Sunday, February 25, 2007

It's called CREATIVE writing for a reason.

The unfortunate thing about the oldest and most worn-out adage for writers, "Write What You Know," is that the truth is unbelievable. If I wrote what I know, about the people I know, the places I've been, readers would yawn, roll their eyes and say, "that goddamn James Frey has ruined literature." My life, everyone's life is just too damn colorful for fiction.

I keep a notebook of snippets of dialogue and descriptions of characters and places. I can't say I've ever consulted this book when I'm stuck - I don't write that way - but it helps me to see in writing what seems interesting in real life. And what I've found is the people I know well make terrible fictional characters. Putting them on paper is like paint-by-numbers. The same with real-life drama and conflicts. A couple I know in town has recently separated. They have five kids and the husband is a raging alcoholic. When I have only that much information, a story immediately germinates in my mind. But I know much more about the situation than those few facts, and as a result, I have a hard time inventing dialogue and quirky details about them. I can't write real-life people into my stories (by law), and I can't fictionalize people I know.

My first short story started out many years ago as a funny vignette about a friend of my husband's and mine. He's one of the most interesting people I know, living a life full of twists and turns. After writing one page about him I quit. He's too big for paper. In the original story, I kept his real name, which of course was a terrible idea. I couldn't riff on the real guy. Then, a couple years later I met a guy named Lanny. He was an immature, indolent surgeon. Such a perfectly bizarre combination of charactistics! A perfect character! Then after a page, his story stalled too. I had come to know him too well. Jimi Hendrix can spice up The Star Spangled Banner because he's a genius. I am not, and could not stray from real-life personas of these two men.

Somewhere along the way, maybe as a creative writing exercise, I married Lanny and my friend into a different guy, and it worked. I didn't rely on either one of them in particular for a characteristic or a detail. The character became his own man and I had a well of ideas and details from which to choose. But I won't do it again, if I can help it. Occasionally the fictional Lanny would do something in the story and I'd get confused, thinking to myself, "the real Lanny would never do that." Or the fictional Lanny would say something strange - out of place in the story - that my real friend might say. It was disorienting.

Now my characters are independent. I get details from real people, but people I don't know, real places I've driven through, but have never lived in. So I'm not sure if I'm writing what I know, but it's a hell of a lot easier. I don't have to be Jimi Hendrix, I can just make stuff up.

Edited to add: I'm working on a story now about some cashiers working in an all-night drugstore. The youngest is new and learning the ropes, but there's a dispute amongst them about something. Let's make this a little interactive: tell me a detail about these women (3 of them) and the night-shift pharmacist. A physical descriptor, a bit of their history, maybe a bad habit. Anything. What do you think these people are like?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Endorsement: Toast

Sometimes I eat toast for breakfast. And then again for lunch and dinner. I think toast is yummy and there are parts that get stuck in my teeth, therefore it is also healthy. By this reasoning I should eat Butterfingers for every meal, but that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about toast!

First, let's discuss the substrate*. There are classes of toast, from fresh challah to week-old Wonderbread, which has the consistency of the dingy plastic food you find in a box of toys at the pediatrician's office. Each has its place and time, none more important than the other because even dry wheat toast, the boring know-it-all of the toast world, has a niche. If you think about it, there's a caste system to toast, which leads us directly to the epitaxial layers.

Challah gets special treatment - no margarine or jam from tiny foil packets for him! We're talking ricotta with honey and cinnamon, or fresh whipped sweet cream butter and homemade marmalade. Stale Wonderbread gets the crap jobs - kids' grilled cheese sandwiches that won't be eaten because kids (in this house) hate food. And margarine. Margarine, I'm convinced won't cling to anything except nice dress shirts and cheap white bread. The upper echelon toasts shun margarine like the plague. I rather like that analogy, actually. Margarine equals The Plague.

Toast can be a meal at any hour of the day. It can soothe, nourish, tease, or compliment. It's eaten by children in between vomiting up pink jelly beans, it's eaten by fancy guys of ambiguous sexuality in exclusive clubs. From beans and toast, to toast with images of the Virgin Mary. There's a reason the penultimate moment of a wedding or joyous feast is called The Toast. It's the water and wine of food.

So let's hear it! Three cheers for toast!

*That's a fancy word for toast that I've dredged up from my past life. I've decided to recycle some of these useless syllables, otherwise I just picture them hanging around my brain like engineers hang out at company parties. Which is to say, antisocially because they talk about things like substrates and epitaxial layers.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Boxing in the Floodplains, The Final Round

My last practice was like most others. I showed up early to warm-up with a jump rope, shoot the shit with Coach and his boy. The kid was excited for the smoker in Hamilton that weekend. He'd be fighting up a weight, having grown and noticably filled out over the summer. The other two boys showed up a little late as usual. The 8-year-old's mom dropped them off in her beat-up Taurus. He looked just like her, dark-haired, sallow. But he always smiled like there was good news around the corner. He and the other 8-year-old would be fighting in their first smoker in Hamilton and they were a blur of anticipation and little-boy bravado that day. It was a Thursday, my favorite day. I was probably looking forward to getting drunk and Moose's that night, then driving down to watch the kids fight on Saturday.

The smoker, it was well worth the three-hour drive, too. The Eagles club in Hamilton hosted, and the place was packed with parents and old men with memories. The regulation ring took up the majority of the meeting hall, and metal folding chairs were packed in all around it. When I got there most of the chairs were already rearranged into haphazard bunches and circles. I found my coach and the kids' right away - the coach's kid had bright orange hair and it was easy to spot him bouncing around while the coach tried to wrap his hands. All the boys were bouncing, actually. Maybe fifty of them. In head gear, in sweats, huddling with their coaches, getting last minute instructions from their dads. The tension was palpable through the stale smoke and fake buttered popcorn stench.

I don't remember the details of the fights - I wasn't sure I wanted to watch in the first place. As much as I'd come to like those boys and respect our coach, I was not especially hopeful for their chances in their bouts. The littlest 8-year-old didn't like to jab, going for the knock-out uppercut even with the heavy bag. He was so small, but so sure he was going to slay giants. The coach's kid just didn't like getting fatigued. He was the one that taught the others to dangle their skinny arms when the coach wasn't looking. The other kid, he's hard to remember. The three of them together just seemed like any posse you'd see punching buttons at your local arcade.

But damn it, if all three boys didn't kick some fucking ass that day. Technique, finesse, to hell with it. Those kids fought like it was born to them. At the end of the first round of each of their fights, all three of their opponents looked scared, and that, as we all know, is the thing. The final two rounds for all three boys were just formalities, but they all continued to bring it and bring it and bring it. The coach was quiet during their matches, encouraging them and massaging their bony shoulders while giving instructions. Each boy looked him in the eye and nodded at his words, aware how important it is to have someone in your corner. At the end of the little 8-year-old's first match I had to walk outside for air because I felt tears coming. I cried because I was so overwhelmingly proud and amazed at these kids and my coach. They surprised me that day more than anyone ever has.

After winning their first bouts, each kid advanced to the next round, but I had to leave early, to get back up to Kalispell that night. A big thunderstorm was advancing up the Bitterroot Valley, and I didn't want to get caught driving in it. So I told each kid how impressed I was. I slapped high fives and socked them in their stringy little arms, and they were each gracious and thanked me for coming. Then I stepped out of the Eagles Club and got into my truck for the long haul back home. And that was the last I time I ever saw any of them. The storm that threatened the Bitterroot did in fact come to be. It traveled all the way up north to the Flathead Valley and dumped an uprecedented quantity of rain on the hard-baked summer ground. It rained for three straight days, and by the time Tuesday rolled around for practice, the Whitefish River was still swollen and muddy. The lowlands around our boxing shack had been evacuated and nobody could get in.

It wasn't until the following Tuesday that the muck and debris had been cleared away from the little dirt road that ran along the Whitefish, and when I drove in at practice time, there was nothing. It was as if someone had pinched it up in their giant fingers and plucked it from the earth. In fact, there wasn't even a foundation. I searched through my truck for the paperwork I had filled out on my first day, looking for my coach's phone number, and when I found it I called him from the pay phone at the closest 7-11. Disconnected. Everything was gone. I didn't know the other kids' last names so I couldn't call their parents, I couldn't find a number for Jesse, the Golden Gloves champ, and the friend of a friend that had directed me to the club in the first place had moved to Phoenix. That was the end. I couldn't believe it. I kept calling the coach's number, for so long, in fact, that eventually it was given to someone else.

It was real, right? I have to ask myself this, but then sometimes when I'm searching for a boot deep in our shoebox I'll find one of my old hand wraps and my hands will remember the abrasions. Or Jim's brother will bring up the name they used to call me - Minnie-Bang-Bang, and I'll think about the boys and our playful camaraderie. Or during my workout I'll go at the heavy bag for a couple minutes, and my shoulders will remember those old satisfying pains. But mostly I think about how so many notions I had at the age of 23 about people and life and hard work were shattered. Broken down, punch by punch. I think about how people rarely surprise me any more, and this makes me sad, but only because I know what it feels like to be truly surprised by the greatness of a kid. It happens like that sometimes, you know. You start doing something simple, like taking the bus on occasion or reading a different newspaper and you realize, maybe not for a long long time, that you took a fork in the road. Boxing in the floodplains was a fork in my road.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

i luuuuv u

Madeleine's Valentines greetings to her preschool classmates:

To Luke: Ue owaze ugry
To Dane: Ue or nise
To Elli: Ue or rily nise
To Emily: i noe ue lice horseiz i doo to
To Maya: Ue lice plainge in dres up wooth me
To Charlie: i luuuuuv u
To Thayer: ue or mie frnd
To Abe: i like to skat wooth ue
To Hayden: ue looc good
To Will: i luv u u or sooete
To Anika: ue owaze lice to plae
To Meghan: Yr best in clas i luv u ue or cuootest
To Sam: i lice to go to yore hows
To Wesley: yore nise yore good i thence u shood act the wae ue shood

Have a hearty day.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Boxing in the Floodplains, Part III

After several practices I had come to resemble a boxer-in-training. My jab was tight - twisting on contact to inflict the most damage, my crosses and uppercuts were solid and strong. The heavy bag swayed wildly under my combinations, a satisfying change from the slight tremors my first few punches inflicted. The boys laughed less at me and instead mocked the fat kid that started practicing with us. At him they laughed silently, because he was an Indian and they didn't know what to think about that. This I know because they never mentioned it. They made fun of him for being fat, for wearing hiking boots, for drinking generic Coke, but they avoided the obvious difference. Just like they had with me. They mocked me for hopping, for getting my head caught in the bob-and-weave rope, for sucking at the speed bag, but no mention of my gender. I wondered while I jabbed, how did these boys know tact? I began to think of them like small people then. True teammates of mine.

So I was getting into this groove and I looked forward to each new practice with an excitement I hadn't felt since inter-collegiate athletics. I was part of a team, I was doing something incredibly challenging and I was becoming powerful. I pulled up to our practice shack one hot summer Tuesday and in addition to the coach's beat-up Suburban, there was a motorcycle in the gravel yard. A crotch rocket, they were called, with a slick black helmet resting on the seat. I took my time putting my hand wraps on, sitting in the cab of my pickup. I wasn't ready to commune with a big time boxer, as that's what I anticipated. I knew about the inane behavior of Mike Tyson - the bravado, the psychotic episodes, the facial tattoos. I wrapped the canvas around my scuffed knuckles thinking of all of this.

When I stepped into the dark shack I was not prepared for the tidy young man shadow boxing with the boys. He was wearing a pair of nice jeans and clean white t-shirt. You wouldn't call him particularly big, a lightweight fighting at 132 lbs. But he was a Golden Gloves winner, and he was adored by the boys. They climbed on his back and tried to sucker punch him while he talked to our coach. He grew up fighting in this little shack and the coach didn't fawn, although he very well could have. This manchild had done good, and was looking at a professional career. He had come back to talk to the boys, and to spar with them. Us, I mean. To spar with us. He shook my hand and looked me in the eye when we were introduced and after suggesting I spar with him later, he respectfully noted that the wrap on my left hand was a little loose.

I'll cut to the chase: he hurt me. I watched the boys go their three, three-minute rounds, a flurry of tanned arms and giant leather gloves, and I vowed to be methodical. Look for my openings, defend myself, bob, weave, box smart. But that's not what happens. Troops go into war trained and tight, then it all goes to hell when bullets fly. It's the same. Jesse, that was his name, he held his hands low, inviting me to jab at his nose. He didn't even wear head gear. So I did. I jabbed at that pretty nose of his like a crazy woman, and each time I did, he slipped my punch and tagged me full in the face with a tap. He pulled his punches, tapping me, as you would tap a person sitting in your seat on an airplane, only his taps produced a trickle of blood from my nose. He apologized and was genuinely sorry, and I was too. It was the most humbling experience I'd ever had at a sporting event. At any event, in any venue. The disparity in our skill, strength and speed was Happy Gilmore vs. Bobby Fisher. Roseanne Barr vs Mary Lou Retton. Not only was blood trickling from my prissy little nose, but my arms again experienced heretofore unkonw levels of fatigue. And I don't think any of my punches touched him. Pain and humility, again.

Before I left, Jesse shook my hand again, and encouraged me to continue training - he said I had a nice quick jab. It's a compliment I still carry with me like a rabbit's foot. The boys were also floating from his encouragement, and we all left the shack that day basking in the glow of Jesse.

(Part IV, The Finale, up next)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Boxing in the Floodplains, Part II

To wrap up my first day with the team, we did some bob and weave exercises, where a rope was stretched from the wall to our Coach's hand. He stood in the doorway, smoking his Lucky, while me and the boys ducked back and forth under the rope, moving towards him. We did it more times than I can count - it wasn't a big shack - and he gradually lowered the rope so that each time we had to squat lower and come back up with a jab-uppercut combo. By the last one I looked like those fake birds that bob into a cup of water. I had no legs, and Coach was not shy about telling me that, his voice sounding as if he had cotton in his throat.

After another water break, in which I begged a sip from the redhead and his dingy squirt bottle, we did situps. I could do situps, normally, but this workout was designed to break and humble me. I mean, I assumed that was the coach's plan, because somewhere back when I started hallucinating about Jimmy Carter, I realized the team - the eight-year-old included - and the coach were out to get me. They didn't like me! I wasn't one of them! That's what the work and the pain and the sweat was telling me. It made me feel other. So situps? Hard. Lots of them. Pain. No surprise there, so what came next should have been de rigeur as well. Ten one-minute intense sessions with the heavy bag. Me and Jimmy Carter were going to be old drinking buddies by the end of this day. By intense sessions I mean punching the bag as hard as we could and as fast as we could from when he said Go to when he said Stop. There would be no quitting for any of us, and the boys, I noticed, did not get the chance to rest their skinny arms. It's an exercise that required the stamina, strength and intensity like nothing else I've ever done before or since. When I think about those 10 rounds now, my pectoral muscles cringe like a beat dog.

After that, I apparently signed something that made me a member of some Amateur Boxers of America or some such thing, another paper waived any liability for damage to my internal organs, and then I wrote a check. I don't remember these things, and later when I got the cancelled check in the mail it looked like a 90-year-old woman had written it on a gravel driveway. What I remember is getting in my car and not being able to hold the steering wheel. Not being able to work the stick shift. Not being able to use the turn signal. Not being able to understand how the three boys, my teammates, were able to run around the dirt parking lot trying to squirt each other with their water bottles. One of them shouted something about going to the arcade. I was just trying to decide if I should barf on my sweatshirt next to me or out the window.

That was my first day. The next day, in fact bright and early the next morning, was painful, but it was a proud pain. It was a badge I wore all day. I was still a silly girl of privelege, but at least I had the scuffs and raw skin on my knuckles to prove I was on my way to something. What that was, I had yet to find out. Because I had not yet sparred. That, and a new kind of pain, would come two days later.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Boxing in the Floodplains

When I was 23, living in Kalispell Montana with my boyfriend Jim in a little log house with two dogs and a pack of banty hens, I tried boxing. I went twice a week to a tiny shack stuck in the floodplains along the Whitefish River. Calling it a river was like calling the sweat running down my butt crack a waterfall. But then, that there's something to think about, considering the torrent of sweat during each practice. My clubmates, two ten-year-olds and an eight-year-old, laughed at me behind their enormous gloves, as well they should have. I was an upper-middle-class girl-woman, smartypants about nothing important. I thought I knew what was hard and what was easy, what hurt and what didn't, but I was a silly silly girl. Priveleged and lucky and blissfully ignorant. I know now, boxing is hard and everything else is easy. Boxing hurts and everything else, well, let's just say you don't need your nose reset if you pay the water bill a week late. The boys knew, and they watched in amusement as I slowly and painfully figured it out.

My first day we were told to run down to the end of the dirt road and come back. It was our warm up. Sure thing! I said. Come on boys! I like boys. They're easy to tease, cajole, push and shove. I said I'll race ya! I ran to the end, maybe a half-mile. The boys were a good 200 yards behind me screwing around, throwing rocks at dead cars by the trailers along the road. But when I doubled back at the end of the road, they turned around when I did, so that I had to sprint to catch them and beat them back. We reached the shack at the same time, me panting and sweating, them grinning and punching each other. I was their joke. All three of them hawked and spat before we reentered the darkness of the shack.

The heavy bag session was next. The coach, the red-headed kid's dad, smoked a full pack of Luckys in the 2-hour practice, and a cigarette dangled from his lips as he wrapped my hands in some coarse canvas material. He said it was to prevent my fingers from breaking and without saying any more, he strapped some gloves on my tight fists. We went at the bags for 5 60-second periods, punching non-stop in flurried combinations. Jab jab cross. Jab jab cross. Jab jab cross jab hook. Jab jab cross jab hook. Whatever he called out we repeated until he yelled out a different combo. After the second round of 60-seconds my shoulders were on fire and my punches were as effective as insults. I was breathing in ragged gasps, and another two rounds later my chicken and rice soup was threatening a return appearance. I finished the last round of 60 by pretending I was shaking hands with Jimmy Carter (I may have been hallucinating). It was like a vigorous extension of my arm in the direction of the white canvas bag. It could not have looked less like a boxing maneuver. I also noticed on the last 60-second session that whenever the coach walked to the door to puff on the cigarrette he had left resting on the ledge outside the shack two of the older boys quit punching and dangled their tired spaghetti-thin arms. I was too good for that, I guess. But I took note.

After a quick drink, which I had neglected to bring and nobody offered, footwork was next. But that's a misnomer. When you think of boxers, you think hopping. I did. We were told to move around the bag, jabbing after every third step. When Coach said go, I got my hop on. Bounce bounce bounce jab! Yeah! I'm doin it! Everyone stopped, looked at me and laughed. Coach even cut short his Lucky puff, to come back in and say, "Quit that goddamn hopping. Watch the boys," before going back out to light the next one. The boys. Laughing, they all started hopping around in circles like they were being pulled on a string attached to their necks. Apparentlly you don't hop. You step purposefully - almost a calculated plod. And you jab every third step. And also? Apparently you stop to take a break whenever Coach isn't watching. I had a lot to learn.

(To be continued.)