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On Being Radio Free
February 14, 2011 - 3:30pm


So that was fun, don’t you think? Well worth the effort, and now it’s over. A round of applause for all those writers, poets, editors, and musicians who so generously created podcasts for my Radio Free AWP project, and for those sponsors who donated books and other giveaways for the daily raffles. I sent notification last week to those who won, by the way, so please do check your e-mail if you entered.

I had a good time at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in Washington, DC, despite long travel--I wasn’t even able to leave home until the second day of the conference and then only by renting a car to bypass canceled commuter flights to Chicago, which was sculptural with snow--and I spent much of the conference blogging in the Inside Higher Ed Suite, redolent with the smell of my friend Frenchy’s trademark breakfast dish, “Five Kinds Taste.”

But I also got out for a very good bowl of pho ga and a memorable pint of Smithwick’s, attended two off-site readings, visited the bookfair, had a nice conversation with Richard Bausch and some other nice people, met up with half a dozen friends, and had the honor of helping to nurse novelist Roy Kesey back to health after he came down with a mysterious ailment that caused him to get lost, late at night, on the way back to the suite and to misplace his left glove. His full recovery was credited to Five Kinds Taste, hot coffee, and quiet literary discussion with curtains drawn to the morning light.

When AWP was over, there was a long delay at Washington National and nine hours in O’Hare, but I finally boarded a freezing American Eagle flight that smelled of sewage, and I was thankful.

“Make sure they de-ice the wings again,” Frenchy, who used to be in aviation, said on the cell. “And sniff the pilots’ breath. He’s had a long wait.”

When I got home I found that both familial affection and problems had piled up like water behind a logjam. It was an anticipated struggle to return classes to normal, since some believed my absence sanctioned a failure to do homework. There are new recommendation letters to be written and honors projects to direct. An advanced student worries over grad-school admissions, and a former student, now working for a highly-respected media outlet, complains by e-mail he’s not being recognized beyond his lowly intern status.

His voice crying out in the wilderness deserved a long, thoughtful, considered response. Instead, it provoked a couple of parables:

  1. In the Army, men who'd been assigned undesirable tours of duty always said, "I can do ANYTHING for a year."
  2. In Navy dive school, cadre said as they tortured us, "If you're not bitchin' you're not happy." And: “Ain’t nothin’ but a thang.”

Listen, I told the young man and everybody else with complaints, you think you got problems? I got problems, and your problems are neither as big nor as interesting to me as my problems, which smell like tangerines, oddly enough, and have begun to sprout hair. My feeling at this point in my life is that those who succeed at anything worth doing are the ones with endurance, who can stay sane enough and interested enough to do what they really want to do even as the producers cogitate, the cat pisses on the dog's bed, repeatedly, and the children cry for sustenance. Bonne chance. Keep me informed.

Come on back Thursday, when I’ll have straightened out any number of problems, perhaps even some of my own, and will post an interview with my old friend Glen Retief, whose memoir, The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s, and who gave us the recent Radio Free podcast about taking American writing students to Africa.


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