Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ladders or Fences?

Tonight, Tyler climbed the small wooden fence in our backyard to talk to the neighbors' dogs--Oscar and Prince. While the dogs roamed their own yard, looking for a place to deposit the churned up outcome of their day's intake, I peeked out from the kitchen, while heating up some left-over pasta, to see Tyler standing there talking to them.

"Hi Oscar! Hi Prince!"

The dogs look up in wonder, glee.

"I am just talking to you now, because daddy is inside getting my food and his food ready because we going to eat dinner in a few minutes."

Prince gives a single bark. Oscar tilts his head.

"Daddy will talk to you when he comes out with the food. That's okay? Okay. Good one."

Tyler climbs down from the fence and runs to the back door, where I am already waiting.

"I told Oscar and Prince that you will talk to them in a little bit. That's okay Daddy?"

Something about the way Tyler says the words to me, the innocence with which he just climbed the fence to talk to you fully expecting them to comprehend his every word, the way that imagination and concern for others--even for dogs--is etched on my son's face as he says the words to me--something.


And the something that Tyler has just sparked and touched inside of me suggests I look at the pot of reheated pasta, the mess in the kitchen that we left in a rush this morning, the rejections I receive as a writer, the very hard work Jen has had to do on her literature review, the nighttime wake-ups with some of Tyler's recent bad dreams, the constant wondering if I'm learning enough, living with wisdom, and more importantly, living with love--

All of it.

The something in me that Tyler touches with his feet just a bit off the ground is, in a word, the need to get my feet off the ground every once in a while, too. To remember that climbing fences is always a better pursuit than climbing ladders. For while climbing ladders afford us higher views, perhaps more stuff to surround ourselves with--fences offer us, instead, places to stand from which we might peer over and see other souls, other lives. Places from which we might yell out in a child-like way, expecting contact, communion.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Why We Need Pain to Write

For the September issue of The Writer, I wrote a piece with the above title. It came out of much of what these past eleven months have taught us, and I thought I'd include the link to where the article appears on the magazine's webpage: "Why We Need Pain to Write."

Friday, August 26, 2011

On Gary D. Schmidt's OKAY FOR NOW




This book both broke my heart and made me laugh hysterically. Often at the same exact moment.

Schmidt tells the story of eighth-grader Doug Swieteck as he deals with difficulties and pain facing him at every turn. Doug's voice is believable, endearing, strong, and hopeful, even as he complains about everything from the town where his family moves, to school teachers and grocery deliveries.

Readers will quickly (read: immediately) fall in love with Doug and root for him page after page. Doug's journey is vividly revealed, and the language makes readers feel as though Doug himself is sharing with them the story--as if they themselves are a customer on Doug's grocery delivery route, and he's decided to tell all.

I read the book in about two days, even though Jen and I were transitioning our little man to a big boy bed and were already sleep deprived. However, I couldn't keep away from OKAY FOR NOW. The book literally squeezed and squeezed my heart and refused to let go. When I finished, tears in my eyes, laughter dancing on my lips, all I could say to Jen was, "You've got to read this book."

It's a book that is impossible not to enjoy. Additionally--and more importantly--it's a book that gets inside your soul and doesn't leave it in the same state once the final page closes.

It makes my list of All-Time Top Six Books (which is a hard feat to come by!).
(The others, for the curiously inclined, are TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV by Fyodor Dostoevsky, A RAISIN IN THE SUN by Lorraine Hansberry--I know, I know, a play makes the list of "books", but I can't help it, it's that powerful--MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine, and THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain.) I kept my this old list at five pretty tight, but Gary Schmidt's stunning and transforming novel forces the list to six!)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Thing About Jerry Spinelli...

Is, in short, that on any page of any of his books, I can find a sentence that I'd like to write on an index card and carry around in my pocket. Just to re-read it and be awakened to the rhythm, power, and redemption in our lives.

Ever since I read Wringer, I was hooked.

I just finished Spinelli's Love, Stargirl, the sequel to his enormously powerful (and popular) Stargirl. I read the original five times a year with my seventh graders, for two years. Ten reads in class, combined with two on my own, and the book still jived with my soul. Spinelli--like Kathy Erskine, Jacqueline Woodson, Gary Schmidt--has a remarkable way of getting to the height of emotion in every scene, without overshooting and without missing any power, however subtle or silent.

Reading the last lines of Love, Stargirl, I felt an immense gratitude: to be able to read a book and be moved to rethink my own perspective; to feel both peace and challenge speak; to be inspired to continue crafting and revising my own novels; to listen to the life of another.

I'm onto Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt, which, too, makes my heart beat fast. I'm grateful for the words.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rambo, Conan, and the Impossible Male

Walking home from the city center today pushing Tyler in the stroller, my eye caught an advertisement for the new Conan the Barbarian movie plastered along the side of a double-decker bus.

Under an image of Conan as biceps-and-pecs-the-size-of-Texas, the movie's slogan was printed in all caps: BORN ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

Immediately,my mind jumped back to four years ago, when Jen and I were leaving the movie theater in Flagstaff, Arizona after having watched The Freedom Writers, and we saw the movie poster for the latest Rambo installment. The slogan on that one? HEROES DON'T DIE. THEY JUST RELOAD.

So, along my walk home, my mind started a little mini-synthesis paper. (Perhaps I miss the classroom a bit, or maybe the rain that had begun pouring made me pensive.) I combined both movie slogans and came up with one that presents a fairly accurate depiction of what many men see as their culture-proclaimed epitome of manhood is: REAL MEN ARE BORN TOUGH; THEY LIVE TOUGH; THEY NEVER DIE (BUT IF THEY WERE TO DIE, THEY WOULD DIE TOUGH).

But when I tried to enter the next layer of synthesis and try to make my slogan fit men generally, or even any man specifically, I was stuck.

Thing is, a lot of men profess drivel like this. A lot of us y-chromosome-wielding guys might claim that toughness, battles, and reloading guns is what masculinity is all about. But the truth is, no man really believes it. (Though he may be suckered into it by the way his dad raised him, one too many Rambo films, video games where you can kill your opponent a thousand different ways, and bully-peer-coolness culture in our schools.)

See, every male student I've ever taught at the middle, high school, or college level has all had one thing in common: a heck of a lot of pretense. (This, by the way, includes yours truly.) In other words, all men learn that sooner or later, you've got to act the part and try to look cool, act tough, and carry a big stick / gun / sword / mouth / name-brand-clothing-that-has-been-advertised-by-a-guy-with--yes--pecs-as-big-as-the-state-of-Texas.

But every man knows, deep down, that this is all one big load of baloney. Because we men know how we feel. We know that we get sad; we get happy; we get lonely; we get scared (even terrified); we get needy; we get contemplative (yup, even those guys who you'd never expect it from); we want to get real.

I think there are a lot of us guys out here who would rather push a stroller than wield a sword.

Writers like Robert Bly, who popularized the notion of this secret, innate-warriorness / wildness / aggressiveness that all men possess and which has somehow been crushed by women, talk a big game. Their words get a lot of guys fired up, thinking to themselves, Hey, maybe Bly is right. I am a warrior. I need a sword! I need a gun! I need to tell this nagging lady to be quiet so I can lead the way! After all, Bly must be right because, hey, didn't they give him a Pulitzer Prize? And didn't John Eldridge translate Bly's notion of the wild man for the Christian male with Wild at Heart?

But in reality, maybe we men are starting to come to some new conclusions:

1. Courage isn't necessarily about one big moment of power and aggressiveness with a sword or a gun. It might be more about the way we live; the way treat people; the way we learn to love when it's excruciatingly hard to do so.

2. I'd just as soon drink a cup of tea and watch a rom-com with my wife rather than kill a thousand people on a video game.

3. It's a heck of a lot more fun to be honest rather than hide. Hiding gets old. Boring. Tired old script; same old hiding places. Ugh.

4. There's got to be something better out there--some better model.

And there is!  Men like Atticus Finch present a far more beautiful--and courageous--notion of what authentic masculinity should look like (and could, really could, look like).

In the Acknowledgements section of his bestselling book Guyland, author Michael Kimmel writes movingly about the wish he has for his sons. He quotes a poet and Pulitzer-prize winner (three times!) far different than Mr. Bly. Kimmel cites Adrienne Rich's wishes for her own sons--that they would "have the courage of women" regarding his sons, too.

What a beautiful desire: that we men would learn the courage of women--the courage to love when it's hard, to live not only the moments of glory but also the moments no one sees (that are no less valiant or brave). To walk among the noble souls who live not only for battle, but for peace.

Conan and Rambo may wield power when it comes to the masculine ideal, but men like Atticus Finch have another kind of courage and power entirely: the masculine real. real love; real conviction; real courage for the long journey. And I, for one, am a heck of a lot more interested in that.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lollipop Day

Thursday is Lollipop Day.

There is a small, red store about fifteen minutes' walk from our house, right across from the tiny library where we go on, yes, Thursday. We can buy a lollipop for six pence. (Roughly 11 American cents--used to be 10 a few weeks ago.)

The lady within the store knows that Tyler and I stop in to see her every Thursday at 2pm, just before Story Time begins at the library. We choose two lollipops--one for Tyler, one for Daddy. (Tyler picks both colors.)

She takes our twelve pence with a smile and says, "See you next week."

As we leave the store, Tyler inevitably processes what has just occurred.

"We got lollipops today?"

"Yes, because it's Thursday, and Thursday is LOLLIPOP DAY!"

"Thursday is lollipop day Daddy?"

"Yup, Thursday is LOLLIPOP DAY!"

"I like Thursday."

"I like Thursday too."

We walk on in silence for a while, Tyler enjoying his yellow lollipop, me enjoying my blue/purple/red one. The only other sound's the sweep of easy slurp and downy take. The lollipops grow smaller by the second, and soon we're at the library, waiting for Story Time to begin.

Inevitably, the next morning, Tyler will often ask if we can get lollipops again.

"No, only on Thursday, remember? Because Thursday is LOLLIPOP DAY."

"Today is not Thursday?"

"No. Today is Friday."

"We can't get lollipops on Friday?"

"Well, we could get lollipops on Friday, but then our teeth would say, Ah! Too much sugar! Ah, we're melting!"

"They say that one?"


Tyler stops, thinks for a moment, and then says, "I like Thursday."

It's hard to disagree. On what other day can you hold such joy in your hands--multicolored--as you sit in a library listening to great stories?

The great poet W.H. Auden once write that "In moments of ecstasy and joy, we all wish we possessed a tail we could wag." If Mr. Auden were alive now, I'm sure he'd feel just this sentiment on Lollipop Day.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What She Said

I just read Jen's latest blog post on commitment--something we've been talking a lot about lately, in all areas of our lives. Hard to say it any better than she did, so here you go:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Brief Poem on a Slow Evening

Wait for the words
That wake like dew--
Whose origin you never see,
Whose presence is always true.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Breaking Some Gender Stereotypes

Jennifer and I recently celebrated our sixth anniversary. Six big ones. (But only one little one thus far--though at two years old, and consistently in the 99th percentile for height, weight, head circumference, and naturally-released, constant energy levels, he feels like a big (good) one as well.)

For me, marriage has been like teaching: I've always loved it, but I think I learn a heck of lot more about it the more experience I get. And there's no way to learn without doing it. As much psychology, relationship, and literary fiction as there is that deals with strong marriages--there's no substitute for the real thing: learning by doing, as the poet Roethke once told us.

So here is one of my big lessons from year six that experience has taught me: it's good to break gender stereotypes.

Our son is a good example of how breaking gender stereotypes has brought Jen and I a heck of a lot of happiness. Tyler loves two things in life with a passion as deep and as profound as the Atlantic Ocean: his baby doll and his uptrucks. He carries his baby doll (a female whom he named Bob the Builder) around with him everywhere he goes. He pushes Bob on the swings; he gives Bob a thousand kisses a day; a pushes Bob gently down his small backyard slide (and, admittedly, laughs when she falls over and bumps her head all the way down; but then Tyler is there to pick up Bob, caress her head bruises, apply a few band-aids, profusely kiss the injuries, and then continue on).

Lining the fence in our backyard (here, called a garden) are seven yellow construction vehicles--yellow dump trucks; yellow uptrucks (diggers); yellow cement mixer trucks; yellow backhoes. He runs them through the dirt and delights in their carrying capacities.

I think Tyler's passions demonstrate something Jen and I have come to accept about ourselves in our marriage: we enjoy breaking gender stereotypes. It just feels...right.

Case in point: The Plough Pub. It's July 30th, 2011, and we're out for our anniversary night. My mom and two brothers, Michael and Matthew, are babysitting while Jen and I get out for the night. Walking like a couple giddy in anticipation of a full meal without mentioning the words "poopies," "itchies," or "snots," we arrive at the pub barely able to remain calm. But we do. We keep calm and carry on through the beautiful white oak door of The Plough.

We snag a table by the window, discuss what we'll start with for drinks and our meals, and I make my way up to the bar. I order a martini for Jen, a pint of Timothy Taylor's for me. I saunter back to our table, drinks in hand and food order placed.

I am a husband heading back to this wife, thrilled to have a long conversation about dreams, emotions, and emotional dreams. Jen takes a sip of her martini and finds it a bit too sweet, which enables me to gladly switch with her, secretly pumped about a sweet martini, and there we sit, a man drinking his sweet martini; his wife a pint of Yorkshire's finest local ale.

Case in Point (B): Our neighbors let us borrow an electric hedge clipper. Having landscaped my way through high school, I am jazzed about using the thing to trim our relentlessly misbehaving hedges. I work for about ten minutes, then ask Jennifer if she'd like to have a go.

Jen takes the hedge trimmer and Tyler and I watch--in sheer amazement--as Jen goes to town for the next hour, creating a masterpiece of our hedges. Beauty. Perfection. No limb of any hedge a millimeter longer than any other. She's a natural. (Meanwhile, Tyler and I had quite a blast giggling like, well, toddlers.)

Case in Point (C): The obvious, I guess. I like what I'm doing. Really. So does Jen. Sure--we each miss what we were doing before. I sometimes get that longing to be back inside of a high school or middle school classroom; and Jen has that urge to spend the full day with our guy, attending playgroups and chatting about poopie endlessly (that latter part I may have made up). But neither of us would want to change a thing.

It works.

It fits.

Even though people look at us like one of us isn't being honest, or one of us is somehow hiding some deeply honest desire (me to scale cliffs and Jen to nurse a kid till he;s five or something like that), we're not. There's something that just fits together, and in this sixth year of marriage, I'm grateful beyond words for a wife who has both passion and compassion, both strength and nurture, that work all together in this balance that I can only call love.