|43rd Annual UND Writers Conference: "Humanimal"
Reading: Pam Houston
March 28, 2012
© 2012 Pam Houston and the University of North Dakota
Heidi Czerweic: …and remind you to turn off your cell phones. Remember that tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m. there will be another open mic community reading in the River Valley Room. If you’re interested in reading, just show up about fifteen minutes, ten minutes ahead of time to sign up for a slot. Also wanted to remind everybody that we’ve had a slight change in the schedule, that tomorrow night – Thursday night – at 8:00 p.m. will be Lee Ann Roripaugh, who will be reading and then Mark Doty will be reading Friday at 4:00 p.m. We had to switch schedules due to a scheduling issue.
We would like to thank the UND bookstore, the North Dakota Humanities Council, and the Women’s Center for their support. But we would also like to point out that none of these conferences would be available had it not been for the late John Little who began all of this in 1970. You can help say thank you with a contribution to the John Little Endowment today. There are donation levels starting at five dollars. Please stop by the information desk if you’re interested.
Pam will be signing books just after her reading out here at the bookstore tables. And I would like to invite you to the reception to follow at the North Dakota Humanities, or sorry, the North Dakota Museum of Art, which is free and open to all.
And now, Therese Borkenhagan, who is a student of ours born and raised in Norway. She studied English, Theatre, and Anthropology in both Grand Forks and Los Angeles. She’s currently working on her Master’s in English here at UND and focusing on Creative Writing.
Therese Borkenhagan: Thank you. This is actually quite an honor to me. I asked specifically to be able to introduce Pam Houston because of the impact that her writing has had on my own fiction writing just this past semester. For some reason, I’ve always been hesitant when writing from a female perspective. I don’t know if I worried that it would be too personal. But after reading Cowboys are My Weakness, Houston’s stories about the female experience of hope, desperation, relating to the opposite sex, not relating to the opposite sex, choosing pets over children, these stories have opened up brand new doors for me as a writer and as a person. Between her debut, the collection of short stories Cowboys are My Weakness and her most recent publication, the prismatic novel Contents May Have Shifted, Pam Houston has won the Western States Book Award, the Willow Award for Best Contemporary Fiction, and the Evil Companions Literary Award. And her stories have appeared in anthologies and volumes such as Best American Short Stories, the O’Henry Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. Her characters search their souls, the prairies, the city; they search the world for answers, and we are right there with them. Houston’s writing is heartbreaking, hilarious, candid, and most of all, brave. Please give a warm welcome to Pam Houston.
Pam Houston: Thank you so much, that was lovely. I like the word “prismatic.” And thanks to Heidi and the university for having me. I, this is my fiftieth state. I’ve never been here, and I’m really excited. So now I have a complete set. So I was very excited to be here.
I do need to say, not to bring everybody down, but I don’t know how many of you know this, but Adrienne Rich died today. And I just couldn’t come up here without saying that and just acknowledging how important her work has been to me personally, to writers, to women, to women-writers. And if you don’t know her work, W.W. Norton has been publishing her for years, her essays and her books of poetry, and if you don’t know her work, this would be an occasion to find out more about it. Start with the essay Women... “Woman and Bird,” that’s my personal opinion. But anyway, I just wanted to acknowledge her, and thank her for her work.
But onto happier topics, this is my book Contents May Have Shifted. My last book, Sight Hound, is the more logical choice for the “humanimal” conference, because it really centers itself around a dog named Dante, and his life and death. And in fact has twelve first person narrators, including two dogs and a cat. And I just, I’ve been on tour with this book and I, as a challenge to myself, I thought, “well, how could I, can I find all the animally parts of this book [laughs], and read it? And that will be a sort of different reading than I’ve been giving.” And so that’s what I did. I chose, not every single part has an animal in it, but animals are a massive part of my life, and the human-animal connection is a massive part of my life. And I have learned more from my Irish Wolfhounds and other dogs I’ve had than really any other source probably in my entire life. And that shows up a little bit in here. So there’s going to be a smattering of animals.
This novel came to be when I was invited to the Wisconsin Book Festival. And I was asked to be part of an evening called “Unveiled,” at, where four writers were asked to write some, or to read something completely untested and untried. And I took that assignment so seriously that I didn’t start writing until I was on the plane to Wisconsin, and, which might have been my 49th state, actually, because I had never been there when I went for this. I’ve since been back a few times. But anyway, I went, I went to this evening called “Unveiled,” and I wrote really furiously on the plane. And I did what I tell my writing students to do when they are panicked or have writer’s block or a deadline or whatever, and I say, “Just remember the things out in the world that really attracted your attention lately, that glimmered at you. And just collect them and put them on the page and put them down next to each other and see what happens.”
And so I did that from my own life, and because I move around so much I got these twelve—the number twelve keeps coming up because I think in twelve; I think in groups of twelve—but, so I got these twelve little moments; these twelve little glimmers. And I titled them with the places they took place. So, there was one that was from Juneau, Alaska, and one that was from Great Exuma, Bahamas, and one that was from Ozona, Texas. And I collected twelve of them, and I was going to go read them. And I had a few hours to print them out, and whatnot, and I thought, “Well I should just go back to the email and make sure I did everything the email said.” And it, the email said, “The only caveat is that you have mention the state of Wisconsin.”
So, I thought, “Shit.”
So, I removed Goosenecks of the San Juan, saved it for later, and I went downstairs from the hotel, on to the street of Madison, Wisconsin, and I waited for something to happen.
And eventually, it did, and I went upstairs, and I wrote it down, and then I had my twelve, including “8. Madison, Wisconsin.” And I read them that evening, and you know, considering I had written them in about 72 hours total they, it went over pretty well. And Richard Bausch, who is a writer I admire greatly, was there, and he said, “Write a hundred of those and that’s your next book.” And I thought, “Well no, but maybe 144.”
And so only six years later, Contents May Have Shifted is 144 of those. For the first two years or so—three years—I was really just collecting them. And I told myself lots of lies like, “It doesn’t matter if they all add up to anything, just keep writing,” and “you don’t believe in linear time anyway,” and “no one really makes progress and the only real narrative is a shattered narrative.”
And so I told myself all these things so that I wouldn’t, you know, be afraid. And then, toward the end when I realized that I had them, and I had 144 of them and I felt pretty good about it, then I sort of let that, what I think of as like the sleeping dragon of narrative arc, rise up. And I started to organize along those lines so that my character—whose name is Pam, my first person narrator, coincidentally—could, you know, could make some progress, could make some progress through all these glimmering details. So anyway, that’s the book and I’m going to read you some samples, mostly animally samples, but not the first one. The first one, there are 132 short chapters that all take place some place, and then there are twelve chapters spaced evenly throughout that take place on an airplane. And that’s partly what has to do with the title, Contents May Have Shifted, which if you’ve been on an airplane lately, you have heard those words. And so I’m going to start out with one of the airplane stories, and then go from there. This is “DL #55.”
The plane is gradually but perceptibly descending. It is barely light outside, and we aren’t due at Orly until nearly noon. There is an odd ticking noise coming from the wing outside my window. I come fully awake and realize we are listing strenuously to the right.
I glance at my seatmate on the aisle. Her name is Rebecca. She is a twenty-six-year-old bank teller from Cincinnati who has never flown before, who has saved for five years to take her dream trip to Paris. I spent most of dinner telling her how much safer airplanes are than car travel, how the 777 has a minimum of three fail-safes on each of its major systems, how even if one of the engines fell clean off the fuselage it is designed to tumble backwards, up and over the wing, so it doesn’t tear the wing from the plane. Now, in spite of all my reassurances, we seem to be heading shoulder-first into the North Atlantic.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the pilot says, “as many of you are probably aware, we are descending, preparing to make an unscheduled landing into Reykjavik, Iceland. Approximately thirty-five minutes ago, we experienced an explosion in our number two engine and that engine is now inoperable. The ticking sound you hear is the wind running through it, spinning the blades backwards much like a household fan. You can probably also tell that we are tacking toward Iceland—as we would in a sailboat—as our current engine configuration will not give us full power in a straight line.”
Now Rebecca is awake and looking at me wild-eyed. “The man likes a metaphor,” I say, and offer a small smile.
The light out our window has strengthened and I can see white caps on an angry gray sea.
“I always kind of wanted to go to Iceland,” I say, but by now Rebecca is no longer looking at me. She has her eyes closed tightly, has given herself, I imagine, to prayer.
“We will be landing in approximately fifteen minutes,” the captain says. “Please give your undivided attention to the flight attendants as they instruct you in landing in the brace position.”
I like that he did not say crash. I like that he’s a language guy. The ocean is getting quite a bit closer, no sign of Iceland out my window, and I hope that Reykjavik Airport does not turn out to be a metaphor for fucked.
Just when it seems that our wheels have to be skimming the water, land and runway lights appear, and then more of them, so many lights it is hard to count them, a sea of spinning red and blue, every ambulance and fire truck in Iceland seems to have come out to greet us.
“Holy shit!” I say, just before the wheels hit the foam and the foam splashes up and covers all the windows, throwing the cabin in a half-light exactly like waking up in a tent after a snowstorm, and then everyone is cheering, as the plane glides to a jerky, sticky stop.
Much later, in an upstairs blank space of terminal, as we are being fed rice with some kind of yellow chickeny goo all over it by something resembling the Icelandic Red Cross, the crew tells us the reason for the emergency equipment. When the number two engine exploded, it spit jet fuel all over the fuselage. We were a Molotov cocktail hurtling through space, is the way the literary pilot puts it, there was no way to be certain that the friction of the tires on the runway wouldn’t make a spark and ignite us, turn us into a 90-mile-per-hour ball of flame.
This is “4. Juneau, Alaska.”
They said we wouldn’t see any orcas. They said the humpbacks were in and when the humpbacks were in you didn’t see the orcas, because the orcas are predators and the humpbacks are prey.
It’s been a long day. We’ve been all the way up Tracy Arm to the glaciers and everyone but the captain and I are sleeping when word comes over the radio: Orcas in Shearwater Cove.
By the time we get there there’s nothing stirring. A couple of lazy humpbacks out in the main channel a sure sign that the orcas are gone. The captain is worried about the hour, worried about the fuel he’s got left, worried about his daughter, who’s got magenta hair and a T-shirt that says THIS is what a feminist looks like, who is back from somewhere like Reed College working on his boat this summer, selling sodas to the tourists through a permanent scowl.
There’s a fin flash on the far side of the channel, distant but unmistakable. Orca. Male.
The captain says, “That’s four miles across this channel, minimum.”
I show him the silver charm around my neck, remind him that it’s my last day in Alaska, promise to swim for shore if we run out of gas.
“Don’t lose that fin,” he says, turning the bow into the sunset, but I couldn’t lose it if I tried, the water of Stephen’s Passage backlit, a million diamonds rushing toward me in the sun, and one black fin, impossibly tall, absurdly geometric, the accompanying blast of whale breath above it, superimposed onto the patterns of light.
Spotting whales at sea is not so different from spotting deer in the woods. For hours you see nothing, and then you see one, and suddenly you realize you are surrounded. This pod has twenty-five, by my best counting, the one male, who keeps his distance, and twenty-four females, all of them running steadily west.
We get out in front and the captain shuts down the engines. Every time the big male’s fin turns itself up and over and back down under the surface of the water, I can’t help myself, I gasp. We are directly in the path of one of the females. Every time she surfaces we can hear her breathing, every time she surfaces I can see the spot of white at her heart. Twenty years ago, on my first trip to Alaska, I bought a string of white-heart trade beads, and for this trip I tore the house apart to find them.
In three more dives she’ll be under the boat. I touch the beads at my neck and try to guess which side of the boat will get me the closest. The others are stirring, crowding the port side, watching her approach. I choose starboard. She dives one last time and I start counting, at five she rises right under my hand. The breath from her blowhole is cold on my face. If I dared I could reach down and touch her on her white spot. Someone behind me screams, maybe the captain’s daughter, but the whale is already diving, already resurfacing a few yards farther on. I listen to the sweep of her fin, the puff of her breathing until she disappears into the disappearing diamonds. When the male’s big fin is the only thing visible—a speck on the horizon, we turn the boat north and head for home.
This is “25. Ban Xang Hai, Laos.”
My guide Xai and I are standing in the warm mist of a Mekong River morning in the village of Ban Xang Hai, Laos, watching an unusually tall Laotian tend his boiling vats of Lao-Lao, the rice-wine moonshine that has put his village on the map. Monkeys scream in the trees above us, and a gentle-faced woman stands nearby holding a glass I fear is meant for me.
It is slightly after 8 a.m. and in America, that would be a good enough reason to decline politely, but here in Laos, where decorum is far more rigorous—and complicated—than it is in America, I’m pretty sure there isn’t going to be a way out of drinking the pickled Mekong water that is about to come from the steaming, rusted fifty-gallon drum.
I reassure myself that no self-respecting amoeba could possibly live in 80-proof hooch, and quickly down the glass of “white” I am offered. Which gets me another glass, and then a glass of red, which I realize the second it goes down my throat without searing my tonsils, isn’t nearly as strong as the white. I am seized with regret, flooded by premonitions of feverish vomiting in a Laotian health care facility.
I do what any sophisticated world traveler would do and stuff an entire antibacterial wipe into my mouth [Audience laughs], and during the tour of the brightly painted temple, suck every drop of juice out of it I can [Audience laughs], and swallow.
Outside the temple a beautiful woman is making ferns and bougainvillea and daisy petals out of colored paper. I buy a small bouquet from her and ask if I can take her picture. She says something to Xai and he translates, “She says she should take your picture because you are the beautiful one,” and I can tell by the tone in his voice that he thinks she is mistaken.
Xai is the most formal guide I have ever had in Asia, which is saying a great deal. He had been a monk for three months at eighteen, then he became one again for one day last year when his mother died, so he could carry her body, he says, to the other side. His English is impeccable, except that he says electric city when he means electricity, and comfort table when he means comfortable, and anyone can see why he would think that was correct. At least twice a day he says, “If I am not speaking right you will please graduate me,” but I rarely do.
I’m pretty sure I have managed to eat the antibacterial wipe clandestinely until we are back on the boat heading down river to the magical city of Luang Prabang and Xai says, “Have I told you yet how the Buddha died?”
When I say no, he says, “He was invited to the house of a friend for dinner and they were serving pok.”
“Pok?” I say.
“Pok! Pok!” he says, mildly impatient with me as usual, and he makes an oinking noise in his throat.
“Ah!” I say, and Xai smiles.
“He knew the pok was bad,” Xai says, “knew, even, that it would kill him, but he ate it anyway because it was most important not to offend his hosts.”
“I guess that’s the difference,” I almost say, “between Buddha and me,” but on the off chance that Xai has paid me a compliment, I smile out at the muddy river and nod.
This is “30. Atigun Pass, Alaska.”
The photographers are out in spite of the weather, so it’s just me and Joe, the mule handler, huddled in the soggy VE-24. I am doing basically every single thing the tags on both my Svea stove sack and my tent tell me not to do, trying to dry out the inside of the tent with an open-flame white gas stove while holding it in my hands, and Joe is telling Mathilda stories.
It rained the whole way up the Dalton Highway to Cold Foot, rained the whole two-day walk into base camp along the Chandalar Shelf. By day six we all had our feet in plastic bags, mold growing between our toes, and not one piece of dry clothing among us.
Only Mathilda seems unfazed by the constant rain that beats down on her. Joe has brought no food for her and I watch out the tent door as she stands near the rising riverbank with her front legs hobbled and long ears twitching, pulling tiny willow shoots out of the ground and eating them all the way down to their roots.
Joe is one of those guys Alaska is full of, doe-eyed and methodical, with both the loyalty and the logic of a Labrador retriever. The kind of guy who would give you his car—permanently—if you asked for it in just the right way.
The little stove is making a happy humming sound in the tent, drying a circle in the oversaturated ceiling. We are both wearing thick damp long johns, everything else too soaked to bring inside. Then the hum turns into a rumble and the rumble turns into a roar, and I can tell by the look on Joe’s face that he’s hearing it too.
Our waterlogged brains kick into gear simultaneously and we leap for the tent door just in time to see a huge wall of mud descending upon us. It is more than a football field wide and three feet deep at its tongue, maybe deeper higher up. It is roughly the consistency of cookie dough, carrying rocks as big as Volkswagens in its flow.
“Holy shit,” Joe yells. “Grab your boots and make a run for it.” And we do, stumbling with our laces untied along the leading edge of the mud toward the lateral moraine—the hundred-foot-high ridge of humped-up earth and rock the glacier left behind along the edge of the valley.
We reach the moraine out of breath but just ahead of the mud, having managed to grab only our ponchos. We turn to watch as the mud engulfs our tent, our packs, what is left of our kitchen supplies, and three spare tripods; watch as it carries them, with a kind of absolute authority, to the river. It is there our eyes fall upon Mathilda, now almost belly deep in mud, still with the same Zen expression on her face she always wears.
“I gotta get my mule!” Joe says, and that is all, before he leaps down into the thick mud which is hitting him at hip level, and he drags his legs, one at a time, back across the valley toward Mathilda. The mud, I can see, is getting deeper, and moving faster now, hitting Joe mid chest a couple of times and throwing Mathilda off balance, and she starts braying, softly but plaintively, from the river’s edge.
Time slows down the way it always does when death is lurking behind the next bad decision, and I watch Joe take what seems like forever to climb up on one of the now-in-motion car-sized rocks, and then jump from it to another, and another after that. Every so often he misjudges the movement of the rock and either misses entirely, slips off right after he lands, or stands helplessly while the rock he has chosen sinks into the mud underneath him, leaving him sputtering and spitting up from the muck, his form barely recognizable as that of a human being.
A long five minutes later, Joe reaches Mathilda, who has by now all but fallen on her side. The mud is still flowing, though more slowly, the clouds have lifted a little off the mountain, and I can see the giant slump block the slide has left behind.
Joe wraps one arm around Mathilda’s lowered neck, wields his hunting knife, and dives like a frogman down between her front legs. He emerges seconds later with the severed hobbles, takes an instant to grin at me through the rain, and then throws himself up on Mathilda’s back and speaks into her ear for a moment. There is another moment when the whole mud sculpture—man, horse, knife, and dangling hobbles—leans dangerously over the river. In the next moment Mathilda rights herself, and walks slowly, one sure hoof at a time, toward me through the mud.
This is “59. Tucson, Arizona.”
I have not been on the property thirty minutes when I am lying on a massage table in a softly lit, frangipani-scented room with a person named Trevor towering over me.
“I can see,” he says, “that you are doing a lot of spiritual work because look how far you are out in your hair” [Audience laughs]. His accent is vaguely South African, and he has the most impressive unibrow I have ever seen. “I do not read poetry,” Trevor says, “because I live poetry.”
He picks my feet up and lets them fall back to the table. “May I ask you,” he says, “why the lower half of your body is perpetually standing in ice cold water?” He means energetically, of course, because the room is warm and my legs are dry. “And what happened here?” he asks, not waiting for an answer. He has his hand on my leg at the exact place where, when I was four years old, my father threw me so hard against a big oak wardrobe that I broke my femur. The bone healed forty years ago—I was casted from the tip of my toes to my armpits for months—but Trevor is not the first healer to be able to “see” what happened.
“My father . . .” I begin.
“I am not afraid of your pain,” Trevor says. “I am not afraid of your grief. I am not afraid of your terror. You want to know why I am not afraid of your terror?” I nod. “I am not afraid of your terror because I have gone inside the monster, and inside the monster is pure wonder.”
Somewhere in this building my friend Willow, who I have come to Canyon Ranch with, is getting a nice simple lavender scrub and an herbal wrap [Audience laughs]. Willow looked through the catalog, thought, Yeah, the first night, a nice herbal wrap after all that travel.
“Pamela,” Trevor says, “will you tell me your father’s name so that I may ask him to excuse himself from the lower half of your body?” [Audience laughs].
“Yes,” I say, and I do.
“Sebastian,” Trevor says, “Sebastian, you must get out of there! Sebastian,” he says, “this does not belong to you!” He has his eyes closed and his hands tight around my ankles. “No, Sebastian,” he says, more forcefully now, “there are no options!”
We stay like that for an excruciating amount of time. Then he folds my hands across my chest and covers them with his. “If you could have only one thing,” he says, “would you choose peace or ecstasy?” Ecstasy, I think, though I’m pretty sure I am supposed to say peace [Audience laughs].
“Peace is an illusion,” Trevor says. “I am in the ecstasy nearly all the time now, even when I sleep.”
I think of the composer’s lonely bedroom, the terrible black sheets, the clock radio projecting blood-red digits onto the ceiling, his bald head a glinting cabernet color like someone already dead.
“Pamela,” Trevor says, slapping the bottom of my feet with his palms. “Yes, sir,” I say, out of habit. He’s got my wrists now, is stretching them back over my head. No one has ever called me Pamela except my father. “You have two glasses,” Trevor says, “one is completely full, and one is completely empty. In which glass is stillness possible?”
“The full one,” I say. The questions are getting easier. Trevor now has his powerful thumbs wrapped almost completely around my uppermost vertebrae. “You can get to stillness through ecstasy,” he says, “but you can’t get to ecstasy through stillness.”
I think about all the ways the language of the new age is custom-made for terrorism. I think about when a pink mouth opened in a white sky over Davis, and I saw, for the second time, the cupped waiting hands.
“When one of the doing lines in your life intersects with the circle of your now,” Trevor says, “what happens?”
“It has to bend,” I say, confident now. “It bends and bends and eventually becomes a circle.”
“Precisely,” he says, and releases his death grip on my neck.
This is “71. Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”
Driving from Chicago in the minus 6 degree weather, neck craned out the window looking for the lunar eclipse, because the rocket scientist told me to, but the light pollution extends all the way to the Wisconsin border, and I think I am probably facing the wrong direction anyhow.
If I became the rocket scientist’s girlfriend, the fortune cookie about me being the reasonable one would never ever ever be true.
In Milwaukee, everything is frozen solid, the river, the stoplights, even my car door, but when I get to my high-rise hotel room, there is the eclipse right out my window, halfway over and looking strange enough to scare a caveman or an ancient Egyptian to death.
Trish comes to meet me for breakfast with her sperm-bank in vitro baby and I have no idea how to respond as she details all the ways her life has become a living hell [Audience laughs]. She knows I thought she was crazy to do it, at her age, alone, with her eighty-hour-a-week job, and now here she is, as if to prove me wrong, but everything she says makes her life sound about ten times worse than I could have ever imagined.
The lake is frozen as far out as you can see, blocks of ice heaved up on the shore like wrecked cars, and Cliff Parker, whose law firm is sponsoring my visit, picks me up and takes me to the Milwaukee Country Club for lunch. It is so much like the country club in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that my father could just barely afford to belong to it takes my breath away, only it is like it is still 1972 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the white wallpaper with little parasol-toting maidens doing tour jetés across it, the four dead gray-haired ladies propped up in the corner as if to look like they are playing bridge.
The place probably seats two-fifty, not even counting the no-women-allowed grill downstairs, and yet other than the dead ladies in the corner, we are the only ones eating today.
The point of this luncheon, I quickly understand, is so that Cliff can show me why he is a lawyer and not a writer, to show me the kind of life he gave up writing for. He has invited eight people to the luncheon besides the two of us and exactly none of them show up. I can’t decide if Cliff Parker is a sociopath or just so completely normal that he is incomprehensible to me [Audience laughs].
Our waitress is actually named Trudy, she has a beehive hairdo and is at least a hundred and fourteen years old [Audience laughs]. We both order the Cobb salad, and for some inexplicable reason it takes forty-five minutes to arrive [Audience laughs]. The room is being heated to a sultry 85 degrees and there is a squirrel hurling himself repeatedly at the floor-to-ceiling window behind Cliff’s head [Audience laughs].
Over and over he climbs the nearest tree, and then flies—flying squirrel style—and lands splat, with his face against the window, where his paws achieve suction for a little more than one second before he slides, like a cartoon character, down to the bottom of the glass [Audience laughs]. He does this five or six times before I comment on it, though it makes such a terrible noise every time he hits I can’t believe Cliff doesn’t turn around [Audience laughs].
“Probably rabid,” Cliff says with a casual wave of his hand [Audience laughs], and I feel my eyebrows go up and he says, “A lot of the squirrels around here are” [Audience laughs].
This is “80. Portland, Oregon.”
Rick says, “Pam, if everyone deserved a down pillow, there wouldn’t be any more birds.”
This is, yeah, this is “123. Taylor Fork, Colorado.”
When I get in the car just before daylight, the outside temp says 33 degrees, as sure a sign as any that this will be the last mushing trip of the year. One of Hinsdale’s County’s finest lets me off with a warning ten miles south of Lake City, 48 in a 40, a stretch where the speed limit changes so many times even a local can’t keep track.
We take off in Becky’s smallest sled, across slush that is getting ready to thaw but hasn’t yet, Becky all bundled up in the sled bag, rattling on about oatmeal cookies and astrological forecasts, and man the sled is squirrelly. Every time I touch the soft brake with my foot the nose of it wobbles thirty degrees to the left or right. The dogs are more het up than usual, more in shape now and getting used less often. It takes less than a mile for me to dump the sled, the first time all year, though we had a near miss last week at the hard right turn in Tin Cup. That time I went down hard but managed to hold on, my shin grinding into the metal brake as I made the corner, and righted myself again. I’ve got a hematoma the size of a lemon to prove it.
This time, though, I get pitched clear of the sled, hit the downhill side of an ice bank nose-first, and Becky goes sailing too, though her knee catches in the sled bag, just long enough to tweak it. I knock the snow off my sunglasses and posthole over to her.
“You okay?” I say.
“I’m upside down,” she says, and it’s true, and she’s making no attempt to right herself. It is the first time I’ve seen her look less than invincible, this Annie Lennox of dog mushing, and I reach out and let her use me as an anchor to spin herself around.
The dogs run on, of course, after Matt’s sled, and while I help Becky hobble along the growing distance between them and us, we watch them close in on Matt at the top of the next hill. “He doesn’t know yet,” I say, “he doesn’t know yet,” as Pisces and Bella begin to nudge the back of his knees. “Now,” I say, “he knows.”
From our distance of more than a mile it looks effortless, though it can’t be. Matt, straddling two sleds, trying to get on both hard brakes simultaneously like some kind of mad charioteer, twenty well-seasoned four-legged athletes pulling for all they are worth.
He leaves his passenger, whose name is Irene, in charge of one team and comes charging back to get us with the other. “Our hero,” Becky says. Then Shredder knocks Becky over and her knee starts to hurt for real.
I don’t want hurt Becky in the small sled I can’t control, so Matt and I trade. The trail has been so hammered by spring snowmobilers hundred-yard stretches of it are solid speed bumps. Deep ruts alternate with ice slicks so that even in Matt’s big sled I never feel far enough from the edge. Irene and I tip over once, but nothing serious, and then the runner on Becky’s sled cracks and Matt has to go one-footed, and the sky gets all steely and the predicted 45-mile-per-hour winds start and that is when we decide that for three people who pride themselves on being able to read the signs, we’ve waited pretty long to turn around.
On the way back we go around the big hill, and I keep Matt in my virtual rearview mirror to make sure the broken runner hasn’t snapped off entirely.
Back at the truck I have Irene stand on the hard brake so I can attach the gang line to the truck’s bumper, and I am just snugging it down and giving Pema and Angelina pets for being such smart lead dogs when Irene says, “What’s with Roja?”
I turn to see her in mid-seizure, on her side, tongue out, gasping for breath, getting none. I drop my gloves and leap over six dogs to get to her just in time to see the life fall right out of her eyes as if someone has turned a switch. I unhook her neckline and tug line, and her head lolls to the side. I can see Matt’s lead dogs rounding the last corner.
“Matt,” I scream, “Roja’s coding!”
“CPR!” Matt yells. I flip her over and thump on her heart with both hands. Wait a half second, thump again.
“Harder!” Becky screams, one foot already rising from Matt’s sled. Two more hard thumps and I feel a tiny half breath. All of a sudden she is back behind her eyes. It is like on a cartoon, the change is so dramatic and complete.
“Again!” Becky shouts, and I thump twice more. Then Matt is there, covering Roja’s whole snout with his mouth, breathing for her. He pulls back and she takes another small breath on her own.
“I love you, Roja,” he says. “I love you, Roja, come on back.” She breathes again. Her tongue is still hanging out of her mouth like a dead dog, but she is here now, when a minute ago she was not.
Becky limps to the truck and Matt sits in the snow with Roja on his lap while Irene and I feed, water, and unharness both teams. After a while he sticks her tongue back into her mouth for her. He squeezes a packet of honey between her lips and she obediently swallows. By the time we have all the equipment put away, he has convinced her to eat some chicken.
Two more. This is “111. Trenton, New Jersey.”
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that my back hurts so much because when I was four and in my three-quarter body cast, my mother found it easiest to carry me around upside down like a monkey, using the plaster bar the doctors had fashioned between my knees to keep them, for three and a half months, the correct distance apart. And let’s say she did just that, until my second to last appointment when the orthopedic surgeon said, “You haven’t been carrying her around by this bar have you?” and my mother shot one quick glance at my father and said, “Of course not, no,” and it became a funny story the two of them liked to tell together to friends over a couple of drinks. And let’s say that when their friends asked, as of course they would, how in the name of heaven a four-year-old breaks her femur, they said that I had somehow managed to pull the giant wardrobe over onto myself, except instead of wardrobe they would have said credenza, because it would have made us sound richer than we were.
I still don’t see how it would make me feel any better to think of the pain in my hip and spine as anything other than my most loyal and valuable companion, the continuous nonvoice in my ear that says, You got out alive and you still get to go.
No two people who have ever lived, loved to travel more than my mother and father. They gave that love, in their fashion, to me.
And then I’m going to end with “Bend, Oregon” which is the halfway point of the book; it’s chapter 72.
In my dream, one guy who is in charge of a monkey is trying to explain to the other guy how difficult it is to manage the monkey’s needs. The monkey has to be placated all the time, he says, the monkey has to be happy, or there is major hell to pay. As he says this, the monkey runs around the room, up to the curtain rod, down to the windowsill, across the floor, and up to the curtain rod again. The other man listens thoughtfully, as a therapist would, offers advice that I understand to be both sage and kind.
Then the session is over, and the first man says, “Okay, let’s go,” and the monkey reaches up and grabs him around the neck, the way a child would, and wraps his monkey feet around the man’s waist and the man cradles him, quite lovingly I think, and closes the door behind him.
The other man sits in the vacated room for a moment, stands and then he says, “Let’s go,” and a big furry rat scurries out from the bathroom, jumps up and grabs him around the neck, just as the monkey grabbed the first man, and they walk out of the office together.
It is Nora’s knock on the door that wakes me so fast I remember all of it. She is here to take me to the place that serves Stumptown coffee, and there I am stumbling around in the shirt I wore the day before, my unhooked bra dangling off my right elbow, saying, “You see how it was, don’t you, the other guy had a rat!”
The first words Nora ever said to me were, “Robbie Robertson or Rick Danko?” and because there is only one answer to that question I knew we would be friends for life.
When I arrived in Bend yesterday she picked me up at the airport. At four that morning in Boulder, my cell phone had splashed into the toilet while I was drying my hair, but I didn’t really roast it until I tried to turn it on before it was all the way dry. At SFO I sent an email to Fenton the human that said I was pretty sure Rick had broken up with me for good this time, but by the time I got to Oregon I told Nora that I knew Rick was difficult but I was too, and you could talk all day, psychology up one side and pheromones down the other, but there was nobody alive who could help who they loved.
Driving up the mountain in Nora’s Prius, I borrowed her cell phone to check my messages, but she had forgotten she was hooked up to Bluetooth, and when I hit the 7 key, there was Rick’s sad Texas voice filling the car, saying he was sorry, that he wanted more than anything for us to keep trying, that I was a mighty fine gal.
“Welcome to my relationship,” I said to Nora, who knew a thing or two about difficult men, and when we got to the hotel and saw the flowers, I said, “I don’t think Rick is the kind of guy who really sends flowers,” and the lady behind the desk said, “Well, it seems he knew how.”
Right before Mavis Staples sang “I’ll Take You There,” she kicked off her stilettos and said, “I can dance better without these,” and I thought about all of us, Cinder and Mackenzie, Nora and Hailey and Practical Karen, dancing around my kitchen with our morning lattes.
I woke this morning with something returned to my chest and made a list of things to be happy about that included Nora was making bouillabaisse, because Seven women were coming from four states to eat it and Rick left another message that said he was off to get a clippins (which is a haircut) and Anyone who has no monkey probably has a rat and Everyone who said I’d end up bitter turned out to be mistaken (anyway).
A week after the airport fight, Janine said, “Well, you know I love you, but what I really want to say is that we love you, all of us,” and she stretched her arms out wide to include the whole empty room.
“That ferry came in just for you,” Fenton the human said last week in Seattle, even though we were standing next to one of the world’s busiest ferry terminals. And watching the late sun make mercury on the surface of the water, seeing the clouds lift off the top of the Olympics, smelling Fenton’s cologne, mixed with chowder and diesel, sound of the horn, sound of the thrusters, I had to admit he was right.
Thank you so much. I would take ten minutes worth of questions, if there are just a few questions. Yes. Yes.
Audience Member: Robbie Robertson or Rick Danko?
Pam Houston: Rick Danko! [Laughs, audience laughs] Do you have to ask? No, I know, I know that there, I have met along the way some Robbie Robertsons. And you know I like Robbie Robertson, but it’s the sad ones, you know, it’s the sad ones that always get you.
Audience Member: [Inaudible question].
Pam Houston: [Laughs] Well! Well, two and a half years of moving them around, you know. It’s a really good question. Like all, I had so many rules that I kept making and breaking, you know, depending on how, you know, just one’s creative process in figuring out what a story is. So for a while the rules were really simple. Like at first, I though it was going to, it had to be 144 different places, which it isn’t, there’s some places that repeat. And then I thought, okay, well you can only have two international destinations in every twelve, you know? And then I thought, well only four, only four from the southwest in every twelve, you know? I had so many silly rules. And then I said, within the twelve – okay so it’s twelve twelves that’s what it is, it’s a gross – and it became like a Rubik’s Cube, so within every group of twelve, there is what I would call tighter associative resonance. Like in one group of twelve, pelicans come up a bunch, you know. And in another group of twelve, racism comes up a bunch, you know like, there’s, there’s sort of, every twelve has like a couple of themes working inside the twelve. But then of course, there’s the larger story, the arc of the story. So it was like a Rubik’s Cube you know, really. It was like solving a Rubik’s Cube. And, and interestingly that one I mentioned—the Goosenecks of the San Juan River—just to give you an idea, that was one of the original twelve. And then I moved it so that I could do Madison, Wisconsin. That was the first time it moved. Well that one moved. I think that one had, I think that one was in every single position in the book by the time, and now it comes very late. And it started out as being a scene between Fenton the human and Pam. But toward the end of the book, I needed a little more positivity for Pam and Rick, so I took Fenton out of the book and put Rick in the boat, and – Fenton out of the boat, I said book, but I meant boat – I took Fenton out of that particular boat, put Rick in the boat. And it’s kind of a nice scene between them, even though as it happens in my own life I wasn’t with Fenton or Rick in that boat, I was with someone else entirely [Laughs, audience laughs]. So, so that’s how they move, like they moved as needed. And they, they moved to, I mean I couldn’t, I couldn’t begin to tell you because sort of every piece moved 25 times. Uh huh.
Audience Member: [Inaudible comment/question]
Pam Houston: And that was just a total made up because I was trying to sneak those animal stories in there, you know, and, and, which is not to say that my normal bookstore reading—which I have been giving all over the place lately—is any more logical, you know what I mean? But, so it was interesting to squeeze, like Mathilda the mule, which I never read, in there and to see how it affected the rest. Because that’s the beautiful thing, right, like metonymy right, that’s the word? You know, how everything, all meanings are effected by proximity, by what is, you know, proximate to them. And so, so any order I choose would change the cant of the reading as a whole. And that was what was so much fun and maddening about having 144 movable pieces. It was super fun. It was me having like the biggest nerd fun imaginable, moving those around for years. Yeah.
Audience Member: [Inaudible question]
Pam Houston: I did it on the computer. But, you know, before computers and even before I trusted computers, which was a long time into computers, I did with the scissors and the paper. I did all that when I was younger. And that’s, to me like this book is direct evidence of my process for any book. I wrote Sight Hound the same way. I even wrote Cowboys are My Weakness the same way to a certain extent, and then I smoothed things out and made them seem more logical. And in this one I was interested in keeping the pieces discreet but still letting a story happen. Yes.
Audience Member: [Inaudible question].
Pam Houston: Yes.
Audience Member: [Inaudible question].
Pam Houston: Two dogs and a cat.
Audience Member: [Inaudible question].
Pam Houston: I can. I sure can. You know, I talk for my dogs all the time. That’s what people who own dogs do, right, we talk for them, you know? Sometimes married couples only talk for the dogs to each other [Audience laughs], and they don’t actually talk to each other. My parents were that way; they talked for the cat and not really to each other, but they each represented the cat in conversation with itself, basically [Audience laughs]. So, so writing Dante, which was the dog at the center of the book, was really easy because, I mean, for me, because I had imagined a total interior life for him. I believed that he knew all about Eastern philosophy, you know, I knew he was kind of a Buddha, like I knew so many things about him from observing him for the years I lived with him that writing Dante was super easy. People say, people say “Well who was the hardest?” And it was the Mormon vet, the Mormon vet student, that was the hardest because I, it was really hard for me to imagine myself into the head of a Mormon vet student. But Dante was probably the easiest, because I had spent twelve years imagining him, you know? Well seven years, seven years. So, so then the other dog was the dumb dog. You know the sweet, dumb dog? And that was a little bit harder, because I just spent less time on Rose’s psychic life, just daily, but it wasn’t that hard. But the cat …I don’t like cats. You know, I really don’t like cats. I mean certain cats I like. I used to have a cat named Jimi Hendrix that was very cool, but he was cool ‘cause he acted like a dog, you know? I don’t, I appreciate cats, but I don’t really like them. And I just had the two dogs, and I had ten people, ten human narrators. And I was giving a reading in Greeley, and the cat was in the book, but it wasn’t a point of view character. And I read from an early draft and this young man, a fiction student, an undergrad fiction student said, “Aren’t you going to give the cat a chance to speak for himself?” And I thought about it, and I really thought, “oh no, I couldn’t possibly, because I don’t get cats,” you know, Mormon vet student hard enough, but cat no way. And, and then it turned out, honestly, like I discovered my inner cat. Like he’s, Stanley is like, he’s snarky, and he’s got kind of a sexual fetish. He likes when the big dogs pick him up and carry him around in their mouth. And he’s a, he’s sort of a whack job, and it was really fun to write him. In fact, writing him was probably the most fun I had the whole time I was writing that book. And he only has two speeches or maybe even one. He’s a kind of a cameo appearance, but I ended up reading it on my book tour, because it’s, it’s funny, and it’s, it adds, because it’s a book about a dog who gets cancer and everyone loves this dog, it, you know, the book risks sentimentality a lot, and Stanley’s voice was a nice anec…antidote – I always get anecdote and antidote mixed up – it was a nice antidote to that sentimental cant of the book because he was a dark little figure, Stanley. [laughs] All right, one more or should we call it a day? There’s one more.
Audience Member: [Inaudible question].
Pam Houston: In my other book? Well that, Stanley’s kind of the only cat I’ve ever written. Stanley was super smart; he believed he was in control of the house. If he felt like he wasn’t getting the respect he deserved, he would spell out REDRUM with the bodies of mice in the mudroom [Audience laughs]. [Laughs] He, so he was crafty and clever and dark, and he had some weird sexual fetishes, and he basically believed, as I think most cats do, that he was in control of everyone in the household, including these giant dogs, these big wolfhounds. Dante was kind of, you know, a Buddhist philosopher, and Rose was a big, sweet dummy who just liked to eat things. So that [Laughs] I mean I can really only speak specifically about those characters, you know. I would have a hard time if you asked me saying, you know like, “How can you characterize the difference between Tibetans and people from New Jersey?” I could really only talk about my Tibetans [laughs] and my people from New Jersey. So that’s how it, that’s how it panned out in my book with Dante, Rose, and Stanley the cat. I’ll probably talk a little bit more about that book on the panels, since it’s kind of my animal book. But anyway, thank you so much for being here.
[Transcription by Errin Jordan; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts, 13 October 2012]