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Original Essays | September 30, 2014 0 comments
Brandon Bartlett, the fictional mayor of Portland in my novel Sherwood Nation, is addicted to playing video games. In a city he's all but lost... Continue »
A Happy Time to Be a Girl; or, Girls Rule, Boys Droolby Carl Lennertz
I'm a small-town kid who distanced himself from that distinction since leaving right after high school, and now, I'd like to move back. Judging from the title of my book, you'd think I long for the "good old days," but I do not, yet still I write about them in a fond if romanticized way. Books have changed my life (bless you, Mr. Rosewater), but am I worthy of having my own words encased between hardcovers? And in trying to deal with some serious stuff in a lighthearted way, I remind myself that, as the Eugene Levy character says in Waiting for Guffman, I wasn't the class clown, but I did sit next to him. Was my childhood all that happy? There was the usual angst and uncertainty, and my twenties were rough, but hey, I just got tired of whining about it.
Still, I'm feeling like a bit of an imposter, and now, at the age of fifty the new forty, I hear I'm just another dad raising a kid in today's hypercrazy world. I'm not half as upbeat most days as I sound in the book. Half the headlines piss me off for the bad news they contain; the other half for their insipidness. But, in comparing and contrasting my growing up with that of my almost-teenage daughter, I found that lo and behold, despite J.Lo and fast food and religious zealots, my sweet, unprecocious, slightly nerdy girl growing up in a big city is having, well, a happy childhood.
So what, you say?
It's that it is truly good news that, despite our increasingly superficial world, young girls with glasses, braces, and a gene for math can be seen as... can it be?... cool? Well, if not cool, at least not made to feel second to the jocks or boys in general. That they don't have to look like the fake women on the cover of every magazine on the stands except the Economist. That most of her teachers in the public schools are youthful, smart, and dedicated. That even in a big city, a neighborhood can have some of the qualities of a small town. And that a new generation of writers are writing books that teachers and students are embracing with zeal as their own.
Yes, it's cool to read, and not just because of Mr. Potter. There is some wonderfully profound new fiction aimed at younger readers now, vs. the dusty, old classics. And the Internet, for all its downsides, is such a rich resource for students, as opposed to our out-of-date World Book Encyclopedia.
So, I started a diary, which turned into a book of fifty-plus short essays, worried that my/her/our age of innocence was over. I'm heartened by the fact that kids today are more aware of the outside world, while still able to lose themselves in the mostly harmless little dramas of their lives. Yes, they are just as concerned about what they wear or listen to as we were, but they are tuned in to other people and other situations at an earlier age, and that's good.
So, you'll find in the pages of my book that I reach back for comfort, to think about summer days and first love and playing records. It's a memory exercise, nostalgia used in a constructive way. I look back in order to look ahead and anticipate my daughter's upcoming challenges, especially knowing how rough the teen years can get. I don't preach, I keep it short, and I look for the unusual vs. the mundane. I tried to leave spaces for a reader to pause and think about their experiences, both then and now, and to just relax and contemplate. I'm a pretty wound-up guy, and the final irony is that in beginning a book in a state of anxiety and worry, I am a lot calmer now.
It's also of interest that my unassuming little town had some pretty cool things about it, from the geography (the late discovery of a wine microclimate) to historical events (from 1640 to the present) to just quirky stuff (like Einstein befriending our local hardware store owner). It's hard to explain it all here, but I've always wanted to say this it's in my book.
As for the imposter part? I'm really only just feeling guilty about one thing, or two. I don't play the oldies anymore enough already with the Chi-Lites and Peter, Paul and Mary on PBS but I do still prefer my 33s from the '70s. You'll see some 45s pictured in the book, which I really didn't play. Listened to on the radio, yes, but it was the LPs and the books that got me through my teen years. But the 45s looked best on the page, and I didn't even know the Byrds' "My Back Pages" was ever a 45, but it's a nice coda. I do feel younger than that now.