They have arrived. The NFL playoffs. Back in September, thirty-two teams had their football eyes on the prize. High hopes. Expectations. Experts making predictions. Boneheaded waiters and balding fathers playing football prophet and talking shit.

The Eagles will take the NFC East.

This is the year the Ravens will put it all together.

The Raiders will suck ass.

The Pack will repeat and Favre will hang himself from a sycamore tree.

Blah, blah, blah.

It’s now come down to twelve teams. The talk is over. In the AFC, the Patriots, Ravens, Bengals, Texans, Steelers, and Broncos will be taking the field. In the NFC, the Packers, 49ers, Lions, Saints, Falcons, and Giants will be in the hunt for the Lombardi.

It’s a thing of pure beauty.

Almost more beautiful than Tamron Hall.

Almost.

Let’s see what’s doing.

 

 

The Moody Coach and Mountain Jesus: The AFC

The AFC had a crazy year.

The Bills started off the season winning and had their fans forgetting Scott Norwood. But then the Bills remembered that they’re the Bills and began losing—badly. Their fans quickly remembered Norwood and started choking on chicken wings en masse.

Al Davis took a dirt nap and, surprisingly, Raiders fans didn’t tag and burn the country to a crisp.

The Jets and their fat coach stunk up the field and the world was a better place for it.

The Colts slowly died, week after week, and finally disappeared with a whimper.

Three of the six teams playing in the tournament weren’t considered contenders at the beginning of the year. The Bengals? Most people didn’t even know Cincinnati had a football team. The Texans? For years people have been picking them to finally sink the Colts and take the AFC South, and for years they sucked dog ass and ended up watching the playoffs from their couches like the rest of us poor saps. The Broncos? Good, god. John Fox is as dull as a pair of house slippers and coaches the most boring game of football in the league’s history.  I bet he only fucks in the missionary position.

Most football junkies picked the Patriots, Ravens, and Steelers to make the playoffs. They are who they are, and it is what it is. Solid players. Great coaching. No mystery. One of these teams will be in the Super Bowl.

Wildcard weekend will see the Bengals take on the Texans and Pittsburgh travel to Denver. I like the Bengals’ story. They played tough all year, and we saw promising rookie QB Andy Dalton make a name for himself. He very well could be one of the league’s premier quarterbacks of the future, football smart, with a rifle for an arm. Going on the road and winning in the playoffs is a tall order. Especially with a young team that has no post-season experience. But I like Cincinnati and see them squeaking out a victory. The Texans are good, no doubt. They have a good defense. But they’re injured and don’t have any character. This is not a winning recipe. Sure, they might take this game, but it will end for them soon after that.

Pittsburgh and the Broncos. The story here is about Tebow and his Jesus-ness. He loves Jesus. Carries him in his backpack. Takes him to McDonald’s. Tebow’s positive god light has the whole team reading sappy Hallmark affirmations and running to confession. It’s a lame story that has the ESPN gang and everyone and their mother saying stupid things like “divine intervention.” And that the Donkeys are winning because of Tebow’s heavenly ways and have made the playoffs because “something else is at work.” It is, by far, some of the most ridiculous crap I’ve heard, in or out of sports, in my lifetime. The truth is, Tebow sucks as a QB, the teams he beat were shit or gave the game away, the Broncos made the playoffs because the AFC West is pathetic. End of story. The Steelers are beat up but should win the game easily and end the Second Coming.  Thank god.

Finally, the Patriots and Ravens, the conference’s one and two seeds.  They have a bye this week and await the winners of the wild card round.  Brady and his receivers are flying high on offense, but they have a pitiful defense and this is why they’ll eventually lose. There’s nothing that their moody coach, Bill Belichick, and his massive football brain can do about it.  Prediction:  The Ravens—with Ray Lewis’ big mouth and Terrell Suggs’ piranha teeth—will go to the Super Bowl.  A nasty, swarming defense and an effective running game.  That’s the recipe.

 

Packing Heat and Killing Marino: The NFC

The NFC playoff picture is loaded with surprises. Who thought the 49ers, with their obnoxious coach, would be a second seed? No one. The Lions? Most of us thought that bloated pig Matt Millen had ruined the team for good. Guess not. The Giants? Hey, they’re a good squad, but the Eagles with their “dream team” roster were supposed to eat up the NFC East. Didn’t happen. The Falcons?  Well, that’s not too much of a stretch, but their spot was reserved for the Cowboys. And speaking of the Cowboys: I think it’s about time we bury these amateurs for good, or pray that their rich, hillbilly owner either splits or joins Al Davis. He’s looking more and more like good ol’ Al everyday. And that, my friends, is not a good thing.

Just win, baby.

The Lions are heading into New Orleans to get a beatdown like they’ve never experienced. It’s going to be ugly. The Saints have a lousy defense, but they have Brees and that ass-whooping offense. They’re deadly. They’re cool. They’re tenacious. Brees is a badass and I was thrilled to no end to see him squash Dan Marino’s single-season passing record. I don’t like Marino, just like I don’t like Mercury Morris, just like I don’t like Don Shula’s nose, just like I don’t like Miami’s pansy colors, just like I don’t like Miami, just like I don’t like the Heat and loved it when they got their asses handed to them in the NBA finals.

Shoo fly.

The Falcons are going into New York, where they’re going to get slapped around. The Giants are playing solid football coming off a perfect dismantling of the Cowboys last week. Watch out for the Giants. They can play spoiler.

I don’t have much to say about the 49ers. I can’t buy into them. I see a so-so QB in Smith, a good defense, and a cocky P.E. teacher for a coach. That being said, they’re not a second seed for no reason. But I’ll be smiling when they leave the field crestfallen. Especially Harbaugh.

The Packers are the Packers. They’re good. Real good. But like the Saints and the Patriots, they have a weak defense. I see them getting into a shootout or two. Probably not the way you want things to go (especially, against gunslingers like Brees and Eli Manning). But Rodgers is a pure killer and I see him taking the Pack to the Super Bowl where they’ll play the Ravens, win another championship, and Brett Favre will either be found dead or pack up his Wranglers and play in the CFL.

Let the games begin.

 

You’ve heard all about it, maybe more than you want to know, but to recap: Last week Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team, was charged with sexually abusing at least eight young boys over a long period of years. Since 1998, the university has been aware of accusations against Sandusky. In 2002, an assistant witnessed him anally raping a ten-year-old boy in the team’s showers. The assistant reported it to the head coach, Joe Paterno, who reported it to the Athletic Director, who reported it to his boss. No one ever reported it to the police. Sandusky was the founder of a charity designed to help boys from troubled homes, and he continued in his role of mentor until 2010.

Four days after Sandusky was arrested on November 5, the Board of Trustees asked Paterno and the university’s president to resign, effective immediately. (The athletic director and his boss are being charged with perjury and have left the university on different terms.) Enflamed at the ignominious departure of a legendary coach, “the winningest coach in college football,” thousands of students at the school rioted. They toppled a TV van; they threw things; they knocked down a lamppost onto a car.

The punditry and blogosphere also exploded, in their way, but for mostly opposite reasons. Among the outraged, a story coalesced: With so much to lose, the powers that be at one of the country’s leading Division I football programs refused to do the right thing—to report this man to the police and curtail his chance at raping others. Meanwhile, students’ worship of their team’s coach warped their perspective to such a degree that they were blind to the human suffering that had taken place. The Onion has a much forwarded satire here about the fans’ response that gets it exactly right.

Outside of Happy Valley—the name given to the town of State College and its environs—most people are furious about what’s been allowed to transpire there these last fifteen years. I share this fury, to put it mildly. As I read the grand jury testimony last Thursday at work, an emergency response alarm sounded in my brain. I have a ten-year-old son, and I was molested as a child.

I’m not a big crier, and I didn’t cry as I read, despite being hit with waves of impotent rage and grief. But I had a very physical response. Electric shocks pulsed through me. I felt like Donald Sutherland in the 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—the same pointing finger and rhythmic cry. Stop him. Stop him. Stop them. Stop it. Warning. Warning. Stop.

My impulse to stop that man, to stop those acts from occurring, was as automatic as the urge to sneeze, to defecate, to cough. My inability to act on it caused the same violent physical reaction as would fighting the need to vomit. I was wracked with tension. I was shaking. I experienced an overall bodily crisis.

I wanted to stop the acts from occurring. But I also wanted the inputs to cease. The images. Stop it. Stop it. Stop reading. Stop thinking. Don’t go there. Don’t go. No.

Society views child sexual abuse as the most monstrous of crimes, a pure evil. It’s general knowledge that child sex offenders are pariahs in prison, labeled as subhuman by even the most deviant and violent among us and brutally raped, ostracized, terrorized. The reactions to the news from Penn State support this view. ESPN columnist Rick Riley writes, “The horror of it makes you want to punch someone.” He takes some small comfort, though, in the ravaging Sandusky is likely to endure:  “If all these charges turn out to be true . . . Sandusky will . . . be going to prison—a place where, with any luck, [he] will feel most unwelcome.” Many comments describe the damage the writers would like to wreak upon the rapist with their own hands. The assistant who witnessed the rape and who has not been asked to step down couldn’t be present at Sunday’s game because he received so many threats.

How could he? we wonder. How could they? How could someone look upon the rape of a child and turn away?

For answers, many have turned to Division 1 sports in general, and the rabidity of Penn State football culture in particular.

I’m from western Pennsylvania, and I know this football fever first hand. My own small town worshiped the game in all forms. It was a miniature, rust-belt version of Friday Night Lights’ Dillon, and as such, no different from all the other little towns dotting the hills and valleys in our half of the state. The mood of whole swaths of the population, not to mention the economy, turned on the fate of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The first time I visited Penn State’s campus, I was taken aback by the proliferation of life-sized Joe Paterno imagery. Like the portrait of a desert dictator, his visage was everywhere: in restaurants, bars, shop windows, office cubicles, sidewalks, dorm rooms. He saw all. He was all.

I was affected by the omnipotence of football. My first published story was set around a high school field. And part of me feels almost vindicated by the spotlight now shining down unfavorably upon my region. See? I didn’t make it up. The view really is that distorted. A sport really is the most defining and important thing.

And yet, every time the Penn State football program is mentioned as the cause of men turning a blind eye to the assault of children, I bristle. I feel this obfuscates the larger issue.

It’s the football program, yes, but it’s also the Catholic Church.

It’s hierarchical organizations like football programs and the Catholic Church, yes, but it’s also our families.

When we read about them, or learn about them, or watch them paraded into a prison yard with a sign around their neck, child sex abuse offenders are clearly monsters.  I think of Ronald McGorvey in Tom Perrotta’s novella Little Children—pale, weak-chinned, acne-scarred.  He shows up at the town pool wearing an ugly bathing suit, and everyone clears out of the water, moms grab their kids and clutch them to their bosoms.

At the term child molester, a common image leaps to mind—it’s that creepy guy with sickly white skin, that pocket puller wearing a thin poly-blend button-down shirt and bad glasses. As a matter of fact, one summer when I was in elementary school and playing with a friend in a near-empty building on the college campus where my dad taught, a guy who fit this description exactly followed us around for a while before cornering me and grabbing my crotch. When my friend’s dad came to pick us up soon after, we told him what had happened, and, catching a glance of the man, the dad chased him out the door and down the street. When we got home, we called the police. Everyone took me very seriously. Eventually, the guy was charged with assaulting a girl in a municipal parking lot.

But he wasn’t the one who molested me. That encounter was an anomaly. Approximately one of ten kids who are sexually assaulted don’t know the offender. Ninety percent of the time, children are sexually abused by someone close—an authority figure, a friend, a family member.

In real life, child abusers are often people who we love. Who we respect. Who we trust. Or who at the very least are part of the tightly woven fabric of our daily lives. And it’s very difficult to make a quick shift in perspective, from one view to another diametrically opposed: This person I know so well, care about, work with? This very normal person—maybe even handsomer than most, kinder, more successful . . . . How can he (or she, but usually he) be evil incarnate? If we see signs, we can’t quite recognize them. The pieces don’t come into focus as a readable whole. When someone steps forward with an experience or suspicion, he or she is often met with confusion or hesitation if not outright disbelief.

Let me just say here that of course I think the university president and Joe Paterno should be fired.

But I also, generally, shy away from absolutism. I hold in high esteem the ability, the willingness, to look at both sides, to examine complexity. The simplicity of slogans—“Get a job!” “Love it or leave it!” “Just say no!”—drive me insane, and I vigilantly guard against people being judged prematurely. Someone who seemed weird, or gay, or different raised a big red flag in my hometown. They evoked a loud “ew” from the short-skirted girls cheering in unison; they flew in the face of the single, rumbled “let’s go” arising from the huddle. You tell me someone’s “different,”—a barely veiled insult in western Pennsylvania— and I’m going to try to befriend or defend that person.

My son’s chess coach was a little weird, but the kids loved him and we parents liked him pretty well too. He gave so much of himself. He got our kids enthusiastic about playing a thoughtful game that didn’t involve a screen. When he made an inappropriate overture to a child at a hotel where the state tournament was held, the parents who caught wind told the principal, who told the superintendent and informed the police. The coach was let go. The children cried. I’m enormously grateful that the administration was so confident in their actions, because I have to confess that I wasn’t, quite. I was frozen. And some other parents didn’t agree with the course of events at all. They thought it was too much. That the coach should have been granted a warning.

It’s very typical for well-meaning people to say: Are you sure? Am I sure? Did I really see that? To say: But I’m not clear on what really happened. To say, anyone can be misinterpreted or make one mistake. I think this is what thoughtful people often do. And people who are scared. And people who have a lot to lose.

And, also, people who just, simply, refuse to let this into their lives: No no no no no. Stop. No more inputs.

The very monstrousness of the crime is what keeps us from recognizing it. Our horror in its face turns us away.

And no, that’s not brave or moral. And of course witnessing a rape, hearing an account of the rape of a child from an eyewitness, is far different from hearing about an inappropriate invitation to enter a hotel room with a grown-up. But child sex abuse is an ultimate horror that also exists on a continuum.

In one part of my brain the alarm is still going off. This is very personal for me. In another part, I’m equally horrified, but … somehow … I understand what keeps people from acting resolutely

Sometimes I get panicky that I’m not doing enough to arm my children. I’m not overly protective. The older one is starting to bike around town on his own.

“You know if anyone touches you inappropriately that you should tell your dad or me,” I remind him. I don’t think he’s listening. “If someone touches you around your penis or butt, that’s inappropriate. You know that, right? But any other kind of touch or even comment that makes you feel uncomfortable, let us know.” He’s still not listening. I wanted “penis” and “butt” to grab him, but I think it embarrassed him and turned him off, instead.

“It happened to me, when I was about your age,” I say. This gets his attention. I tell him the story of the man who groped me. He’s takes it all in, listening closely.

“You can trust most grown-ups, but not all of them.”

I don’t tell him the other story about myself. The one that’s longer, harder, more complicated.

Don’t let anyone touch you. Don’t let anyone touch you.

We all let people touch us, though. We have to. We’re human.

My heart goes out. It will be upturned like the news van. And stomped on like a car roof.

My heart goes out.

Our deepest animal nature urges us to protect our children. There is something in our human nature—some good things, too—that can make it difficult to act on this primal need.

 

I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. A fair weather one—I don’t start paying much attention until the playoffs—but lifelong, and when I give my attention to a game, I’m there all the way. My body reacts as if it’s the one straining and slamming. My tape measure’s out—just ram your shoulders forward one . . . more . . . yard. My mind spits questions about players’ mental states. It’s cathartic to get that far out of myself. So goddamn it I was angry at Ben Roethlisberger when the grumblings about his sexual assault charges started up again around playoff time. Why you killing my buzz, Ben?

I sought only the most basic information before turning away—a bar in Georgia, a bathroom, a college student, a lot of alcohol and a raft of bodyguards who might or might not have blocked a door, but charges were dropped, just as they’d been the year before when an incident had been reported in Nevada. And what was that one about again? Oh, never mind.

On the one hand, my hesitation was characteristic: I don’t follow celebrity scandals; I’ve clicked not a link about Charlie Sheen. On the other hand, I do tend to get obsessive about sexual assault stories that don’t involve the NFL. There was the dust-up when Keith Oberman and Michael Moore appeared to shrug off the rape allegations against Julian Assange. There was the gang rape of a fifteen-year-old girl outside her school homecoming dance. For these events and others, my initial reluctance—because who wants to spend their days thinking about rape?—gave way to frenzied clicking. I read everything I could get my hands on, hunted down small news items, scrolled through hundreds of comments in an effort to understand or to bear witness, I wasn’t sure which, and I got angry and brittle and nauseated in the process. I’m a woman who’s broken a lot of rules in the course of pursuing independence and played closely by a lot of others because I’ve been aware of how vulnerable that made me. I’m a woman who’s been afraid. The discussion around assault—especially of the she’s-lying or she-was-asking-for-it variety, and they’re almost all of that variety—can make my heart shake as if even now I were walking down a dark street or laying awake in a bed where I had chosen to sleep alone behind flimsily locked doors after talking too long to, or maybe just strolling past, a man. I’ve never been raped, but I’ve asked myself again and again whether that’s because I’ve been smart, or lucky.

To compensate for my own ill-informed unease about Roethlisberger, I gave loud voice to complaints about him at the dinner table. I wanted a pound of flesh from my husband—there’s nothing fair weather about his fandom—and I wanted, mostly I wanted, him to let me off the hook. And that’s what he did.

Football players are assholes, he said. The Nevada thing always looked really shaky, and the Georgia charges . . . it’s hard to say, but they were dropped a year ago. He was suspended for them. But he’s an asshole. The Rooneys are on him. The fans are off him. You don’t see many Roethlisberger jerseys anymore. It’s all Palamalou.

Troy Palamalu. A soft-spoken, philanthropic family man. Have you seen his beautiful hair flying like a badge of all that’s noble as he sails across a whole line to hold them at the two? It’s all well and good for feminists who don’t like football to call for a ban, but for those of us who do, can’t we watch it with our eyes open? And the Nevada charges—those ones at least—they were pretty thin. Women do go bat shit over celebrities.

Friends of ours came over for dinner this playoff season—Packers fans and fellow flag-football coaches. The Roethlisberger thing came up (guess who couldn’t quit picking that scab?) and we got into the discussion of what it must be like to be these guys. We talked about the aura that surrounds even the fourth grade football star at our kids’ school. The way a lifetime of such intense grooming and fawning and pressure—not the mention the blows to the head—must mutate players’ sense of self long before they make it to the pros, the way their career affects everyone around them. Of course they’re assholes. They’d have to be almost superhuman—like Troy Palamalu—not to be.

I like to swim in the grey area of almost any dirty pool, and when my friend posed the question of why the hell would a girl go into a bathroom with big, drunk Ben Roethlisberger, I was up for some discussion about how stupid women can be, especially when it comes to the mix of fame and men and money. (For the record, I’ve done some more clicking as I’ve been writing this, and it’s not at all clear that the Georgia accuser agreed to go into a bathroom with Roethlisberger.) We talked about our culture, how sexed up it is, how even clothes for little girls are provocative. How at four years old girls are already wearing short shorts with writing across the butt when they should be wearing smock dresses until they’re ten. But when I caught myself nodding as if there were some causal link between the selection in the Target girls’ department and rape culture, I took a few steps back.

Being stupid doesn’t mean that a woman deserves to get raped, I said.

No. It doesn’t, my friend agreed. And we were quiet for a moment. The men in the room had been quiet for a while.

Then my friend, who’s from Green Bay, ventured that Packers players couldn’t get away with such boorish behavior. Their coach is very religious; they live in such a small town; they all go to same churches as everyone else.

Maybe you’re right, I said doubtfully. Maybe she’s right, I thought, and I tried to kindle a flicker of hope. And then I thought about all the preachers and priests accused of sexual abuse and the statistics about how the states with the highest number of churchgoers are also those with the highest pornography usage, and I wondered about what keeps anyone clean when rules don’t seem to apply to them, and I wondered why we need so many rules, and why rule-followers themselves buck so hard against the laws they lay down. What is our nature?

Just a few days after the dinner, my eye alighted on news item recounting allegations of sexual misconduct against members of the Packers. They’d been participating in a charity golf tournament in the Wisconsin Dells, land of family water parks and theme restaurants, when two women claimed to have been raped by them. Charges were dropped after the women changed their initial story, although the consensus seems to be that sex of some kind was had.

I didn’t forward the link to my friend. I was fighting my told-you-so obnoxiousness, but I also understood all too well her impulse to give her players the benefit of the doubt—most of us want to think we’re exempt. The world’s going to hell, but not my country, not my congressmen, not my neighborhood, not my man, my men, my boy, my boys.

To function fully, we almost have to believe that. When the story of the fifteen-year-old girl’s gang rape broke, about one out of every four or five commenters in the local paper lambasted the victim for having gone into the school’s darkened courtyard with her classmate in the first place, which is where the attack took place. What kind of girl goes off to imbibe alcohol alone with a boy? But what kind of world do we live in when a high school student is supposed to look around her classroom and see every male in it as a potential rapist? In my fits of compulsively searching for information about sexual assault, I’ve read about various universities whose rape prevention programs consist mostly of cautioning women to watch each others’ drinks when they’re at parties and to never walk alone at night or deviate from the campus’s blue-lighted paths. What kind of culture expects women to socialize in environments where they’re so likely to be drugged they have to keep their hand over their cup as they talk to a guy with whom they might be hoping to get lucky? We have to believe that the attitude that gives rise to the gang rape of a school girl, that accepts running rough shod over a woman’s hesitation as if any kind of resistance is a linebacker blocking a first down, is one that doesn’t permeate our own immediate world, where we work and play and fuck and fall in love and raise our daughters and sons.

Green Bay beat The Steelers in last months’ Super Bowl, of course, so news feeds are no longer flashing as many updates about players’ sexual misconduct. But the Roethlisberger issue’s been on my mind because I’ve been fixated on the recent story of the eleven-year-old girl gang raped in Texas by eighteen men and boys and by the outrage over The New York Times’ reporting of it. The backlash against the Times concerns its framing of the story, and in the debate about whether the writer is blaming the victim or just reporting on locals who are, here’s an oft-mentioned quote:

“Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.”

I’ve read so much about the incident in the past week that even if I could formulate some insightful thoughts, it’d be hard for me to write about my reactions without inadvertently plagiarizing. Still, I have to say this: So, according to some of the town’s residents, the girl dressed like a woman in her twenties. That makes it understandable that boys and men would gang rape her? Because it’s OK to gang rape twenty year olds? Because it’s . . . what?

She was eleven.

Yeah, I’m not ready to write about it.

But I’ve been staring at the train wreck since the article appeared. The people quoted are distancing themselves from the girl—she’s not like my daughter; I’m not like her mother—and sympathizing with their favorite team—their sons, friends, students. I don’t want to narrowly equate dropped charges against some NFL players with the documented gang rape of a child, but the two things are on the same continuum. I see them as part of the same lesson to be studied about people’s—my—reaction to things we don’t want to believe.

I had a dream when I was in college that’s recurred in various forms since. I was in a bedroom of a house, and I knew that in the next room a woman was being raped. Instead of bursting through the door and trying to disrupt the crime, I went downstairs, where a party was raging, and shrilly tried to rally a group of men to go up and into the room with me. Hysterical, I physically tried to push the men up the stairs when they weren’t moving fast enough, but I remember staying firmly behind the broad back I had my hands on. I remember being glad a guy was in front of me. When I recounted the dream to a friend, she said: I think many men give tacit approval to rape, and that’s what you were responding to. I was relieved at her analysis, which took a page from the women’s studies classes we were both enrolled in, but I felt it was off. My biggest sense upon awakening was that I had failed to some extent, that under the guise of rallying help, I’d been mostly self-protective.

We have to all work together on this one, though: How about we teach boys not to rape? How about we acknowledge that, yeah, you know what, life does have a lot of grey areas. We should talk about those. And if you have your penis out and something looks like a grey area? Guess what. It’s probably not one.

Last night, when my son’s eye caught on an article about the Roethlisberger accusations that I had open on my computer, I slapped my laptop’s cover down: That’s not for you to read, I said.

My son is nine, which I feel is too young for this discussion.

And that girl is fucking eleven.

* * *

If you want more discussion on the Texas rape and the media response, Jezebel’s covered the whole thing well, starting here.

Roxane Gay has an impassioned response at The Rumpus.

 

Two things I’m often heard complaining about: I don’t have enough time to write and I don’t get enough sleep. What I do have is a full-time job and two little kids, so my beefs seem pretty legitimate. There’s a supportive husband in the mix, but no extended family close-by, and we don’t have the money to hire much in the way of time-saving. We do the cooking, the cleaning, the yardwork (or we don’t). We skimp on or swap for babysitting.

At this point, some readers are probably like: You have a yard on top of all the rest? Cry me a river of unspilled ink. Others might be thinking: You clean your own toilets? Glad I’m not you, but honestly, it’s irrelevant, and it’s sort of pathetic that you bring up the fact that I don’t.

There’s a lot of snark and defensiveness around the issues of time and money. This is evident everywhere from the rhetoric of the Tea Partiers to the comments sections inspired by mommy warriors like Caitlan Flanagan, sure, but exhibit A in my trial is my experience of living with myself. I am still rankled by an interview in The Rumpus in which, when asked how she does it, what with two little kids and a nonprofit and a writing and editing career and all, Vendela Vida  says that everyone can find two hours a day to write. That interview appeared over six months ago, but many a day ends with me shouting in my head: Do you see two hours of writing time in this day? DO YOU SEE TWO HOURS OF WRITING TIME IN THIS DAY?

And then a little internal voice might say: Well, if you’d gotten up at six and jumped right on the computer you might have been able to get an hour in. And admit it. You probably spent at least an hour today dawdling online—you read that interview, didn’t you? And what about those two episodes of Friday Night Lights you watched back-to-back the other night?

And then a much shriller voice says: Six o’clock is not sustainable! She said everyday, and didn’t you hear me say already that I don’t get enough sleep? And am I not allowed to ever relax with my husband? To exchange news with a friend on Facebook? To read a book?

And then, the loudest voice of all screams at ear-splitting volume: No! You’re not! (That voice runs out of breath the fastest.)

There’s also a reasonable murmur, which calls for order: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Show some compassion. And don’t be too easy on yourself, either. Employ some self-discipline. And definitely don’t waste your energy whining. Calm down, and write or don’t. No one really cares by you.

Indeed, it’s true. Which is both a relief and salt in the wound.

The thing is, I do care. When my son was born I kept up a writing schedule for a while, but I ceased any regular exercise. By the time he was around two, I felt crippled. Curled into a child’s pose in yoga class with my back screaming in pain and relief, I swore that as God as my witness, I would never go two years without exercise again. It’s the same sort of difference between writing and not. Except that two or three hours of yoga in a week makes me easily feel great, whereas two hours of writing a week can sometimes feel like worse than nothing. Especially when had on consistently inadequate sleep.

So I get back to ole woe is me, and the plaint that it’s hard to sustain a creative project while raising kids and working.

But this year when going through a box of old journals that had been packed away for years, I came across an entry from, oh, about 1995. I was child-free, lived alone, worked close by, and my only obligations were to spend some time with my friends and my boyfriend. And what was I complaining about in a journal so old it was now turning to dust in my hands? That I didn’t have enough time to write and I didn’t get enough sleep.

Hmmm. So maybe just: Writing is hard. (And sleep is sublime.)

The other day, I enjoyed this post by Victoria Patterson on Three Guys One Book, talking about the dangers of Facebook and Twitter for writers. (Found time to read that too, did ya?) Well, yes. I clicked on it while procrastinating on writing an essay about my writing process with my first novel, and the combination of the post, the procrastination, the memory lane made me recall that when I was writing Currency, I felt the need to keep eliminating things from my life: I drank less, I socialized less, I more or less dropped friends who required a certain kind of effort, and I ceased my involvement with the zine I co-published. I didn’t write anything else, for anyone, no little reviews or essays. One after another things got hauled to the chopping block, even during a period when I had a life as conducive to finding writing time as mine is ever likely to be.

And that was before the distractions of the internet had multiplied so splendiferously, before online networking time became almost as important a part of a writer’s schedule as writing itself.

I remember a conversation with a writer friend who had a semester off. He went away to a solitary residency somewhere, and when he returned from the mountains or the meadows or wherever he’d gone, he was a little rueful. He’d felt that at home, even with no formal obligations in the way of class time or teaching, his social life impeded his writing progress. But alone for a month or two, he found that having no demands at all didn’t necessarily speed things along. Sometimes it’s not the time, exactly, that we need. Even the most concentrated beam of hours can’t always melt away the difficulty. Uninterrupted concentration often breaks on its own, and depending on where, or why, it can leave one happily spent or empty and unsatisfied, sticky and fidgety with loneliness and doubt.

Although staring down my own novel project was difficult, I also felt a huge amount of momentum. The momentum was the mudslide that pushed away other things that were enjoyable and important to me, that made me sometimes resent invitations to weddings or writing events or pleasant outings with friends.

If I were on fire with momentum now, would I be hauling Facebook up to the chopping block? Maybe. Probably. But what about the tender arm of a toddler? What about the lean buttock of tweenaged boy?

Because here’s the thing about the having-kids part: I don’t want to resent spending time with them. I don’t want to be any more distracted and impatient with my family than I already can be. And when I’m immersed in a world I’m creating, everything that competes feels like a hindrance. To walk the tightrope every day between my outward and my inward life, to trot out the litanies for strength and mantras for balance—that’s exhausting in its own right, and makes me need a nap that much more desperately. I resist writing not (only) because it’s hard, but because it’s hard to come back from. It’s hard to keep in perspective.

That sounds good, right? That sounds like I might actually be a writer, and not only a divisor of elaborate complaints? I hope so, because that’s the image I’m going for. But also, I believe that it’s true.

In 2007, I traveled to Duluth to hole up with three women I’d met at an author’s retreat in the previous decade. At that time, I’d not been doing much writing for the past few years. I’d worked on no fiction at all, beyond some scribbling in notebooks. But rereading the scribbling had a powerful effect on me, and after spending a couple quiet days with those notebooks and myself, writing many more pages in a frantic hand that became illegible as the hours wore on, I had a passionate and almost violent outburst in a deserted outbuilding of our motel. I was absolutely frenzied with both my desire to surrender to the fermenting ideas and with my need to defend my family from that happening. My son was five at the time, and parenting was becoming slightly less all-consuming, and perhaps the wrenching that I felt was the emergence of a submerged self from a chrysalis. It’s hard to say for sure, because within a couple months I found myself pregnant and undergoing a career crisis. My full attention was called for elsewhere.

All of us in Duluth had raised or were raising children, but when we first met, I was still a maiden, affianced. I remember studying Ladette and Allison, who were already mothers, because I knew even then—before I really knew anything, really, about what was in store for me with parenting—that it was an achievement to have maintained a writing life in the face of supporting others economically and emotionally. When I asked Ladette about how she’d done it, she quoted Toni Morrison, a single working mother when she had written The Bluest Eye, as saying that she wrote her first novel “in mornings and noon hours.” I can’t confirm the quote, but it’s stuck with me. I know that Alice Monro wrote her first collection in the scraps of time she found while raising three kids, and that there are many other parent-authors who have written in the margins of busy lives—but if I stop writing now to do some research on exactly whom overcame what I will never get this post up before my kid wakes up from her nap.

So suffice it to say that some of our greatest living writers are part of the “everybody” who can find two hours a day in which to write, no matter what. And yeah, I doubt they all had even occasional housecleaners. But they’re not me.

As for me, now, the house is unusually quiet for a weekend afternoon. My daughter is asleep, and the other half of the family is at a friend’s house watching the Bears-Packer game. (That’s what I’m missing today. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying.) If all the stars align—which they could, because she was up for chunk in the middle of the night, and I along with her—I might manage to post this before Lilli wakes up and still have time to close my eyes for ten minutes myself. I won’t have worked on any fiction this weekthe long haul versus the quick fix is a whole other topicbut still, that’s a pretty good day.

(I am not even joking when I say that literally at the moment I typed that last line, my daughter woke up.)

(And I did get to watch the Steelers win, so it was an extra good day.)

Roy Harris is a high-ranking Air Force officer and rising star, whose ascendant career path takes him, in the pivotal year 1975, from a New Mexico military base to Washington.  He’s smart, he’s respected, and he’s very good at solving problems, a talent that will, by 1991, find him intimately involved in tactical decision-making in the Gulf War.

His prodigious skill set, however, does not translate to his own family.  He has no idea how to handle his wife, a free spirit who does not fit the “military wife” mold.  He fails to recognize the fact that his son idolizes him and craves his attention.  And his willful and eccentric eight-year-old daughter, who acts out at school, disobeys commands, and brazenly prefers her mother, confounds him.

The tragedy of Roy Harris is not that he can’t handle his own family, but rather that he wants to give them what they need — badly — but does not know how.

You could write a novel all about Roy Harris, but Susan Henderson hasn’t done that.  He might reign supreme in the Air Force, but in Up from the Blue, Henderson’s superb debut novel, Roy Harris ranks third or fourth in importance.  At the center of the book is the eight-year-old girl, Tillie, whose life is changed forever in 1975, the year her mother, with whom she has a close (perhaps too close) bond, vanishes.

I mention Roy Harris because, for all that this remarkable debut has going for it — gorgeous prose, rich detail, assured voice, and a gripping story that continues to haunt me, weeks after I finished reading — its genius lies in creating so many fascinating, well-drawn characters, any of whom could have convincingly told the story.  In Tillie, Henderson picks the most compelling — and, from a writing standpoint, most difficult — narrator, and she pulls off the Harper Lee adult-themes-seen-through-child’s-eyes trick brilliantly.

Here is my interview with the LitPark blogger, TNB contributor, and author of this breathtakingly good debut, in which I ask Susan questions she didn’t see fit to ask herself:


G.O.: You’ve been writing about the writing life for awhile now, which makes you probably the most prepared debut novelist in recent memory.

S.H.: I’ve been on the other side of this business for so long that I didn’t go into my book launch wearing rose-colored glasses. I know from interviewing numerous writers and featuring their stories on my blog that many authors feel a sense of deflation and abandonment when their books come out. They’ve worked so hard, and then they see how difficult it is to get their books noticed. I know a lot of writers hoped a feature on my blog or another person’s blog would give a big boost to book sales, but it doesn’t really work that way unless the person featuring you is a VIP. You’re simply raising the profile of the author and the book, but what makes a person buy a book is so subjective—you have to factor in their temperament, their life experiences, their current mood, the books they’ve already committed to reading, and what kind of free time they have. So even if others are happy for you when you launch your book, it doesn’t mean they’ll buy it.

[Nods sadly].

I often hear from writers shortly after their launch date, panicked, and often angry when they discover their publisher has already done all they plan to do. We’ve all heard about the dreaded pulping machines in the basements of the big book stores, and how, if a book hasn’t been selling well in those first weeks, they go down there and are destroyed. Pulping the books on site is cheaper than sending them back to the publisher.

I’ve never heard of that. Shit. That’s not being remaindered; that’s being drawn and quartered.

I understood all of that when I went in to this. I also understood that marketing a book is hard work. If HarperCollins asks me to do a phone interview and I’m naturally phone phobic, I have to get over it. And a lot of the opportunities that open up are things like magazines saying they’d like to run a 750-word essay by you if you can get it to them in 24 hours. You have to say yes to these opportunities even when you’re tired or don’t feel like the ideas are flowing. I don’t ever want to look back at this time and regret that I didn’t do more.

Like I said, you’re prepared…but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know everything. Your novel’s been out for a few weeks.  What’s been your biggest surprise?

The biggest surprise for me is that I’m enjoying this. It’s been an extraordinary and positive experience. One by one, at readings or via reviews, I’ve met people who’ve been moved by my book. And surprisingly, my author photo on the back cover has drummed up a lot of support from other greyhound rescuers. I mean, how fantastic is that to meet all of these folks and feel that sense of an expanding community? And mostly, there’s just a deep satisfaction in being able to hold something physical that represents all the years of finding the story, the 15 pounds I lost when I struggled with the edits, the seemingly endless string of rejections and close calls. Whatever the financial or critical success might be, I won’t lose sight of the fact that I created a book from that first blank page. And for all the reasons I had to quit along the way, I kept at it.

Huxley has a great quote along those lines: “A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one; it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.” Key word: labour. It’s really hard to write a book, even a bad one…and you’ve not written a bad one.

Pretty much everything about this business, from writing the book, to trying to sell it, to the vulnerability of seeing your book land in a competitive field of hundreds of thousands of other books has humbled me. I feel extraordinarily tender towards other writers for what they have to endure.

One of the many fascinating elements of Up from the Blue is that the Harrises are a military family.  I promise not to try and parse which parts of your novel are based on your own life, but I am curious: were you an Army brat?

I was an Air Force brat. I never thought much of it until after I had kids and we decided to do a cross-country drive, stopping at the base I used to live on. My kids were terrified of the checkpoints and just coming across soldiers with guns everywhere. We offered to let them take a break at my old playground, but they wanted to get back in the car and leave.

That visit—seeing it from a different lens—stuck with me. And like all of the images and themes in this book, it began as something that just sort of percolated on some back burner until I realized there was more to explore there.

Were you ever pressured, or tempted, to join the military?

Not in the slightest. I’m not neat or tidy, I don’t like to take orders, I’m a total wimp about weather and pain and hard physical work, and I don’t particularly like being around other people for long stretches of time. But I always arrive at appointments ten or fifteen minutes early, and I think that comes from being inside military circles for so many years.

That also explains why the LitPark segments on TNB are posted months in advance, all set to publish at certain dates and times. “Military precision” are words that come to mind when I click that PENDING link on the dashboard.

Oh, dear. I was hoping no one noticed!

Over at the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog, Adrienne Crezo reports that she’s heard you described as “the patron saint of writers.”  Do you have a feast day?

I think it’s really sweet, but mostly comical, to hear things like that. I think what people respond to, maybe, is that I’m conscientious in that I answer every comment on my blog and Facebook page, and I generally care about each person who leaves a comment. I know what it feels like to be that person who’s overlooked, and I don’t want to do that to anyone else. That’s really different than being the patron saint of anything… though I’m all in favor of feasts.

But seriously…through your own site and here at TNB, you’ve been exceedingly generous with your time and your support.  If I were to ask a bunch of your friends what Sue Henderson is like, the responses would probably contain some formation of She’s really nice.  (For example, I would say, “Sue?  She’s sweet as punch.”)  You rescue greyhounds, for Pete sake! Let’s be contrarian.  Tell us a way in which you are not nice.

My closest friends tend to use words like “fiesty” to describe me, and they all know how much I love a really violent hit on the football field.

You like football?  Giants?  Jets?  ‘Skins?  Do tell.

Steelers! If I could live life again, I’d love to be a defensive coordinator in charge of a 3-4 defense a la Dick LeBeau. Football is the greatest high for me—the strategy, the not-quite-contained rage, the unknown factor, and play, all at one time.

Eh, everyone’s doing the 3-4 these days.  It’s the new black.  Unfortunately, not everyone has the All-Pro nosetackle needed to make the defense sizzle.

Casey Hampton is killer, isn’t he?

Totally killer. So how do you feel about Ben Roethlisberger?

The reason I love watching Roethlisberger (and Brett Favre has this, too) is that he has kind of a sandlot style—he just wants to win. He’ll risk a sloppy play or an interception or a sack to score some points. He’s not worried about his stats, and I find that refreshing.

He doesn’t seem to be worried about much of anything these days.

I have to say, I was pissed when he got in that motorcycle accident because I don’t like selfishness. That concussion changed him. He’s just not as sturdy on the field, and I even wonder, with his latest charge, if that head injury changed his personality a little. But I’m excited to see him start against the Browns this weekend, and I want to go to the Super Bowl again.

This is probably not the time to mention that Neil “Four Picks” O’Donnell went to my high school.

I was not a fan of his even before his sorry performance against Dallas, but after that I was out-of-my-mind-cranky if I even saw his face. We had a long string of mediocre quarterbacks for a while, so I’d rather have a good one with criminal charges against him any day!

So did you live in Pittsburgh, or are you one of those bandwagon jumpers who only like them because they’re good?

I went to undergrad in Pittsburgh, and both my kids were born there. We used to watch training camp in Latrobe, and now I listen to the games over the Internet so I can still hear the local radio show. Tunch Ilkin and Bill Hargrove.

The Steelers are my Super Bowl pick this year.  I assume they’re also yours?

The Steelers are always my pick, even during the years it’s all magical thinking.

Your love of football makes sense, actually.  There’s a certain toughness about your novel that belies its “pregnant woman reflects on a pivotal year of her childhood” summary. Up from the Blue is dark, much darker than I was expecting.  And I mean that as the highest compliment.

All my favorite books are dark because if you want to see what people are made of (which is the main reason I like to read), watch them during a plague or in an abusive orphanage or having to make an impossible choice. What satisfies me in a story is when the emotions are complicated—when someone feels a sense of pleasure in the midst of fear, a sense of rage in the midst of tenderness, a sense of obsession with something that’s damaging them. And I wanted to tunnel through depression and betrayal through a child’s eyes because that allowed me to stay with the most basic of human needs and emotions, minus the safety of adult reflection.

What are some of your favorite books?

My two favorite books are Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows. What I like about O’Brien’s work is that he takes you to the most complicated of human emotions and to the notion that sometimes you have to tell a lie in order to express the truth. That book just unpacks the human heart in a way I haven’t seen anyone else do in that format. I’ve seen it in poetry, but not so much in longer works. And what I love about William Maxwell, besides every single sentence he writes, is that he stays on the emotional note I crave more than any other, which is somewhere where heartbreak becomes tenderness. You know the story of the Titanic sinking and the musicians play that last song, knowing they’re all doomed but trying to reach one last note of pleasure and generosity? That’s the place I like to go as both a writer and a reader.

The Things They Carried and They Came Like Swallows: those two titles seem of a piece with Up from the Blue.  Tell us about your title.  Was the book always called that?  Did you have a working title beforehand?

Oh, God, the title. What a long process that was. I don’t even remember the original title, but we went through at least fifty and probably closer to two hundred that were rejected. I tried all kinds of Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton lines, I tried bits from military songs, I tried The Ruby Cup and Mad Girl’s Love Song and The Blue Door and The Sweetest Decline and on and on. Most got only a shrug, if that.

Finally, I asked my friend, the drummer and writer Keith Cronin, for help. He’d come up with the name Water for Elephants for Sara Gruen when she was stuck, and I was very grateful when he said he’d help. He gave me a short list of titles, and when I saw Up from the Blue, it ran in a different direction than everything else I’d tried. It made you ask questions, it was had a tinge of hope to it, and for anyone who’s read the book through to the end, it taps some of the biggest notes of the story without giving it away.

Because everything else had been rejected, I was afraid to turn in the latest idea only to meet the same fate, so I sat on it for a day. That night, I went to see the movie Invictus, about Nelson Mandela and the South African soccer team. Throughout the movie, I kept saying the title in my mind, and each time, I got chills. I knew it was the one I wanted, but I had no idea what they’d think of it.

No one ever said a thing. But a couple of weeks later, I got an email with a photo attachment. It was a picture of the book cover, using Up from the Blue as the title. First time I’d seen the cover, and I just loved it. It felt right.

How thrilling, to find out that way! And it’s such a great cover, too. I love when they put faces on book covers.

To me, Up from the Blue echoes the Air Force song, which I sang while in a men’s vocal group in high school:

Off we go into the wild blue yonder,

Keep the wings level and true;

If you’d live to be a grey-haired wonder

Keep the nose out of the blue!

We tried lots of variations of “Wild Blue Yonder” and you wouldn’t believe how many books and CDs have already cornered every bit of that song.

What did you have to wear for your men’s vocal group? I hope you’re going to show a picture!

We wore the standard white shirt, tie, and jacket.  The embarrassing part was not the costumeI’d been down that road alreadybut the fact that I was in a singing group with a bunch of old dudes.  It did not help me in the dating department.

Ha! I’m not sure being in a singing club works any better for women, as far as dating goes.

I don’t know; those choir girls get around. I’ve seen your husband rock out.  Are you musical, too?

I can play “Humpty Dumpty” and “Heart & Soul” on the piano, but both sound a little choppy. When it comes to singing, I’m so shy I even lip sync in the shower. But I was once a finalist for being an MTV dancer!

An MTV dancer? I smell a future TNB post.

Not as cool as a Soul Train dancer.

I beg to differ. The powers that be have spoken, Susan Henderson. You rock.