Wednesday, August 6, 2014

10 Things About Football and Me

1.  I grew up in a family of 49ers fans.  I've never cared about football on television.

2.  When I was ten I liked the looks of flag football.  My brother played on a city team and I loved the flags flapping and the heroic running across the grass.  I asked my parents if I could be on a team too.  On the first day of practice I kicked the coach’s hand instead of the ball by mistake. He cursed at me and that was the first and last day of my football career.

3. When I was ten I liked the looks of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders that I saw on a poster. I thought they were the epitome of womanhood and if that was what puberty had in store for me, I was really looking forward to it.

4.  That wasn’t what puberty had in store for me.

5.  I attended Carondelet High School, the across-the-street sister school of football powerhouse De La Salle High School. I went to a few football games because my friends were going but I watched exactly zero seconds of any play.

6.  After teaching at all-girls high schools for eight years I started watching Friday Night Lights on television. Perhaps I chose to take a job at Sac Charter High mostly because of the show Friday Night Lights. Perhaps.

7.  One of the deans and assistant football coaches at my school was a former college and NFL player. He told me that playing for the NFL was a dream come true. He had a rough childhood in the same hometown as me, and sometimes brought groups of kids to see where he grew up to show them what was possible through hard work and commitment.  

8. I have known students who play football with the power and grace of Achilles on the fields of war. They are the reason I wrote How to Be Manly.

9.  I have known coaches who drive students to school who otherwise don't have rides. Who  show up at a classroom within five minutes of a call that a student athlete is having a bad day and turn that student’s outlook around with a single conversation. Who  bring food for students who don't have enough at home. Who sit for hours counseling a student who is having a hard time. You think Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights is great? Well he is, but real life asks so much more and the coaches I’ve known are heroes. They are the reason I wrote How to Be Manly.

10. When the school where I used to teach went against the school where I currently teach in a playoff game, I escaped by driving out to the middle of Death Valley and camping there for four days. It was a confusing time. 
When this happened, I went to the desert.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Manly Music

All of my novels have playlists that I listen to while I write them. The characters choose the songs so if you don't like them do not blame me.

Here is the playlist for my YA novel How to Be Manly which will be released by Giant Squid Books next month.

Lose Yourself by Eminem  

Matty plays this on his way to summer morning football practice. It keeps him from going back to bed.

Dear Mama by Tupac Shakur

Matty and Grandma. Ride or die.

Gunpowder by Wyclef Jean 

Don't you know that we can't stop the violence. The song makes me cry every damn time.

Dem Boyz by Wiz Khalifa.

Matty tries this persona for about twenty-four hours.  It's about all he can take.

Revolution by Kirk Franklin

Grandma likes this song.  This is the only singer they can agree on in the car.

Can You Stand the Rain by New Edition

A little old school for when Matty is feeling sorry for himself over Cassie.

Who's That Lady by The Isley Brothers

Woah. Jessica is a girl.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What I Was Thinking About When I Wrote The Spider Man

I had a sort of boyfriend in high school that people called the spider man. It wasn’t a compliment. They called him this because he had a habit of climbing up the exterior walls of the school and hanging out on the roof. The other kids thought he was weird, not heroic.

Let’s call this young man Jenner, since that is what I called the character I based on him in my young adult horror novel entitled The Spider Man. Jenner enrolled in our Catholic school as a sophomore the year I was a senior though he was older than me by a few days.  He had a history of juvenile detentions and of boys’ camps designed for rehabilitation. He had a history of drug addiction, homelessness and violence that was written on his arms, hands and chest in a web of scars. Some scars were round and puckered, others shallow and white. One scar along the underside of his forearm was a deep, long ditch of ruined flesh. I wondered how he had survived the wound.

Jenner didn't like to talk about his past. He sent me love notes on candy grams that student council sent to the homerooms as fundraisers.  He gave me gold jewelry and stuffed animals and burgundy red roses on long stems. He took me to Homecoming. We were sixteen.

We didn't see each other much outside of school. We went on a few dates where we doubled with friends of his that were in their twenties. Once during his dad's cocktail party, we snuck away from our parents to visit the next door neighbors. The next door neighbors’ house had once belonged to my parents’ good friends. I had spent a lot of time there as a child. That night as I sat in the living room while the new owners got my boyfriend stoned I realized that life was stranger than I had ever imagined.

Guys never liked me. Jenner was the first to take notice. His attention was heady, interesting, sexy. He was rock star handsome.  He was tall, skinny, with nearly white longish blonde hair and eyes that were aventurine green. He had high cheekbones and a way of half smiling to hide his crooked teeth. 

There were a lot of drugs and alcohol in my school’s culture but my friends and I never partook. We saw ourselves as morally superior. My friends didn’t really get Jenner.  He smelled like marijuana and incense and Chanel for Men.  He talked like someone out of Grimm’s. He said “my lady” to me a lot.

On Halloween he wore surfer shorts, a t-shirt and a bathrobe. He carried a hockey stick and said he was the Grim Reaper. He was embarrassed when people laughed at him. He swore that the devil had appeared at his thirteenth birthday party and had been after him ever since. He scaled the walls in order to escape the devil’s hands sticking out of the ground ready to grab him and pull him into Hell. He saw these hands every day. He was frightened all the time.

I thought, finally someone who can match my imagination. Finally someone who understands about the world beyond the world. I had no idea what he was really dealing with.

Now as a high school teacher who has worked with hundreds of young people, I know that Jenner was traumatized, addicted to drugs and probably in the early stages of schizophrenia. I think of him in my teaching practice when I try very hard to be present to my students with mental and emotional health needs. I wish a kind and savvy adult had been there for my friend when we were kids. He had a reputation as a loser. With me he was a respectful and attentive friend. During the school day he was my prince. At night he went out with much older people. He did and dealt drugs. He got another girl pregnant.

We broke up, whatever that meant to a boy and girl who saw each other almost entirely at school.  After that he got kicked out for a million reasons. His last day was when he screamed at the dean and lay down in the middle of the busy street beyond the parking lot, begging someone to run him over. 

Once his dad said to my parents: “I don’t know what your daughter sees in my son.”

Jenner walked onto campus on the last day of school. I ran to him to say hello. He signed my yearbook.  He told me that he had a poem I had written for him taped to the dashboard of his car. He said he was sorry for what he’d done. He said he would always think of me and feel glad that someone believed in him.

I saw him again two years later at the Walnut Festival. He was talking to a girl as equally strung out as he was. His body was skeleton bony, his face twisted in a reptilian leer.  He didn’t see me.

The summer after I graduated college my dad called with the news that Jenner had leapt to his death from a cliff in New Mexico. I was not surprised.  I knew why he was always climbing. 

Six years ago I did an internet search for Jenner’s name. I didn’t know what I expected to find. Not many other people from high school knew him. He had connected with so few of us and he had been there for such a short time. Sometimes I wondered if he truly existed. Even his one yearbook photo looks faded, his pale face washed out in the frame.

A Google image appeared of Jenner’s tombstone in New Mexico, adorned with fresh burgundy roses. He is buried in a Catholic cemetery in the Four Corners region of New Mexico. Someone there cared enough to give him red roses and to archive his stone.

The Spider Man is about a girl who falls for a boy who flees the devil’s hands by scaling walls, who smells of smoke and fine perfume, who has been long dead by the time she meets him. He makes everything exciting. He introduces her to classic rock music. He loves her wholly in a way that in the end feels unholy. As addicted as she is to his love the girl knows that if she really loves him she’ll find a way to help him find peace.

The real boy I knew was brave as long as he could be in the face of demons that were real enough to drive him to seek higher ground. For a brief time before succumbing to illness altogether, he had tried to live another reality. He’d tried to be a Catholic schoolboy with a sweetheart who accepted his gifts of roses. When I look back on it now it breaks my heart.

I wish I could have helped my friend find peace. But instead I wrote him a poem. Instead I archive his courage and his wildness in a story. It’s the best I can do as a writer. 

I wish it could have been enough to save him when we were kids.

Red roses for my friend.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

5 Ways the 70's and 80's Weren't Awesome

In the seventies our next-door neighbor’s dog bit off the face of the kid that lived up the street. The boy’s blood starred the sidewalk in a constellation that stained the white concrete for years.

As the boy went into surgery the neighbors whispered that he shouldn’t have been teasing the dog with foxtails on such a hot day. What did he think would happen? 

I never saw that kid again but the dog continued to roam loose, shitting on everyone’s lawns and scaring the children. I can’t imagine it now that I’m a parent.

Lots online lately about how great it was to be a kid in the seventies and eighties.  We helicopter parent our children now. Society was better with fewer rules. We are robbing our kids of authentic childhood. Our kids should have a seventies summer.

I was a kid in 70’s and 80’s middle class suburbia, with loving parents and amid average neighbors. But rip away the hazy film of nostalgia, the 70’s and 80’s weren’t always so great. Those years weren’t all wind in your hair and Wonderbread.
For example, as children in the 70’s and 80’s. . . . .

  1. We did not wear seat belts.  It was a blast sliding along vinyl seats on windy roads.  Long trips flew by in way backs and the beds of pick up trucks. But when I was nine, someone broadsided our Dodge Dart and sent us spinning. I rammed my aunt’s cheekbones with my head, breaking her face and suffering a concussion. I’ve been in one totaling car wreck with air bags and seat belts, and one without. I walked away from the seat belt wreck in a straight line. The seat belt law is a good law.
  1. We watched awful television. I tried watching Wonder Woman with my ten-year-old daughter. She was horrified by the relentless sexual harassment of Diana Prince. Diana gets her revenge later as Wonder Woman, but as a regular woman she deflects men’s gross advances with coy remarks that allow them to save face. So many of the TV shows we remember as harmless and funny are full of the message that relentless innuendo and harassment are harmless and funny.  Maybe that was why . . .
  1. We had a high tolerance for skeevy adults. If you were a girl in the 70’s and 80’s, sexual harassment was part of the landscape. In one office where I had a summer job, one of the adult managers came in when I was alone, tracing his pen up and down my arm and sitting too close to me. He wasn’t worried about a harassment lawsuit and it would never have occurred to me to press one.
    My daughter would flip out if a friend’s dad rubbed up against her, or if one of her teachers told her boyfriend she was a slut. I took these things in stride. I told myself none of it mattered to me.  Like Diana Prince, I acted polite to the manager, the dad, the teacher. As scared and small as they made me feel, I let them feel harmless and funny. No girl I knew ever did anything different in similar situations in the 70’s and 80’s.
  1. We didn’t learn in school. I’m no standardized testing advocate but the 70’s and 80’s had no standards at all.  I read Jane Eyre and wrote at home and filled out SRA quizzes at school. If it weren’t for my own reading habit the boredom would have crushed me. It was through reading that I recognized that in my neighborhood in the 70’s and 80’s. . . .
  1. The Lord of the Flies was a real thing. Yes, in the 70’s and 80’s we left the house until the streetlights came on. We weren’t always playing Perfection and freeze tag. The 70’s suburban neighborhood wasn’t all ladybugs and drinks from the garden hose. The biggest kids often did what they wanted with the littlest when no one was watching us but us.  When I was my ten-year-old daughter’s age, I walked the mile to school with older kids. We got there early enough to hang out at the corner liquor store where we ate Jolly Ranchers, discussed oral sex techniques and admired the boys as they blew marijuana smoke rings. For a lot of us, the 70’s and 80’s were no Mayberry. 
So I choose schools carefully for my daughters, and I drive them there myself. I get to know the families of their friends, especially before sleepovers, and they get to know me. We make our children wear seat belts, we don’t leave them in the car when running errands, and we teach them to apply SPF 15 before swimming. 

In fact, I’m writing this right now by the side of our neighborhood public pool with lots of other parents. My youngest daughter is across the way swimming and diving and making friends with the other kids. She’s a strong girl, self-reliant to the point of making me feel obsolete half the time. She’s never needed me out here during the long summer afternoons by the pool and she probably never will.

But if she does, I’m sitting right here.  Not a helicopter.

A parent.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Good Dog

Up until last month I had a dog named Zeus.
Zeus was my first dog. I didn’t know how to be a pet owner before. I didn’t know that dogs could truly love people. It's not a made up thing. 

Last spring the vet gave Zeus a days-to-live diagnosis. What seemed like a chest cold turned out to be tumor town. The vet said we could feed him whatever he wanted because all that mattered now was his happiness. Zeus enjoyed this very much and decided to cling to the mast for several more weeks. I got my hopes up that we cheated death through canine heroine and hot dogs.

But, no. When it was time, the vet helped my husband, daughter and me usher Zeus into the next plane with treats, drugs and love. My daughter Margaret flung herself on his neck in the final moments, crying with the kind of grief that scoops out your insides. I know because my own insides were undergoing the same operation.

I walked around for weeks stunned and unhappy and honestly a little offended. I had never had a pet before. Spoiler alert, they die before you do. It’s not cool.

In my young adult novel How to Be Manly, the main character Matty forges a friendship with his neighbor’s dog Dirty Harry when his owner goes into the hospital. Dirty Harry is a model of loyalty and bad-ass courage. I wouldn’t know dogs could be that way if it weren’t for Zeus.

My favorite thing about Dirty Harry is that he is a magical never-dying dog because he is fictional.

But wait, I don’t want the last thing you know about Zeus is that he conked out on us before I was ready.

Do you want to know why I knew enough about an awesome dog to be able to write Dirty Harry into being?  Because one hot day when I had all the doors and windows open, a man stole a woman’s car with her in it and crashed it down the street. The man ran into our backyard. I didn’t know this because I was making dinner. My husband was at work and I was momentarily crippled by a knee injury. All I knew was that Zeus was barking like crazy and there was nothing I could do to stop him because I could barely walk. That goddamn dog, I thought. So noisy.

Then my youngest daughter said, “Look, Mommy. There’s a man.” 

And indeed a frantic stranger was barging through our side door.

For about two seconds. Zeus rammed through the house from the backyard like an orange missile of death and chased him right over the fence.

I’ve never seen a human being move as fast as that carjacker escaping Zeus. Within the hour the police arrested him. I don’t know what happened to him, or to the woman he kidnapped.

My family’s part of the story was that one day a violent man was foiled by our loyal, bad-ass dog who though perpetually gentle with children was fiercely protective of my family.

Ah, Zeus. Good dog.