Thursday, July 29, 2010

Books, Books, and More Books

Three things:

1- I get to go to IKEA today and buy another bookshelf for our little basement library because I've filled the others. I cannot tell you how happy this makes me feel.

2- I have officially had three people recommend the same book to me over the past month and a half, which makes me think it's worth picking up. It is: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

A quick Google search gave me this Publisher's Weekly review: "If you've ever wondered what your dog is thinking, Stein's third novel offers an answer. Enzo is a lab terrier mix plucked from a farm outside Seattle to ride shotgun with race car driver Denny Swift as he pursues success on the track and off. Denny meets and marries Eve, has a daughter, Zoƫ, and risks his savings and his life to make it on the professional racing circuit. Enzo, frustrated by his inability to speak and his lack of opposable thumbs, watches Denny's old racing videos, coins koanlike aphorisms that apply to both driving and life, and hopes for the day when his life as a dog will be over and he can be reborn a man. When Denny hits an extended rough patch, Enzo remains his most steadfast if silent supporter. Enzo is a reliable companion and a likable enough narrator, though the string of Denny's bad luck stories strains believability. Much like Denny, however, Stein is able to salvage some dignity from the over-the-top drama."

3- I'm currently reading David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and wishing he hadn't killed himself.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Jen's World Wednesday

Welcome to a Wednesday!

Here's what you'll find in today's Post-Bulletin:

* * *

Last week, I received an e-mail message of which the subject line read, “[Fw: Fwd: Fwd: Best thing ever!]”.

Usually, I stop right there, hit delete and move on. But this message was from my fifteen-year-old niece, Alexa, who happens to be one of my favorite people in the world. I decided to give her a fair shake and open it.

It was one of those “getting to know you” question-and-answer things with a bold, highlighted introduction shouting messages like, “Don’t Spoil The Fun!” and “Send This To Everyone You Know Or You’ll Have Seven Years Bad Luck!”

I decided to play along. (Hey, the alternative was actually doing some work.) And since I count you, reader-friends, among the “everyone I know,” here you go:

Were you named after anyone? My middle name is the same as my mom’s.

When was the last time you cried? Sunday, when I watched 1,450 motorcyclists parade up to the Ronald McDonald House to make a $119,000 donation. (Crud. Now I’m going to start crying again…)

What is your favorite lunchmeat?
Cheese. (Does that count?)

If you were another person, would you be friends with you? Yes.

Do you use sarcasm a lot? No, not at all. Except right there.

Do you still have your tonsils? Yes.

Would you bungee jump? There are many adventures I’d like to try—but bungee jumping is not one of them.

What is your favorite cereal?
Cinnamon Life or Cocoa Krispies.

Do you untie your shoes when you take them off? Nope. But when it comes time to put them back on, I always wish I had.

Do you think you are strong? Yes.

What is your favorite ice cream? Cookie dough. Unless I'm at Coldstone, and then it's definitely cake batter.

What is the first thing you notice about people? Whether they’re friendly.

Who do you miss the most?
Too many people.

What color shoes are you wearing? Green. Wait. That’s just the grass stains on my feet.

What was the last thing you ate?
Cocoa Krispies.

What are you listening to right now? The air conditioning. And wondering why it’s still on at 11:14 p.m. [Writing Jenny update: Since the writing of this column, our air conditioner has broken!]

If you were a crayon, what color would you be?
If I was a crayon, I think “color” would be the least of my worries. Okay, fine. I’ll play along. I’d want to be one of those funky multi-colored crayons.

Favorite smells?
Vanilla. Buttered toast. Babies.

Do you like the person who sent this to you? Love her! (But, seriously, who’s going to write “no?”)

Hair color? Depends on the month.

Eye color? Blue-ish, gray-ish, green-ish, depending on my mood and the weather.

Do you wear contacts? Nope.

Favorite food: Cold cereal.

Scary movies or happy endings? Happy endings.

Last movie you watched? Shrek 4.

Summer or winter? Fall.

Hugs or kisses? Why can’t I have both?

Car or truck? Car.

Favorite sound?
My kids’ laughter.

Do you enjoy blowing bubbles? Yes—good, cheap entertainment.

Where were you born? Alexandria, MN

Do you have a special talent? I’m scrappy.

Rolling Stones or Beatles? Beatles. [Side note: My niece actually answered this question, “Who are the Rolling Stones?]

Monday, July 26, 2010

Packet 1...


Man, I can't tell you how good that feels.

I'm officially 16 packets in to my MFA, with just 4 to go. I think I'll celebrate by watching the end of "500 Days of Summer," a movie I half started to watch while doing the dishes this afternoon. (The little nine-inch TV with built-in DVD player made a pit-stop on the kitchen counter on its way to the Salvation Army... which may have actually been its salvation. I have a feeling it's not going anywhere now.)

My Packet 1 Celebration -- which is already starting in my head, complete with confetti and champagne -- is much appreciated, though it will be short-lived. Tomorrow I have to get busy on the writing I actually get paid to do and that I've been putting off as I cranked out this packet.

Thank goodness it never stops. I continue to feel so lucky to be able to do what I love to do -- no matter how crazy it gets.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Calling All Readers

I'm beginning work on my graduation lecture for VCFA, and could really use your help. Can anyone recommend a book in which an urban writer has written a rural, small-town character badly, or as a caricature? (I'm thinking the book equivalent of the Cohen Bros. movie, Fargo.)

I'll be lecturing about writing rural characters -- and would love to gather some examples of authors who've done it poorly, using:

* exaggeration
* generalizations
* belitting or contempt
* humor that laughs at, rather than with, the character
* overemphasizing rural dialogue

The character can have a fleeting role in the book, or can be a main character. Please let me know if you have any recommendations. I'll be eternally grateful! Thanks!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hangin' at the Coffee Shop

With the boys at camp mornings this week, I've found a cozy little coffee shop. Unlike my regular digs at Dunn Bros. in Rochester, Bridget's Cafe in Zumbrota seems to cater to the farmer and retiree crowd. I'm digging the atmosphere here and find myself playing a bit of a spy, recording conversations in my head and committing characteristics to memory. (The joy and burden of the writer.)

Earlier, two gentlemen--both in jeans, T-shirts, and baseball caps--settled at the table next to me. Spanning a maybe 10-, 15-year age gap, they read the paper while eating their breakfast and broke only occasionally for conversation that fascinated me. An excerpt:

50-something man in red hat: So, the Twins.

40-something man in tightly belted jeans: Yep. Today.

[Sound of silverware against plates, coffee cups being set on Formica, newspaper rustling.]

50-something: So, you have a good visit with your dad?

[40-something takes a sip of coffee. Scoops a forkful of eggs into his mouth. Turns the page of the paper.]

40-something: Was okay.

50-something: Yep.

[Three men at another table get up to leave. One nods at my table neighbors. They nod back, before settling back into their coffee and newspapers. Minutes go by.]

40-something: 'ts gonna be a hot one.

50-something: You know it.

* * *

I have to say: I feel completely at home here; it's like being back in my hometown in northern Minnesota. And bonus: I'm starting work on my graduation lecture this month. My topic: Writing Rural Characters. Turns out there's delicious material all around me.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Viva la Summer Camp

I remember, with fairly amazing recall, the camps I attended as a kid. There was Girl Scout day camp, a 4-H overnighter, a conservation camp in which I was one of three girls, a couple of church camps, and a week-long stint at a French language camp.

I had my share of painted wood nametags.

But I never ventured off on anything so cool as what my kiddos are doing this week.

I dropped my sons off this morning at Clay Animation camp -- where they're actually learning to animate their own movies. The day camp is being held at Crossing at Carnegie, an arts center in Zumbrota, Minnesota, a small town about 30 minutes north of Rochester.

Crossings plays host to a number of arts classes and opportunities, as well as frequent live music. It's a quaint little place surrounded by wildflower gardens and housed in an old Carnegie library. (Get it? Get it? Crossing at Carnegie?) If you live in the area and want to learn more, you can check Crossings out here:

Saturday, July 17, 2010


For reasons that are not entirely clear to me now, I registered for a 5K the morning after my 20-year reunion.

I'm lacing up my running shoes and heading out the door in a few minutes. I'll let you know how it goes...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Jen's World: Can I Be Cloned?

This week, Flashback Friday is being replaced by Current Friday.

Granted, "Current Friday" doesn't have the same ring to it -- but since Wednesday's column went live on the P-B site today, I thought I'd post it here for you, as well.

I wrote this week's Jen's World column from my MFA residency in Vermont -- where I felt the pull to be in two places at once. You can read about it here.

Two Decades and Counting

No sooner did I settle back in Rochester than I hit the highway again. After a 12-hour road trip with my friend Nenna, I'm snuggled cozily in bed at my parents' house in Thief River Falls.

(The drive to TRF isn't usually a 12-hour trip. But seeing as our mantra was, "We have all day!", we took full advantage. Stops for bathroom breaks, pizza parlors, the cabin, a friend's house, and a photo opp with Paul Bunyan and Babe stretched the schedule.)

So what am I doing away from home again without my husband and kiddos? This weekend marks my 20-year high school reunion. To mark the occasion, I've been taking little walks down memory lane. Here are a few tidbits.

In 1990:

...a gallon of gas cost $1.34. In 1990, I was driving a cream-colored Chevette with fenders held together with bungee cords. And I only had to put in $5 of gas a week.

...Milli Vanilli was exposed! Lip synchers! This broke my heart, as my friend Lynn and I spent more time than I'd like to admit practicing Milli Vanilli's dance moves in front of the TV to their videos. ("Girl you know it's true...")

... the movie Dances With Wolves was released.
I went to Dances in Bemidji during my freshman year at BSU. I sobbed so hard that my friend Cathy asked if I wanted to leave early. (I didn't.)

... Vanilla Ice sings "Ice, Ice Baby."
A group of my friends made a special trip down to Minneapolis just to watch the Ice-man at club First Ave. I didn't go, but secretly wish I had.

...the first known World Wide Web page is written.
I won't have an e-mail address ( for another six years.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Jen's World: Lucky No. 11

Check out the latest Jen's World column here!

What Is this Phenonemon Called?

Well, I'm back from Vermont safe-and-sound -- sufficiently cooled and pooled after my 11-day VCFA residency. But the weirdest thing is happening to me. I'm seeing my MFA friends e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.

Does this happen to you?

This morning at Dunn Bros., as I scrawled out next week's column, I heard one of the graduate assistants talking to her friend in the couch next to me. When I glanced her way, I realized the "grad assistant" had aged about 10 years over the weekend and cut her hair short. Also, she lives in Chicago.

At the pool on Friday afternoon, I saw one of the people from my workshop walking to the cabana in her flowered one-piece suit. Even though she's in Boston.

And at the Farmer's Market yesterday? I caught a glimpse of two faculty members and one of my dorm roomies. Wisconsin, Washington, New York.

It seems to be some kind of initiation of re-entry. After each of my four residencies, I've jerked my head in the direction of someone who isn't who I think they should be. Maybe it's my mind's way of connecting these two disparate worlds I love. Or maybe I'm jet lagged.

Whatever the reason, it's been nice to revisit VCFA -- if even in error -- for a few minutes these last couple of days. Though I miss my family tremendously while in Vermont, the opportunity to focus solely on school (no laundry, no errands, no cooking) is a luxury.

But now it's on to real world, back to balancing family and work with packet deadlines and writing exercises. Bring it on.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Graduation Day

Well, it's not MY graduation -- but it is graduation day at VCFA. The summer class had a lovely grad ceremony today, followed by an outdoor reception. Here are some pics:

The photos above are in College Hall's chapel -- a beautiful, though not air-conditioned, room.

Hanging with another "student" outside College Hall after the ceremony.

My friend and roomie, Sara, and her daughter at the reception. Sara's a new graduate!

This is my vantage point for much of the residency. My bag, my water bottle, my knees.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Playing Tourist

Though I've spent more than 40 days in Montpelier over the last couple of years, I'd never made it down to the state capitol building until today. (Of course, I chose the 90-plus degree afternoon to take an hour walk!)

Man. This is really a beautiful town. Here are some pics I shot today:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Literary Bliss

If you don't count the spotty Internet access and lack of air conditioning (and I don't), life is great in Vermont. I've spent the last seven days attending lectures and readings and workshops and hanging out with other writers. I suppose in some -- and probably many -- circles, this would be considered geeky. But all I can say is: Life is good.

The campus here is beautiful and seeped with history, and Montpelier is the quintessential New England town. Since the campus actually sits up on a hill, I try to squeeze in time every couple days to venture down, down, down the hill and into town, where there are several bookshops, a fantastic old library and some cool restaurants. Every time I'm here, I wish I could take my family and all my friends along to experience Vermont and VCFA with me.

To my great excitement, I landed my first choice advisor for the coming semester. I'll be working with Sara Mansfield Taber, who has done a great deal of writing and teaching. She's actually my workshop leader during this residency, as well, and I've been impressed by her feedback and insight. I think it's going to be a fabulous final semester for me.

Final semester -- wow. I'm constantly reminded that I'm almost done here at VCFA. In six months, which will undoubtedly fly by, I'll have finished my MFA and will be back for my graduation residency. As hard as it is to be away from my family and "real life" during the residencies... this really is a fantastic experience.