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.

New Year, New Look, New Life…

With a new school year and a new adventure about to begin, I thought it was a great time to freshen things up a bit around here. The “reconstruction” project is nearly done. I hope you like the new look!

What follows is a repost of some thoughts I originally published in April (please don’t point out the irony to me…I’m well aware of it). They were the inspiration for this blog’s new tagline and should provide some perspective about the major changes that have swept the Alexander house this summer.

Thank you for your patience as I’ve gone dark these past few months. Updates and explanations are coming soon.

CVA

Striking Balance in Suburbia

Monday was the first time in weeks that I was able to come straight home after school. The sun was out, the temperature was up, and the wind was high. The Wife and I took a long walk with The Younger (The Elder was at her grandparents’ house for the day) and enjoyed an hour of fresh air and quiet conversation.

The Younger – who was born at the beginning of football season and only started developing a personality during the dead of winter – smiled at the sounds of our voices, giggled at the sights of the neighborhood, and kicked with glee at the cool of the breeze on her face. In short, she spent the afternoon outside with her mommy and daddy, and she beamed the whole time.

After our walk, I went to collect The Elder and stopped to pick up an early birthday dinner for The Wife. The four of us ate together while the sun was still out, then we played together in the front yard. I got to feed The Younger her bedtime bottle and got to read to each daughter independently before turning out their lights for the night. Then The Wife and I finished our night by watching the How I Met Your Mother finale and cashing it in early.

It was as close to a perfect evening as I could imagine.

And it makes me think long and hard about something The Wife said to me on Friday.

I came home around 4:00 (about three hours earlier than usual these days) and was able to wrangle the girls while The Wife made dinner. What we sat down to that evening blew me away: Pasta, salad, homemade eggplant parmigiana, and glasses of red wine.

“This is amazing,” I said.

“This is what rugby season is losing you the other nights of the week.”

Those words have been echoing in my head ever since. As I went to bed Monday night, they were practically screaming in my ears.

We’ve been having rugby practice for the better part of three weeks now. We open our season at home on Friday night. And I’m steadily growing to dread each day of it.

Now, I’ve always approached the start of a new athletic season with a healthy dose of trepidation. This has understandably been compounded since the birth of The Elder. I anticipate the arrival of each fall and spring with memories of the summer and winter weighing on my heart. I lament the impending loss of the hours with my family and the freedom of actually having spare time. But I also quickly forget it all once I’m out on the field. The hours with my friends and my players are usually enjoyable enough to numb me to what I’m missing, and the impact I have on the young men in my care is generally enough to make the sacrifice seem worth it.

But not this year. Not this spring.

I’ve always told myself – and my wife – that whenever the day arrives that I reach the end of a season and I genuinely regret it, that will be the day that I hang up my whistle.

For the first time, I’m beginning to wonder if that day is on the horizon.

Ever since I read Grendel in English 4 Honors, I’ve held firm to the belief that “Balance is everything”. But this winter is the first time in my adult life that I’ve truly felt that balance. Consider the list of things I accomplished without football or rugby to get in the way…

…I finished a manuscript I’d been picking away at since fall of 2010. And I did it in a flurry of 1,000-plus-word mornings followed by a few weeks of focused proofing and editing.

…I was an attentive and affectionate husband, one who was finally able to help his wife work through some lingering post-partum depression and anxiety that had gone largely repressed on her end and overlooked on mine.

…I took an active role in my daughters’ lives for more than just a half-hour a day (which probably helped a lot with the above).

…and I was probably the most on-the-ball I’ve ever been as a teacher. I was able to come in every morning with strong lesson plans, graded papers, and a positive attitude about my job and my students.

I call this blog Husband, Father, Teacher, Coach, Author because it’s all about my struggles to balance these facets of who I am. And this winter I was the best I’ve ever been at four of my five roles. I’d finally struck balance between the four most important parts of my life.

And now we enter a time of year when the fifth unbalances them all.

I can already feel myself growing lazier with my lesson plans, bracing myself to “wing it” in front of my students, and falling behind on my grades.

Although I’m maintaining this blog as proactively as I can, I haven’t typed a new word of fiction in weeks.

I’m steadily seeing less and less of my wife. And – fatigued as I am by the end of the day – I’m spending less time actually interacting with her even when we are together.

Although my girls light up in elation whenever I come home, I know their faces are painted with bittersweet joy. They’re only so happy to see me because they see me so little.

I’ve been wrestling with these feelings for most of a month now, but the events of Monday evening stirred me into sleepless turmoil. I’m realistic enough to know that if I ever did walk away from coaching, not every afternoon could be like Monday was. But I’m optimistic enough to believe that such days could become more the norm than the exception.

Even still, my evening with my family was probably only a jab at the heart, a feint to set me up for a roundhouse to the jaw.

It was the damn HIMYM finale that sent me over the edge.

*Spoilers Ahead*

The revelation of Tracy’s passing is what brought these thoughts to the fore. I remember near the end of season 8, old Ted delivers a monologue about remembering his life 45 days before meeting his eventual wife. He says that if he’d known then what he knows in 2030, he’d have gone to her apartment and introduced himself that day so that he could have those 45 extra days with her. And even if he couldn’t have them, he says it would have been worth it to him to see his wife for even just the 45 seconds it would take for her then-boyfriend to show up at the door and escort him away. He simply loved her that much.

If my wife’s life were to become suddenly and immediately finite, how many of the afternoons spent at football and rugby would I wish and pray every day that I could have back? How much would I give for 45 more days or even just 45 more seconds?

What if I faced the same situation with one of my daughters?

Regardless of tragedy, how much of their “big stuff” will I have lost to the mundane routines of practice, meetings, and film? How many of their victories will I have missed out on because of football games and rugby matches? And just how few might be left ahead?

One of the football coaches I work with gives a speech every year about the importance of legacy. What will your legacy be?

When I look back on my life – when the day comes that I face my judgment, whatever its source – will I be remembered as a good teacher and a good football and rugby coach? Or as a good husband and a good father? Do I want my legacy to be quantified in wins and losses or in hugs and smiles? Do I want to lament never having won a state title or having never published a best-seller? Do I want to live on in the memories of other people’s children? Or of my own?

Do I want to look back at the end of my life and remember the stress and the heartache and turmoil I endure every fall and spring?

Or do I want to remember balance?

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

Why Not?

Not too long ago, I wrote about how my wife suggested I start doing my writing in the evening so that I could “loosen up” with a drink or two before I begin. Well, The Wife is out of town, The Girls are in bed asleep, and here I am in the office with several pages of notes, a few ideas swirling in my head, and one half-finished glass of whisky on the desk.

Let’s see what happens next!

CVA

Whadda Ya Waitin’ Fer!?!

Ok…The Girls are in bed…The Wife’s at yoga…I have an hour to myself. Time to *finally* start the new book. I don’t know why I’ve been dragging my feet for this long – wait, I do…but I’ll have to save that for another day or else I’m never going to get started.

Wish me luck. I’ll let you know how it goes.

See you on the other side, Ray.

Striking Balance in Suburbia

Monday was the first time in weeks that I was able to come straight home after school. The sun was out, the temperature was up, and the wind was high. The Wife and I took a long walk with The Younger (The Elder was at her grandparents’ house for the day) and enjoyed an hour of fresh air and quiet conversation.

The Younger – who was born at the beginning of football season and only started developing a personality during the dead of winter – smiled at the sounds of our voices, giggled at the sights of the neighborhood, and kicked with glee at the cool of the breeze on her face. In short, she spent the afternoon outside with her mommy and daddy, and she beamed the whole time.

After our walk, I went to collect The Elder and stopped to pick up an early birthday dinner for The Wife. The four of us ate together while the sun was still out, then we played together in the front yard. I got to feed The Younger her bedtime bottle and got to read to each daughter independently before turning out their lights for the night. Then The Wife and I finished our night by watching the How I Met Your Mother finale and cashing it in early.

It was as close to a perfect evening as I could imagine.

And it makes me think long and hard about something The Wife said to me on Friday.

I came home around 4:00 (about three hours earlier than usual these days) and was able to wrangle the girls while The Wife made dinner. What we sat down to that evening blew me away: Pasta, salad, homemade eggplant parmigiana, and glasses of red wine.

“This is amazing,” I said.

“This is what rugby season is losing you the other nights of the week.”

Those words have been echoing in my head ever since. As I went to bed Monday night, they were practically screaming in my ears.

We’ve been having rugby practice for the better part of three weeks now. We open our season at home on Friday night. And I’m steadily growing to dread each day of it.

Now, I’ve always approached the start of a new athletic season with a healthy dose of trepidation. This has understandably been compounded since the birth of The Elder. I anticipate the arrival of each fall and spring with memories of the summer and winter weighing on my heart. I lament the impending loss of the hours with my family and the freedom of actually having spare time. But I also quickly forget it all once I’m out on the field. The hours with my friends and my players are usually enjoyable enough to numb me to what I’m missing, and the impact I have on the young men in my care is generally enough to make the sacrifice seem worth it.

But not this year. Not this spring.

I’ve always told myself – and my wife – that whenever the day arrives that I reach the end of a season and I genuinely regret it, that will be the day that I hang up my whistle.

For the first time, I’m beginning to wonder if that day is on the horizon.

Ever since I read Grendel in English 4 Honors, I’ve held firm to the belief that “Balance is everything”. But this winter is the first time in my adult life that I’ve truly felt that balance. Consider the list of things I accomplished without football or rugby to get in the way…

…I finished a manuscript I’d been picking away at since fall of 2010. And I did it in a flurry of 1,000-plus-word mornings followed by a few weeks of focused proofing and editing.

…I was an attentive and affectionate husband, one who was finally able to help his wife work through some lingering post-partum depression and anxiety that had gone largely repressed on her end and overlooked on mine.

…I took an active role in my daughters’ lives for more than just a half-hour a day (which probably helped a lot with the above).

…and I was probably the most on-the-ball I’ve ever been as a teacher. I was able to come in every morning with strong lesson plans, graded papers, and a positive attitude about my job and my students.

I call this blog Husband, Father, Teacher, Coach, Author because it’s all about my struggles to balance these facets of who I am. And this winter I was the best I’ve ever been at four of my five roles. I’d finally struck balance between the four most important parts of my life.

And now we enter a time of year when the fifth unbalances them all.

I can already feel myself growing lazier with my lesson plans, bracing myself to “wing it” in front of my students, and falling behind on my grades.

Although I’m maintaining this blog as proactively as I can, I haven’t typed a new word of fiction in weeks.

I’m steadily seeing less and less of my wife. And – fatigued as I am by the end of the day – I’m spending less time actually interacting with her even when we are together.

Although my girls light up in elation whenever I come home, I know their faces are painted with bittersweet joy. They’re only so happy to see me because they see me so little.

I’ve been wrestling with these feelings for most of a month now, but the events of Monday evening stirred me into sleepless turmoil. I’m realistic enough to know that if I ever did walk away from coaching, not every afternoon could be like Monday was. But I’m optimistic enough to believe that such days could become more the norm than the exception.

Even still, my evening with my family was probably only a jab at the heart, a feint to set me up for a roundhouse to the jaw.

It was the damn HIMYM finale that sent me over the edge.

*Spoilers Ahead*

The revelation of Tracy’s passing is what brought these thoughts to the fore. I remember near the end of season 8, old Ted delivers a monologue about remembering his life 45 days before meeting his eventual wife. He says that if he’d known then what he knows in 2030, he’d have gone to her apartment and introduced himself that day so that he could have those 45 extra days with her. And even if he couldn’t have them, he says it would have been worth it to him to see his wife for even just the 45 seconds it would take for her then-boyfriend to show up at the door and escort him away. He simply loved her that much.

If my wife’s life were to become suddenly and immediately finite, how many of the afternoons spent at football and rugby would I wish and pray every day that I could have back? How much would I give for 45 more days or even just 45 more seconds?

What if I faced the same situation with one of my daughters?

Regardless of tragedy, how much of their “big stuff” will I have lost to the mundane routines of practice, meetings, and film? How many of their victories will I have missed out on because of football games and rugby matches? And just how few might be left ahead?

One of the football coaches I work with gives a speech every year about the importance of legacy. What will your legacy be?

When I look back on my life – when the day comes that I face my judgment, whatever its source – will I be remembered as a good teacher and a good football and rugby coach? Or as a good husband and a good father? Do I want my legacy to be quantified in wins and losses or in hugs and smiles? Do I want to lament never having won a state title or having never published a best-seller? Do I want to live on in the memories of other people’s children? Or of my own?

Do I want to look back at the end of my life and remember the stress and the heartache and turmoil I endure every fall and spring?

Or do I want to remember balance?

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA