Shaq, John Irving, Meryl, and Me

This is NOT a photo of me and Shaquille O’Neal. However, she’s about my height, so this illustrates the story I’m about to tell you.

 

SEEING A FAMOUS PERSON is like seeing a mouse run in front of you. It’s startling. Larger than life. Odd, even. It suddenly transforms a routine stroll across the kitchen to check out the refrigerator into an adventure involving a spatula, shrieking, and a sudden spike in blood pressure.

Once, while I was in line at the outdoor breakfast buffet at the Hotel Del Coronado in California, one of those guys from Friends and two other stars from some other television show (you see why I’m not good with famous people—you’re supposed to remember their names) came staggering up from the beach in badly buttoned Hawaiian shirts that had seen a hard night. They butted in line ahead of me.

One of them—okay, I looked him up, it was Matthew Perry—absconded with my omelet. The chef, temporarily dazzled, handed over my scallion-and-cheese breakfast to Mr. Perry, who received it as his just due—who, by the way, was having a really bad hair day. Now when I see reruns, I point to the TV screen and announce to anyone in the room, “See that man, there, next to Courtney Cox Arquette? He stole my eggs.”

One day, I got into a Hilton elevator and was surrounded by a forest of men. After a few floors, I gradually realized that every one of those guys was so tall I couldn’t make eye contact without a drone. Yet I did not twig to the meaning of this unusual reality, and blithely rode from floor to floor, watching one six-foot-five (or -six or -seven) man after the other climb out without ever wondering why I had found myself nestled in a patch of giants.

Eventually, the elevator was populated only by me, a fellow with interesting numbers shaved into the side of his head—a fashion choice that I found innovative but was unable to decode—and a very, very tall man leaning into the corner. Through heavily lidded eyes, he looked down at me from on high and politely asked, “Ma’am, do you know what day it is?”

This so shocked my maternal instincts that I produced a wagging finger and scolded up at him. “Young man,” I said, “what on earth are you doing with your life that you don’t know what day it is?”

Mr. Numbers-In-His-Hair nodded solemnly at me. “We don’t,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”

The tired, tall one shook his head. “We’re on planes and the buses and we don’t always know.”

Well, that sounded just silly to me. “Young man,” I repeated with parental intensity. “Listen here. You go straight to your hotel room and you go straight to bed and you stay there until when you wake up, you are able to remember which city you are in and what day of the week it is.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he promised.

I scolded on for a while as the elevator kept rising. When the doors opened to a special VIP floor, the tall one backed out alternately nodding and shaking his head with “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” and “Yes, ma’am” again.

I had my hands on my hips by now. “You go to bed, now, you hear?”

“I will do that, ma’am,” he said, grinning and heading down the hall.

The Numbers-In-His-Hair guy wanted a Diet Coke and he got off on my floor, so we walked to the soda machine together and I gave him a little advice about which chocolate dessert to never order in the restaurant downstairs. That chocolate pecan torte was misnamed and poorly executed, and Mr. Numbers would do far better to order the tiramisu, I advised.

Two days later, my son was reading a Sports Illustrated. “Hey, who’s that guy in the cover?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes and said a word that made no sense to me: “Shack.”

“I mean, what’s his name?” I asked.

He sighed. “Shaq! Shaquille O’Neal.”

“Whatever,” I said. “I saw him this weekend and I told him to go to bed.”

And that’s how I came to have a Diet Coke with Penny Hardaway and probably become the only woman in history to tell a fancy schmancy basketball star to go get horizontal without having any plan whatsoever to join him.

Years ago, while Garrison Keillor’s film was being shot in Duluth, Minnesota, I was at a funky little shopping mall attached to the Fitger’s Brewery when Meryl Streep walked by. She had a young teenage girl with her, and they both were dressed as if they had once been Amish or perhaps were now unpopular geometry teachers in a suburban high school. Even in disguise, it was unmistakably Streep.

I caught her eye or she caught mine, and we exchanged a look. Her intention instantly registered with my mother’s sensibility: don’t ruin my afternoon with my kid. I nodded and kept on walking. She smiled and headed up the stairs. I have rarely seen a dumpier skirt.

I chatted about bad internet in a European hotel with some rock star guy wearing drop-dead snakeskin leggings and impressive leather do-dads. What a snarl of hair he had. But mostly, he had little patience for the bad web service, and around that traveler’s issue, we bonded. He had an accent that was somewhere between Liverpool and Sydney, and when we stepped out of the elevator, he was swarmed by a mob of giggling girls. Don’t ask me, I cannot tell you who he was. All he wanted to do was email his kids.

I gave directions in a hotel hallway to Conor Oberst once, and then called my son to say, “You know that guy on the poster on your wall? I just told him where the vending machines are.”

At a crowded cocktail party, I fought through a throng of post-concert patrons to snag the only open chair in sight. I looked down and saw that my Stuart Weitzmans were parked next to a breathtaking pair of ostrich-skin boots. “Excellent footwear!” I said wittily, and then looked up at the man I had just wedged in next to: Doc Severinsen.

On a little puddle-jumper plane in New England, I once thought I saw John Irving. I would have a few things to say to John Irving if I ever saw him, like “Nice use of adjectives,” and “I think I love you.” I adore John Irving, and so I clutched.

I am fine at handling famous people when I have absolutely no idea who they are. But in this case, I must’ve stared like a deer in headlights for too long, because after a while, the gray-haired, handsome guy wearing an extremely nice watch lifted one eyebrow and winked at me. Not quite a John Irving thing to do, I’m thinking, and decided it was probably not the famous author.

But for a minute or so there, I believed I was in the presence of fame. Even greatness.

Which only confirms the very human reality that even the swells and the toffs among us must occasionally stand in line for breakfast and endure annoyingly crowded little planes. Comforting, in a way.

And maybe that was John Irving.

 

I tell the Shaquille ONeal story to my media studies classes as an example of framing theory at work. 

 

 

The Gender of God

THE GENITALIA OF GOD is not a topic open to discussion among, well, almost everybody.

It is at once sacrilegious to wonder what lies between God’s legs and heretical to not accept the commonsense dogma that God uses the door marked “Men” when He’s out to dinner and has had three glasses of iced tea. As an inhuman spiritual being, God’s gender is supposedly utterly unimportant, which is why we call Him “Father” and why He has a son and no daughters. We demonstrate His lack of gender by giving Him a beard, muscles like Neptune, and a countenance as furrowed as a rabbi’s. Some say He is an angry god, others call Him powerful or even frightening, but none claim He can make a heckuva poached salmon, knit an intarsia pattern so complex it could make you weep, or run Israel in the early 1970s.

As a little girl in a Catholic school uniform, I was instructed that the “He” in reference to God was the universal “he” which includes all of us, even we “shes.” If that is true, I asked Sister Emerita in second grade, then how about we just use the word “she,” the three letters of which do, in fact, contain both gendered pronouns? Her response, which involved a ruler and my knuckles, was my first lesson in the fact that God’s gender is not a topic open to discussion among, well, almost everybody.

I was passed along to the parish pastor who grew annoyed with my queries about why women couldn’t be priests. Mine weren’t intended to be political questions; I simply wondered and didn’t understand what was so upsetting about the wondering. The response to a little girl was political; the question from the little girl was not. Someone was always lecturing in mass about how more acolytes were needed for the missions, and it seemed obvious to me that half the congregation was being overlooked. Get a few women in there and fill those quotas, I suggested, just trying to be helpful. I was too young to be awakened as a feminist but not too young to be indoctrinated into patriarchy. I was told that God wanted women to serve Him by raising children and keeping house, a desire curiously in alignment with that held by one of the two earthly sexes.

I came to realize that gender and God were concepts not allowed to co-exist in the same sentence, and that the entire topic was best filed under Conversations That Make Adults Squirm, right in there next to how babies arrive, what is heroin, and how much money does Grandpa make. I learned to help everyone else feel comfortable by pretending that it made some kind of sense to me that we depict God as male, believe He had a son without a wife, and see as reasonable that His son had apostles but no female followers of consequence. (Don’t even try to bring up Martha—she was back in the kitchen, and Magdalene was slandered with the insult that sticks most easily to a woman.)

For a while, I was even able to pretend that men were by nature holier than women—never mind the foolishness, alcoholism, and cruelty I saw in some of the clergy around me—and therefore, only lads were fit to be altar boys and only men were fit to be priests. It mattered not that I could recite the entire Mass in Latin before I was 10 and had straight As in Catechism and Religion, and that poor, pitiable Karl Larson still couldn’t multiply by four—Karl was the one God wanted up there slinging the incense on First Fridays. And so Karl climbed the altar steps, and I sat in the pews with a chapel veil bobby-pinned to my head, just as God desired.

God was, apparently, quite particular about our gender, though we weren’t allowed to inquire about His. This particular pretense was such a speed bump to my logic that when I got to college, it was the first of my philosophical paradigms to be tossed out the window, followed closely by my Catholicism. The inherent holier-than-thou-ness of males is just too profound a rejection of half the planet to be anything other than man-made. More than one learned and accomplished nun guided me and my women’s college classmates gently to this fact and then stood well back to watch the explosions.

When I got a little older, I had my first mystical experience: 38 hours of labor and the birth of my daughter. It was followed by two similarly all-too-lengthy and exhilarating mystical experiences that produced sons. Pregnancy, labor, birth: Lessons in the wondrous mixture of pain and love that is creation, if ever there were clear lessons. You go ahead and push a nine-pound baby past your thighs and then try to tell me that humans are not meant to understand the simultaneous power and powerlessness of creation and the realization that new life will take its own darn directions, despite loving parenting, once it hits its 13th birthday. If God didn’t think women should be priests, if God was male and for males, then why would He assign one of His most literally awesome experiences to the half of the population He didn’t want to hear from, the half that should keep their hair covered and their heads bowed and their voices stilled? Why wouldn’t the cries of women in labor and the lullabies of nursing mothers be part of the canon of the faithful? By the time I wondered these questions, I had learned to stop wondering them aloud. I treasured all these things and pondered them in my heart, just like Mary in Luke 2:19.

Eventually, I decided that God must be at least as logical as a Jesuit and therefore would brook none of this nonsense. I didn’t want to divorce God just because men had painted Him so or imagined Him thus or stuffed their prejudices into His mouth or claimed His intentions as specific to one church or one race or one gender. So I just reinvented Him. My god requires no capitalization, for one thing. For another, my god is certainly not a he, but neither a she—those are just two takes on the multifarious gendered nature of life, and as the good goddess knows, there are way more permutations than that. Whatever the force that created all this, be it ions or strings or a Charleton Heston look-alike, why do we imagine it sorting itself by gender and choosing just one?

 

The New Alpha Male

PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL players are thugs.

They are hired to be thugs. If they are not thuggy enough on the field, they are mocked and shamed publicly for bad thuggery. The big business that is the NFL and its many media permutations depends upon the players’ willingness to be thugs.

They are not hired to be heroes. They are not hired for their fine character.

Americans need to disarticulate these two concepts. They are not connected. A naïve national idea exists—one to which fans relentlessly cling—that because a man can run fast or carry a ball, he is also automatically a mixture of Shane, MisterRogers, and Abraham Lincoln. Well, he ain’t.

And it’s never been a secret.

  • More than a decade ago, Sports Illustrated ran a special report on the “dirty secret” of professional sports: the high degree of criminal activity, violence, and particularly domestic violence performed by players. SI vowed then to acknowledge domestic violence in players, and the magazine does—often in brief, one-sentence mentions in profiles of players (oh, yeah, there was that night when he beat his wife and left her naked in the front yard) that are pushed aside for the rest of the story about what a great guy he is. See my paper on my ten-year study of men’s and women’s magazine coverage of domestic violence.

Part of the problem is that players of certain physical sports are elevated to bizarre social status, and are allowed to move through life protected from the consequences of their actions. I learned this from former NFL player and Viking Carl Eller, with whom I once worked and who once let me try on his Super Bowl rings, which are about the size of bangle bracelets. Carl often spoke of the cloud of privilege in which an elite athlete moves, and the disabling shock that occurs when an athlete is forced to enter real life like a mere human being.

Part of the problem is the veneration fans, media, and, well, the nation gives to men who play with balls. I’m sorry, but top-notch athletic ability is not the fullest definition of a fine human being nor is it the pinnacle of achievement to which mere mortals can only aspire. It’s a skill, it’s an ability, it’s remarkable to watch on television, and in some sports, it’s brutish.

These thugs are not alpha males. They are physically strong people who beat up weaker people. Hip hip hooray for them.

We need a new definition of alpha male.

An alpha male is a guy who changes diapers without it ever occurring to him that he should defend that particular action to “the guys.” It’s what a man does.

An alpha male respects himself, his partner, and their children, and raises the kids to do the same.

An alpha male has seen a ballet, knows who Eugene O’Neill is, can quote a little Shakespeare, recognizes a museum when he trips over the lion in front of it, and can write a simple, clear, declarative sentence.

An alpha male can think clearly and objectively, can reason with a little Descartes and Aquinas thrown in, and can stand back from his own point of view to consider what is best for the family, the community, the nation, the world.

An alpha male is something to aspire to be, and the world needs more of them.

More of them.

Fewer thugs.

Don’t Wait for the Muse

Every now and then, I’m invited to speak to a group of writers. I prepare my notes and deliver my little speech about inspiration and style and the proper use of the semi-colon, and then someone asks the big question, the one I suspect is the real thing I’ve been invited to talk about: “Can you make any money at this?”

I have been a freelance writer for 25 years. Except for a three-and-a-half year interruption to edit a magazine, my full-time job during most of those years was to sit at the keyboard and pound. My other full-time job was to raise three children, so it was necessary for the keyboard pounding to have a direct relationship with putting dollars in the bank and Spaghettios on the table. I found out that yes, you can make money at this—and most years I’ve made more freelancing than most of my employed friends—but not if you sit around waiting for your muse to arrive and not if you have a prima donna complex about only writing the Great American Novel and nothing else.

In the beginning, I freelanced in bits and drabs at nights and on weekends while I worked a day job in hospital public relations. When I launched myself into full-time freelancing, I sent around a letter to every hospital marketer, public relations vice president, and corporate anything I had ever met at a meeting. In my letter (I couldn’t afford to print up anything fancier), I offered to write darn near anything for them, from annual reports to brochures, from newsletter articles to company-wide magazines. I charged an hourly rate and promised to write fast and take problems off their desk. These dear folks saved my little freelancer tush.

While I built up a reputation as a magazine writer, while I worked at cracking the national magazine market, while I hunted for an agent and pitched book proposals, my commercial clients kept me in diapers and Diet Coke and covered the house payments. No, it’s not sexy to write 500 words on “I am Joe’s colon” and even less appetizing to rhapsodize ecstatic over the new building project on the medical office wing. But there is honor in cranking out this kind of work. These stories mean a great deal to the people whose lives they touch. Reporting and writing them teaches unforgettable lessons about accuracy, fairness, and treading lightly through political mine fields—lessons any reporter in the field should value. If I strain a metaphor and call writing fiction an Olympic competition, then you don’t get there without hitting the treadmill and the weight room—and writing-for-hire builds up just the kinds of fundamental skills, exercising reporting, organization, and writing muscles a polished professional needs.

I owe my writing-for-hire clients many debts. They cured me of ego (ever been edited by committee and a CEO?), taught me how to work the phones like Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men,” forced me to set up an office and establish the discipline of daily work, and turned me into a “just do it” kind of writer who can sit down and crank it out, regardless of mood, level of inspiration, or willingness to face that dang blank monitor once again.

Far from seeing writing-for-hire as a shame-based client base, I think it’s the clear and possibly only path to survival for a freelancer. Mix it up. Write for clients. Write for local magazines. Write for national magazines. Write for newspapers. Write fiction. Write plays. Write, write, write. Each kind of writing you master will inform and enlighten the rest of your writing.

I came to view freelancers who take the time and have the forethought to develop a strong commercial base of work for themselves as the Wise Ones, the ones who conduct themselves like pros, the ones who understand the business, the ones who can deliver the goods, the ones who write like angels.

They do not sit around waiting for their muse to show up. They go get her.

The Terrible Responsibility of Words

I am a writer, and words are my tools and my inspiration, my craft and my medium.

Still, I do not always know what it is that I think about an issue or a person or a value until I am pressed to speak, and must pause and try to put those ideas into language. Oh, I have a sense about my beliefs and feelings—I have an awareness of what matters to me and how I feel about what matters to others. But it is not until I am forced to transmute those ephemeral wisps of thought into concrete, specific, vivid, precise language that I truly come to know myself and understand what it is that I want to say to the world—how it is that I want to be in the world.

Language forces us to sift through the shades and shadows of possible meaning to select the single most perfect assemblage of syllables and connotations and then to offer it as a gift of communication to another human being. Language is proof of all that we mean to one another. If we were not longing for connection with each other, there would be no need for language. Language is our yearning to understand and be understood, to question and to answer, to call and to respond.

Yes, words can start wars. Words can kill love. Words cannot break your bones like sticks and stones, but words can hurt. But words can also beg for forgiveness. Words can forgive. The right words can make the world a better place. Words can travel from your mind to mine with an idea, plant thoughts that I may never have had before, and change my life forever.

Language is a terrible responsibility. Long after words are spoken, they hang there in the air, able to hurt—or heal—again, and again, and again. Language is heard long after the speaker has left the room. Language lives on.

 

Write Better-er

I teach writing, so it saddens me to report this, but a teacher can make you only a better writer, not a great one.

For that, an ineffable something is required—an instinct for language, a voracious appetite for crafting sentences that force previously content humans to break down and weep, and a love for the cadence and the weight and the heft of words. That ineffable something is provided by, oh, I don’t know—DNA from your grandmother, your parents having read Henry James to you in utero, your habit as a toddler of watching Jetsons reruns. Or something.

Everyone should write. It’s a marvelous exercise in forcing yourself to think logically. It clarifies reason and enhances empathy. Go right ahead and bang on the keyboard for a while; it’s good for you. Everyone should write. But not everyone should be read.

It’s like singing in the shower or dancing in the kitchen. Loads of fun in private, not so cute out in public. Everyone should do it. Not everyone should make other people watch.

Poor writers often possess a blind spot right where other people keep their self-discernment. Poor writing seems to be the result of poor logic, as well. If you don’t know what you intend to say, you cannot say it, and it is nearly physically painful to have to wander around on a page following someone who has no idea where he is going, where he’s been, and where he ought to stick that comma.

Writing is tough. Writing well, with love for the language and passion for words, with clarity and logic and precision, is a combination of skill, technique, ability, and an ear for what works. The last two probably cannot be taught. The first two can be taught to a degree, but at a certain point, a writer must teach herself to write.

Writers are forced to write by some weird, writerly thing that gets stuck in their heads and drives them to do it or go mad, but many writers also hate to write. Writers hate to write because it is putzy, detailed, pokey, time-consuming, nerve-wracking, demanding, demanding, demanding work. You can always improve it and it is never quite done. If you are feeling frustrated about your writing, that probably means that you care about your work. A good sign.

You want to be a better writer?

There are things you can do. All the writers and editors I know—and that’s most everyone I know—say the same four things when students ask, “How do I learn to write?”

1. Read excellent work. If you don’t read the best writing, you’ll never know the mark to hit. Tip: People magazine and TMZ.com ain’t it.

2. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Amateurs think: write it once and I’m done. Pros know: write it once and you have the first of 18 drafts.

3. Read your work aloud to yourself. You’ll catch errors and repetition and learn what readers have to cope with when they face your words.

4. Write constantly. Practice, practice, practice.

I would add two more points:

5. Learn your craft. Grammar and punctuation are not optional.

6. Accept editing gracefully. Editors—good editors—make your work better. Suck it up.

On these two points:

Master the technique

There are rules to writing that none of us get to change, other than James Joyce. If you want to write, you need to learn grammar and syntax and sentence structure. If you don’t, you can still write for yourself, but readers will not be able to understand you because you are not following the traffic rules.

Feeling passionate about writing is terrific, but you need skills, too. If you want to be a surgeon, passion alone won’t make you able to perform a successful appendectomy. You have to learn how to do it. You can’t skip that step. The good news: knowing how to write clearly is a marketable skill. But no one will buy your passion if you can’t spell.

Stop whining

It’s no fun for the ego to get an article returned covered with red tracking function. In the old days, that used to be red ink, occasionally enhanced by significant pressure of pen on paper, causing rips and ruptures where your teacher underlined “Look up semi-colon usage!!!!” 7 times. Writers love their words, and when those words are born of hours of labor, hearing someone say “send it back!” can feel crushing.

Here’s the thing. Your work will always, always, always be edited and changed. Whether you are writing books or magazine articles or newspaper essays, whether you are in public relations or marketing or corporate communication, whether you are Stephen King or John Irving or Susan Orlean. Listen to your editor or teacher, try it out, see if you learn something.

And here’s a tip. If you ever hear yourself begin a sentence with: “But you are stifling my creative voice…” Just head out into the backyard and turn the garden hose on yourself for a wee while. Your unique and spectacular voice is not being stifled. Your voice is so buried in split infinitives and tangled syntax that it cannot be heard. You don’t make sense. Yet.

It’s not easy to work the six-step program, but those who do become the professionals. There’s no other path to it.