Thursday, September 29, 2011

Because I Said So: Low-tech telecom new frontier for digital kids

S reads
The kids get a kick out of seeing their name in print. G's teacher still has a column featuring G hanging in the classroom and G reminds me of that almost daily. When I told S that today's column mentions her, she demanded to read it beforehand. I didn't let her, I have enough editors as it is. Instead, she waited until this morning and read it in the newspaper while she ate her waffle. She seemed pleased. It doesn't seem to matter whether I'm making fun of them or not, they just like knowing they got a mention. And that their names are spelled right.

Being in the same room with S as she tries to learn the nuances of an actual, land line telephone is maddening. I couldn't even describe it all in the limited space - the way she'll answer the phone with silence, waiting for the person on the other end to speak first; or the way she is stopped cold with her deer-in-the-headlights eyes when someone other than the kid she's calling answers the phone. Don't even get me started on her use of the speaker phone.

I couldn't catch it all, but I think I got the gist of it down for today's Commercial Appeal. It's something we all go through, it's something we all went through. So, if you will, please take the phone off the hook and give today's column a read.

For more than a decade, we haven't had a home telephone. Like so many others, we grew tired of telemarketers, wrong numbers and the double billing on top of our cell phones.

But our kids continue to age and become more social. It had become time for either a home phone or pockets full of cell phones when a giant corporation made us a deal promising free HBO, a land line and terrible service.

How could we say no?

The kids have never known a home phone. It was like a prop from one of those classic films they like, one from the 1980s. They approached the thin, silvery wand the way a pet might advance on a new animal in its territory. They walked around it, sniffed it and pushed at it with their filthy paws.

Once we convinced them that it was OK, that it was like any other piece of technology they know, they relaxed. It was lifted gingerly from its cradle to be further scrutinized and then pointed at the television. It was aimed at the Wii and searched over for an Internet portal. In an effort to dial up YouTube, my son may have dialed Japan.

Alexander Graham Bell shouted into the first telephone, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!" My 9-year-old daughter first shouted into her new telephone, "It's Somerset! Hello? Is this thing even on?"

The receiver was not a room away as he had been in 1876, but blocks away, and I'm certain Somerset's friend heard her as much through the windows and over air as she did through the telephone.

A recent cartoon in The New Yorker shows two children walking, each carrying a backpack as if to school, and one says to the other, "So, hw ws yr smmr?" The caption reads: First Day Back To Verbal Communication.

We've taught our children to say "please" and "thank you," to clear their dirty dishes and to hold the door for those behind them, but phone etiquette is a new frontier. They've grown up in a world of cell phones, texts, instant messaging and the shorthand required to navigate these networks. It has seeped into their speech. The phrase, "May I speak to ..." is as foreign to them as how and why to make an emoticon is to me.

Technology is not lost on kids today. They are able to grasp the intricacies of buttons, touch screens, mice and cursors. It's the concept of technological regression they can't quite fathom. The rotary phones of my childhood would have been out of the question for these children of the 21st century. They would lose interest in whatever it was they or their friends had to say by the fourth digit in the telephone number.

"My voice travels through wires?" they said that day, looking at the cordless phone.

"Eventually, yes," I said, exasperated. "It's like a telegraph machine. Go look it up on Wikipedia. No, you can't get to Wikipedia on that phone."

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:
© 2011 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Monday, September 26, 2011


I just finished reading Tabloid City by Pete Hamill and I like it. It's a pretty good book. I see that it's received some bad reviews, but I don't pay so much attention to reviews of other people's work.

I read Hamill when I need a little Hamill. Whether fiction or nonfiction, it's always gritty, fast-paced and nostalgic. Overly sentimental? Sure, but that's Hamill. He lives in a world that doesn't exist anymore and it happens to be a world that interests me. So I read him and will continue to despite the reviews.

I don't compare Hamill to other writers the way I don't compare Woody Allen to other filmmakers. His movies are so uniquely "Woody Allen" that they should only be measured against others in his oeuvre, if I may use that word. I watch his films because of the look, the dialogue and the characters. The same is true with Wes Anderson.

It's all voice. It's style. And these writers and directors have their very own. Some - many - may think of them as one-trick ponies, but it's what they're good at, it's what is comfortable and it's that comfort and mastery of their own voice that shines through and keeps me coming back.

Rodrigo Fresan (Historia Argentina, The Velocity of Things, Kensington Gardens), in the book of essays, The Secret Miracle, The Novelist's Handbook, says of style:

I'll go further: maybe that is what style is in the end. Maybe, now that I think about it, a writer's style is nothing more than the ghost of his shortcomings rather than the reality of his virtues. I'll try to explain myself. You end up resigning yourself to what you can do, and throwing aside what you'll never be good at, and so others perceive as achievements what in reality are the dregs within reach, with luck, each time ennobled and purified. What a writer does and what he wanted to do are two different things, and, as time passes, what he does solidifies into the only thing he can do well, what he does like no one else.

Voice is difficult to come by in writing - it takes many hours and many, many sentences written and rewritten - but once found, it feels like the ground below has opened, allowing you to free fall into the story you wish to tell. As exhilarating as it is to hear that voice, that style, in your mind as you work through a character or a plot, it is just as frightening to have someone edit that work for fear of the voice disappearing or being diminished. I think we become as protective of pacing and rhythm as of a favorite character, and think that no one else will take the care to hear it the way we will.

Even in revision of myself I worry that I'm plucking out words or moving punctuation in such a way that waters down the way I meant a certain passage to be read in the very first instance of putting it on paper. With one manuscript in the ether, and while awaiting word on its (hopefully) safe landing, I have turned my attention to the revision of another, the first I finished in 2010. I spent the weekend with several parts where the main character types his thoughts and those thoughts are what we read. I break from my voice and jump abruptly from third into first person, which isn't so comfortable for me. As in dialogue, the trick is to make what he types come across in a way that only he would say it, and that's not so easy. Not for me. In re-reading it, I realized it was simply my voice in italics. So I shortened some sentences and moved some punctuation around. Threw in a few words I might not normally use. I'll go back later and read it all over again. I'll try to take myself out of it and search the dregs for what remains, try to ennoble and purify it.

Hopefully the new copy will be as exciting to me as the original was two years ago when I first wrote it. And hopefully a voice will be heard and carry through, and that pony will be one readers want to ride again and again.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Shirt Happens

My mother sent me a text a few days after the start of the school year and it was one of those texts where I could hear the laughter in the few words on the little screen. She sent it because she'd just seen the first day of school picture I'd posted on Facebook, the one with my kids standing in front of the porch steps, still sleepy, dressed for school and with backpack, lunchbox and hoodie.

It was the hoodie that did it for her. It was the start of the school year, August, and the temperature that morning must have already been in the 80s. Yet here was my teenage son wearing a hoodie for his walk to school.

When I was his age, we called them jackets, and I guarantee I would have had one on, too. I complained about C wearing his without even realizing I was looking at my own 13-year-old self. And this is what set my mother off. And then it set me off, laughing along with her text because it had come full circle.

I don't know what it is, this need to cover up. For me back in 1983, it might have been an uneasiness with my changing, gangling body; a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. None of this was new to me, nor is it new with C, it's all part of being an awkward adolescent.

I don't wear the hoodie/jacket all the time now. But now I have a shirt. It's different shades of brown, a couple of pockets, and worn thin at one elbow. I call it my writing shirt because it helps me write. Not really, of course, but that's what I tell myself. There are no characters in the pockets, no plot line up a sleeve. Trust me, I've looked. It's just something comfortable I like to put on that gives me the sense that I'm about to do something, it's like Superman's cape or the prologue to any great story.

I'm not even sure where I got the shirt. I think it was a gift long ago in the age of grunge from my sister-in-law. It rarely leaves the house, worn and unsightly as it is, and is almost never worn in the summer months. But this time of year, when the temperature dips into the 50s, it comes back out and I ease into it the way I might ease into that great story. Hopefully.

I've been told by the women in this house that this shirt is what not to wear. Its very existence has been threatened. These are people who would seek to expose Superman's secret identity, to erase that prologue. I don't need the shirt to write any more than I need pencils or a thesaurus. It's simply another tool in my arsenal, a cloak to drape over my awkwardness at putting my thoughts and feelings on paper for the world to see.

These are moments like adolescence all over again, and I say use everything you've got to help you feel comfortable with it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Because I Said So: Eat, sleep, go to school: forgettable life of a teen

When I started writing this blog, my kids were 9-, 6- and 5-years old. One of them wasn't even born yet! Now, as they get older and increasingly more private and awkward and, frankly, embarrassing, it becomes more and more difficult to write about the specifics of them for the public to read.

But it's also part of my job.

I wrote about C for today's column. Not just about him, but about all teens everywhere. It's hard raising a teen, but it's even harder to be one. Can you remember it? Being a teenager and having to deal with school pressures, peer pressures and parents? I wouldn't do it all again for a hundred dollars.

So this column is about my own 13-year-old, but not just him. It's about me and it's about you and it's about all of those cute little kids out there who are growing and morphing into something truly odd and a little frightening: the teenager.
There is an oddity inside my home. Under my roof lives an alien creature nearly 51/2 feet tall and all arms and legs. And feet. It communicates through a series of grunts and shrugs and text messages. There is a very good chance it is either eating or sleeping right now.

It is the teenager. I don't claim to have discovered the species. It's not the first of its kind, I know, but what scares me is that it is not the last, either. Not by a long shot. By my calculations, we will eventually have three living and eating in one house all at the same time.

The horror.

Where can enough food be found? What will conversations sound like with bleary eyes buried in phone texts and only a guttural growl à la Chewbacca given in response to a cheery "good morning!" (at noon!)? Will clothes one size too small be in fashion by then?

My current teenager is forgetful. This is in the case of "Don't forget to take out the garbage" and not "Don't forget there's chocolate cake." His lapse in memory is a recent development and one that is not at all welcome. Dealing with career and family is difficult enough. It's frustrating having to deal with myriad wants, needs, complaints and whining, and then come home from work to get it all over again from a house full of kids. Selective amnesia is of no help whatsoever.

I'll admit I was caught off guard. A rookie mistake. I was stymied by my otherwise good kid's sudden case of scatterbrain, unsure of how it could have crept up so suddenly and with no warning. And then I attended open house at White Station Middle School. I spent an entire day one evening moving from classroom to classroom and visiting all of his eighth-grade teachers so they could illustrate what a day, a week, a semester in their classes will look like.

Most of the teachers began their presentations with "As your child has probably told you ... ." Only they didn't follow that up with "... I'm hungry." What they followed it up with was an overwhelming list of upcoming projects, syllabi, schedules and expectations.

Suddenly it all made sense -- the insouciance, fatigue and lack of concentration. Sitting in a desk with tennis balls on its metal feet, my own mind was bombarded with the memory of what it was like to be that age. The students experience a daily stream of facts and figures, essays, fictional and historical characters, theorems, formulas and hastily eaten lunches. There is bell work, class work and homework. There will be a test on this.

Sip from the fountain of youth and once again be so young? No, thank you. Not if it means being made to drink from a fire hose of knowledge for 180 straight days. It's a pressure I'd blocked out until that open house, a scab best left unpicked. I only wish that, like a teenager, I'll be able to forget it all again as soon as possible. And then take a nap after another snack.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2011 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Monday, September 12, 2011