Upon driving southwards along the Mississippi River at sunrise while listening to “Rhiannon” the day before my 46th birthday

Grain Belt Sign

My drive to work takes me south along the Mississippi River, on a bucolic road where cyclists zip along next to you in all seasons, and sometimes people walk little dogs from the expensive townhomes to the park. Lately the sunlight has been gleaming off the dark, frozen water, like the symbol of something, both blinding and beautiful. I could do worse for a drive, because there are stately ruins that have been left that way as a kind of public art statement by the city, and the memorial bridge replacing the one that collapsed a few years ago, and an ugly sign for a lousy beer that has come to be loved simply because it is old and outlasted generations (that can be said of both the sign and the beer).

I think the ruins are there because this is, really, a young city — there are no layers to it, like in New York or Paris or London, where you can dig up another era beneath your own. And yet we have an aching to be old, and let the ruins remind us that at least we weren’t born yesterday. There has been time for industries to fall into disrepair, enough history for there to be an historic district. (You can read vivid descriptions of this area the way it used to be in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, and in the Sinclair Lewis novel Babbit, though he calls his bustling metropolis Zenith.)

Yesterday the song “Rhiannon” was playing on the radio as I took this drive, and it suited my mood perfectly. Stevie Nicks, in her prime, had as good a voice as any singer, smokey and nuanced, and while I don’t know what the hell the song is about (Welsh goddess? A breakup?) she could probably sing anything at that time, to the polished and confident music of Lindsey Buckingham, and make it a hit. Remarkably, somehow, I can recall a forty-year-old song from its original radio heyday, and it feels like its been in regular rotation since. “Rhiannon,” like sunshine and prairie grass, is now a part of my landscape. Perhaps not deserving of timelessness, that pop song or that beer sign, but nevertheless permanent.

It’s been a rough year for me, in a lot of ways, though not without everyday joys, and the hardships smaller than those of other people, so it’s comforting to go down this timeless corridor — good to know that the same sun has gleamed off the same river since before humans saw it, and will continue to do so when the city has turned into dust and our descendants (lets be positive) have scattered across the galaxy, and bison have resumed their natural title as the rulers of the prairie, and (I expect) worship the beer sign, which is still there, as some kind of message placed there by Bison God, to mark a sacred watering hole, and somehow, in the background, there will be a radio blaring “Rhiannon.”


Notice what this blog post is not doing

I was thrilled to learn that Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award in the category of Literature for Young People for her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, which I reviewed here.


Also, since she won a lifetime achievement award and won the night with her speech, here’s my review of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Catwings series, a family favorite.


I am not linking to my review of A Series of Unfortunate Events, because though I did write one once, many years ago, that guy didn’t win anything and isn’t the story and isn’t important. What matters (to me) is that two people I really admire got some recognition. We don’t need to concern ourselves with unfortunate events.



A while back I saw a tweet — one of those things that had been re-tweeted a bazillion times, usually labeled (with the usual wont to hyperbole) as “absolutely brilliant.” It said (something like):

If there’s one thing I learned from video games, it’s that when I run into enemies I’m heading in the right direction.

I’ve brooding over this a while and wondering if a silly tweet is worth a blog post. Obviously I decided, at long last, that it is. I don’t know why this is worth blogging about except that it’s been echoing in my brain for a month and it’s time to put it to rest.

I just wonder how many people really believe this. Do you… even… have… enemies? I mean, sure, you have opponents (especially politically) but you have enemies? Do you live in a war zone? Are you a drug lord?

I have no enemies. I am not sure I have ever been lucky enough to have such a thing. Even the kids who bullied me in seventh grade were more, liked, adversaries. I can’t even use the word without feeling like some scheming super-villain.

Even if you do have enemies — and congratulations on that, don’t take them for granted — how do you know that means you’re on the right path? Maybe you’re affirming the consequence or whatever the logical expression is. If A then B, therefore if B then A. BUZZ. Wrong answer. You find enemies mostly on the wrong paths, actually.

I think about the many times I’ve encountered resistance in my life. Sometimes I was right — like inciting people in my college newspaper to question authority, oppose the Gulf War, and warm up to gay rights. But sometimes I was wrong, like when I was redressed by a creative writing professor for publishing an official literary society magazine that was exclusively white, mostly male, and full of the kind of pieces that would turn off any women or people of color who might get involved. I left that meeting feeling like she was my enemy.

I sort of see that line of thinking as the product of shame, a nascent adult barely emergent from an unhappy childhood, finding some validation and identity in something, and quickly being whack-a-moled by someone with power over me. She, the professor, saw it as a bunch of stuck-up white guys running amok with the literary society and student funds. She was right. She was not my enemy; she was older and wiser. My encountering-of-enemies wasn’t evidence I was on the right path, it was evidence I was emotionally vulnerable and unprepared to think about my responsibility as president of the literary society and editor of its magazine.

Meeting resistance isn’t categorically proof of anything, and if I’d staked my moral certainty on the mere fact that people disagreed with me — and further, decided they were my enemies, and not merely people with a different set of values, different experiences, different priorities — I would have been doomed to follow a very-wrong path to its bitter end.

The presence of enemies — seeing our opponents as enemies — is at best neutral information about the rightness of our paths.

Brother, I’m Dying

I’ve been unexpectedly drawn to memoir lately, and it would be hard to find one easier to recommend than this family history by Edwidge Danticat. Besides being full of memorable stories, it sort of (for me) revealed how such a thing might be done: as a series of vignettes, sequenced without rigid chronology, each with its own moral and purpose. Of these tales, her Uncle Joseph emerges as an heroic figure, with political and then religious zeal, courageous and loving, raising a number of children that aren’t strictly his, and (in one case) risking his life to rescue one from a precarious situation. When Edwidge is separated forever from her uncle to go join her parents in New York, it feels more like a rupture than a reunion. This generosity of spirit is similar to Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Both memoirists let other people take the starring roles in their stories.

The book also reminds me in many ways of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the Junot Diaz novel that traces Dominican family history to the days of Rafael Trujillo, just as Danticat traces her family history in Haiti back to the days of François Duvalier –both are stories of tyranny and diaspora, following the same arcs from Hispañola to New York sprawl.

But just as Haiti occupies the opposite half of an island from the Dominican Republic, this is an opposite kind of book. Diaz’s book is brutal, the characters driven by lust and possessiveness more than love, the narrative delivered with a dark and dry humor that reminds me more of Philip Roth than other Latin American writers. Danticat’s is about family bonds, and the love that drives their stories is real and uncompromising, the stories told with fearless sentiment.

Is the difference here between fiction and memoir? Male and female writers? It’s easy to see such dichotomies. But I find in Danticat what I’ve been missing in a lot of masculine fiction: unashamed hope and generosity. At some time in literary history sentimentality fell out of favor, and cold brutality held up as a timeless aesthetic standard rather than a fad. Danticat works from a different standard, one where she hopes to inspire and give strength to her readers, rather than win the acclaim of critics. That she won that acclaim anyway is testament to her finely honed storytelling skills.

Today’s #WeekPositive is Nothing

You might have noticed that I’m tagging posts #weekpositive and linking to things I think are insightful and helpful. The internet is full of “positive” stuff, platitudes about loving yourself and not worrying, but I’m veering away from those and toward ones that have actual, practicable, suggestions. Some of the take aways so far: When your loved one wants to share something, respond gratefully. Explain instead of argue. Carry a poem with you. Use your worst experiences for inspiration.

Today I wanted to take a turn to parenting, and after combing through pages and pages of stuff I’ve bookmarked, I realized the best thing I could do was link to nothing. Because we all I know I need to stop overthinking it. I need to stop reading advice that amounts to a lot of “be in perfect control all the time,” or even “think about how we’re all overthinking it.”

So I’ll spare you the link. Unless you’re actually abusing or neglecting your kid(s), you are doing fine. And forgive yourself if you aren’t treasuring every minute because this shizzle is hard.

We who?

As I teach composition, I want students to veer away from simple reductions like “In our society today,” and would — despite what apocryphal high school English teachers taught them — rather read an essay that makes liberal use of the word “I” than substitute it with vaguely defined uses and thems. It’s hard to make this case when there are so few examples to offer, when most of the op-eds and commentaries resort to those fuzzy plural pronouns. How do “we” honor our veterans, one might ask, ignoring a vast swath of “us” that ARE veterans, or families of veterans; that veterans are sewn into the fabric of “us” and deserve to be included in “we” statements. The flip side of the coin are statements I’ve made myself, where “we” does not include “me” at all, but refers to a monolithic “they.” “We don’t give a damn about kids,” I’ve said, marginalizing the teachers and social workers and pediatricians and so forth who obviously do care about kids. Such as Minneapolis teacher Greta Callahan, who wrote this article for the Star Tribune.

Walk a Mile in My Teacher’s Shoes

I appreciated this article for two reasons — the vitality and importance of what Callahan has to say, and the way she writes it as a clear-eyed first person narrative, writing as she does from deep personal experience and investment, rather than the detached knowing-it-all voice of the pundit. Her “we” is the people who do care about kids, and a “we” that should be leading the discussion on what is “wrong” with schools and how to fix them. I shared this article with my composition students, pointing out that like Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (which we had been discussing), Callahan builds her argument on her own experience and her commitment to the cause.

I wonder why this isn’t championed more — rather than teaching people to write without the word “I,” and to assume expertise on every topic, to teach students to write directly from whatever-it-is they know well, what they have proven they care about. To use the word “we” as if there are myriads of social and cultural groups churning about. To me the most powerful writing is personal, direct and honest, and the greater truths it entails are evident: walk a mile in shoes, and see what I see, and even if we still disagree, you will know where I’m coming from.

Talking to Kurt Vonnegut

November 11 is Veteran’s Day and Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday. You can commemorate both by reading this fascinating interview from The Paris Review, which begins with Vonnegut’s World War II experiences that led to his most celebrated (and probably best) novel, which he discusses further along in the interview.