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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in sarah wambold (9)


In Which We Hover Outside The Story

Rules of the Trade


Grant Wood famously had his studio in the Turner Mortuary carriage house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He fashioned a door to the studio out of an old coffin lid. He carved a dial into the front of it to indicate what he was doing and if he could accept visitors. The arrow most frequently toggled between “Taking a bath” and “Having a Party”.

The owner of the mortuary, David Turner, held the belief that all artists were ‘sissies’, however he was an old friend of Wood’s and considered him to be different. He liked the regional aspect of Wood’s paintings and their depiction of the honest Midwestern life. The homespun aesthetic made for good, gentle beauty; just perfect for a funeral home. He commissioned Wood to decorate the mortuary with his work and create their advertising. If you visit a funeral home or even look at any mortuary website today, the framed paintings and banner images continue on in this tradition.

Grant Wood is widely believed to have been a closeted homosexual who inserted this secret into nearly all of his paintings. It seems possible that the people closest to him knew this, but they refused to address it. He refused to address it himself. Being an artist in Iowa in the 1930s was precarious enough. Squashing down a part of yourself for the sake of your work only makes it seep out around the edges. The naked males in the background of Arnold Comes of Age have their backs to Arnold and he to them, but they both know they’re there.

The first funeral home I worked at made me take out all of my earrings. I couldn’t wear my hair in braids. I wore the same black suit, literally, for two years. It was built out of polyester that never tired of washings or blood. I started painting my each of my nails a different shade of red, the only color acceptable to wear during work.  If I wasn’t at work on the weekends, I mismatched the brightest clothing in my closet and wore ill-advised cornrows in my hair.

Wood loved Iowa, yet he knew he did not fit in there. But because he loved the Iowa, he didn’t fit in anywhere else either. He painted Iowa the way he saw it and the way he hoped it saw him: clean, simple, innocent. Rough edges were made smooth, leering townspeople given ironic humor; menacing roads appear like ribbons. The mortuary could be Woods' home if he kept it clean - his studio and his art. No impressionistic, Greenwich Village types allowed. Wood more than complied; he clung to Regionalism. Regionalism, like state politics, is infuriating to most and admired by others. 

When funeral directors tell stories about work, they tell the ones they think people will find the most interesting. They are the same stories over and over; the same as every other funeral director. Mishaps with makeup, strange deaths, feuding families. The stories are actually only interesting around the edges, hovering just outside the story. Conspiracy theories on talk radio while embalming, Merzbow rattling inside the hearse, smoke from cigarettes wafting into the sanctuary during funeral mass and weed all over during lunch breaks.

Subversion of rules even in the smallest sense, simply to make ourselves fit somewhere into the work, is the highest form of acknowledgement.

Twice Grant Wood went to Europe and each time he made a small impression. But upon his return to Iowa he and Europe forgot about each other. He tried to paint the European landscape in his regionalist technique but it didn’t take. He saw his figures becoming shadowy, bare and romantic; places he wasn’t equipped to explore. In Iowa, he could depict his life experience while charming his audience. Wood felt it was his obligation to confront his people in their own language, using his own art. He stayed true to that idea and was poor his whole life.

Funeral directors fade away at the presence of a dead body. They stand quietly in the corner, offering direction so no one else has to think about what they are seeing. They make death recognizable to the grieving, be it in the form of a body, a box or a tree. There is a nod towards reality but like Wood’s paintings, it’s draped in tenderness. This is the default emotion of death, sex and Grant Wood’s art. It is spiritless unless you are engaged with it. It’s hard to look at otherwise. When a hearse drives by, it’s not the name of the dead that is in the window. We do little more than wonder who is inside.

Sarah Wambold is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. You can find her twitter here. She last wrote in these pages about her trip to Marfa.

"Cosmic Radio" - Wet Hair (mp3)

"Tarantula" - Wet Hair (mp3)


In Which Nothing Protects Us From Moving On

This Is


I asked three different friends to join me on a trip to Marfa, TX and none of them found the matter as urgent as I did. They said they would look into it but then decided to wait until something was going on out there. I could see that they would go to Marfa only when nothing was keeping them from it. I wrote about my first experience in Marfa in a hurry. I was full of ideas the moment I got there. Later on, I heard those same ideas come out of the mouths of my friends who eventually did go to Marfa. The words had disappeared from where I originally wrote them, but left a space for me to return. I went to Marfa alone for nothing.

I drove to Marfa in seven hours, going 85 the whole way. I felt rushed by the empty road, surprised by how quickly I could become a cliché. It is true that thousands of tourists have traveled the same route I took, but they had all disappeared before I got there. Eventually, we would come upon each other, staring into the distance beyond us rather than make eye contact. Out there, we could pretend we were following our own lead.

photo by the author

I want to crawl inside Paul Valery’s quote, “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through,” and see if I can still write about it. He wrote that line a quarter of a century after he spent twenty years learning how to write invisibly. Periods of silence and space are associated with crisis but sometimes language has simply taken another form.

I arrived in Marfa presciently inspired; it’s a town with an aura only seen by cattle ranchers and artists. It has the same provincial train tracks, sunlight and rusted gates that hold back the West Texas desert as any town in its vicinity, but Marfa is tastefully flaking away. Rust has become the design element for the hotels and gallery owners who have set up there since the town became a destination in the 1970s. A quick look around is like a close reading of hipster ipsum:

Farm-to-table leggings, fanny pack mustache
Tattooed dreamcatcher readymade gluten-
free skateboard art party Austin jean shorts
keytarscenester, bicycle rights vegan.

I take a drive west out of Marfa and see a sign that warns of no services for the next 74 miles. It recalls where I grew up; in the Midwest surrounded by inescapable farmland framed by signage with the same dismal promise of the future. Without those words, I would not have known how to get outside of them. As I drive, Prada Marfa appears like a shapely leg poised on the side of Highway 90, one that reveals itself to be just a prosthetic.

photo by the author

Outside that installation, I take a picture of my reflection on the glass window with my phone. It feels like I am helping in the destruction of the piece, contributing to its purpose of weathering into the desert with pastiche. Marfa is home to some of the most inspired Minimalist art and seduces tourists into becoming artists in its space. The results are like images from a flipbook, all part of the same story where the slightest shift in perspective keeps it moving towards the end.

photo by Elaine Litzau

On my final night alone in Marfa, I went to the Chinati Foundation at sunset. Open that evening was Donald Judd’s works in concrete and mill steel. The air was brisk as we waited by another rusted gate to be let into the area which had been a military compound used through World War II. In the distance, what looked like a construction site in flux awaited our arrival. The fifteen concrete block installations that make up Judd’s outdoor piece appeared as burial vaults. The same concrete structures which could hold our precious remains were now uprooted and tipped over, empty of the sludge that will become of us.

As I walked past, the desert sunset cast my shadows through them. I thought about my grandfather’s vault, emblazoned with his military symbol from the war. I thought about his body, fast disappearing inside that box.

photo by the author

Many of Judd’s structures have only one end open, forcing you to focus on their corners and shadows. If you turn halfway around, you are met with open space. After a full revolution, the box is open and empty and space. In Marfa, Judd can say “The public has no idea of art other than something portable that can be bought.” Outside it, burial vaults are sold as protection from the elements, eventually becoming all that is left of the person it once held. In Marfa, there is no funeral home. The desert town’s residents are close to their deterioration. Nothing is protecting them from time moving on.

The day I left Marfa, I got up before sunrise to look for the Marfa Lights. I sat alone on the viewing platform and watched three glowing orbs float above the horizon. They moved across the desert toward me and I could see how people viewed them as only the headlights of cars passing along some distant road. Beyond that, I couldn’t see anything at all.

Sarah Wambold is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. You can find her twitter here. She last wrote in these pages about synchronized swimming.

"Ocean Eyes" - The Medics (mp3)

"Griffin" - The Medics (mp3)

The new album from The Medics is called Foundations, and it was released on May 18th.


In Which We Add The Music And The Pool

Team Spirit


The line was already three deep in front of the beer cooler at Casey’s convenience store in Cedar Rapids the Monday afternoon I drove to Iowa City. It was a gray day, which was unremarkable in itself, though it had also begun to rain, explaining the early line for Bud. There were whiskered cheeks and drawn out eyelids on those who waited before me but I knew that the rain played very little part in their or my own decisions for early booze that afternoon.  

When my part in the beer-buying routine came, I shamelessly grasped the cooler handle and pulled down a beer. I had arrived at my childhood home five days earlier, and realized that being back in Iowa enabled my drinking like nothing else. A majority of my visit home was supposed to be spent with family and the few friends whom I still talked to, but mostly everyone drank alone.

Our deepest secret is that we’re all exactly alike. This is also what we draw the most attention to. Before I left Texas for home, a coworker tried her best to act as though she didn’t realize this, as though she had never considered something like team sports before and asked me about being a synchronized swimmer. “How does that happen?” she asked.

Here is how it happens: a group of swimmers — usually women — dance in the water. Sometimes the swimmers are upside down, with their legs straight up where their heads should be and they might bend one knee and then Kick! Kick! Kick! several times with the tempo of the music and then Slap! Slap! Slap! their legs on the surface of the pool so that it makes a cloud of exciting splashes that quickly clears to reveal eight or ten pretty little heads, smiling amid sharp elbows bent to perfection like the corners of a star. The group moves together across the pool. The music can be heard beneath the surface. It is pleasing to the eye.

I left the convenience store and followed a caravan of cars along the county road. The interstate would have been the more direct route, only full of cars less familiar with the territory. I stayed with those accustomed to the place, those who needed to stop every mile to decide whether or not they should go on. During that time of year the earth gave the illusion that it was drenched and the air above it felt like a solid weight on everyone. When I’m home we relieve this tension immediately by falling into line with each other’s worst habits and spilling similar truths about our character along the way. I took quick gulps of my beer in between the raindrops on my windshield. It splashed across my car.  

I arrived in Iowa City buzzed and wet along with everybody else. I stopped at a streetlight in front of the pool where I used to practice.  At my house, I had paused in front of a mirror to admire myself in the swimsuit I had worn during that time as a synchronized swimmer. The suit fit better now than it had then but I remember the way I used to feel in it, fat with a sparkle. That discomfort was absorbed by my team who were supposed to look like me, at least in style if not in body. Most of the team had never actually seen synchronized swimming before. Mercifully, there were a small number of us who had already learned the technique and my small town Fourth of July routines were more than enough background to be considered one of the best swimmers.

We attempted to teach the others how to scull and log roll in a simultaneous effort to appear pretty. The prettiness was impressive even though we hardly ever stayed that way for long. The same muscles that got tired in the water also steered me back to it, but now I was safely afloat in my car. Iowa is full of long drives that are beautiful but you will get bored. Stopping for a drink can put you back on track. When you do it enough, you learn how to put the two together.

Synchro is first practiced out of the water using our arms to represent our legs until we have the choreography memorized. Then we add the music and then we add the pool. At first you look at your teammates to make sure you are together but mostly you use a count to hit it, like a regular dance routine. After a while everyone just knows when to do things.

In Iowa City I looked for a place to park and failed to find one, so I kept circling the blocks with the beer between my knees. I swallowed the last bit of sourness on a street where I wished I could have parked. It was brick and curvy, a place I wanted to get out and walk on, maybe run into an acquaintance. But it was still raining and everything was too neatly packed in. I realized I couldn’t have squeezed in anywhere, no matter how small I’d made myself become.

In hindsight I think just I needed attention. I needed to prove I could be successful in college because in class no one was recognizing my efforts. Sports are something my family does really well. Team sports in particular where you can feel important and modest at the same time. We know how to keep our problems from affecting anyone else. My parents were happy I was involved with sports again, something they knew how to talk about. My mom even took part in sewing decals onto the suits for our performances. Our conversations about synchro made me feel close to her the way talking on the phone feels close despite the machinery.

I settled on waiting out the rest of that afternoon’s rain at a bar on the edge of town near the interstate that will take you across the Mississippi River if you let it. The parking lot was full of Oldsmobiles and Chevys but oddly, the bar was empty except for a trio of regulars at a table in the middle. No glasses were raised when I entered, only eyes. I ordered a beer and sat down with my book at table in the back. When I glanced up at the trio, one of them was smirking at me. I could have smiled back but why bother, I thought and drank as fast as I could.

You can drive anywhere in Iowa City half sober and be mistaken for a student or visiting professor’s assistant from some more understood place. You become a part of something you no longer know anything about. When I finally found a parking spot behind The Sanctuary where I was meeting my friends, a man asked me if they were still checking the meters. I shrugged. I knew they were. You never forget that in a town where no one wants you to stay too long and its useless to tell people that.  Inside the restaurant, I ordered a ginger ale and felt out of place. I moved toward the back and found one of my friends reading Clan of The Cave Bear at a table by herself. Our other friend came in from the rain without a coat.  I felt more comfortable and ordered a glass of wine.

We still remembered our old routines, our history almost too present in our conversations. But that’s why we were together at that moment. When we imagined each other’s lives, we hadn’t been too far off from where we thought they’d go. On the surface we were all together and even below it where we looked different we were still kicking at the same level. There were moments where each of us fell behind: career, relationships, drinks. Like the team I had been a part of, our performance didn’t matter. When I departed later that night, I promised to keep in touch and took the interstate straight home, ready to leave Iowa the next day. I thought about my coworker who seemed surprised that she even had a question for me, let alone that I had an answer for her. But that is how it happens.

Sarah Wambold is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. You can find her twitter here. This is her first appearance in these pages.

"Call a Doctor" - Karen Mantler (mp3)

"Waiting" - Karen Mantler (mp3)

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