Do you want to build a snowman?

build a snowman

Byron is obsessed with Frozen. He marches around “chopping ice” and shout-singing “CHOP THE ICE COLD AND CLEAR”. When Mom says “I’m gonna tell him,” he says “Don’t you dare!” and then croons “In Summer…..” We’ve sat and watched the “Let it Go” sequence ten times in a row and he marvels at Elsa’s creative powers. I’m convinced this is the best Disney princess movie ever, and the fact that the story and music can appeal to a preschool-aged boy and his middle-aged dad is good evidence.

Anyway, today he got his very own Olaf, but I’m afraid he’s not going to be a lifelong friend.

Por qué estoy aprendiendo español?

One thing I never thought I’d do is study a language for no reason, but lately I’ve been learning Spanish all over again (third try, after half-hearted and deflating attempts in high school and college). I tried Duolingo and got hooked, completed my “tree” and then moved on to the pedagogically superior (but slightly less free) Babbel. I’ve checked out books of Spanish language stories from the library, listened to Spanish language podcasts on my commute, and followed the exploits of Latin American comic heroes like Mafalda and Condorito. I mentally compose Spanish sentences throughout the day and listen to Spanish-language music  while I work (there’s a lot more out there than the Latin pop stuff). I still have a long way to go before I can say I “know” Spanish (I’m at an A2 level on the CEFR) but I’ve outpaced any of my earlier efforts and I’m lot more motivated and confident.

I really do it in the time I used to spend on Facebook, and in the same way: a little here, a little there, mostly on my PC (even on five-minute work breaks) and sometimes on my phone. I think the online tools help a lot. Online tools fit my learning style and my lifestyle. I do better when I’m not being scolded for not rolling my Rs correctly or whatever.

But the main thing is that I decided languages were not my thing, and now I’ve decided, in my mid-forties, that they can be my thing. I made up my mind too soon about what my limits were. Now I see so many missed opportunities — the languages I could have learned by now, the mastery I could have attained. If I had decided at age 15, or 25, or even 35 that I could learn Spanish, I could now be reading Borges, Marquez, and Fuentes in the originals. I could even be reading Don Quixote in the original (which must be daunting even for native Speakers, but I don’t know.) I could be conversing freely and fluently. But better late than never.

I am suddenly taken with how most of the hemisphere opens up by speaking one more language (and if I refresh my knowledge of Portuguese, practically all of the hemisphere — don’t take that personally, Haiti and Guyana Suriname). Throughout my 40s I’ve kept revising myself.

So this is the year I decided to learn Spanish. Yo quiero que continuar. Dedos cruzados.

Catwings

CatwingsSince our kid is three and can’t read, he is still very much in the “picture book” phase of his reading life, but we recently introduced his first chapter books: the Catwings series by Ursula K. LeGuin. And no, this is isn’t going to be one of those “my six year old is reading Tolstoy” things. I mean, we read it TO him, and I’m not sure how much he got from it, but when reading one of her cat-centric picture books I mentioned her books about flying cats that he would get to read when he was older, and of course he was immediately taken with the idea of flying cats and demanded them the next day. So we went into the stacks, miraculously found them, and read them over the next week. He often fell asleep in the middle of one (making me love them even more).

Anyway, I learned while tweeting about it that a lot of people hadn’t heard of them, and others had only read the first one and regarded the rest of the series with understandable skepticism, so I want to evangelize a bit on behalf of these curious books that are too short for proper chapter books, too long for picture books, to serious for such a young audience, and blah blah blah, they are wonderful little gems and you should read them all. I am glad that LeGuin was already a legend and got away with a marvelous project that would have otherwise been shut down due to conventional wisdom.

I won’t post a review or plot summary. I”ll just say that these feel like classics and I wish they would be collected into a single volume of shelf-of-honor quality, since they are only available now in paperback. And that if you google you will find fan fiction and fan art by first graders that will slay you.

And hey, since I have your eyes for a moment, I want to remind you of this book which I wrote about last year because today it is actually OUT and you can read it. It has garnered praise and starred reviews in the eight months since I blogged about it, which is great, but remember that I was the first to know. Or at least the first to write about it.

The Previously Untold Adventures of Kirby Puckett

Recently I found a picture book from 1993 co-authored by Twins superstar Kirby Puckett, “Be the Best You Can Be.” I read it to Byron, expecting him to be bored by it, but he was quite taken. Perhaps because he is a native Minnesotan, Kirby has captured his imagination.

Kirby_Puckett_Twins_MLB

It is more or less how all of the sports hero autobiographies for kids go — full of confidence-building proverbs. The fact is that Kirby’s story is inspiring. He grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago, and became a professional athlete despite being (as I explain to Byron) “Daddy’s height and Daddy’s shape.” We learned his faults later, but nobody can deny that Kirby was a good man on the field and in the dugout.

The story I tell Byron is not held to the bounds of the book. The book talks about Kirby’s famous home run from game 6 of the 1991 World Series, but I can tell Byron about the 1987 World Series. I can also tell Byron how Kirby made the Hall of Fame, which happened long after the book was released.

I also tell him that Kirby Puckett died. I explained about the hit-to-the-eye with a baseball, how he couldn’t play any more and stopped taking care of himself. I think his version of the story is that Kirby was hit in the eye with a baseball and died, which isn’t exactly true, but has a certain ring of truthiness.

He continually asks why Kirby Puckett is dead and why he’s not alive. He wants to know if we can go to Chicago and meet him. He also wants new stories about Kirby Puckett every night, and I am happy to comply. These stories aren’t limited to baseball.

For example, even hardcore fans probably don’t know that Kirby had superpowers as a kid–super strength, super jumping power, and super speed. He used these powers to fight crime on the backstreets and wharves of Chicago, including rescuing Ernie Banks from kidnappers and hypnotists working for the White Sox. You probably didn’t know Kirby had a pet hamster (coincidentally named Byron) who was a computer genius and piloted a radio-controlled airplane. You probably didn’t know that later in life Kirby engineered a locomotive and frequently moonlighted at monster truck rallies. Some of you probably know that Kirby was good friends with Spiderman, but they probably don’t know about the time Spiderman’s dog Spider Doggy helped Kirby Puckett foil a heist at the Field Museum masterminded by Al Capone himself.

I’m learning all kinds of stuff.

The Zoomies

Our kid has a period of mania every evening, sometimes for twenty minutes, sometimes (like tonight) for hours. Twitter tells me one slang term for this is the zoomies. Works for me. He can be cute and funny during this time. For example, last night, when I said in exasperation that he was not to climb the cat tower unless he had “paws and whiskers,” he ran off and came back moments later, triumphant, with “paws” and at least one “whisker.” And he climbed the cat tower, carrying the thing in his teeth like a buccaneer.

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Cute and funny but exasperating. We don’t need reassurance this is normal; we know it’s normal. But it’s also exasperating. And it makes it tough to write, which is one reason I have no answer for “what’s next?” questions. I have ten pages of this and fifteen pages of that, but evenings used to be my main writing time and now I am either chasing him around or staring at a work NOT in progress while screams and caterwauls sound from an adjacent room. Sigh.

It’s been a long winter and he’s cooped up a lot so I feel for him. If I had any energy, I’d have the zoomies too.

Gaming Up A Story

A few months ago I read about a 2014 middle grade release called Broken AgeThe premise struck me as very compelling: two intersecting stories, one from the distant past and one in the far future. Both stories can be summarized in a tantalizing sentence, but the overall the narrative construct is what most captured my imagination. Plus, it has beautiful art. I pre-ordered it. 

And so it is that one of the middle grade titles I was most eager to experience this year is not a book; it’s a game. It’s now out, and it’s good, but I’m not here to review the game. I was thinking more — perhaps because the game is a sort of middle grade novel — how game designers know fundamental things about STORY that literary types forget. For example: if I think about my books as games, I have to immediately give my character something to DO. A challenge. It might not be the central challenge of the greater narrative arc, but it will serve to orient the reader to the situation and the player to the controls/environment.

Imagine a game where all you do on the first level is steer the character through a boring, ordinary day with nothing more than a whiff of the action to come. Imagine actually nudging the arrow keys to make the game character walk down the hall, mouse-click a locker to open it, etc. It’s inconceivable, but it’s all too easy for writers to do this. They set up the world with “ordinary day,” hoping that wit and/or voice will carry readers along until [inciting incident]. I fall into this trap myself, and the truth is that my [inciting incidents] often do not require immediate attention. And I think that’s OK, too, but there has to be something for the character to DO, a challenge to be met, an object to be found, etc. (Glowing fungi in the woods? OK, but first comes the football game… you get what I mean).

Games reward their characters with new powers and assets, then level up to new challenges that require the new skills and inventory. Books can do this, too. Other writers–far more successful ones than me–are brilliant at it, The Hunger Games is a text book on scaffolded plotting. I struggle with it, and I can let myself off the hook by saying that real world challenges are not so tidy, but there’s something to be said for paying off readers as they go, of keeping up momentum.

Over the years I’ve started many projects that faltered, and that’s usually why. I have brooded for weeks or even months on characters and their relationships, but they don’t want anything concrete or short-term, and they don’t have much to DO. In a video game world they would be wandering aimlessly, looking for objects that aren’t there, finding things they can’t use. It just doesn’t work. I think you have to respect the creative process as well. It shouldn’t be all strategic, and plenty of great books would make crappy games. But I do think there’s something helpful about thinking of how “playable” a book is, visualizing the protagonist in pixels and asking myself, if this was a game, if readers had control of this character right now, would they know what to do?

William Stafford Turns 100

If I was a better man and a better writer I would try to be William Stafford, who got all the words right and lived well and set a good example. Most people hate poetry, or don’t know anything about it — they imagine effete cloud-like wanderers among daffodils, finding new rhymes and anapests strewn about like worm dirt. They don’t know how poetry can quiet an over-busy mind, offer an image or an idea that distracts you from the distractions, reminds you what is worth thinking about, liberates you from the mundane. I can open Stafford to any page and find something wonderful. For example:

Kids
They dance before they learn
there is anything that isn’t music.

Stafford has two poems that are frequently anthologized, so if you took a literature class in college you probably listened to the blowhard at the back of the class (e.g., me) “explain” what Stafford meant by his only swerving in a poem about a dead deer, or waited through the painful silence of a class perplexed by a poem’s central question — what is the poem not doing? Those are good poems, but you need to know who Stafford is before you can understand his swerving or why matters. You have to know Stafford, and possibly be a writer, to grasp the full impact of what that poem hasn’t done.

If I had to pick one to anthologize, myself, it would be this one.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

What more can I advise young people than that: Don’t ever let go of the thread. It’s too big an idea to be kept in a poetry class. I’m going to start inscribing it in my books.

I used to live pretty close to where Stafford was from, in Western Kansas, and probably visited half the towns he lived in as his family scrabbled about during the Depression. I can visualize his poems about growing up. Just living there was a career, he said. He knew what it was like to have seasons instead of history. He knew what it was like to make hay and be hungry, how it felt to be up at dawn and hold his hands up to the sun. He knew all that, and he never forgot. 

If only my father could hold me forever, and the world/stay still—

He is anchored to the soil and his past, with his eyes to the sky and the future. He realizes profound things, but he knows that the truth is soft, that the biggest truths are hard to believe. 

[W]ell, Right has a long and intricate name./And the saying of it is a lonely thing.

He is no longer with his, but a happy one hundredth to Mr. Stafford, who thought hard for us all and held on to the thread.