Q & A

A kid keeps asking me a question via this website and my replies get bounced back due to an invalid email address.

So, Trent, if you’re out there, I was born in November 1968. I won’t give the exact date because leaking too much personal info over time on the Internet is a bad idea. Hope that is enough!

Hope everyone else is having a good day!

When “We” Lose “Our” Mothers

Five years ago today, early in the morning, I got a phone call — I think it was my brother who called first, but there were a lot of calls that day and it blurs. My mother’s house was on fire and a neighbor had described the bedroom as “blazing.” I also can’t remember if the fire was still smoldering when we got the call. Since we hadn’t heard from my mother we assumed she was dead, but it would take all day to confirm it.

This was both an expected and unexpected event. In fact, we’d gotten many calls from neighbors, from police, and from hospitals, over the years. Any time I saw a 701 area code I had to brace myself before answering the phone, especially when the call came at a strange hour. They always informed us that our mother had been arrested for DWI and committed to 72 hours of rehab, or had fallen down the stairs and committed to 72 hours of rehab, or had somehow otherwise brought brief intervention into her long descent into alcoholism and dementia. The police and medical professionals gave us the info dutifully; they probably made such calls often enough. Sometimes neighbors would give the info with heart-breaking circumlocution… as if we were completely ignorant of the situation and they were telling us for the first time and needed to break it to us gently. At times I felt judged: how could a grown man let his poor mother totter drunkenly about the house by herself?

People without addicts in their lives probably have little understanding of the incredible difficulties of intervention. TV movies tend not to dwell on the legal and logistical hurdles, the high costs of trying to commit someone against their will to a rehab clinic even before you pay the clinic. They don’t show a situation where a woman would hurl plates at police officers and have to be physically subdued, dragged literally kicking and screaming into treatment, and then simply count days until it’s time to leave and drink again. Maybe I’m trying to let myself off the hook here because I did nothing. I wanted nothing but distance since the day I left the home. I made occasional phone calls, happy to find my mother merely incoherent and rambling instead of raging, and made excuses not to visit. We went through great pains to bring her to our wedding, five years before she died, and I only saw her once more on a trip I took to Grand Forks later that year for work.

On that last visit I met her at the door because I hated to see the inside of the house: too many messes and broken things which I didn’t have time or resources to tend to. She was pretty lucid that day. I took her to Hugo’s Grocery. By that time she had constant vertigo and used a walker, but on our trip through the store she left it behind and let me guide her through the aisles, clutching my arm with a trembling and claw-like hand. She was a weak woman but she had a strong grip: all those years of typing on a typewriter. I left her on the doorstep, and that was the last time I saw her. Unlike the way these stories generally go, I absolutely suspected it might be the last time, even though she hung on for another four years.

When people write about grieving for late parents or memories of moms they rarely consider the possibility that the reader is someone with a story like mine. They tend to write in broad, generous terms about what “our” mothers mean to “us,” or what “you” go through.

“We’re left to wander back into the world, where everything looks the same, but for us, every movement and every breath feels weighted down by this suffocating cloud of sadness,” David Ferguson writes in an essay I saw shared a dozen times on Facebook. “We,” is he and all the people who have uncomplicated relationships with their mothers; those who were not abused or neglected, who did not see their mothers succumb to addiction, who were never lashed at with a metal ruler, who never mopped their mother’s gray vomit off the bathroom floor, who were never humiliated by having mom stumble out of the bedroom at 3:00 in the afternoon, already lit, when we brought friends over, who were never roused from sleep at 2:00 in the morning with a rambling tirade. I certainly don’t begrudge Ferguson his grief or his fond memories of Mom, but I do wish the first person plural weren’t invoked with such authority. It’s one thing to assume your experience is normal, another to presume it is universal.

For me, “losing” my mother was gradual, an erosion over decades with a lot of ugliness, too ugly for a TV movie, too harrowing even for a Eugene O’Neill play. I did not feel suffocating clouds of sadness when she died, but liberated, released from guilt, relieved that it was finally over. People like my brothers and I don’t get to mark these anniversaries with warm sentiment. I wish I could say something like, “Mom died five years ago. I miss her every day.” But this wouldn’t be true, and this is all I’ve got. “Mom died five years ago. I’m glad her soul is at rest.”

 

 

Prince Gave Me Great Writing Advice In a Dream

Well, obviously you know that Prince the funky purple music icon passed away last week. As a Minneapolitan and a child of the 1980s I reeled a bit from his death and like many people went into an a long weekend of digging out the old CDs and listening to them weepily.

I credit that listening binge for a dream I had last night where Prince appeared while revising my book (this baseball/bee one). I’d been working on it all weekend, and was doing so in the dream. Prince read over my shoulder and asked “What do you want the reader to feel right here? What do you want the reader to feel right here?” He was both frustrated and encouraging.

It’s some of the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten. I spend all this time worrying about plot structure, moving characters from point A to point B, the three-act play, the drops and rises in action (which needs special work on this draft). I had never thought purely about feeling in a book, scene by scene and passage by passage. Charting emotional goals like plot points: I want the reader to laugh here, to cry here, to feel nervous here, to be angry here.

My books have culminated in emotional moments, but they are slow-building, and come as a natural consequence of the story. But leave it to Prince, whose music was always a tapestry of intense feeling, to focus my attention on those emotional goals for the reader throughout.

I’m taking this with me as I continue. Thank you, dream Prince. I hope to see you again.

Prince writing advice

Against Randism

Middle-grade author Mike Jung was recently on an AWP panel about diversity in children’s book publishing and said:

[C]raft is about more than just pure mechanics… Craft is inextricably linked to socio-political belief, self-understanding, cultural understanding, and the historical scaffolding upon which our society has been built.

I admit I didn’t know what to make of this the first time I saw it because I was trying to sort out how overuse of adverbs (for example) had anything to do with a sociopolitical belief. But after thinking it through, I can see how any aspect of craft from word choice to point of view (first person? third person?) can be mapped to conscious or subconscious sociopolitical beliefs. E.g., first person became popular at a time when self-hood was more in vogue. The purple prose of the late 19th Century conveyed the erudition of the literary elite. The development of “believable” or “relatable” characters comprises a host of sociopolitical assumptions.

One of the more transparent connections is  the interrelation of character and theme. When a writer has a message, it’s all too easy to create flat characters to make the point. Good guys fight for the good thing against bad guys who fight for the bad thing. The good guys are charismatic and varied and the bad guys are ugly and indistinct. The consequences are explicitly sociopolitical and for me represent one of the worst artistic failings.

atlas-shrugged-book-cover-175x300For me the best representation of this habit is Ayn Rand, who wrote political arguments in the shape of novels with tall, smart, beautiful characters espousing her ideology and a slew of badly-complected, shamelessly corrupt, stupid characters opposing them. You rarely see a scene with such a character without passing description of the puffiness of his neck or spittle gathering at the corners of his mouth. Forget her politics. It’s lousy writing. It’s bad fiction. Her character development is utterly lazy and incompetent!

Remember the Seinfeld episode where his dentist (played by Walter White!) converts to Judaism so he can tell anti-Semitic jokes? “This offends you as a Jewish person?” a priest asks Jerry. “No, it offends me as a comedian!” he retorts. While Rand’s politics are simplistic and self serving, she doesn’t offend me as a human, she offends me as a writer.

The most compelling characters to me are morally ambiguous. I like Han Solo (he killed a guy to avoid a debt, remember?), Gollum, and Snape. Reading The Black Cauldron with Byron, I’m utterly taken with Prince Ellidyr, who is brash and offensive and keeps saving people’s lives then reminding them that the life he saved has little value to him. Byron, being five, is less comfortable with such ambiguity. “How come a bad guy is riding with the good guys?” He wonders. “Because it’s a good book,” I tell him. (So yes, I believe in good books and bad books with more certainty than good guys and bad guys.)

And ultimately that is both an ideological and aesthetic value, to see things as complicated and nuanced and wanting books (even fantastic ones) to convey the uncertainties and moral struggles that come with life. To own that even this comes from a sociopolitical and historic context, call it the abject confusion of early 21st Century straight white male, knowing all the ways one can go wrong, and seeing nothing manifestly evil to rail against that isn’t encoded in his own DNA.

I recently read an article (old, pre-Harry-Potter) about the tendency for “weightier” children’s books to win awards and critical favor, whether epic fantasy or the then-popular “problem novel.” The critic, Deborah Stevenson, unites books across genres with the dichotomy of “heroic” vs. “everyday,” using Ramona as representative of the later set (why do you think someone sent it to me?) It teases out an idea I’d had that books were trending away from Ramonaism and toward Harryism and gives a vocabulary to that distinction. Both realistic and fantastic books can be certain in a way I don’t care for, and heroic feels like a value-neutral way of describing them. Everyday represents another idea: that one’s struggles are interior and exist within a non-epic backdrop of people who are all plodding along with the same struggles. It’s a spectrum, not a dichotomy, but I think heroism can give way to Randism. Chronicling the everyday represents another strategy: this is not universal truth, a writer says, but it is true for this character. There are dangers there too, of relativism, of navel-gazing, of being boring. But I think being mindful of it, to challenge oneself to see others (and portray them) as complex and multifaceted, to accept yourself as your own antagonist, leads to richer books and wiser writers. 

 

 

Sib ntsib dua

Every day since he’s started preschool, my son has demanded that I see him all the way to the classroom.  About once a week I’ve suggested I let him off at the front door to the school, in the foyer, or at the first or second turn in the hallway. He shot down those suggestions with a “no,” and a shake of his head, every time. I would see him to the classroom door and set a symbolic toe across the threshold. He would say “Sib ntsib dua,” (“Sisidua,” out of his mouth),  which means goodbye in Hmong. I would say it back.

Yesterday as we strolled in he looked at the wet sidewalk and wondered why there weren’t any worms, remembering a time last fall when the path was littered with them after a rain. I shrugged and said I didn’t know. Then he stopped.

“Dad, I think we can start saying sib ntsib dua at the door.”

“You mean right here?”

“Yeah.”

So we stood just outside the door and he said “Sib ntsib dua” and I said it back. He said “I love you” and I said “I love you.” He said “Have a fun day at work,” and I said “Have a fun day at school.” As I walk back up the path he’s still standing and holding the door open. I don’t look back because that’s a huge part of parenting.

 

 

Happy 100th Birthday, Beverly Cleary!

birthday cake

Add to Beverly Cleary’s awards and accomplishments: reaching the century mark. She says she “didn’t plan on it,” in typical dry humor. It’s nice to see the revival of appreciation for her contributions to children’s literature over the past few weeks. I was going to collect them all and present them here, but holy cow, there’s a lot of them.  I’ll settle for a few.

Here’s a great interview in the Washington Post, and another great article and interview by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.

My buddy Kurt in Portland (where most of Cleary’s books take place) sent me this lovely appreciation by Oregon Public Broadcasting.

NPR’s All Thing Considered did a story, and The New Yorker, and a bunch of others. I’ve especially enjoyed the entire series of articles at Horn Book, and have been saving mine for today. Here’s my favorite line (but please read the whole thing).

[H]ere is the great truth that courses through Beverly Cleary’s books: even a happy childhood is not an easy one.

I celebrated by teaching my son how to turn Qs into cats, and we’ll have pancakes and carrot salad for dinner.

 

Anger

Anger from the movie Inside OutWhen I was a kid my brothers and I lived in constant fear of our father’s rages. Something like a little spilled ketchup on the counter would set him off and he’d yell at one of us or all of us for an hour or more. No exaggeration: we would time his rants and kept records. He didn’t spank us that often but we would go off on ceaseless torrents of verbal abuse.

Even though I suffered through approximately one of these rages a week for my entire childhood, I can remember almost nothing of what he actually said. That we were careless? Probably. That we were useless and ingrateful? Possibly. All you really can hear when someone is yelling is: ANGRY I’M ANGRY YOU MADE ME ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY

Forget to walk the dog? ANGRY I’M ANGRY YOU MADE ME ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY

Bad grade at school? ANGRY I’M ANGRY YOU MADE ME ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY

Do nothing at all? ANGRY I’M ANGRY YOU MADE ME ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY

That was all a long time ago, but I deal with it daily. Parenting, holding down two or three jobs at a time, and the other challenges of adulthood are picnics compared to managing the recurring sadness, anxiety, and (yes) anger over being treated so shabbily as a child. I have forgiven my father, but that doesn’t make it any easier to function as an adult and especially as a father.

The toughest challenge has been, ironically or inevitably, wrestling with my own rage. I know my brothers have the same struggles. It’s like we grew up on the outskirts of a frequently-erupting volcano, and now all tend to our own respective pools of bubbling magma. We rarely get together because it’s too volatile.

I am thus compelled to see anger as a singularly destructive force that ruined my childhood and must be watched vigilantly lest it destroy my adult life, so it goes that I’m wary of a recent trend to romanticize anger.

Donald Trump says people are angry; Bernie Sanders says people are angry, and where they agree is that the anger itself is a force that must be reckoned with. It’s not questioned that angry people have a right to be angry, or even why they are angry. We’re supposed to ask what the rest of us can all do to make them feel better. That’s how anger works. It is selfish and manipulative. As a child I cried and promised to try harder and be better; it was years before I realized my dad’s anger was unreasonable.

I don’t think people decide to get angry, as a strategy, but it certainly serves their own ends to be so. Angry customers get special treatment. If you tell a friend you’re angry, their immediate reaction will be to apologize and try to make it up to you. Get angry as an electorate, and politicians rally around you, you get stories written about you and your rage and what the country can do to make it better.

Anger is also stupefying. It heightens your own feelings and makes you less considerate of the feelings of others. Anger literally gives you tunnel vision: your field of vision narrows as you get angry, sharpening and highlighting the focus of your rage while blinding you to objects on the periphery. Evolutionarily this was a survival strategy; now it allows the angry to see perceived injustice with special clarity while blurring background noise like: the thoughts, feelings, and basic humanity of those people who have allegedly wronged them.

When I think on how my father, who is a good man, could have treated three children so terribly for so long, I can only think: the anger made him do it. His rants shaped a narrative of unruly, ungrateful kids, and his anger kept his brain focused on the points that proved it and blind to other evidence or concerns.

I don’t think anger serves functional political dialogue any more than it serves functional family life. It encourages us-and-them, black-and-white, style thinking. Of course certain politicians reap the benefits: the kind that want people to be angry, and stay angry, because they are easier to manipulate.

Obviously (I hope) the alternative to anger is not acquiescence; it is calm and decisive action. There are healthy, constructive ways to be dissatisfied, to air a grievance, to identify problems and brainstorm solutions. In my experience anger doesn’t lend itself to solutions; it creates problems and is a problem. In fact, I’m inclined to say it’s the biggest problem facing us…

Nah, that’s still (by far) global warming. But if I think too much about that I’ll get angry