Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Crisis averted

For the past two months or so Kristin and I have had a running disagreement. She said she would never watch a Vikings game if Brett Favre was the quarterback. I said, as much as it sickens me, I would still pull for the Vikes.

Her reasoning was sound. How could she be expected to cheer for a quarterback we spent so long hating? He's a prima donna who keeps stealing the spotlight with his indecisiveness. And now she was expected to say, Hurray we've got Brett Favre on our team?

It's hard to argue with that line of thinking. But my position is that I love the Vikings more than I hate Favre. If he could help them win then it was a good move to sign him. Even in his "advanced" age (ahem, he's younger than me, dammit), and coming off biceps surgery, he was still probably a better option than Jackson or Rosenfels. At least that's what I was hoping if indeed he did end up wearing a purple No. 4 jersey.

Thankfully neither of us will have to put our theories into practice. Today's news that Favre would stay retired was greeted happily in our household. Kristin can join me again every Sunday to watch the games, and I didn't have to sell my soul in order for the Vikings to be a contender.

It's a win-win for us ... though it might mean we see the Vikings lose-lose more often.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The tactile nature of books

Books call to me. Some mutter; others scream. Some sit on my bookshelf and mock me for not having read them yet. Others lie to me. They make promises they have no intention of keeping.

When that right one arrives, it’s an amazing feeling. It’s often as much about how a book feels in my hands as it is the story inside.

I've experienced that twice in the past month or so. I decided to write about it now because of this article in today’s Chicago Tribune. It turns out even newspapers talk to me.

The first example came when I finally succumbed to the throat-clearing I heard on my bookshelf last month. A loaned copy of “The Time-Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger sat there, desperately vying for my attention on a pile of unread books that have less-insistent voices.

The book is beaten up. The binding is broken and the cover bent. It is beautiful. It landed in our house when our good friend, Ruth, visited in February and left it behind for us to read. Kristin devoured it first.

When I finally picked it up it was like being reunited with an old friend. I don’t know how else to explain it – it just felt right. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. The story pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. I was sad when I finished because Henry and Clare were no longer in my life; their story is over.

My other example came when I was still reading Time-Traveler's and I once again came face to face with “Demons in the Spring,” the anti-Kindle collection of short stories by Chicago writer Joe Meno. I first heard about the book while at the annual AWP writer’s conference last winter when I read an interview with Meno in a literary magazine.

I later saw Meno at a panel discussion during the Printer’s Row Book Fair (sorry Trib, I’m still not going to call it by the name you decided to change it to). While signing books afterward, Meno thanked a guy for buying Demons because it helped benefit 826 Chicago, a non-profit writing and tutoring center founded by Dave Eggers.

The next time came when Kristin and I were at Book Cellar three weeks ago, and I spotted Demons on a shelf. I picked it up for the first time and knew right away I would be taking it home. But I fought the feeling because I didn’t think we could afford a $25 book that day.

So I returned it and walked around waiting for other books to jump out. Several others tried to seduce me with their wily ways. But it was Demons I kept returning to, so I finally checked with Kristin about buying it.

For the rest of that day I had a hard time putting it down. The red canvas cover and bright white pages felt so comfortable in my hands I kept the book on my lap during our trip home.

This is what Meno was hoping for. He created a book – which also includes illustrations from a variety of artists – that can’t be duplicated in an e-book format such as Kindle. You have to hold it to fully experience it. It's what a book should be.

I’m nearly finished reading the 20 stories within, and I still find myself just holding it in my hands, rubbing the cover with my fingers. The book knows it already has my attention, so it no longer needs to call out. It sits quietly in my hands providing all the company it needs to.

But I know there is another book somewhere waiting patiently for me to walk past. And when the moment is right, the book will clear its throat or yell or politely ask me for a moment of my time.

Monday, July 13, 2009

First person: yea or nay?

I first came across Wright Thompson in the 2005 edition of the Best American Sports Writing series. Thompson is a wildly talented writer, one whom I’ve admired since reading that story about Jack Trice, the first black football player at Iowa State.

Thompson, who went from the Kansas City Star to ESPN.com as a senior writer, sparked a conversation on SportsJournalists.com about his recent story on Steve McNair. He wrote it using first person, and was criticized for not writing about Steve McNair, but rather writing about Wright Thompson.

There are some journalists – probably most – who feel it is a cardinal sin to write a feature in first person. They will go so far as to say it should NEVER happen. WE are not part of the story.

Honestly, I’m torn on the subject. I once used first person in a feature. It was about skydiving with Casey Deegan, an adult with Down syndrome. I tried a narrative technique that used my experience has a first-time skydiver interspersed with sections about Casey and his extraordinary life.

To this day I’m not sure that was the right approach. Maybe the story would have been better served if I pulled myself out and instead wrote a sidebar documenting my experience. But I wanted to challenge myself and felt this would be a good time to experiment with first person.

My ego probably came out somewhere in that thought process. Who wouldn’t want to read about my first skydiving experience? I’m sure that could have clouded my reasoning to some extent.

I still don’t understand why some writers are so opposed to first person, though. I can see disagreeing with its use and never wanting to try it yourself. But many vehemently oppose it. That’s the attitude I don’t understand.

I skimmed the comments left after Thompson’s McNair story—hey, there were almost 400. Did you think I’d really read them all? Most of the “conversation” was whether or not McNair deserved to die because he committed adultery.

I had no interest in that line of “debate,” an all-too-common occurrence on the wonderful interweb tubes. Instead I was looking to see if anybody criticized Thompson for inserting himself into the story.

A couple who were critical of him, but for other reasons. I saw many more who wrote about how much the story touched them. That obviously isn’t enough evidence to make an informed decision. But it did get me thinking.

Maybe journalists are too hard on each other. Maybe readers don’t give a rip about the use of first person. Or second. Or third. Maybe they don’t even care about sentence fragments. All that matters is if the story is written well enough, if it can stir something inside the reader. And sometimes that can happen with a first-person story.

Admittedly, there is a narcissistic bent to first-person writing. I just read a blog entry that went into that. Some writers are incapable of taking themselves out of stories. Without their own experiences to include they would have nothing to write about.

If nothing else, Thompson’s story doesn’t fall into that category. Neither does my story about Casey. I did a ton of reporting and spent many hours with him and his family. I did the legwork that others will sometimes neglect and then cover up by using first person.

I’d like to hear your thoughts. I have many friends who are – or were – journalists, but I’m hoping to hear from just regular readers, too.

Is first person OK in a newspaper outside a column or the editorial page? Is first person more acceptable in magazines or on the Web? Did Wright Thompson needlessly insert himself into the McNair story? Do readers care adamantly one way or the other?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Weekly Musical Interlude

Way back in the day a friend of mine from high school, Mark, introduced me to some great bands. Bands like the Suburbs, the Replacements and Gang of Four. Problem is, it took me 15 years before I actually listened.

In the early 80s -- back before I really started listening to Springsteen -- I had a pretty horrible taste in music. How bad was it, you ask? Well, I did own this album. My only saving grace is that I never bought an album from these guys.

Anyway, thanks to the wonders of Facebook, I've recently reconnected with Mark. I spent a little time with him last month when I went back to Duluth. And when I go back next week, he and I are going to see the Meat Puppets.

So while I completely missed the boat with the Replacements and others, I'm doing my best to play catch-up. Here's a video from the Meat Puppets playing "Lake of Fire," a song made more famous by Nirvana. Duluth gets mentioned in the lyrics, but good luck catching it with Curt Kirkwood singing!


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Bees hate me

Stream of consciousness can be fun. You just start thinking about one thing and that leads to something else and that leads you to write a bizarre novel that gets you labeled a literary giant.

That won’t happen here – at least not today. But I did just spend about 20 minutes drifting from my patio to something I read last night to an incident from my youth that led to my irrational fear of bees, hornets, wasps – really, anything with a stinger that flies, floats or crawls.

The stream started when a bumblebee landed on the petunias in front of me. After a couple seconds, this dastardly minion of Satan rose up and trapped itself under our umbrella. It bounced around under there looking for a way out.

I wasn’t buying it. I knew better. It was just trying to fool me into thinking it was an idiot. Nothing to fear here, sir, I’m just a bumbling bumblebee who trapped itself in an umbrella. Go back to your computer and forget about me.

My wife also tried convincing me it was harmless. Mind you, this is the woman who once almost killed me in a rollover car accident and later tried giving me salmonella. Only that time she got the plates mixed up and ended up with her own case of food poisoning.

So I’m not sure I can trust her when she says something is harmless. She could be in cahoots with the bees. I wouldn’t be surprised.

So anyway, this bee finally figures out how to escape from under the umbrella and flies away, no doubt waiting to return once I’ve relaxed and stopped paying attention. That’s when the attack will come, I’m sure of it.

Just last night I was thinking about bees. Actually, I was reading about them in a short story by Joe Meno called “Frances the Ghost.” In one scene, Frances, a young girl, is convinced by an older friend they should go into the woods and throw rocks at a beehive.

When the bees attack, Frances can’t turn away fast enough and they descend on her. What happens next is … well, I won’t tell you what happens. Just read the story. Meno is a fantastic writer.

This is where my mind wandered back to my youth. I must have been about eight or nine. I did lots of stupid stuff in those years, so I tend to think that anything I did that was really stupid happened during that time frame.

We were at my cousin’s house for a birthday party or some other summer gathering. As boys will do, we became bored and went looking for fun. That usually translates into trouble.

Someone spotted a hornet’s nest in a tree beside the gravel road we were on. Let’s see … hornets … young boys who were bored … lots and lots of rocks. I'm sure we all see where this is headed.

I don’t remember who threw the first one, but I do remember I tossed at least one. And, like Frances, I turned to run too late. I slipped on the gravel and hit the ground. I got stung multiple times as I lay there in the road trying to cover up while my cousins ran off safely.

I am now convinced this story has been passed down to generations of bees. I am convinced anything with a stinger knows I once threw a rock at a hornet’s nest. And I am convinced they are all just waiting for their chance to get me again.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Weekly Musical Interlude

When I was in high school, my best friend went to France on a school trip. Because I took Spanish, I wasn't allowed to go with him. I think we would have had a great time together, but from the stories he came back with I don't think he missed me.

The part that really made me jealous wasn't that I didn't get to see the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre or Versailles. That would have been cool. No, what really made me jealous was that they managed to squeeze in a Bruce Springsteen concert while over there.

My friend did bring me back a concert T-shirt and a cool postcard replica of the ticket, which I still have in a frame with all the tickets I've kept from the Springsteen shows I've seen. Still, I missed out on seeing the Boss in Paris.

Now thanks to the interwebs and YouTube I have a glimpse of what they saw that 30 June day in 1985. You can too. Plus, with it being July 4 and all, I couldn't think of a better video to show.