O, What a Luxury

We all know that I have a terrible inferiority complex when it comes to meeting celebrities (even local ones).  “Will they like me?” I think.  “Can I trust myself to say something witty and endearing?” I think, sweating profusely.  “What if I’m not dressed nicely enough to impress them?” I think, from a dead faint on the floor.

It’s silly, and it doesn’t make much sense.  We’re all people, after all.  We’re all plodding through this wonderful, cruel maze that is The Human Condition.  Celebrities just happen to have a marketable talent.  Or are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  Or are really, really ridiculously good-looking.  Or are hard workers.  Or some combination of all four.

The fact is, I can’t seem to remember any of this wisdom when faced with a real, live celebrity.  And thus I’m always surprised when they turn out to be nice, regular people.  (Of course, some celebrities are as appraising and arrogant as I fear, and those I choose to smirk about later: “It goes to their heads. It always, always goes to their heads. Heh heh heh.  I was right all along.”  But then again, plenty of people who don’t have their own TV shows are appraising and arrogant.)

So when Wednesday night found me sitting in the sixth row at a Garrison Keillor poetry reading, I knew I was in for it.  Here was a man whose voice I had literally been hearing through the radio for my entire life.  My parents own a boat on Lake Superior, and some of my earliest memories are of hurtling through the northern woods on Sunday afternoons, listening to Guy Noir or News From Lake Wobegon and laughing whenever my parents laughed.  Sometimes, uncomfortably full with the Happy Meals we had begged for for miles and miles (and which were somehow disappointing once actually opened and consumed), my sister and I would fall asleep in the backseat of the minivan to the sound of Mr. Keillor’s voice, and wake up at home.

Garrison Keillor is perhaps the most important public figure of all, in the Minnesotan mind.  He brought us–our church basement suppers, our bars and hot dishes, our passive aggression, our experience of being up at the lake or down on the farm or “in town,” our grandparents and parents and cousins–to the world.  And sure, we’re not always so neurotic as A Prairie Home Companion portrays us to be.  Nor always so poignant nor so musical.  But the spirit of the show is right.

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All of the sudden the poetry reading was over.  The wide sheets of paper Mr. Keillor had read from were scattered on the floor.  And Mr. Keillor himself was strolling down the stage steps, down the aisle, and out into the lobby, where, as he said, he would be happy to sign copies of O, What a Luxury and to chat.  Mom and I joined the growing line, squashed in between an older woman who exclaimed that she was “just wild for E.E. Cummings” and a young couple tossing computer jargon–discs and codes and bytes–back and forth like a softball.

Then we were at the front, and I silently handed my book to Mr. Keillor, deciding in a split second that perhaps I should just be quietly friendly and not attempt any conversation.  He looked up, though, and jokingly commented on my mom’s hair, and then turned to me with an “what do you have to say for yourself, young lady?” expression.

So I told him that I’m a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota.

“And what did they do for you there?”

“They gave me an English degree, but I’m still figuring out how to use it.  I’m trying to get a job writing or editing.”

“Are you a good writer and editor?”

“Yes.”  (Then, because that seemed too vain) “I mean, I like to think I am.”

“Send your resume to Prairie Home Companion, then.”

I’m going to end the conversation here, but note that there was some additional stuttering on my part before the exchange was over.  Perhaps also some gushing to my patient mother during the drive home: “I can’t believe Garrison Keillor told me to send in my resume!  I mean, it wasn’t exactly a promise of a job, but still.  I’m going to have to write a cover letter right away.  I think I’ll say something about listening to APHC as a kid, but I don’t want to ramble, you know, so I’ll have to be concise…”  You get the idea.

To conclude this saga, I think there’s a lesson to be learned: if we ever happen to develop a marketable talent; or are in the right place at the right time; or become really, really ridiculously good-looking; or increase our work ethic…in other words, if we become celebrities, let’s remember to be kind to stuttering recent graduates who ask for our autographs.  Because it will mean a lot to them.

Friday Favorites 5

I think I cheated a little this week.  The posts consist of Friday Favorites, a video about breastfeeding, and Friday Favorites again.  I don’t mean for Friday Favorites to make up the entirety of the blog, but if I can’t think of any one topic that merits its own post, it’s certainly nice to have a place to circle the blurb wagons at the end of the week …

I was just this close to writing an extended Oregon Trail metaphor.  Consider yourselves happily spared.

Here are a few things that made my life better this week:

This poem:

It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be.
It is possible that we are past the middle now.
It is possible that we have crossed the great water
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side.
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now
we are being given tickets, and they are not
tickets to the show we had been thinking of,
but to a different show, clearly inferior.

Check again: it is our own name on the envelope.
The tickets are to that other show.

It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall
without waiting for the last act: people do.
Some people do. But it is probable
that we will stay seated in our narrow seats
all through the tedious denouement
to the unsurprising end- riveted, as it were;
spellbound by our own imperfect lives
because they are lives,
and because they are ours.

“Riveted” by Robyn Sarah, from A Day’s Grace. © The Porcupine’s Quill.

Writer’s Almanac.  I’m telling you, kids.

This dish:

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Photo credit: fakeginger.com

A few weeks ago a friend and I had dinner in Uptown Minneapolis.  We chose–fairly randomly, I assure you–a little Thai restaurant on the edge of the nightlife where we could sit outside and not be tripped over by cool cats stumbling in high heels.  As we ate our Pad Thai with tofu, fire alarms began to go off inside a building across the way.  Then a fire truck arrived.  Then a few police cars arrived.  Then a larger fire truck arrived.  The fuss was over rather quickly; perhaps it was a false alarm or merely burned popcorn.  Since no one was hurt, we considered it dinner theatre.

The Pad Thai, though.  We agreed, once we had pushed our plates away and leaned back, full, that it was delicious, but that the flavors were so heavy and distinct that we wouldn’t crave them again for at least a year.

Fat chance.

A week later I woke up craving Pad Thai.  I mentioned making the dish to my parents.  Mom was game, but Dad poorly hid his apprehension.  So I didn’t make it.  Another week went by, and I am now dreaming–day and night–about Pad Thai.  Especially the tofu soaked in sauce and a little crunchy on the outside.

I’ll stop now, because I don’t want to drown Mac in my saliva, but I will likely be making Pad Thai at home (even if just for myself to enjoy) very, very soon.  I will likely use this recipe.

This homecoming game:

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My beloved alma mater is celebrating homecoming this weekend, and I’m not going.  I don’t have a great reason, really, except that I am still jobless and living at home, and I think it would hurt my pride to return to Morris before I’m triumphant and successful.  It’s not that I would be judged there.  It’s just a standard I’m holding for myself.

But I’m cheering for the Cougars from afar, hoping we can overcome last year’s disappointment.

This movie:

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I have a deep, abiding love for The Outsiders.  It began in eighth grade, when we first read the book in Language Arts and our conversations–even outside of class–were peppered with words like “heater,” “rumble,” and “Greasers.”  We even had a day when we were allowed to forgo our uniforms (Catholic school, remember?) and dress as either a Soc or a Greaser.  Which one you chose said a lot about you.  “Typical, typical,” we twittered when so-and-so showed up in a sweater set and angel-white tennis shoes.

Then we discovered the movie.  I can’t remember if we watched it in class or if a select few of us watched it at a sleepover.  But that was it.  It’s impossible to watch Ponyboy recite Robert Frost against a golden sunset, or Dally yell with surprising emotion, “We’ll do it for Johnny, man!  We’ll do it for Johnny!” without being hooked.  Plus, the cast!  The beautiful ensemble cast! Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell, etc.  Before they were movie stars, they were outsiders.

This book:

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I never expect Margaret Atwood’s books to be as good as they are.  Why is that?  Perhaps it’s because I have this strange desire to shout to the heavens that I DO NOT LIKE SCIENCE FICTION.  When really, I do.  At least a little.  When its sparkling innovation is backed up by human-like frankness and clumsiness and poignancy, as Margaret’s is.

This is the second novel of hers I’ve read (the first was The Handmaid’s Tale), and the second novel of hers that has utterly swept me away.

Maybe someday I’ll learn.

“Embarrassed”

About a year ago on this blog, I wrote,

” … In which I decide that breastfeeding in public is gross.  I was taking the minutes at a division meeting, grumbling to myself over the sad fact that professors simply think themselves to be above Robert’s Rules, when suddenly the professor at the next table, who had been holding her five-month-old on her lap for the past half hour, stooped to grab a large scarf from her bag.  Before I could avert my still-scarred-from-too-much-TLC-in-high-school eyes, she draped the scarf around her shoulders and over the baby, and began the feeding as if there weren’t fifty other people in the room.  Gross.  I realize that it’s not fair that you should have to be a pariah just because you have an infant, but still.  Gross.”

I’m ashamed now that I held such an opinion.  And I’m even more ashamed when I think that because of misunderstanding people like me, perhaps that breastfeeding mother was made to feel embarrassed, as if she were doing something wrong.  She wasn’t.

This explains it best:

Poet (and mother) Hollie McNish performing her spoken word poem “Embarrassed.”

Top Ten Favorite Pieces of Contemporary Literature (Part 1)

I was too late applying for a job today.  The posting was still on the company’s website, but the deadline at the bottom was August 12th.  I sent an email anyway, asking if the position had already been filled.  And if not, if I could send my application and begin dedicating various lucky charms toward the cause.  Sarah, who responded to my email, said in the friendliest way that the position had been filled, but that I should check back later.

I will certainly do so.

But what made me want the position badly enough to send that email in the first place was that applicants were asked to include–along with cover letter, resume, writing sample (the usual)–a list of their ten favorite pieces of contemporary literature.

Let me tell you.  I’ve applied for many a publishing job.  At larger and more prominent publishing houses.  But not one has asked me for such a list.

This is strange, because it seems to me that for one to work in publishing, one must be first and foremost a reader.  A crazed, midnight oil burning, Half Price Books residing, I can’t sleep until I know this character will be all right reader.  Able to recite the red wheelbarrow poem on demand.  Able to explain the origins of Samuel Clemens’ pseudonym without pause.  Unable to use the term “Harry Potter English Major,” because, Good Lord, all readers are wonderful and miraculous and welcome.  And we all have guilty secrets.

The entire Twilight Saga is on my bookshelf right now.  In hardback.  I am not ashamed.

But mostly, readers delight in such lists.  That’s why, if I might be so brash, I’d like to make my list now.  And to make it even thought August 12th is long past.

Don’t think of this as my desperate plea for that job that got away.  Think of it as the kind of opportunity I wait all year for.

Holly’s Ten Favorite Pieces of Contemporary Literature (in no particular order, because I couldn’t possibly):

1. Into the Wild.  This book served as my introduction to creative nonfiction.  It showed me that true stories could be told in literary prose.  Jon Krakauer told us about Chris McCandless without presuming to know him.  And more importantly, without presuming to criticize him.  I like an author humble enough to give you the facts, set the scene, and then back off.

2. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  Tell me how overdone Hamlet plots are and I’ll smirk and hand you this book.  I haven’t yet been able to describe the plot without making it sound silly (it’s not) and as if it’s for young people (it’s not).  The prose in Edgar Sawtelle is breathtaking.  The story is set in the Chequamegon National Forest in Northern Wisconsin (my childhood stomping grounds).  And I’ve never wanted to bring a character to life more than I’ve wanted Almondine to be real.  Almondine is a Sawtelle dog.  You’ll know what I mean when you read the book.

3. Never Let Me Go.  I am not a professional reviewer.  My adjective pool is somewhat shallow.  The word flawless comes to mind, however.  Heartbreaking.  Eerie.  Masterfully layered.  I read this book when I need a lesson on how to reveal a world slowly, subtly.

Expect the next three on my list in the next post.  You didn’t think I wouldn’t prolong this delight, did you?  Whew double negative.  I’ll just leave that there.

The Good Universe Next Door

You know that E.E. Cummings line everyone quotes?

“listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go”

That’s it.

It’s a funny line, because at first you think maybe he’s talking about heaven. Or Heaven. What’s funny is that if so, he’s referring to heaven as “a HELL of a good universe.”

All funnies aside, I think what E.E. Cummings meant was not heaven. Or Heaven. But rather some sort of transcendence that might be compared to heaven. Not even a transcendence. Perhaps a withdrawal into the more beautiful parts of ourselves.

I felt something like that today. I had spent the most of the afternoon watching season 3 of The Office, waiting waiting waiting for Jim and Pam to get together. And then I played with Ruby. Actually, I threw her ball as far as I could and then vaulted into the truck bed to hide. I didn’t peek over the rim until I could hear her snuffling close to the back bumper. I laughed at her entire back end wagging, her ears down in surprised delight. Then I watched part of Inception, but discovered halfway through that I was not, in fact, in the mood for Inception. Finally, I wandered to my laptop and began to write on one of my long pieces.

And for a split second, it was strange to be writing, to be deeply immersed in some worthy creating after the paltriness of the day. For a split second, it was as if some small bit of subconsciousness were waking up and whispering, “About time you got back. Do you remember this?”

Of course I did. My own hellofagood Universe.

Wild Horses, Wild Horses, Wild Horses

I’m working on an elaborate review of a play I recently saw, and a saga concerning a certain celebrity I may or may not have seen.  In the meantime, I thought I’d post a poem I first read during my sophomore year of college.  My professor for American Literature from the 19th Century Forward (actual course title) is of American Indian heritage, and so she introduced us to several American Indian authors. I remembered Sherman Alexie, whose young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian I had read and loved in high school.  Also, randomly, because my buddy Brandon came through for me, I have Sherman Alexie’s autograph–scribbled on a blank piece of notebook paper–tucked away somewhere.  Anyway, here’s my favorite Alexie poem, mostly because of those last two lines.

At Navajo Monument Valley Tribal School

By Sherman Alexie

the football field rises
to meet the mesa. Indian boys
gallop across the grass, against

the beginnings of their body.
On those Saturday afternoons,
unbroken horses gather to watch

their sons growing larger
in the small parts of the world.
Everyone is the quarterback.

There is no thin man in a big hat
writing down all the names
in two columns: winners and losers.

This is the eternal football game,
Indians versus Indians. All the Skins
in the wooden bleachers fancydancing,

stomping red dust straight down
into nothing. Before the game is over,
the eighth-grade girls’ track team

comes running, circling the field,
their thin and brown legs echoing
wild horses, wild horses, wild horses.

Home for the Weekend

Typical Saturday at home, complete with:

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1. Spotting Fabio at Whole Foods.

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2. Generally drooling at Whole Foods.  How I love this place.  I would have taken a better photo of the salad bar or the fresh meats, but people were starting to eye me with suspicion.

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3. Lunch at Cossetta’s, where I hid from the parking lot attendants, hoping they wouldn’t remember the time I took up two parking spots with my massive truck, and then ate/talked for two hours with friends while remaining blissfully aware that “the girl with the massive truck” was being paged over the speakers.

4. Dessert at Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books, which I evidently frequent.  Just kidding about the dessert.  Not kidding about this book, which I giggled over, but couldn’t actually justify buying, mostly because it’s a ‘show’ book more than a ‘read from cover to cover’ book.  What I did buy was Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times, because I love Good Poems, American Places so much.  I’ll admit that I’m a little afraid of poetry.  Have been for years.  It’s getting better slowly, but I still appreciate a good anthology, because someone else has already claimed that the poems inside are respectable and worth reading.  I feel free, then, to go around quoting this Robert Bly, or that Walt Whitman, confident that what I’m quoting is profound and beautiful.  Or, at least Garrison Keillor says it is.  And who’s going to argue with that?

5. Walk across the frozen lake with Mom and Dad.  And Ruby, of course, who galloped about, sometimes taking a rest to walk in the snowmobile tracks behind Dad, sometimes veering to sniff at an abandoned fishing hole cut in the ice or a piece of log jutting above the surface.

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In other news, I hiked smugly after taking this shot, convinced I had captured something pure and lovely and perfectly lit.  And then I saw the smudge of finger in the corner.