Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Happy Birthday, Katie.

Friday, October 24, 2008

34 Hours

Nine months ago, at Rise Sushi with Dave and Meghan Cashman, we got to talking about holding a 5K memorial race in Katie’s honor. I think we understood that we had a good idea, and that if we set the idea in motion, then people directly and indirectly connected to us would join the effort and help to get it done. I remember understanding that the first thing we needed to do was get a permit, so Meghan got on the phone, then I got on the phone, then we both wrote letters, and a few months later, I had a message on my cell phone from Mayor Frank Loffredo of Lake Villa, IL, stating that not only had our application to hold a 5K in the Sun Lake Forest Preserve had been approved, but that we could use the adjacent baseball lots to host any overflow parking. Ed and I had had a series of serious discussions about what a memorial foundation in Katie’s name might involve, and agreed we would give it a go and hope for the best. Katie’s family and some of her best friends headed down to Miami to witness the newly-formed KMF giving away the first scholarship in Katie’s name, to support someone doing the sort of work for which Katie was admired.

Those next few months, Meghan, Dave, and I had a few more dinners together. We talked on the phone. We made a plan. Katie’s friend from high school, Amy Dogan, designed a KMF bandanna and t-shirt. Katie’s mom, Judy, and her husband, John, started working in the Antioch and Lake Villa communities to feel out what we might think about doing, making contacts with local businesses, churches, newspapers, colleagues, and friends. Church bulletins and local news stories appeared. The Knights of Columbus offered to park cars. Kayla, Emma, and Chloe sketched out an idea for a kids’ race, as well as some unusual prizes for spirited participants. Katie’s dad, Greg, and his wife, Beth, helped Katie’s nieces and nephews to make two giant banners for the event. Ed consolidated all of the race materials, and worked out a deal with a printer. Kayla’s KMF pamphlet and Chloe’s KMF bookmark arrived by the hundreds. Jason Birchler, our fearless KMF webmaster, realized Emma’s website design for KMF, and updated our whole web operation. Michelle designed our display poster, and worked with Judy and John to put together some of the intangibles. Anamarie and Martin, and Mom and Dad bought tickets to fly in from Florida, excited to work the race. KMF started receiving registration forms and payments online.

I keep trying to think about what to expect from Saturday’s event. I’ve gone back and forth on this in so many ways, gone over it so many times. It’s the sort of thing, for me, where I think I can catch myself having irrational thoughts, and yet somehow I can’t help it. For example, I know that our love for Katie, collectively and individually, has no relation in any way with the number of people who show up. But I also know that if more people show up, I’ll feel like we did right by Katie. I know that Katie is the last person who would want to be memorialized on a t-shirt. But I also know that I’m so incredibly excited to wear my t-shirt at the event, heck, to even have a KMF t-shirt. I know that there are a million little moving pieces to doing this event—and doing it for the first time!—and that any one piece slightly knocked out of whack might mean that things will get a little hairy. But I also know that I feel like we can or should somehow anticipate every last problem. I know that it will most likely rain, freeze, cloud over, muddy up, threaten to rain. But I hope it will be a beautiful morning.

The truth is that nothing we ever do will right Katie’s absence in our lives. And yet, I feel like if we don’t try, then we’ve really given up, and that’s much worse. I think that maybe life is more like that last scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that we ever really want to acknowledge, always fantasizing Bolivia and worrying Joe Lefors when the entire Mexican army is lying in wait. I do know that, for me, KMF is bigger, badder, and better than what I think we ever thought it would be at this point. More people are involved in a wider range of activities than we imagined we’d undertake nine months in. I don’t know that KMF needs to keep growing. It might be better if we focus our energies on repeating some of what we did this first year, fine-tuning it, making it better, focusing our mission and vision so that, in the long-term, we are a sustainable organization honoring Katie in the ways that we mean to. Ultimately, I think the right way to handle things will, with time, become pretty obvious.

I got into Chicago this evening, and am whiling away the late-night hours trying to adapt my writer’s life hours on West Coast time to the digs here. Being in Chicago so far is wonderful. Sheila, Aidan and Connor met me at the El blue line station, and we went out to dinner. After dinner, Aidan and I played Go Fish, waiting for Jeff to get home from Philly. Tomorrow night, I’ll see the LaPlantes, Shaffers, Yearouts, Cashmans, Mom and Dad, and Vincent and Jean, who just returned from a seven-week archeological dig in Syria. Amidst figuring out who is doing what and explaining why we need to all be at the Forest Preserve at 6:30am on Saturday morning (oh, you bet I’ve put together an itinerary), we will be together. I think how I learned from Katie to constantly seek out new ways to be kind and thoughtful. When I think about Katie, now, I sometimes think in such broad strokes. My mind doesn’t always fix on particular memories the way it used to. It’s like I’ve gone over and through things so many times. Then I think how, a few months from now, I’ll remember both what it felt like to be writing this tonight, and what it felt like to have completed this weekend a few days before Katie’s 32nd birthday. Here’s hoping for clear skies—good kite-flying weather—and many racers carrying small bills.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

Maybe the most remarkable thing about tracking, consuming, and digesting large amounts of media and culture on a regular basis is discovering the gaps. How have I read so many essays by Chuck Klosterman, yet none of the novels of Michael Ondaatje and Isabelle Allende? Listened to so much Sufjan Stevens but (until recently) so little Rilo Kiley? Watched so much Lost and House and Weeds but am only now seeking out Dexter and Californication? Did Jose Feliciano really receive death threats after publicly altering the chords to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” playing an acoustic version of the national anthem during the 1968 World Series? Is everyone doing this Facebook thing except me? How can nearly every Camera Obscura song be so damn good?

Large gaps in poetry knowledge are, sadly, unremarkable. There are so many talented poets writing today that you only discover by recommendation, through proximity, or via dumb luck. I recently purchased Mark Doty’s Fire To Fire: New and Selected Poems. It’s an amazing collection. I had always known Doty by reputation, but had only read some of his poems online and in anthologies, here and there. Taken all at once, they are amazing, ranging from meditations on death and dying, to lyrical celebrations of youthful love and innovation, to narratives about walking in New York City and thinking about Buddhist proverbs among inconsiderate drivers. Knowing Doty’s work and adding it to my poetry collection is sort of like buying a nice jacket that you wear everywhere: how did I ever get around without it?

I re-purchased two of my favorite poetry books last week, Catherine Bowman’s 1-800-HOT-RIBS and Jay Snodgrass’s Monster Zero. I had lent both out to friends at some point, and they never came back. I discovered both of these collections while a graduate student at FIU. Jay graduated from FIU a couple of years ahead of me, and remains a good friend. People often mistake both of us for a famous actor. In the spring of 2006, before I flew to Romania, I took a weekend poetry workshop in Miami with Bowman, who struck me as one of the sharpest and most well-read poetry minds around. Her third collection, Notarikon, is also a favorite. So many people seem to end up on my blog after google-searching either “Catherine Bowman” or “Spice Night” (one of Katie’s favorite poems, which I posted here last July), so I know I’m not alone in my admiration. I keep hoping that one day it will turn out she was google-ing herself all this time, and so will leave a post saying “Hey, I remember you!” but so far no luck.

“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” is the second song on Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run album. Loosely re-telling the story of the E Street Band’s formation, the song is upbeat, vibrant, and rocks hard in the way that many of Springsteen’s best songs do, loudly, behind a tight rhythm section. The lyrics are clever and beautiful, if a little elliptical (Springsteen claims he still has no idea what a “tenth avenue freeze-out” is). It’s the sort of song you get more out of with the lyrics in front of you, while you’re listening, and then, still, you kind of wonder. When it was released, people listening to the song on the radio loved it, but could never figure out the words to the chorus, and so had no idea what to request when they called the radio station. The song floundered, then disappeared from rotation. Today, it’s a fan favorite, with Clarence Clemon’s tenor out front, and has been featured on all of Springsteen’s tours with the E Street Band.

I’ve always wondered how Springsteen’s made the band work so well over the years. Here’s where I’ll most likely expose some wild ignorance about the band’s general back-story and evolution through the years. It seems like there are a lot of personalities, and much talent, to keep above water, especially over the course of such a long association (nearly 36 years to date). I do know that the drummer, Max Weinberg, has a separate regular gig as Conan O’Brien’s backing bandleader; the guitarist Steve Van Zandt played Silvio on The Sopranos; Patti Scialfa is Springsteen’s second (and current) wife; and Roy Bittan is one of those names you drop among rock/musically knowledgeable strangers for some instant cache. Springsteen wrote one song, “Bobby Jean,” about Van Zandt, as a kind of acknowledgement of their closeness at a time when Van Zandt left the band for a while, believing Springsteen had lost his musical way.

In the Stegner program last week, we work-shopped the first part of “Katie Ghazals,” the series of ghazals that I wrote for the one-year anniversary of Katie’s death. I had mixed feelings about bringing them to workshop. On the one hand, I wanted to sort of ground people’s understanding of the writing that I do and on which I want feedback. Most of my current writing reflects on aspects of Katie’s life, our time together, and her place in my life. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be that guy who brings personal tragedy into the public forum and then plays/insists on his colleagues’ sympathies. In the end, I did what felt riskier, and feels, now, like it was the right thing. It’s good for me to hear where these poems work and don’t work, from talented writers/readers who didn’t know Katie personally.

Another benefit has been to hear what other people see going on in these poems. Ken Fields, the professor teaching workshop this quarter, pointed out a line in the second of the eleven ghazals, “Indianapolis,” in which I talk about how I always wanted to hit traffic outside of Lafayette, so that we’d have a little more time together getting back to Chicago, listening to Lucinda Williams. Writing it in the ghazal, given the context, that line obviously expresses a desire for more time together, and references indirectly Katie’s death. However, when I wrote it, I didn’t see that—I was just trying to capture what, for me, was an essential and favorite part of knowing and spending time with Katie. Alongside ideas about lines, diction, the general order of things, etc. this sort of feedback is genuinely therapeutic. There exists for other people a vast potential of things I intended to say and said, alongside many things that make a lot of sense, which I didn’t always see myself doing as I did it. It’s like something that Campbell McGrath told us in workshop at FIU—to let someone else be the expert about what you do and say in your poems, because chances are they’ll always see more than you do.

“Katie Ghazals” is important to me, personally and artistically, because it feels like a watershed moment of reckoning. The poems that I am writing right now reflect new experiences, landscapes, and people. I like that. It means that something new is happening, and new is generally a good thing. In the meantime, I’m going back over some of the bigger works from the last year. It’s strange to think that there is a kind of shelf life to certain works, that some have stronger legs than others. Or maybe, as some suggest, a work of art is most relevant for what it says about the time in which it was created. Recently, listening to Explosions in the Sky’s “First Breath After Coma,” I get these flashbacks to where I was last year, at the beginning of autumn, watching “Friday Night Lights” on Netflix while doing pilates. Sometimes, I’d fire myself up watching Coach Taylor fire up Matt Saracen, and go for a long walk around the neighborhood or to the grocery store, then come back and take a nap. That was my day. I can’t really explain it, and the video below will probably just seem cheesy as all get-out, so maybe this last move doesn’t really work—I think I’ll only know a few months from now, reading back through this. The thing about good art, whatever the medium, sometimes, is that it makes sense intuitively. It locates you in an exact moment, now or then. It makes sense to you, and when it works well—really well—whatever it seems to say, it makes sense to someone else.

Friday, October 10, 2008

KMF is now a 501(c)(3) organization!

Good news today: the IRS informed KMF that it is now designated a 501(c)(3) federally tax-exempt nonprofit charitable organization! This status benefits KMF in many ways. Being recognized by the IRS enhances our public legitimacy. We will be exempt from paying taxes on many organizational activities. We will be able to seek a wider range of funds from a more diverse group of donors, including governmental organizations and other nonprofit charities.

Family and friends have always know how KMF honors Katie's life and work with the good work that it does. Now, with our 501(c)(3) status, people and organizations less familiar with us can get on board as well. With the upcoming 10/25 KMF Fun Run & Walk, KMF is undertaking its most ambitious project to date. It's a good time to have new ways to reach and to impress new people.

Speaking of the Fun Run & Walk: KMF is hoping that participants will register via mail or online well before the date of the event. This will help us to better anticipate our costs and materials needs this first time out. So far, early registration has been a bit sparse. So, if you plan to attend, PLEASE consider registering via mail or online soon. Thanks!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Senator Biden Choking Up

This moment in last night's debate surprised me as I watched it live. Rewatching it today, a few times, I'm surprised by how moved I am by his words. Whatever his professional shortcomings, Biden has overcome some tragic stuff to become the man and leader that he is today. I don't mean to rankle or cajole, but rather to share what I see, now, personally, as a very powerful moment of humanity from a politician I've never considered much more than a stuffed shirt--a moment that speaks to me directly and moves me very much. Thank you, Senator Biden, for your candor.