Iowa City 2015 proved less wild than previous trips. Nobody tripped over their own pants or accidentally dumped beer all over the designated driver. That written, the trip exceeded my expectations.
I started from Omaha as soon as I could Sunday morning, driving straight down I-80 from one end of the state to the other, and arrived in Iowa City early Sunday afternoon. I drove through town to the home of my hosts — the lovely Nikki and Andrew Philbrick. I was pleased to see them, as were they pleased to see me. Lilli and Lexi, the beagles, jumped for joy, while visitor Sherman, a one-year-old pug puppy, bounced incessantly as he barked, “Hi, let’s play; Hi, let’s play.” He would continue this at every possible moment for the next four days. Radar the cat stayed in the guest bedroom out of Sherman’s way as much as possible.
My week at the University of Iowa Writer’s Festival started with a light supper on Sunday night. The tables were arranged by instructor, and I discovered that this year’s class, “Things That Go Bump in the Night: The Fantastically Popular Gothic,” would be attended by seven other women. I know men participate in the festival — I see them around town and at orientation — but all the participants in my classes have been women. Once we ate, festival director Amy Margolis stood up, gave the welcome speech, then introduced the instructors before turning the floor over to them for the first session that evening. The first session was more “here’s what we’re going to do this week,” then we left for the evening. I arrived back at Nikki and Andrew’s around 9:30 or so, and we chatted for a few moments before turning in around 10 p.m.
Monday morning a pattern emerged. I woke up before the alarm, then hung around in the upstairs guest bedroom until I heard people and/or dogs stirring. I sat and drank a cup of coffee with Nikki for a few moments while she prepared for the day, then bathed and dressed myself after the couple left, leaving their house around 9 a.m. or so.
I parked each morning at the garage across the street from the police station, more for my frame of directional reference than security. The first morning, I walked to the Bread Garden, where Amy said the night before the writers congregate and chat during the morning. After purchasing a pumpkin-nut muffin and accepting a free cup of herbal tea (one of the many Writer’s Festival gifts) I looked around the patio dining area and chose to sit with a fellow writer who rested alone at a table for two. The protocol for mornings at the Bread Garden is that if you want to invite fellow writers to sit with you, wear your name tag. If not, do not wear it. This very nice woman from the Quad Cities and I talked amicably for a few moments about writing and our lives, then she asked, “So, do you have any kids?”
I braced myself for the coming conversation, as I could tell by the tone of her voice she wanted to talk about HER kids. “No, I have two cats,” I said hurriedly. “What about you? Do you have kids?”
Of course she does. She explained that she has 10 children, several of whom are adopted, and then launched into how one of them has Reactive Attachment Disorder, which no doctor will actually diagnose, but she knows he has it. Why won’t any doctor diagnose this? Because they can not treat it in Iowa! I allowed her to talk for several moments before quietly telling her I thought it was interesting, and I will have to ask my father (a retired psychologist) about this disorder.
As soon as I finished my tea, I stood and said it was a pleasure to meet her, then picked up my bag and walked in the direction of Van Allen hall, as the time read 10:45. Each day at 11 a.m. a writer gave a talk on different aspects of the profession, and the first day featured a memoir and a fiction writer. I attended a couple of the sessions.
The lecture finished around noon, at which time I ate lunch and walked to my first true class session. When that class finished, I walked around for a short while, including walking into Iowa Book and Crook, or Iowa Book and Screw, depending on your generation. The actual name of the place is Iowa Book and Supply, and the festival packet always includes a twenty-three percent discount to the store. (Why twenty-three percent? Beats me. I suspect it has something to do with taxes.) One of these years, however, I will remember the reason why the students and alums christened it Iowa Book and Screw (expensive stuff) and remember to hit Iowa Memorial Union (unionized college students=cheaper stuff) before setting foot in Iowa Book and Supply. I found one trinket to bring home with me, used my coupon, and left.
Monday evening’s event was a reception held at my beloved Prairie Lights bookstore. My class chose to sit together as a group, so I grabbed a complimentary glass of wine and a plate of cheese and roasted vegetables to nibble on and joined them for a couple of hours.
Tuesday morning I met my longtime friend Jennifer Blair for tea at High Ground Coffee on Market Street. Jennifer and I grew up together, I believe we met in third grade, but I can not swear to it. That day we talked for an hour and a half about life and the pursuit of happiness. As we walked out of the coffee shop, I paused in saying goodbye while looking at a couple of beagles being walked by a woman. The woman, as it turned out, knew Jennifer, and after a couple of minutes, Jennifer said, “Judy, this is Daisy. Daisy, this is my friend Judy. She … actually she used to teach in the journalism department.”
“Polumbaum,” I supplied.
Judy said. “I remember you. Didn’t you take a class from me once?”
Yes, we determined that I studied features writing under her, in her first decade of teaching. She is now professor emeritus. We talked for several minutes, I promised to write her an email updating her of my professional progress, and she and Jennifer walked in one direction as I walked the opposite direction towards the Haunted Bookshop. Prairie Lights and the Haunted both include coupons in the festival packets, but I still limited myself to two books per store.
Tuesday evening I thought I might catch up with my friends Jon and Amanda Simpson. They did not make it, so Nikki, Andrew and I moved a couch for their church, then drove to the edge of Iowa City to a restaurant called the Blackstone. We ate and drank and laughed together for several hours – in other words, enjoyed a perfect night.
Wednesday I met with my friend Phyllis Rosenwinkle for coffee at the Java House. It was the one day I did not drink a cup of coffee with Nikki, although I sat with her that morning. I missed visiting with Phyllis last year due to circumstances beyond her control, so I looked forward to seeing her. I brought a copy of Omaha Magazine, and she brought several partial quilts on which she is currently working. Phyllis makes the most amazing quilts. I still keep, in Wade and I’s bedroom, the small one she created for our wedding. We talked and talked about quilting and writing and stones (I wore my moonstone, she wore a different, beautiful stone that I cannot remember the name of) until I needed to head to the “Market Basket,” actually known as the Bread Garden, to meet my friend Michelle Smith for lunch.
Michelle recently moved from Omaha to Iowa City, and I think this move suits her. We both giggled at the thought that we constantly refer to the Bread Garden as the Market Basket, an Omaha restaurant with a similar vibe and food. We ate and talked for some time before she said she wanted to read with me, which I loved. I met Michelle because she worked at one of my favorite book stores in Omaha, so we spend a lot of time discussing books and reading. We walked back to Prairie Lights, where I workshopped the requested pieces for the day while Michelle read more of the library book she needed to return that day. At 2:45 we parted ways so I could attend my class for the day.
That evening I ate dinner with two of the ladies from the class, Catherine and Lisa. Lisa, especially, kept encouraging me to join the group for dinners, but I really wanted to veer in my own direction. Following dinner I traveled back to Nikki and Andrew’s.
Thursday night’s activity was the festival dinner and dance, but I decided not to attend. I wanted to try and catch hold of Jon and Amanda again, which did not happen. Nikki and Andrew left for a preplanned activity as soon as they scarfed down some dinner, so I drove back downtown. I ate a cup of frozen yogurt (coupon, of course) and sat on the Pedestrian Mall slowly eating my treat and listening to a street musician play a guitar for tips. I sat for nearly an hour, and walked for another couple of hours, enjoying this city that surrounds me in love and liberates my soul. I drove back to Nikki and Andrew’s and read a book for a short while before they came back and I chatted with them until we said goodnight.
Friday I awoke and decided to pack. I felt that packing Friday would be less emotional, so I loaded all but what I would need the next morning into the trunk and locked it. I attended the final class, and while everyone else went to dinner, I made one final attempt to find Jon and Amanda, and also missed a message from my dear friend Jen (Moore) Daniels, with whom I attended journalism school. Jen rode into nearby Coralville for RAGBRAI, and we hoped to meet that evening, but it did not happen.
Nikki, Andrew and I went to Pagliai’s Pizza for a bite to eat. Partially because this is a place dear to my heart, and partially because I thought Jon and Amanda might be able to join us. They did not. We finished our pizza and went over to the Mill, where I debated between drinking in honor of the writer who stuck her head in an oven in 1963, or the writer who filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in 1941. I chose the latter. “The Woolf” was a vanilla vodka and orange liquor concoction, and I fortunately realized it was dangerously delicious before ordering more than one. We toasted the week and I slept for one more night with Radar.
The next morning I left at 9 a.m., the same time as Nikki and Andrew, and as we turned to the right on Gilbert Street, a swarm of bicycles drove down the other side of the road. The trip out of town included a waiting period as an ambulance and fire truck helped a bicyclist, and a stop at New Pioneer Co-Op for a bottle of water and a breakfast bar (but more to let the rest of the crowd ride through town). I made it out of town around 10 a.m. and traveled to Adel to see my grandmother briefly before coming home to Wade and my grey cats.
The class was one of the best I have ever taken, in college or otherwise. In ranks as highly as African Americans and Mass Communications in terms of introducing new ideas, and History of the Book in terms of interesting subject. The instructor knew how to teach, knew his genre, and made the material crystal clear. The fact that he normally teaches this as a semester-long class probably helps. The week long classes include a one-on-one conference with the instructor, which I found infinitely helpful. My novel is far from written, but I discovered many tricks of the trade, as such, and relearned a lot about classic and dramatic form that I knew at one time through a theater history class. The reason I woke up before the alarm is because my head was so full of ideas and knowledge that my brain spoke to me when it should have been resting – sometimes it practically screamed out plotlines and character names.
Iowa City 2016 will happen — no doubt about this.