Angst and Adverbs

Ah, teenagers, let them be true

To one another! for the world which seems

To lie before the high school creative

Writing club’s open mic night

Has neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

 

They are depressing creatures

Reading depressing odes

To depressing topics.

They scratch at scars that never felt a wound

And do it in pretentiously elegiac terms.

So many of them waking up next to pillows

Where someone’s head used to lay.

So many fractured fairy tales

With broken endings

Written from the seeds

Of worst-case scenarios.

 

They begin with ritual apologies and

Carefully practiced acts of modesty before

A lot of gratuitous throat-clearing.

They start slowly

Then

Theyreadeverythingasquicklyastheycanbecausearushofwordsfollowedby

Pregnant

Pauses

Reflects passion

And intensity.

 

Nobody in their stories ever does much of anything,

But everybody does everything in very specific ways.

“He brushed his teeth quickly, he showered hastily,

And then he dressed frantically.”

The paradox of trying to describe speed.

He brushed.  He showered.  He dressed.

Rely on the rhythm.

Let the syntax speak for itself.

 

By the end of the night, I feel like

I am standing on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where aspiring young students come to write

Their tales of never was there more woe.

 

But I am calm tonight.

Despite the grating roar of so many

Egregious displays of awful writing,

It is beautiful to see them being written

And to hear them being shared.

Why I’m Walking Away: An Open Letter to the American Rugby Community

For the first time in over ten years, high school rugby season is getting underway without me.  I doubt I’ll be missed by anyone but my players, and – after the hell I’ve put them through – even that might be iffy.  Over the past several seasons, I have largely become a non-entity in Rugby Illinois (formerly the Illinois Youth Rugby Association).  I voluntarily removed myself from any involvement at the state level long ago.  Now, before anyone can turn an accusatory finger at me and cry hypocrite, I understand that this makes me a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.  Unfortunately, I championed the solution for years and was met with nothing but resistance and derision.  There are only so many times a man can pound his head against a wall before he realizes that it’s probably smarter to just take a Tylenol and walk away.

I started coaching rugby the same year I started teaching.  Prior to that, I spent four years playing on a nationally competitive collegiate side followed by a brief stint with a small men’s club.  I already had three years’ experience as a high school football coach, and I volunteered my time with the rugby club for two simple reasons:  I love working with teenagers and I love rugby.  The head coach quickly became one of my closest friends.  He and I used to spend hours talking about the future of the sport in Illinois.  Enthusiasm and awareness were both on the rise, new youth clubs were springing up every year, and the quality of competition was steadily increasing.  In ten years, we thought we’d be a legitimate presence in our school, with the support of the athletic department, access to school resources, and a legitimate IHSA tournament to determine the state champion.

But, ten years later, very little has changed.  Although there are more youth clubs and more players than ever before in Illinois, the public profile of the sport is still minimal and its reputation largely negative.  Worse, despite the outward appearance of change and growth, disorganization and dysfunction still rule at the state level.

Although my hiatus from coaching was meant to be temporary, I have a difficult time believing I’ll return to the rugby pitch any time soon.  What follows are the reasons why.

The Question of Legitimacy

For years, there’s been an ongoing push at the state level to “legitimize” rugby in Illinois.  But there’s only one way to really do that:  Become an Illinois High School Association (IHSA) sport.  Unfortunately, reactions to any mention of the IHSA range from indifference at best to outright defiance at worst.  There is an inexplicable insistence at both the state and national levels that rugby stands alone.  That rugby is, should be, and always will be unique in American sport.  This, however, defies reason.  Simply put, you cannot gain legitimacy as an outlier.

Blind Adherence to Overseas Models of Player Development

Ask any American what three sports the U.S. is best at, and you’ll invariably get three answers:  Football, Basketball, and Baseball.   They are recognized and endorsed by state scholastic organizations nationwide, and they follow similar models of team and player development at the elementary school, high school, and collegiate levels.  Common sense dictates that if you want to develop both the quantity and quality of athletes enjoyed by the big three, you would be best served following their blueprint.

In my experience, one of the main reasons why both the state organization and so many of the individual coaches are so vehemently opposed to seeking IHSA membership is because they fear losing their autonomy.  In other words, they might have to answer to somebody and be held to enforced standards of professional conduct.  So instead, we have State Based Rugby Organizations (or whatever the hell USA Rugby is calling them these days), community clubs, and fledgling “local academies” for player development.  The end result of this is a shortage of resources compounded by insufficient community awareness and parent support.  Worse, most players still do not learn about the sport until they are in late high school or even in college.  Meanwhile, boys’ and girls’ La Crosse have been classified as Emerging Sports in the IHSA with over 100 combined teams and – in my area at least – huge enrollment numbers.

And you can guess what sport those numbers are being drawn away from.

A Shortage of Professionalism

One of my long standing laments about coaching rugby in Illinois is the dearth of coaches who are also educators.  Does a good coach necessarily have to be a teacher?  Of course not.  On that same token, can an educator be a bad coach?  Absolutely.  All things being equal, however, I’d much rather entrust my own daughters to a trained professional who spends his or her days immersed in children and who thus understands and is responsive to their unique needs and desires.  More importantly, I want my children in the hands of coaches who are willing to put their players’ well-being before their own.  Sadly, I see far too little of this on the sidelines of high school rugby matches.  I’ve seen coaches who scream, coaches who swear, and coaches who don’t know how to win and lose with class.  Not to mention the many coaches I’ve encountered whose primary interest in their youth club is using it as a farm system for their men’s club and who don’t understand the myriad distinctions between being a player-coach among grown men and being a coach in a youth program.  In my experience, the bad coaches greatly outnumber the good ones, and they comprise the vocal majority standing in the path of true legitimacy for the sport.

Negative Public Perception

Over the past decade, USA Rugby has worked diligently to raise the public profile of the sport in this country.  In November, they managed to sell out Soldier Field in Chicago for a nationally televised Eagles/All-Blacks match.  I was there.  It nearly brought tears to my eyes to see 60,000+ screaming fans gathered on the lakefront for international rugby, even if most of them were wearing black and white.  Just five years earlier, I attended a match between the U.S. and Wales at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois.  There were fewer people in attendance that day than we get for our high school football games.  I can neither deny nor criticize the explosion in overall awareness between 2009 and 2014.

Awareness, however, is not enough.

What I saw in Chicago last November was all at once everything that is so right and everything that is so very wrong with rugby in America.  The Eagles acquitted themselves valiantly, playing some of the best rugby I’ve ever seen from a U.S. side.  The crowd was a testament to the natural diversity of the sport, and it was raucous until the final whistle.  Men, women, and children of all shapes, sizes, and colors were gathered together to celebrate a mutual and non-partisan love of the world’s greatest sport.  They cheered.  They sang.  And – in one of the great traditions of the sport – they became friends.  For many young spectators, it was a brilliant introduction to the simple beauty of the rugby life.

It’s a shame that it had to include a 68-point loss.

Far more distressing than the final score were the ludicrous displays of buffoonery and hooliganism that have become inextricably linked with rugby in this country:  Fans wearing nothing but tattered match shorts and tank tops (on a 40-degree day on the lakefront!), public displays of competitive drinking, vulgar and sometimes downright disturbing call-and-response songs and chants.  After the match, I even saw one young woman who was so drunk she’d pissed her pants and had to be carried out of the stadium by two men that I hope like hell were trustworthy friends.  In short, there were far too many people treating the event like the post-match parties of their college days.  And this in what was meant to be a family-friendly environment.  Needless to say, I was glad that my children weren’t there.

In short, little has changed in the fifteen years since I graduated from college.  Little will until we start taking the necessary steps to truly legitimize rugby in the eyes of America.  In Illinois, in my community especially, it’s a tough sell.  Too many parents have too many memories of the misbehavior of their college teams and local men’s clubs.  Unfortunately, scenes like the ones described above do nothing to dispel those notions about what it means to play rugby.  When you’re asking parents to overlook their personal experiences and trust that the rugby community is changing, you do yourself and the sport in general a grave disservice by having neither licensed credentials to demonstrate your qualifications nor any cogent affiliation with the school system.  Most parents will assume you’re a ruffian and that you’re going to indoctrinate their children into a life of drunken hooliganism.  Sadly, they might be right.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is this:  As much as I love teaching, I love coaching, and I love rugby, my days on the pitch are most likely over.  The only way I can see myself going back is if rugby becomes an Illinois High School Association sport with a school-sponsored team in my district.  When that day arrives, I’ll know that we’re finally done with coaches scrambling to put together their own schedules, clubs desperately seeking patches of grass to host matches, and the endless chains of vulgar, derisive, and inflammatory reply-all emails that pass for the decision-making process in this state.  When that day arrives, I’ll know that I will never again have to sit through an organizational meeting where one coach is asking for donations of used balls because his club is broke while another belittles the notion of school funding and support, where a coach motions to change the state by-laws to allow his high school athletes to play on his men’s team in the summer, or where I have to justify my refusal to take my youth team to any tournament sponsored by a beer vendor.  When that day arrives, I’ll know that I’ll never again have to defend my involvement in the sport to a colleague or justify its safety and efficacy to a parent.

Because when that day arrives, I’ll know that we’re finally legitimate.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

To read more from this author, click here.

To My Incoming Ninth-Grade Students on the Occasion of Our First Day Together

We’re going to be meeting each other for the first time today. I will greet you at the door and shake each of your hands. I will ask you how your day is going or how you’ve liked your classes so far, and you will likely walk past me without making eye contact while muttering the word “good” or grunting something that might be “fine”. After the bell rings, I will introduce myself, take attendance, and get you seated where I want you. Then I will challenge you to brainstorm more meaningful or more descriptive responses than good, fine, and ok. I will make you write them down, and I’ll make you share them with the class. Hopefully you’ll have a laugh, hopefully you’ll have a moment where you feel smart, and hopefully you’ll learn something from your classmates. Tomorrow I will meet you at the door again. I will shake your hand and ask you another question, but this time I will challenge you to give me a better answer. Good, fine, and ok simply won’t be good enough any more.

And so it will begin.

At this point, I suppose I could give you a laundry list of my obligations to you and your responsibilities to me and to the class. I could discuss the syllabus, the readings, the grammar rules, and the vocab words. I could tell you about writing and public speaking and projects and discussions. But I won’t. There will be plenty of time for that later. Let’s leave it at this: If you show up every day and give your best effort, you’ll be fine. It’s all I’m ever going to expect of you, and it’s exactly what you can expect of me. Just try your hardest and the rest will take care of itself.

With that said, there are some things that I am going to try my hardest to remember this year…

I will do my best to remember that you are starting in a new school today, that everything is vast, strange, and confusing. There are classrooms whose numbers run out of sequence and offices known only by foreign-sounding names and unfamiliar acronyms.

I will do my best to remember that you are surrounded by a sea of unfamiliar faces – hundreds of teachers and thousands of students that you’ve never seen before – and that you may go the entire day without ever seeing your closest friend that you’ve gone to school with your entire life.

I will do my best to remember that this is a time of change and transition for you. You’ve not only left behind your old school, but you may be choosing to leave behind old sports, old activities, and even old friends.

I will do my best to remember that you are getting your first taste of new subjects, new extra-curriculars, and new expectations.

I will do my best to remember that even though you still look like children, you are desperate to be treated like adults.

I will do my best to remember that your life right now is a maelstrom of anxiety and uncertainty.

And I will do my best to remember that you likely have no idea what maelstrom means.

Unfortunately, there will be times that I forget these things. There will be times when I am impatient. There will be times when I confuse you, frustrate you, and even let you down. I can promise you that whenever these things happen, I will give you my heartfelt apologies. They will likely be little consolation.

But let me ask you this…

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that, even though I’ve been here for over ten years now, there are offices in new places and teachers in new classrooms and I’m still trying to figure it all out?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that my closest friend at this school was moved to a different building over the summer, that this is the first time in my career that I’ll be starting a school year without him?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that I recently had to give up coaching two sports that I love? That when the bell rings at 2:37 today I am going to walk out of this building feeling lost, confused, and alone because I am not on the practice field and not surrounded by my friends?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that I’m taking classes and being a student myself for the first time in over ten years? That today’s my first day (night) of school, too?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that, as much as I’m going to try to talk to you like adults, I can still be a big, nerdy kid?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that my life is the foggiest and most uncertain it’s ever been since I started teaching?

Would it make you feel any better if I told you that a maelstrom is a violent whirlpool or a mess of confusion and turbulence?

For whatever it’s worth, I understand the situation you’re in right now better than I ever have before. I’m already walking in your shoes – a lesson we’ll discuss extensively when we read To Kill a Mockingbird next semester – and hopefully I can see things through your eyes. I’ll do my best to be tolerant, understanding, and supportive. Hopefully you can do the same for me.

I’m already running late, so I need to wrap this up. I hope you were able to sleep last night. I know I wasn’t. I hope you wake up excited and ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.

I’ll be waiting for you at the door.

Sincerely,

Mr. Alexander

Starting Again…with a Great Big Asterisk This Time

School starts today. It’s Institute Day, which means no students. Instead, we get to sit through the same District, Union, Building, and Department Meetings that we’ve been having on opening day for over ten years now. I’m sure we’ll hear most of the same jokes, stories, and statistics that we always hear in the same canned speeches and recycled pep talks that we’re forced to endure every year. Then, near the end of the day, we’ll finally get some “individual time” to make sure our rooms, plans, and copies are in order so we’re ready to actually teach when the students arrive tomorrow.

School starts today. Which means summer vacation’s over. 4:00 am still feels like the middle of the night, my morning routines feel completely alien, and coffee has already ceased being a warm, delicious luxury and become a strong, black, dire necessity.

School starts today, which means life returns to routine and structure.

But with so many things returning to normal, I am becoming painfully aware of how much everything is going to change.

I quit coaching at the end of last school year. Despite the sentiments I recycled a few days ago about trying to achieve balance in my life, it was actually a very sudden decision. And it’s one that I’m still coming to grips with.

I started this site 18 months ago and during that time I’ve often wondered what it might be like to step away from coaching for a year and blog about the experience. How might my life change if I excised one of the fundamental facets of who I am? How might the balance of my life change if I were to set aside the thing that unbalances and undermines it the most? How much could I actually accomplish if I was done working at the end of school each day and actually had my weekends off? How good of a teacher could I be? How many projects could I finish around the house? How much more time could I spend with my daughters?

How much writing could I get done?

I suppose now we’ll find out.

This post is late coming, seeing as I began my “leave of absence” (I have a hard time believing I won’t go back at some point) at the start of summer vacation. I nearly cried when I had to face my position group on our last day of spring workouts and tell them out of the blue that I wasn’t going to coach them this year. I went through finals week with a ponderous void weighing on the hollows of my heart. I spent the first two weeks of summer – normally devoted to June football camp – alternately feeling like I was late for something and had forgotten somewhere I needed to be. But by the start of July, summer was mostly just summer. I did some graduate coursework – a luxury I never had time for before – which helped to keep me busy. I extended the annual trip to my grandmother’s house by an extra day just because I could. And I soaked up as much time as possible with my two young daughters and my wife. I only felt the absence of coaching when I stopped and let myself dwell on it.

You might have noticed, though, that this blog went dormant for three months. So did my writing. Sadly, I wrote significantly more last summer when I was both coaching football and preparing the house for a second child. This is where the questions about balance come in. Because I wasn’t coaching this summer, because I knew I had the extra hours to spend with my family, I felt obligated to spend ALL my extra hours with them. I took less time for myself this summer than I ever have before. In the end, I feel like I accomplished nothing over the past two months.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved every minute I spent with my family and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. But it makes me wonder. One of the carrots that eased this decision for me was the promise that I would have more time to write. Yet so far I’ve written next to nothing. Ironically, the start of school should help with that. Structure is good for me. So are the pre-dawn hours. If nothing else, they’re the only time I really get to myself. The doubt still remains, though. Am I going to be a better husband, father, teacher, and author this year now that coaching has been put on hold? Am I going to finally strike a satisfying balance in my life? Or am I going to find myself wasting more time simply because I have more time to waste? Growing lazier because I don’t have the pressure to focus my effort? Actually taking less time for my own needs and my own dreams because I feel like I have the time to spend with my family thus I must spend all of that time with them while I have it?

I’m so accustomed to balancing my life against the massive and unstable weight of coaching, will I be able to keep myself level without it?

It’s the first day of school, and the morning writing hour is drawing to an end. I don’t know how ready I am to start a new year, especially while still sorting out such a major change in my life. I can tell you this much, though: I’m excited to be back in my office watching the sun come up while I type.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

Fixing Up the Way I Look at Characters

I have a three-year-old at home, so it’s no great shock that I spent a large part of this past spring watching the movie Frozen. I never did see it in the theater, but after multiple viewings on Blu-Ray, I’ll admit that I see the appeal.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (like me)…

Frozen – a loose adaptation of “The Snow Queen” – is essentially a 21st-century addendum to the “Disney Renaissance” playbook. Like The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, it’s essentially a Broadway musical with legitimate Broadway talent cast in key roles. There are 24+ minutes of musical numbers in the film, all of which manage to be ear-worm infectious without being annoying. More important, each number helps to advance the story and develop the film’s characters. None of them are throw-aways that are only there to fill out the soundtrack album.

What separates Frozen from its Renaissance-era forebears, however, is its willingness to embrace modern thematic content and avoid pandering to children with fairy tale notions of love and marriage. The film benefits tremendously from a pair of intelligent, emotionally independent, and strong-willed heroines who ultimately find themselves in conflict with a fiendishly manipulative but non-transparent villain. Or, to put it more simply, at no point in the movie do you have to look at Elsa and Anna and think C’mon! Really!?!.

But, I’m not here today to write a review of a movie that came out eight months ago. I’m here to share some thoughts on one of the film’s musical numbers, the theme at it’s center, and the perspective it’s given me regarding character. Whether you’re a teacher, a writer, or just an avid reader and/or movie-goer, it might be worth taking a second look at your favorite characters through the lens presented below.

“Fixer Upper”

At this point in the film, lovable everyman Kristoff has brought a wounded Anna to his adopted family in hopes that they can help save the young princess’s life. Kristoff’s family, shocked to see him with a woman for what seems to be the first time, is intent on setting the pair up. What follows is a welcome moment of levity in a movie that delves into some dark subject matter (for a children’s story) and a song that has volumes to say about the human condition. For convenience, I’ve included the video below.

Oh…did I forget to mention that Kristoff’s family was a herd of trolls?

Sorry.

“Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper. That’s what it’s all about.”

Scott Adams wrote in Seven Years of Highly Defective People that he “only like[s] characters with huge, gaping character flaws”. I think if we stopped and really took stock, most of us would be hard-pressed to disagree with him. We are each of us fundamentally flawed as individuals, each carrying our own unique baggage through life. We turn to literature, film, and theater to witness the tribulations of others who share our same shortcomings and toil under our same baggage. Regardless of whether we’re searching for solace or schadenfreude, we seek out characters with whom we identify and insinuate ourselves onto their lives as a means of navigating our way through our own. Because of this need to relate, identify, and share, it’s rare that we meet a principal character in any medium who is perfect. When we do, we tend to find such characters unsettling and quickly grow suspicious of them for being “too perfect”. In other words, our first instinct is to regard perfection as a fundamental flaw.

So…perhaps the key to understanding any given character is simply understanding how he or she is, like each of us, a “fixer-upper”.

“We need each other to raise us up and round us out.”

At face value, “Fixer Upper” seems to make the cloying and quintessentially Disney-fied assertion that the only thing missing from our lives is to be swept away by the man or woman of our dreams. On closer examination, however, the song is a surprisingly honest examination of how messy a proposition true love really is. In the end, we love the people that we love because of their flaws rather than in spite of them. To paraphrase the lyrics, we can’t change the people we love and they can’t really change us, but we can bring out the best in each other.

Or, as Rocky put it, "I dunno.  She's got gaps.  I got gaps.  Together we fill gaps."

Or, as Rocky put it, “I dunno. She’s got gaps. I got gaps. Together we fill gaps.”

“So he’s a bit of a fixer-upper, so he’s got a few flaws…”

In How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster wrote that the most important question you have to be able to answer about any character is what does he want more than anything else?.

Let’s assume that the answer across the board is simply this: To be fixed. In that case, consider the following questions:

1. In what way is the character a “fixer-upper”? In other words, What about that character needs fixing?

2. What’s it going to take to fix him?

3. Does the character actually get fixed?

and

4. How? Or, if not, Why not?

“The only fixer-upper fixer that can fix a fixer-upper…”

…is true love, according to the song. The trolls, of course, are singing about the potential for romance between Kristoff and Anna. That sentiment can be easily generalized to a wide variety of love stories and fairy tales. Take a moment to consider Ariel or Belle or The Beast and you’ll see what I mean. The mental math is relatively simple. It’s when we’re forced to venture into questions of why not? that the equation gets tricky.

In his book, Thomas C. Foster’s primary example is The Great Gatsby. Foster posits that the key to understanding its title character is simply understanding how desperately he desires to win back his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. James Gatz literally becomes a new man, a mysterious self-made millionaire named Jay Gatsby. And he does it solely to win the love of a woman he couldn’t have when he was just a working-class nobody.

"His isolation is confirmation of his desperation for healing hugs."

“His isolation is confirmation of his desperation for healing hugs.”

Now, consider Gatsby as a fixer-upper.

The most glaring thing about Gatsby that needs fixing is the fact that he’s hopelessly hung up on the past. Gatsby believes – as would any first-time reader – that Daisy’s love would put his demons to rest. Unfortunately, even though Gatsby seems to win Daisy over, he still doesn’t win her love. Worse, he’s forced to face the fact that he likely never had it in the first place. Daisy is emotionally bankrupt, and Gatsby has to come to grips with the fact that the dream he’s been chasing for years is merely that: just a dream. Gatsby’s world falls apart, and the ensuing mayhem takes his life. What more did he have to live for anyway? He was a broken man with no hope of being fixed.

“He’s just a bit of a fixer-upper. He’s got a couple of bugs…”

Obviously, the equation isn’t perfect. Nothing so simple ever is. But it does hold up reasonably well, even when we have to bend the rules a little bit. Let’s look at two more examples.

Around the time Frozen hit theaters, I was busy reading Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. The twenty-first century incarnation of Danny Torrance is a fixer-upper because he’s still haunted by the events that took place at the Overlook Hotel when he was a child, and he’s consequently fallen victim to alcoholism and drug abuse. What ultimately fixes Dan is the discovery that he has an illegitimate half-sister.

At its climax, Frozen asserts that the true love we need doesn’t have to be romantic. The love of family and friends is just as vital, magical, and powerful as that of a potential partner. Much the same can be said of Doctor Sleep. Together, Dan Torrance and his new family are able to face the demons that collectively haunt them. Acts of true love abound and are able to overcome even the ghosts of Jack Torrance and the Overlook itself.

“We’ve got a real, actual problem here.”

When I first had the idea for this post, I was busy teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to my freshmen. Using it as a test case in my first set of scribbled notes was almost enough to make me give up on the whole idea.

The hell with that.

Atticus Finch is about as close as I can come to thinking of a truly perfect character in literature. But I would still accuse him of having at least one major flaw: He is a hopeless idealist. Now, don’t get me wrong. Atticus Finch’s idealism and his moral resolve are two of his most endearing traits. We should all be so blessed. In the novel’s final chapters, however, Atticus’s unwavering compulsion to do the right thing almost costs him his son.

In the wake of Bob Ewell’s death, Atticus is so hell-bent on being an upstanding and law-abiding man that he’s willing to throw Jem at the mercy of the local court (a dicey proposition at best in Maycomb…especially if your name’s Finch). Worse, Atticus is blind to the fact that Jem is obviously innocent of Bob Ewell’s murder. The thing that saves Atticus Finch from himself? His daughter. Scout reminds Atticus of one of the most important lessons he’s ever taught her, one that is both infinitely relevant and immediately applicable to their situation. She listened. She learned. And now she’s the one teaching him, difficult as it might be. As the father of two young daughters, I can only pray that mine love me that much some day.

Hmmm...he might be on to something there.

Hmmm…he might be on to something there.

So…

Try it out for yourself. Pick a favorite book or movie, pick a character, and pick him or her apart. Answer the questions below and see what happens.

1. In what way is the character a “fixer-upper”?

2. What’s it going to take to fix him?

3. Does the character actually get fixed?

and

4. How? Or, if not, Why not?

Leave a comment with the results and your thoughts. I’m thinking about sharing this with my students next year, and the more feedback I get the better it will be.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

On Voice, Persona, Writing, and Life

With each passing day, I am becoming more keenly aware of the fact that I am not myself. Never was this more obvious than during a recent monthly department meeting at school. Our English chair is retiring at the end of the year, so one of my colleagues organized a brief tribute to him to open this month’s meeting. Each of us was to come with a few prepared comments then take turns standing and sharing. I wound up going last and – moved by the spirit of the moment, you might say – I climbed on top of my desk and began with a declaration of “Oh captain! My captain!”.

I was met with wide eyes, titters of nervous laughter, and a general vibe of Holy shit! Did that just happen?. In short, my colleagues were shocked at my behavior. And that, in turn, shocked the hell out of me.

I was the guy who in college once won a game of “Penis” in the cafeteria by climbing on top of a table, kicking the trays out of my way, and pounding my chest as I bellowed from the bottom of my belly. Even as a grown-up, I was once known for giving un-self-consciously rancid karaoke performances that drew flocks of buzzards in search of whatever livestock might be tortuously bleeding out in the parking lot. So why now should my coworkers be stunned silent by a harmless Dead Poets Society moment?

In other words, when did I become this person? Or, rather, when did I stop being “that guy”.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I write this with full understanding and acceptance of three irrefutable facts of life:

1) We all have to grow up.

2) We all need to learn how to switch registers dependent on occasion and audience (in other words, to adapt the way we act and speak to suit the situation we’re in).

and

3) Most specifically, we all have to act professionally when we’re at work.

Nowhere in there does it say that being a grown up or being a professional means that you have to stop being yourself, however. And therein lie the problem. My colleagues weren’t surprised that I climbed on top of a desk and made an ass of myself in that situation. They seemed genuinely shocked that I did it at all. And, in my mind, all I could think was this should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me at all.

Wait for it…

Rrrrrriiiight.

That feel.  (photo credit:  imdb.com)

That feel. (photo credit: imdb.com)

Shortly after my wife and I first started dating, I took her out to meet a group of my friends from high school. We spent the night at a dive bar that typically catered to a much older and quieter crowd, but where the drinks were cheap and the bartenders never asked for ID (my future wife was only 20 at the time). At one point I stumbled warily to the bathroom, leaving my then-girlfriend alone with the “den mother” of our circle of friends. It wasn’t until years later that my wife told me about the unofficial initiation that took place in my absence.

“You know why I like you?” the den mother asked. “Because he is the exact same person around you that he would be if you weren’t here.”

In my wife’s eyes, no higher praise could have been given, and no more resounding approval could have been stamped on our relationship.

And shouldn’t that be the standard by which we measure all of our relationships?

Fast-forward ten years and most of the people I call my friends are football coaches. Yet nowhere have I felt this foreboding sense of losing myself more acutely than when I’m coaching. On the field, in the meeting room, and at the bar after big games, I find myself surrounded by men that I have almost nothing in common with and that I generally struggle to relate to.

While they’re discussing the stud fifth-grade running back that we’re going to build our program around in six years and the Vegas lines on that weekend’s college games, I’m trying to figure out if I’ll get to see Ender’s Game before it gets relegated to the dollar theater and wondering how Steven Moffatt is going to write his way out Trenzalore. I had no one to talk to about the telecast of The Sound of Music Live! (which I admittedly watched for Stephen Moyer rather than Carrie Underwood….because my wife turned me into a fan of True Blood…which I sheepishly enjoy as much for its soap opera qualities as for its multitude of naked women). Everyone I know spent that night watching Louisville at Cincinatti or the Texans at the Jaguars. And I don’t know a single football coach who’s going to invite me over so I can watch Six by Sondheim on their HBO On Demand.

Even the guys I am friends with I often have a hard time relating to when we’re among the rest of the staff. They are able to don masks of ball-busting false bravado and a-story-for-every-occasion drunken party boy-ness. I have no such persona. I am who I am and nothing more. Which means that when I’m in an environment that prohibits me from being myself, there is no one for me to become. I turn quiet and reserved. And I’ve spent so much time in silent, awkward restraint that most of my colleagues (both on the football field and in the English office) now labor under the delusion that that is simply who I am. I’m a reticent, dispassionate individual. Socially, I am a cumbersome nonentity.

Even worse, I fear that that is actually what I am becoming. The me that has emerged as a blank expression of suppressed individuality has started to insinuate itself as the real me. It is my new default mode. And I fucking hate it.

It was with both admiration and envy that I read Sports Illustrated‘s recent article on Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett. Aside from being a media-friendly personality, he is also seemingly a true individual in a culture that places such a high premium on conformity that it assigns a “uniform inspector” to both sidelines at every game. Although Bennett openly admits that some of his behavior in the media is calculated, he presents ample evidence to suggest that it is a calculated measure of himself rather than an image. But Bennett struggled for years to even open up that much of his true self to public scrutiny. He explains how it took a major life change – a move from Texas to New York, liberating him for first time from the football-crazed culture of the Lone Star State – before he felt secure and comfortable enough to simply be who he is.

The Black Unicorn Himself (photo credit:  chicagobears.com)

The Black Unicorn Himself (photo credit: chicagobears.com)

Which leaves me wondering….am I due a similar change? I have no intention of leaving suburban Chicago, but do I need to open myself up to the possibility that I am living in a culture that I’ve never truly been a part of? Even as a student-athlete, I was more likely to spend Saturday afternoons reading an Isaac Asimov novel than watching “the big game”. And it was virtually guaranteed that I was going to devote that night to Day of the Tentacle or (perish the thought) writing a story or a poem instead of pounding beers in the basement with “the guys”.

As much as I like football and I love coaching my players, maybe it’s time for me to accept the fact that I loathe what football has cost me.

One area that’s especially suffered over the years is my writing. Every August I have to put my authorial ambitions on the back burner because I simply don’t have the energy to hold up under any more pressure than I already face from school, football, and fatherhood. Every November (sometimes December), I come back to the computer with the foreboding realization that I’m starting from scratch. I have to refamiliarize myself with the projects I’ve put on hold and reconnect with the characters I’ve abandoned. Even that aside, though, I feel like I’m slowly losing the ability to write with the kind of un-self-conscious abandon necessary for prolific first-draft productivity. This is especially problematic for me when I’m signed in to WordPress. I come to my office with unbridled enthusiasm about a topic that’s popped into my head and percolated into a swirling brew of ingenious lines and brilliant insights. Then I lower my fingers to the keys and…

Nothing.

(photo credit:  business2community.com)

(photo credit: business2community.com)

I’m paralyzed by my own diffidence. My nascent awkwardness and introversion compounded by the immediacy of online publication causes me to agonize over every word I type. The end result is typically a post that feels white-washed and clinical. Of the forty-ish posts I’ve published on this site, I feel like only two of them really reflect who and what I am. One was a playful anecdote about the goofy things I do with my older daughter (easily my favorite thing I’ve written here). The other was just me on a rant. Even this post – which began life as a heart-felt outpouring of my frustrations and anxieties heading into 2014 – is in its 48th hour of gestation. I’ve gone round-and-round with myself so much about organization, word choice, sentence structure, content, and context that I’m amazed I’ve found any momentum writing it, let alone 1500+ words’ worth.

And now this same self-consciousness at the keyboard has started to creep into my other writing as well. My inability to don a persona, my life in limbo between who I am and all the things I just can’t bring myself to be, is slowly robbing me of my voice.

How, then, do I stop it? How do I reverse the polarity of who I am and who I seem to be and bring my life – and, by extension, my writing – back into balance? How do I break out of this taciturn shell I’ve built around myself and step forward as the man I really am? How do I once again become the same man with my friends and my colleagues that I am with my wife and my daughters? And how do I to say the hell with anyone who doesn’t like it?

"Reverse the polarity" you say? (photo credit: ugo.com)

“Reverse the polarity” you say?
(photo credit: ugo.com)

Winter break begins tomorrow. Perhaps with a couple of weeks free from lessons, grading, students, athletes, teachers, and coaches I can figure it out.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA