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.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Power of a Book

This piece is adapted from an article I wrote that appeared Teacher magazine in 2006.
As a teenager I attended an upscale private school where I did not fit in. In a sea of preppies, I opted for a brooding persona. I wrote curse words in Sharpie on my high-top sneakers along with song lyrics from B-sides of obscure British pop records. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, where I wanted to go to college, or whether I even wanted to go to college. I never liked anything.

In junior year I took an elective called Reader's Response. I sat next to a girl who ironed the pleats of her uniform skirt every night. I pinned my pleats together with big safety pins that I sometimes removed to use as earrings.

We had to read 10 books in the course of a semester, our choice. I liked reading but I could only think of six. The teacher said I should read The Catcher in the Rye. He handed me a copy he happened to have on the shelf.

So I started. By the time the class ended, I had lifted out of my life and landed into Holden's, a boy I alternately wanted to smack and salute. Kind of how I felt about myself.

I read that book in its entirety without once putting it down. I eschewed all other homework. I read late into the night. When I finished, I lay awake, unable to sleep.

The carousel stuck with me the most. It is such a tragic scene when Holden pays for his sister Phoebe’s seat on the beat-up ride of his own youth. Poor Phoebe tries talking sense to nihilist Holden. "You never like anything," she says.

I sympathized with Phoebe yet agreed with Holden. School was pointless. He and I were trapped together on a road toward an uninteresting destination. Like Holden I yearned for human connection and authenticity in my life.

I walked away from that book a changed person. I read The Catcher in the Rye and my life path became clear. I wanted to read books and write for a living. Nothing else would do because nothing else felt true to who I really was. This book started me on becoming who I am.

As a teacher I never forget the power a single book can have on a person. It’s impossible to predict what book it will be. I got lucky with that one intuitive English teacher because the best life-changing book is hardly ever what a teacher or parent thinks it should be. In my first published novel How to Be Manly, a teenager’s whole life shifts course because of a book he steals from a garage sale. He finds it by chance and it changes everything.

I teach and write with reverence for the moment when a student or reader will find reality crashing with just the right book at just the right time. It happens with the character in my own novel and it happens with me still now that I am grown.

There is nothing like the book that makes you turn the last page and look out the window and realize that you are different now. You realize that your own tragic scenes have meaning. You realize that even though you still never like anything that maybe you might like a few things. You realize that while you are still alone, someone once wrote a book explaining everything you feel and that maybe you are not alone. You have found the book by chance and now everything is different, including you.

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it,” Holden says.

I still know just how he feels.