You Wrestle

Byrne win v Morristown

 

Wear the
same clothes; listen to the
same music; walk the
same walk:
High School.
 
The day ends.
 
Now.
 
Clothes don’t matter. Talk doesn’t help. You walk
in shoes that no one owns; work
at moves that none can stop; sweat
through workouts that never end; push
against your body that wants to quit and your mind that’s sure it must.
You
make people
uncomfortable.
 
But you believe in yourself
despite Doubt,
despite Fear,
despite Pain.
 
Because you are Different
at the end of the day.
 
Because you wrestle.
 

 

The Artistic Process – writing, painting and maybe even some football

 

 
The Manneporte (Étretat) 

The Manneporte (Étretat)

Claude Monet  (French, Paris 1840–1926 Giverny)

Source: metmuseum.org

My daughter took me to the Met yesterday. After four years of high school art classes she was an engaging tour guide, leading us through an inspiring day. Mid-morning we found ourselves in front of Monet’s Etretat.

Meg stared at the brushstrokes, in awe of the genius each mark represented, maybe the way I marvel at the loops and curls of the various signatures on the Bill of Rights, a copy of which is hung in my hallway.

On Monet’s famous work, two small smudges—no more than a fraction of an inch each— caught my eye. I stepped back. They took form. By the time I was halfway across the room they became a man and a woman. The man stood behind her, a fancy woman with full clothing and regal repose. I imagined the conversation they were having, and the silences that followed. I felt their need for the melancholy of the sea crashing into the cliffs of Normandy. 

I moved closer again and shook my head. “Swear, they look like two smudges. But I’m pretty sure they were intentional.” 

Forward and back, Monet walked, my daughter explained. Creating, then pulling away to check; experimenting with color and light and composition, then putting a sharp eye to the result.

Which reminded me of something my son said about football. He told me he practiced fundamentals during the week, breaking them down, teaching his body to do things it didn’t naturally do. He was a linebacker. He read the play, then burst into forward action—not allowing his body’s natural desire to take that one step backward before moving forward. That “false step” was wasted time. Even though his body wanted him to take it, he practiced in order to resist the tendency.

But by game day it was all about playing ‘ball. Just letting it happen, letting instincts take over. Then, after the game, came the film. Then, after the film, it was back to fundamentals. 

Fundamentals, a creative response, then a check on the results.

Learn about composition, color, shading, and all those other things I can’t put words to, interpret them, then walk back and see what we’ve created. Unrelenting focus on craft, the confidence to creatively interpret, followed by a critical response.

As a writer, I’ve created countless smudges, some more intentional than others. Have my smudges resulted from tireless attention to craft?  Are my smudges working in the overall composition of my piece? Have they supported my central theme, or simply been “false steps?” Have I taken a critical and cold eye to them?

Have I used every component of this artistic process?

Have you? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coaches and Parents – An Imperfect Partnership

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My youngest son has a good football coach—maybe one of the best around. He’s tough and fair and he wins games, they say. He talks to his players off the field, giving advice I feel comfortable with. I feel fortunate, blessed even. Football is disproportionately important in my house. Coaches are elevated to positions of great status and thus great influence.

I never coached a sport, though I ref’ed a softball game once. I played softball, so—in a pinch— I thought I could help the school at which I taught. But it was, without a doubt, the worst officiating ever to have taken place on a middle school field. Trust me, I’m not exaggerating. The best I could do was to try to make equally bad calls on both teams, not giving either side an advantage, but—honestly—someone should have yanked me from that game. Maybe pressed charges against me.

I was lucky. Twenty years ago, as a new teacher with a good relationship with my students, I was forgiven.

Now, more than ever, we expect much from the adults in our kids’ sports programs, and especially from their coaches. Perhaps we even hope they will teach our kids things that we haven’t.

We want our coaches to be tough and firm so that our kids learn to be driven and to develop a sense of earned accomplishment. We want our coaches to teach our kids to set goals and then find ways to achieve them—to meet challenges head on.

Yet, as parents, sometimes we take on our kids’ challenges, smoothing their way, making their lives easier—as though we don’t actually want our children to learn to face adversity.

For example, we want them to be given playing time.

In eighth grade, my older son stood on the sideline for an entire football season—if you don’t count the few minutes of play at the end of a handful of games in which there was absolutely nothing he could do to screw up the score (which he probably would have done if given the chance). His father told him that he needed to prove himself in those two or three plays he got—and I recall the futility my son felt over trying to prove something in a game that no longer mattered against players who went largely unwatched.

It bothered me—not because I was living vicariously or had aspirations of recruitment or wanted him to be a stud. It bothered me because I felt bad for him. I want the world to be warm and wonderful and welcoming to every kid everywhere. I didn’t complain about it, but I did my share of hand wringing—hopefully out of sight of my son.

Of course, I wanted more than playing time for my son—and I bet you do too. We want coaches to teach responsibility, even as we drive forgotten equipment to school, even as we stay up late to wash uniforms, to pack food, and to ask about assignments.

In addition to individual responsibility we parents probably want our coaches to teach sportsmanship—even though we’ve been known to yell across fields at refs, criticize coaching decisions from the bleachers, and disparage opposing teams and their players

And, parents want their kids on teams with players who are skilled, well conditioned, and committed—who have prioritized their team over all others—yet sometimes we fill our children’s schedules with competing events.

Seems like we want our coaches to do better than we have— oh, and we also want them to win games.

My son’s former coach—the one who preceded the current staff—didn’t get those wins. Did this result from his play calling or bad luck or a difficult schedule or personnel? I honestly don’t care. I know that he is a good man who did good things for my sons and yet who—perhaps—fell short on some component of the coaching equation.

But I have too.

I’ve been a crutch, I’ve been short sighted, and I’ve been caught up on the moment.  I may not have yelled at refs, or even at my son, but I’ve done my share of enabling.

I’m hopeful that the things this coach did for my sons during some of the most formative and thus difficult years of their lives will remain with them forever, and thus act as an antidote to the hang-wringing that marks too much of my mothering. I am a reluctant football mother, yet one who understands the sport’s value, and the value of its coaches.

My older son eventually got off that bench, proved himself, and went on to a short college career in football, ended after a knee injury. Most importantly, my sons learned something about life from a man who cared deeply for them and who might have provided some balance in my parenting—an unlikely partnership that ultimately made my sons better men…even if the record didn’t always prove it.

2013 National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Awards: Morris County NJ’s Best and Brightest

Recently, I was given the honor of writing an article on the scholar-athlete award given to area football players. Thanks for reading my work and supporting these talented young men. 

                        ~Laura Byrne

The 2013 National Football Foundation’s Scholar-Athlete Award recipients sat in two long rows of tables, wearing identical black tuxedos, suited up for the final time as high school football players. I had an opportunity to talk to several individuals including Kyle Adams, a player for Roxbury, who will attend Harvard; Robert Thoma, from Delbarton, who is Amherst bound; Samuel Kaplan, Randolph, on his way to UPenn—and found their astounding accomplishments echoed in their stance, straight shoulders, and crisp responses. These are young men accustomed to listing their successes, yet not one spoke with conceit. The fact of their athleticism had long ago been established. Tonight’s banquet seat was earned after lessons learned on the gridiron were also applied to endless tests of both character and intellect.

Bob Mulcahey, former Rutgers athletic director, Bill Spoor, Penn State football player-turned-entrepreneur-extraordinaire, and Atlantic Health System representatives were among those who spoke in celebration of the counties’ best and brightest football players, identified through evaluation of three criterion: athletic talent, academic success, and community service.

With the introduction of each award recipient, the audience was dazzled by staggering statistics of yards rushing, passes completed, and post-season accolades, along with equally stunning GPA’s that hung around 4.0’s, as well as examples of community outreach, locally and nationally, in disaster relief and community-enrichment projects. Clearly, these young men understand that while scoring in the red zone is vital, playing four quarters is just as important. Their unrelenting intensity not only made their team better, when applied off the field it makes the world better.

It’s easy to think of the gifts these young men have received: tonight, a certificate from their congressman and a plaque from the National Football Foundation; and throughout their lives, a sound body and mind. But these are not young men who have taken these attributes for granted—this sport does not allow this. Injuries are too common. Greater talent always exists. The shadow of adversity and setback constantly threatens. Finding success amid the haze defines these players.

Tonight, there were no shoulder pads and helmets, no cheering crowds, or thunderous marching band. Tonight, there were just poised young men with level gazes who humbly thanked parents and coaches. And tonight was our chance to thank our award recipients for giving us hope that our future is in capable hands—those that make the big plays that our complicated and imperfect world requires.

CONGRATULATIONS to the 2013 Scholar-Athlete award recipients for the Morris County Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame:

Boonton – Theodore Stammer

Butler – Brian Ensley

Chatham – Vincent Ziccolella

Delbarton – Robert Thoma

Dover – Jacob Pyrzynski

Farleigh Dickenson University – Charles Thomas

Hanover Park – William Julich

Jefferson Township – Daniel Brown

Kinnelon – Joseph Presti

Madison – Devin Koep

Montville – Parker Meytrott

Morris Catholic – Joseph Vidal

Morris Hills – Robert Sihlanick

Morris Knolls – Nickolas Patterson

Morristown – Ernest Stiner

Morristown Beard – Timothy Worts

Mt. Olive – Justin Mancini

Mountain Lakes – Scott Flynn

Parsippany Hills – Tyler Simms

Pequannock – Luke Foukas

Randolph – Samuel Kaplan

Roxbury – Kyle Adams

West Morris Central – Robert Hughes

West Morris Mendham – Matthew Kuhn

Whippany Park – Daniel Linfante

IN THE ATHLETE’S WORDS…

This award is given to celebrate your success and hard work, but it’s also given to inspire the younger football players in your community.

If you had one piece of advice for younger athletes what would you tell them? 

“To set goals as a freshman, make good choices, and don’t cut corners.”

Brian Ensley, Butler

“To do the best you can at whatever you’re doing.”

Daniel Brown, Jefferson Township

“To work hard, and focus on schoolwork.”

Kyle Adams, Roxbury

“To enjoy high school because the experience goes by quickly, and make sure academics are a priority starting freshman year.”

Robert Thoma, Delbarton

“Make no excuses.”

Samuel Kaplan, Randolph

“To surround yourself with good people, and set goals.”

Matt Kuhn, Mendham

 

 

 

Running For Boston

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My daughter runs. She competes at the 1600 and the 800 so she trains by running 6 or 7 miles most days, timing herself as she goes, making sure she maintains a coach-determined pace. We visited France over Easter and she ran—along The Seine, across cobblestones, weaving through crowds. In the snow and rain, early in the morning or late at night, even loaded with homework and volunteer obligations—she runs.

Her hope is to PR—to set a personal record—which means shaving a second or two off a number she gave everything to achieve in her previous meet.

Running is about having the guts to work against something that has no compassion.

Running is about believing in your ability to improve, even incrementally, and despite setbacks and adversity.

Running is about the strength to do what hurts. It is about the pride to not get overtaken. It is about harvesting determination on a cellular level.

My son is a student at Boston College where a friend—a runner—lost her leg in the bombing. This friend was on a full scholarship, and participating in the marathon.

What happened to this young woman–to all of the victims–neither makes me sympathetic to terrorist ideals nor ready to condemn any political stances. This young woman makes me want to get in my car, drive to Boston, and help—with anything. I would give nearly anything to have been there yesterday.

Instead, and for Boston, I won’t get in my car.

Today, I will run.

Writing for Young Adults – Identity Formation

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So high school wasn’t a complete disaster for me. I wasn’t popular or unpopular, athletic or un-athletic, smart or stupid. I had plenty of good friends, a couple of really cute boyfriends, and—all in all—nothing should have been all that memorable or traumatizing.

An invitation for my class reunion arrived one day.

I was a mess.

I should add: I’m not normally a mess.

I wanted to drop five pounds, buy a new dress, and finish my master’s degree in time for the night. I didn’t. I wanted to grow two inches, lighten my hair two shades, and publish my book.  That didn’t happen either (except the hair, that was easy).

I’m guessing this does not shock you. It’s almost intuitive that high school and its memories remain inordinately significant to adults. This phenomenon has even been named. It’s called the “reminiscence bump,” which is a scientifically quantified relationship between the amount of memory older adults recall from the period of time roughly between adolescence and young adulthood. There are several theories why we disproportionally remember those otherwise unmemorable teenage parties—for me—the most interesting of which is the relationship between that period of time and identity formation.

Erik Erickson, developmental psychologist, suggests that adolescence includes the “process of identity formation” that is ultimately achieved through the interaction of an individual personality with society (Sprinthall-Collins 36).

And, according to Sprinthall and Collins, authors of Adolescent Psychology: A Developmental Approach, peers may influence identity formation in teens in two ways.

First, “in informational influence peers serve as sources of knowledge about behavioral patterns, attitudes, and values in their consequences in different situations” (Sprinthall –Collins 269).  Informational influence is the way in which teens mine from the people around them, extracting ideas that they may or may not put to use.

Let’s use soccer as an example. A girl who makes the varsity team may decide, after observing her teammates, to stop wearing those small, tight shorts normally associated with cheerleaders. When playing soccer, she reasons, it’s probably better to have looser, longer shorts. She gathered some information and went with it.

Peers also exert social pressure through “normative influence,” which is the pressure on adolescents to behave as others around them behave (Sprinthall – Collins 269). Normative influence is a form of social comparison: using others’ behavior and skills as a standard against which to evaluate yourself. This is more like peer pressure.

So, in our example, our girls soccer player goes to practice and her teammates rip her apart for wearing Soffe shorts, and—even though she likes the Soffe shorts better—she buries them in the garbage when she gets home.

Informational influence and normative influence work together to help create newly emerging identities in teens, and these newly emerging identities may make this period of our lives super-memorable.

Here’s the cool thing: books can influence teens in these ways as well.

Characters and stories that allow a point of contact between the reader and the text act like informational influences otherwise found in real-life peers: no judgments are made, and passive observation is used, and therefore there is no attempt to control decisions. This lack of control and ridicule allows teens to try out new roles without fear. These stories invite teens to watch, and then consider. These books are thus like peers without the pressure—as long as they don’t try to teach.

Books that provide a normative influence, or a pressure to behave in a certain way, may also influence teen identity. In these books, a certain type of behavior is used as a conduit for teaching. These stories are preachy and smug, favoring conformity over information gathering.

I wonder…. Which stories are best for young adult readers and their emerging sense of self in this period of time that they will likely remember with disproportionate clarity?

Which type are you hoping to write?

Sprinthall, Norman A., and W. Andrew Collins. Adolescent Psychology: a Developmental View. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1984. Print.

Creating Multi-Dimensional Characters: The Synergy of Fact and Fiction

 

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In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp suggests that hard work and discipline leads to creativity. But where do the two seemingly opposite disciplines interplay? What allows pragmatic, left-brained reasoning to synergize with freethinking, right-brained artistry?

One answer might be found in writing, and in the creation of characters.   

Writing often begins with data collection. When writing, surface waters of inquiry spread far, gushing over ground that includes—for my recent manuscript—an understanding of issues that make up young adult life, the culture of football, the physicality and mentality of fighting, all in the backdrop of a particular type of town, school, and parental upbringing. This information is gleaned from books, newspapers, interviews, personal experience—research. But data collection is not enough.

At some point the writer must stop researching and drill deep. At this point—when the auger spins through the surface—the writer creates the unique internal topography of her character. 

Let’s say you decide to include a football player in your story, like I have. Let’s say you attend a local game to do your research. You pick two jersey numbers on the sidelines to study. Both are getting ready to jog out, let’s say, on defense.

One player is pacing, his fists are clenched, his eyes look wild and unfocused. He’s muttering. If he’s my son, he’s foaming at the mouth (his recollection, not mine).

Next to this player stands his teammate, quiet and nearly still. His eyes are locked on the jerseys across the field—his opponent.

Two comparably talented players are on the same sideline in the same game playing for the same team…yet they are clearly different.  

This is where the fun starts. Is this a first varsity game for one of these players? Is either player masking an injury? Who does the coach favor? What role does the father play in the young man’s life? Is the player uncertain of his ability? Or afraid of being hit? 

In other words: What internal issues does the player bring to his game? What external forces are working on him? And how do these manifest themselves in his behavior?

By mining deep, and not stopping until you know exactly how your player is going to act and react to the events on the field—and how his actions and reactions are different his teammate’s—we go beyond static, single-dimension characters and snap our players to life on the page.

 

Tharp, Twyla, and Mark Reiter. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life: a Practical Guide. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print.