The Playgrind Part 2

I get to go to the playground every weekend so the kid can scream at me for not pushing him on the swing right (“Use both hands! Put your phone away!”). Playground time means trying to explain to other parents why my son just threw sand at their baby’s face or ordered their kid out of his favorite swing. Playground time means a barrage of why questions: why is that bug  dead, why is that boy on a bike, why it isn’t raining. Playground time means having public fights over things like whether or not Daddy’s shoes should be thrown in the pool. Playground time is tedious and exasperating.

But here’s why I say, “I get to go,” instead of, “I have to go.” I get to go because in between all the questions, the anxiety over his interactions with other kids, suffering through his bossiness and unreasonableness, there are moments of discovery.

Byron hasn’t learned there is anything that isn’t interesting. He can occupy himself with a copse of grass. He spent five minutes yesterday marvelling at a drowned beetle. He felt like the luckiest kid on earth because he found a penny, and when he found a second he left it there: with one, he had all the riches in the world, and the second penny should make another kid’s day.

I wish I could say it was as easy as being with a child to see the world through his eyes, to transcend my grown-up jaundice and worldly concerns, and to delight in a dragonfly, but it’s not that easy. But then, sometimes, it is. When you have tuned yourself to him, when you have allowed yourself to take an interest in his interests, you can suddenly be thrilled by the sight, in the sky, in the distance, of a man on a cherry picker fixing a wire. You can follow an ant for several minutes. You can watch a grasshopper with the same fascination as you watch an exotic zoo animal.

You can celebrate, with him, when he finally finds the right combination of shifting weight and leg pumps to make the swing swing on its own, to feel the same flush of pride, and be glad he stops a moment later and asks you to push him, with both hands.



In 1992 or thereabouts I saw a movie called Slacker, an ambitious movie by a first-time director that involved easily over a hundred characters in what at least seemed to be a single take. It instantly became my favorite movie, not because of the premise, but because within that premise the movie was so funny and unconventional. The concept of the movie was to follow various conversations in and around the city of Austin over a 24 hour timeframe. The “one day” theme continued in the director’s next movie, Dazed and Confused, which I thought then (and think now) is one of the great teen movies (but it’s not a typical “teen movie,” which is what sets it apart) and Before Sunrise. I’ve followed Linklater with a lot of interest ever since. But although I saw and enjoyed every one of his movies, even Waking Life (which practically nobody saw and nobody liked), I felt like he hadn’t matched those first two films. I kind of wrote him off after School of Rock and The Bad News Bears remake, which were OK movies but it seemed like he wasn’t trying to do anything special anymore.

Well, now he’s turned out the movie of his career, and one which I’m sure will be talked about for many years. And I swear I’m not making this up, but I’ve always wanted someone to make a movie about someone growing up, and do it over a period of years, with the same actors aging naturally over time. So Linklater did exactly that, starting in 2002 and finishing now, in 2014. The movie is finallt here: Boyhood.

I would say, a lesser director wouldn’t have made such a movie this successful, but a lesser director wouldn’t have bothered. Only a patient director primarily interested in humans would do it, and Linklater is the right director for this movie by virtue of the fact that he wanted to do it.

I’ll try to avoid major spoilers but really, this isn’t the kind of movie that can be “spoiled.” It’s not a Bruce-Willis-is-a-Ghost type movie. It’s exactly what you think it is going in — a movie about a boyhood. But the following paragraphs are very mildly spoilerish so don’t read if you’re that kind of person.

I love the fact that the parents are people in this movie, and grow and change as much as their children. I’ve never loved Ethan Hawke as an actor, and expected I would be frustrated by what the previews promised would be a deadbeat, drifter dad. Instead I found myself rooting for that character, and marvelling that the actor who used to mumble his way through parts was doing it.  But Patricia Arquette is even better; a woman who is more than once compelled to make terrible decisions that are the less terrible of terrible decisions. I also loved Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, squirming in awkward conversations with her “dad” (Ethan Hawke) (but maybe it was easy to squirm since her real dad was watching). Ellar Coltrane reminded me weirdly of Martin Freeman in the British The Office; able to communicate more with facial expressions to the camera than he does to the other actors, a style that’s peculiar but effective.

I think the movie works best because as these actors worked with each other for over a decade, they became close, and their chemistry is real–if Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane had a palpable closeness in the final scenes, it’s because Hawke really did watch that boy grow up and cares about him. When Lorelei’s jabs at her “little brother” are delivered with the perfect combination of annoyance and affection, it’s because she’d known Ellar most of her life. The movie, despite its title, is less about a boy and more about family.

Ultimately Boyhood is testament to this approach to a movie: watching a boy really grow up and his family grow with him. It is the opposite of Forrest Gump, which shamelessly works in every big song and major event and reduces the human characters to types. In Boyhood, the people are real, flawed but heroic, and the story is theirs.

It’s probably not a perfect movie, but it’s braver, more challenging, and more interesting than just about everything else coming out this summer.

Some things I don’t want tell my son

Something I’m writing is from the point of view of a skeptical child… she has learned that adults say well-meaning but meaningless things, things that are meant to make themselves, not the child feel better. She gets this cynicism from me. But I wonder which of these I will inevitably tell my own son?

1. “Just be yourself”

This is kind of a crazy-making thing to tell a kid, isn’t it? Do kids know who they are, yet? Should they know who they are?

Byron, I hope you sort out who you are eventually, but you’re only going to find out who you are through fearless experimentation. Also, I am forty-six years old and I still don’t know who I am.

2. “Everything will be all right”

Kid, I don’t know that everything will be all right. I have a lot of concerns about the future — ours, yours, the world’s. Try to be brave and know you aren’t alone.

3. “You can do anything.”

The truth is that you can’t do anything. For example, with short parents you are probably not bound for the NBA. The good news is that you’re good at some things, and people tend to like doing the things they are good at. Also, the world is filled with interesting jobs that don’t make you rich and famous, but give you a happy and rewarding life. We’ll talk about your dreams and try to get you there and keep our minds open.

4. “A real friend wouldn’t make you __________.”

Ah, but friendship is so complicated, isn’t it? At some point a friend is going to ask you to do something, and it doesn’t make them a false friend or a terrible person. I hope you have the courage to say “no,” because it takes more courage to stand up to friends sometimes than it does to stand up to enemies. But when you do say no, you can say “I am still your friend.”

5. “These are the best years of your life”

My own childhood wasn’t that happy, and the last thing I needed to hear was that it would go downhill. Fortunately it didn’t. Every decade has been better than the one before it. In my 20s I got a career, in my 30s I got a house and met your mother, in my forties I fulfilled my dream of publishing and you came along. I hope you find that your life steadily improves as you get older and find your way in the world. Reviews of The Sky

Only the middle part is blue

17 of 23 people found this review useful

I was excited about the sky because I heard it was blue and blue is my favorite color. I was disappointed to find that only the middle part was blue. It was more gray-white in the beginning and purple at the end. The blue parts were sometimes very blue, but sometimes had a lot of white mixed in which I didn’t really get. I think it was trying to be deep but the white things were too distracting to really get what was supposed to be deep. I like the inclusion of many birds but they could have been more colorful. I did like the part with the airplane. It came as a complete surprise and was very effective. Also I should mention that the sky is very vast so you have to like vast things. If you prefer more modest fare the sky is not for you. I would recommend the sky to people who like vast things that are mostly blue and might be deep if you don’t mind the distracting white parts. ***

Comment: not sure we even saw the same sky. Mine is black and twinkly with light.

Comment: huh? No, I guess we didn’t see the same thing, but mine is definitely sky.

Departure from ground

15 of 20 people found this review useful

I don’t know why I went outside and looked at the sky when I wasn’t a big fan of ground (I was led to believe it was similar), but I’m glad I gave sky a chance. Sky is completely different from Ground. Ground is so boring. Sky is amazing. Loved sky and plan on seeing it again. *****

Comment: I loved ground, so I guess I won’t like sky? LOL.

Comment: I think you’ll like sky. It’s just not an apt comparison. FTR I didn’t *hate* ground, I just thought it was really slow.

Comment: Maybe you just have to be in the mood for it.

Comment: Maybe.

Get celestial vault instead

This is a cheap rip off of a much better product, CELESTIAL VAULT. Don’t waste your time on sky. * (Wish I could give it ZERO stars).

Comment: let me guess. You work for celestial vault?

Comment: I have zero association with celestial vault.

Comment: I’ll take that as a yes.

Don’t believe the hype

I heard a lot of buzz about sky like it was the best thing ever and it was just OK. My kids *hated* it so definitely don’t bring kids to this. They will hate it. **

Arrived wet

11 of 18 people found this review useful

Mine was wet and I couldn’t use it. *

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.


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.


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.

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?