Friday, February 27, 2009

This Room and Everything In It

Lie still now
while I prepare for my future,
certain hard days ahead,
when I'll need what I know so clearly this moment.

I am making use
of the one thing I learned
of all the things my father tried to teach me:
the art of memory.

I am letting this room
and everything in it
stand for my ideas about love
and its difficulties.

I'll let your love-cries,
those spacious notes
of a moment ago,
stand for distance.

Your scent,
that scent
of spice and a wound,
I'll let stand for mystery.

Your sunken belly
is the daily cup
of milk I drank
as a boy before morning prayer.

The sun on the face
of the wall
is God, the face
I can't see, my soul,

and so on, each thing
standing for a separate idea,
and those ideas forming the constellation
of my greater idea.
And one day, when I need
to tell myself something intelligent
about love,

I'll close my eyes
and recall this room and everything in it:
My body is estrangement.
This desire, perfection.
Your closed eyes my extinction.
Now I've forgotten my
idea. The book
on the windowsill, riffled by wind...
the even-numbered pages are
the past, the odd-
numbered pages, the future.
The sun is
God, your body is milk...

useless, useless...
your cries are song, my body's not me...
no good ... my idea
has evaporated...your hair is time, your thighs are song...
it had something to do
with had something
to do with love.

Li Young Li


Write a poem about a specific indoor place—fast-food restaurant, bedroom, rest area, airport gate, place of worship, etc)—in loose imitation of “This Room…” in which different things and people found in that space stand in for other things. What does that space represent for you? Loss, joy, seduction, sadness...?

Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents. His father had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong while in China, and relocated the family to Indonesia, where he helped found Gamaliel University. In 1959, the Lee family fled the country to escape anti-Chinese sentiment and after a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, they settled in the United States in 1964.

Lee attended the Universities of Pittsburgh and Arizona, and the State University of New York at Brockport. He has taught at several universities, including Northwestern and the University of Iowa.

He is the author of Behind My Eyes (Norton, 2008); Book of My Nights (2001), which won the 2002 William Carlos Williams Award; The City in Which I Love You (1991), which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rose (1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award.

His other work includes Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (Edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, BOA Editions, 2006), a collection of twelve interviews with Lee at various stages of his artistic development; and The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon and Schuster, 1995), a memoir which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

With regard to Lee's work, the poet Gerald Stern has noted that "what characterizes [his] poetry is a certain humility... a willingness to let the sublime enter his field of concentration and take over, a devotion to language, a belief in its holiness."

He has been the recipient of a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer's Award, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, the I. B. Lavan Award, three Pushcart Prizes, and grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. In 1998, he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from State University of New York at Brockport.

He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife, Donna, and their two sons.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On the Off Chance...

That you're feeling even the teensiest bit sorry for those banking CEO's I mentioned in my last post, check out Maureen Dowd's op ed from this morning's New York Times:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

My $66 Sacrifice

Those banking CEO’s devastated by the news that their salaries would be limited to $500,000 a year? We are one. Because, I, too, have been forced by my government to make a sacrifice to help preserve The American Way. A recent letter from the Indiana Arts Commission informed me that the $2,000 Artist's Grant that I received in 2008 had been reduced to $1,934 due to “…challenging economic times in our local communities, in our state, and in our nation.”

Let me say that, unlike the banking CEO’s, I do not believe that I deserve any money from the government to do the work I do. I’m the one who (insanely) decided to be a writer. I’m truly grateful to have received the grant at all. I don’t even really care about the sixty-six bucks.

It’s just that being forced to forfeit the paltry sum of sixty-six bucks seems completely absurd to me when the government thinks it's perfectly reasonable to pay each of those damn CEO’s $500,000 of our tax money when it’s their greed and incompetence that got us into this mess in the first place. Not to mention the fact that honest, competent people who have lost their jobs and are facing real hardships as a result of said greed and incompetence are getting zip help at all.

Does this make sense to anyone?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

On Diversity of Literature at AWP

There’s a major focus on diversity in literature at the annual Associated Writing Programs Conference. For, example, here’s a list of workshops/panels/readings from the most recent conference in Chicago:

(Sorry, I can't face all the quotation marks, so I'm leaving them out.)

Speaking Of and To Others: Beyond the Western Apostrophe in Intertribal Poetry; Art and Politics in Publishing the Literature of Writers from the African Diaspora; Black Literature: Expanding the Conversations on Race, Identity, History and Genre; Prison Poets: Teaching Behind the Razor Wire; So-Lez-Bo: Southern Lesbian Poets Writing Out Loud; Breach: Emerging U.S. Latino and Latina Poetry; The Sister Art(s): Toward a Feminist Ekphrasis; Jewish Poetry vs. Poetry by Jews; New Jewish Fiction: Behond the Holocaust: Writing about Disability Across the Genres: Hip-hop and the Future of the Black Writer, Revising Modernisms: Innovative Latino Writing in the 21st Century, Gay Regionalism through the Eyes of Appalachia, Writing Class/Writing Gender, Something to Declare? Writers Discuss America’s Internal Border, Lyric Selves and Global Imperatives: Toward a Poetics and Ethics of Encounter, Post-Racial Writing, Inclined to Speak: Arab American Poets Reading, Las Mocosas: A Reading by Macondista Snot-Noses, Builder of Positive Reality: Young, Gifted, and Black: A Reading from Chicago State University’s MFA Program, A Conversation with Haki R. Madhubuti, Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Poets and the Inherited Present, Invisible Lesbian Literature, Forming RinShout: A Place for Black Literature, Changing Narratives in African American Poetry, Invisible Margins—Queer Jewish Poets on Writing Identity, After Magical Realism: New Adventure in U.S. Latino Literature, Windy City Queer: Writing Out from the Midwest, Passing: The Writer’s Skin & the Authentic Self, New Poetry from Chile, Cuba and Mexico: A Reading, Women of a Certain Age: Reprise, The Country they Come From: Polish-American Writers Read about the Midwest and Poland, Archipelagos of Dust, Habitations of Language: Reiterating Landscape, History, and Origin at the Threshold of a New Century...

And, my personal favorite: Viva Tony Soprano. In which. “Members of VCFA’s fiction faculty examine[d] subversive techniques including non-resolution and abrupt shifts in current short-story endings, and broaden[ed] the context by considering Chekhov’s legacy as well as stories from non-Western traditions.”

Before I go on, let just confirm that I am for the acknowledgement and celebration of diversity in literature! Totally! Viva AWP’s commitment for letting these voices be heard!

But was there diversity of literature at the AWP Conference?

Sadly, not. Whether the workshops/panels/readings reflected the lives and ideas of plain old western culture writers or those of other cultures, they focused almost entirely on poetry, fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction and literary nonfiction.

Young adult fiction did get its foot in the door this year, thanks to “Writing the Literary Young Adult Novel,” organized by Andrew Scott—and that was a good thing. I was happy as a clam to be asked to be on it, along with fellow YA authors Margaret McMullan and R.A. Nelson—and somewhat bemused as our intimidatingly large conference room filled up writers interested in this genre. (On Saturday! At 9 a.m.! Who’d have thought?)

Most of those who attended the panel were young—well, young to me. (Most everybody seems young to me these days.) And it’s probably fair to assume that most were fairly recent MFA grads, MFA students or undergraduates studying creative writing—with the goal of becoming literary writers someday. It’s probably also fair to assume that very, very few of them had had the opportunity to take a college class in YA literature and/or writing for young adults. Some were probably readers of YA literature, but I’d guess that they weren’t widely read in the genre.

So what were they doing there? Here's my guess:

1) Andrew wisely included the word “literary” in the panel’s title:-)
2) They were considering writing a YA because they think that market is easier to break into than the market for contemporary novels for adults—which somewhat true, assuming you’ve written a good novel.
3) They were considering writing a YA because they think there’s more money to be made as a literary YA writer than as a literary writer of contemporary fiction for adults—which could be true, if they’re lucky.
4) They were considering writing a YA novel, but didn’t really know what makes a novel a YA instead of just…a novel—which is a question I have yet to answer satisfactorily for myself.
5) They believe writing YA fiction is easier and faster than writing contemporary fiction for adults, a short track to publishing—which I know is absolutely, totally, unequivocally wrong.

The panel was lively, honest, practical—and fun. We set up, boys on one side of the podium, girls on the other—just like high school and talked about a variety of topics related to YA literature, including how we ended up being YA authors (by “accident” in each case); the no-holds-barred spirit of YA literature these days; the importance of writing from the forever-a-teenager place in ourselves as opposed to writing as a way of telling teenagers what we think they need to know, and how the process of writing a good YA novel is as complex, frustrating and joyful as writing any good novel. (Maybe harder, since teenage readers have considerably better crap detectors than most adult readers I know.)

We talked about the pros and cons of publishing in the YA market—among the con’s, the persistent notion that those who write for children and young adults are lesser writers because they write for young people. (A kind of corollary to the old “Those who can’t do, teach.” I.E. Those who can’t write, write for kids.) We talked about real, negative effect of this wide-spread prejudice, which is to put us at the margins of what academics consider to be literature.

Heck, we’re at the margins of literary writing on a good day. Usually, we’re not there at all. To show you what I mean, here’s a story I avoid telling because I’m afraid people will think it’s a sour grape thing and/or that I’m being defensive about being a YA author. (And because my mother pounded it into me: Never, Never, Never Brag. Never. Ever.) But I told it at AWP because it illustrates something that I think aspiring YA writers need to know, especially if they hope for an academic career.

In 2006 I had the great good fortune to win the PEN Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Fellowship for Working Writers. (Awarded to “…an author of children's or young-adult fiction, the Fellowship has been developed to help writers whose work is of high literary caliber but who have not yet attracted a broad readership. As a result, an author's books may not have achieved the sales that would allow the writer to support him or herself solely from writing. The Fellowship is designed to assist a writer at a crucial moment in his or her career, when monetary support is particularly needed to complete a book-length work-in-progress.)

It was the single most gratifying thing that ever happened to me as a writer. It came at a time when I was feeling particularly discouraged about my work in the world. It was a PEN Award, and in the world of literature it just doesn’t get any better than that. I felt so honored to share the stage at Lincoln Center with Philip Roth and other award-winners on the evening the awards were given. Winning the fellowship also created interest in my novel Everything You Want, which was published by Flux in 2008.

When I got the issue of Poets & Writers Magazine that came out after the awards ceremony, I turned turned to the immediately awards page, looking forward to finding my name among that year’s PEN award recipients…

But guess what?

There was no mention of the Phyllis Naylor Fellowship. At all.

Maybe it was just an oversight by PEN or Poets & Writers. I like to think it was. But I couldn’t (and still can’t) help wondering if it was the only award left off the list of awards given that year because it was because it was an award for children’s writing. Honestly, I don’t care that much about the recognition. I learned long that getting or not getting literary awards means a considerably less than what most people think. Some of the best writers I know (in every genre) have never gotten a single one.

Nonetheless, I believe that AWP and other organizations who do the good and challenging work of supporting literature and literary writers ought to open the door wide and recognize that those of us who write literature for children and young adults are doing work that matters, too.

And while they're at it, why not let the writers literary mysteries to come in on our heels? There are plenty of (secretly) obsessive mystery readers in the AWP ranks—and more than a few who’ve tried their hand at writing mysteries (secretly or not), as well.

If you’re one of them, but you’re afraid (not without reason) that you’ll risk your literary credibility proposing an AWP panel on mystery-writing for next year, consider how cleverly the description of Viva Tony Soprano hedged its literary bets by “…considering Chekhov’s legacy as well as stories from non-Western traditions.” (As opposed to admitting that the panel members were Sopranos addicts.)

Use it as a model. Plop Henry James in your proposal, maybe Graham Green. Mention the literary conventions of mystery-writing in...Zimbabwe. Wherever. But if the panel is accepted and if you really are worried about what people will think, for God's sake, do not lose control once the conversation starts and admit what we all know is real reason we love mysteries and can’t put them down: they tell a damn good story. Do not let on that, deep, deep down, you are so hungry for that.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Road Taken

I know. I said I was going to use Poetry Friday to celebrate Poets Who Aren’t Dead Yet—and Robert Frost clearly does not qualify. But “The Road Not Taken” is as much alive as my granddaughter, Heidi, who had to memorize it for a poetry unit in the second grade. Bless Ms. Purcell, her teacher, for knowing her well enough to give her such a challenge. Bless all good teachers, everywhere!

First, Heidi is a child whose favorite book at two was one that had page after page chock full of pretty little watercolor sketches of stuff, each page a different category: clothes, toys, buildings, tools, etc. It was the only book she wanted me to read to her—and I had to read it exactly the same way every single time, naming each item, pointing to it. (If I ever went too fast or too slow or, God forbid, tried to skip a page or leave anything out because sometimes on the fifth or six reading I got a little squirrely, she sternly reminded me to “do it right.”) After months of her obsession with all this stuff, I began to wonder if she was becoming a miniature materialist. So one day when I reached the end of the book for what seemed like the millionth time and she said, “Again!” I asked, “Why do you like this book so much?”

“I yuv words,” she said.

Of course, I read it again. And again. And again.

Wednesday evening, she got caught up in a new set of delicious words, working to memorize her poem. She was anxious at first. “It’s long,” she said. But she got through the first stanza pretty quickly and moved on to the next. And next. We stopped occasionally to look at the words—what they meant and how they worked on the page. We talked about how words work differently in poems than in stories. I told her the poem as a story, so she wouldn’t just be memorizing words but would feel the flow of them. She got the idea of making choices and, I think, even that with some choices there’s no going back.

The third stanza kind of did her in. She was tired, restless. Plus, it was bedtime.

“No problem,” I said. “Your brain needs a rest, anyway. We’ll have time to work on it before you have to go to school in the morning. Plus, I bet you know it better than you think you do.”

I was right. She woke up and said the first three stanzas absolutely perfectly about two seconds after she got out of bed.

She was thrilled.

“That’s how your brain works,” I said. “It kept on memorizing while you were asleep. Is that cool, or what?”

She said the three stanzas over and over—brushing her hair, looking for her shoes, getting dressed, in between bites of cinnamon rolls, twirling around in circles, marching through the house—reveling in the beautiful words, amazed at what her brain dreamed into being.

She learned the last stanza easily, and added it to the mix.

“Want to record yourself saying the poem?” I asked. “If you practice, then listen to yourself you’ll get even better.”

“Nah,” she said

“But what about this? ‘Somewhere ages and ages hence’ you’ll be able to hear your eight-year-old self reading this poem.”

I saw her imagine this.

“Okay!” she said.

She recited the poem a few times. I read it to her so she could hear the feeling in the poem and the way lines turned into sentences. She said it a few more times. Then she said it again, perfectly.

“Bravo!” I said. “Fabulous! You nailed it!”

She smiled a smile as big as the sun.

I hope Frost’s poem will be the first of hundreds of poems that Heidi will love all through her life. Thinking of her listening to this recording ‘somewhere ages and ages hence,’ hearing our two voices which I hope will call back the winter night she spent at my house when she was eight-years-old, memorizing it, an exquisite mix of joy and sadness wells up inside me. And that time thing, always that time thing.

Timelessness, time pressing.

I marvel at the path I took so long ago. Eighteen years old, my first day as a freshman at Indiana University, and I tagged along to the Commons with a bunch of girls, where I met Steve and took the path he offered, one that turned out to be rich, complex, surprising, and challenging in a million different ways. And which led, eventually, to Heidi and her assignment to memorize “The Road Not Taken” on Wednesday evening.

There are (rare) moments when I absolutely believe that every single path I took, living my life, was the right one, because if I’d made a different choice I’d have ended up a different person, in a different moment. Heidi, at two, saying “I yuv words” was one of those moments. So was listening to her eight-year-old voice learn Frost’s poem.

Here’s Frost's poem, in case you never had a teacher like Ms Purcell who made you memorize it.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Free at AWP

These are all the things I got for free, roaming the book far at the Associated Writing Programs Conference in Chicago (instead of going to educational sessions):

A cardboard coaster that says, “The pencil is still scratching. You just need to stay calm. Something might come of this;” a literary journal named Roger: a writing pad; miscellaneous magnets; an orange Cal Arts pennant; two stress-balls; a bag of popcorn; a compass keychain from Ecotone, a journal about “reimagining place:” candy hearts; playing cards from the Museum of Sadness; a red balloon; a yellow mug with “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire: on it; a piece of red licorice from Relief; a fortune cookie; a shot glass and ash tray from Hobart: Another Literary Journal; a ruler from Adelphi University; a mousepad from book club girl; a blue Frisbee; a "Good Books for Cool People" totebag from Harper Perennial with this quote from Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh on it: “Let’s go swimming;” a nifty little paper pyramid with ginger lemon grass tea in it; many pencils; many pens; two yellow highlighters; a bumper sticker that says “Fact*Simile;” Hershey kisses; a stamped postcard of Chicago; three miniature books from featherproof light reading series; Country Music: New Poems, by Dennis Cooley; a purple plastic clip and a keep-your-beverage-cold thingy from Puerto del Sol; a postcard of Allen Ginsberg holding a bouquet of daisies; free copies of the Writer and Writers’ Digest; two books of matches—one from a journal called Matches, the other from the Academy of American Poets with this quote from the Iliad on it: “When thou shalt have allotted me my fire/I will not fare here from the dark again;” a nifty little jug of maple syrup; a twizzle of honey; a pink ribbon that says “Princess of the Planet,” a green one that says “Emperor of Everything,” and a purple one that says “Czar of All;” three Valentines; two love poems; an air freshener; a coaster with the book jacket of Big World by Mary Miller; a postcard with a quote from Guy de Maupassant: “Get black on white;” a fortune cookie; Sweet Tarts from the journal Sweet; a black mask (always handy) from Anonymous; a white button with “I’m a Nobody” in black lettering and a black button with “I’m a Somebody” in white lettering, also from “Anonymous;” a piece of international (!) gourmet chocolate from Omnidawn, publishers of innovative poetry and fabulist fiction; Jane’s Stories: An Anthology of Work by Midwestern Women; penny candy; a postcard that says, “I did not want a psychiatrist, I wanted a tan” (From Wendy Brenner’s “We Are Almost There”); postcards with flash fiction on them; a button that says “Olive You” from; a meandering book form (kind of like paper dolls, only a book); a book mark from; a button from the Poetry Society that says, “I, too, like it (with the silhouette of a bear shaking hands with a child) and another one—just black on white; “I, too, dislike it;” a button that says “trust moonflowers” (Tim Dlugos); a bag of peanuts; a lime Dum-Dum; a piece of Harry London Dark Chocolate from OV Books; miscellaneous tattoos; a button that says “Got PMS?” from poemmemoirstory; a “memory” from Loop Review (a weird, perfectly round primitive-looking fossil that I picked from a jar full of rocks, shells, bits of glass, etc); a tiny red fan from Briery Creek Press; a back-scratcher; and a button that says “Let’s make out.”

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Color-Wanting Girl

I spent Tuesday in South Bend, Indiana visiting schools, something I always love to do. I was there because the local chapter of the International Reading Association sponsored a high school writing contest based on Everything You Want. The rules: Write a story about what happens when a character gets something he or she wanted, but getting it doesn’t turn like s/he thought it would, that has characterization, setting, conflict, and resolution—using exactly fifty-five words.

The Grand Prize Winner was “The Color-Wanting Girl,” by Grace Maginn, a sophomore at St. Joseph High School. Here it is:

The small girl held the sun in her hand. She placed it gently on the canvas, and then plucked the clouds from the sky. She placed them next to the sun. The colors of the morning evaporated from the sky and landed on her painting. She looked up from her painting. Blank darkness surrounded her.

Look at how much it says in so few words!

I loved meeting Grace and talking about writing to her honors English class at St. Joe. Walking into Amy O’Brien’s classroom, it wasn’t hard to see why her students are full of great ideas. (Another of her students, Tom Ferlic, won an honorable mention for his story “Blissful Entrapment.”) Everywhere I looked I saw something that might have triggered a story—cool movie posters, stacks of books, student artwork. Lucky kids, I thought!

Which was the same thought I had earlier that day, visiting Meghan Beard’s seventh and eighth graders at St. John. This was just a little bonus visit for me, because fellow writer Kathy Higgs-Coulthard (the organizer of the contest—not to mention my hostess and chauffeur) knows Meghan and made it happen.

I love being with teachers who love to teach—so it was great to end the day giving a talk to members of the I.R.A. over a wonderful Italian meal at Reggio’s in Mishawaka.

Then returning to Kathy’s house, where her daughter Katie, a budding author herself, lent me her beautiful pink bedroom, where I slept the sleep of the happily exhausted, waking only once to admire the way the moonlight made the bead curtain sheltering her window seat sparkle.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Bread Soup, An Old Icelandic Recipe

Bread Soup: An Old Icelandic Recipe

Start with the square heavy loaf
steamed a whole day in a hot spring
until the coarse rye, sugar, yeast
grow dense as a black hole of bread.
Let it age and dry a little,
then soak the old loaf for a day
in warm water flavored
with raisins and lemon slices.
Boil it until it is thick as molasses.
Pour it in a flat white bowl.
Ladle a good dollop of whipped cream
to melt in its brown belly.
This soup is alive as any animal,
and the yeast and cream and rye
will sing inside you after eating
for a long time.

Bill Holm

Born in Minneota, Minnesota, in 1943, Bill Holm is the grandson of four Icelandic immigrants. He still spends most of the year in Minneota, where he recently retired after teaching Literature and Creative Writing for 27 years at Southwest Minnesota State University. Holm proudly shares his immigrant ancestors' passion for poetry, music, and nature. He spends his summers summers at his little house on a northern Iceland fjord where he writes, practices the piano, and waits for the first dark after three months of daylight. He is the author of nine books, both poetry and essays. His most recent prose book is Eccentric Islands (Milkweed Editions, 2000).


Write the directions for doing…anything. Making a pot roast, changing the oil in your car, setting the flags on a ski-racing course, building a Lego Castle. Use strong nouns and verbs in your description of the task. Look closely at how the last seven lines of Holmes’s poem move away from the actual directions into something larger, and try to do the same in the poem you write.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

When Role Model is 23, Do We Give Him a Break?

This is the headline of the AP story about swimmer Michael Phelps and the bong incident that made the front page of the Indianapolis Star this morning.

“A young man appears to be smoking pot at a party,” The story begins. “Big deal, right? Our new president has admitted to doing just that in his youth—inhaling, too—and it didn’t detail him one bit. So should we expect more of Michael Phelps?

“It depends on what we want and expect our youthful role models to be: perfect, or flawed like the rest of us.”

It went on. “We should grab this teachable moment,” said Lisa Bain, executive editor or Parenting magazine. “It’s a good opportunity to talk to your kids about role models. They’re human. They’re not Gods.”

True. But does that mean that an athlete who signs on to be a role model and earns millions of dollars to do the job, should be judged by a standard that might be called “But I am not a God,” when he does something he’s not supposed to do? Not to mention the fact that, duh, when you sign a contract to do a job and you don’t do that job, it’s fair grounds for being fired.

Anyway. If we're going by the "But I'm Not a God" standard, wouldn’t the teachable moment be, figure out how to make people think you are a god and then you can do whatever you want to do—regardless of the illegality or stupidity involved as long as you admit afterwards that you weren't a god, after all. Is this really what we want our kids to believe? (Even if, sadly, it seems all to often to be true?)

The most crazy-making part of the article: Marian Salzman, chief marketing officer of the Porter Novelli public relations agency, “…blames [Phelps’s] handlers, who should have done a better job protecting him from the foibles of youth and from piles of money."

Honestly, this pisses me off so much, I don’t dare comment. “Inappropriate language,” my grandkids would undoubtedly observe, if I did comment and they read it.

‘He’s probably a nice boy who didn’t get enough guidance,’ Salzman said—especially after a drunken driving arrest after the 2004 Olympics.”


Could it be that there weren’t serious enough consequences after that DUI to make Phelps understand that it’s a really, really bad idea to break the law? Don't we owe it to a nice kid (or any kid, for that matter) to help him understand how the world works? (Remember OJ? He got a pass for years, then...didn't. He couldn't have been more surprised.)

The article went on to explore the changing perception of marijuana and the role of technology, “…when a visit to a party can be recorded on a cell phone camera."

Finally, in the second-to-last paragraph, Carol Weston, an advice columnist for Girls’ Life magazine pointed out, “He knew he was being hired not just because of his accomplishments in the pool, but also for his accomplishments in the pool, but also for his ongoing behavior in public. It’s part of the deal.”

Thank you, I thought. A rational voice.

This article makes me insane for so many reasons I hardly know where to begin. It reflects what I’ve long believed to be a serious problem in the way many Americans raise their children—especially if those children are gifted with extraordinary intelligence and/or talent.

According to them, if you’re smarter than everyone else or can play a sport, paint, sing, or play a musical instrument, better than everyone else, the rules do not apply to you. If you break one, no matter how serious, it wouldn’t be fair for the consequences involved to interfere with your path to success—and if a decision made by a teacher, coach, judge, or employer does put your future at risk, you may feel perfectly legitimate in considering yourself a victim.

The truth is, being gifted is a (very) mixed blessing: it sets you apart from others, makes it difficult to navigate the real world. Gifted children need more not less structure in their lives. They need to be prepared to live in a world that claims to value intelligence and creativity above all else—but doesn’t. Not at all. They need to learn to get along with people who aren’t gifted because they will have to deal with these people in their day-to-day lives, and many of them will have the power to affect how successfully they will be able to translate their talents into meaningful work as adults.

They especially need to be taught from the time they are small children that a gift, whether for swimming, writing, or mathematics is just that, a gift. The proper response to any gift is, Thank you. A gifted person is not better than other people, just luckier. He has a head start. He should be grateful for that.

Of course, nobody’s perfect. Who hasn’t smoked marijuana? (Well, me, but only because I was too scared.) But more than one thing can be true at the same time, and those things can be contradictory. Most young people smoke marijuana at least once; the fact that smoking marijuana is illegal is stupid—it’s no more (and may be less) dangerous than alcohol; the consequences of smoking marijuana, whether for the first or thousandth time, can have consequences that profoundly affect your life, and those consequences are likely to be greater, or at least more visible, if you’re famous—especially if you’ve signed contracts worth millions of dollars to be a role model for youth.

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, who understood the absurdity of the world better than..anyone, “So it goes.”

Phelps decided to do what he did. The consequences that his employers (and they are employers) decide are appropriate may or may not significantly affect his career. But the questions that matter are, If the consequences are severe, will he consider himself a victim? If they’re not, will he be smart enough to see and be grateful for the fact that he’s been lucky again—and decide it’s time to "handle" himself and grow up?

A question Phelps might ask himself as he figures out where to go from here is, "What's more important, what the market expect of me or what I expect of myself?"

That said, I truly hope this turns out to have been a "teaching moment" in his life.