Overheard at the Wedding Reception of Steve & Rachel

LAKE WINDSOR GOLF CLUB, 5 April 2014 — An older white man, later identified as Rachel’s father, said to those assembled for the reception that while the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team would be playing in an NCAA tournament game later that evening, “the wedding was important, too.”

Steve’s former roommate and groomsman Dave said to the group that “it took me a while to break [Steve] in.”

When I asked a member of the waitstaff if I should keep my fork as she was taking my salad plate, she said, “you have plenty.” She was right; there were three more forks around set at my place. “That’s a good assessment,” I concurred.

As I gestured with my pen towards my wife’s bare legs, I said, “Hi! Want some smiley faces on your knees?” She did not.

Tracy, whose husband, Pete, was another groomsman, was at our table with her two-day-old son, Zakkury (spelling uncertain, due to the disconnect between English pronunciation and English spelling). I said the boy would be a party person as he grows up because “he’s been partying since he’s been born.”

“I’m Greg,” said Greg, to the group.

Greg, who is the groom’s brother, also said that his brother’s doctorate didn’t make him any more mature. Greg called him, “Doctor M___, P.H.D., L.M.N.O.P., S.O.B.” Greg also said that he was at first unimpressed that his future sister-in-law was a native of Wisconsin. Then he said something nice about Wisconsin, “so I don’t get beaten in the parking lot somewhere or something,” Greg explained.

A little boy was in the path a server was about to take. A woman said, “David! The cake is comin’ — sit down!”

A four-year-old boy at my assigned table noted that his fish and his chicken portions used to be alive. I noted that this boy, whose parents had been students in my high school about 11 years ago, would be my student in another 11 years. My former students said this made them feel old.

Increasingly inebriated groomsman Dave noted “‘at’s a byootiful dressh” that the bride was wearing. (I may have exaggerated the “sh” but not the dropping of the “Th” from “That’s”.)

My wife started swaying left and right, and at the next table, Emily did the same, mirroring my wife, and Emily noted that she herself was swaying “with cake.” Later in the evening, when I read Emily this quote from my little notebook, she said, “make sure you add ‘bitch’ to my comment.”

The boys frightened little three-year-old Olivia off the dance floor, said her dad, Pete, who then said “YES!” and pumped his arm. My wife later said, “that’s very dad-ish.”

From the dance floor end of the hall, the D.J. started calling out larger and larger numbers, and couples stopped dancing and left the dance floor. By the time he called out “62, 63,” there was only one couple left, and then they stopped dancing. It may have been a chance to honor those who’ve been married for that many years, or he may have been auctioning off old people.

As some people were speaking of nerds, Liz said, “have ya MET Steve?”

The D.J. played the “Budweiser Song,” which my old high school used to play at football games as the “Hub Song” (though a fellow student of almost my age did not recall this, I confirmed it with our band director), and during which the Wisconsin contingent shouted “WIS-CON-SIN” where the song says “BUD-WISE-R.”

My wife was concerned about the D.J.’s musical selections. “This man who’s in charge of my dancing fate. … I’d be happy with some Kesha. The ’60s were a LONG time ago,” my wife said during “Brown-Eyed Girl.” When the D.J. ordered “You guys sing” at the part of the song that goes “sha-la-la,” my wife and I protested, quietly, “ah, fuck you.”

After a little girl of maybe six years vintage asked my wife to dance with her to “Footloose,” my wife found the request adorable but the dance exhausting. “These little girls are brutal, man,” said my wife. Later, several of us adults repeated the dance moves this girl came up with during such songs as “Thrift Shop.”

After the groom’s mother sorta fell-flopped into a sitting groomsman’s lap, the groom’s aunt Lyssuh said of the mother, “I know. She’s a skank; she’s been like that all her life.” (Note: The transcription of the name “Lyssuh” and of the semicolon are the transcriber’s guess.)

“Panera, Noodles and Company, or something GOOD,” said Liz, to my wife, about the lunch restaurants Liz would like to see come to the town where they both work.

“I don’t want to go yet! I don’t want to go home!” said groomsman Pete as he danced across the dance floor, not more than a couple minutes after he had said he was leaving the reception.

The next morning, my wife didn’t feel so good. She said that maybe she had never had hangovers, but “I just had dance-overs.”

Update: After I told my wife I had posted this, she said she liked the idea of having someone record what a person says at a wedding. If the couple hires a wedding photographer, why not hire an undercover wedding reporter?

Ten years of ‘Morning Pages’

This weekend marks my 10th year of following the advice in Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” and getting up early each day to write “morning pages” — three hand-written pages of whatever comes to mind. This means that I’ve written 3650 (well, maybe I’ve skipped two or three days in that 10 years, but otherwise it’s been every day) days of “morning pages” — or, as I also call them, “journals.” I’ve almost always written at least 3 pages, and probably my average is more like 4 notebook pages; at an estimated 250 words/page, that’s 1,000 words/day, so 3.7 million words. Sure, it’s meaningless to talk about a quantity of words written, but it’s still fun to see those numbers. It’s weird to think I could write a million of anything, but over time, the texts add up.

I have kept a journal since I graduated high school at age 18, but until age 30, I wrote only sporadically, usually when I felt I had something to express, and that filled about 35 notebooks (mostly of the 8.5″ by 11,” 200-ruled-page variety). But once I started writing journals, I still recorded things I felt I needed to record (including daily activities, reactions to experiences, etc.), but I also started writing things that I didn’t know I needed to say. I started to say things that surprised me, things that seemed wiser than I felt I was, and so I have been able to learn from my smarter-self (my subconscious mind? I’m not sure where these ideas come from), such that I feel like my best teacher now, the teacher I most need to pay attention to, is my self.

Sure, that sounds egotistical, and sure, most of the 160 journals I’ve filled in 10 years do not contain fascinating writing. It’s the height of self-indulgence, someone could say. And yet, of course, it’s “indulgent” only if I’m asking for others to indulge me, to pay attention to what I’ve written only for myself, and that’s not what I’m doing. Writing doesn’t always need to be made for others, and I write because I love the sense of listening to my writing-voice.

Writing these journals has also given me a chance to write on days where I wouldn’t otherwise time or energy to create. I get up early to write, and that’s time I’ve been able to protect better than, say, time in the evenings.

I don’t even go back and read my own journals very often. I have kept all of my journals, and I go back sometimes to see what I did on a certain date, and sometimes to see what I was thinking about. I wonder sometimes if these journals could provide ideas for writing about here on the blog, and they could, and have, but mostly once I write a journal, it’s done. It’s past. I want to write what’s going on now, what’s new, rather than re-reading what’s past.

It’s been an interesting and valuable practice for me, and I’d recommend others try it as well — I do assign my high school writers to write journals, with topics of their own choosing, every class day. Some of my students seem to love doing their journals while others don’t enjoy it much. I suggest to all of them that they at least keep the journals they’ve written once the class is done — this text of their teen-selves is something that no money can replace. I now have almost 200 books that are unique to my library.

But Julia Cameron’s book states that morning pages are a primary tool of creative recovery, and I’d agree that doing these journals has helped me grow as a writer — I have learned more about what I want to do and who I am as a writer, and I’ve also learned what seems to me to be the most-important concept in becoming an artist: the willingness to put words on paper without worrying about whether these words are interesting or good or bad. I just write, and that’s enough (most days, anyway).

Links: KISS, fiction writing

1. An amusing piece by Chuck Klosterman about KISS includes this passage:

When the critical world looks at Kiss, they see adults pretending to be characters they are not, projecting unsophisticated music about fantasy emotions, presented as a means of earning revenue. What they do not see is that this is how almost all rock music would appear to an alien. It is inside the genre’s very DNA, all the way back to Elvis. So Kiss are not a cheaper, exploitive translation of rock; Kiss are the living definition of rock’s electrifying unreality, presented with absolute transparency.

2. This article describes the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference, but it describes things — the difficulty of getting published, the lack of money once one does get published, and the few teaching opportunities in creative writing — that make me wonder why so many people want to become fiction writers, at least, as fiction writing seems to be institutionally practiced now. I understand that some people feel called to write fiction, and I don’t mean to criticize that impulse, that desire; what I find odd is why so many people seem willing to suffer the indignities of a market and a public that doesn’t want them. I’m a writer, too, but the idea that one would need to get paid for such an interest seems a harsh principle to live by.

3. An Atlantic article with the title: “Why Music Sounds Better When You Know the Artist Is Eccentric: Our brains associate eccentricity and creativity in musicians, painters, writers, and other artists—as long as weirdness doesn’t feel like a gimmick.”

4. Fiction and the passage of time.

Flexible Complexity

I love the sound of that title phrase, and so I’m using it, and now I just gotta come up with some stuff to go with it. Trying to fill in a post with what one might expect to find under such a title seems banal, so let’s just explain that I haven’t posted in a while (because of busyness, tiredness, March) and want to get back in the ol’ saddle of blogging, so to speak.

So here are some recent things I’ve learned from my observations:

1. Any minister who says “I’m just jokin’, I’m just jokin’” at a funeral, in the context of no perceptible joke, may not be doing a good job of funeralizing. Also, it may not help to remind the surviving spouse — in the middle of a prayer — that he’ll be facing lots of loneliness and dinners for one in his coming weeks and months.

2. I know I’ve spent too much time in my rural county when I travel one county east and am amazed at how beautiful strip malls can be. A Starbucks, for Pete’s sake, seems a like an oasis in the commercial desert that is my home county.

It’s not just me that thinks my home-county is getting decrepit. A local newspaper, the Oregon Republican Reporter, last week printed a “Public Voice” letter written by someone who “grew up” in a local town but who now resides in a much nicer Chicago suburb, which letter advises Oregon’s “park district, school district, realtors [sic], chamber of commerce and the city .. to get together now and do something about [t]he decaying downtown district, decline in school enrollment, too many houses for sale, no new houses being built, and no new industry.” Also, “the community also needs young families with children and something needs to be done about that now.”

This is the kind of thing that is easier to publish once one has already left. One’s neighbors tend not to appreciate such critiques. Of course, it’s far easier for one to up and leave than it is to stay and struggle. But what are ya gonna do? Just because it’d be nice if some kindly developers would come along and gentrify everything in Ogle County doesn’t mean they will.

3. Other great titles I’ve heard lately, for which works should be created:

a. Sounds Like, Might Be, Coulda Been (said a waitress, describing how she wrote what might have been the name of the person who ordered food over the telephone)

b. Like Vinegar, and Betrayal (from a restaurant review in the 24 March 2014 New Yorker magazine)

c. Mid-Op Transsexuals (does anybody need to name a punk band?)

d. Staying Awake Makes You Sleepy (said my wife today)

e. Calm Down, Sensei! (said one of my students in study hall to another student who had just done some kind of quasi-martial-arts kick)

f. The Last Thing This World Needs Is Another Me (said one of my students last week)

g. Hey, Your Elephant Has a Really Nice Trunk (as one of my teacher colleagues said, as a facetious example of finding things to praise about a child’s drawing)

Make it real — compared to what?

I loved the song “Compared to What” (whose history here and here I am only recently learning) when I first heard Al Jarreau’s version:

But last weekend, via the public radio show “American Routes,” I heard a version that was terrific, that was slowed down compared to Jarreau’s version, and that drew my attention more to the startling, poetic lyrics. I learned from the “American Routes” playlist that it was Roberta Flack’s version:

Here’s another great-sounding version:

The memoirist’s Faustian bargain

An article about the books Karl Ove Knausgaard has written about his own life points out the difficulty of writing about one’s family members.

He also wanted to be truthful, and that meant including the real names and real lives of the people he loves. It’s a Faustian pact and Knausgaard, never anticipating sales like this, was naive about the repercussions, some of them irreparable.

This is why I don’t want to write about my family or my colleagues in any critical or “truthful” way: I don’t want to piss people off. As Richard Hugo wrote:

In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write.

I side with Hugo: I want to have good, trusting relationships and stable life-conditions so that I can continue to write. I can’t write when my life is in uproar.

I get that some people may want to use their life experiences as fodder for their art, or they may want to use their art to work through their life experiences. (Or as Tim Parks says here, some authors may intentionally write about others: “[D. H. ]Lawrence frequently and blatantly put people he knew in his novels and seemed to relish the fallout. Joyce was the same.“)

But to my mind, anyone who writes about other real people risks taking his own opinions as being more than just opinions. I have been guilty at times of thinking that my ways of seeing and judging things are correct, which then allows me to label others’ perceptions as incorrect. It seems part of maturity to acknowledge that, of course, my opinions and judgments about other people are no more true than their judgments of me are.

I don’t want to be judged by others (and neither did Sartre) — and even though I know others will judge me, I don’t necessarily want to know what they think. I suppose that a world in which we went around telling other people what we really thought of them (rather than telling “white lies” or just being silent) would be a much less pleasant world.  Some people brag that they don’t care what others think. When I hear this, I hope that they’re bluffing, because people who truly don’t care what others think are just asocial or assholes or asocial-assholes.

So I don’t want to write what can be perceived as accurate depictions of real people. I don’t want to write about how a person “really is,” as if such a thing were possible anyway. (And of course, the celebrity profile in certain popular magazines matters only if it seems to convey a “real” picture of a celebrity, but of course,  how is there anything real or natural about Esquire’s “2013 Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson sitting in a Manhattan bar and asking her interviewer, “What do you want me to write?” on a hotel pad of paper after she has “eagerly” taken the interviewer’s pen.)

So me, I write about ideas. I don’t want to write about reality. I mean, I do sometimes write down exact quotes of things I hear (which accuracy of quotation depends on my auditory acuity and processing) and I sometimes write things I see while I am writing in that place (for examples,  here and here). But I want to be as objective as possible here, reporting only things that can be directly sensed — I try not to characterize. Strictly speaking, I do characterize merely by choosing what to observe, what to pay attention to, and what to write down.

When we write about living people, we writers are, in some sense, trying to say something about how those we write about “really are.” (If we aren’t at least trying to be accurate, we’re simply lying about that person.) Yes, we readers can be skeptical and acknowledge that no description can be fully accurate, etc., and yet the written description may, if we lack contradictory or competing information, become the default understanding we have of a person.

I’m skeptical that any person can be usefully depicted or captured in words or ideas, and I’m not sure that any ideas can be said to capture or adequately convey any reality. But looking at the options and possibilities of ideas, all the different ways that we can experience and conceive real things, this interests me more than writing about real people. Maybe I’d advise writing about completely fictional people, or writing poems about things any person could experience, rather than trying to write about what a real person really did.

Link: 5 things art is not

Dr. Daniel A. Siedell wrote an interesting piece here called “5 Things Art is Not.” Here are my favorite parts:

Art is not a visual illustration of the artist’s worldview. We often presume that a work of art represents the “worldview” of the artist. This is simply untrue. No human being possesses a unified “worldview” that is manifest in and through each of her intentional acts or artifacts she produces. We don’t need art critics to tell us this. We can read the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “the heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it” (Jer 17: 9)? Why then do we presume that every work of art is the product of a particular, distinctive set of “ideas” or a “philosophy” that the artist consciously possesses and that we as viewers can discern? An artist does not paint a picture to express what she already knows or believes. She paints to learn something about herself and the world—something she doesn’t already know. Oscar Wilde wrote that the work of art “has an independent life of its own, and may deliver a message far other than what which was put into its lips to say.” A work of art does not point back to its maker, but looks out to you the viewer. It’s not concerned with beliefs or thoughts of its maker. It’s addressing you and your heart.


Art always pushes against the pragmatism, moralism, and utilitarianism that shapes life inside as well as outside the church. It starts with our weakness, desperation, and brokenness in its search for hope and beauty and stakes its existence and relevance on the belief that all appearances deceive. Art is not a megaphone. It is a dog whistle. And only those who suffer and hope can hear it.