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Archive for March, 2004

UM . . .

UM . . .

I wonder what would happen if, rather than dutifully wending my way over to the conference early tomorrow morning to help my colleagues staff the South Dakota Review table, I just happened to fuck off and, unable to help myself, meandered over to the Art Institute of Chicago, instead . . . where I might blissfully wander through the Contemporary/Modern galleries, not to mention the Arthur Rubloff Paperweight Collection, which contains over 1,400 priceless paperweights — primarily from the famous French factories of Baccarat, Clichy, St. Louis, and Pantin, and handcrafted during the “golden age” (c. 19th century) of paperweights(!)

Admittedly, I’m the Editor for the winter and spring issues of the South Dakota Review, so I really ought to go and sit at the table. But I’m thinking . . . what would happen if, say, I just happened to flow over there sometime more in the vicinity of the afternoonish hours?

I suppose I have to go and sit at the stinking table.

Because if I didn’t, it would be wrong, wouldn’t it? (Wouldn’t it???)

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UP, UP, AND AWAY

I’m flying out to Chicago tomorrow (well, technically today) to attend the AWP Conference, where my new book, Year of the Snake, is being launched, and to give a poetry reading on Saturday afternoon in a panel with other poets from the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry. SIU Press has made me all of these wonderful postcards which will be passed around at the conference — featuring the book cover on the front and back-cover blurbage on the back. (Gentle Readers, if you would like to receive a Year of the Snake postcard, simply e-mail me your snail-mail addy, and I’ll be happy to send you one!)

Typically, the day before an out-of-town reading/conference, I’m a total mess . . . a veritable pyramid of escalating neuroses usually culminating in a point where I decide that I just really, really do not want to go. Anywhere. Ever.

Plus I ate too much Fiddle Faddle and now I have a stomach ache.

However, the bags are packed with clothes that I will undoubtedly regret having brought and will not want to wear upon arrival, I’m equipped with a ludicrous amount of books which I won’t have time to read, a rather formidable To-Do List has been whittled down, a kind friend has been solicited to come and provide cosseting to the cats, I’ve dug out the Yahoo map to the Omaha Airport to forestall any potential directionally dyslexic driving debacles in transit, and after all this fussing I suppose that I’m just going to have to suck it up and go.

I know that once I hit the road tomorrow morning I’ll start to enjoy myself and look forward to the conference, the book-launching, the reading, etc.

Send “good reading” vibes my way if you happen to think of it on Saturday afternoon, and I hope you all have marvelous weekends!

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DOPPELGANGER

DOPPELGANGER

For some reason, all of the gas stations and convenience stores in this region have names that sound like adult bookstores and/or porn shops. Consider, for example, the Kum N Go. Or the Pump N Stuff. Or the Pump N Pak, for that matter. As well as the Shop EZ (which most locals refer to as the Shop Sleazy, where I occasionally, and always against better judgment, can actually purchase a Big Gulp Cappuccino so that I can spend the next twelve hours twitching, sweating, and reading literary submissions really, really, really fast). Taken in this context, even the more innocuously-named businesses such as Cork N Bottle, Triple Time Rudy’s, or Kadoo Express begin to take on the potential for a vaguely lurid and seamy undertone.

Interestingly enough, it seems that I actually have a doppelganger in town. Not only that, but apparently my doppelganger hangs out at the Pump N Stuff on Main and Forest. She doesn’t appear to work there, from what I’ve gathered . . . she just goes there to, well . . . hang out. Sometimes complete strangers will come up to me, do a double take, and say something along the lines of, “Hey, weren’t you hanging out at the Pump N Stuff yesterday afternoon?”

I believe that my doppelganger must be a Native American (or a mixed-race Native American) woman, because occasionally, a truck full of American Indians I don’t know will enthusiastically start waving at me when I’m walking down the street. And one day a complete stranger, a middle-aged American Indian man, wandered past my office, looked in and did a double take . . . then wandered into my office, stared at me some more in bewilderment, and cryptically said, “Must be moving up in the world.” (I always wave back with equal enthusiasm, and told the stranger in my office that yes, I supposed I was.)

Race relations in this part of the country can be quite tense at times, and there is unfortunately a lot of bigotry toward the Native Americans. There is a certain look that some people reserve for the Native Americans, when they pass them on the street, or in the Pamida, or serve them at the convenience store. It’s a contemptuous, squinch-eyed look, and it’s chock full of hatred and spite. I know because I’ve seen it happen. I know because with my dark hair and mixed-race Asian features I’ve been occasionally mistaken for mixed-race Native, and I’ve received that look once or twice myself.

I hope that my doppelganger doesn’t have to put up with that look all the time and that if she does, she doesn’t find her reflection, her sense of self, in those mean-spirited, narrow-minded, ugly faces. I hope she tells them to fuck off. Sometimes I fantasize that she has a nice life — a kind of life I won’t have — with fat, brown-eyed babies. Sometimes I fantasize that she’s a real badass . . . cool and fun and wild.

Whoever she is, I wish her well.

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HOWL AT THE MOON

HOWL AT THE MOON

The man in the apartment adjacent to mine has a new girlfriend. Not that I’m listening, but I can hear them having sex. Well, to be accurate, I can hear her when they’re having sex, and it’s somewhat interesting to note that her orgasms sound like a (highly amplified) pitch-perfect blend of Meg Ryan’s diner scene in When Harry Met Sally with those yappy-ass, shampoo-fetishizing women in the Clairol Herbal Essences commercials.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily attempting to cast any aspersions on the, er . . . authenticity of the next-door orgasms. Far be it from me to even care, and believe me, I’d just as soon not have been placed in the position of even having to speculate on this to start with. Is it just me, though, or does anyone else find it somewhat off-putting that an entire generation of women are possibly emulating and/or simulating their orgasms according to the industry standards of Meg Ryan movies and shampoo commercials?

Here’s the thing, though. My cat Yuki is a bit of a prima donna and has a lot of complicated rules by which residents of the other apartments, people congregating outside the house and in the neighborhood at large, and well . . . the whole world, really, are pretty much expected to comply. These rules might include No D-O-G-s Allowed (in fact, the word “d-o-g” must always be spelled out at all times and never articulated out loud in her presence); That’s My Chair; Don’t Fuck With My Feet; I’ll Poke You If I Want; and No Talking, Laughing, Shouting or Other Noises From the Neighboring Apartments. To name just a few.

So, needless to say, the loud sex thing from next door really chaps Yuki’s ass. As soon as it starts up, she expresses her displeasure by going, “Grr!” When this doesn’t put an end to the infraction, she gets louder, and goes, “Grrrrrr!!!” When this doesn’t put a stop to things, and, in fact, it only begins to get louder next door, she becomes agitated, and starts noisily jumping and thumping around the house, and going, “GRRRRRRRRR!!!!”

This is the point where whatever resources of Emotional Maturity I might normally be able to at least pretend to possess completely abandon me. The girl next door’s yippee-kayay-ing away, Yuki’s thumping and jumping noisily and growling at a decibel I’m convinced is, in fact, audible to the next-door neighbors, and I just can’t help myself . . . it starts out as a suppressed snicker, and then modulates into a stifled tee hee, working itself into a not-so-discreet giggle, then finally explodes into a full-blown guffaw.

So the neighbors may, in fact, think I sit in my apartment and laugh at them when they have sex. Hell, maybe they think I’m the one that’s thumping around and growling too. Either way, it’s chagrin-inducing, and I must somehow maneuver to never, ever, ever run into them. Ever.

I suppose it could be worse. I dated a Screamer, once. We’re talking full-out, no-holds-barred screaming. Quite frankly, I found it quite . . . disconcerting. A little bit upsetting, actually. The first time it happened, it shocked the hell out of me. It was definitely a step-back, fall-off-the-bed, Jesus-H.-Christ-on-a-Raft-what-the-fuck-was-that kind of a moment. (Quick sidebar . . . does anyone ever wonder why the middle initial “H” and why on a raft?)

And from there, it just became more extreme and demented. It was so loud that it woke people up in neighboring houses. It was so loud that my friend M., who lived in the next block, thought someone was being murdered . . . and this was without his hearing aids in. It was so loud that all the dogs in town sustained damaged eardrums and the sonar of local bats was permanently fucked up. It was so loud that bands of coyotes began to assemble on the top of the bluffs overlooking the river valley, and they all began howling at the moon . . .

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RECOVERING PIANIST FACES DEMONS FROM PAST

In many respects, my life is quite different from the way I might have imagined it, say, twenty years ago. Although I always vacillated back and forth between music and writing, by the time I graduated from high school, I had serious aspirations to become a concert pianist. All throughout junior high and high school, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning to practice the piano for several hours before I had to go to school. Sometimes, I practiced over the noon hour. And then after school, I practiced yet another two-three hours. On weekends and during the summers, I frequently practiced up to eight hours a day. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d been accepted as a piano performance major into the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and Indiana University — both top-ranked music schools in the nation. I ended up attending Indiana University, where I went on to receive a B.M. in piano performance, as well as an M.M. in musicology, and most (but not quite) of a Ph.D. in musicology, before “defecting” from the music school and joining the M.F.A. program in creative writing. Sometimes I wonder if things would have been different . . . better, or worse . . . or if I would still be a pianist today . . . if my parents had let me attend Peabody in Baltimore.

When I dropped out of my Ph.D. program in order to become a writer, a lot of people, including my parents, thought that I’d completely flaked out. In fact, for a number of years, my parents just kept telling everyone in my hometown that I was working on my Ph.D. in musicology because they were apparently embarrassed to let anyone know that I’d up and decided to become a writer instead. It was, without question, however, the best decision I’d ever made. It was the first time in my life where I’d made a decision that was entirely my own, and entirely for me, and in flagrant disregard of everyone telling me to do otherwise.

I’d gone through most of graduate school in musicology in default mode . . . I was okay at it, I enjoyed the writing, I had a couple of papers accepted at conferences which always seemed entirely bizarre to me because I always wrote them all when I was stoned out of my gourd . . . but mostly I was doing it because I didn’t think that I was good enough to pursue graduate work in piano performance, and I didn’t know what else to do. I had a teaching assistantship in music theory, and people seemed to expect it of me, so I dutifully plodded through one master’s degree, and almost the entirety of a doctorate, simply because I was convinced I was too much of a loser to be able to do anything else.

In retrospect, I think that I probably could have pursued graduate work in piano performance had I really wanted to, but I lacked the necessary confidence. When I came to music school I was a big fish in a small pond transferred to larger waters, and I’d also accumulated over 60 hours of transfer credits toward my undergraduate degree, so that during my first year in music school I was an eighteen-year-old coming in as a junior. I understood that out-of-state tuition was expensive . . . as a transfer student I wasn’t eligible for the music scholarships, and I was eliminated from being eligible for academic scholarships because my father refused to fill out the FAFSA as he felt the information it requested wasn’t anybody’s business. As a result, I was under a lot of pressure to finish my undergraduate degree in a timely manner, and I was frequently reminded of how much it was all costing my parents.

What I really needed, though, as a musician, was time. Time to adjust. Time to mature. Time to learn. Time to rebuild confidence in a highly impersonal, highly competitive setting. I spent much of my undergraduate career horribly stressed out and semi-paralyzed with a debilitating combination of depression and fear of failure. The failure rolled around soon enough during the spring of my senior year, when I didn’t pass my senior recital hearing and had to postpone my senior recital until the summer. My recital program was very difficult, and I knew I wasn’t ready . . . I didn’t feel ready . . . but it never occurred to me to to simply ask for more time. I was supposed to graduate that spring. It would be a failure if I didn’t.

Having to retake my senior recital hearing was a more tangible failure, however. I was completely devastated, broken-hearted, humiliated. It was horrifying. It seems like such a small thing now, in retrospect, but I was raised in a way that didn’t allow any room for anything less than absolute success. I remember being maybe 6 or 7 years old, and taking Red Cross swimming lessons over the summer. I hated swimming. My parents had always been so freakishly overprotective that the whole thing seemed scary and counterintuitive, and I can’t even begin to emphasize enough how much I hated it. I was sure I would drown, having had it drilled into my head that that’s what happened to people who immersed themselves in bodies of water that went over their heads . . . they drowned. I opted out of the more scarier tasks of the Minnows class — the instructor had, after all, kindly given us a choice, and mine seemed only prudent — but this also meant that at the end of the class, I didn’t earn a Minnows patch. I remember being hugely relieved . . . I was done with swimming lessons! Hanging up my swimsuit downstairs after we came back from the last day of swim class, though, I remember my mother coming downstairs and standing by me at the clothesline. “You make me so embarrass of you!” I remember her hissing at me. “Your father so embarrass of you! You just let self flunk and be quitter like that? Go right ahead.”

Somehow, I found myself pleading for another chance to take the Minnows class — promising that I’d come through for my parents this time. I was still utterly convinced that I was going to drown. But at 6 or 7, I apparently feared my parents’ rejection of me more than I feared certain death by drowning. Somehow, I found myself stuck with taking every single goddamn Red Cross class after Minnows, and then swimming competitively for seven more years after that. And I still hated swimming.

Somehow, I found the wherewithal to retake my senior recital hearing the summer after I was supposed to graduate, and this time I passed. I played a good recital, too. But still, the damage was already done. I was much too shaken up, and too worn down from stress and panic, too worried about memory slips, too overcome with performance anxiety, for it to feel like anything other than a huge relief to quietly ease into the relative sanctuary of graduate work in first music theory and then musicology. Nonetheless, I felt guilty — like I’d been marked for all time as a failure and a quitter.

My parents never came to any of my university piano recitals, or any of my graduations. It was always too expensive, and/or they were too busy. My mother said they were holding out for me to receive my Ph.D., and that the other ones “didn’t count.” The strange thing, however, is that she wanted pictures to comemorate the graduations that she didn’t come to because they “didn’t count.” Since I didn’t bother going to any of my graduate-degree graduations, this posed a bit of a problem. My mother therefore decided to rectify this omission by making me pose for fake Master’s degree pictures when I came home to visit shortly after receiving my M.M. in musicology. There are some very strange “graduation” pictures in existence at my parents’ house in which I am wearing my father’s University of Wyoming regalia over my pajamas, with an enormous and obviously fake corsage pinned to my front, with bed head and a decidedly snarky expression on my face.

It should be noted that there are several instances of classically-trained pianists having fraught relationships with the keyboard and defecting to poetry. Poet Diane Wakoski, for example, wrote about her decision to give up the piano, and how she never played again. I remember reading her as a teenager, and thinking How could she have just given it up like that?, never thinking that years later, it might be me.

Strangely enough, the stories (or the novel) that I’ve been writing this last year, are all stories about pianists, musicians, and music. At one point, I realized, though, that I was holding myself at a bit of a safe/ironic distance from some of the characters . . . that I was holding myself from a safe distance from the music, and holding myself from a safe distance from my own past. I realized that in order to write these stories to the best of my abilities, I was going to have to dig a little bit deeper, and work through some of my own demons. That I was going to have to open myself up again to music in ways that have been sometimes painful, but ultimately, surprisingly cathartic.

For the first time, my writer self is coming face to face with my former pianist self, and it feels as things are strangely coming around full circle.

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EMOTIONAL VENEREAL DISEASE

A little over two years ago, I hooked up with this woman — I’ll just call her the E-Stalker — on two separate occasions. That’s twice. Two times. Preceeded by several months of e-mailing, instant-messaging, and phone calls. But in terms of actual meatspace? Two times.

After the second time we got together, I came away with some serious doubts about whether this thing was going to work for me or not. I needed some time to think. I was also coming back to work after being out of town for readings all through spring break and I was seriously behind and majorly swamped. I’d told her that I was going to be extremely under the gun at work for at least a week, and that I was really going to need some breathing space from phone calls and instant messaging in order to get into a better place, work-wise.

I’d called her after I got back in town to let her know I’d arrived back home, reiterated that I wasn’t going to be available for a few days, and then proceeded to dive into a veritable ocean of work. Less than 48 hours later, I came home late at night from teaching my graduate seminar to find a disturbing cluster of voice-mail messages on my voice-mail. In one of them she claimed to be checking the South Dakota obituaries and that I was causing her all of this frantic panic and worry. In the last one she said it was apparent to her that I was clearly off fucking some other woman and that I was a terrible person, yadda yadda yadda.

Well, both my Dyke Drama and also my Wingnut Alert alarms reliably went off at that point, and in combination with the other concerns that had already been surfacing, I broke up with her. Nipped it in the bud, so to speak. I was as polite as I could possibly be under the circumstances, but also extremely clear that I didn’t want anything further to do with her.

And so began the torrential influx of voice-mail messages and e-mails. Scads, and scads, and scads of them. They vacillated wildly in tone from hateful, to smarmily-cliched romantic (as if in complete denial of the fact that I’d broken things off with her), to mildly threatening, to grossly manipulative — turning on an emotional dime in less than an hour, sometimes. She threatened to drive to Vermillion and “make me” deal with her. She would tell me all the ways in which I was a horrible, abusive person. She would tell me all of these terrible things that were happening to her, and that I needed to respond to her because of this. Then she would become angry because I hadn’t responded when she told me that terrible things were happening to her, and we’d return to the mantra of how I was a horrible, abusive person. At one time she seemed to be threatening/implying that she might do harm to herself. Shortly thereafter she left a chirpy voice-mail message telling me how she was still in love with me, and that we should just forget these little glitches we’d been having, or how she’d been making arrangements to move to Vermillion so we could “be together.” She sent ostentatious flower arrangements to my place of employment.

Two times, people. I got together with this woman a mere two times.

It was my opinion that the best/only course of action was to simply not respond . . . otherwise, she’d just take it as affirmation that I was still engaging with her on some level, and still participating in some sort of relationship with her. I’d shown a few of my friends some of the e-mails, and they’d found them equally fucked up and creepy, and they agreed that any sort of response would just fuel the (psycho)fire.

Plus, it was apparent that she was a nutter, and I didn’t want anything to do with her.

She sent two e-mails to the literary magazine I edit stating that she was having recurring yeast infections and this meant I’d obviously given her herpes. These e-mails went directly to my magazine staff, one of whom was an undergraduate student.

Two times.

This lasted at this rate of intensity for about four straight months, with only marginal tapering off. Eight months later there was an occasional splurt here or there. It was a total fucking nightmare, though. I felt as if I’d gone out on two dates with this woman and was now suffering the consequences for having done so up to a year later. Basically, it was like an Emotional Venereal Disease.

She sent me an e-mail in August saying how much she wanted for us to get back together again. And just last week, almost exactly two years later, another e-mail detailing the ways in which I have numerous “issues” and am “unkind” — and oh, how she can’t believe I’d let this be IT for “us.”

What about a firmly stated break-up, and two years of absolute silence and non-response is even vaguely unclear here???

I’m not entirely sure why I feel compelled to write about this tonight. Maybe it’s because the Canadian Dyke, in a letter I received a few weeks ago from her that seems to have been composed for the primary purpose of making me feel like shit (I’d asked her to please not phone or e-mail me . . . but apparently snail mail hadn’t been covered so was therefore fair game), said that any “stalking” behaviors from above weren’t really “stalking” but legitimate actions which I basically deserved for the way I “discard” people like “yesterday’s newspaper.”

Geez.

It’s a break-up. You act like an asshole enough times, and it’s quite entirely possible that someone may decide that they no longer want to be in a relationship with you. That’s their perogative. It’s one of the nice things about living in a democracy . . . you don’t have to force yourself to be with someone that you choose not to be with. You act like an asshole in a way that’s offensive enough to that particular person, or makes that person unhappy enough, and they may decide that in addition to no longer wanting to be in a relationship with you, they no longer really want to have much of anything to do with you. That’s life. Sometimes it sucks. Get the fuck over it.

Dyke Drama. Emotional Venereal Disease. I’m tired of it. And I’m tired of being made to feel bad about about being tired of it.

If that makes me a bitch, then so fucking be it.

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BOOK IN HAND

BOOK IN HAND

My very first, actual real advance copy of my new book, Year of the Snake arrived in the mail today. It’s just such a deeply satisfying moment to actually be able to hold the physical, tangible book in your hands . . . turning it around and around, and gently leafing through the pages. It never seems quite entirely real.

I’m very happy with the look and layout of the book. The people at Southern Illinois University Press have been terrific to work with, and they’ve done such a lovely job. All the promotional materials, advertisements, catalogue listings, etc. have been so nicely done. Click here to check out the on-line catalogue listing, with back-cover blurbs and such.

So, the next two months will be very exciting and busy with readings and such. At the end of March, I’ll be reading at the AWP Conference in Chicago, where SIU Press will officially launch the book, and then throughout April I’ll be giving readings at SIU-Carbondale, SUNY-Fredonia, and UNC-Asheville.

For the meantime, though, I’ll have a few more weeks at home to keep plugging away at the fiction project, while attending to more mundane matters such as paying bills, attending to the mountainous glob of laundry shoved in my bedroom closet threatening to avalanche and about which I am in deep deep deep denial, and remaining ever-on-the-alert, it goes without saying, for any further baffling and unauthorized manifestations of cat poop.

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