Sunday, August 25, 2013

"If you ain't where you are, you're no place."

These profound words, uttered by Colonel Sherman Potter of one of the greatest TV shows ever made, M*A*S*H, have always rung true to me and they hit home more than usual this morning when I read a snarky comment from someone on Facebook.  I don't know this person and wouldn't share the name even if I did, but she was commenting on the fact that a mutual friend, someone I do know, had moved to a big city from our hometown of Parkersburg, WV.  Her response was essentially that it was great that she had gotten away and she should never come back.  Maybe I'm becoming even more of a curmudgeon than I think I am, but that person's words really rubbed me the wrong way.

I was born in Parkersburg very nearly 50 years ago and, aside from short periods when I went away for schooling, I've lived here ever since.  Sure, there are things about it that I might change if I had the chance, but not many and I have a feeling I would regret it afterward if I were given the power to make those alterations, because every action has consequences, many unforeseeable.  Sure, it would be nice to have a bigger venue for sports and concerts here so we could get some famous names in and maybe a minor league baseball team.  But what do we get along with that?  More traffic, more crime, more noise.  In other words, more of the stuff that I live in Parkersburg to avoid.

I think of my beloved hometown as being kind of like Goldilocks.  Not too big, not too small, but just right. There's plenty to do, with some sort of events going on nearly every weekend.  I'm a runner and there are enough races to keep me broke paying for registrations on a regular basis.  There are concerts every single week during the summer in any of several scenic parks in and around Parkersburg.  In the fall, there are football games every weekend and in the spring you can watch track, softball, baseball, and tennis.  No, they aren't professionals, but they're something better--people who play their sport for the love of it.

And we're Goldilocksian in another way.  We're an hour's drive from Charleston and about two hours from Morgantown, Pittsburgh, Huntington, and Columbus, all places with those big-city amenities so many people moan that we lack.  Major college sports and even professional sports, big-name musicians, Broadway-quality theater, and so much more are just two hours away.  And when the show's over, I can come home to my quaint, quiet, friendly hometown.

I love this place so much that I made it the setting of my books.  My heroes could live anywhere, but like me, they chose to come back here after their education and try to make Parkersburg a better place rather than do the two things that too many people do: leave, taking their skills and energy away from here or stay and complain about how much they hate it.  If you really do hate where you are, by all means, go somewhere else.  It will make you happier and it will certainly bring joy to those who don't have to listen to you rant about this place we love.  Hearkening back to the words of the counter-counter-culture of the 60's and 70's, I end with these words:

Parkersburg--love it or leave it.  
A lovely sunset from Point Park

A view of the Belpre Bridge from Fort Boreman Park 
Blennerhassett Island as seen from Fort Boreman Park

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Some Things That Are True

I am, like nearly all Americans (I assume it's still true), a mutt.  I'm party British.  Everybody named Stephens or Stevens can trace at least part of his or her lineage back to the same village in England, if what I'm told is true. I like to think it is. I'm also aware of being part German. I might be a fraction of some other things, but I think I'm mostly Irish. From the Holleran clan.  Hope I'm spelling that right. Actually, it's the O'Holleran clan, though they apparently dropped the O when they came to America. In my mind it's full of romance--my ancestors came here to flee the great potato famine, searching for a better life. I have no idea whether that's what actually happened, though I could probably find out. I think I won't try. Better a romantic fantasy than a boring reality.

I said I think I am mostly Irish, but what I should have said is that I FEEL mostly Irish.  There's nothing really intellectual about it.  I don't know that my ancestry is more Irish than anything else.  I just feel Irish.  I have been drawn to all things Irish since before I really knew what all things Irish were.  Even as a child, I was fascinated by the sad lilting strains of Celtic music.  The first time I heard Enya, I thought that she was speaking my language, even though she was singing in a tongue I didn't know.  Same with The Chieftains. The mixture of a loud, boisterous exterior and a brooding melancholy interior is, well, me. The pipe and it's guttural, crying voice speaks to me like no other instrument.  A close second would be the cello, for much the same reason, though the two couldn't sound much different.  It's deep.  It's dark.  It's pensive.

I think that's part of why I love West Virginia so much.  The foggy, dark mountains look like so many of the pictures I've seen of Ireland. If I can't live on the Emerald Isle, give me West Virginia. I talk of moving to the beach when I retire, but I don't believe I could ever fully leave my beloved home state behind--unless it meant moving to Ireland.  But even then, I would have to come back from time to time.

Being Irish isn't all good, to be sure.  My Irish temper is quite pronounced.  I like to say I've learned to control it and become more contemplative over the years, but I fear I'd be lying if I did. Like I sometimes say to my students, some things are just baked right in. I guess my friends and family would have to say whether I'm better than I used to be.  I do know I'm quite mercurial.  I'm quick to anger, but also quick to forget. I can be in the throes of misery one minute and in the throes of laughter the next. It's just me.

Not sure exactly what the point of this ramble was. Not sure there was one.  Not sure there needs to be one. Just had some things in my head that wanted to come out and here they are. If I didn't let them out, they probably would've given me a headache and then eventually have leaked out, taking some of my brain cells with them, and I need all I can keep.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Last Week of Freedom?

Writing is my secret identity.  By day I'm a mild-mannered English teacher at a large metropolitan school. Actually, it's large suburban school, but that doesn't fit the Superman phrasing, and anyone who knows me at all knows I love anything Superman.  School starts for teachers a week from today and for students a week from Thursday.  That means this is, according to many of my teacher friends, our last week of freedom.  I guess that's true for me in some ways, but not so much in others.

It is the last week I get to sleep as late as I want on weekdays.  The odd thing is, I'm a morning person and don't sleep late much anyway, so that's kind of lost on me.  What I will miss are the leisurely mornings lingering over a third (or fourth) cup of coffee while doing my morning devotions, reading the news online, checking my Facebook and Twitter pages, answering emails, reading a good book, and writing a  good book. At least I hope it's good .  I guess I could still do all that if I want to get up at 5:00am, but even I'm not that much of a morning person. So I guess it's back to slamming coffee while doing my devotions and then getting ready for school, where I'll try to answer urgent emails before first period and continue to slam coffee until lunch time, when I'll give my kidneys a break and start slamming water.  It's a good thing my room's across the hall from the boys' potty.

I guess the main thing I'll miss is being able to have almost unlimited time to read for pleasure and to write. I'll still do both of those things, but I'll have to work around reading what I've assigned my kids to read and also what I've had them write.  That's one of the elements that nearly all English teachers have to contend with, especially AP English teachers.  We have them read and write a lot, which means we read a lot.  But I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it.

One thing I'm looking forward to is seeing my teacher friends.  I've been in touch with some over Facebook and such, but nothing can replace face-to-face human contact.  Sadly, some dear old friends are no longer with us.  No, they didn't die--they retired.  But many didn't and who knows, maybe the people who replace them will soon be dear old friends.

On the most positive of all notes is that I get to meet a new bunch of students with whom I'll most assuredly fall in love with, adopt as my sons and daughters for nine months, and tearfully bid goodbye to in May.  I know I'll be crushed on that last day, but only because I've had such a good time with them the previous weeks and months.  I'll laugh with them, cry with them, talk with them, eat with them, celebrate with them, mourn with them, and just enjoy being with them.  I'll go their games and plays and concerts and tournaments and recitals and be amazed at how talented and dedicated they are  So it's worth a few tears.  Okay, several tears.  I'm a crybaby.  I own it.

So yeah, it's a loss of some personal time, but it's bigger gain of personal fulfillment.  I'll take that trade anytime.  I'm a teacher.  I love my job.    

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Writer's Voice

I'm a huge Robert B. Parker fan.  If I haven't read all of his books, I've read the vast majority, some of them multiple times.  I've even read the non-mainstream ones without his three well known main characters, though Spenser is where I met Parker and is my first love among his characters.  I was saddened when he died, not just for the loss of him, but also for the loss of Spenser, Jesse Stone, and Sunny Randall, who had become like dear old friends to me.

So it was with mixed emotions that I heard that Parker's widow Joan had tapped two people to carry on the Spenser and Stone series.  I was excited to have more exploits of my two favorite good guys to read, but how could someone else possibly capture the voice of one of crime drama's greatest writers?

The answer is that they couldn't.  No disrespect to Ace Atkins and Michael Brandman, but the writing is simply a pale shadow of the quick narration and sharp, witty dialogue that was Parker's trademark.  The characters are flat and unappealing in some cases (How in the world do you make Hawk feel smaller than life?), while in other cases they are just not who they used to be.  Jesse Stone is completely unlikeable in Brandman's iteration.  And Susan Silverman is, to quote a friend and fellow Parkerite, just plain snarky.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.  It would be like going to a Yo-Yo Ma concert and hearing the following announcement:  "Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry to announce that Yo-Yo Ma is not feeling well tonight.  However, his parts will be played by this other really good cellist.  He's just as good, really." Or like going to a New England Patriots game only to find that Tom Brady's uniform would be out there, but it would be filled by Tim Tebow.  They were going to run all the same plays, so the fans should expect Brady's uniform to be able to play just as well despite being filled by another player.

It's not the cello--it's Yo-Yo Ma.  It's not the uniform--it's Tom Brady.  It's not the names of the characters and locations--it's Robert B. Parker that makes them who they really are.  They just aren't the same without him.

Not to get all teacher-y, but the lesson here is that voice is important and each writer's voice is unique. I'm sure Mr. Atkins and Mr. Brandman are fine writers.  Atkins is a highly decorated author; I know less about Brandman.  But I'm 100% certain they are better writers when they are using their own voices than when they're trying (unsuccessfully) to imitate someone else's.  And the same is true for me.  You may hear echoes of writers like Parker and Craig Johnson in my voice because I love their writing so much and read it voraciously, but I write best when I write as me.  And I hope that's pretty good.