Box of Memory


Are you like me?  Do you keep a box or two full of pictures from your past?  Sweethearts, besties, ancestors, cats?  I found one of my boxes this weekend, and in it, I found a picture of myself, finishing a draft of my first novel in a rented apartment on Somerville Ave. in Massachusetts.  I was flirting with a mullet haircut, and I was working on a rented cheapo computer at a dinner table piled with meaningless junk.  I was wearing nerd glasses.  (I still am.)  This apartment was above a pet store called One Fish Two Fish, which was good because it was closed at night and I could play my records as loud as I wanted.  My first marriage came off the shaky rails there.  And there had been a Great Escape down below--the gerbils, in a commando action, had busted out of their cells and taken up residence in the dropped asbestos ceiling.  All night, there were gerbil stampedes charging back and forth above our heads.  I was working at a job I hated among people I hated.  I ironed my drone work shirts and ties and slacks every day before dawn.  One morning, our beloved neighbor Joe who lived in back died.  I heard his last cry and didn't know what I was hearing.  You know that picture?  You have one, right?  That beach that still makes you remember a pair of eyes and a touch. That picture of someone hugging you in your blue graduation gowns that nobody knows lay naked beside you in a rain storm crying over Cat Stevens records...  I guess this picture of me typing is like that.  Lots of ghosts.  Not all of them welcome.  I sent the picture to Bill Moyers so he could use it as an illustration for our interview. (I'll put it up here when he sends it back).

In a popular film, this is the moment when the audio track plays the sound of a needle scraping abruptly across a record.  (I don't know why that's so popular now, since most kids haven't heard records or dragged needles over them.)  It's the short-hand for:  WHAT!  Bill Moyers.  Right?  If I can point to anything that exemplifies the mind-melt of this life, I'd say it's that.  I'm doing an hour with Bill Moyers on PBS, May 4th.  Friday. Don't think I can bear to watch it.

One thing I never meant to do was to make a blog that listed various wonderful examples of my "interesting" public life.  I was always interesed in haiku poems, travel notes, God, communication with you.  But here's the thing:  the other thing takes over.  The thing you dream of when you're a poor boy writing love poems listening to Leonard Cohen and Shawn Phillips in your bedroom at midnight.  You want the life I am negotiating now.  I did, anyway.  As I play eternal catch-up here, I grow weary of...myself.  Bonzo Dog Band had a great mean-spirited song called "Look At Me, I'm Wonderful."  Haha.  Yeah.

But the other side of this is gratitude.  I am grateful and tired at the same time, cussing up a storm because I have toured myself into oblivion.  But so astonished at all the things that have happened.  Walking a high-wire, I guess.  So, here we are.  Look at me!  I'm wonderful!  Finished the difficult semester at UIC--teaching while touring is a bad idea.  Had many adventures that, frankly, I can't even remember.  Ahead:  Aspen, San Diego, Fishtrap (Oregon), San Antonio, Mayborn Conference in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and a speaking engagement at Flannery O'Connor's childhood home.  OMG, as my kids say.  After that, North Dakota.  Maybe the Brooklyn Book Festival.  Oops--school will be in session again.  Touring while teaching.  Did I tell you that's a bad idea?  By then, the paperback of Queen of America will be out...and book tour for real will kick in.  Get me a Roadie!  Get me a bus!  Get me a Coke Zero stat!

Hey--here's what you want to know: when you walk into Bill Moyers' studios, there are lots of intense young staff people to receive you.  The make-up woman is awesome and funny--she trims your beard and takes scissors to your hang-nails then makes up everything--hands, chin, face, neck, part in your hair.  If you have a bald spot (I DO NOT) she makes that up, too.  The green room is full of yummy stuff--bagels, Danish, donuts.  Lots of juice and coffee.  Mrs. Moyers is there to greet and coach you:  "Just call him Bill," she says.  Then The Man steps in the room.  You think OH MY LORD.  You stand up and say, "OH MY LORD YOU ARE BILL MOYERS."  He smiles and pats your arm and tells you, "Just relax in there.  We are just going to have a chat."  And you go in and sit at the tabkle and see, to your great shock, that he has a stack of blue pages with voluminous notes.  Notes about you.

But this is the funny part.  They aren't notes about the public you.  See?  They're not notes about autographs or book signings or about travel.  Somehow, Bill Moyers has written twenty pages of notes about you in your bedroom.  You digging coins out of the couch to find enough bus fare to get to your job so you don't get fired.  Notes about the hopeless hope of poems at midnight when nobody on earth would ever think of publishing them or reading them.  And then he makes you read a poem, and you try not to cry.

What have I done to earn these blessings?  I do not know.  Van Halen reminds us: "If you want to be a monk, ya gotta cook a lotta rice."  I think I cooked the rice for a couple of years.  Neal Cassady said: "Grace beats karma."  OK.  I bask in grace.  I hope you will continue to walk this strange red road with me.  I like your company.  I like sitting down to our bowl of rice at night and telling you these funky fairytales.  Got a long way ahead, long long walk coming.  Hope your shoes fit.  Let's go.

Oh, by the way.  I finally got to hang out with Lila Downs.

P.S. The top photo was from the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. An astonishing weekend full of amazing writers and readers. The photo is courtesy of the talented Maura Bryn. The photo of me and Lila Downs was after her concert at the Congress in Chicago. Got to go backstage and say hey thanks to the efforts of my awesome agent Julie Barer. Photo by Cindy.

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Book club members have been some of my most enthusiastic and careful readers. I’m thrilled to share my work with you, answer your questions and tell you some of the stories behind the stories. This is our spot, just for us. Here, we can chat:  If I’m nearby, I’ll come and visit your club. Otherwise, we can Skype, talk over the phone or email. Sometimes, I’ll send surprises or hold contests.

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