Thursday, August 30, 2012

Because I Said So: Dinner table conversation a test of dad's knowledge

I could write a different version of today's "Because I Said So" column daily given the range of topics my kids come up with. Just last night we discussed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, The Cay by Theodore Taylor, Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, bad words, school and dreams we've had. It doesn't seem like supper should take long enough to eat to have the been able to cover so many subjects but, believe me, it does.

Please enjoy today's column, because Middle-Aged Man says so.

Dinner table conversation a test of dad's knowledge
Suppertime conversations around our table often jump back and forth in topic like a poorly edited film. Non-sequiturs are served as a side dish to fried chicken and pot roast. Talk of school and television, upcoming plans and the gossip of friends are revealed like the striated layers of a casserole.

The other night the subject of superhero powers came up. Specifically the question was "What two superpowers would you want if you could pick?" It's the sort of palaver a palate might appreciate with a Southern staple of meat and two.

The kids bandied about the obvious choices — flying, invisibility, being really small or really fast. Me, I told them my superpowers, if it were up to me, would be a tolerance for lactose and to shape shift into a morning person. Such is the secret identity of Middle-Aged Man.

Kids, on the other gloved hand, consider themselves immortal and dream to flaunt that immortality with an ability to fly or jump or to be unseen as they lurk from room to room.

I flew to the kitchen mid-meal to refill a wineglass and returned to suggest, "X-ray vision!" not realizing the talk had advanced with a new question: "What country, other than this one, would you want to live in?" My superpower exclamation was met with super sighs and eye-rolling, you have to be quicker than Flash to keep up with the plot points around this table.

Italy, France, Brazil, England and Greece were all mentioned in this category. I'm pretty sure someone suggested Florida. The conversation devolved into a stereotypical discussion of accents, informed more, I'm afraid, by years of viewing "The Simpsons" and "House Hunters International" than anything learned in school. The kids are conversational lightweights at best.

It occurs to me now that I probably should have visited my own wish list for powers upon this nascent Jobless League of America. What would I imbue them with were I to inject a Super-Soldier Serum similar to Captain America's into their meatloaf? Invisibility is a possibility, though super silence might be better.

I leapt to the kitchen to slice more bread (and to top off the wine) only to return and hear my son talking about Middle-earth. "That's not even a real place!" I scoffed, imagining him applying for a passport and visa. But they'd moved on without me to a discussion of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," something I know even less about than gamma rays or the value of the euro.

There are many times I'm left out of the main course of discourse altogether; times when the incongruity of subjects leaves me standing still and unable to keep up, like a Hobbit attempting to walk up a mountainside of mashed potatoes.

Eating with kids is not a dinner party of high society talk, but a whirlwind of issues and debates that require a superhuman attention span. Stan Lee tells us that "with great power comes great responsibility." I tell you that with a great big family comes great suppertime confusion.

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

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. No one won it in 2012. In response to the non-win of this year, Michael Cunningham, one of three Pulitzer jurors, wrote a piece for The New Yorker about why, or why he thought, there was no winner chosen. In this essay, he writes:

A proper respect for the mysterious aspects of fiction is encouraged by the Pulitzer’s guidelines, which are gratifyingly loose. The winning book, be it a novel or short-story collection, must have been written by an American, and should, ideally, be in some way about American life.

That’s it.

Smiley's novel is so much about American life that it's almost embarrassing to read, whether due to the raw emotions and familial relationships that leave the reader feeling naked and, at times, stripped of skin completely; or whether it's the knowledge of farming and farm life that she imparts so adeptly, knowledge that leaves a city boy thinking for the first time, "Wow, that all seems really hard."

A Thousand Acres takes place on a farm. Never mind where it is (it's in Iowa), it could be anyplace that people make a life, such as it is, from putting seed in the earth, watering it, praying over it, and waiting a predetermined number of days before learning if they'll make enough money to sustain them until the next growing season when it happens all over again.

The farm is just as the title says, one-thousand acres, in Zebulon County and has been farmed by the Cook family for several generations. It's a hard life, a life filled with days of routine and back-breaking work, but it's a life the Cooks have come to know; the only way of life they know. Larry Cook, a widower, has three adult daughters - Ginny, Rose and Caroline - and Ginny and Rose each have married men who work the land there, and their families live on the land and within walking distance of the house where Ginny and Rose grew up. They enter each others homes without knocking, making coffee at will, preparing breakfast or dinner, as though they are one big happy family. In walking to each other's houses, however, they're crossing land that is fertile with family secrets that threaten to push through the topsoil like weeds. There is no chemical to stop them, no farmer's trick that will keep such secrets from invading the lives of those who live and work the fields and threaten to do more damage than drought or hail.

The story is intricate, and the setting and characters detailed. The pacing moves with the monotony of farm life, yet is not monotonous. We are caught up in the chores and the fears of weather, with the cycle of life for farm animals and the importance of teamwork. The plot blossoms like tomatoes on the vine, each revelation a succulent piece of fruit to be savored on the front porch.

The Pulitzer finalists in 1992 included Mao II by Don DeLillo, Jernigan by David Gates and Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals by Robert M. Pirsig. I haven't read any of those books, so I can't say with any conviction that A Thousand Acres is better or more deserving, but I can say that it is "about American life." It may not be my life, and it may not be your life, but the emotions, the character traits, the fears and lost hopes and want of something better, if not for ourselves, then for our children, are attributes present in all of us.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Because I Said So: Launching youngest daughter in first grade has its hurdles

As a kid growing up with books of science fiction and black-and-white movies ful of creatures and oddities from outer space, my entire universe consisted of Earth and Mars. Sure, the Moon was there, but the Moon is a neighbor, as familiar to us all as the property fence or a dog's bark. But Mars is the next neighborhood over, familiar for its proximity, yet alien with its different trees, styles of houses, cars and people who look just like us, though they're not neighbors; not completely.

And yet Mars is close. Certainly close enough for alien beings to fly a saucer over for a cup of sugar or to sit on the porch for a spell and, eventually, eat that neighbor's dog. It's close enough for me to have thought as a kid that we Earthlings would one day put a craft, if not a person, on Mars. It was doable. Of course it would be possible, we put a man on the Moon and Mars is just around the corner from there, isn't it?

Probably a stranger concept to a 7-year-old boy than one day touching the surface of Mars is parenthood. Being a father was an entire galaxy away from where I was, and as alien as whatever that was that came from the ship at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At that age, there is no way a parent could understand what we feel, our fears, our interests, our complete inability to comprehend time and distance in outer space. And yet, when I took G to first grade last week and she melted into me with tears and pleading not to have to go to school, I knew exactly where it was she was coming from. It wasn't Mars, or even the Moon, it was a time and a place I remember well. It's another world called Childhood and it is as strange and exotic a place to me now as a planet called Parenthood seemed to me 35 years ago.

We're all explorers going through new worlds blindly whether those worlds encompass another planet, another continent, the next street over or being responsible for another little life. It's all exciting and, we find out, it's all very reachable. What we need to do is keep our eyes and ears open, learn as much about the landscape as we can and try to enjoy the ride.

This week's Because I Said So column from The Commercial Appeal:

Launching youngest daughter in first grade has its hurdles
Last week, I scattered my four kids like comet tails and left them with their various teachers at their various schools. For the older kids, this is old hat, they're pros who have been at this for years. They may not like it — in fact they don't — but they understand the routine and joined the countdown to the launch of another Memphis City Schools academic year.

But then there's Genevieve. She's the youngest and the most spirited, some will say. A challenge, her parents say. Things did not go well that first morning of first grade. There was a lot of clinging and tears, and even some desperate pleas for her sentence to first grade to be commuted. Alas, I left her there in the capable hands of Mrs. Armstrong and the whole Richland Elementary crew.

I came home, walked the couple of blocks back, and turned on the Internet to see that NASA's Mars rover Curiosity had landed safely the night before. Space exploration fascinates me, and I was enthralled watching video images from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, as the rover touched down and the scientists went crazy with exultation.

That celebration was rightly deserved. Those people landed a buggy on a planet 35 million miles away with more ease and less drama than I had landed my daughter in a first-grade classroom two blocks away. Granted, they're rocket scientists and I'm only a parent, and parenting isn't rocket science. Or is it? Maybe when scientists come upon a complex theorem that becomes easily proven, they say, "Well, it isn't parenting."

Adam Steltzner, a mechanical engineer with the laboratory, said the rover's landing "is the result of reasoned engineering thought." Reasoned thought is as unnatural to a 6-year-old as space travel. When told that school can be fun or that it won't last so long or that her friends will be right there with her, all she can imagine is an endless expanse of black sky, a vacuum of loneliness.

Upon re-entry into the school's atmosphere, while dodging other children and supply-laden parents, my daughter began to break apart, the heat from the classroom too much to bear; the promise of another school year built up until not even her protective khaki jumper could withstand the pressure and she exploded in a barrage of tears. And what could I do? I'm helpless. I'm a parent. I'm ground control, yet I failed to keep her grounded in any sense of safety and serenity, while floating there among her friends and siblings.

They call it the "seven minutes of terror." That's how long scientists had to wait upon Curiosity's entry into the Mars atmosphere before they found out whether their rover was intact on the surface of the planet. It takes us about seven minutes to walk to school in the morning, but I had to wait seven hours to find out that Genevieve did eventually compose herself, that she acclimated to the foreign surroundings of first grade and that her own curiosity about it all proved to be stronger than her home's gravitational pull.

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.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Boost of the Olive Tree

Okay all you bookish people out there, it's time to rally the troops. My good friend Courtney Miller Santo has a major book release next Tuesday, Aug. 21, with The Roots of the Olive Tree (William Morrow). She has a lot of author events upcoming in places like San Francisco, Seattle, Nashville, Portland, Oxford and Asheville, so if you're in any of those cities, get out there and support her. And tell your friends!

Courtney also needs some reviews circulating out there, so give the book a read and tell the world what you think. Doesn't have to be long, just a few sentences, a paragraph or two, on your connection to the characters and stories. Now, we here at Urf! are big on books - paper, binding, covers, the whole package - but for those of you who like to download a novel and read it on your computer phones, the publisher has a great deal for you. For the rest of this week only, you can download The Roots of the Olive Tree eBook for only $4.99. You can do that right here. So go do that, I'll wait ...

Now, once you've read it, say something about it at the following sites (your review can be copied and pasted into each site to make things simpler):

Barnes & Noble (Scroll to the very bottom of the page to review)

Amazon (You can review the electronic copy now, but not the hardback)

Books-A-Million (Scroll to the lower third of the page, account creation required)

Reviews are also accepted at the Apple Store if an iPad or iPod are your preferred mediums

I was lucky enough to read an advanced reader's copy back in the spring and said a little something about it here.

I also wrote a feature on Courtney for The Commercial Appeal that ran in the paper on May 31, 2012. I'll copy that below so you can get a feel for where Courtney's story began and how it evolved. If this isn't enough, you can read her winning story for the 2012 Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest right here.

Thank you all for your help!

Writer's first novel followed storybook path to publication
Courtney Miller Santo grew up in conditions fertile for a burgeoning writer, a conservative Mormon household with seven children where there was no television to be found. Instead, the large and close family told stories and created plays. They interacted in ways almost unheard of today. And they read.

"My dad was always reading, he would go to bed at 9, and he would always have a book," Santo said of her father, an elevator mechanic.

Santo, the oldest of those seven children, describes her childhood just outside of Portland in Milwaukie, Ore., as "chaotic," yet a bookish manner set in and has paid off for her in a big way as she prepares for her debut novel, "The Roots of the Olive Tree" (William Morrow), to be released in August.

The story is threaded along one olive-growing season, taking a look at the lives of five generations of firstborn daughters and Anna, the 112-year-old matriarch, who wants to be the oldest living human being in the world.

The story, set at Hill House and the family's olive groves in northern California, centers on a geneticist coming to study the longevity of the family just as the youngest, Erin, returns home alone and pregnant.

It's a combination that, the dust jacket of an advance reader copy explains, "ignites explosive emotions that these women have kept buried and uncovers revelations that will shake them all to their roots."

It's a novel with a road to publication almost as intriguing as the tale within the pages. Santo entered her manuscript in Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award competition in 2011. Out of 5,000 entrants, she made it to the semifinals and the remaining 50 hopefuls. And then she was eliminated. But that's only the beginning of the story because she was then contacted by an agent with the Janklow & Nesbit Associates literary agency who had read the manuscript excerpts posted at Amazon, and wanted to represent Santo.

It is on the West Coast where olives grow and fantasies are realized, and it was there in summer 2011 that Santo's life changed. "I was in the middle of this cross-country vacation that had been planned forever ... and the day after we get home to my grandmother's house in Vancouver (Wash.), she (the agent) calls me and says, 'Sit down, I have an offer, and it's a really good offer,' and she told me the offer, and I was glad I was sitting down because I did not believe it."

That offer was that the book, along with an unwritten second book, would be sold to William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins, for six figures. Foreign rights for "The Roots of the Olive Tree" have already been sold to Italy, England, Spain, Germany, Holland and Turkey.

Santo doesn't downplay luck in this adventure. "It just doesn't seem real; it didn't seem real for a very, very, very long time," she said. "This is the dream; this does not happen that you get a company that is so excited about a debut novelist that they put this much publicity and effort into it. I feel crazy lucky."

The women of her novel might be illustrated by a photograph Santo keeps in her office, a tiny concrete bunker on the University of Memphis campus. It's one of her and her daughter flanked by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Santo is a collector of stories. "My mother is a storyteller," she says. "I come from a long line of storytellers on both sides." Some she recalls verbatim in her fiction, those from decades of family lore, and others from time spent as a journalist, and others she presses like olives for the oil and essence that add flavor to her characters.

Though her love of reading and the idea of writing began in the Pacific Northwest, at the age of 18, she "decided to get as far away from home as possible" and went to school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. She met her future husband, Charlie, there and studied journalism. "I'm very practical, so to say something like, 'I want to write a book' seemed very stupid; it's like saying 'I want to be an astronaut.' Whereas being a journalist, you get your name in print every single day and you automatically get the title of writer. I think sometimes writers have a hard time owning that title."

She worked for the Roanoke Times and the Charlottesville Daily Progress. From those days as a journalist, Santo learned to love fact-checking and says that when she gets writer's block now, she does research. "Whenever I would get stuck, I had this huge stack of books that I checked out from the library about olive cultivation, and if I got stuck writing, I would just pick it up and start to read about how to take a branch from one olive tree and splice it into another olive tree, or about blight."

She would eventually end up in Memphis, where her husband took a job as associate professor of city and regional planning with the U of M, and it was here that she really began to own that title of writer. She worked as the editor of The Lamplighter, the newspaper of the Cooper-Young neighborhood, and was accepted into the Moss Workshop in Fiction, a community writing workshop with novelist Richard Bausch. "Once I got into his class, I realized all kinds of things, like there was such a thing as an MFA program," she said, laughing. "So Richard encouraged me to apply, and I got in and I got serious about writing."

The Moss Workshop took the idea of being a writer, in her mind, from being "abstract and foolish, to something that seemed plausible. But even though it seemed plausible, it's still not something I ever expected to happen in the way that it did." Through the MFA program, she met and worked with mentors such as Tom Russell and Cary Holladay.

"Cary really taught me that if you're going to write for somebody besides yourself, it comes down to revision," Santo said. "You have to be willing to roll your sleeves up and get into the prose and redo it, it's never perfect the first time out."

"She really listened, and she can recognize a good suggestion, and then she can just tear into it," Holladay said of her student and friend. "She's a very aggressive reviser of her work and, of course, it helps that she's got terrific talent and she's extremely well-read."

Last year was a good year for Santo, who also won the 2011 Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest for a short story that will appear in the upcoming June issue. "Her stories are just fun to read," Holladay said. "They're rich, and they're revelatory in terms of human character and experience."

Santo has her hands full with two children, Sophia, 9, and C.J., 7, and the writing of her second book as she anxiously awaits the release of "The Roots of the Olive Tree." But she loves teaching and intends to continue doing so with her undergraduate fiction and literature classes, saying, "I'm a better writer because I teach; it keeps me honest. It's very difficult to critique a student's work and see an error, or a way that it could be written stronger, and then not go back to your own work and recognize every single mistake that you've made."

Says Holladay: "I was eager to get her in the classroom, and right away I saw how comfortable she was as a teacher and how much her students liked her."

Though she writes these days in a place far from the Pacific Northwest, it's a land fertile with writers, where the streets teem with character. It's where her family has put down roots and made a home. "I feel like if you're on the right track, you get little nods along the way," she says. "So I feel like we made the right decision to move to Memphis as a family, and it's been the best decision we've made personally and professionally."

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Because I Said So: Facing the new frontier (high school)

C, first day of kindergarten (2003)

I remember the beginning of high school. It's what makes it so difficult to believe that in just a few days my son will be a freshman in high school. I remember all of the larger-than-life worries, the drama, the heartache and unease, the lack of confidence and wonder of it all that I felt then. What a mess.

But perhaps it's different now. Maybe high school, and the ages of 14-17, are fun and simple and carefree these days. I'll just tell myself that because one of the treats of having kids is the chance to see the world through their eyes and to relearn life from their point of view day in and day out. And then they become teenagers and you're left thinking, "This? Again? But I've already done all of this."

When I become nostalgic, it's for an earlier time when I was seven or so and climbing trees in my front yard, riding bikes around the neighborhood and wasting time in front of three channels. If I have to go back, send me there. Or to the year I turned 40. Forty isn't so bad. But not high school, thank you. I'll take 1977 over 1987 any day.

As my oldest child stares down into the maw of high school, I take a look back for today's Because I Said So column to his first day of kindergarten (it seems like only yesterday) and find I owe a debt of gratitude to the great teachers he's had over the years. I wish I could have listed them all in today's paper, each one deserves it. He's a good kid and will do just fine at White Station High School, but as he registers and gets his notebooks and pens and lunch together, I can't help think to myself, "Better you than me, kid."

Facing the new frontier (high school)
Around this time in 2003 we started going to Downtown Elementary School. (This is how parents talk: "We" go to Richland Elementary or White Station Middle or Downtown Elementary. I haven't sat in a formal classroom setting since the late 1980s, but no matter; at some point it just becomes simpler to explain our kids' activities as a collective.)
Nine years ago we began school when I dropped my oldest son, Calvin, off for kindergarten. I'd been taking him to day care every single day for years and it had not gone well. Those mornings were full of screaming and clinging and pleading and teeth gnashing, by the both of us. I had little hope that day one of kindergarten would be much better.
But something happened that day and I don't even know if it was him or me or his new teacher, Mrs. Porter, but I got lucky. She and I stood talking for longer than normal due, no doubt, to my need for reassurance. The point came when Calvin seemed to grow so tired of standing around listening to us with his oversized backpack and overwhelming curiosity weighing him down that he wandered off by himself to find his assigned seat. There were no tears and only a wave of his hand in farewell. Thus began his educational career.
That little boy who surprised me that day with his courage and initiative and impatience with long-winded adults will walk into his first day of high school next week. I won't be there with him because that's just not how it's done at this stage and age. There will be no reassurance from his teacher (for me), no handholding, no oversized backpack. All I can hope is that we've done a good job through these first nine years of school, that he's taken to heart the lessons taught by Mrs. Porter and Mr. Scott and Mrs. Erskine and Mrs. Brenneman, and all of the other wonderful teachers who have influenced and guided him over the years.
I try not to write too much about my 14-year-old here; he deserves his privacy. It's a shame too, because in that hour he's not sleeping or eating, he's really quite engaging and funny. But this milestone deserves mention as it is a momentous occasion for our collective, it's the next big adventure in parenting.
As a student at White Station High School, Calvin will be dealing with a workload he has never known; with the constant reminder that every test, every grade, every club joined will have bearing on his college career and then his eventual career. Mixed in with that, there will be peer pressure and driving permits and proms and the whole high school caste system to negotiate. He will face growing pains unlike those that have propelled him to his nearly 6-feet tall.
It's a time I wouldn't wish on anyone, and yet I'm willingly sending my child into that roiling, bubbling gumbo of uncertainty.
We begin high school next week. Wish us well.

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