April 8th 2016
National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC
Gallery notes for wall-mounted photography installation:-
The Japanese photographer Naoko Wowsugi arrived in Kansas City with only one word of English: “Yes,” which was at least a positive place to begin. Over the years dozens of individual friends and colleagues taught her how to speak American one tight word at a time.
Here is a photograph of eleven of these people caught in the act of speaking their special word: ‘bureaucracy,’ ‘welcome,’ ‘fabulous,’ ‘gynecologist.’ Seemingly, each of these words when spoken as an act of kindness is a form of smiling. You can see this in their eyes and in the way they are leaning forwards towards Naoko and her camera, waiting for her to reply.
April 9th 2016
Charlotte, North Carolina
On the plane between DC and Charlotte you get talking to the elderly man in the next seat. He is from Alabama. It says so on his hat. When you say talking you are using the word in the loosest sense possible. You understand approximately one in every eight words he says: San Juan, military, cyclone. The other seven go sliding over your head like greased bullets. You fill in the gaps, give him the benefit of a good story, well-told. He reminds you of your old men, back home, chewing each word, slow and deliberate as peanut brittle.
After the plane touches down in North Carolina you say, “lovely to meet you, Sir. Safe journey back to Alabama.” You use your best elocution voice, sharpening up your Ballymena vowels. You are reasonably certain he only picks up on the word Alabama but he still smiles, takes your hand in two of his leathery hands and says something soft and buttery. You understand the sentiment completely.
April 10th 2016
This is a story about a man who has to put his old dog down. In the story the man shoots his dog through the head with a shotgun. It is quite unlikely that the dog died in this way for America, despite what the newspapers tell us, is a reasonably civilized country. They have hospitals here, museums too, and vets who specialize in taking care of sick dogs. Rarely do Americans shoot animals which can’t be eaten.
Still, this story takes place in Wisconsin –the only place I’ve ever fired a gun- and so I choose to believe that the man killed his dog with a shotgun. Perhaps the execution even took place behind his cabin where the yard bleeds into the forest and the skeleton slips of old trees shiver in anticipation of Spring. In this story the man is a good shot and the dog is trusting and it only takes one bullet.
One hour before all this takes place, fully aware of what he will soon do, the man takes his dog through the drive-thru at McDonald’s, buys the dog a Happy Meal and a Big Mac for himself, thinks briefly of Judas Iscariot as they eat their burgers in the parking lot. Then, thinks, “don’t be so ridiculous. It’s only a dog.” This is the part which makes it a story.
April 11th 2016
Fon du Lac, Wisconsin
Paul and Jean Bleakney
You must understand that the lighthouse keeper is neither stupid nor opportunistic. He is by nature a hard working man and balks at the idea of getting something for nothing. When he first took the job on the lake the lighthouse was right by the water and the big lamp on top –turning and turning and beaming like a solar planet- the only thing keeping the boats from running a ground. Now the lake has shrunk into itself. Global warming. Soil erosion. Mismanagement of environmental resources. The lighthouse keeper isn’t even sure who or what he should be blaming for the parking lot, the trees and sandy beach which have now crept between his lighthouse and the shoreline. He is mortified every time he climbs the stairs to the top floor but he still keeps the lamp burning. He is paid to do this and he is not sort of man who will take money lightly. The lighthouse beam goes sweeping across the parking lot exposing young couples coupling in their Fords and ancient Hondas, dog walkers, seagulls and late night joggers. The light is a long arm reaching out towards the water and only just tickling its edge. The lighthouse keeper cannot bear to look at it directly.
April 12th 2016
Margaret and Diane Lowry
Having for many years, (decades even), been the Winter home of the Ringling Brothers circus, Baraboo, Wisconsin has the highest population of retired circus performers of any small town in the United States. Here they are at eighty and even ninety still turning cartwheels down the main street, juggling the avocados in the produce aisle at the grocery store, parking their clown cars in the disabled bays and not even bothering to display their permits.
People laugh easier in Baraboo, Wisconsin. They are trained to do this, also to hang from the telephone wires, twisting and tumbling like young monkeys. When the Spring begins greening its way through the trees and scrubby bushes, they are inclined to head out in pursuit of Californian Big Tops and tight, Texan High Wires. But the circus train no longer runs through Baraboo, and they are trapped here in this ordinary place with the ordinary people and their ordinary children.
April 13th 2016
Grand Rapids, Michigan
On the wall behind the check-in desk there is a wipe-clean white board which says, “Guest of the Day,” in day-glo print, each letter a different colour. Below this someone has written, “Mitch Greenlee.” All four E’s run together like open-mouthed animals nibbling the butt of the creature in front.
You don’t ask the receptionist who Mitch Greenlee is or why he has been chosen as the motel’s favourite guest today. You just stand there with your far too large suitcase imagining what your name will look like tomorrow when it is written in luminous pink and yellow and blue.
“Does the guest of the day get some sort of prize?” you ask the receptionist and it’s not like you even care. You are only making conversation while he finds your room key. It would be enough just to know that you’d won something in a foreign country where people don’t even know that you’re moderately famous.
April 14th 2016
Grand Rapids, Michigan
The girl in the line in front of me is asking Tobias Wolff to draw a mustache under his signature on the first page of the short story collection she has only this moment purchased from the festival bookstore. She is asking Tobias Wolff to do this because his yard brush mustache is the very first thing you notice about him, (second being the ever-so-shiny dome of his un-haired head). If this girl had ever read anything Tobias Wolff has written she would know he is also wise, articulate and dry as a mouthful of cream crackers.
I want to say, “do not be an idiot girl. You will come to regret the day you asked Tobias Wolff to sign his own book with a mustache. In the future you will colour with shame every time you see this particular book striping along your bookshelf.”
But, because Tobias Wolff is not only wise, articulate and dry-humoured, but also unbelievably kind, he is drawing a mustache on his own book. “Sorry,” he says, “it looks more like a caterpillar than a mustache.” He really shouldn’t be the one apologizing.