29 December 2003

Monday Afternoon

Not quite 3:30 pm. I'm in Studio 207 in the Handicraft Guild Building in downtown Minneapolis, MN -- home of artist Kevin Cannon. [Kevin wants me to put a link here to his newest cartoon, DOBEY! -- Apparently, this is just the first of many episodes in the life of Dobey.... call the trumpeters, rejoice.] Just returned from a lunch near the window in a third floor niche overlooking 7th Street. Minneapolis today is a lovely snowglobe of quiet flakes and soft lights. In other words, home.

I looked forward to this moment for months: caught between the frozen earth and the great gray sky, surprised by sudden snow. It happened this morning, as Kevin and I walked to the ochre bricks and wooden doors of the Handicraft Guild Building. Snow.

It has snowed several times while I've been home -- when I was in Grinnell, I stood outside of Steiner at 3:00 in the morning and willed the tiny snowflakes to grow in the light of the old-fashioned streetlamps; when I was in Oregon, an entire day of tiny snowflakes outside my livingroom window; when I was driving home from Ila's house on Gorham, mentally beseeching the falling ice to switch to snow -- but this morning was the first perfect snowfall of the season (for me at least).

The last two weeks have been full of wonderful people (though sadly there are a few terribly important people I missed -- you know who you are) and great moments. Last night for example, sitting on the couch between Carrie and Kevin, laughing at some lame joke carried all the way from gourmet house... or sitting with Cindy and Memo as they opened their cactus... driving on Lincoln Road with my sister, talking about old loves and new lives... eating gross fast food breakfast with Ali on Summer Street -- and breakfast at the New West Side with Ali and Adam and Larry -- and breakfast with Jean in her sunny little kitchen -- and breakfast this morning with Kevin and Kate at Pannekoeken Huis, where the wait staff apparently has to sing out "Pannekoeken!!" every time they deliver one to a table.... The problem with all this, of course, is that I start to wonder what I'm doing 1500 miles away from the people I love best in the world.

One important thing I have realized coming home is that I can't see Oregon or Madison or Grinnell through new eyes. Wherever I look, I see layers -- I see things not only as they are now, but as they were when I was 21, and 18, and in Oregon, as they were when I was 9 and 12 and 4. My whole adult life, I've been searching for the eyes of a new writer -- looking for ways to make the world seem new again, as it was when I first picked up a pen and realized I could make the world my own through words. At home, I've lost the ability to be happily surprised, lost the ability to see the small streets of Oregon with wonder. In the west, I have new vision. In New Mexico, I have moments of sparkling clarity, where everything I see is illuminated.

As Mr. Root once told me, "The trick is to find that at home."

10 December 2003

Wednesday Night

Well, we've always wondered, and now we know:
The Airspeed Velocity of an Unladen Swallow


T-minus SIX DAYS before I leave for the midwest! Needless to say, I am very excited about my imminent departure, and can't wait to fill my eyes with the faces of my beloved Northern Folk (as if you were a tribe of dwarves with hairy feet, no?) in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. I plan to arrive in Iowa late Wednesday night (Dec 17) or early Thursday morning (the 18th) & stay until the 20 or 21. I'll be Wisconsin-Bound on the weekend, and will of course make a short trip up to the TC in MN between Xmas and the new year.

One funny thing is that my boss can never remember which state I'm from, and keeps telling people I'm going home to Michigan or Minnesota. Lots of native New Mexicans seem to believe that everything above the Mason-Dixon is basically Canada (including New York, Miss Brown). Living in different regions in the country helps me to remember/realize how regional we all are. When I lived in Boston, I heard "I've only ever been on the coasts" over and over again. Far worse, of course, was the "I have a hard time believing that people actually have lives out there!" On the other hand, there are a lot of midwestern transplants out here, so there's almost always someone with whom I can talk about Precipitation Envy.

....Which is to say that I am jealous of all of you snuggling under blankets of snow!! It did snow in the East Mountains the other night, so I got to make a snowball yesterday morning and go on a snowwalk with Jennie & Hito in the afternoon, but it has not snowed at all in ABQ. Furthermore, though the parking lot was still rather icy today, it was warm enough in Moriarty to go without a coat this afternoon. As usual.

I've had to supplement the lack of snow in my life with this snowglobe. I'm not even going to admit how much it amuses me, and for how long. I especially like it when the Christmas Carols are interrupted by screams.


In other news, the reports of my father's death are greatly exaggerated. Apparently he was listed as deceased in a recent edition of his fraternity's newsletter, so now people are calling him up to ask, "Dude, are you, like, DEAD?"


It's been a Heatherrific week! I spent most of Monday night talking to Miss Heather James, the brilliant young writer and aspiring doctor, catching up on years of gossip about friends and men and tatoos and, you know, Jebus. Then today, I heard from Miz Heather Moore, who just finished reading The Giver. Fun! I look forward to seeing her & the big, bad 8th graders at Berg Middle School (next week!!).....

05 December 2003

Friday morning

This is my life right now:
It's 8:24 am on a Friday morning in December, and I'm happily breakfasting on leftover chicken enchiladas with blue corn tortillas & green chile from this tiny little mom'n'pop place whose existence is a secret carefully and jealously guarded by locals. The dog is sleeping in a patch of sunlight on my bed, and I just broke the second bowl in under a week. The first one I didn't even mind breaking, because it made such a satisfying smash on our Mexican tiles, but the second one just made a thud on the linoleum. I'm listening to an old Hot Dish show -- 7 March 2002, I believe (also known as the "animal episode") -- on tape. "Hot Dish for Lunch! (with Mary and Molly)" was my radio show -- with co-DJ Mary Hoeschen of Duluth, MN -- on Grinnell's radio station, KDIC. Happily, I have most of our shows on tape, and have taken to listening to them on bleary-eyed mornings. I'd much rather listen to senior-year-Mary and senior-year-Molly (and sometimes special guest stars s-y-Dan, s-y-George, s-y-Kevin, and Beck) joke about the West Side Diner, Norweigan statues in northern Minnesota, the Pub, evading campus security, tiger alarm clocks, and other such nonsense than listen to shrill "shock jocks" on crappy morning radio. Any day. Of course, I prefer the selection of music that Mary & I played to the "selection" most radio stations play (with the exception, perhaps, of WMMM in Madison and KUNI in central Iowa). Plus, almost all of my Hot Dish tapes has the first ten minutes of Chris Rathjen's & Nick Wagner's show, which had a ridiculously long name -- "Chris & Nick's something something Smileytime de Vida, (fiesta extravaganza bonanza ole!)." Their show came after ours, and always made me laugh. Every Thursday after our show, Mary and I would go to Dairy Queen for lunch, then I'd drop Mary off at work and go to Bob's Underground Cafe. I was the manager of Bob's then, and on Thursdays I'd meet the delivery guy, inventory & put away the week's supply of Tofutti Cuties & other organic stuff, and do the bank from the previous night -- all the while listening to Chris & Nick's show, sometimes laughing out loud, often calling in to joke with them.

Anyhow, to all the angry people who emailed me saying "Update your goddamn blog!" I extend my sincerest apologies.

Oh, and CONGRATULATIONS HEATHER JAMES for surviving the big NaNoWriMo challenge! Very proud of you, darling.

So it's December, the special time of year when you can't even get an oil change without having to suffer through yet another rendition of "Santa Baby" or "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer." I made the mistake of saying something at work about how it still seemed a little early for so much xmas, and one of the thrift store girls stared at me in disbelief. "Molly, there are only 3 shopping weekends before Christmas." Uh, sorry.

Here's the problem: it's too warm to be almost-christmas! The mornings usually start off with a chill, but by mid-afternoon it's almost always warm enough to run around in a tee-shirt. A tee-shirt! It's not time for Christmas until it's too cold outside to do anything but run from your car to whatever building is closest, even if it's your neighbor's house. My northern friends keep telling me about snow, and I am one jealous girl. It snowed once, about three weeks ago, but only in the mountains, and it all melted the next day.

However, I did go to Colorado for Thanksgiving, and got to play in a little bit of snow there. The drive to Pagosa Springs from Albuquerque was just amazing. It's only 200 miles -- less than the distance from Grinnell to Oregon -- and (no offense, Iowa and Wisconsin) it's a far prettier drive than the 240 mile stretch of 151 I know by heart. Driving north on 84, you pass through chain after chain of snow-capped mountains, which grow ever more wild and breathtaking as you go. The land around Abiquiu, too -- the part of New Mexico where Georgia O'Keeffe lived at her "Ghost Ranch" -- is just stunning, with its rocky cliffs striped in reds & oranges. And then the last hour of the drive -- from Chama to Pagosa -- was just incredibly picturesque (in the old-fashioned sense of the word), and for a while I thought of the Romantics & their sense of the sublime --- until I caught myself & forced myself to think along less intellectual lines.

I have more to report, of course, but I need to wrap this up or I'll be late to the day-long meeting I have to attend today. BO-ring!

Until next time, here's Anna Karenina (Or, Like, Most Of It), a sestina.

18 November 2003

Tuesday Night

Time: Tue, 18 Nov 2003 12:59:49 -0600
From: "Backes, Eileen"
To: "Molly Backes"
Subject: FW: Belief-O-Matic Belief-O-Matic Selector Results

Hi, Moll -

I took the quiz in your blog and thought you might be scared
to see just how closely my answers matched yours. By the way,
I read the Onion article - Mother Discovers Blog - last week
and only found it mildly amusing.

BUT, I was ALARMED and APPALLED to think of the time and
money and effort spent educating you as an English teacher
and writer when I saw the incorrect and grating usage of
language in your blog of 11-17-03. Namely, to paraphrase,
"the Chataqua, begun by Mike and Davey and Ian and

I could not believe it. I still can't. What the hell?
Nostalgia about OHS making you write in Oregonics???
Like an ignorant hick?? Jeeeez, Mol....

If there is an explanation for this I'd be interested in hearing it.

Love, from the mommy who USED to be an English major
and still knows you should have used "me"


Aack! I AM appalled!! Obviously what I meant to write was,
"...The Chautauqua, begun by Mike and Ian and Davey and YOURS TRULY."

My sincerest apologies for this grave error.


In other news, today my bully-proofing sixth graders were writing PA announcements to be read over the intercom, and at the end of class I had each group come up and read their announcement to the rest of the class.

This one kid got up and said sincerely, "We'd like to dedicate this one to all our friends in Pink Floyd," and then played the air guitar for a moment ("nuh nuh NUH NUH NUH!") before singing,

"We don't need no pushy bullies!
Nuh nuh nuh NUH NUH nuh nuh NUH NUH
HEY! BULLIES! Leave those kids alone!!"

Needless to say, I laughed so hard I cried.

17 November 2003

Monday morning

After an extremely busy week, I get the morning off. Even though my boss insisted that I not come in to the office this morning, I still feel naughty & indulgent, like I’m playing hooky. For a job that was supposed to be part time and give me lots of time to write, it’s taking up a huge amount of room in my brain. Last night before I went to sleep my last thought was of the office, and my first thought this morning was the same. Arrgh.

Saturday was our big Winter Wildlife Family Fun Fair in Moriarty, co-sponsored by the Crossroads Program (my high school students in Moriarty!), the Torrance Project Office, and Talking Talons. It was smaller than we had hoped, but went off beautifully overall. I was particularly stressed about it, because my role was twofold: not only did I have a huge part in planning (we’ve been working on this event as long as I’ve been with TT) and running the event itself, but also I was co-leading one of the breakout workshops. My co-presenter was a man with whom I’d never before presented, nor had I ever seen him speak publicly, so our plan of “structured winging it” made me anxious. However, he’s from Duluth, and lived in Madison for a while, so whenever he’d notice that I was getting overwrought, he’d say something about cheese curds or Lutheran potlucks, and I’d calm down. Our session must have gone well, because afterward a woman from the New Mexico Department of Health came up to me and asked if I was available to speak at conferences and if so, could she have my card? I was flattered and told her that of course I’d love to, but laughed at the idea that I’d have a card.

Last week was also our big Caring Community meeting, with a terribly small attendance due to the weather (more about that in a moment). However, the mayor of Tijeras, Gloria Chavez, did show up, so the meeting wasn’t a total bust. Last week was also our first day of teaching out at Moriarty Middle School with the Crossroads kids, which also went well – though it means that from now on I’ll need to leave my house at 6:45 am EVERY WEDNESDAY until school’s over. Awesome.

Enough about work. Last Thursday was the first big snowstorm of the year! Of course, it only snowed in the East Mountains; in Albuquerque it was just another rainy day. This is something I still haven’t gotten used to: that the weather in my backyard does not always prepare me for the weather where I work. For you Wisconsinites, it is as if you leave your house in Oregon where it’s in the 50s and raining, and drive to Madison where it’s in the low 30s and blizzarding. You spend all day in Madison, consumed with the blizzard – of course it’s the main thing everyone’s talking about, because they’re all so worried about the conditions of the roads on the way home – and then you drive back to Oregon at night, where it’s just been drizzling all day and most people don’t even realize that it’s been snowing in Madison. It’s so strange!

Another thing that I find strange is the way people talk about weather: “If there’s weather tomorrow we may not be able to go out to Moriarty.” “Expect a call from me if there’s weather, because I may not make it to the meeting.” What? In my mind, there’s always weather. It may be bad or good, hot or cold, sunny or cloudy, but it’s always there, right? Isn’t weather just a word that describes the atmospheric conditions?

I tried to explain this to Danielle, and she said, “Yes, but when people say ‘weathering’ they mean ‘getting through something bad,’ and therefore weather is bad.”

I said, “No, ‘weathering’ is a clipped form of the expression ‘weathering the storm,’ and ‘the storm’ is understood when you say ‘weathering.’

She said, “Okay, but whenever you talk about the chance of weather, you mean bad weather.”

I said, “If the weather’s good this weekend, we’ll have a picnic. If the weather’s warm tomorrow, we’ll go swimming.”

Things nerds argue about.


On another note entirely, in a recent issue of the Oregon Observer, there is an article about a girl who is a senior at OHS and is being allowed to stage a full-length original musical there. How cool is that? Apparently, this musical even has – gasp – adult issues like homosexuality and alcoholism! Amazing! The thing about the article that most struck me, though, was an aside about what this girl (I believe her name is Katrina Harms) does when she’s not directing and producing an original musical. Among other things, she’s the editor of The Chatauqua, Oregon’s very own literary magazine. The Chatauqua!! Its ongoing existence is startling and wonderful. Founded in the spring of 1995 by a small group of students (including but perhaps not limited to Mike O’Brien ‘96, Adam Waskowski ‘96, Davey Pascoe ‘96, Ian Honeyman ‘96, and myself), The Chatauqua was always something of an underground paper. We had an advisor (Leyla Sanyer) mostly as a formality, and the editor-in-chief was a position more like the papacy than the presidency in its appointment. Mike was the official editor-in-chief (I believe) that first year with Ian or Adam doing layout (I think), and when they graduated Katy Powers ‘98 and I took over all aspects of production, from soliciting submissions to selecting contents to layout and distribution. When we graduated, we placed our baby in the hands of Catie Honeyman ‘00, who passed it on to Caitlyn Kiley. I was so excited to see that The Chatauqua still lives, I felt compelled to write a note to the current editor, care of Oregon High School.


Delving into the world of politics, I have some interesting links I’ve been saving. First, of course, there’s this photo of George Bush signing the so-called partial-birth abortion ban into law. It’s on the White House’s own website, and I think it’s a very striking picture, considering the fact that the law mainly affects women. Where are they, George? In the kitchen where they belong?

Oh America, you sure are of (a small number of) the people, by the (primarily male, white) people, for the (rich and powerful) people. For those of you who were still thinking this is a democracy, this article should sort things out for you. Even (other-dimension president) Al Gore is speaking out these days – in this article he accuses the administration of Orwellian tactics. When we lived in Boston, Ali and I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Big Brother is my cousin!” Perhaps it should have said, “Big Brother is my president!” Not that I’m bitter, of course. Even more shocking than Gore’s criticisms of Bush is this, originally published in Time (in 1998), in which George Bush Sr writes about why we shouldn’t invade Iraq. Recently, it mysteriously disappeared from Time’s archives. Hmmmm.....

Now, if you’re uncertain about which non-Bush candidate you should support, this candidate selector quiz may help you. I’m sure Dad will be disappointed to see that my number 2 match (after my number 1 “ideal candidate”) is not Wesley Clark....

My results:
1. Your ideal theoretical candidate. (100%)
2. Dean, Gov. Howard, VT - Democrat (83%)
3. Kucinich, Rep. Dennis, OH - Democrat (75%)
4. Edwards, Senator John, NC - Democrat (74%)
5. Gephardt, Rep. Dick, MO - Democrat (69%)
6. Green Party Candidate (66%)
7. Clark, Retired General Wesley, AR - Democrat(65%)
8. Socialist Candidate (59%)
9. Kerry, Senator John, MA - Democrat (56%)
10. Sharpton, Reverend Al - Democrat (50%)
11. Lieberman, Senator Joe, CT - Democrat (44%)
12. Libertarian Candidate (36%)
13. LaRouche, Lyndon H. Jr. - Democrat (32%)
14. Moseley-Braun, Former Senator Carol, IL - Democrat (17%)
15. Bush, President George W. - Republican (14%)
16. Phillips, Howard - Constitution (8%)
17. Hagelin, Dr. John - Natural Law (4%)


Recently, I pulled out Ann Harleman’s Bitter Lake, one of the books I go back to again and again, and out fell a sheet of paper covered with sentences like these:
“Molly is a wonderful companion.”
“Molly is in isolation now so we have to wear gowns and gloves whenever we are in the room with her.”
“Molly is extremely smart.”
“Molly is a cute blond spayed golden.”
“Molly is bad enough to warrant a strong ‘please stay away’ warning.”
“Molly is quite the case.”
“Molly is a metaphor.”
“Molly is a fox.”
“Molly is short on her rent money.”
“Molly is singled out by her classmates.”
“Molly is great in bed.”
“Molly is at her breaking point.”
“Molly is my mantra.”
“Molly is in a whole different category.”

Upon finding this paper, I was puzzled for a moment until I remembered Googlisms!, which were quite popular when I was a senior in college.

I must confess that many of my links (often the most interesting ones) come from Eric Simpson, who is an English Professor at Grinnell. Normally I’m delighted to follow his links, but I must say that one of his most recent links rather dismayed me. What did other people do when they were your age? Yes, I really needed to know that Eliot wrote The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock at my age....

08 November 2003

She's Got Soul

I once (ca. spring 1999) posted on my plan about wanting to lease my soul to Satan for a shiny red truck. Four and a half years later, I have a shiny black truck and still own my soul. But, seeing as how it's worth $62,863.56, if I sell it now I can pay back all my student loans and pay off my shiny black truck.

Should I or shouldn't I? On the one hand, it's not going to get any more pure (currently more pure than 80% of the world's souls) as the days go by & will probably only decrease in value.
On the other hand, some might say that having a soul is important.

How much is your soul worth?

Either You're On The Bus, Or...

Apparently, Tim Kerber's soul is worth nearly twice as much as mine. He wants to know what kind of vehicle he should sell his soul for. I suggest a Jesus Bus, and have found two possibilities (each terrifying in its own way):
The Happy Jesus Bus
The Unhappy Jesus Bus

05 November 2003

Oh, most miraculous of mornings! After staying awake far too late last night, I awoke fully an hour before my alarm went off, convinced I'd overslept. I couldn't believe that I could possibly feel this rested on only five hours of sleep -- and yet I felt great! Moreover, once I'd triple-checked my clock, I burrowed deep into my fluffy bed, curled up next to the dog sleeping warm in the patch of sunlight, and slept for another 45 minutes. Oh heaven.

Yesterday, before class, I sat out by the voc/ag building intending to scribble some notes to later paste in my journal. Instead, I wrote a poem:


Moriarty you are flat like Iowa
browner and more dusty, like the moon
holding a footprint in your earth
for hours, days, while grasshoppers
flip across your pebbled face
Moriarty your horizons are voluptuous
and you gaze longingly west, north,
like a young girl, south, east
surrounded by women
You are grass-stained and dirty Moriarty
You have just fallen out of a tree
and stop to take a breath
before bounding away through the desert
bourne aloft on your longing

All the Frank O'Hara I've been reading lately comes through quite clearly. My latest indulgence is Joe LeSueur's Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara which is more of an auto/biography than a work of literary criticism. It's campy and bitchy and fun, and I'm happy to return to the old circle of familar names: Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Elaine de Kooning, Bob Rauschenberg, Kenneth Koch, Mike Goldberg....


As you may know, November is National Novel Writing Month, and for the last five years, thousands of people across the world have taken the NaNoWriMo Challenge, in which they try to write a 50,000 word novel between midnight on Halloween and midnight on November 30.

50,000 words in a month! It's taken me 18 months to write my 29,000....

This year, Miss Heather James has thrown herself into the fray, and I am ever so proud of her. You do realize that in order to successfully complete this marathon, this amazing girl will need to write 1,666 words EVERY DAY for the entire month? As someone who has written a great many papers in the last ten years, I can tell you that 1,666 words is about 6 pages, double-spaced. Amazing! Heather and everyone else crazy enough to take part in this all deserve lots of praise and encouragement.


If you've lots of extra time on your hands, fill the hours with this link, which is pretty much a long (and strangely addictive) list of things a man and his girlfriend have argued about. Hence the title of the page, Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About.


Every night as I drive home, I plan in my head all the things I'll write about: long descriptions of the suddenly wintery moon rising above the cold dark of the mountains against the pale indigo sky, the crisp chill in the air (at last!!), the vibrant golds of a row of aspens down in a little valley along 1-40, the silver of jets taking off each night at dusk, glinting like stars, the warm camraderie of Messiah choir rehearsals (and the odd comfort of returning to the Lutherans -- so many midwesterners!)....

And then I get home, I get distracted, or I try to write and end up waxing poetic about Moriarty instead.

Nevertheless, it's gratifying to know so many of you read this regularly, even if some people believe it's "terribly pedestrian" and "beneath [me]" to keep an online journal. Not to name names, of course....

29 October 2003

A few thoughts:

1. "May lightning strike me down if I am not, in fact, the son of God." BANG!

2. Once again, filling my life with artists and musicians. I actually went out for once last Friday night, to see my friend Brian's band Mistletoe play, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was enjoying myself. Maybe I should leave my weary hermitage more often....

3. Finished, finally, the most work-intensive mix tape in the history of my life, and am still not quite happy with it. Nevertheless, insist on clinging to my old ways of tapes and not going over to the dark side of cd burning.... yet.

4. Julia Alvarez's "In the Name of Salome" -- oh my god. Every daughter/mother/sister in the world should read it, and everyone else should as well.

5. How lucky am I to have a boss who suggests I run home and grab the dog before our late night meeting? I am surrounded by dog people at work, and this is a great great thing.

6. Cam & I are moving to South America in 2005, and if Bush gets re-elected, we may never come back.

7. Did I say "finally finished" the mix tape? I meant "accidentally erased the entire second side."

She writes to me as if we still shared
the same language. The page
a laden sky, filled with flying letters
suspended just above the lines
like blackbirds on the horizon;
the accents -- something smaller
they are punishing.

she writes, forgetting that words
cannot pull me by the elbow....

-- Judith Ortiz Cofer

9. Yesterday in 6th Grade:

-- ...and these two redneck kids brought a needle to school and kept poking each other for fun!
-- Hmm, well that's an example of something all right, but I'm not sure if -- yes?
-- I have a question?
-- Yes?
-- What's a redneck?
-- I know! I know!!
-- Yes?
-- Irish! The Irish!!
-- Yeah, Irish!!
-- No, country!
-- Irish country!
-- Yeah, that's it! Irish country!

One of those rare times, I must confess, that I could not entirely suppress my laughter.

And last week:

"I used to live in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, but then I moved to Albuquerque."

"I know for sure that I'm part Welsh, part Scottish, part German, and some other stuff. My mom's Scottish, German...and she's from Illinois, so I guess I'm half-Illinois."

10. En paz descanse Jack Wilson, who died just two weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. Rest in peace.

Jack was my uncle, the father of my cousin Diane, my only family out here. He married my Aunt Joyce, one of the oldest sisters in my dad's family of nine, and because my dad was the baby of the family there was a significant age gap between him and Jack. Jack filled the hole in my dad's life left by his abusive and alcoholic father (both my grandparents killed themselves when my dad was a teen). My dad got shipped off to spend summers with Jack & Joyce in Iowa, which is when Jack taught him how to do the "Iowa Wave" (two fingers lifted off the steering wheel as you're going 20 miles an hour down the highway) & how to be a good, caring man. Jack taught high school math & coached every sport & taught driver's ed --- he was the kind of teacher that only lives in a small town, who does everything and teaches everyone. He was Diane's hero, and just a few weeks ago she was joking about how her high school math teacher is still her best friend. When Jack retired, the entire town threw him a huge surprise party, and my dad and Megan and I went down to Iowa for it. He was one of those people who honestly touched thousands of lives.

Hard to believe it was just a few weeks ago that he was joking to me on the phone that I should make Diane spoil me here so she could be ready to spoil him on his Christmas visit.

I never thought I'd find myself at a place in my life where I'm too broke and too busy to fly home for a family funeral. One terrible underestimation I made when moving 1500 miles away from home was how much I need my family at times like this. Of course, I had hoped that after my little cousin Jimmy's funeral last May, my family would somehow be spared, at least for the rest of the year....

I would be such a big fan of a year without any deaths in the family. Even a year with only one death, that would be okay. It just seems wrong that eight people in my family have died in the last five years.

I would also be such a big fan of being able to fly home to Iowa for the funeral on Tuesday, which will be held in the high school gymnasium because they're expecting hundreds of people to attend.

And so, in honor of my Uncle Jack, an excerpt from an essay my dad wrote about him:

Jack and I spent many hours together at countryside intersections
in rural Iowa (is that redundant?). His summer job, which is when
I’d be indentured, er, visiting, was to count the cars coming through
the intersection. Just because there weren’t very many cars
coming through doesn’t mean it wasn’t a challenge to Jack’s high
level math skills, because he also had to record the direction they
came from, and the direction they went. “So let’s see,” he might
say, “we had three cars come from the north and turn west, two
went straight, and four turned east.” Wow, I’d say. I think we set a
new record for the southbound cars turning east, didn’t we?”
“Well, the mode is 2.85 and the median is....” Jack was fastidious
in every job I saw him do, including this one, but sometimes I
couldn’t tell whether he was kidding me or not. I liked that. I figured
that counting job was pretty close to the mythical Iowa recreational
activity of watching the corn grow, which I actually came to be
better at than counting cars.

Jack was one of the nicest people I have ever known. He was a lot
like my mother in that way, which is probably why Joyce fell in love
with him. I learned a lot of value lessons from Jack just listening to
him react to Joyce’s sometimes outrageous sense of humor. I don’t
remember the joke, but I do remember the interchange when
Joyce told Kathy and me a funny story about “toe jam”, and Jack
reacted with his calm Southern Iowa accent to say, “Now Joyce,
you shouldn’t be telling those kinds of jokes around these kids.” I
have rarely told a toe jam joke because of the positive influence of
my brother-in-law Jack Wilson.

Jack was also a good role model for me as a father. He wouldn’t
let his four little brats (just kidding) get away with much, and it was
always clear that his love was unqualified. Jack was a great man
and his spirit will live on through me.


"Pain tempers our love of the world, makes it more durable, more real."
– Mark Baechtel

21 October 2003

Multi-tasking right now, which always makes me feel a little chaotic in thought.... It's Sunday night, time to do all the domestic chores I didn't do over the weekend. Currently, I'm running a load of laundry in the wash, and another in the dryer, and--

-- and then Megan called, and I talked to her for almost an hour. We talked about how we both bought big jugs of apple cider and little pumpkins to put on our windowsills, and how it's going to be in the 80s tomorrow in both Albuquerque and Milwaukee.

Zeke is snoring in my bed, the laundry's finished (I folded and put it all away while talking to Megan), and I'm a little nervous about how not-tired I am. I have to drive out to Moriarty tomorrow morning and be there in time for first period, which means I'll need to leave the house around 7:00. The only good thing about that is that I can listen to Morning Edition while I drive, which should make the trip slightly less boring than usual.

Another good thing is that I replaced my favorite halogen lamp (left in Des Moines with Cam, I believe) last week for a mere $4.22. Working in a thrift store is so convenient! Also, I now have a big mattress supplementing my air-mattress, so my bed looks more like a real bed, and less like a poor college student's floor mattress. These are good things. And now, with my many candles and my lamp, I finally can achieve the quality of lighting I like best in my room, the kind that softens the corners and hides the dog hair.

The highlight of the weekend was yesterday, when Lisa and I spent several hours wandering around Albuquerque posting poetry in public spaces: on bulletin boards, on kiosks, in bathroom stalls, in laundry mats, in parking garages, and in phone booths. We put up somewhere around 100 copies, I think, because I printed out four copies of each of twenty-something poems. The titles now gracing our fair city are as follows:

John Ashbery, Paradoxes and Oxymorons
John Ashbery, The Painter
W. H. Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts
Elisabeth Bishop, One Art
Eavan Boland, The Lost Land
Billy Collins, The Flight of the Reader
Rita Dove, Flash Cards
Louise Erdrich, Windigo
Allen Ginsberg, A Supermarket in California
Jorie Graham, The Geese
Robert Hass, Letter
HD (Hilda Doolittle), #39 from The Walls Do Not Fall
LeRoi Jones, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
John Keats, To Autumn
Audre Lorde, Hanging Fire
Edgar Lee Masters, George Gray
Pablo Neruda, Puedo Escribir Los Versos...
Frank O¡¯Hara, Why I Am Not A Painter
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
Adrienne Rich, Song
Wallace Stevens, The Plain Sense of Things
Derek Walcott, The Season of Phantasmal Peace
Richard Wilbur, The Writer

We noticed that many of them -- the Erdrich, the Graham, the Hass, the Keats of course, the Oliver, Rich, Stevens, and even the Walcott, a little -- are autumn poems, but they're autumn poems by northern poets. Lots of falling leaves and flying geese, things we're not getting too much of out here. Ah, well.... Also, I made sure to hang the Walcott over these posters advertising the "George Bush School for Public Administration." Phantasmal peace is right....

I kept thinking of all the times I went out with Nat to hang posters for YB shows, how we'd discuss which posters on a kiosk should be covered or not, how sometimes we'd argue about it, where I'd be defending one poster or event or group, for no real reason but that for some reason it spoke to me, and other times we'd be in total agreement about who should be covered up by the YB posters. Also, I thought of the year I was the Bob's publicity manager, how I'd spent between two and six hours every week walking up and down campus, hanging signs. I had a system down then, wore my rolls of masking tape like bracelets, made five or six different signs at a time and sorted them into piles such that I never hung two of the same signs side by side on the loggia walls. Many weeks, I timed my postering so that I might just casually run into a crush as he got off work, or so I could end my posterwalk in the PEC when Ali was working.

Too, as I wandered through campus with Lisa, and listened to her stories about different classrooms and dorms, I tried to imagine how my life would have been if I had come here for college according to 15 year old Molly's plan. This kind of musing reminds me of geometry, of the logic lessons of conjunctions and disjunctions. If not a, then not b. Only these historical equations tend to turn into long domino chains: If not Grinnell, then not Ali, not Kevin, not Cam, not Carrie, not Jamie, not Mary, not Mark, not Rashmi, not Jean, not Zeke, etc.... My first thoughts are always of people, of course, but I can do it in terms of writing as well: If not Grinnell, then not Bittersweet, not Hanging in the Spaces, not Benediction, not The Bog Girl's Reply, not Habeas Corpus, and so forth. The longer I play this game in my head, the more the equation builds, until it must be reduced for simplicity's sake. The reduction being, of course, if not Grinnell, then not Molly. At least, not this Molly.

Rachel Clark's plan today was all about things she misses. She's in Senegal now, in the Peace Corps with her husband, and she faces the problem that many of us now seem to be bringing upon ourselves: the more places you pull under the umbrella called "home," the less likely you'll ever be able to be home, one hundred percent, ever again. For Rachel, home is Washington (both Sedro-Wooley and Seattle), Iowa, Sri Lanka, and now Senegal. Her plan was familiar to me, of course, because every day is its own list of what's missing in my life. Reading Rachel's list, it occurred to me that any list of what's absent says a lot about what's there. Rachel's list of what she misses tells me more about her day-to-day life than any email or letter.... and I wonder what will be on her missing list in a year and a half, when she and her husband return to the states. Surely Senegal will feel like home when they leave it, maybe even moreso than Seattle will when they return. And I wonder, how many places can a person call home before the word loses its meaning?

Leaving these questions tonight, I'm content to call this place, with Zeke snoring in my bed and pictures of Megan, Ali, Cindy, Tim, Kevin, Ila, Cam, the Fun Nuns, the Thursday night kids, Ma'Pickett, and my parents all gracing the wall above my computer, with my halogen lamp and candles and little pumpkins on the windowsills, with apple cider and a train crying in the distance, for the time being, home.

16 October 2003

Nothing takes the edge off a Monday morning like fanmail!

Time: Mon, 16 Feb 2004 06:56:28 -0800 (PST)
From: emily westergaard
To: molly_backes@alumni.grinnell.edu
Subject: amazing

hi molly,
just got into work this morning and have spent the last 20 minutes reading your echolocation. it's absolutely brilliant and beautiful. it is, like all your stories, amazing, and after the first few lines, i was hooked.

i've also been meaning to write you and tell you that i spent some time reading your poetry on your website (i was looking for inspiration), and my god those pieces are unbelievable. i was captured, just reading them one after the other. half of them i was in tears and the other half i just kept thinking, jesus, this woman is a genius.

anyway, i really enjoy reading all your stuff, and am amazed at the words that lie inside you.

take care
em westergaard

Yay! This means so much to me because Em Westergaard is one of the most beautiful and strong women I've ever known. Thank you, Em!!

13 October 2003

Tonight after work I stopped by Barnie’s in Winrock to visit Miss Lisa. She was there with co-worker Sarah, who was making a crazy embroidered sequined costume for Halloween. “Halloween?” I asked, blinking. Halloween hasn’t meant much to me since, oh, middle school, with the exception of course of my senior year in college when the ladies of White House and I went as the “Bad Habits.” Even then, we each spent about 20 minutes and 10 bucks on our costumes, if even. Then there was Halloween junior year, when I went as a "social construction worker" (some things, I find, are only funny at Grinnell – last year I said something about that costume to my co-teachers at Berg Middle School and they all just scratched their heads and muttered "don’t mind her; she comes from that gay naked college"). Anyhow, social construction worker me and sleepover friend Ali found ourselves at a party composed entirely of women dressed as Hooters girls, with half of the women mad at the other half because half of them had gone to get Hooters tee-shirts without the other half, so the second half went out and got Hooters tank tops to out-hooker them. And they were all in a big fight about who was the cutest. I’m not making this up. I believe it was after approximately five minutes of this nonsense that Ali and I fled the party, ran back across Mac Field to my little single on Main 3rd where we drank far too much whiskey and played M.A.S.H. for the rest of the night.

Anyhow, it was nice to hang with Lisa because it was one of the first times since I’ve been here that I didn’t feel the need to be all restrained and watch my every word; I could relax and read the paper while she served coffee and just idly chat. Pleasant.

When I got home, Zeke was hyper because I’d left so early this morning and didn’t get back until nearly 8:00, so I agreed to go in the back yard and throw his ball for him for a while. After three or four throws, he brought the ball back and dropped it at my feet as usual, but when I bent down to pick it up he jumped up and punched me in the eye socket with his nose. HARD. It took a minute or two for the vision in that eye (my right) to come back, and then I held an icepack over it for a half hour to try to reduce swelling. How perfect will it be when I show up to teach a class called "Bully-proofing" with a huge black eye?

Anyhow, it’s in line with everything else that happened this weekend, from spilling coffee on the wall to breaking my toe....

Because Lisa and I had talked about how we both missed our best friends who live far away, I sent her a copy of the story I wrote for Ali, Migration. For Ali and for my sweet little cousin Jimmy, who liked to play wildlife prairie park and this game where we piled all the big green and orange pillows on one person and then jumped on them. He especially liked it if the pillows were being piled on his dad, my cousin Jim, or on my dad, his great-uncle Roger. Ah, Jimmy. I remember the spring of ‘01, when Ali drove me to Aunt Barb’s funeral in Peoria, I was so proud to introduce her to Jimmy, who was so polite and so much cuter than any of the lame boys at Grinnell.

Anyhow, later I heard back from Lisa saying my story had made her cry, and then right after she read it she got a call from her crying best friend who had just broken up with her boyfriend. Says Lisa, "hope you don't mind, I sent her the story. I told her that I hope it would bring a bit of comfort, because I love her just like Caryn loves Amanda." I’m thinking, how could I mind? Being told that a story of mine made someone cry?

In other news, I heard from Mark Baechtel tonight that this is officially his last year at Grinnell. I guess the department was just waiting until I moved far enough away that I couldn’t make a huge fuss about it. Super. That department has its priorities just too, too confused. Last night, I had a wonderful dinner with two fellow Grinnell English majors and we talked about the department, and I went off on my usual rant about how maybe I wouldn’t have been an English major if I’d have known how few writing classes I’d be able to take. In retrospect, I’d certainly trade a few trads classes for another Mark Baechtel class or two. Of course, in retrospect, I’m glad that Cannon Schmidt lied to me about the possibilities for English majors at Grinnell ("You can choose to concentrate in either literature or creative writing" – ha!) because it’s one of the reasons I chose Grinnell. And yeah yeah yeah, I’m glad I was an English major.... I guess. It certainly comes in handy when I’m standing in front of a class of tired teenagers, holding a 6 foot long bull snake and talking about how it uses its nose tooth to break out of its rubbery shell. ("And who can name some famous snakes in literature, kids? There’s Kaa, of course, and all the snakes Rikki Tikki Tavi killed, and obviously there’s the Miltonic snake that has a nice little chat with Eve in a certain garden....")

Oh, Grinnell English department, how foolishly you let go your great gifts.

"This, I think, is one of the truths at the center of beauty: that we love the world despite our certain knowledge we will lose it; that we will lose all those we love and eventually the world itself, and knowing this and choosing to love anyway makes that love miraculous, and makes our courage in allowing ourselves to feel it, despite our fear, truly heroic, one of the reasons the Angels envy us." – Mark Baechtel

10 October 2003

In kind of a sad, melancholy, contemplative mood right now. Tiska and I were supposed to go to our first “Voluntary Simplicity” class tonight, but when I got to her house I learned that Diane’s father, my uncle Jack, was admitted to the hospital today because they just discovered that his entire body is riddled with cancer. Tiska felt she ought to stay near the phone for the evening, in case Diane needed her, and I opted to stay with her, so instead of a class about simplicity, we had a quiet candle-lit evening at home. We had some great homemade chicken & green chile soup that Tiska made for dinner, with some good green chile biscuits, and with the candles and the soup and the elegant little halloween decorations around the hearth I had good, warm feelings of autumn. Almost as good as being in the warm little dollhouse on 225 Main Street around this time of year — not quite, but almost.

Diane called two or three times in the four hours I was there, wavering between flying home to ABQ tonight or just flying straight from LA to the midwest. Finally she decided to come here for the night and then fly first thing to O’Hare, where she’ll meet her sister (my cousin) Janet and drive down to Burlington, IA together. Of course, Tiska’s and my conversation turned to the topic of death, and we talked about how it was for the Wilson kids when their mother, my aunt Joyce, died. I guess after she died, they laid her out not in her own bed, but in Diane’s – and Diane was only 16 at the time. At one point, I was talking about Jimmy’s funeral last May, and Tiska got confused because last time Diane was in town she and I were talking about our Uncle Jimmy, who had spina bifida and died when he was in his late teens or early twenties. I had to explain that there were three Jimmys, all of whom had died young: Jimmy Backes, brother of my dad and Diane’s mom, then Jim Sellers, Diane’s and my cousin, and then Jimmy Sellers, his son, our second cousin. I’m not sure if Tiska got it entirely sorted out in her mind, but oh well....

Happily, I did get a hold of Dad to let him know about Jack, who was kind of a father-figure to him. I told Tiska tonight that I know Jack more through my dad’s stories than through my own interactions with him. I know all about how Jack taught my dad the “Iowa Wave” (two fingers raised off the steering wheel, preferably as you’re going under 20 mph), how they’d go out and count cars on the highways in the summer, and so on.....

When I left Tiska’s, it was raining and the clouds were booming with lightning in the north. I drove with the windows down far enough that I could smell the wet trees, but not far enough that I was getting splashed (much). Counting Crows was playing in the truck as the windshield wipers swept away the long steady rain, and I kept having to push my hair back behind my shoulders – started wondering if it had gotten long when I wasn’t looking, or what, and then thought about the old shaman I met when I was sixteen who told me that his people cut their hair in mourning, and grieved as long as it took for their hair to grow back to the length it was before they cut it — the thunder rippled across the rainsilvered streets.... The moment felt oddly cinematic, as if my surroundings were all conspiring to feed my melancholy, as if someone had specifically chosen this weather and this soundtrack to convey the quiet sadness of the scene.

Once home, I found a message from Kevin saying he’s going through some rough stuff, and thought of Carrie’s mom with her surprise mastectomy, and of Debe’s dad with his drawn-out struggles with cancer.... I’m sending out a lot of love & prayers tonight, though I’m not sure what good it will do since the universe seemed pretty irritated with me today, and fought me at every step...

One striking thing about today was something this Australian woman told me: “If New Mexico doesn’t want you here, it will spit you out. And if that happens, you’d better just accept it and pack your bags.” I was kind of shocked, and didn’t really know what to say in response to her determined nodding, but when I thought of it later, I laughed at the strangeness of it, how set her jaw was, how ruddy her profile against the backdrop of Sandia Crest, gray before the rain.

Also, a church billboard in the East Mountains:
“When does God’s plan for you begin?”
October 12

I laughed to myself. God’s plan for me begins October 12? Good to know.


After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

-- Wallace Stevens, The Plain Sense of Things

08 October 2003

Today was a perfect October day, with gray skies and thick clouds against which the Golden Rabbitbush along the sides of the winding mountain roads are even more stunning than usual. (Tiska gave me a book of flowers, so I can learn some names!) I love the October combination of so many grays behind the vivid yellows and oranges and reds of the autumn leaves and flowers. Apparently it was actually flooding in Albuquerque, it was pouring so hard, but up in the East Mountains it was more drizzly and spitty than rainy. (I’m listening to an autumn mix I made in 1999, and appropriately Simon & Garfunkel’s “Kathy’s Song” comes on: I hear the drizzle of the rain / like a memory it falls / soft and warm continuing / tapping on my roof and walls....)

In rain, the mountains are amazing. From a distance, they turn dark, growing into shades of indigo and navy, but often they’re mostly obscured by the clouds that drape themselves across the inky peaks and ruffles like carelessly tossed jackets. (Joni Mitchell’s “Rainy Night House” comes on next – this obsession with October rain is nothing new with me.) Often, driving from Moriarty back west to Tijeras and Cedar Crest, I watch the mountains and have to tell myself that they’re not just clouds; when we were kids, we always pretended that piles of afternoon clouds sitting on the horizon were Wisconsin mountains, and now I have to remind myself that this rumbling horizon really is made of stone and not air. Today, though, I had to promise myself that there were indeed mountains beneath the thick piled clouds.

It was cool enough that I could wear a cardigan all day! I went by myself to Moriarty, had to take both Sarah (the bearded dragon) and Kernel (the corn snake) in my truck, and since they got front seat privileges, everything else had to go in the back. Jennie was at the ABQ store all day, so I spent the entire day by myself at the Cedar Crest store, then at the center in Tijeras, the afternoon in Moriarty, and then back at my office in Cedar Crest. I had a very Type-A kind of day, and so when Jennie finally got up to Cedar Crest around 5:00, I had accomplished a ridiculously large amount of work. Then I came home (luckily Danielle got the message I left on our machine this morning and closed all our windows before it started to rain in earnest!), scoured the kitchen, spent too much time and far too much money at the grocery store (and learned that, similar to how you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, you also shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re feeling all nostalgic about midwestern autumns past, because you’ll end up with way too many apples and too much cheese and bread and apple cider and squash and merlot in your basket), came home and channeled my inner-soccer-mom and made a huge batch of puppy chow for the East Mountain Health & Wellness Coalition meeting Thursday night, and then took Zeke on a long puddle walk through the dark, pretty streets.

Of the whole day, the one moment that really stays with me is from just after work, when I stopped for gas just down the road from the store. A little more than mist, and less than rain, the late afternoon was all gray wraiths snaking up from the valleys and twisting through the trees. Where the clouds parted, I could see the stones in the hillside, mossy green and in appearance very much like the quartzite bluffs of southern Wisconsin. I hugged my cardigan around me, listening to the sshhhhing of the yellow aspens and cottonwoods. No more than that; just one moment of peace in a world of flurry.

...and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

– from Derek Walcott’s “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”

05 October 2003

Such a weekend! I am torn between the desire to describe every moment and the desire to go to bed, so I’m compromising by writing until the dryer’s finished running its cycle, figuring that I need to stay up until the laundry’s done anyhow. Zeke’s already in bed, stretched across all the pillows, snoring like the crusty old man he is. Every snore from his salt&pepper nose tempts me to bed, so I’ll type quickly.

Friday night, I went with Tiska to an opening at the Coleman Gallery on Central/Rte 66. I love that Tiska keeps inviting me to these artistic events; without the impetus of her company I probably wouldn’t go, but there is something inherently healthy about an artistic space. Wandering around Page’s gallery, I was struck by her ethereal landscapes, but even more, I was struck by peace of the gallery, and thought about the hours I spent wandering the Falconer Gallery at Grinnell....

Though the Coleman was lovely and full of wonderful pieces, I was actually more taken with the New Grounds Print Shop next door. It’s a combination gallery/workshop/classroom, and artists can rent time in the print shop, which is wonderful because presses are very expensive and few beginning artists can afford their own. New Grounds had the same ambience I so valued in the painting & drawing studios at Grinnell. "There is a sort of energy here [in the studio], a tangible vibration of creation. It is in the finished or near-finished works on the walls, the still lifes in the center of the room, the easels standing ready to hold blank canvases, eager to hold up art... " (3 October, 1999)

Later, Tiska and I went for dinner with her friends Val and Liz at Taj Mahal on Carlisle (only a few blocks from my house!). It was a funny dinner because Val and Liz kept asking me questions about the midwest: "What do people eat there?" "What jobs do people have?" "What do people do for fun?" "How do they talk?" I loved talking about Iowa and Wisconsin, of course, but I felt kind of weird and kept saying, "It is the same country, after all." But I tried to explain about hot dish, and potlucks, and getting lost in cornfields when we were kids. Later, I said something to Tiska about their fascination, and she said something about the midwest being exotically normal.

Saturday, I helped Tiska cover the pond so falling leaves don’t muck it up, and after a long conversation about our usual topics – how stupid Bush is, and how scary the country is – we watched part of the movie "Punch Drunk Love," but hated it and turned it off.

Saturday night I went with my friend Lisa to this great coffee shop in Cedar Crest to support Jennie and her friends. They had an evening of psychic events, and because Lisa and I were too poor to afford to pay anyone for a reading, Jennie and her friends offered to do some gratis readings for us. Jennie is one of those rare people who becomes vital to me within days of our meeting, like Ali. She "read my crystals" which – like most things with Jennie, I suppose – sounds completely crazy but at the time, because I trust Jennie so much and because she has such a deep sense of honesty about her, it seemed perfectly natural. Also, the things Jennie told me affected me in a deep way, and part of this, I think, had to do with this very strong conviction I suddenly had that I was loved and valued. Later that night, after I dropped Lisa off at her mountain house in the countryside between Cedar Crest & Edgewood, I drove home on Rte 66, listening to "The Joshua Tree," enjoying the chilly night air (!!), and watching the mountains, black against the lighter blue of night sky. I began to feel that this is home....

This morning, I got up at 4:00 AM and with Danielle and her parents headed down to the Balloon Fiesta. When we got to the grounds, it was still very dark, and very cold (yay!! I even got to wear mittens!!). While Danielle’s father went to save us a picnic table on the launching grounds, Danielle, her mother, and I went in search of breakfast burritos and coffee. Breakfast burritos: disgusting in Iowa, delightful in Albuquerque. Packed with hot green chile and cheese.... mmmm. Just before 6:00 the first balloon went up. Dawn was still a while off, but the mountains behind us were already beginning to take shape against the lightening sky. The first balloon was yellow, lit up by its propane flames like a giant chinese lantern against the still dark sky.

The whole AIBF scene was like a cross between a state fair (with all the booths and people selling all kinds of randomness – we even saw two alpacas) and RAGBRAI (with all the "teams" and balloonists). Just after dawn, the field began to fill with balloonists inflating their balloons, and by about 7:00 there were already two or three long rows of balloons waiting to begin the mass ascension. Of course, the first two balloons of the mass ascension were the POW-MIA balloon and the Zia (New Mexico flag) balloon, both carrying giant American flags. For the next few hours, the lift-offs were non-stop. Every minute another balloon took off, and we were close enough to see the specifics of the take-offs quite clearly: handlers dropped the anchors, a referee with a dog hat on (haven’t figured that one out yet) blowing a whistle, clearing a path through the crowd for the gondola to bump along the ground several feet until it gains a bit of height and floats up to join the rest. We stayed until about 9:30, at which point the crowds were becoming rather unbearable, and the sky was filled with hundreds of balloons, with hundreds more on the ground waiting for their cues to begin inflation and ascension. It was pretty incredible, though I wished there was a part of the field reserved for spectators who promised to be totally silent and not say irritating things. Something about the giant balloons slowly lifting into the sky and then hanging aloft against the morning blue calls for quiet and peace. Next year, you’ll have to come down and experience this for yourself; it’s too big for pictures or words. I’m hoping that later in the week I’ll be able to find a good watching place high above the crowded fields from which I can watch the Glow (all the balloons lighting up after sunset) and "afterglow" fireworks.

For now though, the laundry’s done and Zeke’s kicking in his sleep, so I’m signing off for tonight, to catch up on some of the bedtime hours I spent this morning jumping around a frosty pre-dawn field (in a sweatshirt and jeans and mittens!!).

01 October 2003

around midnight, mountain time, home

Too much happens in one day to capture any but flashes. Each sunset alone warrants epic description, moment to golden orange moment. Tonight after work I went hiking in the Manzanos and a line from DBQ was running through my head: "What impressionism takes us to is the belief that at every single second the world is change." I felt that intensely tonight, personally, as the sky changed color around every single curve. I imagined what it must be like to be an impressionist, to be dragging an easel and canvas and paints down into the canyon instead of just a nalgene bottle and journal. Coming up out of the canyon as the sun was setting, I kept stopping in the road to jot just one more line – just one more line – just one — and as I was standing under a golden oak, a group of mountain biking boys rode past me and stopped a few yards up the trail, laughing and punching one another and joking about who did or did not make it up certain parts of the trail, and I could hear them whisper about me and was suddenly conscious of who I was at that moment: the crazy girl scribbling in a book, leaning against a tree and looking up at the changing sky every few moments. So be it. I’m sure the farmers who came across Pissarro or Monet whispered and wondered as well, and no one who knew Turner thought he was normal when he tied himself to the prow of the ship in order to paint the storm.


The hike was a strange and beautiful blend of the familiar and the foreign. I was so happy to be surrounded by these rock faces like the bluffs along the Mississippi in southern Wisconsin, hung with orange and crimson ivy, and to follow a creek – to cross a creek on a natural bridge of boulders! – to smell the deep, sharp scents of fallen leaves and drying grasses.... I thought of all the times a crisp autumn afternoon would impel me to grab a loaf of french bread, some cheese, some apples perhaps, and go wandering through Horicon Marsh (in particular one long, lovely day in late September, maybe 1997, watching Canada geese with Ila, driving home in the lights of too many trucks, in her old gray station wagon) or trek out to Picnic Point, or down to my darling “Jenni & Kyle Guerkink” bench in the arboretum — thought of the autumn days at Wyalusing with the Catlins, and later with half of the sixth graders at Oregon Middle School, of days at Devil’s Lake, climbing until everything was fiery trees and sparkling lakeview....

And then driving home, winding around and around through the Cibola forest, through the Manzano Mountains, toward an ever changing sky spiked with sunbeams like the cover of an inspirational Hallmark card, or a child’s mountain sunset in crayon. The mountain profiles soft and indigo against an apricot dusk. I imagine you here with me, imagine taking your hand as we search for red leaves in the canyon, imagine you in the seat next to me as the truck pulls around another curve and the first star appears in the cup of sky between two peaks. You, all of you. I wish to be a camera at every moment, to share each slow breath and every swooping bird, want to show you what it is to stand atop a granite shelf overlooking a long canyon of dusty smooth stone and charred boughs as the salmon clouds define the delicate contours of cliff against sky.

I want to share this all with you, and I am struggling in the limitations of my language, straining against the boundaries of what I can name. My specificity is limited by all the words I do not know, all the words I do not have, and as I walk sometimes I spin through words in my mind and wonder where they fit in this valley: saguaro, sage, piñon. In my mind, David Campbell is saying, “We don’t have the words to love this place,” and I am naming everything I can: oak leaf, prickly pear, southwestern paintbrush, juniper, aspen. Sunset. Mountain. Autumn.

25 September 2003

Tonight I learned a very important lesson: cockroaches eat poop. How did I learn this lesson, you ask? Well, when I was out in my backyard hunting for dog poop with a flashlight and a shovel, I noticed that nearly every pile of poop I found was crawling with brown roaches, their exoskeletons glinting like deer eyes in my light. It didn’t take too many piles of cockroaches to convince me that poop hunting is an activity that should be reserved for daylight.

There are a lot of differences between Iowa/Wisconsin and New Mexico, of course. The “no ten-gallon hats” sign at the movie theater, the green chile and cheese bagels (which are so great!!), the large number of people who’ve never heard of Michael Feldman, the fact that Hardees is called “Carl’s Jr.” and a “patio” is a small open courtyard in the center of a house...but these are all relatively minor differences. They have no real impact on my daily life. However, there are some major differences as well, and one of these is the Poop Problem.

In the midwest, most people have yards full of lovely, thick, green grass and soft, rich dirt. It rains a lot, and yards are full of dandelions and flowers and clover. When a dog poops in this garden paradise, the poop hides between the lush foliage and then magically disappears when it rains. In the southwest, most people have yards full of rocks and dirt and cacti. It never, ever rains, and yards are full of rocks. And dirt. And cacti. When a dog poops in this desert world, the poop sits out in full view of everyone, drying up in the sun into petrified poop that will never go anywhere. For this reason, it’s necessary to go shovel the poop up about once a week. I usually do it on Tuesdays, because Wednesday morning is garbage pickup. This is why I found myself tonight wandering through my backyard in boxers and a tee shirt, carrying a shovel and flashlight, looking for poop.


Another thing to file under “things that are different in NM” – kids can get high school credit for being in the ROTC, and spend a whole class period marching around the school parking lot yelling “left, left, left right left”.... when we pulled up at Moriarty High School today, one such group marched past us and Jennie said, “You know who that is, don’t you?” I couldn’t hear them, so I shook my head. When she said, “The ROTC,” I thought she was kidding. Also, the school has a big pasture out in back of it, full of sheep for the ag kids. Moriarty makes Oregon seem ultra cosmopolitan in comparison, which is pretty scary.


Today was a good day overall – we taught our first class out at Crossroads, Moriarty’s alternative high school, and all the kids were just great. Crossroads is located in some trailer classrooms out behind the school (near the sheep pasture). After class, I walked across the parking lot to throw some boxes in the dumpster, marveling at the vast Moriarty sky (Moriarty’s on the east side of the Sandias, far enough from the mountains that it’s flatter than Iowa), when I was struck with a pang of the teacher/artist divide... I love kids, and being in a classroom like the one at Crossroads or like Holly’s 6th grade classroom at Roosevelt always makes me think about how I would decorate my classroom, and sometimes – like today – makes me think that I should have a classroom, like what am I doing dicking around with these lizards? I’m supposed to be teaching scansion! (And the big 6th grade team at Roosevelt is teaching The Giver! Today when we were there, the teachers were filling out Ceremony of Twelve certificates in team meeting, and I got geekishly excited.)

And then tonight after work, I went to the Jonson Gallery on UNM’s campus to see a presentation by Susan Ressler, whose new book Women Artists of the American West features a chapter written by Tiska, who spent some time talking about the focus of her chapter, artists Agnes Pelton and Florence Miller Pierce of the Transcendental Painting Group (late 1930s/early 1940s). As art history presentations always do, this one made me question the way I just turned my back on painting when I went to college, made me wonder why or how I could give it up when it meant so much to me. Afterward, I said something along these lines to Tiska, and she said, “But writing is an art, too – you’re an artist!” But it’s not the same. I told her that if I could do college over, I’d be an art history major. (Which is a lie, of course. If I, Molly-Backes-who-already-graduated-with-an-English-degree could start as a freshman, I’d be an art history major for sure, but only because I’ve taken enough literature classes that I can take them for granted.... And to be honest, there are certain lit class experiences I would not give up for anything, including Broe’s post-colonial class and Cavanagh’s Milton seminar, and even Andrews’ women/writing/nature seminar – though I rolled my eyes through much of it at the time, it ended up making a huge impact on the way I think about a lot of things....and each of these significant classes required all the hoop-jumping of the many trads classes....)

After the presentation, Tiska kept introducing me as her friend (or sometimes as Diane’s cousin) Molly, who just moved to Albuquerque and is working on her first novel! At one point, I laughed sheepishly, or bashfully, or maybe doubtfully, and Tiska said, “I just love how that sounds! It’s so pure, and so inspiring!” I said, “Jennie always tells people I’m a novelist, too. I think she does it to convince them that I’m really as great as she says, because in her mind someone with my skills should not be working for such low pay at an npo, but she can justify it by telling people I’m writing a novel in my free time.” Tiska said, “Maybe it’s just that we can see you in a way that you can’t see yourself.” I love her!

Tiska took Susan and me out for dinner, to a restaurant called Gyros behind the Frontier. The food was less greasy, and the atmosphere a little more refined, than that of the famous Olympia Café, but it’s not necessarily better than the OC, which seems more authentic, more sloppy and weird and human. Comfortingly dirty. Danielle says that children who grow up in obsessive-compulsively clean households are actually more prone to illness than kids who grow up in normal houses that walk the line between cleanish and dirtyish. Or like our house, I guess, which long since crossed the line from hairyish into grossish, thanks to Zeke.

After dinner and grocery shopping, I finally got to talk to Dave Skogen and tell him about the Shins. As I predicted, he freaked out, and I almost convinced him to get in his car and start driving. He kept saying, “Man, if only I had known yesterday, I totally would have come.” Too bad, but I promised I’d tell James et al that my friend Dave loves them so much he was this close to driving forty hours round trip just to see them play one show. Done and done. Happily, D reports that YB was hob-nobbing with the likes of Beck and the Foo Fighters on their last tour, playing to crowds of thousands. And then they came back to the states, and played for eight people in a bar in Des Moines. Somehow that imbalance reminds me of a recent quote from a certain Josh Blue: "well...guess who was within FIVE FEET of JACKIE CHAN tonight!?!?!!....its almost as cool as the time I met Mr. Rogers and Mr. McFeely....." Vintage, Josh, vintage.

24 September 2003

11:45 pm, Home

Today was one of those “If I find one more goddamn cockroach in my shower, I am going to kill myself!” kinds of days. In the midwest I called these my “If I drop one more pencil....” days, as in:

24/25 April 2002
1017 High Street, Dining Room with mint tea and Todd’s CD mix

Ugghh. I have just been in the worst mood all day. I can’t shake it, and I can’t figure out what’s going on. It was just one of those days when it’s like – if you drop one more pencil, you are seriously going to lose it. And of course I kept dropping pencils all damn weekend. I mean day. I am distracted and distressed....

That’s how today was – if not for my weird mood, it would have been a great day. Jennie brought me a latte this morning as I struggled with the ancient (donated, of course) computer, and we had nice talks to & from Moriarty, I got to play with Robert’s beast of a weimaraner, Spook, and with his sweet little girl April (also a weimaraner, “the dyke queen of dogs”), I got to talk to funny middle-schoolers, Maddie and I were in hysterics in the two hours it took us to make two copies of the bully-proofing curriculum, Danielle and I went out to dinner at a nice Chinese restaurant.... These are all good things, and yet ––

I’m tempted to dwell on the bad parts of the day (the first of TEN YEARS worth of student loan bills, for one), but instead....

Good things:

1. The Shins!
(Saturday afternoon, at the bookstore with Lisa)
Me: (picking up a copy of a CD by a totally obscure group -- The Shins -- who Dave Skogen got me hooked on in November or December...) Oh, the Shins! I love this band! Do you know them?
Lisa: Well, just Marty.
Me: What?
Lisa: I don't know all of them too well, just Marty.
Lisa: ... um?
Me: You know Marty?
Lisa: (looking worried, like I might suddenly attack) yeah?
Me: (suddenly realizing I've picked said CD off table labeled "Local Music") Wait, are they from Albuquerque?
Lisa: Yeah, didn't you know that?
Me: WHAT! No! I only have a burned copy of their CD, no liner notes. Are you serious??
Lisa: ...?
Me: In the midwest, NOBODY's heard of them. Just Dave.
Lisa: I'll introduce you to Marty if you want. I was just thinking that I should call him, actually.

2. Lisa.
She’s great!

3. My first talking talons paycheck!
More than enough to cover my first student loan payment... oh....

4. Dream interpretation.
Sunday morning before I woke up, I dreamed that Ali and I were starting a school in the mountains (implicitly around Albuquerque), and we were trying to get people to help us raise money and support for it. I got a call from a band who said they’d play a benefit concert for the school, and I was really excited about it, and kept telling Ali that they were “really big, like the Beatles!” – and maybe they WERE the Beatles... it was unclear in that dreamy kind of way. And then I got a call from Winnie and Nelson Mandela, who said they’d like to come help us garner support for our school, but only if I took them mountain climbing first. They said, “We know the world thinks of us mainly as advocates of human rights, but in our minds we’re mountain climbers first and foremost.” I was kind of surprised, because I’m no sherpa, but I agreed (of course!) and then spent the rest of the dream trying to arrange schedules to see if the Beatles-like band and the Mandelas could come the same weekend, but it seemed like they couldn’t.

On the way to Moriarty today, I told Jennie this dream, and she said it seemed like a really positive dream, and we talked about the fact that it’s really about balance. Trying to juggle the band and the Mandelas (art & education, perhaps?), and the whole mountain climbing/advocacy thing. Jennie said, “You’re not defined by any one thing... and before you can open your school, before you can save the world, you have to climb the mountains.” Also, she said the fact that the Mandelas showed up to support Ali’s and my school says that there’s something really good and true about it – either the actual school, or the fact of us as a team....

Often my dreams are full of weird symbols of other things (like the dream I had that OHS had been put on trucks and driven to Fitchburg and set down at the bottom of Ledgemont Court, so as I sat in math class I could watch my dad getting into his van and driving off to work — helped me realize that my idea of what school was, as I was looking at colleges, was moving closer to home – and then I decided to go to college in Iowa), but these symbols all seem pretty straightforward. After all, the educator/artist balance is one I’ve been struggling with for at least seven or eight years now.

5. Zeke.
He’s stretched out across my bed with his orange Desert Dog neckerchief on, sniffing and kicking in his sleep.

6. Tea
Tonight Danielle and I got sucked into Wild Oats on our way home and I found two of my favorites: Almond Sunset & Irish Breakfast. Hooray!

7. When life gives you sour grapes, make wine?
Okay, so my back yard and front yard and side yard are all full of speedy cockroaches, and okay, when I ran out to the truck just now there were four on the exterior wall, each longer than two inches, and yeah, so Danielle said that once or twice a year the city flushes out the sewer system and all the roaches start climbing up through the drains and end up in sinks and showers and toilets like crazy (if we hadn’t been in Home Depot and surrounded by old people looking at faucet handles, I would have screamed at this news) . . . . . and my closet and bathroom are both full of magic death-resistant spiders, and Robert said he killed a SIX INCH LONG centipede in his garage last night . . . . . . . but it could be worse, right? At least my house isn’t full of tarantulas, and the cockroaches in the yard could be scorpions or maggots or centipedes or. . . crocodiles . . . or . . . .Republicans . . . . . . .

20 September 2003

Round midnight, Home

Happy Birthday, Laura Wineland!

Thanks to everyone for all the mailbox love lately: Carrie Robbins (for the beautiful hand-made card), Jon Jeffryes (for the paper doll from Madison), Cynthia Rogalin (for the letter and adverts from Bristol), Ila Gates-Thomas (for the lovely letter), John Aerni (for the note from ALASKA!), Dave Waskowski (for the pre-poem & sketches), Mom (for the Onions!), and of course Dad (for 500 postcards from all over the world but strangely all postmarked Madison...). I feel so loved! Too bad poor Danielle’s developing a complex....


Though I didn’t have to work today, it was still a busy day. Had a lot of lame errands to run – like opening an account at the New Mexico Educators Credit Union, picking up a date book, writing and sending an article to the Tijeras PAC newsletter about the Bully Proofing program at Roosevelt Middle School – but also managed to squeeze in some good quality time. Spent a few hours writing at Irysh Mac’s, a cute little coffee shop across from campus, and toward sunset went hiking in the foothills with Danielle and Zeke.

We managed to time our hike perfectly. We reached the top of a steep crest just as the sun was beginning to fall behind the western mountains, and we rested on some rocks and watered the dog as the lights came on in the city below. Albuquerque at night is beautiful from above. I’m not wild about the city-ness of it when I’m in the middle of it, but I love to look down on it from the Sandias or from the West Mesa.

The hike itself was a bit difficult – though I was walking as much as ten miles a night this summer in Grinnell, the low hills of the 11th ave-T38-Hwy 6 loop did nothing to prepare me for hiking in the mountains. Of course, it’s not even the climbing that’s so hard – it’s the breathing. Stupid asthma. I told Danielle that sometimes I think I’d rather be deaf than have asthma. Zeke’s eager insistence makes climbing much easier, though. His old-man act fooled Danielle, and she was talking about walking him down to the golf course near campus with her flash cards, so she could study and walk at the same time... and then she actually took his leash, and realized how wrong she’d been about him as she got dragged up the street behind him. When I caught up to them, I laughed, “I warned you he was a beast!” I took his leash for the second half of our upward journey, and found him to be a great help as the terrain grew steadily more vertical. I joked that he was my “anti-gravity belt,” but he also made the climb easier by showing me where to put my feet.

Danielle and I decided that it would be safer for all of us to let Zeke off the leash and let him find his own way down. Down was a lot more treacherous than up, and though Zeke seemed to have no problem trotting down the rocky mountainside, Danielle and I slid and yelped our way down much of it. Maybe Zeke truly is a Desert Dog. He matched the landscape beautifully, with his dark brown against the lighter reds and browns of the rocks and the greens and yellows of the cacti and desert flowers. He’s still having trouble with cacti spines, though – Danielle and I ended up pulling about 15 of them out of his face and legs before we got back into the truck.

I kept asking Danielle for the names of things (thinking of Robert Hass: “I have believed so long / in the magic of names and poems. / I hadn’t thought them bodiless / at all. Tall Buttercup. Wild Vetch...”). Gesturing across the openness between our high perch and the southern horizon, “Do you know the name of that range?” No. The mountains past the West Mesa, lit blue before the light of the sinking sun? No. The cactus that looks like a spiny aloe vera plant? No. This ropy branch, from what tree? No. Finally I said, “Where’s the New Mexico native roommate who’s supposed to be introducing me to this land?” She laughed. “I used to know names, but they’ve been expunged and replaced with venereal diseases and facts about the pancreas.” In her defense, she did tell me about a virus or something I could catch from touching rat poop.

Still, I need to know the names of things. Tomorrow I think I will go hunting the used book stores for an old desert field guide.


Yesterday at work, we were sitting in the conference room waiting for a staff meeting to begin when Jennie (my boss) grabbed my hand and pulled it toward her in order to study the lines on my palm. After a few intent moments, she told me that I had been sick a lot as a child (which is true); that though I’m very particular about who I choose to love, I love them deeply; that I’m still very connected to home; and – and then she seemed really perplexed, and traced the long line that curves from my index finger down around the base of my thumb. “This line should be much deeper, Molly.” I got nervous, and looked at the line in question. She traced it again. “It should be much deeper. You have a lot of potential that’s just lying fallow, Molly. Either you’ve chosen to walk away from it, or there’s something standing in your way – something’s blocking it.” I got this creepy, shivery feeling up my spine and through my shoulder blades. Jennie shook her head, and said, “You’re very intuitive, but you don’t let your art come from your intuition. It’s mostly driven by your head. You should let more of your heart into your work.”

The shivery feeling along my spine was only getting stronger, but I stayed skeptical. “Maybe the lines on my hand are so light because I’m young.” Jennie shook her head and grabbed the hand of a girl younger than me. “Look at her hand – her lines are deep. It’s not age. The lines of your hand change throughout your life.” At that moment, Daniel (the executive director of Talking Talons) came up to Jennie and started talking to her. I tried to shake the creepy feeling off like Zeke shakes off water, but it stayed with me all morning. I had a hard time focusing through the meeting, and the beautiful Swainson’s hawk that was perched in the middle of the conference room didn’t help my concentration. She kept ruffling her feathers and opening and closing her mouth, and once in a while she’d make a peeping noise. I wanted to be like her, to puff out my feathers and then nudge them all back into place.

After work, I drove south on Highway 14 through Tijeras and into the Manzano Mountains. Ten or fifteen miles south of Tijeras, I pulled off the road into a Cibola Nat’l Park trailhead. I parked the truck and set off with my journal and a bottle of water down a narrow dusty trail worn into the side of a mountain. Rounding the first curve, I was shocked to come across a green, grassy meadow! I looked for a river, wondering where all this green had come from. Grass! And flowers! A whole meadow full of green!

There was no river, but the trail followed a dry riverbed, sometimes crossing right through it. I imagined that the bed must fill up with water during these brief evening rainstorms, and it’s probably even a proper river in the snowmelty spring. Each turn in the path offered a new gift: a stone cliff like the bluffs of western Wisconsin, a prickly pear cactus full of ripe red fruit, a sea of bobbing yellow cutleaf coneflowers, the trunk of a juniper twisting its way through a cracked boulder, the perfect bloom of a southwestern paintbrush. And then I came across a bright purple soda can still full of grape soda, wedged in the little niche between two halves of a split tree trunk. At first I was surprised, because I hadn’t seen a single person the whole time I was hiking, and then I was irritated. I almost plucked it from its nest to carry it out of the park, but then I thought, it’s like a talisman, a sign, the way travelers of old used to pile stones, to point the way to future travelers, to show they’ve been there. And so I walked on.

A minute or two later, I thought, why do humans need to leave evidence that we’ve been somewhere? Isn’t this well worn path, imprinted with the tread of hundreds of hiking boots, sufficient proof? Isn’t the path alone testament enough to the presence of humans in this juniper wood?

On my way back along the same trail, I grabbed the can and carried it out with me.

Deep in the heart of the river-cut valley, too far from the highway to hear anything but birdsong, I found a perfect stone chair set in the side of a hill, and wrote for a while. I thought about the few people in my life who have been quiet enough with me to share a moment like this; thought about the few who have walked through an autumn afternoon with me with open eyes and ears, open hearts, taking in all the beauty and offering nothing but the soft crunch of brush underfoot and the warm glow of contentment.

Sitting there in the afternoon sunlight, all yellow and orange before it meandered on along its own path behind the mountain, I remembered a day out at Rock Creek with Ali....

(from my plan 28 September 2000)
and we need to escape so we drive out to rock creek. the path takes us along a field of autumn grasses, all golden and beautiful oranges and browns, and then the path
takes a sharp drop and we see a quiet doe below us, in a grove of trees next to a little stream, and to our left is a pond among all the goldenrod grasses and the orange and red leaves and the sun is that perfect almost sunset color and the doe is so delicate like a unicorn and we are totally silent just watching her. after about five minutes she goes bounding into the woods so we keep walking, past the stream and take turns and forks until we come back to the lake, but far away from where we started. later we walk back and there are bright orange berries against fallen brown trees and golden grasses and red leaves and it is beautiful.

Speaking of plans, last night when I checked them, I was happy to see Mark [Baechtel]’s response to my Baechtellian Retrospective plan. “If you didn’t already exist, it would be necessary for me to create you.” Ah, the perils of being friends with writers....

18 September 2003

9:30 pm (Mountain Time), Home

Happy Birthday, George Carroll!

This morning I woke up with a sore throat and a stuffed head, and after my morning ritual of tea and toast, I thought about trying to do something productive in the hour and a half before I needed to leave for work, and then thought better, and crawled back into bed for another forty-five minutes with the dog as my pillow.

Apparently it was a terrible day for everyone with allergies. I couldn’t put my contacts in because my eyes were too dry and irritated, so I wore glasses all day. Though I know intellectually that when those friends of mine who normally wear contacts wear their glasses, I always think they look cute, I can’t get over the more instinctual feeling that my glasses make me look ugly. Even though I actually get a lot of compliments when I wear my glasses, it doesn’t matter: I am a four-eyed freak. I think this is partly due to the fact that I usually only wear my glasses early in the morning, late at night, and when I’m sick, so when I wear them to work I kind of feel like I’m wearing my pajamas to work. Like I’m not really dressed yet, like I’m dressed to bum around the house and watch movies, not dressed to be professional.

Getting into the truck, I bit my cheek so hard I actually started crying. And then I sat there for a minute, still parked on the street in front of my house, with my forehead resting on the wheel, and wondered how the hell I’d get through the day. A few minutes later, cruising east on I-40, squinting into the bright sunshine without my sunglasses, I thought about Leyla Sanyer, and how she always used to talk about high and low biorhythms. A low physical biorhythm was easily identifiable, because not only was your immune system flailing, but also you were just physically off, and your body stopped working very well in general. Your hips and shoulders would forget how to navigate their way through a doorframe, for example. Or you’d bite through the side of your cheek so hard you’d end up crying in the truck in front of your house. Layles would tell me I was at the very lowest point of my physical biorhythm, I thought, and then I did a mental scan to see where I was in my other biorhythms. Emotional? I’ve been doing pretty well, but this feeling sick thing is getting me down. Mental? Too many anti-histamines to think clearly.

At the store, Jennie told me that when she has days like this, she takes an extra long time getting ready in the morning, really pampers herself, maybe takes a bath.... I said, “On days like this in college, I’d wear my hair down so it hung in my face, wear my sunglasses inside, keep my scarf wrapped around my neck all day, and clutch my coffee to my breast, holding it between myself and the world. It was my alter-ego: the Alcoholic Actress.” Jennie kind of frowned (she doesn’t think alcoholism is funny), but Robert clapped his hands together, “I love it! A tortured diva!”

It seemed that everyone we met today was suffering from allergies, which made me feel better (you know what they say about misery...). In a moment of quiet at the center, Jennie took a spray bottle and misted the giant iguana, cooing, “It’s raining in the tropics, baby.” The iguana leaned forward on his front legs, lifted up his chin, closed his eyes, and – and I’m not making this up – smiled. He got the same expression Zeke gets when you stroke his ears, or Sally gets when you pet her hair.

At the end of the day, Jennie said, “You did such a great job today of hanging in there, even though you felt crappy. That’s so hard to do!” I said, “Thanks for the positive feedback,” and marveled at my luck in finding this job. I haven’t had a boss who was so actively affirming since I worked under Peter Beeber at Perkins in the summer of 1998. I feel so lucky to be working with such great people.

When I got home, Danielle said Zeke had been moping around all afternoon, so I spent about forty minutes running around with him, throwing his tennis ball so he could tear around the back yard after it, playing tug-of-war with him, and telling him that he was a good dog. I think it’s hard on him to have me gone all day, even though Danielle’s home in the afternoon more often than not. After running around for a while, we both came inside and stretched out on the green couch together. He laid with his paws across my abdomen, as if to make sure I stayed right there on the couch. We laid like that for a while, listening to All Things Considered... and when I woke up two hours later, he was still lying with his paws and chin resting on my stomach, but the house was totally dark and the radio was off. I vaguely remembered Danielle asking, “Are you awake?” and me answering, “No.”

The best part of the day by far wasn’t napping with the dog (twice), nor was it seeing the iguana smile in the “rainforest mist.” It wasn’t talking to Jennie, nor playing with Robert, nor having Chris Acklen, the counselor at Roosevelt Mid-School, introduce me to a school social worker as a “novelist,” and then saying, “And she’s an English teacher and we’re hoping she’ll come teach here next year!” No, the best part of the day – by far – was this:

Time: Wed, 17 Sep 2003 14:21:47 -0500
From: "Gail Gregory"
Subject: Avid Fan

. . . And my, oh my, can you craft a thought. I haven't
read your work since I re-read "The Book"...I was
impressed and touched and delighted and provoked.
And now I'm all that and awed. You have displayed
that rare quality of making it "look easy". And it
ain't...not like that.

All the teasing aside, (I do so worry about you
getting a BIG head!!) I don't think I've told you
nearly enough what a gifted writer I think you are.
You really can make a person "be there". You blend
the concrete and the spiritual, the rocks and the
reasons-or lack of reasons-so beautifully. I felt
the heat of sun, heard the water ripple over my
feet, smelled the leaves burning, followed the
silhouette of the mountain horizon, felt the dog's
fur, heard the neighbor girls giggle in the night,
and I stood in wonder of you * your pick-up-and-go
life and your generous spirit to share it all. Not
just with the world, (anybody can do that now) but
over the years, with me. I'm feeling quite blessed.
Thank you . . . .

Speaking of blessed.... I am. All my love to Gail, for making my day and making me feel so loved, and to Tim, who reminded me that I once sold my soul to the devil for a shiny red truck. And to the smiling iguana, for reminding me that even on the worst days, the world is full of hidden gifts.

17 September 2003

11:45 pm (Mountain Time), Tuesday night, Home

For the last week, everyone's been talking about how happy they all are that it's finally beginning to feel like autumn, and I've been confused, because none of my normal fall clues are present.... and it's still in the 80s during the day, which does not feel like fall to me. Fall is cardigan sweaters and hoodies and jean jackets, not tee-shirts and shorts. But this morning when I woke up, it was very cool in my room and the morning air smelled like autumn campfires.

After work I decided to drive up to Sandia Crest before heading back down into the city. I’ve been meaning to get up there for weeks, and it makes sense to go directly from work, as the entrance to Sandia Park is only a few miles down the road from where I work. It took me maybe five minutes to get to the park – and then nearly an hour to get to the very top of the mountain. At 10, 678 feet, Sandia Crest is the highest point in the Sandia Mountains (Albuquerque’s at somewhere around 5,000, I think). Though it had been in the low 80s all day in Cedar Crest, Tijeras, and Moriarty, it was freezing at the top of Sandia Crest. Luckily, I had a jacket in the car, and was able to bundle up before I headed up to the highest point.

On the way up, I saw a large number of aspens with leaves turning to trembly gold, and felt relieved. Autumn! It comes, in familiar guise, even here! I even saw a few tall bushes and trees beginning to turn orange and red! The roads were lined with yellow flowers -- lots of wild flowers I don't recognize yet, or whose names I don't know. All the yellow and orange made me believe in oncoming autumn, and I felt centered again. The higher I got, the more the air smelled of pine and dark dirt -- smells which always evoke the woods of the UP and northern Wisconsin for me. I had a sudden urge to curl up in front of a wooden cabin fire with a good book and a glass of Merlot....tell me once again why I'm living in a city?

The sun was low in the sky as I stepped up onto the highest patio on the crest, and the panoramic view was incredible. The air was already taking on that particular quality of light that sunrise and sunset bring. Every dip and shoulder of each peak down the chain was clearly silhouetted, like muscles on a Michelangelo nude. Storm clouds were sweeping across the southeastern horizon, defining the sky in curtains of grey rain. Looking to the east, I could see the (relative) valley of Cedar Crest & Tijeras et al, half in and half out of the shadow of the very mountain on which I was standing. I knew that it must already feel like dusk down there, where the sun had already slipped behind the peaks of the Sandias. Because the sun was bright in the western sky, I couldn’t look down at Albuquerque for too long. I shaded my eyes long enough to see the Rio Grande twisting and flashing its way through the city.

One of my first thoughts upon reaching that height was that the view of Albuquerque was similar to the view of Chicago from the top of the Sears tower, or the view of NYC from the top of the upper decks of the WTC. Though the family is always teasing me about being a country mouse, I felt like a city girl at that moment, and tried to recall the last time I had stood at the very top of a mountain. I think it’s been since we were in Winter Park, CO, in ‘91 or ‘92... or Estes Park.... It was long enough ago that I don’t remember details, only the sensation of being alone with the clouds against the sky. Of course, the peaks are significantly higher in those more northern Rockies – and now I’m remembering a thrilling moment at the top of a mountain in Banff, in ‘96 maybe, and how I marveled at the tourists who saw the snowy peaks around us just long enough to snap a picture, and then turned their attention to the little peanut-eating pikas and marmots on the ground....

7 August 1996, Mount Sulphur, Canada:
“Being here has lead me to develop a new theory --
what I call the Big Mac/Little Human Theory.
Basically, it asserts that when Humans are faced
with the majesty and beauty of nature they
appreciate it for as long as their pea sized MTV
spawned brains can handle. Then -- automatically --
before they realize how powerless and
insignificant they really are, they immediately
switch over from the overwhelming glory of nature
to something smaller which they have the power to
control -- food, for instance. This explains why,
at the top of the mountain this afternoon, most
people seemed to be more interested in the hungry
little chittering chipmunks than the sweeping
eagle’s eye view of the Canadian Rockies.”

Anyhow, this afternoon I spent far more time up at the crest than I should have, but it was worth it – I stayed until the sun began to set in earnest, and the mountains to the east and south all turned deep violet against a rosy blue sky, and New Mexico’s signature clouds turned orange and navy blue in light and shadow, and the lights of Albuquerque and the east mountain towns came on one by one.

Driving down from the crest later, winding around the mountain again and again, I kept thinking, I want someone here to hold my hand in the face of all this beauty. It was too much for one person to hold alone, like grief, and I was overwhelmed by the responsibility of standing witness to all this majesty.