Tuesday, January 03, 2006


I'm usually not all that interested in doing the million memes that circulate around people's blogs, but one I have enjoyed of late is the X years ago, which gives a window into a person's past that might not have otherwise opened up. So I'm going to throw my lot in with the bunch.

Twenty Years Ago:

I am eleven, about to turn twelve in March. We have recently added on to the house in which I grew up, due to the recent birth of the twins, who are just over one year old. One of the additions to the house is a bedroom and den downstairs, from our large, subterranean basement. I'm given the room and I love it. No one comes downstairs much: my dad is working eighty plus hours a week and my mother has the twins to occupy her days and nights. Chan has a room upstairs. I have an entire floor to myself. Buried in the earth, it is always cool. I'm fond of wearing a ratty brown housecoat that had belonged to a childhood friend of my mother; I'm also usually wearing slippers. A pipe and a cravat would complete the picture.

I cherish two things: being the age of the boom box, I love mine, the station always set to KZ-106; to this day, the playlist has not much changed, calcifying sometime around 1976, it would seem. Above this, though, I love my hand-me-down Redline BMX bike, with its chipped blue-chrome paint job and lightweight 4130 chromoly frame. My father bought it for me off his oldest brother after his son had left for college. I love all things related to bicycling and bicycles, a cosmic irony, and in addition to the issues of Batman and Iron Man I buy each week at Ross's Thriftway I'm also snatching up BMX Action and BMX Plus and Freestyle and whatever else has some kid from California launching up into the sky from out of a drained pool.

I'm writing the first poems of my life in a yellow notebook. They sound like lyrics from Wham's "Careless Whisper." Or they are very formal, rhymed, with titles like "Kennedy Manor." Ha! Needless to say, I never really consider these as my first poems.

I'm in love with, infatuated with, a luminous girl named Dana.

My best friend, since first grade, is a wiry, graceful kid named Adam. His parents are nuts, and he bears the frayed nerves of his fractured home life. Still, he takes to any sport with enviable ease. I hate him just a little for it, me, the clumsy goof, but we share that storybook friendship that only young boys can have, laughing at every stupid thing, arguing about every stupid thing, whether Alpha Flight is better than the X-Men. Adam will be the lone witness when I break my neck.

Ten Years Ago:

I'm 21, consumed by the MFA application process, worried less about being accepted somewhere and more about what to do when I am. I apply to seven or eight schools, get into all of them, but am truly only interested in Southern Illinois, Houston, and Maryland, the schools which meet certain criteria besides being good programs: namely, they actually respond when you write their office of Disability Services requesting information. One school sends a crappy, unreadable xerox of one page. They are marked off the list.

Graduate school will be the first time I live on my own, and as such the process is daunting, pressurized. The waiting doesn't help. Having met Rodney Jones the year before, my heart is set on SIU, but they are being drag-asses. Meanwhile, Maryland has swooped down, calling me mere weeks after my application is in, wooing, wooing. They offer a large fellowship but want a response by a certain date, which is before SIU will have made their final decisions. I do not want to teach my first semester at least, unsure how smoothly this whole living on my own thing will go. Maryland's offer gurantees. After a few sleepless nights, I commit to Maryland.

Literally the next day SIU contacts me. They're offering a better fellowship and I want to vomit. I spend that weekend in a knot, but by Monday I know I will pull out of Maryland. I feel at peace with everything. The stars are lining up.

Jorie Graham calls from Iowa; I tell her my plans. She offers this bit of advice about attending Iowa: "Would you have wanted to go to school somewhere where people routinely ski to class?"

No, no, I wouldn't. Carbondale will be cold. But not that cold.

Meanwhile, my parents are largely spectators, supportive but not especially aware of what it all means. My mother will refer to poetry as my hobby. In the ten years since, the poems and books still are to them an elaborate hobby.

Five Years Ago:

I'm twenty-five, teaching at the University of Alabama, and writing poems with titles like "This Tuscaloosa, This Low Pit." Needless to say, I'm not a fan of the place. I'm dating a girl who is pursuing a Ph.D. in biogenetics and who works too hard and too much, living in the lab almost, where I routinely deliver meals. We have a lot of fun and will be together for a good portion of my time there, but I gradually realize we're too different.

Continuing the proud, unbreakable tradition of attracting eccentric characters in my life, the two men who work as my personal care attendants are, well, memorable. Lincoln Cannon is a middle-aged black man, born with a leg at least eight inches shorter than the other. His shoe, with its massively thick sole, is a sight. I will write a poem about him, "Elegy for Qwerty," that appears in my first book. I introduce him to the mp3 file and he is an instant convert, buying an mp3 player that I never again see him without. We trade untold amounts of cd's. Lincoln's childhood friend was Lionel Richie, which earns him major cool points.

James Fischbaum, or Fish, works for me in the evenings. He drives a snazzy purple truck and loves to wear cowboy boots. He has a strange stammer, getting hung up on certain words, his head and neck twitching in time with the stammer. Fish tells exactly one joke, but spins an infinite number of variations on it: if, for example, a song by the Beatles comes on tv, he invariably says, "Strawberry Fields Forever, I wrote that song. I was sitting on my porch one day and saw some strawberries and I thought strawberry....fields....forever.... I gave it to the Beatles and said, here ya go, boys, y'all take this, I don't need the money." Insert any other song and it will work. He's endlessly charmed by it, as am I, and the more he tells it the funnier I find it. Fish is in love, hopelessly, with his neighbor, a woman whose man isn't good to her but who she won't leave. Some nights he is noticeably forlorn. I try to cheer him. He makes great hash browns and will bring me some once in a while. He loves Three's Company. We often watch an episode before he leaves. He's rail thin, but drinks a cup of vinegar to stay slim.

I am in the middle of the greatest writing community I've ever known. Several of us go on to publish books. Eliot Wilson and I become fast friends. We are both writing the poems that will become our first books. We send out poems relentlessly and each time one of us gets an acceptance we celebrate by going out to eat. Eliot has discovered the keys to the entire top floor of one of the campus civil war era buildings. It has been used for years as stortage for clutter and junk. He begins clearing it out, and setting up an office. He no longer teaches at the university but has a name plate made for the door which reads, Dr. Eliot Wilson. He calls the campus technology center, identifies himself as Dr. Wilson, informing them that room X needs a new computer and wiring for the internet, as he will be using it as his office. All of which is, technically, true, nevermind that he is not an employee of the university. The next day a new computer is delivered and the internet is hooked up. He is my hero.

In the office, there is an electric putting green, various couches, silk ties from his silk tie collection, and a surprisingly large number of vintage cannister vacuum cleaners, as his collection of those has grown too unwieldy for his apartment.

It's here that we will launch our little books. We are constantly arranging, re-arranging, our manuscripts, and putting packets of our poems together, all the while moaning and bitching about the cruel capriciousness of editors, bosses, women, life, et cetera.

This office is on the third floor and the elevator is sequestered behind a massive, unmovable wooden door. There is a campus phone by the door. When I drop by, I knock the phone off its cradle and dial his office number. When he picks up and no one answers, it's me.

The building overlooks a hidden, green, wooded quad. Across the way, we can see at night girls practicing ballet. We buy balsa wood wind-up airplanes and launch them from there like our fortunes and hope for better, farther flights.


Artichoke Heart said...

Thank you for these amazing little windows. I'm savoring your book, btw, and think it's wonderful. Happy New Year!

Paul said...

Glad you enjoy, on both counts. Thanks!

Melissa said...

This is a lovely read, as anything is that you churn out seemingly effortlessly.

Paul said...

I churn!

Alexis Z said...

That really took my breath away, Paul.

Paul said...

Aww, shucks, Alexis... :)

Wendy Wisner said...

Write the memoir. Do it now. I'm serious.

Paul said...



A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz said...

I concur doubleheartedly. I would read it twice, as I plan to read your book whenever it arrives.

MisanthropicAnthropoid said...

I may be able to dig out some KMart brand cassette tapes I recorded KZ-106 on from that era, if they aren't a melted blob in a box somewhere or thrown out already. We can have a beer, reminisce and listen to a statical version of Feels like the First Time or Cold as Ice. :-)

Definitely need to see the whole memoir.

Paul said...

You've got a deal.