Thursday, January 19, 2012

Because I Said So: Dinner table plays host to cycle of life on school days

I tend to write my column about larger themes - the importance of family and friends, memories of childhood, time travel. I don't think there is any right or wrong way, this just happens to be what is more comfortable for me, to begin with something small and simple with my kids and shine a brighter light on it. It works most weeks. This week, though, I decided to find something small and stay small. That small thing is actually quite large - our dining room table, a massive piece of oak that seats nine most nights - but I found it to be piled high with metaphors, memories and, yes, themes.

Please enjoy this week's "Because I Said So" column.

There is a floating island of marine trash in the northern Pacific Ocean. Have you heard of this? It's called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex, and it's a swirling mass of plastics and chemical sludge collected from around the world that some reports claim is twice the size of Hawaii.

Our dining room table is a lot like that.

We're a family that eats meals together. We have dinner every night in our dining room at a massive 4-by-8 solid oak piece of furniture my wife got me for Father's Day years ago. Can't see it? That's because all 32 square feet of it is covered in backpacks, jackets, folders, papers, novels, textbooks, mail and other paraphernalia.

You know that giant magnet Wile E. Coyote uses to try to pull Roadrunner into his clutches from across the desert? Or the tractor beam Darth Vader's henchmen use to pull the Millennium Falcon into the Death Star?

Our table is also a lot like these.

When the front door opens in the afternoons, a strong wind blows in and carries with it hungry and energetic kids with their conversation, laughter, shouts of complaint and the rumpled husk of a school day that is pulled along in their wake. The dining room attracts it all and looks like a side-of-the-road ditch, like one of those weedy patches where people seem to know to dump old sofas, bags of garbage and lonely, single shoes.

The only difference is that my kids don't bring old sofas home from school.

No sofa, and there are no environmental groups clamoring for volunteers and grant money to clean up my dining room. Perhaps a chain gang of prisoners could come in every day with their orange safety vests to spear last week's graded homework, lunch boxes and my daughter's socks.

The kids somehow find their way through the detritus to the surface where they are able to carve out a nook for homework and snacks. It must be like descending through atmospheric dust clouds to land on a strange, heretofore-unseen planet, or hacking through a dense jungle with machetes to gaze upon a remote Incan pyramid littered with juice boxes, mittens, crayons and pencil shavings.

By dinnertime, it's all cleared away again. I don't know how it happens, but they manage to leave their video games and texting long enough to scrape it all onto the floor and shove it into neutral corners, rendering the table surprisingly clean enough to eat from.

Somehow, though, early the next morning, it's all back as they prepare for school once again. The dining table becomes a staging area, a conference table where important documents -- permission slips, graded homework, progress reports -- await signatures. Lunch boxes sit lined up and ready to be stuffed into already overstuffed backpacks.

It's the cycle of school-day life, a messy microcosm that sees the clutter of a workday metamorphose into suppertime conversation.

This scene must be played out everywhere by those with school-age children, whether it's an entry hall, kitchen table, mud room or back porch. Every house has such a place, a low spot where things collect like rainwater, a Bermuda Triangle of shoes and coats, spiral notebooks and last week's quizzes.

This table has developed character through its marked and nicked surface garnered from gatherings of friends and family, and piled high with meals and math. It is a family phenomenon, a geologic anomaly in an otherwise (mostly) clean house, brought about not by earthquake or hurricane, but by children -- a force of nature the likes of which I never reckoned I'd reckon with on a daily basis.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Behind The Wheel: The Rude One

This is another part in my ongoing series about the time I spent as a chauffeur in Panama City Beach, FL, in the mid-90s. Because he's made the news in the past couple of days for some asinine remarks, I thought I'd write about the time I drove Mark Wahlberg. Actually, "drove" should be in sarcastic quotes and "Mark Wahlberg" should read "Marky Mark," because that's who he was at the time.

Almost 20 years ago Panama City Beach used to host MTV for a week-long spring break festival that was taped and aired to the world. They may still have such programming, I don't know, I'm not even sure if MTV is still on the air. But back then it was a big deal and we were contracted to handle all of their transportation. Marky Mark showed up and did his little song and dance number or whatever it was he did back then and on the day he was to fly out I showed up at his hotel to pick him up and drive him to the airport. I was in a 15-passenger van because Marky Mark didn't travel alone. No, he had a whole group of lackeys and hangers-on, enough to fill up a van. So I stood outside the hotel and waited. And waited. And waited. I went back into the hotel to discuss his absence with the front desk several times. I called my boss, who called Marky Mark's handlers, and they searched the grounds for him. After about an hour of this, word came down that he was on the 11th hole of the hotel's golf course and had decided to leave the next day. He just didn't bother to let anyone know. Asshat.

It's pained me over the years to enjoy the movies he's made and to almost - almost - become a fan. I like a lot of the movies, and came close to putting his rudeness of two decades ago to rest. But then he goes and comments on being a real-life vigilante and I'm reminded that he's really just a big, goofy face on screen. Or on MTV, if it still exists.

I wasn't much of anybody back then. I'm still not. My time wasn't worth as much as Marky Mark's time was, but it was still something to me, and to my boss and his small business. Yet Marky didn't take that, or anything, or anybody, into consideration.

I drove a lot of celebrities back then and, while most were aloof and needed to be pointed in which direction to walk, they were at least cordial. When I returned to pick up the Marky group the next morning, there was no mention of the previous day, just a bunch of kids in long shorts and backwards ball caps. I got back at him though. I snubbed him, I didn't even tell him, as he exited the van, to have a nice flight as I normally would have. That'll show him.

The word today is that Mark Wahlberg, the movie star, apologized for his recent statements, which is big of him. After all of these years, I haven't received an apology, and I hope my snub still stings.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Going Deaf, Quietly

I'll go on a tear sometimes when I find myself in a used bookstore and buy up an armload of books without really studying them first. I bring them home and set them in a stack on my desk or a table where they'll be left for a few days just so I can gaze upon them.

I love books.

Eventually, of course, those books need to be given a home and I'll spread them out among various bookcases or, if they're lucky, place them within the same case where they'll be allowed to remain a family. And then, occasionally, I'll wander through my shelves and look for something to read.

This is how Deaf Sentence by David Lodge (Viking, 2008) found its way into my house, onto my shelf and, recently, into my hands again. I'm not even sure where this book came from or why I might have picked it up. I'd never heard of the author and the cover is hideous. I always take the dust jackets off books while I read them to preserve them, but I would have taken this one off regardless; it's awful.

The book, however, is good. It's the story of Desmond Bates, takes place in a town north of London, and involves his elderly father, younger wife, children, step-children and a crazy American Ph.D. candidate. Bates is a retired professor of linguistics who is going deaf and describes, in detail, what it's like to go slowly deaf. That must be how deaf people live, within their own heads, hashing things out, paying attention to every detail that doesn't involve sound. Bates is very thoughtful and reflective, and Lodge takes his time with this character.

As Bates goes slowly deaf, he deals with the mundane, day-to-day tasks of a retired person. In these days of repetition, however, is thrust an aging father near the end of his life and a student studying the linguistics of suicide notes. The characters and their plights weave in and out of each other and leave the reader, at times, wondering how and why it's all going to come together in the end.

It does come together, just give it time.

The reason one might not be compelled to give this book the time required is because it's a quiet book. And that speaks to me. I like quiet books. I've documented here many times my fondness for the books of Richard Russo, Paul Auster and Richard Bausch, and they all write what I would call "quiet" books.

I received a rejection from an agent recently for my manuscript, The Simplest Pattern. The rejection was full of encouragement and compliments, but did say that it is "too quiet." I know this has more to do with the market than with what this agent thinks makes a good book, but it still stings. Probably more than anything, it stings because it's completely out of my control. It's how I write. It's how I wrote The Simplest Pattern, it's how I'm writing my next book and it's how I'll write my tenth book. I can't change the way I write (not to that degree), nor do I want to, but neither can I change the market place.

I'm not sure what the market was like when Lodge wrote Deaf Sentence, which was published in 2008, and was his 14th novel. I don't know what the industry was like when he wrote and sold his first novel. This is the first book (though it won't be the last) by Lodge that I've ever read, but I'm sure there is not a lot of difference in voice between that first and this fourteenth.

Coming across this book on my shelf was a treat, and I looked forward each day to finding a nice, quiet place to read it.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

(Near) The End

I keep a book of essays close by and pick it up every now and again to see what those who have written and published novels have to say about it all. The book is called The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook (Holt, 2010). The book is neither a handbook nor much of a secret to those of us who write, but it is a great resource for inspiration and for confirming that, as we peck our way through 300 pages of fiction, we're not completely insane for the task.

The book is broken up into questions addressed to many well-known, prolific or just-beginning writers, and their answers. A recent question caught my interest: "How do you approach the end of a book?" I think many of us readers and writers have the impression that, for those who write for a living, writing (and finishing) a novel must be commonplace. This book, and this question in particular, disproves such a myth. Answers include, in part, "With mounting anxiety (Paul Auster) ... "With very intense exhilaration" (Christina Garcia) ... "Oh, with relief" (Colm Toibin) ... "Dumbfounded awe and moments of panic" (Francisco Goldman) ... "With caution" (Daniel Handler) ... "with fear and excitement" (Jennifer Egan) ... "In great haste, with my breath held (Michael Chabon) ... "You don't approach it. It approaches you." (Claire Messud).

As I reach the end of the book I'm working on (and my third manuscript), I know just where each of these writers is coming from. Whether you've worked on a book for eight hours a day for a long time, or 500 words a day for an even longer time, finishing that book is an exciting, frightening, happy and sad thing to do. As Edwidge Danticat answered, she approaches the end "With great trepidation ... By then I'm also dealing with my own sadness about leaving these characters behind ... "

Long days and nights have been spent with the characters I've created. I find myself in mundane situations - taking the kids to school, walking through the grocery store, cooking dinner or making a transaction at the bank - and wondering how this or that character might behave in such a situation. I drift into sleep thinking about them and wake up with them each morning. And now, it's nearly over.

That's not to say the work is over, of course. I'm only talking about a first draft here. Finishing a first draft reminds me of being a kid (most things remind me of being a kid) and made to rake the leaves in our yard. We lived in a house in East Memphis shaded by massive oaks, magnolias, dogwoods and one angry, little crab apple tree. Every so often I was told to go out and clean up the yard. I would rake and rake and rake the leaves into a pile, or a series of piles, yet each time I thought I might be finished I would look back and more had fallen. Or I'd find that I partially scattered a pile while raking another. And when I went to neaten up that pile I disturbed something in my wake that needed attention. I must have looked confused and lost in our front yard, going from corner to corner raking up a few leaves here and then to the next to rearrange.

This is how the end is to me. I'm a matter of days from finishing this first draft, yet I'll add some detail as I'm going along and realize it references back to something that should have happened three chapters prior. So I go back and add that bit in (I rake those leaves into a pile), and that disturbs a thought or two in the following chapter. Or I'll think better of a conversation in the last chapter, revise it, and then make a note to myself that a main character needs to mention that paragraph in the next chapter.

My yard must look like a mess, but it's getting there.

Of course, once it's where I think it should be, once that massive pile of leaves is there in front of me so I can stand back, lean on my rake, and marvel at it, I know my task isn't complete. I know the next thing I'll want to do is to let some of my friends, those who are willing, run through that pile of leaves energetically and with reckless abandon. They'll want to know how deep the leaves are, how soft, examine the color and smell of them, and try to determine from which trees they all fell. And they'll make a mess of it, I know. That's all part of it. I'll come in behind them with my well-rested rake and try to put it all back together again and, hopefully, those friends will be willing to help.

The greatest anxiety, of course, comes after it's all finished; once those leaves are bagged up and are placed on the curb for pick-up. Because then the fear becomes that they won't get picked up at all, and that they'll just sit there as traffic whizzes by, becoming moldy and breaking down into compost.

I've already got a couple of bags going to worm shit out there, I can see them from where I sit. Here's hoping the end of this book will come easily, that the revision will go smoothly and that someone will stop at my curb and heft that bag into their truck.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Because I Said So: Our time machine is wrapped up in a new year

TARDIS (it's a science fiction thing)

A new column for a new year. This is my latest column in The Commercial Appeal.

My great-grandmother, Catherine Zanone, always preached that if you work on the first day of a new year, then you'll work for the entire year. Sage words of superstition from someone who lived and worked through the Great Depression.

I've always heard, as well, that whatever you do on the first day of a new year, you'll do the entire year. It's where resolutions come from, I suppose; the get up and go to actually get up and go, whether to the gym or a walk around the block.

I don't cotton to resolutions myself. Yet, on the first day of 2012, among other things, I sat and watched the first episode of the new season of a wildly popular British television show called "Doctor Who." It's a show I've never watched, which makes me the minority in my own home. This past summer, my wife and kids spent mornings at the pool and then long afternoons watching past episodes and whole seasons of "Doctor Who" together. It seemed an entertaining bonding experience for all of them.

I thought I would make an effort this day, this first of the new year, to take an interest in their interests. I have to say, I still don't get it. Just like resolutions, neither do I cotton to the show's genre of science fiction. But my kids get it. They gasped and commented on subtleties gleaned from past shows; they laughed and cheered at this Time Lord (the Doctor is a Time Lord, for those fellow uninitiated).

Near the end of the episode we watched, the Doctor says that with the aid of his TARDIS (his a time machine, I learned) he has access "to everything that has ever been or ever will be."

I've written here plenty about time travel -- I don't know why that is, whether there is a reluctance in me to see my kids grow up, or the desire to speed that process along. I believe time travel is possible, not in the science fiction concepts of "Doctor Who," Audrey Niffenegger's novel "The Time Traveler's Wife" or Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, but in flashbacks triggered by trips through family photo albums and stories from our childhood, from our parents' childhood, and all the way back with tales of the Great Depression from generations past.

The new year, and a new beginning, is its own time machine. That auspicious stroke of midnight is a time to reflect on the past year while looking ahead to the future, both immediate and beyond. It's a moment between calendars, just between taking the old down and hanging a new, that is filled with nostalgia, reflection and possibilities.

And, sure, it's a time for resolutions. The time to promise to be a better person or to make a difference; to change who we are and become who we want to be, whether a better parent, better storyteller or time traveling Time Lord. It's a time to vow to do something as simple as recalling the good from the past year or promising to sit and watch a favorite show with your child.

It's all up to you -- everything that has ever happened or ever will happen to you is in the palm of your hand.
Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.