Somebody’s Miracle


I’m going to see Liz Phair this weekend. I’m really excited. It’s my favorite DC venue: the 9:30 club. It’s small, very intimate.

The last time I saw Liz Phair was in 1999. She played at the University of Minnesota, where I was about to graduate. The student activities committee brought her in–the “Major Events” group was in charge, but I had a sort of tertiary awareness of it as I was the co-chair of “Bijou Films” that year, running a couple of small film series on campus. My colleague on the committee picked her up from the airport and drove her to the show. I was very jealous.

It was her tour for whitechocolatespaceegg, an album I loved. I still love it: “Big Tall Man,” “What Makes You Happy,” “Johnny Feelgood,” “Shitload of Money,” and of course “Ride.”

Torry went to that concert with me. In a move very characteristic of him, he threw a note to her onstage that some stagehand whipped away before it even touched the ground. We stood at the front of that show together. It was so long ago maybe I was a different person. Liz Phair is short. We were almost the same height, even with her standing on the stage. Granted, it was a little stage in a little hall in the student union. It was the same place I took ballroom dancing lessons with my friend Katie. It was next to the building where I was an RA. It was above the bowling alley where I had–yes–bowling class.

Torry has been dead for five years. I bought a t-shirt that night. It was red. It said, whitechocolatespaceegg on it. A few months later, when I am living with Torry in Minneapolis, my father will take a picture of me in my bedroom wearing that shirt. I’m standing there awkwardly, giving the tour of this apartment. I look awkward and uncomfortable. The t-shirt is too big for me. I didn’t realize that until years later. I didn’t have the kind of self-awareness then that I have now. But I suppose we all look back at our photographs and realize how much we didn’t know at that particular moment in time.

When I stop and think about it, I have more memories than I can sort through all tied to that one square mile of Minneapolis. John Berryman jumped off a bridge near where I lived. You could see it from the dining room of our dorm. You could see it from the lounge where the hall council had a coffeeshop once a month and where, as part of my job, I hosted a reading for people who lived in the building.

I don’t always know how to do this, how to live in a world that keeps filling up with ghosts.

Documentary of Embarrassment

My dad recently sent in all our old VHS and film home movies to a company that digitized them for use on DVD and the web. I had to walk him through how to create the DVDs last night, since he (nor I) have any patience for how-to videos and such (they move too slowly!). I went in and started tinkering.

The first set of clips I found were from a video “tour” of my hometown my best friend from high school and I made once, I think during one of my trips home from my first year of college.

It was mortifying. I watched about 30 seconds of it before I died of embarrassment and had to shut it off.

I told my father later, “I think it’s some sort of crime of nature that memories of my 18-year-old self won’t be allowed to fade into a mellow kind of comfort because all of the worst ones have been captured on video.”

The experience reminded me of another quirky video-related thing I did around that time. A few friends and I, video cam in tow, started making a movie called Documentary of a Stranger. We went out into the wild outer ring suburbs of Milwaukee and interviewed Barnes and Noble customers mostly, but also a woman pumping her gas at SuperAmerica.

We’d introduce ourselves and explain we were doing a project for a college sociology thesis called, of course, Documentary of a Stranger. We were going to ask them a series of probing questions, we said, and we just wanted them to answer to their comfort level.

We’d introduce them on camera: “This is Not David.” “This is Not Amanda.”

The questions were always varied but tended to include:

The normal where-from/sisters-brothers type questions
What do you do for a living?
What three famous people would you most want to have dinner with?
Can you do any stupid human tricks?
If you were stranded on a desert island, which brand of pain reliever would you prefer?

What was fascinating was that most people couldn’t wait to bust out their stupid human tricks. One girl walked with her knees bent, knees swinging in and out; another man touched his tongue to his nose.

Unfortunately, Documentary of a Stranger is lost–stolen, I think, but a college friend and then never returned.

It’s lost, but not forgotten. Unfortunately.

The Poetics of Never Forgetting

I forget things. I forget things quick and often, or better to say, perhaps, that I lose track of things, lose track of memories and experiences and my childhood. Sometimes I make lists. To do lists, shopping lists, don’t-forget-about-this lists. My house is strewn with old lists, lists clutter my desk. Sometimes I forget why I started the list, or whether I completed it.

Things I never forget: faces. I’ll always recognize you—at the very least, that I’ve met you or sometimes even just seen you—and most of the time I’ll be able to tell you where and when it was. Some people find this off-putting. Things I generally don’t forget: names. If I know your name, it will stick with me.

But the rest of the world, so transient to me, must be kept somewhere. I put these things in poems, things I see other people forgetting or losing track of, things that to me are critical and essential.

I wrote about the rise of the AIDS crisis because we can’t forget what it costs us. We can’t forget what was lost/taken/discarded. It’s important to me. I put it in poems. I wrote a book about my ex-boyfriend’s suicide because I didn’t want to forget him, forget how it felt to lose something I thought was already gone. I was wrong. I’m writing a book about losing other people: another man, a boy in Wyoming. I don’t want to forget how whole things once were. I think the world is a constantly winnowing place: each day you have less but remember more.

I want to remember how it felt to fall in love with him, slowly, by voice. I put it into poems. I want him to remember this too, so I share the never-forgetting.

This is all I can do. I don’t write a history, I write subjectivity. I want to recapture things and keep them close to me.

It’s a simple thing. You don’t have to do this in your poems. I don’t think this is the right way for everyone. But how easy it is, now, to remember the things that used to escape me. There they are, right there. And I’ve learned now how to live in the past and the present without losing myself.