Archive for the ‘GuysLitWire’ Category

Behind the curve. Out-of-whack. Unbalanced.

This is how I’ve been feeling lately. I’ve had issues – issues surrounding free time, issues around the job, issues concerning one late computer – and all sorts of hopes and goals (lets not call them resolutions) for the new year.

But everything feels as slippery and elusive as trying to chase a cat on a greased floor wearing roller skates.

A writer friend noted how many blog posts I produced last year and asked, by comparison, how much time I dedicated to writing for myself. At first my inclination was to feel insulted; clearly I had spent twice as much time writing my own things as I did for the blogosphere.

And then the python of doubt slithered up from the pit of my stomach and gently cut off circulation to my defense mechanisms. In that hazy fog of semi-consciousness I realized that whether or not it was true that I had been neglecting my own work in the past I needed to double-down going forward.

I remember reading some financial advice once that suggested “paying yourself first” with each paycheck, essentially setting aside some savings before even paying bills, to say nothing of extracurricular spending. I realized – am realizing – that I need to apply that same philosophy to my work, that I need to deposit some time in the bank of creative writing before I start spending willy-nilly on the internet.

Ah, but the internet is so much fun, so hard to ignore its siren call!

So, here I am.

Earlier this week I was able to carve out a few hours for my own writing and even managed to get myself invited to participate in a fairly large project for National Poetry Month in April. It wasn’t a lot of writing but it was enough to not feel guilty about making the rounds and hitting some bookmarks that I haven’t touched in weeks.

Including this here blog-o-roonie.

This is my seventh year of blogging. Perhaps I’m feeling some strange itch that needs to get worked out. Rethink what I want to say, who I want to reach, and why. With my creative writing I know that, I understand it better, there isn’t this same question. Here, the exercise of keeping my fingers moving and communicating with the outside world, I have many questions.

The plan is… status quo. For the time being I will continue to add book reviews over at the excelsior file, and my monthly contribution to Guys Lit Wire. Aside from the writing I still have some duties as a Cybils judge again, so that’ll take some time, and I fully expect that these here fomagrams will again appear with greater frequency down the road.

For what it’s worth, I miss being here.

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You may be thinking that magic is an illusion, a slight of hand, a trick. That’s not the kind of magic I have in mind though.

I’m talking about a type of magic that you see when a face lights up. It’s a magic I used to live for as a teacher and one I continue to relish as a parent. It’s a magic of a moment when someone receives a gift that transcends the physical. It’s the Ah-ha!, the joy of surprise, the connection of finding something that speaks to you and let you know that you are not alone in the world.

I’m talking about the magic of a book.

And I’m asking you to consider becoming a magician, an agent of change that will get books to kids so they can experience that magic.

Each year the blog Guys Lit Wire, which I contribute to, puts together a book fair for a worthy cause, someplace in need of a little outside help. This year we are headed back to Ballou Sr High School in Washington DC because, as much as we were able to help them last year, they are still deep in need when it comes to books.

You can read the whole deal here at Guys Lit Wire. Read the background, click on the link of books, make a purchase. It’s pretty straightforward but here’s how I like to think about it:

Somewhere out there is a book. It was written by an author with the hopes of one day reaching a reader. One day that book finds its reader and the reader is astounded: it’s as if the author wrote the book specifically for them, is speaking directly to them. But in between there is a missing piece of magic, that midwifery that delivers the book to the reader. You will never know how you changed a reader’s life or even that you did, but never knowing, never being sure, that’s the territory shared by magic and faith.


Be a magician.

Spread the word, help others become magicians.

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When I first became a reader and was taken to the school library I had two thoughts: I can read as many books as I want, and I can read then for free? It seemed unfathomable to my young mind and I was determined to read everything available.  But as I got older the libraries changed.  The upper-grade library and resource center had more books than the lower-grade library, the junior high library was many times larger that my elementary school libraries, the high school library even larger.  Added to that my town had branch libraries with a few blocks from every school, if not literally on school property, which magnified the availability of books available. I cannot recall a time in my pre-adult life when I couldn’t find a book on any subject that interested me at the library.

But that was all some time ago.  Back before budget cuts attacked libraries, gutted schools of literacy programs and specialists, before educational “reforms” became more focused on measuring test scores than meeting needs. Before “redistricting” and “performance” became part of our dialog about education.

A few years ago I signed on with a group of other bloggers to help build Guys Lit Wire, a blog dedicated to recommending books of interest to teen boys.  Beyond the reviews, once a year Guys Lit Wire creates a virtual book fare for a community or organization in need and make a public appeal to help.  This year we’re helping a high school library that barely has a 1:1 ratio for each of its 1200 students, Ballou Senior High School in Washington DC.

Can I just point out how wrong it is that a school library in the nation’s capitol doesn’t come anywhere near the ALA recommended 11:1 ratio of books to students?  You would think that if politicians were serious about education they would lead by example and show the rest of the country how it’s done right, not wrong.

Politics aside, our appeal is to help whittle down Ballou High School’s wish list by asking everyone who can to purchase and donate books to help a library become an actual library full of books.  Everything is best explained at this Guys Lit Wire post and for some background on the school at this Washington Post article. I would encourage you at the very least to go to the Guys Lit Wire post and, without reading anything, watch the video that’s embedded there. Watch the camera pan the school library, and the pick up your jaw when it ends just as you think it’s going to continue to sweep around and show you the rest of the room.  There is no ‘rest of the room’ to show. This library has fewer shelves full of books then some homes. Is it possible a bookmobile has more books in it?  And this is for a high school of 1200 students?

Because the book fair is being run through Powell’s Bookstore online there is an option for used books to be part of the donation.  With some books listed at less than $3 it doesn’t seem impossible to imagine that we cannot whittle down this school’s 900-title wish list.

But it isn’t just a wish list, it’s a hope list.  And I know how hokey that sounds, and I don’t care. When a community is devastated by a flood or a tornado or a hurricane or some other external force and people from outside that community come and help those affected rebuild it gives them a renewed sense of hope that everything will be alright. These kids at Ballou Senior High School, they didn’t create their school’s economic problems any more than a national disaster victim creates their circumstance.  But we can show them that there are people out there who care about libraries, care about schools and education enough to support communities beyond their own.

All it takes is one book.  At least one book.  We can do that much.

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Sometimes, when the brain is actually functioning, I do smart things. Like how a few weeks ago I wrote and schedule this new post over at Guys Lit Wire because I knew my day to post would be the week before my first packet deadline this semester. Huh. Pretty good. I ought to plan things more often.

Anyway, head on over to Guys Lit Wire and see what a bunch of us think about books (and magazines!) for teen guys.

I’ll check back in sometime when the world isn’t spinning so fast that I’m barely hanging on.

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well, the month of july began with a holiday, a rush to get the kids off for the summer, my residency for school, and then a relocation to a (much) larger home just a few blocks away from the place we’d been sequestered to for the last four years.

a lot has happened, and there’s no real way to address it all at once, so it’s just going to come as it bubble back up to the surface.

during the residency louise hawes had us do an exercise during her lecture (you’ll forgive me for not expounding on the lecture, the notebook is still in a box somewhere in the office) where we imagined a number.  not any old number like a conjurer’s trick, but the age of ourselves back at a specific point in time where we can go back and assure our younger selves that everything will be alright.

now before i go any further, just to show how perverse the universe is, when i came home i was catching up on some reading and i realized i hadn’t finished reading a new twilight zone graphic novel coming out this fall that i hope to co-review (sort of) with little willow over at guys lit wire. but the point of the tz story was a man goes back in time to his younger self to tell him that these are the best days of his life, that as an adult he can see that.  but his father (!) ends up telling him (in all his fatherly wisdom) that you can’t tell your younger self things like that, it’s something you have to learn.  well, duh.

but for the purpose of louise’s exercise we’re all picking numbers and i first write sixteen then cross it out and write eleven.  we spend a few minutes writing to ourselves and i find telling my eleven year old self things is sort of silly.  i mean, i don’t want to scare him that in five years the family goes through some major upheavals, and that school and whatnot are going to get a little crazy and that he’ll finally have a real girlfriend and…

five years.  eleven plus five is sixteen.  and then it hits me that all the stories i want to write feature protagonists or are aimed at kids, mostly boys, either eleven or sixteen-ish.  and the stories i want to tell for each are appropriate to the sort of things i would tell my younger selves, both of them.  i’d be telling the eleven year old me to keep having fun and not be afraid to do all the things i think about, and i’d be telling the sixteen year old that, yes, it’s all crazy, and then i’d lay out a scary fake future to make me do things differently and change the fabric of the universe.

but, whoa.  louise sprinkled some pixie dust and all of a sudden it’s as clear as day who i’m writing to and why.

i’ve always known i was writing for myself, and not just the “for the pleasure of it” writing for myself but the actual writing to the younger me.  or the both of me.  i’m not writing period (because, honestly, the 70’s have been made cliche) but it doesn’t matter because the issues i’m dealing with are pretty much unchanged.  boys behaving like boys and learning their lessons the hardest way possible, because they can be stubborn and have some pretty confused priorities.  that’s basically the difference between boys and girls, everything else is just detail.

so the settling in will still take some time, but the boxes are in the right place and slowly each is getting opened and finding a new home within a new home.  the writing is happened apace, each page like a box being opened, words finding their homes, a story settling in to become a new version of an old me in a new location.

and it feels good to be back at the keyboard.

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I had been planning a feature for Guys Lit Wire in September that discussed books by comedians that would serve as a sort of underground education for teens.  Carlin was among the lot, as was Lenny Bruce, a pair whose work spoke of language, challenged conventions, and faced the Supreme Court.

Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman are also in my notes as examples of conceptual humor and how it can change your view of the world without you realizing it.  Other things in my notes: Carlin and Bruce were linguists, Martin was a philosopher, Kaufman was a situationist and didn’t write a book – should he be included? Pryor?

Comedy appeals to teens because comedy is dangerous to an ordered society.  Comedy asks questions and challenges the norm by getting people to laugh at what makes them uncomfortable.  It isn’t as easy, as Carlin once said, as finding the line and crossing it; nor is it a matter of pitching funny with dirty (though it looks good on a bar graph eulogy).

Things have changed.  Check out how “liberal” TV was back in 1975 with this classic sketch from Saturday Night Live featuring Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase.  No way anyone would run this today. Why?  My guess is that we have allowed ourselves to be censored, censored from thinking or discussing these issues by pretending we’ve matured as a society.  There is a glimmer of change on the horizon in this respect, but the simple fact remains that the humor in this sketch comes from a sense of both recognition and discomfort from the audience. It’s been 30 years since this sketch first aired on TV, and the only thing that’s changed is that people are more afraid to say these things this openly than they did back then.  Or rather, they’ve gotten better at hiding their true feelings and this humor would be viewed, even by racists, under the cover of “My, how unenlightened people were back then. We find nothing funny about that now.”


What we find funny now is the scatological, the biological, the observational, and the excessive.  We can no longer be shocked (or so we think) and so our humor bends towards making fun of specific people and characters.  Carlin held a mirror up – to himself and society – and found the absurdity and humor in it all.  Lenny Bruce found the hypocrisy in post-war America. Today, the only person who I feel is carrying on in the same tradition is Chris Rock, and even there it sometimes feels like he’s preaching to the choir. Sarah Silverman comes off as a little too mean in her humor, though her shock tactics are very much in keeping with the big boys.

George Carlin had a good run and he taught me, when I was a teen, that words had meaning and that there were no bad words; bad thoughts, bad intentions, and bad people who would attempt to control those words and thoughts, yes, but no bad words.

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So about a week ago when I couldn’t sleep I was trolling the internet and found this site called LibriVox. It’s a site where people volunteer to read whole books or chapters from public domain titles which then free to download.  This hit me at the right time because the summer is when I traditionally start to think about picking up some classics to read.  I’d say that was all about conditioning – you know, assigned summer reading for the next school year – except that back in the dinosaur days when I went to school there was no such thing as assigned summer reading.

I happen to think that’s a good thing.  I dare you to ask me how I feel about homework. (One hint: What is the antonym for ‘useful’?)

Anyway, I got all excited looking over the list because I was thinking here’s another great idea for teen guys.  You’ve got some classics you want to get out of the way, and you can do it while getting to and from a summer job, or while you’re in the workshop tinkering with a vibrobot or whatever. And there’s even the opportunity to participate in the project.  I’m thinking, dang, if I had portable audio when I was a teen maybe I’d have “read” a lot more classics because sometimes those books are easier to hear than to read, especially since I was more a kinesthetic learner and could have been doing things at the same time.

So I blogged it at Guys Lit Wire.

I’m not going to make any excuses, except that at the time I was writing to post about LibriVox it was late and I was tired and I half wondered if I’d done a crappy job of it.  No, I finally decided, and hit ‘publish’.

Yeah, well, getting clever with the title I sort of forgot one of my own rules: never use a title that can be used against you by critics.  By saying Classics.  Audio.  Free. I felt like I was playing up an old advertisers trick of creating interest and then hitting with the most powerful word in the world of selling.  Then yesterday I checked the site to see how it looked and saw there was a comment. And this guy responded with

How about “Gripping. Audio. Free.” Instead of “the classics,” how about some contemporary books produced with great zest?

You know, I kinda take offense at the idea classics are somehow less gripping.  There’s this notion out there that classics are always boring, or of no interest to teen boys, and that’s just not any more true than saying all boys like sports. While we’re at it why don’t we just give in and say “boys don’t read, so why bother trying to ferret out what they like?”

That’s when I realized that I didn’t really “sell” the post the way I should have. I did do a crappy job because I left wiggle room for that traditional bias against classics.

I’m not against the new, far from it.  And I’m grateful for Mr. Cottonwood‘s pointer to newer works on audio for teens. But I learned not to take my blogging so casually in the future.  I’m not doing any justice to the blog or the issue by letting my personal exuberance get in the way of clear writing.

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