Sunday, June 27, 2010

Summer Reading

Forty-eight hours into her summer my teenage daughter is tan, infinitely more relaxed than she was during her previous “exams” week, and has finished two books.

Wait. Two books? Why is she still doing homework?

Ah, now I remember. It’s not homework. It’s summer reading.

There is nothing more idyllic than summer reading. It’s not required by a teacher, there’s no test at the end, and the list is endless, random and completely one’s own. You never, never hold a pencil in your hand during a Summer Read … strictly verboten … because there’s no need to mark the text for notes or papers. Just let it all stream in and carry you off ….

My favorite place to Summer Read: a hammock. Definitely. And my favorite hammock in the world is on Hodgdon Pond, on Mt. Desert Island, in Maine, a secluded spot right near Acadia National Park. Loons drift by on the water, great blue herons swoop overhead, and there’s a regular symphony of frogs. I know some people like to read at the beach, but for me it’s too hot and the sound of the ocean puts me right to sleep. The beach is actually my favorite napping place in the world …

My favorite drink while I’m Summer Reading: raspberry lemonade.

My favorite time to Summer Read: anytime. All the time. But if you’re in a hammock, in Maine, you want to come in by 4:00 because otherwise the mosquitoes will eat you alive. I believe the mosquito is the State Bird of Maine, isn’t it?

What’s on my Summer Reading List: wow. Where do I begin?

In terms of “adult” books, I just got hold of a copy of Bad Girls Go Everywhere, a biography of Helen Gurley Brown written by Bowdoin College Professor Janet Scanlon. I just ordered Authentic Patriotism, written by a college friend, Stephen Kiernan, (we were in the same creative writing class!) and is a collection of stories about Americans who are contributing to their communities in significant ways. As for fiction, Tinkers by Paul Harding is on my list.

Of course, I always have a tall stack of Young Adult and Middle Grade novels I want to read! My friend Charlotte Agell has a new book called The Accidental Adventures of India MacAllister; fellow Brunswick writer Cindy Lord will soon have her next novel, Touch Blue, on shelves; Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta is in the stack; as is When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead; and Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles.

I was thrilled to learn that teachers and students at the James F. Doughty School in Bangor, Maine, have included my novel Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress as part of their summer reading/blogging project! It’s been fun to visit their blog and read what they think of Brett, and how they connect it to other books. Plus, it’s so amazing to think that Brett, Mr. Beady, Nonna and the rest of the crew are part of their summer!

The summer’s young, and my list could be longer … any suggestions of what I might add?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pressure Cooker

I still have nightmares about papers due but not yet started.

It’s the same nightmare, actually, just repeated over and over. It’s always Mr. Hillenbrand’s history class, back when I was a senior at Northern Highlands Regional High School in New Jersey. I walk into class for the first time, but it’s the END of the marking period, and for some reason I haven’t read the book, nor attended class, or even started the 40-page paper which the trim, ever-cool Mr. Hillenbrand is collecting from the other students at that very moment.

I wake in a cold sweat, absolutely panic stricken. And I graduated from that high school 31 years ago.

Why does Mr. Hillenbrand still have the power to terrorize me? I certainly had more challenging classes in college. Why don’t I dream of Murray Dry, the Darth Vadar of the Poli Sci department from my undergrad days, or the legendary, brilliant, never-cracked-a-smile Robert Langbaum from grad school?

I’ll tell you why: high school is freakin’ scary. And as scary as it was in 1979, it’s way worse now.

I’m talking about pressure. Whether you’re an academic kid hoping to get into college, or a hands-on guy in vocational ed hoping to find a job in this economy, it’s all fraught. And high school sports? Forget it. We’re in the thick of the post-season, varsity playoff schedule right now, and it’s wild. I watched a slip of a girl do battle on the tennis court the other day before some 100 shrieking fans: it was a tie-breaker to decide which team would advance to the state finals. I watched boys pound the earth in frustration as their lacrosse team failed repeatedly to score and their dreams of advancing to the semi-finals disappeared … and at least one pent-up parent who clearly had a little too much invested in the result, wept.

Maybe that’s where the real pressure is coming from: us. Grownups. Parents who should be helping kids navigate the world and put things in perspective, but are in fact piling on and raising the stakes. When did taking the SAT and applying to college become a life-or-death decision? When did surviving the sports schedule turn into the March to Bataan, where parents feel compelled to attend every single pre-season, post-season and regular season game, regardless of the distance from the school? And behave like screaming paparazzi in the stands?

I “talk the talk” to my kids, but they’re wrecks and somewhere along the way I’m sure I’ve ^%#*’d up. Live in the moment. Don’t let credentials define you. Call the lines fair and just do your best. I’ve said it all; but what do they really hear?

At my son’s high school graduation this weekend I watched and listened as young men and women I’ve known since they were in diapers stepped up to the podium and delivered wise, witty speeches. They were the top five in their class, and goodness knows what it took for them to get there. Their valedictorian said it best, describing the untold, unseen hours of toil leading up to “moments” like this: a graduation. Or a musical performance. A race. A soccer match. It made me think of the hours, weeks, and years I spend alone working, before one day a delivery truck pulls up and drops off a box containing one of my books. It’s an exhilarating moment, but most of life is just doing the work, messing up, cleaning up, and starting over.

How amazing that those kids already get that. At least, that’s what they said the other night. The last speaker talked about enjoying the journey, and I truly hope all his fellow graduates heard him … it was getting a little rowdy at the end. Beach balls started flying; mortarboards were flung.

Enjoy the journey. I hope they can.