Monthly Archives: October 2013

you don’t get what you don’t ask for

Until last week, for several weeks, our air space was jammed with the frequency of Homecoming:  the powder puff football game and which class had the strongest athletes, then the “real” football game (actual words used by actual boys) and whether we’d defeat our rivals, then the dance, which was the most painful part, a reminder of how complicated being young is.  It was both entertaining and excruciating to watch Owen begin to understand the gaping maw between his prevailing view that the world is a black and white place – easy to legislate, govern, and operate within if adults would just move over and let teenagers be in charge – and a growing sense that maybe life is not that simple after all.

The real sport of Homecoming was negotiating the dance.  The pre-game show began weeks before the event as boys negotiated amongst themselves which girls to ask and how.  On our way to swim practice each night, Owen’s friends debriefed.

Here is a sample conversation from the car (A conversation highly similar to this was reenacted every night for at least two weeks):

B:               You should ask Emma because she’s going to say no to Brian and she will say yes to you.

Owen:       But I want to ask Izzy.

D:                Dude, you can’t ask Izzy.  Tim’s asking her.

Owen:        But what if I ask Izzy before Tim does?

B:                You can’t do that because Tim already told us he’s asking her.  It’s like stealing.  Not cool.

Owen:        But what if I do?

D:                Don’t do it, man.  That’s lame.  You should ask Emma.

Owen:       You should go with Emma.

D:                I can’t go with Emma.  She’s super quiet and so am I and nobody would talk all night.

B:                D’s going to ask Jane because she talks a lot.  She’ll make it fun.  And you should ask Emma.

Owen:        I don’t know.  I want to go with Izzy.  What if I ask Kate?

B:                Dude.  I’m asking Kate.  D’s asking Jane.  You should ask Emma.  It’ll be fun, I promise.  Plus, you just got here, so you need us to  help you understand them.

Owen:        Them who?

B:                 Girls, dumbass.

There was a long pause while we waited to turn left into the pool parking lot.  It sounded settled to me.  We pulled up to the front door and the boys loitered in the car, gathering up their gear bags.

Owen:         So.  I can’t ask Izzy?  I mean.  For sure Tim knows WE know he’s going to ask?

B:                  You kind of suck at this game.

Once they’d settled the girl question, the issue of the ASK descended.  My recollection, which may be wrong, is that being asked to Homecoming used to go something like this:

(Written on a note passed to me in history with Doritos stains on one corner):

Wanna go to the dance with me?


(Written on a note shoved inside the slats of my locker door)

Will you go to Homecoming with me? Check yes or no and bring it to English.


In those days, which Owen tells me were uninspired, boys didn’t ask girls in person.  It was almost always on a note, or through a friend, and in this way not much has changed since the dark ages.  Except that now part of THE ASK has to be creative, thoughtful, unique.  A big statement that others see, a “treat” meant to impress with a sugary crust of embarrassment.

Me:            So, you’re going with Emma.

Owen:       Yes.  Not Izzy because she said yes to Tim.

Me:               I see.  Have you asked Emma yet?

Owen:        Not yet.  I have to figure out how to do it.

Me:             I see.  You mean, when you’ll have a chance to see her to ask her?

Owen:       No.  It’s not like that.  You have to DO something.  Like creative.

Me:             Like creative how?

Owen:        I was thinking about putting a piñata in her front yard?  Inside would be candy and a bunch of ASKS wrapped around the candy, and when she breaks it open, it all falls out?

Me:             I see.  So you’re going to find all that at the store, then wrap each candy with papers that say something clever, then put the candy inside the piñata, then take it to her house after asking her parents and then hang it on a tree in the front yard and leave a stick or a bat to whack it open with?  By tomorrow?

Owen:        Geez.  You make it sound like such a big deal.  Also.   I thought you might help me do it.

Me:              But I’m not going to the dance with Emma.

Owen:         Mawwwwmmm.  I’m just brainstorming here.  I’m supposed to do something creative.  Can’t you just help me think of something, you know, clever?

Me:             What about just asking her?

At this point he left the room, shaking his head.

As Owen deliberated, his friends settled in on their ASK.  They pushed the ASK date ahead.  B bought a betta fish (also known as a Siamese fighting fish) and left it in a tank in Kate’s room with a speech balloon asking her to the dance.  It was an interesting choice – given the known aggressive nature of this species, which is not a “schooling” fish but one that prefers solitude and without it will fight— but I wisely kept my thoughts on metaphor to myself. D put some pink flamingoes in Jane’s front yard with a poster asking her to boogie with him, which was also funny because D had confessed to me that he hates to dance.

B and D waited for Owen to figure out his ASK, and then they all agreed to go forth and ASK on the same day.

The night before the ASK:

Owen:           I’m sick of brainstorming.  I’m just going to get some flowers and leave them in Emma’s locker.

Me:                 Sounds good.  How will you get her combination?

Owen:            B’s getting it.  Will you get me some flowers today?

Me:                 Sorry, pal.  That’s your job.  You can walk over to the shopping center and choose some.  We’ll put them in water until you’re ready.

Owen:            Wait.  I have to do it?

Me:                 Yes, sir.  Because Emma is not my date.  Take your wallet.  Please don’t get carnations; they’re grandma flowers.

Off Owen went to flower shop at the market, where he chose six red roses, proudly brought them home remarking on the deal he got, then threw them on the counter, sighing with relief.  I felt bad, having sent him into battle with so little information.  We had a nice chat about the loud statement a flower like the red rose makes in the romantic world, at the end of which he just shrugged and said, “I’m not going to marry her or anything.  They’re just flowers.”  And that was that.

We hadn’t even gotten to costuming yet, and I was already exhausted.  The boys all chose bow ties.  Those had to match the dresses.  Emma’s mom picked Owen up after school one day and off they went to the mall to choose a bow tie that matched the champagne color in Emma’s dress.  I can only imagine what this must have been like for Owen – shopping, which he hates, with a girl he hardly knew and her mother who was in charge of choosing part of his outfit.  For my part, I was relieved, since I also hate shopping.  He came home with a bow tie that cost forty dollars and went to bed early that night.

Then began negotiations about dinner and which restaurant would be good for a party of 12.  B was in charge of reservations, and there was a lot of conversation in the car about the automatic gratuity for parties so large and whether it was a scam.  Then there was the issue of transportation.  As sophomores, many of them not yet driving, they decided it was totally uncool to have parents ferrying them around.  They booked a limo, and Owen was in charge of organizing that.  Meanwhile, his stash of earned cash was dwindling.

We expect him to use his own money for many things, and this policy has been instrumental in his more thoughtful and miserly approach to spending, for which I am grateful.  There’s nothing like having some skin in the game of spending to learn about money management.  I suggested he and Emma split the tab for the night and was told that’s not how you do it.  When I asked him why, he shrugged and said, “I guess that’s just how it works.  I think the girls pay when there’s a Sadie Hawkins dance or something, except I’m not sure we have that kind of dance at our school.”

We paid for the clothes, but the tickets, dinner, flowers and transportation were up to him.  It was hard to watch him struggle with how much the night would cost and whether it was worth it.  He wisely kept to himself any bitterness he harbored about his friends’ parents’ footing the entire bill for the time.

By the time the actual dance arrived, and we’d learned how to tie a bow tie courtesy of YouTube, and gotten more flowers, and showed up early to the garden of friend’s house to take pictures, my boy seemed to have lost the bounce in his bungee.  But he rallied.

The night was a success, thankfully, and Emma proved to be a fun date, though the next morning over breakfast Owen confessed he was glad it was over.

Owen:          Now I can focus on swimming and school.  I think my math grade has dropped.

Me:               Was it worth it, do you think?

He chewed his bagel and thought a minute.

Owen:         I think so.  I mean, we could have had a dance without all that, you know, stuff.  It was a lot of stress.  Plus, I’m broke now.  Life is expensive, you know?

Me:              I do know.

He shook his head and opened the sports page and we were quiet for a minute.

Owen:        I mean, I’m just not sure about events where the boy has to pay for the whole thing.  It’s like you say.  Where’s the skin in the game if someone else is paying for you? I just don’t know about it.

I kept to myself all the things I wanted to say, or the high-five I itched to give him, or how I’d asked myself that same question more than a few times.

Me:             What if I come up with a creative ASK for cleaning the bathroom and washing the car?  It’s a paying gig.

Owen:        Okay.  You can skip the flowers and candy, though.

2013 September 057

Categories: kids, parenting, writing | Tags: , | 8 Comments

famine of the heart

Recently I picked up a copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel I somehow missed in my literature studies, though a long time ago his story “Barn Burning,” maybe one of the best short stories ever written, inspired me to become a teacher and a writer.  Also, I wanted to see if I remembered correctly that Faulkner’s work might not translate that well to the big screen.  James Franco is either a genius or out of his mind.  When the film comes to town, I’ll be curious to see which, or if it’s some of both.

What strikes me about Faulkner’s “experimental” novel is two things:  the deception in its structure, which is to say a first impression that its short chapters and multiple voices would make for a quick read; and also that the engine in the novel – the problem of how to get Addie Bundren’s body to her native Jefferson, Mississippi to be buried (her dying wish) despite a flood, and then injury, and then fire — is overshadowed by what motivates her husband Anse and her children Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman to engage in this journey.  The fifteen voices that tell the story, including one chapter from Addie herself, reveal what undergirds every action in the novel:  The inscrutable world is a dark and hard place full of relentless futility.  The best we can hope for is to survive the world or leave it on our own terms, as Addie herself seems to have done.  Faulkner once said his writing was “hammering at…that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.”   (An interview from 1956 is here).  His characters’ insistence on survival, however misguided or self-interested, is the relentless drumbeat of As I Lay Dying.

Faulkner called this novel a “tour de force,” and I suppose it is in the way it was different, an experiment that flouted conventional storytelling.  I spent more time than I’d like to admit keeping track of the book in the plot way.  Time loops around, for one, and I found myself rereading chapters more than a few times to make sure I was getting it.  Addie shows up for just one chapter to speak her mind long after she’s already a dead and rotting corpse on her way to Jefferson, for example.  Anse and the five kids all help to tell the story, and in each of their pages their mundane, repetitive conversations are interrupted by language in italics that seems to represent the lyrical, internal language each character is unable to give voice to on the surface. I’m not sure this technique really works.

But to be sure Faulkner’s intentions were grand.  The title, a line from The Odyssey, is the first hint that Faulkner’s plan is epic in scale.  (Thank you, Wikipedia, for teaching me that As I Lay Dying is also the name of a metalcore band, whose “lyrics and music take no direct inspiration from the novel.”  Dear Faulkner, are you spinning brodies in your grave? ) But it’s a short epic, chock full of unfortunate events not unlike Odysseus’ journey.  There are broken bones, a rotting corpse, a burned down barn, a bad love affair, a hoped for abortion, sexual abuse, siblings sending their brother to a mental institution, and finally, a marriage. By the time we arrive to Jefferson to bury Addie, digging the hole and putting her in it only takes a few sentences, because by this time, the story is about anything but burying Addie.  What has propelled the family to this place has been eclipsed by the fractured agenda of each character, with Anse, who takes something from each of his children in order to serve himself, at the center of it all.

I had the best success as a reader when I focused on giving myself over to each character’s way of revealing the story instead of tallying up my frustrations.  They’re a heartbreaking lot, some of them despicable like Anse, others tragic like Cash, the one character aside from Vardaman whose volition is not about his own needs.

Still, between the work required to be a thoughtful reader of Faulkner’s book, and what I think is the failed technique of those italics to represent what his characters wanted to say, if only they could, I’m not sure this book would be published now.  Unless I’m reading it wrong, I’m not sure most people are willing to work that hard for an ending so dark, what with our penchant for endings in which all loose ends are neatly wrapped and characters leave the scene with no hard feelings.

But maybe James Franco’s split-screen delivery will work to unspool for audiences the existential question inherent in the gap between a heart that sings lyrically against the grim wilds of a hardscrabble life.  I gotta hand it to Franco for trying anyway.  When the film comes my way, I’ll be one of the first in line to see it.

Categories: books, fiction, movies, publishing, short story, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

feeling young at heart has gotten me this far

For several years my running pals tried to woo me into running a marathon with them.  I was diplomatic in my rejections – that kind of training would ruin my already fractured writing life; I was worried it would turn running into a job; I really liked the half marathon distance.  Also, I’d been at the finish line of other marathons cheering friends on, and what I’d witnessed there was a lot of crying.  More than a few runners would cross the finish line, get their foil blanket thingy, and then break down, some of them falling down, sobbing.  It didn’t seem like the kind of activity for me.

At some point last year around my birthday, when I was feeling fragile and mid-life-crisis-y, I realized I COULD run a marathon if I wanted to, and that I probably SHOULD do it soon since I wasn’t getting any younger.  Just once.  The sisterhood could drag me across the finish line if it came to that.  I signed up and paid the eye-watering registration fee for the pleasure of torturing myself.  And also for some pretty good bling at the finish line, according to my friends.

So began the training.  It was thrilling to declare and strive for such an ambitious goal.  I spent a lot of time in the woods, running on back roads and trails, and the marathon was a good excuse to stay in the forest longer.

Then the long Sunday runs began.  15 miles.  17 miles.  18 miles.  20 miles.  Allotting that much time of course was an issue, though we made a point to begin early in the morning and be finished before lunch.  We staged water and fuel stops.  Even when someone wasn’t feeling great, someone else was, and that person would chat the rest of us along until we were finished.  Almost worse than the runs themselves was the week of dread leading up to them.  There was no sleeping in the day of a long run.  We had to beat the heat.  So each week I stared down three or four or more hours of running that began before dawn.

I tried to keep the whining to a minimum, because, really, you sound like kind of an asshole when you complain about something you’ve chosen to do on purpose.  It occurred to me not too far into the journey that most people would be hard-pressed to devote enough hours for such a feat, and that I was lucky to be able to make the time.

We trained through the spring and summer together, while I battled the dreaded Piriformis Syndrome.  There’s a smart medical definition, but the short version is this:  there’s a muscle in your ass that can wreak havoc up into your back, down into your hamstrings and calves, and through your groin and inner thighs if you are fond of   long-distance running or prolonged sitting, both of which I was enjoying in copious amounts between running and writing.  Some days my legs felt so tight it was like wearing a really tight climbing harness while running.  The Piriformis announces itself for many runners, especially if they are not good at stretching.  Which I am not.  Because I used to be able to do athletic events off the couch, and really, feeling young at heart has gotten me this far.

I forced myself to be better at stretching, and it worked.  For a while.

After I moved and was without my posse, I wasn’t nearly so diligent at either stretching or running.  I’d get up late and have to run in the blistering heat, then get bored almost at my goal of 20 miles and stop at 17.  Or 14.  I’d go for a swim in the river instead.  I drank more beer than I should have – not during running (Well.  There was that one time…), but after.  To rehydrate.  I’d lie down to stretch when I got home and then get distracted by something shiny – People Magazine or gardening or the dog biting at my head.  Meanwhile, the big day loomed.

The day of event bands along the route and the big-hearted crowd with their snacks and cheers and good will felt more like Carnival than an athletic event.  There were aid stations every two miles with electrolytes, gummy bears, pretzels.  I had my running pals, some friends who jumped in to run along the way, my cousin, and others who had Cheezits just when I needed them.

Running Gang Before the Event.

Running Gang Before the Event

My old nemesis Piriformis announced herself at the beginning of the race, but not so badly I couldn’t ignore her.  Besides, it was entirely my fault she was still with me.  Until about mile 19, life was good.  7 miles to go and the harness was cinching and there was another hour of running and I couldn’t remember why I thought running a marathon was a good idea or even fun.  Crying, quitting, hitchhiking with that nice motorcycle guy who weaves in and out of the race, or joining one of the front yard red solo cup beer parties all seemed like reasonable choices.

But there I was, doing my just once marathon, my one and done, and I’d be damned if I was going to quit.  I wasn’t the only one feeling the burn.  Around mile 21 people around me began to walk, limp, stretch, lie down, you name it, it was happening.  One guy was throwing up gummy bears into the bushes.  Another took off his shoes, threw them on the sidewalk, and kept running in nothing but socks.

My cousin stuck with me, and I did more listening than talking; I don’t remember much about the last five miles, and then we were across the finish line, and someone was draping the foil blanket around my shoulders, and someone else gave me a medal, and I followed the line of finishers to the food station.  My friends and I wandered like zombies, dried sweat crystals on our faces and our lips pale.

I remembered about the crying from other events and understood, finally, that the tears are born out of relief and gratitude and exhaustion and exertion.  I didn’t cry but I did sit down and watch other runners making their way through the feed zone.  Only a few were crying.  Wrapped in their blankets, dazed, most of them looked as if they’d sustained some kind of trauma.

Friends have told me that after their first few marathons, they were so burned out they couldn’t bring themselves to run again for several months.  This urge hasn’t come for me.  What’s followed the event is pride in finishing, even though it took longer than I’d hoped, and a deep gratitude for running pals — I’d probably have abandoned the mission without them.  After a few days I hit the trail and shook out my legs.  They felt surprisingly good.

Still, I think I’m going to hang up my marathon shoes, stretch more and dump that bitch Piriformis, get back to the kind of running I love best – on the trails, with the dog, without a watch.  It’s a good pace for living.

Categories: girls, running, writing | Tags: , | 4 Comments

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