Mar 28 2011

You Want to Know Why?

You want to know why I write primarily about girl athletes?

This week, one of the female Ultimate players on the middle school team that I coach was feeling left out.  Our team is almost entirely comprised of boys, and while I’ve had a largely positive experience coaching them over the last six years, I know that it can be difficult for the girls to find their figurative place on co-ed teams at this level.    

I don’t think that the boys set out not to throw to the girls, but I think that some of them have a knack for developing tunnel vision.  Male and female athletes have different styles and particular strengths.  No matter how open a girl may be, there are boys who will look her off every time without even realizing it.  I was seeing this habit play out at my practice on Wednesday, and my heart went out to my new player.  Not only is she new to the team, or new to the sport.  She’s new to team sports in general, and I realized that this could be a critical moment in her budding athletic career.

I suggested that she attend a college women’s Ultimate tournament that was in town this weekend.  Women’s Centex has become one of the premier tournaments in the country, and this weekend it welcomed 52 teams from across the United States and Canada.  The top 32 were closely matched, and all were impressively athletic and well-trained.  I imagined that it might be good for my young protégé to see the talent, the support, and the camaraderie on these teams.  While her current team is co-ed, I thought that she might like to see that there are opportunities for girls to play with other girls exclusively.  And that women’s sports are, undoubtedly, different.  I wanted her to see that there’s more Ultimate in her future, if she wants it.

I hosted the University of Michigan at my house for the tournament.  Twenty girls piled into my house beginning on Thursday night, sprawling out on every open space.  We had sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, air mattresses, cleats, field bags, dirty uniforms and water bottles scattered throughout every room.  And I loved it.

I woke up on Saturday morning to the sound of excited chatter outside my bedroom door.  My dog had adopted the girls overnight, opting to curl up in someone’s sleeping bag rather than my bed.  I heard captains reminding their teammates to start drinking water now, to remember their sunscreen, to figure out who was riding in which car.  They talked about the blue-and-yellow nail polish that they were all wearing. 

One girl asked, “Is there any chance in the world that it will rain today?,” and she was met with a resounding NO when her peers looked outside at the sunny, 75-degree Texas day.  “I’m going to kill all of you who said no if it does!” she sniped.  But there was no question that she was laughing through the statement. 

Another player talked about frantically slamming a moth in her laptop in the middle of the night, much to the delight of her hysterical teammates. 

My favorite part?  Before leaving, the girls opened a batch of banana-nut muffins, baked by someone that I assumed to be a former teammate or coach, or perhaps an injured teammate who couldn’t be there.  She’d attached individual messages for the girls, and one for the entire team.  The team message had four directives for the weekend:

1.        Respect yourself.

2.       Respect your teammates.

3.       Respect your opponents.

4.       F**k them up!

Why do I love this message so much?  Because it embodies one of the great things about women’s sports:  That you can have integrity, maintain pride, be supportive, and show respect…at the same time that you are aggressive, competitive, and confident.  And there was no denying the emotional connection between these young women as they each opened and read their personal notes.  These girls are all unique and different, but they have a true affection and respect for each other.  They are loyal, true friends.

Another highlight of Centex began during my first season playing college Ultimate.  That spring, my team bet another that we’d win the next time that our teams faced off.  We agreed that the losing team had to perform an interpretive dance at Centex a few months later.  We won the game, so indeed the other women came to Austin prepared with an elaborate dance…and much to everyone’s joy, it was a spectacle and a hit.  The next year, a few other teams arrived at the tournament with choreographed routines.  And since then, the Centex Dance-Off has morphed into a full-blown tradition that includes the vast majority of the attending teams, props, costumes, and a prize for the best routine.  It represents a sense of community among female athletes.  The girls go out and fight hard against each other all day on Saturday, cheer each other on in the dance-off after dinner, and then go back to the mattresses first thing Sunday.    

I wanted my young player to see the beauty of Ultimate as a sport, and the special connections on women’s teams. 

Is there really any question, then, why I write about girl athletes?

Mar 21 2011

Mid-Novel Review: Anthropology of an American Girl

Last summer, my fabulous friend Allison me a copy of Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann.  It was accompanied with a birthday card that read something like this…


A good friend will visit you in jail. 

A great friend will bail you out.

Inside:  (With a note at the top from Allison in her typical purple script that said, “Let’s just call a spade a spade…”) 

A friend like me will be in the next cell.

That’s Allison in a nutshell, and it explains part of why I adore her.  Needless to say, I don’t take her book recommendations lightly.  When she gifted me American Girl I was sure that it would be a keeper.    I put the book in my extensive “to read” pile and let it percolate there for a while. 

Last month, I finally arrived at it, and I’m now roughly 1/3 of the way through.  Normally I tear through books much faster than this, but Hamann’s tale just isn’t that kind of a read. 

I read a lot of young adult fiction.  I mean, a lot.  So I’m used to a particular vernacular, a specific style, and a very different pace.  Right off the bat, it was clear that this book would require commitment.  The novel follows Eveline, a girl on the brink of adulthood on Long Island and then in New York City in the late 70s and early 80s.  She’s artistic and almost painfully observant of the world around her.  At times she comes across as merely a passive watcher.  She’s so vastly different from who I am, and who I was at that age, that it took me some time to adjust to the frustration of letting this character stumble.  I still have to work hard not to scream at the pages, Why doesn’t she do anything?!  And in fact, very little actually happens.  The plot is arguably slow, and the language dense.  At first, I would read bits aloud, rolling my eyes at the laborious vocabulary. 

But I trusted Allison, and I persevered.

And, indeed, I’ve found that the book speaks to me.  It isn’t a page-turner.  I’m taking my time with it.  I’m surrendering to the language and the narrative arch, without letting the book become an action item.  As a writer, I’m often told to read everything—even the bad stuff—and so there are times when I push through a text that I’m not enjoying for the sake of finishing it, analyzing it, and determining why it wasn’t successful. 

This isn’t like that.  It’s rich.  Packed with gems that I remember long after turning the page.  I let the words roll around in my head—and my mouth, at times—as they work their magic.  The tone is haunting and dark.  Now, I’m hard-pressed to find sections that I find so irritatingly wordy.  I’m fully engaged in the world that Hamann has created. 

Unlike much of what I read and write, Anthropology of an American Girl is an adult novel about a teenage girl.  (And I expect that this will become even more pronounced as Eveline ages in the novel and faces more adult conflicts and situations.)  In this way, it reminds me of Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, in which an adult woman reflects back on her high school years.  I’m used to reading books written about teenagers, for teenagers.  This is another obstacle that I initially faced when I came to the American Girl.  Hamann’s work is wrought with adolescent angst, but I’m confident that Eveline navigates the same issues of identity as many adults.  She’s confined by the relationships around her, even as she wrestles against them. 

Here I am, more than a decade out of high school, and I still wonder who I am.  I battle the assumptions and limitations placed on me by the other people in my life and my relationship to them.  For that matter, I struggle with my own expectations of myself and others.  Hamann taps into the reality that, as humans, we are inextricably connected to other people.  We’re bound by the culture in which we’re raised; to the schools we attend; to the country where we live.  This interconnectedness is simultaneously glorious and wonderful, limiting and agonizing.  Eveline never stops looking inside at who she is, individually, outside the definitions of these relationships.  Indeed, should any of us?

Read more about the book and the author here:

And more about Curtis Sittenfeld and her books here:

And don’t forget to check out Allison (a.k.a. Fortune Cookie Junkie)’s blog at

Mar 14 2011

The Validation of Strangers

“Sometimes someone says something really small, and it just fits into this empty place in your heart.”

–Angela Chase, My So-Called Life


            You’d think that following your dreams would feel just right.  When I was debating whether to leave teaching and write full-time, I actually put “follow my dreams” in the pro column for writing.  But even though it seems like that should trump everything else, it was still an agonizing decision.  And so far, this experience has been isolating.  Writing is often a solitary experience, and it’s like I feel preemptively lonely.  One day I’m thrilled, the next I’m racked with fear and worry and—dare I say it?—regret.  I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the job that I’m leaving behind.  About the way that I could be painting myself into a corner, limiting my options, burning my bridges.  My students have told me that they want autographed copies of my first book, and I feel the weight of their expectations bearing down on my shoulders.  I mean, how can I justify leaving them when I know there’s a very real possibility that I’ll never be published at all?    

            Just a few days after resigning, though, I got an email from a very new friend.  Someone who’s only known me for a short time.  And the message was short and sweet.  A few words of encouragement about my recent choice, and remarkably, I felt lighter.  More confident in my choice.  That one email—those few sentences from a veritable stranger—made a world of difference.

            The reaction to my decision has been unanimously supportive.  My closest friends, my family, and colleagues I deeply respect have all expressed their excitement for the chance that I’m taking.  I’ve been called brave, told congratulations.  But even with all of that enthusiasm, I’ve still doubted myself.  Something about that email was different.  Maybe it was the way that it was framed—almost like something a coach would say in a huddle—or maybe it was the fact that this person barely knows me and still has confidence in my decision.

            Remember when you were a kid, and your mom would tell you how cute you looked in that dress?  Or your dad was sure that you were the best player on your soccer team?  Remember how you never really believed it until one of the kids at the dance, or on the field, said the same thing?  It’s a sad fact, but strangers can sometimes be more influential than our nearest and dearest.  Our friends and family are just too damn close to the situation to be reliable sources.  They’re supposed to compliment and love us no matter what.  You could say that they have to; it’s their job, for crying out loud!   

            But like Angela said, sometimes it’s the smallest things that fill the voids in our hearts.  I’m distant emotionally from the people who know me best right now.  And perhaps that’s the power of the stranger.  When it’s someone who is completely outside of your inner circle, someone who can act as an outsider looking in, without any bias or motive…well, that person offers a different perspective.  Or, at least, you perceive it as different.  And it’s exactly what you need to hear.

            We all wish that one person could fulfill all of our emotional needs, but how realistic is that?  How fair is it, even, to ask that of someone?  I’m surrounded by amazing people, and I’m so lucky to have the community that I do.  But each of them is so unique, so special, and I go to them with different things all the time.  Why is it so surprising, then, that a new person would access—and help alleviate—the heart of my insecurities?

            A near-stranger helped calmed my troubled mind, probably without even realizing it.  And I’m thankful. 



Disclaimer: I realize that I have a bit of a streak going right now, in that I’ve only been writing about my decision to write full-time.  So I promise to change that up in my next post.  Cross my heart.

Mar 7 2011

WARNING!: Self-Censored

This week, my creative writing class delved into the murky depths of sensory details in fantasy texts.  Among other things, we discussed Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.  Naturally, many of my students have read the series and they were enthusiastic to talk about books that hold such a special place in their hearts. 

At one point, a student spoke up and asked why this series has been banned from some school districts.  I answered as best I could:  Because it addresses biblical topics—like the Book of Genesis, Creationism, and Original Sin, to name a few—that  some people find controversial.  The next day, a student proudly showed me his brand-new copy of the book.  “I couldn’t read this before,” he told me, “because it was banned at my old school!”  The student then shared that he’d previously attended a private Lutheran school.  Uh oh.

I’ve always quietly pushed the envelope when it comes to reading material with my students, but I also know my boundaries.  If I feel that a text is engaging without being salacious, I choose to share it with them in an open environment where I can help guide the discussion.  These books often introduce reluctant readers to reading that they wouldn’t otherwise find, and simultaneously stimulates the brains of voracious readers as well.  In other words, if I feel like I can stand by a book’s content, quality, and over-arching themes, I will stand by it even in the face of parental or administrative opposition.

That sounds all brave and bold, doesn’t it?

But the truth is that I’ve never had to defend my book selections.  Which tells me one of a few things:  Either I’ve made good choices over the years, or no student has ever mentioned a controversial topic at home, or I’ve always had like-minded parents and administrators.

Because when all is said and done, teaching inevitably censors a person.  We’re contractually forbidden from telling students our political views—even if they ask, say, who we voted for in the last presidential election.  I know that students troll Facebook looking for incriminating photos of their teachers—gasp!—drinking alcohol.  I swear like a sailor outside of school, but I can honestly say that I’ve never cursed in front of my classes, even by accident.  So, of course, I’m careful about what I write.  Even sub-consciously. 

For example, how do I handle sex in my novels?  I know that my students have questions about it, think about, are even having it.  But what’s my responsibility as their teacher?  Would writing about it compromise my job?  And then there’s drugs, politics, alcohol, religion, sexuality…the list goes on.  Bottom line:  When you’re a teacher, it’s hard to separate yourself from that identity, and the (however unfair) standards that we’re held to.   

On June 2nd I’ll say goodbye to teaching and begin writing full-time.  While I know that I’ll miss teaching, it will be such a relief to loudly push the envelope.  To let go of that protective teacher voice and write whatever I want.  Whatever it is I feel will speak to teens.  I’m not saying I expect my books to be banned, but would it be such a bad thing if any of them were?  And sure, if I’m lucky enough to have an agent, an editor, a publisher, I know that those parties will have a say in what goes into my final drafts.  But at least I’ll be writing with conceptual freedom to begin with.  How liberating it will be to approach my fiction with unadulterated fearlessness.