Friday, October 26, 2007

All the Rage

My essay on anger, "All the Rage," is back as the cover story in the current Utne Reader. It won a "Best Article of the Year" prize from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education after it appeared in Notre Dame magazine earlier this year. Read it here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On the Train with Walter Kirn and GBV

Spent my 90-minute train ride into the city yesterday reading Walter Kirn’s sharp Atlantic essay, “The Autumn of the Multitaskers.” Multitasking, Kirn writes, stresses us out, dumbs us down, and, extrapolating from his personal experience, makes us drive off the highway and through barbed-wire fencing at high speeds somewhere in Wyoming.

So I sat there on the train nodding in agreement with Kirn’s arguments (“multitasking eats up time in the name of saving time”) and silently urging him on (“The First Law of Multitasking dictates, any two or eight or 16 processes that can overlap must overlap”) and pulling for Kirn to tell ‘em off good, and yet, the entire time I was reading and agreeing and urging on, I was also listening to Guided By Voices via iPod and earpiece.

And the problem with this kind of behavior—and there’s really no way to say this without sounding like a cranky Luddite coot—is that it ill-serves Walter Kirn and Guided By Voices and me, because an essay as fine as Kirn’s and a song as good as “Everywhere with Helicopter” both deserve to be appreciated on their own terms and not merely as strategies to distract me or insulate me from the noise of the guy in the next seat over braying into his cell phone.

I’m old enough to remember making that same train ride without cell phone or iPod and not really minding it. But it can’t be done today, or at least I can’t recommend it. There are too many other people multitasking, making their own noise, and you need some kind of barrier against all the bustle. So you plug in, dial up, pray for a signal and get through the ride. And the more media you can manage, the better your protection and the better we all get along. I guess that’s called mutually assured multitasking.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Standing Still

A.J.’s flag football team, the Browns, is heading into the playoffs with a three-game winning streak. There are times now when they look like an actual football team, which is an achievement for a bunch of six-year-olds. Still, I remain mostly convinced that football and first-graders really don’t mix. The biggest problem is just getting them to stand still. You know, in football, you’re supposed to get into your formation at the line of scrimmage, get set and stay set until the ball is snapped. That doesn’t happen a lot in our league. At yesterday’s practice, for example, M. kept trying to stand on his head while he was supposed to be lining up at right tackle. We tried to explain to him that this was against the rules of football, and when he kept at it, we even tried to threaten him with pushups. But that stuff doesn’t work. To most six-year-olds, push-ups seem like a lot more fun than having your coaches tell you to line up and stand still. There have been times this year when M. standing on his head, or C. whipping his mouth-guard at everyone in sight, or D. picking handfuls of grass and dumping them on N.’s head would have gotten to me. I know I’ve come home from some practices feeling like I was about to develop a nervous twitch like Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther movies. But maybe I’m getting better at this coaching thing. I’ve learned a lot in the two and a half months I’ve spent helping to coach this team, and the most lasting lesson has to be this: If your right tackle wants to stand on his head at the line of scrimmage, and your right tackle is six years old, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

Go Browns.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Marred by Politeness

My work takes me inside a lot of college classrooms, where I’m supposed to observe and gain insight into the lively Socratic give-and-take of American higher ed. Problem is, that hardly ever happens. In most of the classes I’ve observed, the rule seems to be that kids keep their heads down and their mouths shut. They’re pretty unshakable about their reticence, too. It makes me a little uncomfortable, sometimes, to be sitting in the back row of a classroom while some earnest but not very inspired prof is trying to draw his students into a discussion, only to be met with dead silence. It’s like one of those socially awkward moments, embarrassing for everyone, that you can only ride out and hope will end soon. Except some of these classes last for an hour and a half. That’s a lot of awkward.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, who writes about rural life and other soft stuff on the New York Times editorial page (I was going to call him the house hayseed, but that’s too snotty) had a piece in yesterday’s paper about the hyper-polite students at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

He writes:

I sat in on four classes, which were marred only by politeness — the deep-keeled Minnesotan politeness that states, as a life proposition, that you should not put yourself forward, not even to the raising of a hand in class.

Things always warmed up, but those first lingering notes of hesitation were something to behold. I tried to think of it as modesty, consideration for others and reluctance in the presence of a guest — from New York nonetheless. And yet I kept wondering just how such bright, personable students had become acculturated to their own silence.

He notices this habit of “self-negating silence” even slipping into his students’ writing, particularly the work of female students. “I can hear them,” he writes, “questioning the very nature of their perceptions, doubting the evidence of their senses, distrusting the clarity of their thoughts.”

I’m not sure why Klinkenborg makes a distinction between his male and female students on this point, because, as he points out, the problem of claiming authority to observe and comment is a basic one for just about any writer. “It’s a delicate thing,” he writes, “coming to the moment when you realize that your perceptions do count.”

In some ways, professional writers have it easy, because if nothing else they can claim the authority conferred by the people who hire them, who accept their pitches, who pay them. If someone at The New York Times Book Review thinks my essay is good enough to buy, then who am I to argue? (Of course, I had to give myself permission to pitch the thing in the first place, but that’s a whole other story.) I’ve written about the most personal stuff in my essays, and it’s not always easy for me to set that stuff out for anyone to read. But what’s a little paradoxical is that the magazines that publish my highly personal work and spread it to newsstands and barbershops and library reading rooms for strangers to read, also provide me with a kind of institutional cover. A reader can think what he wants about me and my work, but he can’t change the fact that I was paid well for my writing and given the imprimatur of the Times or CondeNast or whoever.

Where it gets really hard for me to assert my authority to observe and comment is in less professional settings, like this blog. I suppose that’s another paradox. Because isn’t the Internet supposed to be empowering, isn’t it supposed to make citizen journalists or belle-letrists of us all? But I’ve had a hard time feeling at ease writing this blog, and part of the reason is that I have no template for how it’s supposed to read, and I have to operate without the cover of some publishing institution. So, even though this blog is read only by my friends and the people who love me and a few web-searching insomniacs mistakenly sent here by Google, and even though it’s just a speck in the great big ever-expanding blog universe, I end up feeling just as exposed writing here as I do writing for the largest-circulation newspapers and magazines.

In a way, that’s a problem of claiming authority, the same one Klinkenborg’s students face. Some of us are still “coming to the moment when you realize that your perceptions do count.”

Monday, October 8, 2007

Patrick Starfish Springs a Leak

A.J.’s mom was out with a friend all day yesterday, kayaking of all things. And so I had the job of hanging around the house while A.J. and his friends tore around, and occasionally through, the place. There was only one slightly bad accident, when A.J. and his friend C. bumped heads while playing jump-off-the-stairs and ice packs had to be produced for both of them. They kept the ice packs on their heads for about five seconds each before they started having what I guess you would have to call ice-pack fights with them.

Later, while I was downstairs reading the paper, C. snuck into our bedroom (which is supposed to be a kid-free zone) and dragged in a four-foot-tall water-filled plastic figure of Patrick Starfish (co-star of “SpongeBob SquarePants"), which C. proceeded to punch repeatedly until the thing sprang a leak and pretty well soaked our bedroom floor.

It was at this point that I ordered the boys out of the house, to see what kind of damage they could do to the side yard.

I got the water cleaned up as well as I could (I went through three beach towels), turned on some music (Lorraine Hunt Lieberson doing Handl arias) and poured myself a bourbon (I’d made myself wait until five o’clock). I watched A.J. and C. play one-on-one touch football in the angling autumn sunlight and even their constant arguments (“I got you!” “Nuh-uh!” “Uh-huh!”) didn’t really bother me. I don’t know if I should credit Handl or the bourbon or the autumn light.

Later, after C. had gone home for dinner, A.J. talked me into a few last football plays outside before bedtime. He likes it when I kick off to him and he tries to return the kick for a touchdown and I try to tackle him. This time, I caught him at midfield and picked him up and spun him around a few times before I put him down. He squealed through the whole thing.

“There’s no squealing in football!” I told him, trying to sound like a hard-ass football coach. “We’re not playing My Pink Pony here!”

He laughed. “You’re the weirdest and funnest dad in the world,” he said.

Then it was time to go in and get ready for bed. But that’s one tackle I’m going to remember.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Escape from the Hinterlands

The whole family made an escape from the hinterlands last weekend, spending a couple days downtown celebrating our seventh wedding anniversary. Our headquarters was the W hotel on Lake Shore Drive, and it turned out to be one of those hotels that tries awfully hard to let you know how stylish it is. There was, for starters, the techno music thumping in the elevators and the scent of aromatherapy wafting through the lobby and the many cutesy design touches. The first thing A.J., our six-year-old boy, found upon entering the room was a set of small wooden blocks on the dresser top, with words printed on each side of each cube that you can arrange and re-arrange to make your own little sentences, as with those refrigerator magnet poetry sets. One of the blocks had the word “sex” printed on it.

“Daddy, what’s sex?” A.J. asked me.

Well, I didn’t lie, exactly. I told him that his sex was male, that sex was the set of characteristics that made each of us either a boy or a girl. He seemed to go for it. His next question had to do with whether the hotel got SpongeBob on the TV.

Later we all walked over to the little beach at the foot of Ohio Street, which was deserted enough for the two of us to run foot races up and down the sand while A.J.’s mom watched and took pictures. It wasn’t the most exciting thing we did that weekend—A.J. was probably more excited about the children’s museum or the aquarium or the hot dog we ordered him from room service. And the grownups liked the dinner at the Gage and the handholding in Grant Park, all made possible by the babysitting services of our friend H. We spent a lot of time talking about our wedding and the band and the dancing and how, seven years later, it still has to rank as one of the best days ever.

But back to the beach.

The thing about the beach was that it had been a hangout of mine about twenty years ago when I was working not far from there. I was in my first job out of college and I still fancied myself too artistic and soulful for office work and so I used to spend my lunch hours in long, solitary walks through the park and along the beach, carrying books of poetry that I sometimes even read. In those days, Navy Pier was still pretty much a deserted shell, but you could walk the length of it and when you reached the end of it, look back at the city looming and feel appropriately moody and misunderstood. Now Navy Pier is something like a cross between a carnival and a shopping mall. On our way to the children’s museum, we had to wade through all the gift shops filled with kids demanding trinkets from their stroller-pushing parents. Out in the plaza, there was a man dressed in a tiger-striped body suit doing some kind of pantomime/modern dance hybrid for an audience of tired-looking families.

It’s been six years since we left Chicago for the hinterlands and sometimes it seems like the city itself has moved to the suburbs and started a family. It wears the same kind of distracted expression that you sometimes see on fathers trying to get through another Sunday with the kids.

On Sunday morning, I went for a run through the rose gardens and past the museums and along the lake and I survived all the bicyclists trying to run me down and I met up with my beautiful wife and beautiful kid for breakfast. We ate outside, something I hardly ever like to do, but the morning was so lovely that even I had to enjoy it. Even the too-stylish hotel seemed not so bad.

But what I will remember from the weekend are the races on the beach with A.J. It’s a good thing he is around to show me, finally, how to really have fun on the beach.