THE THINGS THEY CARRIED: A BOOK REVIEW

September 30, 2014 in Book Reviews

A friend of mine recently asked me if I had any recommendations for a light, fun read. As it happens, the books I have been reading lately have been dark and it doesn’t get any darker than Vietnam.

I am not a war story gal. The only reason I sought out The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories by Tim O’Brien, is because two different sources hailed its short story of the same name as an example of exquisite short story crafting: he tells an entire story through a list of what the soldiers in Vietnam carried.

Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover.

Not only does he matter-of-factly relate the practicalities of the war in what they had to carry on their backs as they “humped” through the hostile terrain, he depicts the deaths of his fellow soldiers in the same way. In practical terms, Ted Lavender’s death meant rearranging their own packs to absorb his load before requesting a dust-off to retrieve his body.

But of course there is more to it than that: the tension, the fear, the dark humor to keep fear at bay, the guilt, the blame, the claustrophobia of investigating the tunnels, the loved ones back home, and the personalities of these soldiers in a war they were drafted to participate in come rolling in through the fog and the rain and the shadows of the jungles they trek through until the entire breadth of the Vietnam War is captured in a single short story.

I only intended to read the Things They Carried, but I ended up reading the entire collection of short stories and I am glad I did. It is a heartbreaking, powerful collection of fiction based on the author’s own non-fictional experiences in the Vietnam War. For me, several of these stories are standouts, and by “standouts,” I mean that they will haunt me.

The Man I Killed is a stunning portrayal of what a soldier feels when he kills the enemy, who turns out to be little more than a young man with the promise of the rest of his life ripped away like the star-shaped hole where one eye used to be. O’Brien’s meticulous and controlled use of repetition evokes a powerful picture of the immobility of shock.

Speaking of Courage and the following Notes speaks to how the moments in Vietnam cross the ocean with Norman Bowkar and won’t let him go. Just as he loops around the lake in his truck, so his life loops around his memories of the war and one incident in particular.

In the Field is about as real as it gets in terms of the relentless rain, the mud and muck of a river that has overflowed its banks, and the search for one of their own in the muddy, shitty river in the dark of the night where the enemy is never far away.

Don’t let the grittiness of the subject matter dissuade you from picking up this book of phenomenally written short stories. Try reading just one, perhaps The Things They Carried, and see what you think. I don’t think you will be sorry.

 

 

 

 

FALL EQUALS FOOTBALL

September 8, 2014 in Adventures in Parenting

My son, #5, plays cornerback.

Right on the heels of the first bell of the school year, the appearance of reddening leaves on the trees, and the arrival of honeycrisp apples in the grocery store, football season officially begins. Here in Seattle, we are beside ourselves with our Super Bowl Champions, the Seattle Seahawks. The 12th Man is loud and proud. Game Day finds everyone in their Seattle blue, sports bars filled, families in front of their televisions, and the roads jammed packed with fans trying to make their way to the game in time.

If that’s not enough, we are also home to the University of Washington Huskies. What they lack in rank, we make up for in passion and loyalty, especially if a stray Washington State Cougar slinks into our vicinity. We wear our purple and gold proudly on these fall Saturdays.

But I would argue that the best football around can be found not at Century Link or Husky Stadium, but at our local high school football field, where on Saturdays it is taken over by the youngsters, particularly my son’s Rookie team comprised of seven, eight, and nine-year-old boys.

The fans sit in the bleachers, the score is visible on the high school scoreboard, and we even have our own announcer calling out the play-by-play over the PA system, as well as noting who in the stands may not be sharing their Skittles.

It’s just like real football, except these boys are so little! They look like ants on the huge football field.

Their helmets are bigger than their bodies, making them look like a team of bobble heads, and when someone goes down hard, the tears follow come just as hard. But make no mistake: these boys are playing football.

Plays are being run, tackles are handed out right and left, and our team even came up with an interception, not to mention several PAT’s, even though these kids are so small their kicks not only have to go out but straight up to clear the goal post.

When out team makes a touchdown, we might not create a minor earthquake as the Seattle fans did during Marshawn Lynch’s legendary 67-yard playoff touchdown run, but with our cheering and stomping on the metal bleachers, we were close.

My boys have played a lot of sports, but this was the first time that the bleachers were occupied with people other than the parents of the players. My oldest son and ten of his closest friends came to watch. Fathers of high school football players came to watch their friends’ sons play, possibly scouting the next high school QB. It’s too soon to say which of these kids will have the talent and the perseverance to go all the way with football, but a new generation of football fans is definitely in the making.

I still love the Huskies, but this fall I will be donning the black and red of my son’s football team as my game day attire. I am looking forward to an injury-free season!

 Their first game and their first win: 43-26.

 

ABSENCE MAKES THE HEART GROW FONDER

September 5, 2014 in Adventures in Parenting

 

Clip Art from: Clipart Pal

I had such a wonderful summer with my three boys that I may have been one of the few moms who wasn’t ready to send her kids back to school. Sure, there were little rumblings of discontent: the kids were bickering with each other more often, which drew me into arguments that tested my patience, and after an action-packed summer, none of us had any new ideas of what we wanted to do. Still, every day was sunny (a Seattle miracle!) and schedule free, which made us all happy.

But then school started. Everyone went off in separate directions and we didn’t see each other for roughly seven hours. When we all returned home, an amazing thing happened: my kids talked to me. Usually our conversations go like this:

ME: How are you?

CHILD: (grunt)

ME: How was your day?

CHILD: (grunt)

ME: What did you do?

CHILD: Stuff.

ME: Who did you see?

CHILD: Mom! Stop!

This week, however, I got real answers to my questions, and then some. From my third grader, I heard all about who sat in his table group, who he wished was in his table group, what he thought of his teacher, what he thought of the other 3rd grade teachers, and who his all time favorite teachers were. My gosh…another Seattle miracle!

My 6th grader told me about his I-Experience class, which appears to be a mini course of all the electives he can choose from in the next two years. They are beginning with technology and woodworking (weird, I know), and not only did I get the lowdown on the teacher, I also got rumors passed down from 7th graders on how she gives them a drill and a block of wood, but doesn’t instruct them on what to do with either. I now know that some anxiety is brewing in my 6th grader over this. I, too, am anxious: my 6th grader with a drill? Is that legal?

My 9th grader is about as introverted as you can get. He rarely talks. I have no idea what’s happening with him in school, but last night he spent 45 minutes explaining the League of Legends video game to me. That’s 45 minutes of non-stop talking! (We were stuck in traffic so he had nothing else to do, but still.). If you know him, then you know that this is the biggest miracle of them all.

As much as I love spending time with my kids, maybe there is something to be said for a little distance. I think it’s making us all appreciate each other a bit more, which is a wonderful thing. To those wise souls who invented formal education, I say thank you for creating a program that teaches so much more than reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Happy Back to School Days To You All!

FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL

September 2, 2014 in Adventures in Parenting

First day

High School

Freshman

Too cool

Spanish

Homeroom

Grown up

Too Soon

First day of

Middle school

Laying down

The ground rules

Found his friends

Found his way

Found each class

Will be ok

First day

Grade three

Same school

Easy

Friends? Yes.

Work too

Knows what

To do

Wish you boys

A great year.

Need some help?

I’ll be here.

Do your best

Play some too

Always know

I’m proud of you.