18 November 2012

now is the only answer

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.” 

~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Yes, Dillard again, and a Dillard quote that is one of those things that I know, that I have known since the first time I read The Writing Life, something that has been comfortingly true since that class at Lycoming College. That doesn't mean that I don't forget it sometimes, and I had one of those moments tonight, working on the novel.

I've come to that heady and dizzying place with the manuscript: the end is in sight. How that breaks down in any kind of temporal way, I certainly can't say, but I can say that I can hear it now, and it's not an echo. I'm doing a pass through from the beginning of it right now, ironing out the wrinkles for the elements it has taken me all of these pages to properly understand, to finish the scenes that I skipped because I had no idea what was really happening in them or I didn't feel like writing them just then (sometimes, I don't want to deal with conversation, in person or in print; some days, there is no stomaching a second more of interiority, mine or a character's) and onwards was always better than grinding hours of stalemate. I need to see what may now need to flex and change.

Among those points of flex and change was a scene percolating in my mind, one that's been saying you need me while I kept saying, "No, not yet. Not yet. Surely not yet." And then I hit this flat spot in my read-through, about forty percent of the way through, a plateau that extended on into the distance because it was also one of those unfinished places. Unfinished because it wasn't going anywhere, and I didn't want to write it because it wasn't going anywhere and I didn't know what direction even to point. 

Tonight, a fair bit of it got pointed directly at the book's scrap heap: cut and paste, right out of the proper living text and right into file that's a kind of dry dock for me. I don't actually delete very much. I wrote the sentences. Yes, sometimes they are truly trash, but more often, they're the back of my brain telling me something I'm not ready to hear yet. I'll come back to it. 

I can't tell you how useful a scrap heap or graveyard file is. It's the thing that lets me cut with impunity (yes, paring away is ninety percent of my editing process and no one at all is surprised). It's the thing that gives me the correct spaces to see the work, too: if I can't see past one of these dead zones, I tear it out. Maybe I don't need it at all. If I can't understand what that pile of words is doing because there's too much gravity pulling at the befores and afters, I put it on blank pages in the scrap heap, read it alone. No matter what, that text is not lost. I can (and do) go back to that detritus later, when I am searching for something that feels familiar, something that feels caught on the tip of the tongue (or the fingers). Chances are, I already wrote something of it. I just put it in the wrong place. 

That may be the best lesson I've learned while working on this book: trusting my own process. Not worrying forward or backward, but feeling reasonably confident that the pieces I need would reveal themselves in time. It's been working. (The scrap heap is good insurance. Trust, but also keep records.)

But now comes the point in the process when everything must be in the present. If I want to finish, I am past the point of "deal with it later." 

(I do want to finish.)

And tonight, it became incredibly clear: to hell with not yet. Now is the only answer. Put in the scene I've been saving. 

In the process, too, I had to ask why I was holding it back, and the only answer to that is that I wasn't sure what it would lead to, wasn't sure where else it could go. I was thinking of the side-to-side movement, of shifting, like eyes, like my narrator rocking foot to foot when the only thing to do is to climb. I have given her a new hill.

Tomorrow, I trust that something else will arise after. She'll have new places to put her feet.

26 October 2012

That would be suspiciously like joy in Mudville

What would be suspiciously like joy in Mudville, you ask? Professional ice hockey coming to Casper. Right now, it is frustratingly all uncertain, but there's a conversation happening. A conversation that could bring CHL hockey to Casper. 

The biggest challenges seem to be financial, of course, and I'm surprised that the theoretical plan would be to modify the Casper Events Center (installing ice and a Jumbotron, etc.), but it has held the Wyoming Cavalry indoor football, the CNFR, many state sports tournaments--it would certainly hold a fairly impressive crowd. It's also got locker room facilities, where glamorous things happen, like Casper College faculty members holding their annual "can anyone actually arrange their academic hood the correct way?" contest for commencement. (Pro tip: I don't think there is a correct way. I think the academic hood is just a cruel joke played on folks in academe in perpetuity. It's slightly below "good luck ever simply reading a book again" in sinisterness.)

I'm not just grasping at straws here in the absence of the NHL with my incredibly premature enthusiasm. I'm not not in panicked desperation for my Penguins, but I am applying copious amounts of AHL and KHL hockey to my chafed soul. It's something. I have emergency hockey treatments already scheduled over winter break (WBS Penguins vs. Hershey Bears, home and away, back to back days, oh yes). 

But now that I've had a good taste of real minor league sports, living here in Casper and getting kind of attached to the awkward growing period of things like Rookie ball and then the Mountain Collegiate Baseball League (not technically professional minor leagues, but still a developmental league), I'm more than a little in love. I've never been to a CHL game, nor even an ECHL game (because I've spent most of my life in the East) because I've always lived closer to AHL clubs. In this world of hypothetical wishing, I don't know what to expect. I have to admit I filter these things by baseball terminology--it seems the equivalent of AA baseball. I don't know what that looks like in hockey. I can't imagine what it will look like in Casper, with a team that, according to the article, will likely be a transplant from Texas. (I say good. I say, Let us rescue you. There is winter here. This is a place friendly to ice.) One of the teams in that league currently in Texas is unaffiliated, and my completely uneducated gut instinct says that would be the team that moves. The Allen Americans are a Dallas Stars affiliate, but the Fort Worth Brahmas are unattached (unattached officially, it seems, but there are a number of current roster players that have come up through the Sabres system, including Riley Boychuk and Shawn Szydlowski).

Wyoming is all about cattle. Come to us, Brahmas. (Or, if I am wrong, I'm cool with the Allen Americans. People wave flags here really well.)

(Also, Mario, maybe the Penguins would like a CHL affiliate, since we're sharing Wheeling with the Canadiens?)

Hockey-related talk this fall has been an exercise in not getting my hopes up. As the linked article above explains, it's far from a done deal, too. Details are incredibly sketchy, vague, fraught. What that should mean is that it's easy to push off to the side for a while. I'll learn the decision when everyone else does (and if it's going to happen, the decision will come soon, it seems, unlike in the actual NHL where nothing is happening soon). 

But all this has done is give me framework in which my imagination is already hiring a Zamboni driver. I'm already watching next year's draft, watching to see who might end up here. I don't need much on which to build wild flights of fancy, particularly not with hockey (particularly not with anything--don't let me fool you into thinking I have only a few categories of imaginative excess). 

I'm hanging my hat and my heart on this. 

Forth Worth and Allen, two of the possible hypothetical future Casper teams, are in a shootout right now, actually. 3-3 as of 9:20, MST, on 10/26. Allen wins, 4-3, on a goal by D-man Brett Skinner, a 2002 draft pick by the Canucks. He's got a bit of a journeyman's career, having started as a pro in 2005 and, after a bit of shuttling about that did include some games with the Islanders, having played for Amur Khabarovsk in 2010-2011. 

Now that I'm waist-deep in trying to wade the KHL waters (complicated most by time zones, actually, because it's hard to follow games when my students are shuffling yawning into their first class of the day), and I now think I get the enormity (and isolation and what must be a constant feeling of jetlag) of playing in Khabarovsk, I want that guy in my city, playing hockey. 

That's not even likely. Skinner's on a one-year deal with Allen, and if this season goes well for him, his goal is not going to be staying in the CHL. That isn't how the system works. The system works by moving up, moving on, and any (remember: hypothetical still, Holly) hockey that would take place in Casper wouldn't happen until 2013. 

So the right thing to do is to say, no, Brett Skinner, I don't want to see you here next year. Based on exactly six minutes of watching a text box update with the successes and failures of the shootout, I want you to have a good season. Brett Skinner, defenseman with a solid shot, I want you somewhere better next season. And then I want to watch the player who takes your place, and hope I don't see him the year after that, either.

19 October 2012

"Ae fond kiss, and then we sever": When is a story done?

It's cold here in Casper. I have hot cider. It seemed correct to start with a Robert Burns line, then. But the Burns line is purposeful in that I have reached what I consider to be a rare thing: the place of being finished with a story.

I have many times had stories be finished with me before I was finished with them (the ones that never quite went anywhere, the fragments in computer folders and notebooks where the relationship ended on a note of mutual ambivalence), and there are many stories that aren't quite there yet, something shoe still waiting to drop (as soon as I find the damn shoe--maybe waiting for the shoe to be thrown). There are the stories, too, that are only pretending to be stories, that are really just novels waiting to leap. To them, I crack my whip and brandish my chair: back! back! (Or at least admonish them to queue up in an orderly fashion.)

But sometimes, the piece and I have said all we have to say to each other, and the story goes out into the wide world and finds its right home, and once it's there, there's no reason for me to meddle with it. I'm speaking mostly of publication, which has traditionally been the marker of done (not always, of course, but oftener than not). I've had the good fortune of placing a short story that I wrote a eight years ago (it doesn't feel like that long ago) in Stymie Magazine, and so now I can talk about writing with actual concrete referents, rather than vague hand-waving at the book-in-progress.

So this is putting "Middle Infield" to rest. Walking away. Saying a fond farewell.

There is a particular pleasure in finding a journal for a story that feels right for it, and because of the specificity of this story's major pieces--baseball, queerness, teenaged characters--it was not an easy fit. Any one of those things seems to have a number of markets, but the Venn diagrams seldom overlap. And so I am especially pleased to have it homed in Stymie, where so many facets of sport (and a lot of various and interesting hybridities) are showcased.

I wrote this story in one of my MA program workshops, and I owe, of course, a great deal to a small group of excellent workshop colleagues that I had there. I remember, though, that even in its shitty first draft, it was the first short story that I'd written as a short story, all self-contained, with no lingering desires to become a novel, that I was even remotely happy with. Because I hadn't written it as the obligatory workshop submission (because workshopping novel chapters in a short story workshop is seldom productive)--I'd written the story on its own terms, and it went quickly because so much of it was so dear to me. False and fictional and all of the things I stole from the world of the real had been dragged through algae and sunflower seed shells by the end, but dear to me still.

I was in Ohio at the time. Most people don't think of Ohio as markedly different from central Pennsylvania (or any of the other mid-Atlantic states), but it was the furthest I'd been from home in the long term, in a way that was truly on my own. Campus housing, during my BA, even if I seldom went home, certainly didn't count. As a TA in graduate school, I had a job, a regular paycheck, the first semblance of a functional adult life. Gone were the thousand activities and club meetings of yesterdegree--now onto serious academic study. Now into an actual college town, which is all that town was: bars (a perilous lot of bars), great music, independent restaurants, and twenty thousand twenty-somethings. Nothing at all like my no-horse childhood home or my unfriendly, working-class city and its idyllic campus island that we seldom left.

I think now that some of this story was born of homesickness. Maybe a way to pay homage to where I'd come from because everyone else I knew seemed to be from a much more recognizable version of somewhere. Maybe a way to hold up small things I loved about a place where I no longer fit myself. No matter the reason, and I didn't know it then, but Cal and Brendan and the smaller details of their lives were ways of reaching out to the place that I'd left. That's completely contradictory in that it is all firmly fiction--it's set in upstate New York, even, years before I lived there or ever knew that I would--but the characters play out on the landscapes of memory.

A list:

  1. The snapping turtle was real. My brother and a friend of his fished them out of a farm pond, though never so big. I remember them showing me the hook they used for it, three inches long and the wire of it too stiff to bend. They did bait it with a raw chicken wing. Stevie's mother did not make soup from the turtles they caught. The turtles did eat ducklings. But I don't know how they killed them after catching them. 

  2. I harbor no ill will toward turtles, snapping or otherwise. In a visiting writer's talk while I was in Ohio, though, Clint McCown read from his novel, War Memorials, in which a lizard meets a dire end via a window sash, if I remember correctly. I remember feeling more guilty about killing off that snapping turtle in the story than I did for any number of other injustices I'd committed against characters. I do not remember if McCown felt similar remorse. I know the question came up.

  3. The pond Cal and Brendan stand beside is not in upstate New York. It is in my parents' neighbor's pasture, and the pond is roughly the size of a regulation ice hockey rink. It was fed by a small stream, though, and it never froze hard enough to skate on it. Or we never knew how deep it really was and my parents said no to our desire to skate on it. Both are true. It did house a number of fish, though, and we caught bluegills and sunnies there, on small, flimsy rods. There were turtles, snappers in that pond (as in so many ponds where I grew up), and they would have cut our four-pound test with no effort if we'd fished with any bait that tempted them.

  4. Cal's grandparents' basement belongs to my friend Bill, who was also my middle school boyfriend. Its ceilings were too low for Bill, who was already nearly six feet tall in those gangly years. In high school, a whole knot of us hung out there, stooped over the small pool and air hockey tables, and we didn't drink, even though we knew we could have. We played terrible nineties music and there was often a strobe light on because why not. There was a fat plastic barrel of pretzel sticks. One of my grandfathers still keeps them beside his chair. The basement had its own bathroom, too, one where the concrete block hadn't even been painted. It was always cold. The cold was a good excuse, and it often lead to some pair of people making out on the couch. 

  5. Ted Williams hitting walnuts with a broomstick may be apocryphal. I feel like I remember my dad telling me about it. It feels true. That's what matters.

  6. Regarding a tiny reference buried in a paragraph--a guy who went to my high school, Dominic Rich, who played baseball with my brother--did rip it up playing for Auburn. The Blue Jays drafted him in the second round in 2000. The whole valley was kind of gutted, I think, when he didn't make it past AA ball. (My hometown was blessed with excellent baseball players while my three-years-older brother was in high school. I wouldn't love the sport the way I do if I hadn't been raised on such a beautiful version of it.)

  7. The high school I imagine here is my own. Rural. Conservative. Full of people who would not let neighbors go hungry or leave anyone to change a flat tire on one's own. Full of the kind of silence, though, too, that lets Brendan say, of the possibility of queer athletes (and really, for his context, queer anyone, queer him, queer them), "No one talks about it." The silence that makes Cal continue with the affirmation that what cannot be said cannot be done. Queerness is not an option. 
This is the place where I want to say goodbye to this story. It ends with some hope because I believe in hope and I am an optimist. But this story was written years before the You Can Play Project, most of a decade before, and it was written in the fullest sense of Brendan's wishful thinking. (I am reminded of Oscar Wilde and Miss Prism's famous line: "The good end happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means." Because Oscar Wilde didn't have the luxury of that wishful thinking.) I say goodbye to this story on Spirit Day, in hopes that Brendan and Cal, wherever they are, whatever they are doing, together or alone (because characters, in my mind, keep moving forward in their worlds, aren't stuck where the last sentence leaves them--they have trajectories and there is no friction great enough to bring story to a complete halt), are well and happy and no longer in a place where they feel that hard weight of silence.

I have more hope still for the real LGBT youth because of the many organizations and individuals who are speaking out, who are acting, who are changing this landscape of silence. 

29 September 2012

Relegateds, Mount Up

I'll start this with a confession that Warren G's Regulate...G Funk Era was definitely the first album my parents banned me from listening to. That didn't happen very often, as my parents didn't listen to enough music to know what we were listening to (they objected also to Nirvana's In Utero, but only because of the album art, not because they had any idea what a Nirvana was). The only way my brother and I got busted while listening to our ridiculous Columbia House CD club haul was if the person managing the stereo forgot to turn down the super profanity-laden passages while the other person booked it through Super Mario World. We were good at remembering on The Offspring's "Bad Habit," but once in a while, there was a lapse in concentration, and we got chewed out, and the album disappeared.

At that stage in my life (I was probably eleven?), it didn't matter much. We had no culture built around any of that music, and where we grew up, there wasn't much of any culture around music at all. And so those lost albums drifted out of  consciousness, and later, when we'd reached some sort of arbitrary "old enough" point, they slipped back into the stack, rotated back up into play now and again. Sometimes it was finding an old friend again. Sometimes it was thinking I'd have been better off with the sole Swedish fish I could have gotten instead of that CD with the one cent (plus shipping and handling). Whatever it was, the chemistry, the might-have-been was interrupted.

This post is not about music. It is about interrupted chemistry.

Most particularly, it is about the system of relegation in English football (and other sports/sports-governing bodies around the world). As an American who didn't come into following football (as I will call it because soccer is American and I still don't really follow American soccer beyond the US national teams) until the age of twenty-one, the system really staggered me. The quick explanation is that English professional football is divided into tiers. At the top, you have the English Premier League (EPL), which is famously populated currently by Manchesters United and City, Arsenal, and Chelsea, and sixteen other teams. The next tier, the Championship (not to be confused with the Champions League, which features teams from all over Europe who've qualified for that annual set of games that doesn't function exactly like a tournament but not exactly like regular season play, either), has had recent mainstays among its twenty-four teams like Watford, Middlesbrough, and Nottingham Forest. The third tier is called League One, and there is League Two below it, and both of those have twenty-four teams, too[1]. The top three teams in each division get promoted to the next-highest division (unless they're in the EPL, in which case, bully for them, they're at the top of the league, and lately, they're likely playing for one side of Manchester or another, so piss off). The bottom three teams are relegated to the next-lowest division. There is a playoff for the third promotion spot. The top two go automatically, and then 3rd through 6th place do a short tourney for that coveted last spot. Them's the breaks.

Notice that I haven't named teams from League One and League Two. I haven't named representatives because, up until last season, I hadn't spared a thought for those tiers at all. They did not apply to me, a Sheffield United fan since 2003.

How I became a Sheffield United fan is another story. Let's dwell in the now. What is the now for Sheffield United? A strange and sad place. They're in their second straight year of being in League One after not having dropped so low since the eighties, and the drop brings with it more than just damaged pride. There are costs, quite tangible financial costs, as unsuccessful teams do not command great coverage deals, sponsorships (particularly in a league where even the jerseys are sponsored), and ticket sales. The same woes follow all sports, and it is quite difficult for small market and/or struggling teams to turn it around. Those are one set of issues in a system where at least the team's level of play stays the same; there are constants, and where there are constants, there's some kind of hope, even if the hope is that finishing dead last means a good crack at the best draft picks.

The necessary purse-tightening leads to cuts, generally of those players with higher salaries, often veterans. There are no players on the team that I first loved that are still playing for Sheffield United. The last from my early days as a fan--Nick Montgomery, who'd always been a part of that team, and Stephen Quinn, who'd been one of my favorites in the last few years--have moved on to other clubs. Montgomery is actually playing for a Blades-affiliated Australian side, and Quinny, I hope, will have better chances at Hull City. I realize that football careers are not as long as they are in baseball, and expecting a lot of continuity over almost a decade is silly, but there hasn't even been continuity at the top. Since Neil Warnock left after the not-so-successful one-year stint in the Premiership[2], the Blades have had five managers. It's hard for any team to get anything productive done like that, and, as a baseball fan, I am well aware that even a very good manager who has one less-than-ideal season can lose the job entirely, too[3]. And if a team is bleeding money through many wounds--the lack of on-field success included--the loss of personnel, in players who want greener pitches and managers who can't get it done, for whatever reason, is inevitable.

But Sheffield United hasn't dealt with that kind of player loss alone, though there are parts of me--the narrative-mad, intangibles-loving[4] kind of fan--that thinks these pieces are connected. The pieces I'm talking about are character-related, and probably the biggest (unfortunately) Sheffield United story of last year was Ched Evans' arrest--and eventual incarceration--for rape. I'm not at all sorry to see him go. If he'd been found guilty but still managed to continue playing on some sort of loophole, it might have been the end of my love for this team. Or I'd do what I do when I watch the Steelers: hope for the steel-town win (and Sheffield is, of course, one of those) but also hope for a lot of tackles to be applied judiciously to the wretch. But even if I am glad, glad, glad that the Blades cut ties with Evans and that's not hanging over the club anymore, I have to acknowledge that the team hasn't replaced that scoring source, either. The article linked above also mentioned a slew of other players who won't be returning, and another addition to that list is last season's keeper, Steve Simonsen.

Simonsen's release is probably the saddest part of this story because it all happened in the last game of the season. Simonsen managed to keep the Blades, and their lackluster scoring efforts, in the hunt for promotion back to the Championship (because Warnock poached Paddy Kenny, the Blades keeper I knew and loved, even when he was being a twit, for Queens Park Rangers in 2010, and I'm still pissed). But the Blades couldn't manage to get themselves into one of those two coveted automatic promotion spots. In April, I started to have cold sweats. The Blades, in the tenure of my fandom, have not done well in playoffs. Every bit of discussion about the League One's season's end reminded us all of that, too, and the prophesy fulfilled itself. Sheffield United lost to Huddersfield, 7-8 on penalty kicks, with eleven men from each team coming to the mark. That many PKs is ridiculous, especially since it highlights just how ludicrous the idea of defending against a penalty kick is. It's a guessing game. It's statistics--left versus right--far more than it is keeper skill versus shooter skill[5]. But the keepers took the last round of kicks. Huddersfield's keeper was successful against Simonsen. Simonsen, in his bid to tie and save the season for one more chance, fired high, over the cage. For all intents and purposes, by all accounts of the game statistics, Steven Simonsen lost that game because he failed to tie it. As the keeper, it's always on his shoulders, which is another reason I hate penalty kicks, no matter how many chances the rest of his team failed to convert. And Simonsen was, then, let go.

Cross-town rivals Sheffield Wednesday, who had been firmly lower on the local totem pole of success for my time as a Sheffield United fan, had earned themselves one of those automatic promotion spots. So now, I sit and wear my red and white and black and have to look up and see the blue and white--not in last place in the Championship--ahead. I don't like it. I like even less that Huddersfield is currently sitting second in that league, and though the season is still fewer than ten games in, it chafes to see them sitting in the "waltz into the EPL" spots. My bitter inner fan, which I try not to indulge much, though football seems to bring it out in me more than any other sport, wants to know, if they could do that in the next league, why not leave an opponent more vulnerable in the playoff-window?

The answer is that they were plenty vulnerable in that last game of the year. I watched the match, and it wasn't a good one. Sheffield United let Simonsen go after it, but, again, he didn't put them in a position to lose that game. He kept them in it, and the rest of the team didn't do their part. Them's the breaks.

I actually like the relegation system. I think it keeps the stakes high, and the UK football leagues (and many others) have made it work. But I'm not going to pretend that sitting here now, watching the system dismantle my team, which has certainly not helped itself in all of the ways that it could, doesn't suck. When players leave teams that have been relegated, they don't stay, generally, in that team's system. While there are development leagues for very young players, the system of English football doesn't function like the MLB or NHL. Players don't get called up or promoted; they leave. They leave for more playing time or they leave for better pay or they leave for a club with greater chances of success. Of course that happens in every other sport, but as someone who loves minor league sports and the whole interconnected farm-team system, the relegation system is difficult when it comes to following players. The center does not hold; the team, the place where I expect the team to be, is not fixed. That makes all players rivals. That makes every good player who leaves for another club (and good players, I think, should seek out the best competition and the best place for them, on the whole, because it is a competition) another reason that my team does not advance or, worse, slips further down the ladder. I can't be happy about it.

Sometimes there are exceptions, players I have always liked and will always like, wherever they are (maybe even if where they are is Manchester United, but thankfully that bond has not yet been tested). But I'm never hoping for it. When the Grand Junction Rockies were still the Casper Ghosts, I wanted to go to the ballpark and not see my favorite players because they'd been called up to Asheville or Modesto. But that was because the Ghosts were a fixed point. The rookie-ball team will remain the rookie team, and that team will never become an opponent in the greener pastures of Single-A. In a farm system, there can be a continuity of enthusiasm. Moving on, moving up the ladder, is a celebration for all involved: the player has had enough individual success to be noticed, the team and coaches have had enough collective success to provide an environment where the player can develop. Moving up is not moving out, not breaking up, not abandoning your people in the moment of greatest need.

In the relegation system, every team is suspect. There are no allies. And maybe that's why I get so shirty about Manchester United (their football-Yankeedom and Wayne Rooney notwithstanding). They are--along with City and Chelsea and Arsenal and everyone else--opponents in the most ideal of worlds. In the world in which Sheffield United claw their way back into the Championship and then into the Premier League, my team faces this competition. It doesn't really matter that, from League One, these actual versions of rivalry are at least two seasons, two full years, away. To rise all that way in just two seasons would be meteoric; it would require the kind of investments that Sheffield is not going to drum up. (Though if there are any Russian oil barons reading this who'd like a small, gritty, historically interesting Yorkshire football club to fund handsomely, I will bake you cookies to give Sheffield United serious consideration.) To rise that fast, with things as they are now, would be a tremendous fluke. It would not end well. Even when the rise is well-earned and deserved, the process is not kind.

I have experienced one season of the savage sweetness of top flight football for a newly promoted club. That was 2006-2007, and it was ugly. In the most ideal of worlds, where the Blades have made it back, it probably comes with that ass-kicking for a while. After promotion, it takes some time to build the club up to the rest of the competition. After relegation, if a team doesn't climb back in right away, they go as my Blades are going: swiping at air when players who are able to leave do, selling players (and even trimming administration) to keep the club afloat financially. With every departure, the angle steepens, the rungs creak and sag.

Worse, to me, is that whatever the team had been building as a club, in terms of its character, its consistency, its legacy, is necessarily pulled apart. Everything is unrealized potential. Everything is what might have been had we been able to let the reaction come to completion, had we let the album play. Even if it wasn't going to be great[6]. Even if it, in the most ideal of all worlds, led to an ass-kicking of one sort or another.

1. When the EPL was formed in 1992, the naming/structure of the English football system changed a bit, and the Championship/League One/League Two monikers arrived in 2004, and so by the time I really figured out what was going on, these were the names I had to work with.

2. The Carlos Tevez/West Ham Debacle of 2007 is also part of this. West Ham did not force Sheffield United into relegation. Every game that the Blades didn't win, all on their own, all season, made that happen. But it was a lot of insult to injury, and the 2011 Carlos Tevez affair just dredged up all of the indignity and outrage again. Just because it was so much fuss over a player who has not managed himself well. (The Man City issue is also complex, full of hearsay and shades of meaning and unreliable narrators, but this is sports and I'm really not obligated to be all that reasonable when I don't want to be.)

3. My mind is still blown over the Red Sox ditching Terry Francona. Even worse, they replace him with Bobby Valentine. Just. What? And then there's Jim Tracy & the Rockies. I don't have to be reasonable. Logic hasn't always got that much to do with all of this, anyway.

4. There's nothing I love more in sports than "intangibles." Locker room leadership. Character. Hustle. Grit. Saberists, I'm sorry. I'm always a novelist first.

5. In a fit of pique, I Googled "I hate penalty kicks." It turned up 2.5 million hits. Does anyone like them?

6. For the record, I'm not real fond of that Warren G album. While I can still sing "Regulate," I also remember the "94 Ho Draft" just well enough to know that even as an eleven year old, I was pissed off.

16 September 2012

The Bicycle Repair Shop Can Only Fix the Bike (The Bicycle Elegies, Part II)

The story begins on a disappointing note. I got back my bicycle, and it functions now, but I never got the diagnostic I hoped for. It did take an extra five days to get it back at all--without explanation--and so I explain it by imagining all of the repair folks saying, "No, you touch it" to each other for four days straight. When I picked it up, I opted to be dropped off at the repair shop and trusted that it would work enough to get me home, or I would walk the bike two miles back. Neither option is a great hardship.

I walked up to the counter and asked for my bike and the clerk called out that it was the blue one, and a young man wheeled it out, the repair ticket flapping from the handlebars. I paid, and while it was more than I had originally paid for it, there were no charges for replacement parts, nothing additional to the basic tune-up fee. $47.50 and goodbye and I was wheeling the bike away from the stripmall sidewalk when I finally remembered that I never asked about what they'd done. I never asked for the story I hoped for.

I am terrible at this part.

I didn't go back. I should have. It's not a strange question, and I am not bothered, generally, by people thinking me odd because I am very odd in many ways. But I am not good at asking.

In 2004, I went to Sheffield, England. It was one stop on a longer journey, a stop many, many people found odd, but I was doing it to see the town where my favorite soccer team plays (and then I was carrying on to see them play a match elsewhere). It was a Monday, any Monday, and there was no practice because the team had already crossed England to get to Preston, where I would see them the next day. Someone was tending to the pitch grass, and two young women were staffing the gift shop. The gates to the pitch were closed, of course, and I couldn't bring myself to ask anyone to let me see the grass, the seats, or anything at all. I had crossed an ocean (though not just for this, I reasoned), spent hours on a bus from London, after the red-eye (just for this). But still, I couldn't make myself ask. I bought a shirt, a hat, a mug. I took a photo through the red, wrought iron gate. I still regret that.

I regretted this, too, continuing to walk the bike down the sidewalk, though it's not on the same scale at all. And I know more about this--I know the front wheel was out of true because the clerk said so when I dropped it off. I know they fixed the shifting mechanism because the chain now stays connected to the sprockets. I am fairly confident that that is all that changed, save maybe some greasing or tightening. I got the bike back near the end of August, and I rode it to work all of last week, and it feels the same as it did. The character of the bike has not changed. It still has a sluggish heaviness that could belong to either of us, and it has a few interesting clicks, which I am fairly certain belong to the bike. But the story of the object itself isn't what I wanted it to be.

I want the bike to be exciting on its own. I want the bike to mean something. The bike is not exciting. The only thing that it means on its own is department store bike-ness. One colleague did stop to look at it, but I expect he stopped mostly because my shirttail is always stuck on the tacky black rubber of the handlebars as I try to get the whole thing into the building and then into my small office. I think I can squeeze past to open the door, only to be caught or pulled or thumped in the gut because something is caught. None of the doors I use are automatic. Another colleague here has a snappy road bike that he skims along so neatly, only three fingers on the handlebars. I am always wrestling mine.

That's probably the story--the wrestling. I am never so graceless than when the bike is involved, and that is saying something. I am also always afraid on it. Last Wednesday, I had a point where I wasn't ashamed to say so because I had a reason why. Most of the time, I have no actual reason.

My commute to work is not even a mile in each direction, and all of it is on residential streets. I was on one of those, quiet and empty, and, on Wednesday, someone in an SUV hung behind my back tire for a few hundred yards. I was two feet from the curb. The looming metal was three from me, and maybe that's not so close at all for people who are used to riding in highly trafficked areas, but on an empty street at so few miles an hour, it felt very near. I eventually stopped, tires scooted against the curb, and turned. Maybe the person wanted directions to somewhere. But when I looked at him, the driver only pulled away, hands up, protesting innocence of some kind.

On my feet, I do not feel this way. On my feet, I can walk in the dark with someone at my heels and be unbothered. In the sunlit eight a.m. quiet of ten minutes after the school buses leave the neighborhood, I found the nearness frightening. On the bicycle, I am suspicious.

What it means, though, is that all of that is the sum of me. It has nothing to do with the bicycle itself, save that the bike is a bike, just a thing, an uninteresting thing. Knowing that it works in the way it was intended to work now has not made the task any easier, and that makes me feel foolish. I had hoped for--nearly expected--some magical transformation of the object after its tune-up, that there was some adjustment the shop could make to turn it light and graceful and easy. What I wanted was the (quite impossible) experience of being turned myself into something light and graceful and easy when put in tandem with the bike.

I suppose I don't have to tell you that there's no bike shop on the planet that can do that.

It's just going to be hard. If I want to do it, I will just have to keep practicing. I don't have to tell you that I hate that idea. I'm not going to let it go because I'm stubborn, but it has been a long time since I've had to fight with something so hard. (There are, of course, many tasks I have chosen not to fight with because they're hard, too hard in some way, but that's another issue. I am still terrible at asking necessary questions.) Maybe that's one of the privileges (and pitfalls) of adulthood: unless one's career says learn this, do this and one is committed enough (by choice or necessity) to the career to not walk away, there's no one to make one do the hard thing. As a child, life is all about having to do hard things that don't feel or fit right because childhood is a series of tests that must be passed, and many of them are quite literally tests. Someone is always saying, "Just try it," and expecting good things (like climbing the rope in gym class and drawing human faces and memorizing the capitals of all of the countries in South America). Right now, absolutely no one but me cares whether I manage this bicycle thing. In fact, I probably shouldn't care as much as I do. If I'm being very environmentally conscious, I can walk, and the distance is so short that the time added is not so much. I probably walk as fast as I ride, actually, because I don't fear my feet and my feet don't fail and I know how to walk and I am always in a hurry. I know always what to expect of my feet and the sidewalks and where I cross the street.

But the story is in the wrestling. The story is in doing the hard thing (even if it's ridiculous that the thing is hard in the first place--maybe because it's ridiculous that this, of all things, is difficult). I should be reminded of that. It's what I expect from my students every day. I don't care how hard it is to write. I only care that they keep trying.

Christ, it's only fair.

13 September 2012

Where you at?

I'm one of the directors for the Equality State Book Festival, so that's what I've been doing with my time. Back to our (ir)regularly scheduled programming soon.

I haven't forgotten: I have a bicycle to tell you about.

23 August 2012


Tara Mae Mulroy, a former editor for The Pinchblogged the creation of a poem one recent morning, and also invoked the issue of scheduling writing, the problem of finding a suitable block of enough quiet to compose. There's little I love more than the process conversation, and the idea of process, specifically the cultivation of writing habits (and others), has been at the forefront of my mind all summer.

For the first time, I feel like I actually got there, wherein "there" is some basic state of satisfaction with what I'm doing with my brain and my body. I've written about my writing process before, at least in part, and that isn't really the heart of this entry. This is mostly about un-fargling my fargle-bargling tendency to do things that I know don't work for me and that result in deep wells of startlingly boring malaise [1].

This past winter was all about becoming really, really attuned to what doesn't work, moreso than usual. At the end of last summer, I burned out on yet another novel, one I'd been working on (ish) for three years. That brings the count to two 300-page unfinished manuscripts and a completed novel draft that could use a good beating revision that are in a drawer and are staying there for the foreseeable future. (I hope these all count toward the requisite failed novel count that every novelist I know racked up before The One That Worked.) There was the semester, too, and grading and the same sad violin I keep playing for myself. That song remains the same.

One thing from autumn that did work pretty well, though, and that was that I joined a CrossFit gym. Yeah, I know. I barely believe it, either. It was actually a lot of fun, in that way that it was fun to go to practice for high school sports: friendly competition and shared misery. Apparently, I sincerely enjoy those things. The bigger deal is that, for about five months, I was in the best shape I've been in since high school. And despite experiencing Jell-O leg syndrome every other day and learning a vicious hatred of overhead squats that I am still not over, I felt completely jazzed. It was also one thing, at the end of three days a week, I could say I had done. For once, I paid attention to that feeling: that was a good thing.

Then the gym moved and things got wonky and that was that. Cue February and March: Nemeses. There's nothing dramatic to relay, just high-functioning flatlining. The work associated with my job got done, I didn't hoard cats or half-empty pizza boxes, I only resorted to wearing sports jerseys instead of "teaching clothes" once a week or so. Still no writing, and I started sleeping up until the point that I had to leave for work, and there was nothing after that. I taught at eight a.m., but sleeping until almost seven is not something that works for me. That has been true since I was twenty-one. After having been in the habit of working out and then abruptly not being in the habit, the dearth of energy--coupled with the internal litany of failure: silence, sedation--became the paralytic that so many of us know so well. The longer I went without doing any of the things I knew worked well for me (writing, eating/sleeping properly, doing something useful with my body),  the harder, of course, it was to start back up with any of them. The task becomes monumental.

What I did have, though, and this isn't to be underestimated, was the NHL season. It sounds frivolous, I know, but it made some serious differences. On one hand, it was something to look forward to, something to get excited about (which is important in that long dead space where baseball had been). It was another community for me, too, centered mostly on Twitter--not that I interact with it a great deal, but it lead to discovering a lot of great hockey blogs and their authors, the You Can Play Project, and a lot of fantastic information about teams and players. For a collector of trivia like myself, for someone who loves and lives for the internal narratives (real or imagined), the whole social media aspect of sports fandom is a dragon's hoard.

Where there is engagement, there is communication, too. As winter trudged on, I wasn't writing, but I was trying to convey some sense of what I felt, that energy, to people who didn't get it at all. When that didn't work (and apologies to the colleagues and family members who are completely sick of me talking about the Penguins), the words turned inwards. That wasn't new. I'd been monologuing to myself, in all of the wrong ways, since January. But this time, the narrative was different. It wasn't my narrative. It was the story of everything else, at least the hockey-centric version. By the time it all built up around the end of March--the playoff race heating up--it all slipped sideways, into fiction. That's where I live. It was good to be back, though it was, at first, hard to recognize the place.

This project has done a lot of things it wasn't supposed to do. It started in short stories. That's extraordinarily rare for me. This project actually became the glue for the first batch of short stories I can think of as a real collection, one I actually sent out into the world as a collection[2]. Then it became the kind of project I dream about: the kind that won't let me alone. It has changed its trajectory in some unexpected ways, too, and has gone on longer than anticipated (no one is surprised), but it also muscled everything else into place.

At roughly the same time the writing came back--No, stop, I am lying. It didn't go anywhere. It never goes anywhere. I just fail to pick it up, I put my head in the sand, I close the door tighter, all out of sense, all out of reason. I have learned that much: I don't suffer from writer's block. I am never at a loss for things to write. When I don't write, I am choosing not to. To know that I have chosen that--that I have also then elected to feel like hell for weeks and months--is a hard thing to know. But this series of posts is about loss and ending and I acknowledge the time that I lost and now I say I am ending that.


At roughly the same time I chose to write again, my desire to do things again picked up. My beloved garage gym remains a thing that probably won't work for me again (timing, now, most particularly), but I've joined another. I work out by myself, or at least it seems so from the outside. But I have a head full of company, all of these characters living and working and yes, also working out, and everything is connected and the (completely invented) people I am writing about critique my music as I get back to the good place on the pull-up bar. I've found out that I can--if necessary--write notes while running at a fair clip on the treadmill. I've also found out that losing my balance and somehow managing to drag my shin across the spinning treadmill belt results in a really spectacular brushburn. These last two things, of course, are totally unrelated.

In the months of April and May, I baked my own bread. Throughout the summer, I took an active interest in making sure the food I was eating was actually food. I've never been a fast-food aficionado, but I would happily eat breakfast cereal and delivery pizza for the rest of my life. That leads to a lot of two p.m. face-plants for me. Throughout the summer, I never quite made it back to my five a.m. wake-up, but I managed six or six-thirty consistently. I had two thousand words by nine, most days. Many days, I kept going. In the afternoon, gym. I kept that. For most of three months, excepting the Montreal trip and a weekend with friends, I managed to do the things that keep me whole (and the two trips had, of course, other ways of doing that, including reminding me of the real, actual human beings I know and that I like them and enjoy leaving my house sometimes).

It is a really short list of things:

  • wake up early, no matter what
  • write, goddammit
  • eat food with food in it
  • make the body do something
It shouldn't be a hard list to manage. The last two of those points seem to be universally recommended and endorsed. Still, I have my share of anxiety about it--because they're so simple, they're easy to push away. They don't feel important because they are basic, and they certainly don't sound important to many other people. And I have a job. I am blessed with a full-time teaching job, and I am grateful to have it. I love what I do. I also know, though, that my brain is wired to put the needs of the many (my five classes of students) before the needs of the few (me). I have classes every day of the week, office hours every day, too. When the system breaks down, it breaks down here.

What I managed this week--in the three days my college has held classes and last week when the days were full of administrative and committee duties in preparation for the semester--was to keep those four points. Since classes started, I've managed the five o'clock wake-up. I've unraveled big problems with the book. I'm not making the big two- and three-thousand-word leaps anymore, but the progress is steady. The progress has to tread more carefully because now we have to know where we are going. We tread more carefully, this progress and I. 

Three days is, of course, absolutely nothing. These are three days when I have nothing to grade, three days when my students are still in their late-summer bloom, deciding, too, that this semester will be different. 

But these three days have been the reminder of what each day could be like. That seems a foolish thing to lose.

[1] The fargle-bargling comes from Zoo With Roy, my favorite Phillies blog.
[2] Congratulations to Lee Upton, winner of the BOA Editions' 2nd annual short fiction prize!

20 August 2012

Goodbye, plot issue. Goodbye, sense.

Not quite a placeholder, not quite a proper post. Two things:

A) My bike's "tune-up" is still not complete. They've had it since Thursday. I've been inventing versions of what might be taking so long. These are some of my favorites:

  • It died in the bike shop's care. Its jankiness was terminal, and it passed on. They hoped I'd forget about it, but I called today, and now they have until tomorrow to find another bike exactly like mine and hope I won't notice. BIKE SHOP GUYS, I WILL TOTALLY NOTICE. The mostly non-functional right shifter's numbering is worn away in a very specific fashion, right at the point where the shifter, as I discovered, basically becomes a chain-disengaging sponge. Bike-shop-guys will only see a reason to put it in a woodchipper. I see distinguishing scars.
  • It's actually sentient and has been carefully self-destructing in small, mostly innocuous ways so that I would let it go. It has left the bike shop and found a metal-smelting shop. It has lowered itself slowly into a pool of molten metal because it's the only way to destroy itself before it can be used as a weapon against its own fight for good.
  • They took the bike to a ranch where it could hobble about with rusted Huffys and the bikes that had never been put together properly by department store summer temps. But misfit bike had learned to love its new home, and now the misfit bike, and its new friends, are slowly making their way back across the prairie to return home. 
  • Misfit bike hates all of these movies and is insulted by this nonsense and it refuses to come home ever.
Or, more likely, none of the bike shop guys (because they are all guys, and they're all about twenty-four, it seems, with the exception of the owner) can bring himself to touch the thing long enough to fix it. 

B) I said this was a series with elegiac flavor. Instead of just inventing farewells and returns for my misfit bicycle, I also got to say goodbye to a really vexing plot hole in the novel. I wrote about it on my Tumblr, here. (I've been hanging out on Tumblr tonight because Roxane Gay rocks my world.) It was also a reconnection with some things I know about my writing process, and knowing things--what works and what doesn't and how to effectively manage that--is the much longer, possibly less ridiculous post I'm working on.

16 August 2012

What It Isn't Like, Part I

My history with bicycles is not a very storied one. I didn't learn how to ride properly (a term used incredibly loosely) until I was probably ten or eleven, when a trip to Ocean City, NJ, and the inevitable bike rental on the boardwalk, in the company of a friend & her whole family, meant doing it, regardless of whether I could (in the sense of being comfortable or competent--I'd settle for either). There were a few figuring-it-out moments earlier; I think I received my first bicycle--my only bicycle, at least until incredibly recently--for Christmas when I was about seven. Somewhere around age nine, I wrecked it spectacularly. It still had the training wheels on it, brittle white plastic discs, and I say spectacularly because it was a fairly spectacularly dumb way to wreck a bike, at least compared to the grisly and deeply cool stories all my friends had. I simply managed to tip a bike--one that had four wheels on it at the time--off the crumbling berm on my grandmother's narrow, creek-bracketed road. (All of the significant roads in my childhood are like this.) I don't remember the falling part at all. I do remember the aftermath: the training wheel on the right side shattered, which cut up my ankle pretty badly because I was not at all agile or smart enough to at least pitch myself free of the wreckage. Thinking about it now, it feels a little like those Calvin & Hobbes strips.

The genius of Bill Watterson

Except it wasn't an explicitly adversarial relationship. The bike--now without training wheels, which made my parents happy, I think, because now I'd have to learn to ride the bike properly--was kind of a non-entity to me. There wasn't anywhere I could really go on it. I grew up in the utter middle of nowhere, and riding on the road (always narrow, crumbling, creek-bracketed) was verboten by my mother. Probably because of my propensity to just fall over on the bike, as exhibited above. Blessings upon my parents because they did everything they could to help me figure it out, including driving me and the bike to the empty high school parking lot and jogging along behind me. I remember my dad running with one hand fisted in the hood of my winter jacket as I pedaled, ready to lift me out of the inevitable wreckage. I wasn't very big, so the system worked more or less for my safety. In the end, it worked enough. I managed three years of beach trips with my friend's family, and those were the only times I rode a bike each of those years. Angelina and I rode tandem bikes sometimes, too, which helped, or several of us (she has three sisters) trundled along in one of those surreys that are super-fun to be in (especially when one is twelve) and probably dead annoying to everyone else on the boardwalk.

When those trips ended after the sixth grade, the bike ceased to be part of my consciousness. I was--am--a walker. As an adolescent, I preferred the woods for my angsty sojourns. As an adult, I still prefer the woods, whether the sojourns are angsty or otherwise. But now I live in a place where there are locations a few miles away I often go, places like work, the gym, the grocery store. The miles are few enough that driving my car, especially while the weather is still mild, tangs of the ridiculous, but even three miles of walking in one direction adds enough time to the activity that the walk can be prohibitive. I thought of solutions. I encountered resistance:

I have been informed by several parties that I am not permitted to put a horse in my--or my neighbors'--back yard.

The sidewalks of Casper are not skateboard- or rollerblade-friendly.

I have been further informed that a team of sled dogs is not an option, no matter how happy a gaggle of Huskies would make me, no matter how many times I have read The Call of the Wild.

A camel is right out.

So: a bike. The championed conveyance of the fit, the environmentally conscious, the frugal, the badass (wherein I think of my friend Vanessa, the cyclocross ninja, and my former student Rachel, who rode across the United States the summer after graduation). It's been nearly two decades since I've ridden a bicycle, and I'm not sure I'd ever really call what I did on a bicycle "riding," at least not in comparison to pretty much everyone else I know who's ever ridden a bike.

I have to tell you that the cliche, at least as it applies to me and my riding of bicycles, is bullshit. Riding a bicycle has never been like riding bike. Knitting is like that. Ice skating is like that. Time doesn't matter: the body remembers. I think solving quadratic equations would be more like that, actually, more attuned to some kind of muscle memory than the bloody bike-riding, and I probably stopped doing that at the same time I last rode a bike. I like other activities sort of like cycling, in that they transport; horseback riding, though I've done that about as many times as I've ridden a bike, feels natural and easy and comfortable. I can rollerblade and ice skate. I managed enough coordination to play softball and field hockey and soccer and recreational ice hockey. There is no reason that a bicycle should remain so opaque (particularly since I live in a residential neighborhood, full of kids from four to fourteen, who zip about and set up ramps in the street and noodle around with their feet on their handlebars in blissful ignorance of my seething envy). I don't even want to get in touch with my inner X-Gamer in this arena; I just want to be able to get to the grocery store and back without getting in my car and without the ice cream melting.

I bought a bike, of course. I may have made a foolish decision in buying the bike I did, a clearance-rack mountain bike from Target, but it had a small enough frame that it fit me with the seat at the lowest setting. Nothing appeared to be lopsided or wobbly or visibly broken, and that was good enough for the experiment, which had several phases.

Hypothesis A: I can figure out the mechanics of riding because I am a damn adult possessed of an able body and a sound mind.

Null Hypothesis A: I cannot figure this out and the ten year old girl across the street who says I am crabby and who grills me about where I have been and what I am doing every time she sees me will have won. (Or a slightly less dramatic version, really.)

Hypothesis B: I will actually enjoy the act of riding my bike and wish to do it more often.

Null Hypothesis B: Riding the bike will bring me no enjoyment.

Hypothesis C: I will actually manage to make the riding functional, allowing me to get to work without trying to put my car anywhere on the construction-riddled campus and to get to the gym & grocery store, where I will get to enjoy feelings of great triumph for a while, and then at least some general smugness after that.

Null Hypothesis C: Nothing will function. Failure on all counts.

I've had my bike for a little over two weeks. In that time, I have replaced a leaking inner tube and added a seat-post rack. That time has also yielded data:

  • Hypothesis A: confirmed. I haven't fallen off of the thing. I can manage to do effective signaling, too, though it is a bit terrifying to take one hand of the handlebars. But it wasn't easy, wasn't instinctive, and isn't getting easier quickly (though incrementally, yes).
  • Hypothesis B: confirmed. I do enjoy it, particularly in the sense that it's rather freeing. Not-unexpected complication of B: ow. But, as with all things physical, the body adapts. Or gets told to suck it up.
  • Hypothesis C: complicated. Last night, I did a test-run of the route I wanted the bike for most: home to work to the gym. The long, gradual grade of the second mile to the gym and my rubber legs notwithstanding, I managed. I also managed to discover two other things. 
    • Changing gears on this particular bike consistently results in the chain disengaging from the sprocket, which means that pedaling does nothing
    • I can fix the thing enough to get me home without being hit by a car. Pretty proud of that actually, as I know bugger-all about it. Yes, every child on my street can do the same, too, but still. 
I'm going to take the bike to a local bike shop for a tune-up tomorrow (which will cost more than I paid for the bike). We'll see what they say, and I'll cap this upon learning the verdict. 

Hypothesis/Wagers/Jokes in Poor Taste About a Film That Still Makes Several Generations Cry:

What are the odds that there's an Old Yeller moment at the end of this? 

(I said this was a series of elegies. I didn't expect this kind, but I'll write it if I have to. That's what we do here.)

Update: Bike shop says I can expect then to be done with my bike in the vicinity of Monday. So, Part II will come sometime after that. Other bits in this series will come between then and now.

14 August 2012

An Experiment in Elegy

This evening, inspired by two friends who've really gotten into the blogging groove, I sat down to write a post. I'd been thinking about it all day, actually, making notes while at work (beside other notes from a quality workshop on learning communities, which are awesome). I started writing, but, as pretty much most posts around here lately have done, it quickly turned into an utter sprawl.

I've been fighting sprawl. I tore apart my bedroom on Friday, all the way down to the point of altering the way I fit my clothes into drawers. August, the dawn of the academic school year, is really my own personal January. Maybe it's because I can't really stomach the idea of "new year" in the depths of winter. More likely it's that August is the month of Having To. No amount of Preferring Not To will prevent the coming of the new school year, and August means that I have to push back against my own comfortable disorder. Sometimes that means I decide that I have to roll all of my jeans and get rid of a lot of t-shirts, probably because it's a way to avoid the rest of the Having To. And sometimes it's because something needs to feel fresh, needs to feel like it's starting over, and it's a lot easier to start with my socks and hooded sweatshirts than with anything else.

Still, in a week, I'll have four classes and an independent study that need to be well organized for my benefit and for theirs. And every semester, I want it all to be better, faster, stronger. Every August, I want it to be the right start. Every August, it isn't quite right. Most particularly because it's happening, again, in August. I said I'd do it little by little, through June, through July. And I do some of that--I make notes about the big changes, new assignments, what to add or subtract from the semester plan--but I never get to actually making the reading schedule before now, never change all the dates on the syllabus until just yesterday. Nevertheless, those things do get done. I've written the new paper assignments and have come up with activities that mean everyone will have to be responsible about the reading. I've Had To, and so I Did.

All of this, though, is also me trying some diversionary tactics on myself. Because despite all of this fresh start business, August is also always a time of ending to me. It's the end of summer, and it's not just that it's the end of "vacation" (how much summer isn't a vacation now that I'm an academic lifer is another post a lot of other people have already made, so I won't make it again). It's that it's the end, too, of the long light, the warm weather, the peaches and fresh berries and the rumor of good tomatoes. The things I love best. Baseball. (Hockey is coming, I hope, to buffer the pain, but more on that later.) It is the end of the long, quiet days of methodical work.

And so: an experiment in elegy. I'm going to write a series of blog posts, each devoted to its own variation on the theme, which will also help to corral the sprawl.

The elegy is, by its very definition, a lament for what has been lost, and it is a literary form near and dear to me. (I once fancied myself an Anglo-Saxonist. Elegy is ninety percent of our material.) I've thought about this for a bit, though: is that the right choice during a season when I am predisposed to melancholy?

I did what I always do when I am uncertain: I thought about Beowulf. It is 3182 lines of elegy, bidding goodbye to not only its titular character but also to an entire way of life. Again, I questioned the idea: is saying goodbye the way to begin anything?

But of course it is. The elegiac impulse is also to take stock, to order, to recollect. It is to catalogue and to assess. In the poem's end, Beowulf asks Wiglaf to collect some of the treasure from the slain dragon, so he can look at it before he dies. He says (and this is from Seamus Heaney's translation, which is lovely and wonderful and what I recommend if you don't want to get fantastically cozy with Klaeber's edition and an Old English grammar textbook),
"Away you go: I want to examine
that ancient gold, gaze my fill
on those garnered jewels; my going will be easier
for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go
of the life and lordship I have long maintained." (ln. 2747-2751)
Yes, it sounds heavy. But this is also Beowulf looking back on his legacy, and, a few lines later, he gives his thanks that he's able to see what he has done. (Those pagan warriors: all about seeing the payoff. Not so much about planning for the future.) And he is, as the sword-breaking badass he is and has been, completely satisfied; he's an old man with a dead dragon and a centuries-large hoard of treasure, all to his credit. (Herein lies the breaking point for the poem: the greatest warrior cannot be the greatest ruler--their priorities will never be the same, but this isn't about that so back to blogging experiment.) And he institutes a new beginning: he passes his kingdom to Wiglaf, and though the poem tells us--in content and by its form--that the Geats are making a solid break from a way of life they have known, are bidding goodbye to their last hero, it's not without some hope. Wiglaf learned how to do the right thing, and it's in his hands the Geats are left.

I think--I hope--that if I can take some stock, to order this tiny universe, the transition won't feel the way it always does (chaotic, occasionally doom-laden, depending on the weather). And even if it has, I'll still have some writing to show for it.

I promise it won't all be terribly serious. I have a story to tell you about a thirty-year-old learning to ride a bicycle. It's part of all of this beginning and ending.

25 July 2012


This is probably a case of too much social media/too many platforms, but I wrote this over on Tumblr and I liked it enough to at least put up a pointer here:

In other Phillies news, happy Cole Hamels day!

20 July 2012

Jaywalking in Montréal: A Meditation on Home and Belonging

I'm a big fan of making overly dramatic statements about fairly inconsequential happenings. Last weekend, I was in Montréal in the first part of a week-long vacation that included that city, Utica/Cooperstown & Buffalo, New York, and two days of Phillies baseball in Denver before heading back to Casper. In the course of walking toward the Métro station near our little hotel, I said something to my husband that went something like "Death before looking like a tourist." I had just jaywalked through an empty, but orange-hand-marked crosswalk, though at least twenty seconds after all of the native Montréal folks had gone through it. My husband is not a jaywalker.

People in Montréal do not wait for walk signs. I didn't see anyone defy death and step out into traffic or anything like that--the issue was just that if there was no reason to wait for the signal, if the streets were empty, why, in fact, should anyone wait? (This makes perfect sense to me.) At busier intersections, it almost seemed as if there was a silent competition to see who could cross first. No one dashed out--people in Montréal seem to only run when they mean to, particularly on the paths of Mont Royal, in terribly attractive running shorts and coordinated shoes and with appropriate and attractive accessories. (The citizens of Montréal are collectively at least sixty percent more gorgeous than people in other places, excepting maybe Brazil. I had heard Montréal was full of beautiful people. I admit I hadn't believed it, but I should never have doubted.) But all of this is to say that people jaywalk there. Not stupidly, at least in my estimation, but with a decided lack of patience for the technicalities of timed lights in the face of stopped or absent traffic. 

I was doing likewise at the first intersection we came to after disembarking the bus from the airport at Berri-UQAM. I am not, on the whole, an impatient person, at least when it comes to things like that. I queue like a champion. If the necessity is to wait, I can wait, quite happily. But leaving that bus station, because it is the drop-off point from the airport and thus many tourists, I saw a lot of people with maps tiptoeing up to intersections. 

Let's not pretend: I had a map. It was definitely in my hand. I was dragging a suitcase. But I couldn't bring myself to tiptoe up to the intersection like I didn't know where I was going. Nevermind, of course, that I didn't know where I was going, not with terrible certainty. I'm just lucky with directions in the sense that luck favors the prepared (excepting that one time on the Tube when I was distraught over not getting to see the Beowulf manuscript and got myself and a friend going in the wholly wrong direction for a bit, but I blame acute emotional distress). The heart of it: it's not like anyone was fooled by my attempt at feigning nativeness. It's not like Montréal, at three in the afternoon on a Saturday, is one of those places where appearing to be a tourist is dangerous or ill-advised. 

And so I have to ask myself: what is so terrible about being the person on a journey? Why am I apparently so invested in not being that person, at least from the outside? Because I really am invested in it, it seems.

I've noticed it on the last several trips I've been on, this impulse to pretend I belong, to feign being a native. It didn't work on the trip to Sweden for many reasons (being short, dark-haired, and possessed of a striking lack of Swedish language skills being among them), but we did succeed in being taken for German tourists rather than American tourists (quite unintentionally and without speaking a word of German). It worked quite well in the UK, and I think it worked out all right in Vancouver. 

Since coming back from Montréal, I've tried to figure out why that is. It's not necessarily that it makes things easier. I actually got myself into several moments of intense awkwardness by replying to hellos in French (which is just about as far as my French can get me), and then having to backtrack and repeat the ensuing conversation in English. One of those happened over a pint of strawberries at the Marché Jean-Talon, and my apologies for being a doofus and my gratitude to the young woman who spoke with me for being kind. I want to participate even when I actually can't do it. I can't fake knowing a language. I know that. It was silly of me to do. Terribly silly. But it's become a reflex, a desire to respond in-kind.

Last summer, I spent two weeks in the UK and Ireland, and it included my third trip to Edinburgh, the only city that is currently vying for my affections the way Montréal did. There, of course, when I open my mouth, everyone knows I'm not From There. But it's not often that people can pinpoint where I am from because I'm a sponge and an Anglophile and I use strange syntax that's peppered with pieces of language from the things I've read and the places I've visited and the places I wish I lived. People often ask me where I'm from. 

I don't know how to answer the question. I feel obligated, always, to say that I am from Pennsylvania. I always specify that I'm from the middle of it, too. (The middle, of course, is quite different from the sides, culturally, linguistically, and so on.) But I haven't lived there since 2003, and I've been in Wyoming three years and have a career and a life here, and so I have to say Wyoming, too. But it's not possible to say that I'm from Wyoming--that's untrue. Even in the sense that people say they're from wherever they're living all the time--it's too untrue for this place. Being truly from Wyoming is a fairly rare thing; it's too disingenuous to own that to let even a perfect stranger leave with the wrong impression. (Maybe this is part of the root: if overtly identified as "not from here," I stand a likely chance of being asked, then, where I am from. The answer I am compelled to give is complicated and probably longer than the asker really wants to know. If I blend in, I save us all the trouble.)

On occasion, people will ask, instead, "Where's home?" Technically, that should be easier, shouldn't it?

But the word "home" is one I will use interchangeably. Central PA is "home" in that it is where I grew up, where the bulk of my family is. That home is the place that shaped so much of who I am. I "go home" at Christmas, and it takes three flights to do it. Home, though, is also any place to which I am returning. In the space of a weekend, I can refer to a hotel as "home." After Christmas visiting is complete, I also go home, to Casper, to this house. I've often wondered if this bothers my parents, to hear me call so many different places home, if it feels like a slight. (I used to call going back to college in my BA days "going home," too, even though I was also going home when my dad picked me up outside of Skeath Hall.) Home is wherever I happen to be. And there are a thousand clichés about that, and a Billy Joel song that connects home to another person, and so on. But there is a sense that home is the place that one misses most, maybe, the place one would rather be. It's the last part that I am missing, it seems.

I have never been homesick, not that I can remember. There was one morning--I think I was in the fifth grade--when I really desperately did not want to go to school. There wasn't any reason for it--I loved school until high school, and even then, it wasn't bad. I simply did not want to leave home (and I am often like that now). But when I am gone, once I leave for parts distant and/or unknown, I don't miss it. I would not rather be at home than in Montréal, or in Denver, or in Thermopolis, or in York, England.  

The altar of the Notre-Dame Basilica of  Montréal.
Everything is so lovely and blue.
That's a terrible thing to say. At least it feels like a terrible thing to say. There are people I love and adore in all of the places I call and have called home. But I don't generally ever want to be back. I often wish X person were where I am, but until the moment I get on the plane or in the car, the idea of a fixed home, of the place of belonging, evaporates*. Why should I be so happy to be gone from so much that I love?  It's a question I haven't found an answer to. Maybe it's because I love places easily. Especially places with public transportation and cassis beer and maple cotton candy and the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal**. But also places with no transportation and only the peanut butter sandwiches one has to carry in oneself.

But I have to see all of this as related: perhaps part of feeling at ease and at home almost anywhere, part of not missing home, is the sense that there is no home for me, no one true place. (I like to think Edinburgh could be it for me, and maybe someday, but I'm not there now.) I tried on the habits of those who call Montréal home, at least in crossing the streets, and it was grand. Even fooling no one at all--except maybe myself, for a little while--I was in one place where home was.

On the plaza of Kondiaronk Belvedere at the top of Mont Royal. 

*Once the trip back starts, though, I generally want to skip it. Usually because the route involves O'Hare or I-25 between Douglas and Casper***, which makes fifty miles feel like forever because it's always after at least four hours of driving. Sometimes it involves both.

**I should really do a post on the food of Montréal. I would use so many superlatives.

***The ninety miles between Casper and Shoshoni, though, is the longest distance I have ever driven. Nebraska is shorter than those particular ninety miles. Be careful in Wyoming. Time and space behave differently here.

27 June 2012

"Out of Habit": Necessity, Procrastination, and I Am Still Trying to Figure Out What Order Everything Goes In

I like to think I'm not really a procrastinator. I generally use the definition academically, I suppose, and in that field, the statement is and has been true. I don't think I've ever finished a paper on the day it was due, I've never pulled or had to pull an all-nighter to get an assignment done, and I know that I've never turned in anything for a grade that was a first draft. That's probably good because I teach writing, have always wanted to teach writing, and I'd have to look at myself very sternly if I did. 

Hang on. Let me push up my glasses. They've slipped a bit down my sanctimonious nose.

But something this morning (and a lot of days for a lot of years, if I'm honest) caught me out. I've had this small task to do (literally updating the formula on two places in an Excel spreadsheet and then making sure it copied correctly down twenty columns) for more than a week. I have a meeting later today that requires said spreadsheet to be updated. I've been avoiding it--complete with that sour feeling of knowing I'm avoiding it and knowing that's stupid--for each of those days. So last night, in champion procrastinatory fashion, when I could have done it and didn't, I said that I would do it this morning. 

Problem is, in the morning, I write. And this morning is all wonky because I usually get up very near to five a.m. and try to be actually writing before six, but I slept until a little after seven because I was up much too late. I blame baseball and the fascinating process of watching Bill take his stitches out. So everything's a little broken, as daily habits go, and now there was this Task I didn't want to do hanging over it. 

My whole adult life, I've been fighting with, around, about (and other prepositions) putting my writing first. Thinking the art is worth it--my own, of course, because it's easy to believe that everyone else's is worth it, but not so easy when it's mine--has been a struggle. It's something I keep talking about, keep fighting with: grade the papers, then write, because you have 90 students and that is cumulatively more important. Or the opposite: you will write right now before you are allowed to do anything else, you ridiculous writerly slackass.

Either way, not a really healthy relationship with the idea. And maybe it's because I listened to a lot of Ani DiFranco when I was in my most formative years (and still--I love her), but I've always been coveting that fragment from "Out of Habit": "Art is why I get up in the morning." And it's in a song that's about the idea of habit, and I'm not going to get all analytical about the lyrics, but those things are connected. Art. Habit. Every day. 

I have habits: wake up, cup of tea. It is automatic. It is easy. It is something I wouldn't think of not-doing. I am fairly cross when I don't do it, even though I can function just fine without it. I wake up and am alert and capable (as opposed to my functioning during afternoons, which are awful and fit only for the gym and for naps). I don't need it in any kind of physiological way (unlike the way I need to eat something in the morning to avoid murdering anyone by ten). But aside from the deliciousness and the pleasure of the ritual and the sheer stupid happiness I get from my mug collection, it isn't necessary. Still, I will go out of my way to be certain that I can make that cup of tea happen: I will wash out the teapot the night before. I will be certain that I have Good Tea in the tin. I will even wash all the mugs so I have all possible choices awaiting me in the morning. It's not necessary, but I'm surely doing everything I can to make the tea happen. 

Is my writing necessary?

I'll be honest: nope. I know that because I so often don't do it. Aside from the nagging guilt, which I feel about most everything, I suffer no really ill effects. 

But by God, this summer, I'm doing everything I can to make it happen, even updating that spreadsheet within four minutes of sitting down at my computer (even though there were five hours between me and the meeting), because I said there must be no writing until that (ridiculously easy, quick) task was finished. I just had to put that task in front of something I wanted more. 

In this case, it turned out to be easy to keep it there (probably knowing it would be easy if I just did the damn thing). That is the eventual solution to procrastination: the task has to be entrenched between oneself and something one wants. For most of us, the want is something like a passing grade or a desire to keep a job. The consequence of not-doing it becomes a large enough stick to beat one into action (or a large enough carrot to tempt us into completion for the reward). 

I'm not sure how to use that to overcome the initial issue that got me started on this post, though, that nigh-interminable avoidance of the task. The constant circling of the thing to be done: I know it's there, I know it will not go away, and I know no one else will (or can) do it. Things like phone calls for appointments, returning those e-mails that didn't require an answer the second I opened it but should be addressed--even things I actually like doing, like replying to blog comments. Why the evasive maneuvers? Why the sidelong glance?

But now that I have a big enough carrot, so to speak, something I want to be doing all the time, which is the writing, and that's still gloriously weird to say, maybe the trick is to put everything between me and it. Maybe that will backfire. Maybe it won't. But writing this means that I'm actually going to call the tailor right now, and maybe I'll have to listen to her laugh at my hope that I can get a dress altered in a week, but I will have actually made the call I've been avoiding since May.