Reading like a writer

May 31st, 2011

I haven’t tried to write fiction in years. I’m trying to remember the last time I actually completed a work of short fiction – was I still in the States? I know back in DC I wrote some stories when I should have been writing my dissertation; I’ve sketched ideas for stories here in Switzerland, but I don’t think I’ve completed any. Let’s just say it’s probably been close to a decade since I considered myself an aspiring fiction writer, and I still don’t see myself turning to fiction any time soon, but a strange thing has been happening lately when I read certain novels, intricately constructed novels like A Visit From the Goon Squad or The Children’s Book.

I read these novels and find that a part of my mind is trying to work out how the author did it, how she kept all those balls in the air at one time, how she mapped the story, how she plotted out all the twists and turns so that on page 61 she knew to drop the hint that would make the reader say “Oh!” on page 149. I picture a novelist floating above her work, able to see the whole thing below her like a map, already knowing at the outset how the thing was going to work; or standing in a closet like Charlie Crews mapping out all the connections between her characters. I’m almost finished with A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I feel a part of myself wondering with each page how Jennifer Egan plotted it all out.

What does it look like for an author to hold such a complicated thing in her head? How much did she know before she started writing, and how much did she discover along the way? I have read interviews with authors in which they say the writing of the novel was an act of discovery, that they wrote the story to find out how it would end, but novels like A Visit From the Goon Squad or The Known World by Edward P. Jones are so complex the author must have known a great deal going in. How did they build the scaffolding? When did they go back and add all the multiple layers? How did they keep track of everything? I find a part of my brain working on this level more and more frequently – how was this built as a piece of fiction? – even while the rest of me is reading for pleasure.

And I wonder if some part of my brain is making the long walk back to fiction.

Anatomy according to a three-year-old

May 27th, 2011

The Boychen, on explaining to me why it’s not dark inside his stomach: “The light comes in through my eyes, then goes in my head, then goes down the tube where the eaten things go and into my stomach!”

Who knew the recycling center was the hub of village life?

May 26th, 2011

When we lived in the city, we had weekly curb-side recycling for paper. There was no pick-up for glass, plastic, or aluminum – we had to bring that to drop-off spots ourselves. Since nearly every grocery store has at least a drop-off point for plastic, and each neighborhood has more than one glass and aluminum drop-off point (they’re always together, the glass and the aluminum) it wasn’t a big deal, although for the elderly or infirm I can see where it would be a drag and I imagine some of that – especially the cans – ends up in the trash.

Here in the village, we don’t have pick-up for anything. Well, twice a year the school kids come around the whole town and collect the Altpapier, and that deserves a post of its own because it’s pretty awesome, but otherwise it’s drop it off yourself only. I regularly bring the glass, plastic, and aluminum to the grocery store, so the only thing that piles up around the house is the paper and cardboard. Since we live on a farm there is plenty of out-of-sight-out-of-mind storage space for the paper until the school kids come around, but recently I’ve decided that I need more order in my life and that even the out-of-sight-out-of-mind storage was getting on my nerves, so I’ve started bringing the paper and cardboard to the village recycling point, which is behind the fire station.

It’s open one hour a week, and I’ll tell you what: if you want to see and be seen in this village, bring your recycling to the firehouse during the delivery hour. Everybody is there. The parking lot is full, there are plenty of people who come on foot pulling a full Leiterwagon behind them, kids are throwing plastic bottles into the recycling containers. It’s practically a village festival, only without the tent and Bratwurst. Now that Small Boy walks home from kindergarten by himself, I don’t have as many see and be seen opportunities, so I’m definitely going to be a regular at the recycling center.

Less clutter (even of the invisible kind), more village life. Local recycling is a win-win!

Of Mice and Boys

May 23rd, 2011

“Mama, look what I found!”

It’s often the first thing the Small Boy says when he comes home at lunch-time, holding out a hand to share whatever treasure he found on the way home from Kindergarten that day. Usually it’s a rock that struck him as special; it’s all white, or it’s got a stripe through it, or it glitters a bit in the sun. Sometimes he’ll bring home a flower that he picked from the side of the road that runs between his Uncle J’s fields; the poppies are coming up and the other day he gave me his first poppy. Rarely, it’s a snail shell. He’s got a big glass vase for his special stones and snail shells and the occasional feather, his treasure chest.

So today, when he came home for lunch, calling out for somebody  to open the door, saying “Mama, look what I found!” I was expecting a rock. I was not expecting him to stick out his hand and show me the dead mouse he’d been carrying for the past quarter mile.

“Oh! Okay, you need to put that down. You can’t be holding that.”

“I just want to make it a grave.”

“Okay. Okay. Just put it down, we can make it a grave but now you need to go wash your hands with soap and water and when you’re done,” I add, taking a pump of anti-bacterial hand gel down off the counter, “you need a spritz of  this. There can be a lot of germs on dead things, just go wash your hands.”

“I’m sorry, Mama, I just wanted to give it a grave.” In his other hand, he’s carrying a flower he picked to put on the grave site.

“It’s okay. It’s okay, we’ll make it a grave. You didn’t know about the germs. Now you do. And I love that you want to give it a grave. Go wash up now.”

I leave the mouse on our doorstep, cover it with a box weighed down with a pair of R’s shoes so that one of the farm cats doesn’t snatch it before we can dig it a grave. I wish I could go back, take away my startled and slightly disgusted first reaction, give him the time to tell me about the grave so that the first thing I say can be “Oh, that’s sweet. Sure we can dig it a grave. You should probably go wash your hands, though. There can be a lot of germs on dead things.”

Later we go into the woods and find a hollowed out tree stump, more mausoleum than grave. We put in a bed of leaves, then the mouse with the flower, then cover it with ferns. Over the ferns the boys put more wildflowers and then a lattice of branches to prevent dogs from sniffing around.

“Sorry you died, little mouse,” we say, “but it’s pretty here, you’ll like it.”

Then the boys run off down the trail holding hands, dead mouse forgotten as, for little boys, it should be.

New Poem Up

May 22nd, 2011

I’ve got a new poem up at Blast Furnace. Unfortunately, there’s not a link that will take you directly to my poem. This link will take you to the issue I’m in, then you have to scroll down about half-way to find my poem “The Expat Offers Some Packing Advice.” Enjoy!

In which I reaffirm my belief that it’s better to be a work horse than a Wunderkind

May 20th, 2011

Several years ago, I wrote this about Jan Ullrich, which isn’t really about Jan Ullrich at all. It’s about sports, and why I’ve always believed in the virtue of athletic endeavor, and this article reminded me of this old piece of mine.

Jan Ullrich always frustrated the hell out of the cyclist in me. He could have been, he should have been, the best cyclist of his generation, Lance Armstrong notwithstanding. At least one of Lance’s seven Tours should have been Ullrich’s – 2003, at least, should have been Ullrich’s. Ullrich was brilliant, the real deal; but he was the guy who seemed to think that being the real deal was enough. In a world where guys like Lance Armstrong go on training rides on Christmas day and count their calories in the off-season, where Ivan Basso spends the winter in a wind tunnel breaking down his time-trial form and putting it back together again, being the real deal wasn’t enough. Natural talent was never going to be enough when you have Lance Armstrong redesigning his water bottles to shave off an extra ounce. Ullrich was a Wunderkind, he really was. He could time trial like nobody’s business. He could climb, he could tear mountains apart. (And as the Tour de France wore on and he popped out in freckles across the bridge of his nose and into his sun- and wind-reddened cheeks he was cute as a button, to boot.) When he won the Tour de France in 1997 everybody – including Lance Armstrong – assumed it was just the first of many Tours in Ullrich’s future. But it didn’t work out that way. Partly because Lance Armstrong recovered from his cancer and Lance is, well, Lance. But also because Ullrich had been a Wunderkind and it took him too long to catch on to the fact that that just wasn’t going to cut it in the new world forged by Lance Armstrong’s iron will.

When I cycled in college, I was quite good. I had a certain level of athletic ability, but nobody would have confused me with a natural talent. But I was stubborn. I put in the hours and the miles. I rearranged my academic schedule to maximize track time. I took every tip my coach ever gave me, did everything he said, and he won me races that I wouldn’t have won on strength alone. I was never great, but I was really good. And I got as good as I did precisely because I was willing to accept how very far from great I was. Had I been better naturally, I suspect that I would have turned out marginally less successful. But the gap between me and the top girls was just visible enough to me to drive home the need for a little extra effort on my part. And the link between my effort and my results was clear; we kept training logs, after all. In autumn we’d do a ten mile time trial out on Flat Bottom Road to get a base-line and then in the spring we’d do a few more. I got faster. AJ would teach us about rolling through our gears, how to make a U-turn in the fastest possible way while still staying upright, how to dole out our energy. I got faster still. It was exhilarating, getting faster. More exhilarating was the knowlege that I was making myself faster, that all the tools for my success or failure were in my hands. I was never the very best, but the women who could beat me made up a small crowd; two of them were my own teammates who knew my tricks. For the specific event I trained for, I was top-tier. I did not start out top-tier, but I ended there. I forced my way into that circle by sheer will. And I was never the very best, but I was proud to have gotten so close.

Jan Ullrich. He stood on the very edge of greatness, of once-in-a-generation, once-in-a-lifetime larger than life greatness. Season after season he frustrated the cyclist in me so. So close, so very close, just a few calories, a few more hours on the road away from blinding greatness. But the gap between him and the small handful of guys who could beat him was too small for him to see. He was too good, far far too good, to see for himself how much harder he still needed to work and the people around him failed him by not driving home the point. For a person like me to be a step away from great (within my little universe, of course) was a tremendous success. For a person like Jan Ullrich to be a step away from great was a profound failure. He could have been, he should have been so great. Just an ounce, just an hour more effort. But Ullrich had been a Wunderkind and it took him too long to catch on to the fact that that just wasn’t going to cut it in a world filled with work-horses.

Because no matter how good you are, somewhere out there lives somebody just as good. But she’s trying just a little bit harder.

I’ve been around sports long enough to know that there are natural talents. There are people in every sport who have something special. But you know what? Even those people spend hours training, pushing their talents to the very limit. You can have all the natural talent in the world, but if you don’t take your coach’s advice, research the opposition, train regularly, hone your skills, learn some new tricks and keep up with the competition that natural talent can only take you so far. And you learn things about yourself as you bump up against your limits, as you find within yourself the desire to be the first one in the training room and the last one out, as you learn to see the connection between effort and outcome. You learn about effort, about will-power, about mental strength. You can apply those skills to schoolwork, to the job, to running a marathon because you want to, to saving money so that you can quit your job and travel for six months.

In February, at the end of the hockey season, R and I made a point of seeking out the trainer who had worked with Small Boy to help him overcome a bad habit that was interfering with his skating (he bent his right ankle out so that he was constantly on the outside edge of the blade, and to skate you need to push off the inside edge). We thanked him, and he said that Small Boy had done the work and we said but you took the time to teach him how to fix it, and M said he could see how hard Small Boy was trying and how fixing that little thing would help so much. M said, he has such a will.

I’ve written before about my little work horse, my Most Improved Player. You couldn’t pay me even to want to know if Small Boy has “the athlete gene.” I couldn’t care less. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I suspect Small Boy would be better off without it. Maybe, given my own experience and given the kind of hockey players my father taught me to admire, I’m biased towards work horses, but give me a work horse every time. Wunderkinds come and go. Work horses are in it for the long haul.

The language of the heart

May 19th, 2011

I break a lot of rules in the bi-lingual baby department. “Rules,” I guess I should say. Everybody’s got an opinion, everybody has a system. I believe strongly in the One Parent One Language Approach, and on the whole that’s what R and I have always done. He speaks his native language (Bärndütsch) to the boys, exclusively and in all situations; and I speak my native language (English). From everything that I’ve read, if you’re lucky enough to have native speakers of two different languages in your house this is absolutely the best way to go about raising bi-lingual children.

But you know, there are always situations where you need to bend the rules. I’m sure any parents out there reading are familiar with situations in which you say something to your child that is also meant for the ears of another child or parent in the vicinity; for example, in the sandbox you might say “No, you can’t take that out of his hands. If you want to ask if he wants to trade toys, that’s fine, but he’s allowed to say no.” That’s clearly meant for both children to hear. Or “Well, I know he threw sand at you and that was very wrong and he shouldn’t have done it, but we don’t throw sand at people in our family” might be intended for your child and the nearby parent of that sand-throwing menace. Saying things like that to my boys in English loses half the point of the intended communication and out in the world, in situations like that, I’ll speak German (not Swiss) to the boys.

But the biggest rule we’re breaking is that for the past year, we have been an English speaking family inside our house, even R. Now that Small Boy is in Kindergarten and the boys spend so much time with their grandparents and Small Boy’s playmates are almost exclusively his Swiss school-mates now and hockey practice is in Swiss and Boychen is about to start a local playgroup, the boys are getting a lot of Swiss and I thought their English was faltering. Small Boy would come home from Kindy and prattle on to me in Swiss for an hour or ninety minutes with me gently nudging him to switch back to English please. So we made the controversial switch to all English in our house.

Except it’s not all English, either. The boys have their own rules when they play together and I’ve never quite figured out how and why they choose a language to play in. I was listening to them in the bath the other day, and they were playing with boats and divers and most of the game was in Swiss. But when Boychen explained some rule to Small Boy, he switched over to English for the explanation then reverted to Swiss for the game. Then Small Boy asked R a question, in English, and R answered in English, and then Boychen repeated the answer, only in Swiss. I can’t figure out the rules, but when they play together and make their own language decisions I don’t get involved.

They’re both doing just fine linguistically in both languages, which in the end is all that I care about. Small Boy prefers Swiss, I think, in a deep identity sort of a way. Boychen seems to prefer English – he never initiates a conversation with me in Swiss when it’s just the two of us, for example, which is something that Small Boy did and still does – but I don’t see it as an identity choice the way I see Small Boy’s Swiss as an identity choice. I can’t even explain, exactly, why I think Small Boy sees himself as far more Swiss than US-American except to say that he does and always has. It makes sense – he was born here and is growing up here, going to public school and playing for the local hockey team, doing what all the Swiss kids do; and yet I feel Small Boy’s Swissness much more strongly than Boychen’s, who was also born here and is growing up here and went to the local hockey school. I would say the difference was Kindergarten, except that Small Boy has always been my Swiss child, since long before he started Kindergarten. I’ve thought this about him for years.

The thing about raising bi-lingual children is that you have to let them choose. You have to let them have preferences. You have to let them create their own identity. You work to ensure that they master both languages, but only one will be the language of their heart.

His just deserts

May 12th, 2011

Remember this post about how I wasn’t sure if hockey was going to work out for the Small Boy?

Well, Small Boy received an invitation to summer training for the SCB Bambini team. The hockey school, also run by the SCB program, is open to any kid aged four through eight. We teach kids to skate and the basics of puck handling skills, but we don’t, strictly speaking, teach hockey. (Hey, did you notice that “we” I slipped in there? I said yes.) When the kids play pick-up hockey, it’s rather a free-for-all. There aren’t assigned positions and there is certainly nothing resembling strategy. That all comes in the Bambini program; and to join the Bambinis – an actual team that plays actual games against other actual teams – a kid needs to be invited, and Small Boy has been invited to the summer training program. At the end of the summer there will be the final selection to see if he makes the team for the hockey season, but for now, the boy can call himself a Bambini.

He’s over the moon.

And if he works in the summer program the way he worked over the winter, that kid is SO on the team.

The raps are blooming

May 2nd, 2011

The raps come and go quickly in Switzerland. Not as fast as the three-day free-for-all of a plum tree, but there is perhaps a two-week window for a field in glorious full bloom. I caught this one just in time.