Sunday, July 23, 2006

Countdown to Montana State Fair Time

My grandfather the rancher watched Hee-Haw every Sunday. Remember that show? Plumb full o' rednecks a' pickin' and a' grinnin' and the corn flowed freely. Hee-Haw provided infinite material to lampoon, but I secretly loved it. Those people were having fun. They laughed at themselves and I laughed with them.

The Montana State Fair reminds me of my grandfather, of the simpler time in which he built his ranch, of the gentle, corny humor of that generation of people. Established 75 years ago by people like my grandparents to provide a break from the crushing tedium of ranch and farm work, it's still a place people come to cut loose, eat too much, hook up, and/or showcase one's skills all in one place. Larry works the fair every year, and he joins us when he can. The kids and I go all over the grounds and we love everything about it.

We spend three days going through the thing, starting with 4-H barns and exhibits. Kids from little tiny towns across the Hi-line and north-central Montana compete other kids from similarly tiny places like Geraldine, Kremlin and Box Elder, for prizes. Best cow, Best pig, Best pie. Ranches show livestock, too -- not just the kids. Next are the myriad other exhibits, such as the winners of the Lego Club's competition; the Wool-Grower's spinning and craft exhibit; the Vegetable Races. (Olivia and Paul both won a race last year. Psst: Pick the rutabaga.)

Then the acts always thrill the kids. Besides the reptile zoo and the many musical acts, we've seen motorcycle riders defy death, a woman twirl 20-some hula hoops at one time, and jugglers. It never fails that some guy juggles fire, which really blows Olivia's hair back. To cool off, repair to the air-conditioned Mobile Library and read a book or come to the KBLL Radio RV, say Hi to Larry and Cory (and maybe us). Oh, and get yer free stuff -- water bottles for sure, but they have some restaurant and concert ticket giveaways, too.
On the last day, we buy the daytime wristband and ride the rides. All. Day. Long.

It's a little bit Hee-Haw, a shout from the past, a place where I can be a kid again and have a run-'til-ya-drop good time. Not only that, but my kids are learning where food really comes from and who's responsible. The weather's a little too hot for it to be perfect, but I'll take it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pam Houston in the Flathead!

Writers of the Flathead's annual conference is coming up October 13-15 in Whitefish, MT -- and Pam Houston is going to be there!!! Here's the low-down. Pam will teach a memoir workshop before the conference. (Disclaimer: I'm not a member of Writers of the Flathead because it's up the road a ways. Also, I don't know Pam personally. I just think she's really, really cool and I would love to meet her.) More about Pam here.

Hand, Foot and Mouth

Early Saturday morning, right after we got home from VT, Paul woke up with a painful rash on his feet. I thought he'd walked through some burdock without his shoes or something, put calamine on it and went back to bed. By mid-afternoon, the sores had blistered up, so we took him to Urgent Care. Diagnosis? Hand, foot, and mouth disease. All it takes is one little kid climbing on the slide with his socks off at the McCorporate Food Playland to pass it on. Poor little guy has almost no sores on his hands or in his mouth, but enough that he only wants to eat bananas and drink soy milk all day long. Worse, he can't play with other kids until Saturday. So we're taking long walks around the neighborhood (walking doesn't seem to bother him) and picking raspberries from the neighbor's bushes (with permission). Larry made birdhouses with the kids while I worked yesterday so that was pretty cool, too. Paul loves power tools. He calls them "hammers".

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Vermont Update

Unbelievably, I stand on the cusp of graduation from Vermont College's MFA in Writing program. Two more days, then I'm kicked out of the nest, shooting down the tube, pick your metaphor, out of here. Let me put in a plug for VC here. I've not had a workshop here, not once, where I didn't learn something. Neither was I kicked in the head here, as I have heard over and over from so many wounded MFAs in other programs. The faculty here stand out for their commitment to their students and for their personal achievements. That's the commercial, on to the substance.

Best things about this residency:

1. The twin themes of persistence and compassion. (There isn't an official theme. Those are the two things I heard over and over this residency that resonated with me.) Our advisors, the faculty, are very much committed to making sure we have a nurturing experience that prepares us to go out and thrive as writers and be a part of our own communities.

2. Wally Lamb. His latest project is Couldn't Keep It To Ourselves, an anthology of stories written by women incarcerated in Conneticut, under his tutelage. One of the contributors won a PEN award. Wally spent five days here visiting with the students, meeting one on one on a first-come, first-served basis with a few of us, and I was one of those, having been in the right place at the right time. Wally had plenty of practical advice and experience to share on the subject of bringing creative writing into institutions. He spent a good amount of time talking with me about archetypes, persistence, and my current novel as well. His other books are She's Come Undone and I Know This Much is True. Here's what I loved most about him; talking informally to a group about how the prison project was almost dashed and how the women were frightened and demoralized by prison officials and the Conneticut Attorney General, he cried. It was his wedding anniversary the night he read, and he thanked his wife, Chris Lamb, and he cried. When reading a moving piece from his novel-in-progress, he cried. (I felt much better about having blubbered when telling him the end of my first novel, Home Star. It gets me every time.)

Here's some notes from the informal talk he gave: "Write stories for yourself and then let the audience who needs you, find you." "Teaching informs writing and writing informs teaching. Do them together." He said teaching put him on the receiving end of new voices. He said the question 'if God is merciful, why is there suffering?' is "a question I've been trying to work out since age 15. I try to work it out in my novels."

3. Nancy Lagomarsino. She wrote a non-fiction account of her father's passing from Alzheimer's Light From An Eclipse. She said "suffering must be present if we would enjoy the landscape." She talked at length with a group of us about her decision about what to include and not include in the memoir, and how she came to give her mother the decision about whether the book would be published or not. I thought that was amazingly generous and a refreshing change from the stance I hear so often from memoirists that 'it's my truth, so I get to say what I want, regardless.' I appreciated her comments about balancing narrative, action and reflection, as well.

4. Andre Dubus III. He wrote House of Sand and Fog and The Blueseman. Andre is a larger-than-life, high-energy kind of guy who was genuinely interested in us, where we came from and what we were working on. His main message was "Go deeper" meaning not only to inform the fiction and make it readable and believable, but to search for truth. He shared how he keeps a file for ideas and how the plot of House came to be plucked from the headlines, as it were. He read from an essay he wrote based on interviewing a young Iraq war veteran and the damage she's sustained.

On a personal note, I missed my kids terribly last night at the fireworks. (New England towns stagger their fireworks, so Montpelier had theirs last night.) Sweet Pea and Big Boy would have loved it. Instead, I had the company of other women writers and we talked about teaching, outreach to people who don't ordinarily have access to writing programs, and of course, our children. I am so fortunate. There are so many voices out there who don't have the freedom to write, who we need to hear. As we celebrate Independence, let's work to bring it to everyone -- and I'm not just talking about the political prisoners in far-off countries. I'm talking also about the women who labor dawn to dusk to keep their kids heads above water, who have important stories but for whom writing is just another pretty fantasy.

Tonight I go pick up Larry. The kids are home with Gramma Jeannie, Bless her. We had a trial run in April when Larry and I went to Billings for our first overnight alone in six years. That went beautifully. This is four days. I hope the kids behave and I hope they make it through okay, emotionally. We won't know, will we, until they're 21 years old on the therapist's couch clutching a teddy bear, re-enacting the conversations with me on the phone "Mommy come home airplane right now."