Thursday, August 17, 2006

There are only two things I hate in this world: friends moving away and the Dutch

Five years ago, as we sat in our Rome hotel room and TLB found out she got into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I thought that I’d go to Iowa City, spend two years doing my Green Acres imitation, and return back to Chicago.

That changed when I actually arrived in this peaceful, friendly, fun town. Until I moved here in 2001, I had never gone more than four years without moving across state borders. Years as a Navy brat and my itinerant twenties kept me on the move. Goodbyes have always come with that territory, and one of the ways I’ve dealt with many great people coming in and out of my daily life was appreciating that I had known them all. I tell myself, If I hadn’t moved here, I wouldn’t have known them at all.

Still, I always hoped to find that place to settle down—especially since I was lucky enough to find someone to settle down with. If my future self arrived Back-to-the-Future style to tell my New York or Chicago self that Eastern Iowa would be that place, I would given Future Brando a drug test. But lo and behold, this little corner of the Big Ten is a place TLB and I have come to adore.

The people we’ve met have played the biggest role in that feeling. The Writer’s Workshop is (in)famous for being a place where egos are shredded and no quarter is given. We expected vicious critics and potential backstabbers. Instead, we found a community of cool folks, people like us who had left behind professions and more diverse metropolitan areas for the chance to improve their writing (or help their significant others improve their writing).

It’s hard to describe how much the experience invigorated us. I was happy in New York and Chicago. I left people who I still miss. Here, though, we turned back the clock. We went to parties, stayed up late talking with friends, drove out to corn mazes, went to readings, went to casinos, and—maybe best of all—just bumped into people we were always happy to see. It was like being an undergraduate again, only while having a clue.

The size of Iowa City works against people staying. Most people in the Workshop do depart after those two years. Most need to, frankly, because Iowa City is not for everyone. It’s small, it’s quiet, and it’s not always easy to get a job here. I was very sad when our dear friends Paula and Tom left, but we expected it. It gave us time to prepare for it, even if that didn’t make it any easier.

We were also lucky that, for a while, the rule of leaving took a back seat to the exception of staying. Many of our closest friends decided to stay put, at least for while. Some bought houses, and eventually we bought ours, forming a nucleus of dazzling urbanites who had settled in their new rustic environment. Even though my mind told me it couldn’t last, I hoped it would.

Sadly, my mind was right.

We’ve suffered a couple of losses these last weeks, people who have been with us since we first turned off I-80 and wondered if we were nuts for chucking everything to come to a town with four interstate exits.

First, El Gordo and Kerry took off for Massachusetts, where El Gordo landed a sweet job in academia. El Gordo, as I have written before, is Old School in the Will Ferrell sense, but with a brain: a man who can discuss subtext and point of view just before he drains a beer bong. Our defining moment was pogoing at the final Guided by Voices show in Iowa City, singing ourselves hoarse and damn near going deaf from being next to the stage monitors.

Kerry was the Mentos to El Gordo’s Diet Coke. Sweet, funny, one of those people who always seemed to take a genuine interest in what you were saying. They were the first of us to buy a house, and the last ones we expected to leave.

Our friends, Eathgoat founder Grendel and his lovely wife, Traca de Broon, followed El Gordo and Kerry out east, and after a few month stint in Mass., they will keep heading east to the Netherlands. Grendel and Traca were our first couple friends here. We were all about the same age, had come to the IC with many of the same reservations, and breathed the same sigh of relief when we discovered that this literary toga party wasn’t going to be an orgy.

They were our comrades at our first Workshop Prom, an occasion where everyone dresses up, drinks like fish, and reminisces about the previous year. Traca and TLB drank enough Cosmos to put the cast of Sex and the City to shame, while Grendel and I pounded Newcastle like it had abducted two of our soldiers. The next day, we were supposed to get together, but amusingly found our 30-year old bodies couldn’t handle 21-year old excesses so well. A hangover had never been such a bonding moment.

Grendel and Traca always had more of the wanderlust than we did, but when they bought a house, we thought they would be here for a while, just a couple of blocks away from us. They were the first people we went to after the tornado struck. Today, however, they’re blowing town, and I hate the Dutch a little for luring them away.

And then Kate, Becky’s first friend at the Workshop, has finally decided to leave. Her departure is not as surprising, but just as sad. Another person who is so nice, you can’t help but smile when you see her. She once threw a wig party that may have been the highlight of my time here, with all of us donning strange hairpieces (I wore a mullet) and drinking and joking until the wee hours. She leaves with Vinnie, another Workshop grad who already sadly left us but came back for the summer writing program (and helped me scare the bejesus out of some teenagers).

We are truly fortunate that we still have so many good friends here. As sad as we are, we’ve got people we love still just a few blocks away.

Losing these folks, though, people who were with us right from the beginning of our Iowa City experience, is hard to take. I still love it here. I still am happy we are staying. It’s just not going to be quite the same.

I just have to tell myself that if I hadn’t moved here, I wouldn’t have known them at all. That thought is much sadder than them leaving.


teh l4m3 said...

Yes, yes, but why the Dutch, dear boy?

Brando said...

My little joke about them leaving for the Netherlands.

Anonymous said...

Give us the Massachusetts folks numbers. We'll visit them for you. Especially if they are academics -- UC might know them.

teh teh has never tried to use the goddamnn paint from Dutch Boy! "Pourable" my ass!

scruffylooking said...

The sad truth about Iowa City - it's a transient town. My girls have learned it the hard way when every year so many of their classmates leave and are replaced with new ones.

The good thing is, it's also a place where people come back - mostly to visit. If you live her long enough though, some will even move back. Us townies call it the ten year cycle.

Chuckles said...

"...while Grendel and I pounded Newcastle like it had abducted two of our soldiers."


That's a good one.

Anonymous said...

that's the way i felt about athens, until i left myself :(

teh l4m3 said...

Oh AG go stick your finger in a dyke. I mean a dike.

traca de broon said...

Oh, Brando, we shall miss you, TLB, and the IC something awful. Hope to see you here, there, or in Amsterdam for more irresponsible drinking.

PJKM said...

Brando, you are a softy. We miss everyone too.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry our friends are leaving, Brando. But! You still have us!

Friendships without borders!

Grendel said...

Thanks for this reminiscence, buddy. It was a very hard decision. The good news is we will come back to visit, and you will go there to visit. But yeah, it won't ever be the same, and that has to be acknowledged. SIGH. Those sure were the good old days. But it will be a good day, too, when you and TLB land at Schiphol Airport and you start making jokes about the word "Schiphol"! And that will just be the beginning!