“Say What You Need To Say”

swear words
“Nothing [is] good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

By the inclusion of the occasional “bad” word in my novels, I have willfully hamstrung my potential sales in the education market. Schools are very sensitive to parental/community overreaction to their children coming across curse words in school-assigned texts; therefore, they are reluctant to purchase books that make use of them. This is true even when the words are accurately reflective of reality. Not long ago, a local school district came under fire for teaching Walter Dean Meyer’s novel FALLEN ANGELS, a modern classic set “in country” during the Vietnam War, because the mostly-teenaged soldiers occasionally use the “F-word.” I somehow doubt those “grunts” said “Darn!” or “Fudge!” or “Poop!” very often. And when they said “Shoot,” it was in an entirely different context.

Father Flanagan, the priest who founded the Boys Town orphanage, is famous for saying, “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” I’m not sure that I totally agree with Fr. Flanagan. It seems to me that some people are simply born evil, but the relationship between nature vs. nurture in personality development has nothing to do with this article. Instead, I’m going to share how I have long used Flanagan’s motto to make the similarly-contentious point that there is no such thing as a bad WORD; only words used in inappropriate environments and due to inappropriate training/example/thinking.

To begin with, I’ve never been a Grammar Nazi who corrects every double negative, incorrect use of “who” or “whom,” or the confusion between “can” and “may” or “I” and “me.” In fact, I find such people pedantic and annoying. Sure, I have a few pet peeves, but for the most part, I try not to nag. I especially believe that there is far more room for loose grammar and blue language in the spoken word than in the written one. But in either case, words are intended to facilitate communication, and as long as a speaker’s words are understood, I believe she is communicating appropriately.

“But what about curse words?” Some would ask. I believe that even curse words are appropriate in the correct environment and context. For example, despite a fairly-extensive vocabulary, I swear like a sailor when I’m with my buddies, but I don’t believe I have ever used a swear word in my mother’s company or in front of children. Another example of the contextual appropriateness of curse words occurs in movies that have been edited for television. In these the curse words have often been dubbed so that a word like “shit” becomes a garbled “shoot.” The replacement word typically doesn’t fit the situation or the character and completely ruins the scene by rendering it laughable. Even the “F-bomb” is acceptable in the proper environment. I’m thinking of that Maroon 5 song “Payphone.” In the unedited version, in utter disgust, Adam Levine sings, “One more fucking love song, I’ll be sick,” and it has punch. On the radio-friendly version, he sings, “One more stupid love song, I’ll be sick,” and it just lacks something. As an extreme example, dirty talk between the sheets would become clinical, un-sexy, and pathetic without the use of so-called curse words (I’ll let you imagine a few lines for yourself.).

The most extreme use of words that are generally deemed inappropriate for public consumption occurs when utilizing those terms that are charged with venomous disrespect for a person’s race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I would argue, however, that even these – more so for the writer than the speaker – can be used appropriately. The best example, of course, being Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I’ve tried to read censored versions in which the n-word (I can’t even type it; I find it so distasteful.) has been changed to “slave.” The conversion ruins the story and lessens Twain’s intended satire regarding the wrongheadedness of racism. And although I do not like the “C-word,” I watched a character in HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS use it in reference to a female rival, and it stung in a way that the “B-word” never could. As a child, I was sometimes chided for using the word “hate.” Adults would say, “Hate is a strong word.” I always thought, “Yeah, that’s why I use it.”

In my classroom, I often compare the words at a writer’s or speaker’s disposal to a handyman’s tools. Although it would be inappropriate and less effective to hammer a nail with a wrench, we wouldn’t label the wrench itself as a “bad” tool. It would simply be being used in an improper context. So don’t let the Grammar Nazis and the language prudes get to you. In the words of John Mayer, “Say What You Need to Say.”

Football’s Proper Place?

Youth Football
Whenever I post a blog article or a Facebook status update pertaining to the dangers of concussions in football, I receive a few “blow back” responses. These rebuttals typically accuse me and my novel GOODNESS FALLS of contributing to the softening of America’s male children. The argument is that contact sports, such as football, are necessary for the toughening up of our kids because the adult world is a difficult place where only the strong survive, and if we continue to coddle our children, they will grow up soft and ill-equipped to prosper in that world. I certainly understand their point; however, I feel it is a position no longer tenable in the modern, technology-based society where brain almost always trumps brawn. What is especially pernicious is the possibility that this argument for the need to “toughen up” our kids is little more than a thin justification to preserve a sport that provides so many of us with not only entertainment but also with such a sense of self-worth – through our identification with our favorite schools and professional teams – that we cant imagine a life without it. “O – H . . .” “Roll Tide!” And, “Go Big Blue!”

Were we still living in an age when proficiency in hand-to-hand combat was not only necessary for survival but a measurement for assigning social status, I might agree; however, we are not living in such barbaric times. Even those who did possess the physical attributes and martial skills conducive to those periods were primarily pawns for those in power. They were tools used either for military gains or for entertainment. Today’s football players and MMA fighters, for example, are not much different than the gladiators of ancient Rome. Like trained circus animals, they prostitute their talents in bloodsports to the aristocracy who, in turn, put them on display for the common people as a means for them to vent anger and frustration that may otherwise be directed at those powerful few. True, for a brief time, some of these gladiator/athletes are well remunerated for their performances. An even smaller number rise to a level of celebrity that lavishes all sorts of excess upon them. However, for the majority, their time in the spotlight is brief. Either they die in or as a result of their time spent in the arena, or they limp back into crowd and are quickly forgotten.

I sometimes question our motives for pressing our kids into participation in such violent games. Even more, I hate to think that our youth and high school football programs are little more than a way to feed the egos of over-involved parents or a way for some of them to relive their pasts; or that they are little more than an important piece of the profit puzzle for the athletic equipment industry; or that youth and high school football programs are little more than feeder programs for successive levels of football in which the stakes – both economically and in terms of injury – grow increasingly higher; or even that they are a little more than a means to teach “toughness” (whatever that is) to our children. But, sometimes, I wonder if these motives are not exactly the case. What I do not “wonder” about is the potential for catastrophic injury still posed by participation in the sport.

I’m willing to bet that if someone conducted a study to identify the number of highly-successful individuals who played football at some point in their youth that number would be substantial. I am, however, just as certain that an equal – if not far greater – number did not play football, yet they somehow had the necessary toughness to excel in a variety of fields. Therefore, the argument that football or other bloodsports are vital in the training of our young men falls apart. Admittedly, it may be useful for some, but it is far from the only method to produce the sort of individual who possesses the necessary qualities for adult achievement. I might even argue that much of the macho skill set learned through participation in football is actually counter-productive to success in the much more subtle and nuanced worlds of business, finance, law, politics, education, and medicine for example. What’s important is that we keep the place of football in its proper perspective. Contrary to much popular belief, it is not an institution fundamental to our survival as a society. However, if properly managed, it can continue to play a positive role in the education of some children.

As I’ve consistently stated, I’m not advocating for the abolition of youth football. All I’m saying is that there are additional measures that can still be taken to safeguard our kids, including baseline testing of cognitive functioning prior to participation; the limiting of full contact drills, the better monitoring of head strikes; and the better instruction of coaches regarding the recognition and treatment of head injuries just to name a few.

Let the blow back begin. I’m happy to face it.

Island Gone Wild!

Put-In-Bay

With the ever-notorious and often nefarious Put-in-Bay being featured so prominently in the local news of late, I thought it might be fun to post a section of my first novel SO SHELLY that features the village. In this chapter, the strikingly-innocent narrator (Keats) makes his first visit to P-I-B accompanied by the somewhat already world-weary Gordon Byron. Be forewarned, the language is a bit crass in an attempt to capture the often uncouth behavior of the people and bawdy atmosphere of the place.

“I had never visited the island, but the stories of the bacchanalian revelry that take place there during the boating season are legendary throughout the lower Great Lakes. (There are only two seasons on the islands: boating season and preparing for boating season.) South Bass is New Orleans at Mardi Gras, Spring Break on South Padre, Las Vegas, Sodom and Gomorrah, Caligula’s Rome, the sultry Greek Islands, and Dodge City in amalgam and in the form of two E-shaped docks and the three-block strip of bars in downtown Put-In-Bay. For Gordon, the happiest place on Earth . . . or so I supposed.

Me? I was scared shitless.

As I stood on the dock waiting for Gordon to stow away the Corsair, he reached into the captain’s bin again; this time, he pulled out his notorious human skull drinking cup, which I’d heard about but had never seen, and a handful of purple, gold, and green strands of cheap, plastic beads, which he threw to me.

“What are these for?” I asked.

“They don’t flash ‘em for free, Junior,” was his cryptic answer.

I soon discovered the beads’ function as we walked the docks, pushing our way through the filled-to-capacity public marina. Powerboats ranging from fourteen to fifty-plus feet (many of which bore the Byron Boats logo) were jammed inside the steel docks. They rafted off one another three and four deep as we neared land. Each boat was a floating frat house/strip club. The men outnumbered the ladies by at least three-to-one, but the women that were there seemed to be enjoying the odds and encouraging the attention. During our trek from where we tied off furthermost to the dock master’s small, wooden booth/office on shore, I saw my first set of boobs on a real topless woman – that is, the woman was real, not the boobs. I’d learned to discern the difference by the time I reached shore and depleted my supply of beads.

Gordon never slowed down or turned his head to look, even when a “girl-gone-wild,” craving his attention, called out to him: “Hey, Cutie. I’ll show you for free,” or “Take a look, Sugar,” or invited him to “party.” He couldn’t have been more disinterested.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, confused.

“They disgust me. I hate this place.”

But, we were in his element. Weren’t we?

“These people have no class, Keats. No style. They’re barbarians. The women are sluts.They pay ten grand on a credit card for a boob job; then, to get their money’s worth, they flash them in the face of any pecker head who’ll trade them a set of fucking fifty cent beads. It’s pathetic.” Gordon looked over my shoulder at the flotilla behind me. “And, these guys, what assholes,” he paused to absorb the beer-bellied, baseball-capped, board-shorted scene. These losers’ idea of seduction is slipping one of these already half-drunk whores a rufie, waiting for her to start feeling woozy, then offering, all gentlemanlike, to walk her back to her boat or her hotel or wherever, where she passes out and the ball-less piece-of-shit generates enough self-confidence to pull out his pencil dick and fuck the corpse. It’s sick. There’s no talent here.”

I think that that was what really bothered Gordon – it wasn’t the lack of morality but the lack of artistry. But by the time Gordon had finished his diatribe, I wanted to rush back to the docks and collect all the beads I had given away and throw a towel around each one of the bikini-topped women.”

Re-reading and posting that was fun and sad at the same time. Does it sound familiar to anyone? If interested, SO SHELLY is available in paperback and ereader formats.

Endings

Endings
I’ve long shared with my composition students the notion that pieces of writing are a lot like relationships in that the middle is easy; it’s skillfully getting into and out of them that’s difficult. As a novelist, if you fail to hook your reader early, odds are you never will, and if you leave them disappointed at the end, they will most likely not be interested in your next project.

Some writers are particularly good at beginnings but not so much at endings. For example, I enjoy Stephen King immensely, and there is no disputing his talents and popularity. However, there have been several of his novels that have left me very disappointed at the end. On the other hand, there are some writers whose novels slowly build momentum to exciting conclusions if you are able to slog through the tedious opening chapters. In this category, I think of many classic nineteenth and early twentieth century authors like Henry James, Dickens, Edith Wharton, and even Jane Austen.

One of the most consistent compliments I’ve received from readers of GOODNESS FALLS is that they liked the ending. Their positive response has somewhat surprised me, being that the ending of the novel isn’t particularly happy nor does it neatly wrap up the plot. To the contrary it raises more questions than it provides answers, and it requires the reader to imagine for themselves what happens next.

The happy conclusion I draw from all of this is that the majority of readers enjoy unpredictable endings that leave them pondering the story long after they’ve read the last page and that they feel somewhat cheated when the story ends in a fashion they could have imagined themselves.

Thoughts on Freedom: Both the Novel and the Inalienable Right

Freedom
It just so happened that I finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s novel FREEDOM on July 4th – how appropriate, as the novelist and novel are extremely informed by their American-ness. Franzen is one of my favorite contemporary novelists, and I would rank his 2001 novel THE CORRECTIONS as one of the greatest pieces of American literature of this century. Although, I wouldn’t rank FREEDOM quite so highly, I thoroughly enjoyed it as typical Franzen fare. They’re both lengthy and sweeping novels that cover decades in time and a wide array of contemporary issues with special focus on the storm and stress of familial relations.

Rather than serving as a paean to the virtue of freedom, the novel acts more as a warning against the abuses of freedom. Similar to the assertion made by Voltaire (long before Uncle Ben said it in Spider Man) that, “With great power comes great responsibility,” Franzen points out that uncontrolled or inappropriately channeled or granted freedom can be as much of a burden as a blessing both for individuals and large entities Amongst the many examples of freedom run amok in the novel are these: 1) the Bush era executive branch, fraught with questionable motives yet given nearly carte blanche to do as it wishes by a frightened and vengeful American citizenry post 9-11, rushes headlong into a war in Iraq that is extremely costly, both in terms of money spent and lives lost or destroyed; 2) in an age of rampant deregulation, the energy industry, especially Big Coal, ravishes the environment in the pursuit of obscene profit; 3) by applying a laissez-faire approach to their children’s life choices, by showing excessive concern for their children’s self-image, and by allowing their children to “find themselves,” at least two sets of parents raise children who become dysfunctional adults; 4) another main character, a rock musician, so loves his freedom that he is unable to establish meaningful romantic relationships with long term partners and is forever damned to pathetic one-night stands and short-lived trysts. These are just a few of the situations explored in the novel that suggest that in terms of freedom, as individuals and as a nation, we should be careful what we wish for.

I’d highly recommend FREEDOM. As of now, it captures the American zeitgeist in the second decade of the twenty-first century as accurately and with as much poignancy as any other contemporary novel I’ve read to this point. I especially enjoyed its relatively centrist political positioning. Franzen comes off to me as an equal opportunity offender. Fittingly, he tends to receive harsh criticism from both extremes of the political spectrum. Hardcore conservatives condemn his bleeding-heart liberalism, while extremists on the left, especially hardcore feminist groups, condemn him for being too conservative. Personally, I find him to be extremely candid and unapologetic regarding his personal political and social views.

What Book Would You Choose?

Mountains Beyond Mountains
I attended my son’s college freshmen orientation day last week, and I was a little bit surprised to learn that John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” would be the common text for all incoming freshmen. It’s not that I don’t think “The Fault in Our Stars” is a well-written and entertaining read; I gave it a favorable review and recommended it myself in an earlier blog post. It’s just that I didn’t find it particularly engaging intellectually – which is not to say that every novel has to be so. Many of our favorite reads are potboilers that sweep us speedily along the surface of the text until we find ourselves surprised when we turn the final page to discover it’s over. In fact, some have described my latest novel, GOODNESS FALLS, in a very similar manner. Many have told me they preferred GOODNESS FALLS to SO SHELLY for just that reason. And that is totally cool!

My point here, however, is that a common text assigned to an entire incoming class of college freshmen should be something with greater heft and potential for “stretching” these young and pliant minds. The chosen text should be something more challenging to the students’ cognitive abilities. It should be something that forces the students to question long held notions of what is right, true, and good. It should be something that ennobles the students by their mere experience of reading it. It should be something that forces students out of their particular geographic and social comfort zones, the very ones from which many are soon-to-be removed. It should be something with a sense of social awareness and responsibility that inspires students to escape the egocentric understanding of the world with which many of my generation’s parents have cursed their children and to embrace a more altruistic worldview.

If I were the king of the world and could choose the single text for all incoming freshmen at every university in it, my choice would be Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” It’s the nonfiction narrative of Paul Farmer, a Harvard-trained physician and anthropologist, and his attempt to combat tuberculosis in poverty-stricken Haiti and a similarly endemic indifference to the Haitian suffering amongst too many Westerners. The title is a Haitian proverb that teaches that life’s problems never come to an end and that one should always look to the next challenge, for it is in the striving that a meaningful life is found, especially in attempting to leave the world a better place than we found it. Its Amazon page accurately says, “This magnificent book shows how radical change can be fostered in situations that seem insurmountable, and it also shows how a meaningful life can be created . . .” Kidder champions Farmer’s driving notion that “the only real nation is humanity.”

As I said, I enjoyed “The Fault in Our Stars.” I did find it a bit cloying and emotionally manipulative, but I also turned pages until there were no more to turn, which I feel is the ultimate determiner of a worthwhile read. As a mandatory common text for incoming university freshmen, however, I feel it falls far short of the purpose of such an assigned reading and plays more to pop culture than high culture. For anyone looking for an outstanding read for their young adult student or for themselves, I highly recommend “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” “The Fault in Our Stars” is the sort of book that may temporarily change one’s mood. “Mountains Beyond Mountains” is the sort of book that may permanently change one’s life – and the world.

W.I.P. until I R.I.P.

A Work in Progress
Authors often refer to their current project as their w.i.p. or work in progess. If you’re a writer, you have at least one. I write books a lot like I read them. I usually have at least two books going at one time; it’s the same with my novels. I almost always have one or two at differing points of completion. This system would make a lot of readers/writers crazy. It’s just what works for me. As a writer, I’m often asked about writer’s block. I think this system is one reason why I can always answer that I’ve never experienced it. If the words and ideas just aren’t flowing with one w.i.p., I can turn to another one.

Today I finished what has to be at least the fifth re-write of my current w.i.p., and tonight I’m starting what I hope will be the last. Each time, the process moves much quicker, the story gets a little tighter, the language more descriptive, and the characters more drawn out. I’d compare it to staining woodwork; it’s just a matter of putting on layers until you get the shade exactly right. For those who know better, trust me, I’ve never stained anything in my life except the front of my shirts, but you get the idea.

The other day, I was thinking about that abbreviation, w.i.p., and I thought how much the phrase “a work in progress” actually applies to me and people in general. Whenever my kids fall a bit short of our parental expectations or their own potentialities, I remind my wife that it’s okay because they are still works in progress. I also know that I am constantly “re-writing” who I am. I know that the version currently writing this blog entry won’t be around for long, as I’m still trying to deepen my stain. I always tell my students that when I see them in the future, I hope I don’t recognize them because they will have grown so much from the year I spent with them when they were seventeen or eighteen-years old. I don’t think there are many things sadder than stasis.

In his poem Ulysses, Tennyson, in the voice of Ulysses himself, says “How dull it is to pause, to make an end / To rust unburnished.” I totally agree with Tennyson. Therefore, the title of this article and one of my many philosophies on life. I hope to be a W.I.P. until I R.I.P.