Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Not much of a fan

My husband does not think of me as a very good sports fan.

In fact, he’s pretty sure that if the success of our local pro teams depended on my support, we wouldn’t even have the teams anymore, let alone the occasional championship season.

Right now, the Red Sox are halfway through a World Series, and the Patriots are having a generally winning, if not stellar, year. So the TV is on a lot at our house, tuned to various matches.

I find the score read-out at the top of the screen enormously useful. It allows me to take a quick peek, see whether our team is winning or losing, and continue on my way. If our team is losing, I usually say something insightful like “Oh, no!” If we’re winning, I can usually muster up a “Yay!” After all, I might not be genuinely interested, but the rest of my household is, and so are many of the people with whom I interact in a typical day, so life is better for me when the home team wins even if I personally don’t particularly care.

Rick likes to remind me that one impediment to true fandom in my life is that I don’t like the thought of anyone losing. I like people to be happy and feel good about themselves as long as they’ve tried hard. You don’t reach the upper echelons of professional sports without pretty much always trying hard, which means that you nearly always end up with one group of guys who gave it their all but lost anyway. I always hope they enjoyed the game despite the score, but coming home to a city of disappointed fans when you’ve lost can’t really be as good a feeling as I’d like to think it is.

The irony is that for the past couple of years, one of my varied freelance roles has been to write profiles of past and present NFL players. To a writer who was more of a football fan, this would be a dream assignment, getting to hear the innermost thoughts of these men as they train or reflect on past championship games. To me, it’s just another writing assignment, although a generally interesting one since each player’s path to the top is a little different, and each man’s perspective on the obstacles he faced along the way varies.

But regardless of the details, I’m not star-struck by them. I’ve never heard of any of them. In a way, that gives me a healthy advantage in terms of journalistic objectivity, but it also means that I don’t always get the terminology right. Rick occasionally looks over my work and points out that I’ve misused the term “sacking” or referred incorrectly to a “college draft.”

It may be to my disadvantage that I’m not a sports fan, but almost without exception, everything I cover as a journalist eventually becomes interesting to me, and even if I still can’t follow the score while watching the Super Bowl, I appreciate the players for their fierce athleticism and the mountains they’ve climbed to reach their particular level of accomplishment. Later this week, I’ll have the opportunity to interview the women’s Olympic hockey team. I’ve never watched a pro hockey game in my life (and actually, the only time I’ve ever watched a non-pro hockey game was when the only opportunity I had to meet with my literary agent was over her son’s Pee-Wee Tournament), but I’m eager to hear what they have to say about their training, their challenges, and how they imagine the Olympics will be.

Sports may not interest me, but people always do. So it’s true that I probably won’t sit down for a minute of the World Series this week. But given the chance to talk one-on-one with an athlete, I’m always confident I’ll learn something fascinating.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On the teaching of writing

I sat down over the weekend to draft some notes for the writing class I’m teaching for Concord-Carlisle Adult and Community Education, which began last night. “I’ve taught writing here off and on for the past ten years,” I scribbled as I began working on an introduction.

Then I paused. Ten years? Was that right? I thought back and remembered the circumstances of my life when I started teaching: I had recently started a new job in Cambridge, which made it possible to commute to Concord in time for the class, and I was married but with no children.

Come to think of it, that was 1994.

I’ve been teaching this class for nearly 20 years? I mused. That didn’t sound right either. I didn’t start writing for the Boston Globe until 2005. I didn’t even write for the Concord Academy Magazine or any of my smaller clients until after 2000. In 1994, I wasn’t published anywhere but the Carlisle Mosquito

So what possibly gave me the idea to teach a writing class?

But the more I thought about it, the more the answer seemed obvious to me, just as it must have back then when I had the temerity to apply for a job as a writing instructor even though I wasn’t really much of a published writer.

I taught it because it was something I enjoyed.

In the almost twenty years since, my writing career has become fleshed out, even if I’m still not exactly on the short list for a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve become a weekly arts columnist and regular feature writer for the Globe; I contribute four alumni profiles per issue of the Concord Academy Magazine; I wrote the lead feature for the inaugural issue of a regional magazine called NorthBridge.

And yet the class I teach isn’t really about how to write for magazines and newspapers; even if it were, I’m not sure I’d have all that much insight to offer. The class is about writing just for the love of writing, and as I remembered the twenty-something-year-old me who taught that first session, I wonder if I’m any more qualified now than I was then. I’m no expert on writing, but I’m good at making it fun, because I have so much fun with it myself. People return to my class not because they receive such insightful critique from me but because every week we all have fun getting together to write.

Looking back, I think what actually gave me the temerity to teach writing when I was an unpublished, nonprofessional writer was something poet Natalie Goldberg says: If you want to get good at something, teach it.

Her words remind me of the maxim that medical students use regarding new procedures: Watch it once; do it once; teach it once. We learn through doing, but perhaps we also learn through leading.

I’m no expert on writing. I’m just an avid practitioner. If that’s enough to motivate the people who come to my class, then I’ve offered them the best I can give. Even though I have more publishing credits now than twenty years ago, I may not have much more wisdom to impart. I just really like writing, as much now as I did back then. And if all I can do is communicate that passion, it still somehow seems to be enough.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Walking and talking

Somehow a full year had gone by since I’d last visited my college roommate at her beachside home, and it was time for us to have our annual catch-up.

We take our yearly catch-up visits seriously. With her four children and my two, plus our husbands’ work lives and other activities, plus our siblings and parents, plus our friends and our respective community projects, plus the books we’ve read, the vacations we’ve taken, and the crises we’ve endured  since we last got together, plus the fact that we simply have loads of interests in common, there’s always a lot to talk about. And we see each other only a couple of times a year. But the best catch-up is always our annual October Walk, when we take an eight-mile stroll on the beach, beginning outside her back door, down alongside the Atlantic to the village south of hers, where we stop for lunch, then around town and onto the cliff walk overlooking the water, and then back.

She has a daughter finishing college and another one just starting the application process. One daughter has learned to drive and the youngest competed in the Nationals track qualifiers this past summer. She didn’t qualify for the Nationals, but the family had a wonderful time in New York anyway, and as we walked I heard all about it. I talked plenty myself also – about Tim starting high school, Holly starting a second year on the cross-country team, my various freelance assignments, Rick’s enthusiasm for his job.

We could sit down for four hours and have the same conversation, but somehow it doesn’t seem like it would be quite the same. As my friend pointed out yesterday, there was one year that our plans were rained out and we went out for dinner without taking a walk, and that year was fun, but not quite the same as the years we walk. It’s just so exhilarating to cover so many miles on foot while we cover so much ground in our personal lives through our nonstop dialogue. We’re usually out about four hours. Then we end our walk, pause the conversation, take a deep breath, get ready to say goodbye.

Like all traditions, it can’t go on forever, but I’m so happy we’ve sustained it as many years as we have. The physical exertion of walking for miles on the beach feels so rewarding, and the emotional sustenance we take from our annual visit is equally so. It’s good to walk and good to talk. And best is to do both – walk and talk – together. An annual tradition, and something to look forward to every fall.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Writing About Other People

It’s been an interesting week of writing about other people.

I profiled a 68-year-old woman who has devoted the past few years to lobbying the FDA and Congress to require warning labels on antidepressants because she is concerned about the correlation between anti-depressant use and suicide – an issue she discovered for herself after her twenty-something daughter died.

And then, coincidentally, I profiled a former NFL player who battled bipolar disorder for years until a leading expert in the field of psychotropic drugs helped him find the right combination of medications, a drug regimen that he believes saved his life.

Over the weekend, I worked on a memoir project for a former Olympic pentathlon competitor who told me about what it was like to train for the horseback competition with taciturn cowboys in the Australian Outback when he was fifteen years old.

And for a community memoir project I’m doing in Newburyport, I interviewed an elderly man who described how after he served a two-year stint at Pearl Harbor, he was sent home to New Hampshire, and then pleaded with the U.S. Navy to send him back to Pearl Harbor for another two years. “But why did you want to go back?” I asked him three times while he repeatedly ignored the question. Finally, the fourth time, he answered: “Because I had a lot of girlfriends I really liked there. But don’t tell my wife.”

I had interviewed his wife the day before for the same community memoir project. Both of them are now in their nineties. She talked about waiting until she was thirty to get married because she didn’t want to have children and thought waiting a long time would eliminate the risk. She preferred tennis, boating and the country club to being a mother, and she got her wish.

Sometimes the stories blend in my mind and I can’t remember whether the boating story was in Newburyport or Concord, whether the Olympics story was for the newspaper or the book, whether the antidepressant issue was under discussion with the FDA or the NFL. But fortunately, I take good notes, and even if my mind can’t keep it all straight, my keyboard can.

And sometimes, truth be told, I wonder if what I’m doing now is any different from when I was in high school, hearing stories from the more popular kids about what they had been doing with their weekends and being glad that I got to hear the stories without committing any of the deeds. I’m not sorry that I don’t have to do naval duty, and I’m not sorry that I’m not training for the Olympics. I’m even sort of glad that I don’t have to attend a Congressional hearing.

But I love hearing the firsthand accounts of people who have done all these things, and I embrace the challenge of getting it all down on paper for them – something the popular kids in high school definitely would not have wanted me to do. I may not have much aptitude for fast living, but I can keep striving for ever more compelling narrative. And so with every interview, every anecdote, and every discussion, I’m learning a little more about how to tell a good story – one that matters, one that informs, and one that lasts.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The up-side to housework (and laundry, and cooking, and errands....)

Whenever Rick or I complains about work, the other one says “Yeah, that’s the down side of having a job. The work.”

I was thinking about that this past weekend as I tried not to feel overwhelmed with household tasks. I’d had an especially busy work week – normally I’m at home mornings and on site with a client in the afternoons, but for the past week I’d been working on a project that had me leaving the house first thing in the morning and gone for eight or ten hours every day – and had that busy-mom feeling of the house falling down around me.

But then I reminded myself: No, the house is not falling down around you. It could use some vacuuming. It could use some dusting. Emptying the wastebaskets wouldn’t be a bad idea, and everyone would benefit from a load or two of clean laundry. But the house isn’t falling down.

And that brought me back to thinking about what Rick and I say about work. The down side of having a house is the housework, but conversely, the up side of housework is that it means you have a house. I thought about various people we know in Colorado, none of whom have lost their own homes but several of whom have seen their neighbors lose theirs, and some of the people we know can’t access their homes reliably even if their houses are still standing, so they have to temporarily move out. If your house washed away in a flood, I reminded myself, you wouldn’t have housework. Better to have the house….and the housework.

And then the same message seemed so easy to extrapolate to other things. Yes, there’s cooking to do… because we have access to healthy appealing ingredients with which we can make all kinds of things. And yes, I have a long list of errands….but I wouldn’t have any errands if I had no money to spend on things we needed.

This wasn’t just trite Pollyanna-isms. Thinking about the Colorado flood victims reminded me of what it’s like every winter when at some point we lose power for a day or two, or more: how all I want to do once the electricity has been off for a couple of days is wash dishes, even though washing dishes is never a high priority when the house is running smoothly.

Just as Rick and I say with work, the down side of having a materially comfortable life is having to take care of all those material goods. It’s reassuring to have a home, and food, and cars, and clothes. Taking decent care of them doesn’t seem like such a chore when I hold on to the perspective that these material blessings require a certain amount of maintenance. Pollyanna-ish or not, in that light, a Saturday filled with housekeeping, cooking and errands feels more like a blessing than a hassle.