Last week, I finished the first draft of my screenplay. It was a goal I’d set for myself so long ago – a goal which I had so often delayed – that part of me couldn’t believe that I had actually achieved it, and that I was really, truly, typing the words “Fade Out” on the bottom of page ninety-eight.
However, though I felt an initial surge of excitement upon reaching this milestone, my joy quickly turned to dread. I felt scared. Heavy. Worried.
The negative self-talk started screaming through my brain. “You finished it?” “So what?” “It’s not done. Not by a long shot.” “You’ll probably never finish it.” “And even if you do, who cares?” “Your story isn’t particularly interesting, Sarah. No one is going to want to see this movie.”
It took me three days after completing the first draft to force myself to sit down and read the whole thing from beginning to end, with an eye on what needed to be clarified, edited, and fixed. The process was horrible. As I read along, my self-judgment got worse and worse. Words like “stupid,” “cliché,” and “boring” sprang to mind. One particular scene made me laugh out loud as I covered my mouth in horror, thinking, “I can’t believe I wrote that.”
And on and on it went. My younger self would have been so discouraged at the end of it, I would have buried the entire document in a folder on my laptop and not looked at it again for months, until one night after I’d had too much wine and was feeling masochistic, I’d pick it up again and cry my way though it, bemoaning my poor talentless self and all the months I’d wasted on writing something that was never going to be any good and was never going to see the light of day.
But I am not my younger self. I am older now, and I – usually – know better. The older me took all of my harshest criticism and wrote it down, trying to make my notes as constructive as possible. The older me reminded myself that first drafts are almost always terrible, and I didn’t write this first draft to be brilliant, I wrote it to get to the end. The older me knows that this process is painful, but also knows that the only way to make the pain stop is to keep writing, keep pushing, keep showing up and doing the work. The older me knows that I can’t give up, because if I do, the unfinished work will turn into yet another unrealized dream that will haunt me. And I have too many of those already, thank you very much.
I am fortunate enough to have lots of amazing friends who are actors, writers, artists. And I believe that if we’re honest, we all grapple with the same fears, the same longing, the same self-doubt. We all worry that we’re not talented enough, not smart enough, not unique enough to add our voices to the crowded chorus of storytellers already out there in the world. But it’s not just the artists, is it? Don’t we all harbor a secret “Who do I think I am?” that holds us back from taking bold steps toward our biggest dreams?
After beating myself up for a good long time, I picked up my much-beloved copy of Steven Pressfield’s book “Do the Work.” (If you are trying to finish anything, get it, use it. I am not kidding – this book will change your life). I paged through it as I often do, to remind myself that nothing worth doing is ever easy. I laughed when I got to this part on page 46:
Sometimes on Wednesday I’ll read something that I wrote on Tuesday and I’ll think, ‘This is crap. I hate it and I hate myself.’ Then I’ll re-read the identical passage on Thursday. To my astonishment it has become brilliant overnight. Ignore false negatives. Ignore false positives. Both are Resistance.
And then, in big, bold letters, he writes:
In the end, I have no control over whether people love or hate my story. By extension, I have no control over whether people love or hate me. Making people love me is not my job. My job is to show up and do the work on a consistent basis, and to try every day to get a little bit better. The story that’s burning a hole inside of me deserves that. So every day, I try to remind myself that the process, not the end result, is what I have control over. The process, not the end result, is what demands my focus.
And I also try to remind myself that I have a community of friends and supporters – many of them right here on WordPress – with whom I can share my process, my fears, my journey. And this community reminds me that there’s nothing wrong with the struggle. The struggle is part of the story.
Until next time, friends.
My grandfather is dead: I do not know how to grieve. So I make bread.
In the Bible they call bread the staff of life (my grandfather might have liked this: he liked religion), but really it’s the staff of grief. And rage, and guilt. I do not know how to grieve. I am twenty-two: my grandparents had children young, and I thought they would all die old. Older. I do not know how to grieve. I do not know how to grieve my grandfather’s passing, because I barely knew my grandfather. I tried to tell someone “he was like this-” and I came up short: who was my grandfather?
He let me eat apple pie for breakfast. He was my father’s father. He was bald. He liked to garden. He was a teacher, and some kind of occasional preacher. He came from a village called something like Jacksondale, which I cannot find on a map. I do not know where he came from: perhaps Jacksondale was just a story. He used to pull stories out of his sleeve, wrapped in his handkerchief. The stories would fall out when he shook the handkerchief. He told good stories. One was about a black cat, and a lord, and I remember the gates he drew in the air: they were like this. I remember them as well as if I had seen them myself. He told good stories.
Once we asked him could we have ice-cream before breakfast, and he said if we could find any, we were welcome to it: we went to the outside freezer and found two boxes of Cornettos. He let us eat them all. Perhaps this means that he was a man of his word. I hope so.
He was kind to us when he saw us. He did not see us often. He found it difficult to see us often. I do not hold him responsible for the fact he found it difficult to see us often. I had not seen him in some years when he died: it is hard to know how to grieve. My grandfather died on Saturday: I heard on Tuesday. My sister saw a Facebook post from a cousin (all emoji hearts and “eternal flames”), and told me he was dead. I don’t know how he died. I don’t know if knowing would make it easier to know how to grieve.
My grandfather is dead, and I am at a loss. I had not seen him since my eighteenth birthday lunch. My eighteenth birthday lunch was also the last day I saw my father’s house, and the day my father said some things, terrible things, which I can’t forget. I have tried. These events are not coincidental, and I think they go a little way to explaining why this loss has left me at such a loss: why the way I am grieving this man, whom I did not know in any meaningful way, is by making bread.
Bread is the staff (stuff?) of grief because it is the staff of life. Tiny microscopic life-forms, breathing and bubbling and growing under your hands: it lives. Life goes on. I cannot find myself on the map, but I go on, nonetheless. And I make bread.
And in my airing-cupboard church, yeast rising and breathing beside me, I mourn what was, and what might have been.
The rules of bread-making are strict and formal; the rules of this kind of grief are written somewhere I can’t see. I don’t know how to grieve, but I know how to make bread. A six-strand challah braid: knead in anger, rise in grief, plait to find a pattern in all of this.
In making bread I can make an order out of chaos, and so I make bread, endlessly. A loaf rises as I write. Plait after plait. I give loaves to visitors, neighbours, strangers. Here. Share my bread. Share my grief. Be my people, when my people are gone. We will all be gone one day, but for now, we go on, go on, and he took the bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and he said take, eat: this is my body, do this in remembrance of me. He was a preacher of sorts.
In my blood is my grandfather’s blood; his body is a quarter of the pattern for mine, and in making this bread I remembered him, and I was sad, sad to my bones (which are one-quarter patterned on his), and sorry for it all, and perhaps that is all grief is- or, at least, it is all the grief I have.
for my sister, without whom I would be entirely lost
(Taken almost wholesale from Emma Christensen’s recipe at The Kitchn: with baking there are rules.)
One packet instant yeast
250 ml lukewarm water (this is about a cup)
625 g (1 lb., 6 oz.) plain white flour
40g (1 1/2 oz.) sugar (I used golden caster)
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons neutral oil, like groundnut
Stand mixer; or a sturdy bowl and good hands. A little bowl for the yeast mixture. A spoon. Baking sheet, parchment. A warm dark place. A thermometer is very useful.
Begin with the yeast: you’re bringing it to life, essentially. Take your bowl of lukewarm water, and sprinkle over the yeast, and a pinch of borrowed sugar. Stir until dissolved, and a frothy thick layer starts to form.
Weigh out your flour, and your sugar, and your salt into a big bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer. The salt, if it is sea-salt, needs to be ground: properly ground, with a pestle and mortar. This is a good place to be angry. Grind it out (the people who didn’t tell you, the people who told you, the people who didn’t or don’t or couldn’t).
Stir together, letting the flour lift and fall. Plenty of air. Breathe.
Hollow out a little well in the centre of the flour. Crack two eggs into it, whole. You can separate the third one: the yolk for the flour, the white saved for the wash. (You can separate the egg like this: split the shell in half. Catch the yolk in one half. Let the white fall. Move the yolk to the other half-shell. Let the white fall. Repeat. This meditative transference is a good place to say, I did all I could, I did all I could. Repeat.)
The yolk goes into the well, with the other eggs, and your four tablespoons of neutral oil. Stir to form what Christensen calls a “slurry”. Tip your frothing yeast over this slurry, and stir again, and stir bigger: incorporate the flour, and the sugar, and the salt, and the egg-oil-yeast together, to form a “shaggy dough that is difficult to mix”. You will know exactly when you have done this: it is the perfect way of describing it. (Christensen again.)
You can, at this point, set your shaggy dough on your stand mixer; set it to knead with the dough hook for six-eight minutes.
Or turn it out onto a floured board, and knead into it all of your fury. You can say it aloud, as you pummel the dough into reason and order: it isn’t fair (knead), it isn’t fair (fold), it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair. You’re right. Keep kneading. Push your knuckles in, fold it around your fingers. Ten minutes at least, until it’s supple and smooth and forms an easy ball. You’ll know when you get there.
Set the dough to rise in an oiled bowl (I only oil the bowl I made it in), and set it in a dark, warm place. Cover with a clean tea-towel. Crawl with the dough into the dark warm place. Cry a bit. Wait. Wait. it will rise: bread is sturdy, and bread is resilient, and bread rises.
After about an hour, the dough will have doubled in size. See? Take this doubled-dough, and weigh it. Divide the number by six. That is going to be the weight of each of your strands. Pull the dough into six balls of the right weight (you will be better at this than you think), and roll each ball into a long, thin strand. The length and thickness of these strands will determine the shape of your loaf: shorter, fatter ones for an everyday loaf, longer and thinner for a ring loaf. A celebration loaf, I think they call it.
Lay out your six ropes of dough, and squeeze them together at the top. Braid them, like this: take the right-most rope, take it over two, and under one, and over two again.
Christensen explains it like this:
“Carry the right-most rope over the two ropes beside it, slip it under the middle rope, and then carry it over the last two ropes. Lay the rope down parallel to the other ropes; it is now the furthest-left strand.” Repeat until you have no more rope.
It is not nearly so hard as it seems, and you will be able to do it. But you will have to focus on the bread, which is good: when you are thinking about bread you are not thinking about knowing, or remembering, or feelings. Only bread, and braids.
If you have made a shorter, fatter loaf, you squidge the strands together at the end, and then you sort of cup the bread, pushing it together to make it higher, fatter, more loaf-like.
If you have made a longer, thinner loaf, you must make it into a circle: this is not as hard as it seems. Just lift it. The loaf is well-made. It won’t break, and nor will you. Bend it into a circle, and join the ends together, weaving the end of the braid into the beginning. Haphazard braiding is ok here.
Lift your braided loaf onto a baking sheet lined with parchment. Set it back in the warm place. Another hour, and it is risen when it is puffy and pillowy. Heat your oven to 175 Celsius. Brush the pillowy plait with egg white: you can mix this egg white with a teaspoon of water if you don’t think it will go far enough.
Scatter the bread with sea salt, assuming you kept your tears out of it. I scattered mine with poppy seeds, too. (The last time I saw my grandfather we talked about the poppies in my father’s garden: I did not remember this until after I had baked this bread.)
Bake the bread for thirty minutes, turning it in your oven at the fifteen minute mark. It is done when it is deep golden-brown, and when a thermometer reads 88 degrees Celsius, right in the middle. If you have no thermometer, it is done when it knocks hollow on the bottom. (And in this it is also like grief, especially a grief you don’t understand: hollow, heavy.)
Turn the bread out onto a cooling rack, by the window. Eat as soon as it stops steaming; or wrap in a tea-towel, and go knocking on your neighbour’s door. Take my bread. Eat my bread. I am sad, and I would like to be less alone: share my bread with me.
In May 2013, Monica Jones, a student and LGBT activist at Arizona State University, was arrested for “manifesting prostitution.” Monica said she just accepted an undercover officer’s offer of a ride home from her favorite bar. Monica is among the tens of thousands of people arrested every year for prostitution-related offenses. According to the FBI, police arrested over 57,000 people on such charges in 2011. The vast majority were women.
The following post is about ambivalence and remembrance. It is comprised of unstructured vignettes, loosely tied with my thoughts on identity, family, and cultural legacy. These thoughts were inspired by the fact that today is April 24, and we are 100 years removed from the beginnings of the Armenian Genocide. I am not an authority […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
A few years back, I was contacted by the producers of Who Do You Think You Are?, a popular TV genealogy show, to help them with an episode. The show was predicated on tracing the ancestry of celebrities, attempting to capitalize on the boon in genealogy amongst the masses, and was based on a popular British version. For an upcoming episode, they were working with Rosie O’Donnell, whose Irish ancestors had passed through Montreal, living for a time in a long-defunct neighbourhood in the city’s east end.
So I met with people from the show when they came to Montreal, spent the good chunk of a day with them, showing them what mid-nineteenth century architecture in the city looked like, using Pointe-Saint-Charles in the stead of this defunct neighbourhood, which was destroyed by the expansion of rue Notre-Dame in the 70s. Not surprisingly, the majority of the Montreal part was excised from the show, but I did get a wonderful brunch at Quoi de N’Oueuf.
In preparation for their visit, they had sent me the very first episode of the show, from 2010, which looked at Sarah Jessica Parker, then riding high on Sex and the City. It turns out her ancestors had been in Salem in 1692. As the show went to commercial, Parker was waiting on tenterhooks in the archives. Was her ancestor the accused or the accuser? Turns out her ancestor was the victim. I have always wondered how this episode would’ve played out had Parker’s ancestor been one of the accusers?
Would Parker have responded to learning her ancestors were involved in dodgy dealings like Ben Affleck? Affleck was on PBS’ Finding Your Roots last year. The show, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a lot like Who Do You Think You Are?, though perhaps more erudite, given the host and the network. Anyway. Emails released out of that hacking of Sony’s servers a few months back reveal that Affleck is the descendant of slave owners, but he wished that part of the story kept under wraps. No doubt he was embarrassed by this fact.
According to The Boston Globe, Gates emailed the Sony USA’s boss, Michael Lynton as to what to do with Affleck’s request that his ancestor’s slave-owning past be excised from the show. As Gates noted,
One of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?
This led to a discussion about what to do, as Lynton said the information should be kept out of the show; Gates noted the moral problem with this kind of self-censorship. Nonetheless, the episode aired last October, minus the information about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors.
Now, I get why Affleck might be embarrassed by this information. However. Here we had a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion about the legacy of slavery and imperialism in this country. If Affleck had stood up and said “Yes, some of my ancestors were slave-owners, I’m not proud of that, but it is what it is,” we could’ve discussed the fact that a good number of Americans, including some African Americans, are descendants of slave owners. We could have faced up to this ugly part of history.
History is full of all sorts of uncomfortable things, which should be patently obvious to anyone. Dealing with these uncomfortable truths is part and parcel of coming to terms with history as both individuals and societies. Take, for example, the case of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Here we are, at the centenary of the genocide, and Turkey, the nation descended from the Ottoman Empire, which committed the acts, refuses to acknowledge its actions. At this point, given the régime change at the end of the First World War, I am not entirely sure why Turkey is so steadfast in its denial. On the other hand, Germany has faced its ugly past in terms of the Holocaust.
Facing ugly histories is the only way we can face understanding and healing. It is the only way to come to terms with the past. And Affleck, who fancies himself a humanist and an activist (and he has done some good work), has missed a wonderful chance here in the name of saving himself some temporary embarrassment.
Gangaur Ghat is located at the heart of the city of Udaipur and is very easy to find. Upon leaving the City Palace via the north gate, walk down until you reach the flight of stairs on your left for Jagdish Temple. At the road junction, turn left and head down past all the souvenir shops until you eventually reach the waters edge.
This was a place I kept returning to during my stay in Udaipur, there was always something happening but in a quiet and peaceful way. There are a few cafes close by as well if you want to linger for even longer.
The name-sake Ghangaur festival is celebrated in a grand manner every year in Rajasthan. Gangaur signifies Lord Shiva and Parvati together. It’s believed that Parvati returned to her parental home during Gangaur, to bless her friends with marital bliss. On the last day, Parvati was given a grand farewell by her loved ones and Lord Shiva arrived to escort her home.
You can also come here at night on your way to see the City Palace illuminated on the opposite shoreline.
If you’re interested in using any of my photography or articles please get in touch. I’m also available for any freelance work worldwide, my duffel bag is always packed ready to go…
“Procrastination is the thief of time.”
Over and over and over again over these last two and a half years, I’ve reminded myself how precious time is; that it shouldn’t be wasted. After all, I’ve seen it in action: the way a mere phrase or phone call or the briefest of moments can permanently alter every cell in your body, so that afterwards you never think or dream or breathe the same way again. I don’t need anyone to tell me that all we have is this moment, this one, right now. I already know.
And yet. As I sit here, writing this to you, I am – at this very moment – procrastinating. I am putting off doing things that are important to me. Even after I resolved that I wouldn’t, I am still finding ways to stall. I am making excuses. Why?
I have a plan. It’s sort of epic. Can I tell you about it?
Ever since my mother died two and a half years ago, a story has been kicking around inside of my brain. Scenes of it play in my mind like a movie. It is a movie. Well, not yet. After mom died, I wrote the story in fits and starts – sketches of scenes, bits of dialogue. But I couldn’t really get a rhythm going because too much was happening. I was too messed up. I couldn’t see it or admit it at the time, but I was. My dad was sick, my grandmother was sick, the person I loved most in the world was abruptly gone with all kinds of questions surrounding her death, and oh, on a side note, my personal life was an utter disaster. My world had flipped upside down.
To make everything worse, I couldn’t write. I felt stupid, clumsy. My tongue was thick in my mouth. Words were stubborn, refusing to string together to form sentences. The thing that had always come easy for me, the thing I’d fallen back on when all else failed, had suddenly become impossible.
But little by little, it started to come back. I started writing again. And over the last two plus years, I have written a lot. I wrote while my life changed. I wrote through all kinds of moments – heartbreaking moments and sweet moments, laugh out loud moments and joyful moments. You see, once you get through the worst part of a trauma, once you realize it won’t actually kill you, once you realize that you still care enough to pick yourself up and keep on living, you become capable of experiencing profound joy. And it’s often joy where you wouldn’t expect it: in small, seemingly insignificant moments that you never even realized were beautiful until you looked at them through the lens of loss. Even though you’re sadder and more broken, when you laugh you really mean it, and when you love you really mean it, and even though you wouldn’t wish what’s happened to you on anyone, your dirty little secret is that you don’t want to go back to the way you were before, because the old you was oblivious, fumbling around in the dark, while this you is awake to everything. And once you’ve woken up, you can’t go back to sleep.
But this is not meant to be a blog about loss, it’s meant to be a blog about procrastinating. See? I’m doing it again. OK, to get back to the point: the story that has been kicking around in my head for the last two and a half years while I tried and failed at writing it is finally taking shape. It’s a screenplay of a movie that is based upon my life.
The story is set in Olympia, Washington, the town where I went to high school and where I plan to film the movie. That’s right, I’m going to make the movie myself. I know just enough about producing films to be terrified of how much work it will be, how much money it will cost, and how much I still need to learn. Basically, I know enough to know that I don’t know enough. Not yet.
But in allowing myself to feel overwhelmed about the filmmaking part before I’m even there yet, I’ve been putting off the step I’m on now, which is sort of crucial: finishing the script. I’m self-aware enough to recognize my own resistance, and resistance and I are currently locked in a daily tug of war. I’ve got post it notes with motivational sayings all over my house, an accountability circle where I bring in pages of the script every week, and plans for a table read of the full script in May. But every day when it’s time for me to sit down and do my work, I’m like a petulant child who doesn’t want to go to school, looking for any excuse I can not to go.
What the hell is my problem? This story is important to me, and I want to tell it. Yes, writing it is hard. Yes, certain scenes aren’t coming out the way I want them to, at least not yet. But I’m making everything so much harder than it needs to be with my acrobatic stalling techniques. If writing this script is the thing that matters most to me, why will I do nearly anything to avoid working on it?
Maybe it’s the fear of failure thing. Maybe it’s the fear of success thing. Maybe it’s the fear that I’ll actually accomplish my goal and after all the blood, sweat and tears, I’ll get to the other side of it and realize that this process didn’t heal my life the way I’m hoping it will. Maybe I’m afraid that no matter what I do, nothing will ever change.
I think to some degree, my resistance is probably rooted in all of these things. But even though I’m scared, I’m also stubborn. I’m going to battle through this, just like I’ve battled through everything else these last couple of years. Because for all the challenges that lie ahead, I refuse to believe that I could have treaded through such deep water simply to give up. Our heroine battles through the worst experiences of her life, stands upon the precipice of utter despair, and then – throws in the towel. Now that would make a lousy movie.
If you’re anything like me – if you’re feeling overwhelmed by a big dream that you badly want to accomplish but don’t know where to start or what to do – this is what I suggest: start small. Break down your big dream into as many small tasks as you can, and just do one thing at a time. Do one small thing every day that keeps you moving forward. Don’t worry about what could go wrong in the future – it either will or it won’t and you’ll deal with it when you get there. Just do what’s in front of you every day.
Now let’s see if I can take my own advice.
Until next time, friends.
When I think of my childhood, two themes immediately rise to the top: movement and books.
We moved a lot when I was growing up. In the beginning it was because my dad was in the military; later, just because we were following (or looking for) jobs. From when I was born in a military hospital in Germany until I entered middle school, we moved nearly every year. I was used to putting all my stuff into boxes, then taking it all out of boxes again in a new house, in a new town, with a new school. Each move brought a different bedroom, a different neighborhood, a different teacher, different friends. My family was strong and constant, but the rest of the world swirled and shifted around us.
I was a quiet kid, shy and introverted. It’s not easy always being the new kid. Walking into a classroom full of strange faces and being the only kid that wasn’t there yesterday is tough. Amidst all that change and transition, though, I found a warm and reliable refuge: books. Ah, books.
Every school I attended had a library. Thank God. A room that’s full of shelves that are full of books that are full of stories. Stories that are diverse and unique and extraordinary and varied – but are beautifully the same no matter where you read them. Whether I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in Spokane, or Montana, or Kansas, Narnia was always in the same place. I could go there whenever I wanted, from wherever I was. Stories always know where true north lies in our interior geography.
I remember vividly when my mom presented me with my very first chapter book to read on my own: The Beast in Mrs. Rooney’s Room by Patricia Reilly Giff, part of the Polk Street School series. I was in First Grade, living in Montana, and I threw myself on my bed and devoured it in one sitting. Not long after that, the boxes came out. We were moving again. We’d only been there a year and a half but I had close friends and a school I loved and I did not want to go.
Kids, though, rarely get choices. Away we went. My first day at the new school, I was sad and lonely. No one invited me to sit with them at lunch (in fact, another vivid memory: they scooted away from me when I sat down). And then we went to the library. All those books lined up, waiting. And right there on the shelf were the Polk Street School books. Those same crazy kids having goofy misadventures in Mrs. Rooney’s room. They were right there waiting for me. My spinning compass fell still.
Stillness is underrated. Life is loud, and for a lot of kids the chaos that surrounds them isn’t all that great. Fighting parents, jeering bullies, police sirens, moving boxes, absent fathers. In a rushed and hectic world, books stand still. They, in fact, require stillness. Stories ground you in stillness right where you sit, but at the same time take you safely away to other worlds.
Books are faraway places that we can hold in our hands; they are distant adventures, yet they’re right there in our hearts.
As teachers, as librarians, as parents, we get to share so much with children. Knowledge. Humor. Wisdom, maybe. And we get to share books with them. Stories. Books that may grow to mean a great deal to them. Books that might answer questions they’ve been holding too long in their hearts, or make them ask questions they never have before. Books that may make them feel things that are utterly new and yet achingly familiar. Books that make them think, books that make them feel. Or maybe books that do nothing but make them laugh…and is there absolutely anything wrong with that? Is there really too much kid laughter in the world?
It’s a wonderful gift, being able to share books with kids.
I am so sorry about your dog, Lupe. Here…try this book, Love that Dog. I think you’ll love it.
I know sometimes you feel trapped and alone, Jason. Why don’t you read The One and Only Ivan…I hope it’ll mean as much to you as it does to me.
Michael, you sure seem kind of down today. Know what I think you need? A little Captain Underpants therapy.
A new student arrived at my school this year. She was quiet, she was unsure, she was very far from the home she’d known.
In her first day at the library, I was showing her around a little bit, her uncertain eyes scanning the library shelves. Then her breath caught. She reached up and softly, lovingly touched the spine of a book.
“Oh,” she whispered. “Charlotte’s Web! I read this at my old school. I love it. You have it here, too?”
And then, for the first time since she’d arrived, she smiled.
I knew, exactly and personally, how she felt.
That book was not just a story about a pig and spider. It was a little piece of home – a little piece of home that she will be able to find wherever she goes. If she moves again, and again, and finds herself again and again in a new home and a new town like I did, she’ll always be able to walk into whatever new school she arrives at and find that book on the library shelves. It’ll always be there for her. An old friend. And there’s nothing a new kid needs more than an old friend. That’s the truth.
And now, in addition to being a teacher-librarian, I have the privilege of being a writer. A writer of a book for kids, a book that will actually find a home on library shelves in different schools, in different towns, in different states. And that feels amazing. Because in so many ways, I’m still that new kid, that quiet kid looking for a piece of home on those library shelves. And now, in some places, my book will be there.
And somewhere, maybe, some new kid on their first day at a scary new school might see my book and smile and say, “Hey. I read that book at my old school. They have it here, too.”
And that kid will know what I learned as a kid, and what I bet everyone reading this knows:
Books are not just things. They are worlds that we can always come home to.
Dan Gemeinhart is an elementary teacher-librarian. He lives with his wife and three young daughters in Cashmere, WA. The Honest Truth, his debut middle grade novel, comes out this month from Scholastic Press. You can connect with him on Facebook, on his website (www.dangemeinhart.com), and on Twitter (@dangemeinhart).
Forget about your house of cards
And I’ll do mine
And fall under the table, get swept under
—Radiohead, “House of Cards”
Note: Major spoilers follow for the third season of House of Cards.
Watching the season finale of House of Cards, I found myself reflecting on the curious career of director James Foley, who has helmed many of the show’s most memorable episodes. Foley is the quintessential journeyman, a filmmaker responsible for one movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, that I’ll probably revisit at least once a decade for the rest of my life, and a lot of weird, inexplicable filler, from The Corruptor to Perfect Stranger. It’s a messy body of work that still earned him a coveted entry in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, in which David Thomson writes: “You could put together a montage of scenes by Foley that might convince anyone that he was—and is—a very hot director.” And that’s equally true of House of Cards, which would allow you to cut together enough striking scenes and images to convince you that it was the hottest show on television. I’ve noted before that I’ve never seen a series in which every technical element was brought to such a consistent pitch of intensity: the cinematography, art direction, sound design, editing, and music are among the best I’ve ever seen. Foley’s handling of the finale is masterful. And yet it’s only a sad coda to a deeply disappointing, often outright frustrating show, which in its most recent season pulled off the neat trick of being both totally implausible and grindingly boring.
And it didn’t have to be this way. As infuriating as House of Cards often was, there was an undeniable charge, in the very last shot of the second season, when Underwood walked into the Oval Office and rapped his hand against the desk. We seemed primed to embark on a spectacular run of stories, with a scheming, murderous, Machiavellian psychopath positioned to move onto a grander stage. What we got, instead, was an Underwood who seemed oddly hapless and neutered. He’s still a hypocrite, but with no coherent plans for domination, and hardly any sense of what he wants to accomplish with the power he sought for so long. If the show were actively working to subvert our expectations, that would be one thing, but that doesn’t seem to be the case: for most of the season, it seemed as adrift as its protagonist, who starts off with poor approval ratings, a nonexistent mandate, and no ability to advance his agenda, whatever the hell it might be. In the abstract, I can understand the narrative reasoning: you want to open with your hero at a low point to give him somewhere to go. But if you can imagine, instead, a scenario in which Underwood starts out as popular and powerful, only to fight ruthlessly in secret against a scandal, old or new, that threatens to undermine it all, you start to glimpse the kind of drama that might have been possible.
And what’s really dispiriting is that all the right pieces were in place, only to be systematically squandered. In Petrov, a thinly veiled surrogate for Putin, the show gave Underwood his first truly formidable antagonist, but instead of a global game of chess being played between two superb manipulators, we’re treated to the sight of Underwood rolling over time and time again. The one really shrewd plot point—in which Petrov extorts Underwood into forcing Claire to resign as UN ambassador—would have been much more effective if Claire had been any good at her job, which she manifestly isn’t. The interminable subplot about the America Works bill would have been fine if it had all been a blind for Underwood to consolidate his power, but it’s not: he just wants to give people jobs, and his attempts at extraconstitutional maneuvering seem like a means to an end, when they should have been the end in themselves. We keep waiting for Underwood, our ultimate villain, to do something evil, inspired, or even interesting, but he never does. And the show’s one great act of evil, in the form of Rachel’s fate, feels like a cynical cheat, because the show hasn’t done the hard work, as Breaking Bad repeatedly did, of earning the right to coldly dispose of one of its few sympathetic characters. (As it stands, there’s a touch of misogyny here, in which an appealing female player is reintroduced and killed simply to further the journey of a white male antihero in a supporting role.)
Yet House of Cards remains fascinating to think about, if not to watch, because so many talented people—David Fincher, Eric Roth, Tony Gilroy—have allowed it to drift off the rails. I’ve spoken at length before, most notably in Salon, about the dangers inherent in delivering a television series a full season at a time: without the intense scrutiny and feedback that comes from airing week to week, a show is likely to grow complacent, or to push deeper into a narrative dead end. In Vox, Todd VanDerWerff argues that this season can best be understood as a reaction to the show’s critics, a failed attempt to make a hard turn into a character drama, which only proves that it isn’t enough to plot a course correction once per season. And there’s a larger blindness here, perhaps one enabled by the show’s superficial gorgeousness. Is what Frank Underwood does interesting because he’s Underwood, or is he interesting because he does interesting things? I’d argue that it’s the latter, and that the echo chamber the Netflix model creates has lulled the show into thinking that we’ll follow its protagonist anywhere, when it has yet to honestly earn that level of trust. (In a way, it feels like a reflection of its leading man: Kevin Spacey may be the most intelligent actor alive when it comes to the small decisions he makes from moment to moment, but he’s been frequently misguided in his choice of star parts.) House of Cards is still a fun show to dissect; if I were teaching a course on television, it’s the first case study I’d assign. But that doesn’t mean I need to give it any more of my time.
1. Every Monday, shortly after his HBO show Last Week Tonight airs, there’s a new John Oliver video to share. He takes on some monstrous hypocrite who epitomizes the worst of capitalism, inveighs against said hypocrite for 10 or 15 cathartic minutes, and the next day, like clockwork, a like-minded audience cheers across the Internet.
Websites need content, people need an excuse to abuse the word “ether” a little more, and we all get to have our indignation vindicated. The topic is almost irrelevant.
But this week it played like a parody of the whole phenomenon.
The NCAA released its bracket for the men’s basketball tournament on Sunday night, and Oliver took the opportunity to go out back and beat a dead horse a little further into the ground. He blasted the NCAA. He tore into the NCAA. He took it on, he destroyed it, and he exposed the shameful system right there in the open. John Oliver was Shirley F--king Jackson and the NCAA won The Lottery this week.
Monday morning, it was everywhere. Like clockwork.
2. Monday night, 49ers linebacker Chris Borland announced that he was retiring from football. He wants to protect his health while he still has the chance.
“From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced,” he told ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, “I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
This comes on the heels of other retirements across the league over the past two weeks. Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds walked away at 27 years old. Jake Locker spent most of his career as a punch line, quarterbacking the Titans, but it was still surprising to see a former top-10 pick quit the game after just four years. And Patrick Willis, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the 49ers, was the most incredible news of all. He left the game at 30.
At the time, the 49ers didn’t seem panicked.
But on the heels of the 24-year-old Borland’s retirement, the panic stretches well beyond San Francisco. This is one of the best young players in football, coming off one of the best seasons of any rookie in the league. He had the chance to fill Willis’s shoes and start at middle linebacker for a team that just two season ago was only a play away from the Super Bowl.
Back in 2014, Borland was the college linebacker at the combine who said, “I feel like I’m the toughest guy here … we’ve got a lot of tough guys here, but I’ve played through things.”
Now, after exceeding every expectation on the field, he has taken a look at his own experience and the research and mounting evidence, and has decided that the benefits of playing pro football aren’t worth the cost.
“I feel largely the same,” he told ESPN, “as sharp as I’ve ever been. For me it’s wanting to be proactive. I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late. … There are a lot of unknowns. I can’t claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”
This is big news. It feels like a watershed moment.
I’m just not sure it really is.
3. We’ve known the truth about football for a while now. We all knew that concussions have tragic, awful consequences for players as they get older. Mike Webster’s son had to taser his father to sleep. There are dozens of horror stories like that — enough to convince you there are many more that never make it to the news.
This is ugly, and that’s before you consider the pain that players live with or the long-term effects of the pain pills they ingest. Then you think about the behavioral changes connected to all this trauma, and maybe it helps explain how certain players turn angrier and more violent off the field. That’s a problem that deserves its own column, but for now, just read Dan Le Batard from this fall. All of it is part of pro football. We’ve known this for a while, and pro football seems to be doing just fine.
What feels different in 2015 is that active players seem to know too.
For the people paying attention, it feels good to know that players aren’t blind to everything that’s ugly about this sport. Maybe it’s even encouraging.
But it changes nothing. It would be easy to write something like, “Chris Borland is the face of the NFL’s future.” But anyone paying attention knows that probably isn’t true.
A handful of players abruptly retiring will just become one more thing we all ignore when the season starts. Maybe it will be talked about in San Francisco, but the rest of the league will move on. St. Louis just signed Nick Fairley to play alongside Chris Long, Robert Quinn, and Aaron Donald. In five months, we’ll all be talking about quarterbacks getting suplexed on every down against the Rams.
4. The TV contracts are signed, and media outlets need content. Nobody is going to walk away from the NFL. There’s too much money involved across the board. If football is on television, fans will keep watching it, in record numbers, and the networks will keep paying record fees for the right to show it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not above jumping in the middle of the “football is dying” take tornado. Every few months, there’s a story that makes the end seem that much closer. I’ve written so many different columns about the NFL’s downfall, it’s impossible to keep track. One year, there’s the concussion settlement. Or it’s the Junior Seau autopsy. Or maybe the Frontline documentary. Just a few months ago, it was the growing stupidity of the games themselves, and the Dez catch that will upset me until the end of time. I’ve been writing some variation of the same “NFL crisis” column for the past five years.
But you want to talk about the NFL’s ugly future? Look at the past year. A player was caught beating his fiancée on tape, a superstar was accused of child abuse, and the commissioner’s integrity was questioned by a federal judge. The FBI raided locker rooms over prescription pills. A tight end is facing murder charges in the deaths of three people. The ugly future is here.
Meanwhile, the Super Bowl just had its highest rating in history. On any given week during the season the three highest-rated shows on television belonged to some form of football. You or I may have an existential crisis when watching this sport, but football is doing fine.
5. There were two ironies in watching the Oliver video blow up the Internet on Monday. The first is that every single sports website that posted that video will now spend the rest of March capitalizing on as much March Madness content as possible. (Grantland didn’t post the video, but we’ll be no different, even though we write about the NCAA’s evils at least five times a year.) The second irony is that any serious sports fan who cares enough to spend 10 minutes watching Oliver tear down the NCAA will definitely spend this entire weekend watching the NCAA tournament.
But at least something like NCAA ethering will eventually shame that organization into reform. No amount of scathing takedowns or media triumphs will ever change the fundamental realities of football as a business.
I guess it would be disingenuous to pretend that Chris Borland will change football’s bottom line. Every year there’s a new story that’s supposed to shock the sport into reform, and it never happens. Eventually, beating a dead horse gets exhausting. But the takes will come regardless, and especially this week.
There will be treacly columns defending Borland’s decision, as if anyone with a brain is criticizing him. Then someone notable really will question him, and we’ll have to listen for two days while that person becomes the big target who gets tarred and feathered. Through it all, others will use Borland as an ominous sign for football’s future, a clear indication that football is headed in the wrong direction, destined to become as marginalized as boxing or horse racing. And the same people who love John Oliver videos will love all of that content, and share it, and tweet it … and then we’ll all be watching the NCAA tournament this weekend, just like we’ll all watch the NFL next year.
There’s a smug pessimism that infects how I and a lot of the Internet generation views everything, and none of it ever makes a difference. We watch people like Oliver and Jon Stewart eviscerate easy targets, and feel smart when we laugh about how doomed we all are. We see a few lifelong football reporters defending the NFL, and they immediately become a punch line. The older I get, the more naive this feels. Nobody is solving anything, we’re just really good at complaining about the problems. Eventually it all snowballs into this haze of cynicism that feels smart, but actually makes us all look dumb.
In the NFL’s case, maybe the antidote to this is just honesty.
Football will have a real crisis if doctors ever develop a test that can successfully diagnose CTE before symptoms arise. If 75 percent of the league tests positive for brain damage, suddenly the conversation gets a lot more complicated. At the very least, Congress continuing to approve a tax exemption would be even more reprehensible than it already is.
Until then, all of this is just noise next to billion in TV contracts, and Borland’s real legacy probably won’t be what you want it to be. He’s not proof that that this sport will collapse on itself one day. In the end, he’ll probably be proof that even players themselves are replaceable. No matter who walks away, there will always be plenty more who decide the risks are worth it.
Borland can leave, he can take a stand, he can look at the problems in the NFL and decide this sport is more trouble than it’s worth. But the game will keep going just fine without him. He’ll miss football more than football will ever miss him.
His choice was really no different from the choice anyone has. All we learned Monday is that Chris Borland is stronger than the rest of us.