Sunday, August 5, 2012

I'm in love with Dennis Lehane. And I know he loves me back.

As a reader, I’ve been around the block many, many times. Kind of the Wilt Chamberlain of reading relationships, if you get my drift. I’ve been in love, out of love. Done a lot of one-nighters.
Sometimes you want to love them, but you just can’t. Sometimes you don’t even like them, but endure because you paid the $25 for the book, or the overdue fees are piling up at the library.
Sometimes you think you’re in love, but when the honeymoon is over it’s U-G-L-Y.
I recently ended a relationship because she kept using purposefully when she meant purposely. Drove me nuts. Sure, the relationship was already on the rocks. All the annoyances were piling up the way they do when it's not true love. Bad subject-verb agreement, inconsistent characters, hitting me in the face with descriptions every time someone new walked onto a page (Ouch! Hurts every time).
Being too obvious, too trite, too bland. She did this thing – oh, I know it’s a little thing and my friends said I was being too picky – where all the names in her book were run-of-the-mill WASP-type names. Think of everyone you know -- how many of them have generic names? I know, I know. A little thing, but it was hard to take, even when I was still in like.
And she over-explained, like I’m stupid. If she really cared about me, she’d know I wasn’t, right?
But she is very popular, and it’s so hard to leave them when they’re popular. You keep going back, even though they hurt you over and over again, because you want to be part of the popular crowd.
The purposefully-purposely thing finally made me see our relationship through clear eyes, though. It finally made me realize how little she cared.
And that’s why I love Dennis. You know him, right? Dennis Lehane. I fell in love a decade ago – goofy, head-over-heels, stay-up-all-night love -- and have never fallen out.
It took a little while to remember. I’ve been too pissed off, too jaded lately. You get hurt too many times and you almost want to stop trying, right? Even when there’s love, it just seems so hard. It’s just so much work. Especially when they don’t love you back.
Then I remembered Dennis. Remembered how our love doesn’t get stale, just better with each year.
First of all, he does all those little things that mean so much --  dialogue that rings true, sentences that flow so easily you forget they’re there, descriptions that are feather-light.
He does the big things, too. He’s funny without resorting to that action-movie faux-cool dialogue that so many writers mistake for funny. His plots make sense without being too easy to figure out. And his characters – few do it like Dennis does. He’s got insight and heart. He even gets the women right without making them a bunch of clichés the way most male writers do. (Sorry guys, I know we’re hard to understand, wink wink.)
Dennis loves me back. All those things tell me he does. He cares enough to make his books not just good enough – good enough to be published, good enough for people to buy, good enough to be popular – but better. I’m not talking about super flowery literary writing, the English major stuff. I’m talking about the kind of writing where I forget I’m reading. I’m just there.
Anyone who tries to write knows it’s not easy. It’s hard work. And that’s one of the really beautiful things about Dennis. He’s probably a natural talent. Just like Larry Bird. Only like Larry, he doesn’t fall back on that. You know he works at it, works to make it right. Shooting foul shot after foul shot, even after the janitors have turned off the lights. Too many writers make me feel like they’re just not working hard enough. They’ve got me already, why work at it? I’ll keep coming back.
But the really good ones – like Dennis – you know they care enough about the relationship to shoot those foul shots, no matter how good they are. They want to get it right. They care about our love.
I know I’m not his only reader. Guy like him? He has millions. And, let’s face it, I’ve got a few writers in my stable. Sometimes I go months and months without even thinking of him. But when we get together, it’s even better than before and I wonder why I stayed away so long.
I was reminded of that this weekend when – pissed off, remember? -- I finally read the copy of Moonlight Mile that’s been on my shelf for a while. No surprise, Dennis, you kept me up all night.
If it wasn’t special enough, one thing made it really special. Really, really special. Special enough to finally go public with our love.
He had something in there just for me.
I’ve read five books in a row this summer where the media were “vultures.” Among all the other things that are pissing me off, that really pissed me off. As though those of us in the news biz haven't taken enough hits lately, once again we’re the trite plot device. Those writers didn’t reach down and figure out how they felt about journalists, they just needed an easy cliché to make their characters feel more pitiful and victimized.  I know they didn’t mean it, but yeah, I took it personally. That’s how it is when a relationship is on the rocks and you want to know they care. It wasn't even so much the negative portrayal -- it was the obviousness of it all, the fact they didn't even try to be fresh.
Not Dennis. In Moonlight Mile he had a character, a newspaper reporter, who was funny, smart and did his job. The protagonist, Patrick, even liked the guy. Sure, it was only a tiny part of the book – one page I think -- but I knew Dennis was thinking of me.
Later in the book, someone asked Patrick where he got his news. “I read it,” he said. Oh my love.
That would have been enough, but he didn't stop there. During a crucial scene, Patrick gets annoyed that he can’t find a newspaper at a small town diner. Why did he want a newspaper? It's the best way to get the local layout. 
Oh my love, my love. To those of us in newspaper journalism -- pulling the gravel out of our torn knees as we stumble down the road away from the smoldering wreck that’s been our business the past few years -- that was a love letter.
Dennis gets me. He really gets me.
This year, Dennis and I celebrate our 10th anniversary – I picked up Mystic River in 2002 and it was love at first page. I know the traditional gift is tin or aluminum, but Dennis and I, we don’t bow to tradition.
He’s given me a paper gift every year – usually around 300 pieces. And I can’t wait to get it.

Monday, June 25, 2012

We were told the world was now ours. Little did we know.

This originally appeared in the Kennebec Journal as a column on June 22, 2012. That's me in the picture, at 16, second from the left in the top row.

The front page of Sunday's Kennebec Journal had a sweet coincidence: Right above a story about the 40th anniversary of Title IX was a photo of the Cony High School softball team celebrating its state championship.
Sweet, indeed.
(The story, without a photo, was on page C1 of Sunday's Morning Sentinel.)
I played softball for Cony, too, on the junior varsity team my sophomore year. But the gap between me and those girls is way more than the 34 years between us.
A picture in the 1977 Cony yearbook says it all: We're not in uniform -- not because we didn't know it was picture day, but because we didn't have uniforms. The ill-fitting polyester blouses and trousers we're wearing are what we played in, topped by ancient knit field hockey vests too rank for even the field hockey team to use and too ugly for us to model for the photo.
Our names aren't listed; instead there's a caption: "It was a year of experience for the JV softball team being its first year in existence. This team, coached by Miss Choate, was young and all are looking forward to a rewarding season next year."
I don't remember our record, but I know it was short on wins. We rarely had even one spectator. We played on rocky, unkempt fields that often didn't have baselines, or sometimes even bases. I played second base and remember charging a grounder, a sure out -- until the ball got stuck in a patch of muddy snow. An easy single.
That 1977 yearbook describes many of the girls' teams as "young." I'm guessing the sudden bloom of girls' teams was a result of Title IX, but I don't know if I even knew it existed. I was just happy to be there. Most of the other girls in the picture look like they are, too. Why not? We finally had a team to play on and the future could only get better -- looking forward to decades of rewarding seasons to come.
Title IX came crashing into my consciousness the fall of 1978, when I was visiting my sister, a freshman at Holy Cross, and tagged along as she did interviews for a school magazine on the state of Crusader sports.
The one clear memory I have of that weekend is the captain of the volleyball team crouched against the wall in the hallway of her dormitory, talking with an intensity I can still feel across the decades. She was passionate, angry and proud, and I realized that the unfairness I'd felt for years had a voice much stronger than my own.
That voice came to mind frequently when I was sports editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader from the mid-1990s and on and off until 2011. The conversation about Title IX had stalled and every time a woman filed a lawsuit or a college dropped its baseball team, wrestling team, or -- God forbid -- football team, someone would say, "blame Title IX."
I can't count the times I defended it over the decades. Don't blame Title IX, I'd tell the guys, blame the school's priorities. But that's a tough leap of logic, even in 2012, for people to make.
When I was a kid and wanted to do something "girls didn't do," I was sometimes asked, "Why do you want to be a boy?"
I hope that question isn't asked much anymore, but the argument whenever there's a Title IX complaint is philosophically the same:
Women's sports don't make as much money for the schools. Scholarships going to girls who aren't that good mean there are fewer for boys who are. Men's sports are harder and take more effort, so deserve more compensation. When a men's team is cut, talented men can't play sports they've been playing all their lives.
I wish every 17-year-old girl in 2012 could have a moment like I did in that beer-soaked, noisy Holy Cross hallway and hear that volleyball captain pour out her frustration, but with a determination and passion that still makes it a vivid memory 34 years later. It makes a lie out of all those arguments for rolling back women's opportunities.
It's a far different world for today's young women, but many of the challenges of getting fair treatment, or even the basics, still exist.
My generation is luckier in some ways. We got to be part of the fight, and we have the strength that comes from having to struggle for something and defend it. There's a special knowledge that comes with that.
Let's hope the girls celebrating on the front page of last Sunday's KJ, with a lifetime of rewarding seasons unfolding ahead of them, can hear what those ragtag girls in the polyester shirts have spent decades getting the world to know.

Maureen Milliken of Belgrade Lakes is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

To the class of 2012 -- Be yourself. Or not.

Hi graduates. Exciting day, huh? Thanks for asking me to be your speaker. As Principal Skinner said, "You've covered so many graduations as a journalist, we thought you'd be perfect."
Oh yeah. Yes I am. So much good advice here today. I know even though I had my ears buds in. After all, this isn’t an end, but a beginning, right? You'll miss each other, but make new friends. You’re going to look back with affection and nostalgia and go out into that brave new world. Oh, the places you'll go!
Did I leave anything out? Oh, right.
How about that advice to be yourself? Has anyone told you that yet? Don’t care what other people say, just be yourself!
Oh – heh heh – whoa, okay, calm down. Woooo! Biggest ovation of the day. Yeah. I get it. To your own self be true. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and you’re taking the one lest traveled by. Letting your true colors come shining through.
But it’s that one piece of advice about all others that are being thrown at you today that should make you sad. Because everyone says it -- over and over. They even believe it. But few live it. 
Sorry to say for many of you, it’s too late.
Wait, Principal Skinner, don’t pull the plug on the microphone! Hear me out. I promise I’ll say something uplifting by the end.
Where was I? Right. For many of you, it’s too late. Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. It started before you were born when your nursery was painted in gender-specific colors. There was a lot I was going to say about how important it is for girls to be pretty, boys to be strong and sporting. But you've heard that all before, too. You know it, because you've lived it.
Whatever the categories, labels, stereotypes, you all learned pretty early on how important it is to fit the expectations and try not to stand out, except in the ways that are socially accepted. Most of you even convinced yourselves a long time ago, without even knowing it, that that's normal. That's what people do.
So, face it, graduates, you're only 18, but as far as being yourself, for a lot of you, the ship has sailed.
And how about you kids who truly were yourselves? Rough ride, huh? Bet you’re glad to be done with high school. Bet maybe when you heard that advice from the valedictorian to be yourself you sneered a little bit, maybe even gave the old finger under your robe.
They didn't like yourself much for the past twelve years, right weirdo? Dork? Freak? So now they’re telling you to be yourself. With feeling.
For the sake of argument, let's say everyone who says it means it.
The problem is, though, no one tells you how to do it. Easy to say, not easy to be.
For a lot of you, it'll be easier just to stuff down whatever it is that makes you “different” enough to fit in, something you've probably been doing most of your life. 
Others of you maybe were stuffing it down, but now think it’s going to be safe, in the world of grownups, to let your freak flag fly.
Then there are those of you who have been yourselves all along -- you are probably giddy with relief.
I’ve got bad news for those of you who think the time to be yourself has come, because it’s not going to get any better. The adult world doesn't want you to truly be yourself any more than many of your classmates, teachers and parents did.
Being yourself is going to be a lot of hard work.
As the poster boy for being yourself, Bob Dylan, put it, “I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.”
The really lucky ones, like Bob, are talented enough, driven enough and work hard enough to make it big –  Stephen King, Lady Gaga, Ellen DeGeneres. All the things that would make them weirdos if they were working in the cubicle next to you are brilliant because they managed to get to a place where they can be themselves.
There are also the lucky ones who are so confident being themselves that they don’t care what everyone else thinks. Because, truly, that’s the biggest impediment to being yourself, isn’t it? What keeps you from doing it? Most people care what other people think, even if they say they don’t. That’s why we look, speak and behave the way we do. Those who don't care are rare cats.
Then there are the stubborn ones or the ones who just can’t help it -- they are who they are. Most of those who are themselves fit into this category. It's the toughest way to be, because you have to learn not to care, or at least learn to fake it.
Here’s what the speaker who told you to be yourself also didn't say: A lot of people aren’t going to like it if you're yourself. 
People frequently will comment on how you’re different or helpfully point it out to you – as if you didn’t know. Sometimes it will anger people or annoy them for no good reason. They’ll think you being yourself is about them even though it has no effect on their life and that will make them mad. Your personality may become an issue at work, in a relationship, with your friends. This isn't about the Golden Rule stuff either, the stuff that makes you a good or bad person, but the "different" stuff. 
Sooner or later you will overhear someone who’s a good friend talking about how weird you are behind your back. Or the love interest who loves you just the way you are makes it clear he or she would love you better if you just stopped being yourself quite so much and started being more like he or she wanted you to be. You know, more normal.
This might make you bitter or resentful. It might make you do the crazy Twister game of trying to please a partner instead of just getting the hell out of the relationship. You may keep trying to fit into that job or career that makes you miserable instead of figuring out what you really want to do. It may even make you a little paranoid or wary of others.
So, graduates, do you still want to be yourself?
Good for you. Because here’s the other thing they don’t tell you. If you’re yourself, truly yourself, it will pay off. First of all, the mental exhaustion of trying to pound the square peg that is you into the round hole of what people want you to be will be gone. Particularly if you’re one of those people who have a hell of a time trying to figure it out. But the best thing is, you will be you. It will feel good. You’ll find it easier to figure out what you want and who you want to be with and how you want to make a living and how you want to spend your time. You’ll even start to feel sorry for the rest of them.
And your friends will really be true friends who do, indeed, love you just the way you are. And if you get one note like this in your life, it will make it all worth it:  I have learned so much from you about living life honestly and forthrightly, and damn the rest. These are lessons I have needed and benefited from so much.” (Real note from real friend. Thanks, friend.)
Yes! Be yourself! When you leave here today, vow to.
How to do it? It’s hard and simple at the same time. All it takes are two words: “Yeah? So?”
Try it. Whenever you think that if you follow your heart it won't be what everyone else will do, say "Yeah? So?" Whenever someone points out in a bemused – or hostile – way how you are different, say, “Yeah? So?” Two roads? Scared of taking the one less traveled by? Yeah? So?
It may be hard at first not to argue, or feel guilty or feel diminished or embarrassed. Or feel you have to change. But after a while it will be empowering. And there’s nothing more empowering than knowing who you are and being that person and damn the rest.
So, graduates, when someone tells you to be yourself, and they will, keep in mind what it really means.
Then go ahead and do it anyway.
And for those of you who think this is just a pile of hooey?
Yeah? So?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

So sad when sports bloggers go bad

Oh, the damage that sports fans do to each other.
Boston fans are in a lather after writer John Mitchell wrote a blog that said, basically, "Philly fans are fair weather? Well, you guys are racists. Even Bill Russell said so. Nah nah nah."
Now it's a pointless exercise to compare Boston's shameful racial history to Philadelphia's equally shameful racial history. And I don't know about Philly, but Boston in it's adorable Puritan-Irish Catholic hybrid self-punishing martyred way has been bending over backwards trying to make it up to Russell (who last played in Boston in 1969, John), as well as all those guys the all-white Red Sox didn't sign, for decades.
Mitchell brings up some "fans'" reactions when Joel Ward, who is black, scored the series-winning goal in the NHL playoffs earlier this spring. A reaction that was roundly decried, and also, it was pointed out, did not come solely from Boston, but from those cockroaches with keyboards and Internet accounts who come crawling out whenever there's some hating to get in on.

So, for argument's sake, let's concede that there's racism everywhere and we can all do a lot better.
That said, not only was Mitchell's blog a cheap shot, it didn't make one useful point or have one useful insight.
Any time of the day or night a person, not just a sports fan, can turn on the TV or keyboard and find men sitting around tables or standing on fields talking reverentially and with great gravity about, let's face it, some pretty silly stuff. I know now I'm the one being trite, but professional sports are grownups dressed in silly clothes getting paid obscene amounts of money to play games most people wish they had the time or money to do for free.
And that's fine. Let the guys play. And let the sportswriters talk, blog, cover it. We love it. We watch it. We pay for it. We keep it going.
But keep in mind what it is.
When your fans are accused of being fair-weather, come up with a better argument. Maybe one having to do with sports. Give us a little insight into the mind of the Philly fan. Or tell us why Garnett is wrong.
Because when all those guys sitting around the tables and standing on the fields start talking about things better left to those who know how to talk about it with some knowledge and insight, it just gets stupid.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Wake Bids Hub Adieu

Red Sox fans of a certain age have a habit – painfully earned – of remembering the bad times with as much clarity as the good times. Or maybe even more.
Even the salve of World Series victories in 2004 and 2007 hasn't changed that. Or at least not as much as it should have.
Red Sox fans just love to poke the bruise. Dent. Schiraldi. McNamara. Little. Boone.
And depending on the age of the fan, it can go back 60 or 70 years.
Denny Galehouse, anyone?
And that's what makes Tim Wakefield so remarkable.
Wakefield is associated with some of the worst moments in Red Sox history.
He voluntarily took the ball and marched out to become the New York Yankees' pinata in the horrific 19-8 Game 3 loss in the 2004 ALCS. You remember -- the last game before everything changed forever.
And about a year before, he gave up the home run to Aaron Boone in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. That came after Grady Little had already made the worst managerial decision of his career, sending the game into a tailspin. Boone's home run was possibly the worst moment in their fandom for many Sox fans. (Yes, worse than 1986).
And yet, Wakefield never became part of that litany of pain. He was willing to take the hit after the damage was already done – either on the scoreboard or on the team's psyche and we loved him for it.
As he announces his retirement at age 45, the high points of his 19-year career with Boston will be endlessly repeated in print and on screen.
But it's the low points that Sox fans will remember the most. And with the most gratitude.
Red Sox Nation will likely never see another like him.
Thanks for the memories, Wake. All of them.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tim Thomas gives back

By now the entire world -- OK, that corner of the world that follows New England sports, which in New England we assume is the entire world -- knows that Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas blew off the Stanley Cup winners' White House visit, including a meeting with President Barack Obama.
Thomas said snubbing the ceremony wasn't political.
"I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.
This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government.
Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL."
Gee, sure sounds like politics. But I digress.
A lot was made on Boston-area TV today of his right to exercise free speech, free will and all that other good stuff that our constitution allows by not attending. Yeah, I get it, we're not North Korea. As if that were the issue.
It would have been nice if Thomas had elaborated a little on his complaints. I read a lot of newspapers and watch a lot of news shows, but I haven't heard any details about this attack on citizens he's talking about. I want to know now, before they come to take my house away.

Here's what I do know:
He's right. The founding fathers didn't envision the federal government as it is today. Because the America they lived in was nothing like the America of today. Unless you are a very rich white gentleman farmer with no health complaints, I think you would agree in a lot of ways it's better than it was back in 1776.
One thing the founding fathers DID envision, I'm pretty sure, is a government that would try to take care of its people as best it could, and fairly. Their view back then of who "its people" was may have been different, but the overall point was by the people and for the the people.
I'm sure they never pictured that someone who looked a lot like the guys picking their cotton for free would be running the country -- but the plan they put in motion, with a lot of tweaks, eventually allowed that to happen.
I bet a lot of the people in Thomas' hometown, Flint, Mich., are thanking their lucky stars we live in a country where the government attempts to take care of its people. It's got one of the hardest-hit economies in the country. But some good news there -- the unemployment rate in Flint dropped from 12.4 in July to 8.7 by the end of 2011.
But Thomas may not know this. Or care.
Because here's another thing I bet the founding fathers never envisioned:
A boy from Flint, Mich., getting one of the finest four-year educations in the country because he could stop a little black hard piece of rubber from going into a net.
And that same boy, 15 years later, making $5 million a year for doing the same thing.
Is this a great country or what?
Yeah, it is. So great that you can't get paid that kind of money for playing hockey in any other country in the world. Which is one of the reasons Thomas was only one of the two Americans on that Stanley Cup winning Bruins team. Kids in Canada, the Finland and the Czech Republic can now also live the American Dream.
All those non-Americans showed up to meet Obama by the way.
And I bet the founding fathers didn't picture an America where a boy from Flint, Mich., who played a game for a living got a chance to go to Washington on someone else's dime and shake the hand of the guy running the country.
And that is pretty cool.
So, someone needs to remind me, what's Thomas' gripe again?