Essays and Memoirs
The Perennial Question of Existence Print E-mail

St._Cecilia_Guido_Reni(Written 2005 - 2009)

How perfectly alone I felt that Labor Day weekend, 1972, staying at the YMCA in Madison, Wisconsin, getting ready, after a two-year hiatus, to reenter college. I had a tiny room, maybe ten by ten, a bed, a desk. I’d paid extra for the privacy. I loved the solitude: no parents, no job, no girlfriend. Never before was I so alone—and never since. I’d rise at dawn, sit in the straight-back chair at the desk with two drawers; it reminded me of the varnished desk and the blotter pad on top where I did my homework as a kid in Ohio. At the Y, I’d work through the morning. The heat slowly built until the brown-brick tiles radiated steam like a sauna. By noon, I was cooked and I’d go for a swim in Lake Mendota. Back at my desk, my guitar would be on my lap, my writing journal open before me. My attentions would alternate. Either I noted down the rough cut of a song, chords and lyrics, or I sketched in prose my latest anxiety, trying to say exactly what it was I was after by re-enrolling, this time at the University of Wisconsin. A home? A direction? A career? Those queries voiced in words alone only intensified what I couldn’t answer. Eventually my fingers dropped the pen and I picked up the guitar. As I played, my worry lessened, then dissolved.

Identity Crisis: What Is a Memoir Anyway? Print E-mail

Avery-Girl-Writing(Etude: New Voices in Literary Nonfiction Winter 2009)

A writer friend is telling me about an agent who phoned the other day. "She got right to the point," my friend says. "‘I’m sorry,’ the agent said, ‘but we won’t be representing your manuscript.’" ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it’s a memoir, and a memoir has to read like a novel.’ ‘It does?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ the agent said. ‘It does.’ ‘And who says so?’ ‘The market says so,’ she replied. ‘And yours, I’m sorry to say, is not there yet.’"

My friend shrugs; it’s early in the rejection game so she’s not sure how to react. In support, I tell her that agents often don’t know what they want. Their deferring to "the market" makes their rejecting you stomachable. It’s tough, I say, selling a book about yourself when your self is unknown. A celebrity has it easy. Her face is already a contract.

The Self-Reliant Classicist: An Introduction to the Art of John Abel Print E-mail

war-criminals(San Diego Art Institute Press December 2008)

Finally, at what may be the early late middle stage of John Abel’s career, we have, with his show at Earl & Birdie Taylor Library in Pacific Beach, thirty years’ worth of the fifty-three-year-old’s paintings, drawings, and graphics. And what a magnificent catalog of Abel’s oeuvre the San Diego Art Institute press has published—the incisive work of a caricaturist, draftsman, and painter whose discipline is classical, expressionistic, and pugnaciously self-confident.

At UC Riverside in the 1970s, one professor’s masturbatory mania for conceptual art made him angry and quit. (Abel still disdains any art that avoids the time-tested strategies of beauty, composition, and meaning.) Wandering out of academe for good and rediscovering Drucker, he found his calling as a commercial illustrator. From 1984 to 1994, he did hundreds of assignments for weekly rags among them the San Diego Reader. Until one day the phone rang and he was told his skill was passe: they were going digital.

Beguiled By Mozart's Image Print E-mail

Krafft(Cadillac Cicatrix Issue 2.0, Winter, 2008)

In 1819, an unknown artist, Barbara Krafft, painted what has become the most recognizable and beloved image of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that exists. Commissioned by Joseph Sonnleithner to hang in the newly opened Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society for the Friends of Music), a conservatory in Vienna, Krafft's posthumous oil painting is based on (some say plagiarized from) another painting, The Mozart Family, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, a work in possession of Mozart's sister, Nannerl. (Among the other few renderings are Mozart at seven and fourteen, in which he's portrayed as a pasty aristocrat; there are facial profiles as a boxwood medallion and a silhouette.) In the Croce work, dated 1780-81, Nannerl and Wolfgang are playing, perhaps improvising, a duet at the piano; the father, Leopold, is holding a violin and looking on; and the scene is countenanced by a trophy-head-like portrait of the composer's mother, Anna Maria, who died in 1778. In 1781, Mozart would have been 25; he would have just married Constanze and premiered his first opera seria, Idomeneo.

Mrs. Wright's Bookshop Print E-mail

bookshop(New Letters Volume 74, No. 3. Summer 2008. First-place tie with Kim Addonizio in New Letters’ Readers Award for the Essay, 2007-2008.)

It was over, Mrs. Wright’s reign. I heard the bell clang above the front door, just before Mrs. Auburn, the principled clerk, called my name at the top of the stairs. In the basement, I’d been unpacking boxes, Bantam paperbacks, this batch, the four J. D. Salinger books, two covers white, one gold, and one that dark existential red, the title in gold letters, our big seller. I hurried up the steps from paperbacks to hardbacks, and there was Mrs. Wright, earlier than usual, keeping her word. The windowed door was shut, and the sign’s OPEN side now faced in. Her Chrysler idled out front. It must have been late morning, and late in the summer, too, near Labor Day.

Is the Unexamined Life Worth Voting For? The Memoirs of Clinton, Edwards, and Obama Print E-mail

stateelecredblue512( / Shorts October 12, 2007)

"Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself. It was not merely that [President Bush] did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself. The sense of reality that might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. But then, it is doubtful that warning bells had ever sounded in him before. He had led a charmed life, and in charmed lives warning bells do not sound."

—"Getting Iraq Wrong" Michael Ignatieff The New York Times Magazine August 5, 2007

We Are Their Heaven Print E-mail

GP__Me_1( / Shorts July 2007)

In the last year of his life, Grandpa Wallin quit driving. For years he tooled his big Plymouth over the beveled streets, the grey, rough asphalt dark from rain or silvered by the sun. When my brothers and I rode in the back seat, he’d crab, for God’s sake, stop all that commotion. On Sundays he used to ride with us to our ritual breakfasts, a family outing so Grandma didn’t have to cook. One day, we were half way out the door when he said he didn’t feel well and was staying home. He wasn’t sickly. A retired newspaper ad salesman of fifty-three years, he seemed to be at work even at home, putting on a white shirt every day and sitting in his chair, reading. He was as stolid as ever to my nine-year-old mind. He might have been tired, though I don’t remember him napping except, maybe, when the book got dull and it rested on his stomach. (The man checked out four or five books a week from the library, Zane Grey and Frank Yerby, and read religiously.) Someone said he might have had indigestion, especially after my family’s breathless eating when we descended on our grandparents every holiday. Grandma Wallin would press him to say what was wrong, but he didn’t say. He fluttered a hand at her. Don’t fuss. Leave me be, woman.

The rest of this story is available as a Kindle eBook at for $1.99: "We Are Their Heaven."

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