while I'm away)

3. Catnip / Catniss Tabbydeen

4. Virginia Meowlf (... or drown herself in the toilet)

5. Hester (or become pregnant)



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dream Journal

This weekend in Milwaukee, my parents revealed that they usually always remember their dreams. "Do you?" they asked me and I had to say "no, generally not, but mostly because I roll out of bed full of panic in the mornings for no real reason and that is not an environment conducive to remembering dreams".

No worries, the panic generally subsides after about a minute, but it's true - this urgency replaces all other thoughts in my brain when I open my eyes. Why? I have no idea. I'm getting a kitten this week though and I'm hoping that will help.

This morning was different, though. Last night I fell suddenly asleep at about midnight and slept for about 10 hours, but it doesn't feel like it, because my subconscious spent that time DOING EVERYTHING. Normally I neither remember my dreams nor share them with people, but today is different, because you guys: Dream Nazis stole my purse. I am not kidding.

I was on a bus trip, riding past the Alps with two friends, who were a few seats ahead. The bus was packed with people and their stuff, and I had a vague notion that we had long passed the place where I was supposed to get off. "Stop, you guys," I said, "we've got to get off here and look for another route, this one isn't going where we need to be," and my friends acquiesced - we pulled the chain and the bus pulled into a station, and basically slowed down long enough to push us out. We hopped through the doors, our luggage was tossed out the side, and the bus rolled merrily on its way.

"Wait," I said, "WHERE IS MY BAG."

The friends shrugged. Theirs was here! They stood, enjoying cigarettes, while I pawed through the heap of luggage, and still - no backpack or purse. Oh my god, where was it? Had I left it on the bus? I paced back and forth, searching madly.

"Everything is in there, you guys," I said.

"No big deal," faceless friend 1 said. "I have a purse you can borrow."

"YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND, I NEED MY WALLET," I howled, and combed and combed again, and off to the side I saw a cave, and I marched in and asked if anyone in there knew where my bag was.

The enchantress inside - who resembled Carmen, another fiction writer here - said, "No, but I have a glass in which we can search for it."

"A glass," I said, "a scrimshaw glass?"

"Certainly," she said, and we concentrated on it and it produced the most magical series of colors.

"I know where it is," she said suddenly, and we were outside a shack, and it was 1941. Outside, the villagers were buried up to their waists in sand, while indoors a group of blonde Nazis, their boots up on the desk, played cards and drank whiskey.

"Do you know where my purse is?" I whispered to a grandfather and little girl, who stared at me, silty and somber, and nodded, pointing indoors. I barreled in, leaving Carmen the enchantress outside to guard my friends and their bags, who'd wandered over to 1941 as well.

I don't know why my purse was the most important thing in all of this, but I do know that I found it easily, in the laundry room. Everything seemed to be in order! My clothes had been pawed through, but I rescued them from the Nazi laundry room and shoved them into a garbage bag, for easier transportation. A bottle of tequila was half-drunk, but you know those Nazis, always drinking everything. I wandered into the room where the Nazis were playing cards and said,

"Damn it, Nazis, why'd you take my purse?"

and the soldiers shrugged, sort of guitily, caught in the act. They understood what was going on, but didn't quite understand my words, and I wanted to shame them properly, so I barked it at them in German.


Then they were somber, and impressed, and they apologized, they said they didn't realize I'd be so serious about wanting it. I nodded and marched out to thank the silty villagers, shaking with righteousness. Then I took further stock of my valuables. Everything else was there, but the only thing missing was my smartphone. Oh god - had the Nazis had used the superior future technology to build some kind of bomb? I stared back at the shed, worried.

Luckily, no. Yaa, another fiction writer, wandered out from the shack, where she'd apparently been taking part in the card game, and she told me, "It's there, in the bottom of your bag, the way it always is. You know, it sort of gets lost in there, and I made sure they didn't notice it..."

I felt for it - yes, there it was. The Nazis had plainly missed out. I said, "Thanks, Yaa," and we all high-fived, and then I woke up, and laughed out loud in my cold bedroom.

Lessons learned: beware of Nazis, keep track of your valuables, and if you think you've lost your phone it's probably just buried beneath all the crap in your purse. Thanks, dreams.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How to Celebrate

We'd invited friends but they couldn't find us, sequestered as we were under my favorite wooden bridge. As it turned out, they wouldn't have fit anyway.

"It's September 11th, Nader," I'd said, "as an American I deserve to go to that faraway spot by the river with the fire-pit between the two streams," and so we had made the trip, our bikes piled optimistically high with meat and potato salad. When we arrived, we found that two German families had already taken it over, and that if we wanted to remain, we'd be reduced to the stones by the river instead.

"The stones are always so hard to sit on," Nader said. But still he spread our blanket over them and put two beers in the river - we were here, for the time being, and we'd make the best of it.

It was warm, then, and the Isar was sluggish with late-summer heat. "I'm going to swim," Nader said, and he wandered out up to his calves in it and stood blinking out at me, not quite knowing what to do next, whether to take the plunge or come back to the blanket. I watched the trees flutter beyond him, heard the German families laugh. The air smelled of cooked flesh and river-water.

In the woods, we gathered little half-wet branches and rested them on the coals we'd brought. Nader lit a fire, fanning and blowing it into submission. When the sticks had burnt down enough, we rested our wiry oily little metal grate on top of them, pried the Aldi Nackensteak out of its casing and let it sizzle as we drank the beers and stared at the sky.

It wasn't as blue as a September 11th sky should be. We'd started out a bit too late and now it was touched with evening, grazed with clouds. It was a German sky and we were an American and an Iranian beneath it, drinking German steaks and German beers (though the potato salad was thoroughly American - I'd found mayonnaise and mustard and celery and made a whole big Ikea bowl of it, which we demolished throughout the night, food poisoning be damned).

"How do you even celebrate this holiday?" I wondered. "What exactly are we supposed to be doing?"

"Maybe this," Nader said. "Another steak?" and so we sat, and ate, and drank. A child wandered over and we let him feed too-big sticks to our dying fire.

Later, a storm would come. Navy-blue clouds would loom in like Luftwaffe forces and would unleash an ominous bombing that started slowly: first a few drops, then rain. Being reasonable, the German family in our spot would pack it in, dashing for civilization, but we would remain on the stones, let our fire sizzle out, let ourselves sit together under his rain-jacket on the earthy cut-bank by the tree-roots. What I remember best is how, beneath that imperfect shield of soaked cotton, we would smoke cigarettes and laugh as the ice-pellets dashed our heads and wrought the day into something rough, imperfectly beautiful and stubbornly alive.