Saturday, October 20, 2018

Where's My Barry Manilow Wardrobe?

I don't write about school often. I don't want to gripe, complain or harangue about my job. I've worked enough shitty jobs to know that as shitty a job that teaching can be sometimes, I've got a pretty good gig. This week I had something happen in Study Hall of all places that got me thinking about who we are in the stories of the people around us.

A little backstory. I have a spinal condition called Scheurmann's kyphosis. In short, I'm hunchbacked. It's not aesthetically pleasing to look at, especially if I'm tired and/or wearing something that is a little more form fitting than I normally would. Such was the case in junior high when the head cheerleader, who sat across from me in art class, loudly asked about the hump in my sweater. That afternoon I asked my mother to take me to the doctor because of it and was given a name. In the pre-Internet days of the late-80s, I was left with a cheery description from the doctor: a rounding of the spine, a wedging of the vertebrae and a larger lung capacity (not that it helped when I had to run the mile), so take that head cheerleader. (If you happen to read this since we are friends on Facebook, there is honestly no hard feelings for this despite the tone that it may have.) Over the years, the back has caused many levels of pain, from slight discomfort to Crooks from OF MICE AND MEN level body repositioning including the fracturing of several vertebrae while taking a jump I had no business jumping while skiing to impress a girl when I was seventeen.

I'm self deprecating about it for the most part, dressing as the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" one year by wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt. The degree of my "hump" depends on my weight, if I'm lifting, what I'm wearing and how tired I am. It oscillates from full on Quasimodo to slightly slumped.

For the last few weeks I've been  finishing a tough rewrite (it's done and delivered), so I've been working after the kids go to bed, staying up past midnight while still waking up at 6-6:30. So, by the time I get to study hall 9th period (out of 10), I'm gassed.

I must have been sitting more slumped than usual (the sweater I wore didn't help) and one of the precocious ninth graders noticed my severely slumped posture, loudly pointing it out to his boys, who then spent the rest of study hall mocking me with banal attempts at cruelty without actually saying it to my face. (They're ALWAYS cowards.) One (at least) took a picture, posting it or sending it out to their friends. That bothered me. I don't want to be a meme or go viral. It was the reason I didn't engage when I had every right to. If I were to engage them (with no physical proof), then I'm the crazy white teacher that goes viral. As I so often do, I absorbed the hits. Luckily, the next period two of my seniors both told me they liked the way the sweater looked on me. So, obviously we are dealing with some real a-holes.

This rolled around in my head for the rest of the afternoon and for a while after. Why is the opinions of some highly immature 9th graders affecting me like this? As I often do, I tried to frame it beyond simple cruelty and I couldn't. It also made me think of Richard Vernon.



Yes, THAT Richard Vernon. The quintessential dickhead 80s principal (I will accept Ed Rooney as an acceptable equivalent) played by quintessential dickhead 80s actor Paul Gleeson. To be fair, I have no idea if he was actually a dickhead, but he made a career out of playing them. (There's a later post about my dream 80s movie called The Dickheads.) Richard Vernon was one of our generations great villains. Darth Vader, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Steff, Doug Neidermeyer, Johnny Lawrence (though there's a perfectly valid argument to be made that Daniel LaRusso is actually the villain in THE KARATE KID) then Vernon. When Gleeson played the irascible Vernon, he was forty-five. I am presently the same age. It dawned on me in that moment, to these kids, I'm the Richard Vernon to their John Bender in the story of their lives. Suddenly, it put everything into perspective.

To this day, Vernon is still one of the great villains to many. but put it into the proper context, especially considering my age compared to his, he's a vastly more interesting and sympathetic character than he was when I was younger. Could you imagine having to come into school on a Saturday morning to oversee detention? I'd be salty too. There's also a great but brief scene in THE BREAKFAST CLUB that sheds new light on Vernon and his Barry Manilow wardrobe. He's alone in the hall and there's a close up on his face. Instead of the smarmy, cruel Vernon we get a weary, lonely middle aged man. We learn nothing else about his character beyond what we need to know about him as the protagonist to our intrepid band of heroes. At this stage of my life, I find him a far more sympathetic character that I have more in common with and maybe I always did. And maybe that's the way these kids saw me and reacted in the limited way they could. (Barry Manilow wardrobe would be far above their pay grade.)

While I don't think I'm Vernon-level of cruel despite the reactions of a few fallow freshman, I see where I might fit in their stories, though I like to think that I'm more of a benignly, blundering Mr. Belding instead.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Holiday Ro-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oad

My public library as a table in the front as soon as you walk in called the "Luck Day Display." On the table are a bunch of "hot" books that have a limited check-out time (7 days with one 7 day renewal). A few weeks back I went to pick up some holds that I had and my eye caught a book on the table. Usually I ignore the table because of the prevalence of books about the present situation we find ourselves in thanks to a duped working class, but this time, I was  stopped cold in my tracks. The book had the eye grabbing title DON'T MAKE ME PULL OVER by Richard Ratay. How could I not stop with a title like that? I literally said. "Ooooh" when I saw it. (Honestly.) I grabbed it, checked it out with the other books I'd reserved and went on my way. It is easily one of the best reads of 2018 for me. (2018 has been an interesting reading year for me and the number of non-fiction books that will make my best of list is going to be interesting.)



The book chronicles the history of that grand American tradition: the road trip. It is a terrific combination of an informational, historical account of our culture's obsession with cars and the importance of infrastructure to the growth of our nation and a narrative reflection of the experience of the road trip. Filled with loads of amazing contemporary American history, I found myself googling things every three to four pages for more information on a person, place or thing mentioned in the book. Not for a lack of information but because some of the things mentioned could easily fill books of their own and Ratay doesn't overwhelm you with too much info, instead parsing it out in perfect portions for you to enjoy. From the very history of our highway system to the ancestors to places like The Great Wolf Lodge, the Holidome, the book is an informative but light read.

Where the book really shines though, is the narrative sections, where Ratay takes us along on a road trip with his family. I smiled until my face hurt. We didn't take a lot of long road trips like the ones Ratay describes in his book, but what he describes is still comically relatable. I spent weeks at a time with my grandparents in the summer and they took me all over the Northeast. I have fond memories of the beaches of Maine, hunting for Champy on Lake Champlain and visiting old relatives I didn't know in Wilkes-Barre. Reading this book made me wish that I'd embraced my writing earlier and kept journals or notebooks in my youth.

One of the things in the book that really struck a chord was Ratay's obsession with "making time." My father was obsessed with "making time" while driving too, whether it was from Syracuse to Long Island or our house to Wegmans. I discovered this weekend that he is still obsessed with making time as we drove from Spring Hill, Florida to Syracuse this past weekend. I'm more of a "journey not destination" guy, part of my continued rebellion I suppose, and where I hoped for a leisurely drive, he clearly set the tone. And I didn't like it.

We left in the early evening and chugged along all night. No stops for food. Minimum bathroom or stretch breaks. No time for anything slightly equating sightseeing (to be fair, it was night) or souvenir shopping. Factor in the fatigue I was feeling from getting up early and taking the flight down, it was a difficult trip. It was a trip I always wanted to take, but my father's obsession with "making time," finding the cheapest possible gas and obsessively tracking our gas and mileage made it less fun than I hoped. I don't know if I'd ever do it again. Not that I could, since both my kids tend to get violently ill in the car.

I think road trip movies have also colored our view of the road trip. Those experiences are as ingrained in our collective memories as actual road trips we took. NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION kind of romanticized the road trip for my generation. (There's an essay in me about how when we first watched the Vacation movies, we were Rusty and now we're Clark.) (There's also a second essay in me about my theory that the quality of a Vacation movie is in direct correlation to the quality of the Audrey actress.) Movies like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and CANNONBALL RUN added to the mystique of the road trip too. We all pretended we were Bandit or JJ McClure racing to outrun Sheriff Buford T. Justice or trick the nebbish AF Foyt, even if it was our parents driving.

For now, I'll stick with the short road trips we take now. Maybe, eventually, my kids won't get sick when we are in the car for long periods of time. They are getting better, but it looms every time we get in the car for a trip longer than a few hours. The book certainly got me thinking about it again, despite the trip last weekend. It also gave me two solid book ideas that I wrote in my notebook. If you've taken a road trip as a kid, as a parent, as a couple or are thinking of taking one, this book is a lot of fun.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Situation Normal: Stressed & Behind

I'm stressed.

I'm behind.

As usual.

This is a common lament. That first sentence is a little melodramatic. I'm definitely feeling some pressure and suffering the ill-effects. We're not talking huge, the world is going to Hell, an immature, likely alcoholic dudebro douchbag having his life "ruined" by getting a lifetime appointment job while a credible (though "uncorroborated") victim has to live with death threats and public shame that will likely cause more victims not to come forward kind of stress, but stress nonetheless.

(I have thoughts on the mistakes we've made in the past that I may write and possibly, though not likely, share publicly. I've made plenty that I'm ashamed of but I'm not trying to take a lifetime appointment that will affect millions of lives.)

This year, I've made some major changes in the way I so things in the classroom. I'm a writer, right? So this year, I made my class into a writing class. Focusing on writing, drafting, feedback, conferencing and modelling in a likely futile attempt to prepare my seniors for the rigors of college writing. Or whatever is next for them. I've vowed to keep up on work, giving timely feedback for students. And I've fallen woefully behind on that vow.



There's an assortment of reasons why. Sheer numbers is one.It's a lot to work through and give meaningful feedback to every student. Granted, my numbers aren't horrible as some of my colleagues, so I'm probably whining a bit. I'm also struggling with a more thorough approach this year to the feedback I give. I'm spending more time going line by line than I have in years past. That has me questioning myself a lot because I'm grappling with the question of does the work stop being their voice and become mine with the feedback I'm giving? It's an issue I've always struggled with when it comes to feedback and modeling. It's a razor's edge that I'm walking and it's adding to the stress.

Compounding that is that my "professional" writing life has hit an uptick in the last two weeks. I've been getting attention from two projects and it's been a pleasant surprise. One that I sort of cast aside into a "need to rewrite/polish" pile that I was going to tackle this fall. First, I decided to work on something new, blending my "epic fantasy" mind with the YA "voice" that I've been working on with my contemporary stuff, think Megan Whalen Turner's THE THIEF meets "Guardians of the Galaxy", to sort of clean the palate before tackling three rewrites before thinking about satisfying the "old school, doorstopping epic fantasy" itch I've had lately. I worked through the first "act" of the first rewrite, making it more concise by cutting and moving about 12k of garbage. As I was doing that, I used that part for some Hail Mary queries of the project when an agent was asking for YA epic fantasy. Well, to my surprise, a few of them were the Gerald Phelan to my Doug Flutie. I knew the project still needed polish, so I went to it, giving myself four to five days to bang out the revision. That has turned into eleven days as I realized that the third act is kind of a mess. God damned previous representation....never mind, that's a private rant for another time. Thankfully, one of the requests was for a partial that I'd already complete the number of requested pages.

I've been slugging away for eleven days, staying up later and later, neglecting some school stuff, fitting in writing everywhere and any way I can. (Reading a really good book that I'm going to blog about when I finish has taken away writing time, too.) Yesterday I got to a particular snared mess that needed some high explosives to fix. Naturally, I worked myself into a migraine over it. (I'm assuming that a rash of migraines is related to this.) So, I'm super behind today.

In addition to that project, another has gotten interest from agents, including a R&R from one a few months back. Regretfully, her agency dissolved over terrible circumstances. I put that further down the queue and actually kind of "put it in a drawer." Well, happily, she's back in business, so I have to put it in the on-deck circle. Then yesterday I received a request for it from another agent (when it rains it pours, in a good way) that I kind of Hail Mary-ed on this one (the David Tyree to my Eli Manning). I sent it out without the rewrite. I didn't want to leave another agent twisting in the wind. Hopefully, he'll find it as strong as she did.

In the end, being busy is good. I have to go out of town for the weekend, so it feels like there's a ticking clock. It always feels like thaat when I hit one of my hot streaks like this. Kind of like "Non-Stop" in HAMILTON: "Write day and night like you're running out of time."

I just have to manage the stress, I guess. Writing this made me feel better even if I'm a little further behind.

As usual.