Traveler, by Ron McLarty

If you followed me here from my old blog, it will come as no surprise that I have deep and abiding love for novels wherein the lead character is required to return to his/her hometown, facing family, friends and past incidents (Beach Music, anyone?). My own long-shelved and terribly written novel centers around these very themes. In Traveler, Ron McClarty does this as well as anyone, and better than many.

I have loved every book by Ron McClarty that I’ve read, and I find it odd that I don’t see many people blogging or reviewing his work. It’s possible I’m just not looking in the right places – regardless, the least I can do is give him a shout out here at thesesandwichdays!

At first I thought I’d start off by ranking Traveler as the second in-line of McClarty’s novels that I love the most, placing Art in America in first place and The Memory of Runningin third, but the more I thought about it, the less honest such a ranking seemed. I’ve enjoyed each of his novels for different reasons and I don’t want to do any of them the disservice of a last-place ranking!

Traveler is a coming-of-age novel centered around Jono Riley and his cohort of male friends growing up in the early 1960’s. Alternating between Jono’s adult present, where he survives as actor and bartender in New York City, and his childhood and adolescence in East Providence, Rhode Island, the novel is part coming-of-age, part mystery, and part love letter to a specific time and place. The novel begins when the older sister (Marie) of one of his best friends (Cubby) passes away in her early fifties. Marie featured prominently in Jono’s romantic fantasies as a boy, and her strong, loving family often served as a rock for other kids in the neighborhood with less ideal circumstances. When they were much younger, Marie was shot by a mysterious gunman who plagued parts of East Providence off and on, and while she survived and went on to live a very happy life, her attack launched the beginning of the mystery that fuels much of the novel.

Travelerweaves between the past and present, doing a straight forward and charming job of showing what it was like to grow up immediately prior to the beginning of the Vietnam War. I have a soft spot for this era – I think because it’s the era my dad and my uncles grew up in, and their stories have always felt tinged with magic to me. From epic baseball games at Veteran’s Park to stolen cigarettes smoked behind the post office – from days playing hookie that ended up with accidental cow-killings to games of Cowboys and Indians that took place across the entire town, my dad and uncles grew up in a small town where everyone knew everybody else (well, I did, too, for that matter but it was the eighties and early nineties and things seem less magical when they are your own life). Sometimes I find male coming-of-age stories more exciting simply because boys and young men were allowed more freedom as boys and teenagers than young women were. The main characters in McClarty’s novel are certainly given a wider range of freedom than their female counterparts – the boys in the book could take off camping at the drop of the hat, and spend their summers on fishing boats and lifeguarding at far-from-home beaches. This kind of freedom provides more opportunity for action and misadventure – in this way Traveler reminds me quite a bit of the movie “Stand by Me.”

After Marie’s death, Jono returns to East Providence, drawn by memories of his youth and the unsolved mystery of Marie’s long-ago attack. He is quickly joined by his girlfriend, Renee, a New York City firefighter, and they combine forces with the retired policeman who handled Marie’s case so many years ago. It’s not a terribly long book, but it is suspenseful and beautifully rendered, and does a remarkable job showcasing the innocence and sweetness of the boys’ relationship while bringing it to a shattering conclusion quickly after high school ends.

For people lucky enough to grow up with a good set of friends, and parents and a community that cared for their successful development into adulthood, memories of youth are always going to be tinged with nostalgia. It takes a certain strength of will, then, not to live in the murky memories of the past and forge ahead with adulthood in all its messy, broken glory. McClarty’s Jono Riley understands this, and it is this understanding that makes him a trustworthy and confident narrator. I found myself reluctant to close Traveler, and the sting of doing so was only offset by the upcoming publication of McClarty’s next novel.

Millenials in the Workplace

Right off the bat, I have to admit I am not entirely sure if the title of this post is correct. It’s possible I mean people in their mid-to-late twenties and early thirties in the workplace. When I went searching for the exact time frame that defines the millenial generation, I couldn’t find one – in fact, one terribly misinformed website dared to infer that someone born in the late seventies, like myself, might be a millenial, to which I say, no way – I know I was born at the tail end of Generation X (Winona Ryder! The Real World! Pearl Jam!). From my vigorous internet research, it seems to be generally assumed that millenials were born between 1982 and 2005, so that’s what I am going with.

I’m in my mid-thirties, and with the exception of three years in graduate school for creative writing and 6 months of unemployment, I’ve been in the workforce since I graduated college – earlier, if you want to count working to put myself through college. Consecutively, since college, I’ve worked as an administrative assistant, a science writer, and a public relations manager. I entered the workforce just as the internet was becoming a big thing and thus did a lot of writing copy for rudimentary websites that IT people had to convert to HTML. Because I leaned toward artistic endeavors – acting with theater companies for several years in the evenings and then moving to writing in my mid-twenties – for a long time I considered my day job a means to an end – this thing I did between 8:30 and 5 that allowed me to pursue my other, non-paying interests. It wasn’t until the last few years that I really embraced the idea of having a career trajectory,and, in the spirit of Sheryl Sandburg, began leaning in. I still maintain my interests in theater and writing but I no longer feel like such a failure for not being able to feed my family as a writer/actor. And all of this is to say that it is probably only in the last five years or so that I really began paying attention to things like corporate culture and responsibility, but one of the aspects I have been paying attention to is the integration of millenials into the work force.

I’m sure this is partly because I am considered part of the “bridge” generation -the generation between Baby Boomers, many of whom have had to make a series of adjustments in order to adapt to the rise in technology, and the millenial generation, which has grown up with reality tv, computers and cell phones. At my last job I was actually on a committee to address generational isues between the boomers and the millenials in order to create a more harmonious work environment, the idea being, I guess, Gen Xers could help achieve some sort of meeting of the minds since we’ve both adapted to technology easily while still remembering a time when it wasn’t an every day part of our lives (I still remember laboriously typing out papers for my lit classes in high school – painful).

I recently had an encounter with one particular millenial in my office that left me (firstly) stunned and (secondly)frustrated. I’ll call her Karen. Karen and I handle different areas of responsibility in the office, and I’m a level above her. Every so often, our areas of responsbility overlap and we usually are pretty good about sorting out who should handle what and going about our day without any conflict. However, one project cropped up, and it was a plum project. We both wanted it. I argued (and still maintain) that the project was more in my area than hers and more appropriate to my abilities but she steadfastly refused to give in (Lesson One – millenials are scrappy, determined young people). I took the issue to my director, stating the only way I would cave on this was if I was given the chance to supervise Karen and her work and the completion of the project. Both my director and Karen’s thought this a great compromise, and it seemed win-win for everyone involved – I would get supervisory experience which I don’t have a ton of and Karen would get work experience she lacked.

A day before her deadline, when I hadn’t seen a draft of her project yet, I asked Karen to share with me what she had.

“Well, I don’t have a draft yet. I have a shell of the project…I am going to fill it in today,” Karen said.

I was dumbfounded. “But you still need your client’s approval, and the project needs our department’s stamp of approval, and I need to review it, and your deadline is tomorrow. YOu should really have a draft ready by now.”

“Well, I don’t right now, but everything will be fine, Courtney,” she said, in this annoying way like she had to calm me down when really, I needed to light some sort of fire under her ass.

“I need to see a draft by this afternoon,” I said. “Whatever you’ve got, I need to see it.” Karen agreed, I guess, basically by not saying anything at all. I returned to my desk and seethed for a few minutes because, really? You fight for a project and then don’t move quickly enough to complete it in timely manner? And yet, while I was overseeing this particular project I wasn’t Karen’s boss, so it was a somewhat awkward situation.

Afternoon arrived and I checked in with Karen again. She still didn’t have the project ready for my review. I took a different approach this time.

“Look, why don’t you give me what you have, and I’ll fill in where you need help. This is a tricky subject matter but I’ve written about it a lot and this way we can meet our deadline,” I offered.

“No, that’s okay,” she responded. Again, I didn’t know what to say. This is so far out of the realm of any way I had ever responded to someone older and higher up than I was in the work force that I was actually baffled. I pressed her a bit on it but she remained resistant to any help I could offer. Eventually, due to a freak miscommunication on the part of our client, the project concluded as successfully as it possibly could have, which is to say another hospital ended up taking most of the credit anyway and we were lucky to end up with the attention we received. So.

I described this situation to Ian, who manages a whole cohort of millenials in his office, and he laughed. “That sounds just about right,” he said. We talked a little bit more about why, when we could (by some horrible people) be considered millenials ourselves, we feel so different from them, and occasionally have trouble working with them. Here are some of the ideas we came up with, aided by Ian’s co-worker – we’ll call him John, who manages his own cohort of young professionals.

(1.) Their phones. Everyone older than a millenial remembers a time when cell phones weren’t a necessary part of everyday existence. Perhaps more importantly, we remember a time when a phone was just that – a phone. We didn’t watch movies or play computer games or take pictures with our phones. Oh, sure – we do now – but we are still able to separate from them for important meetings and during lunch dates with friends. Millenials DO NOT let go of their phones for a red hot second, and after fighting for years, pointing out how rude it is to play with your phone in a meeting or constantly check it during a group presentation, the rest of us have given up. To hire a millenial is to hire their iphone and we might as well just start playing candy crush saga along with them because this is one war Gen X + baby boomers + still working war babies simply cannot win.

(2.) To elaborate on the phone theme just a bit, let’s dicuss a necessary separation of pleasurable activities. In our house, we still watch television on the t.v., read real books, and play real board games. We didn’t live tweet television as it was happening so having a phone nearby during a season finale wasn’t important. For millenials, these activities have all been combined into their phone, which they often view/play/chat with while exercising. This might be a bit of a sweeping statement, but I would argue millenials don’t perhaps have the best attention span when it comes to projects that require it.

(3.) Returning to lesson one, they are a scrappy lot. Look, a lot of their friends didn’t get jobs after college thanks to the ongoing war economy. Unlike those of us who graduated into a robust late Clinton/early Bush economy, when dot.com startups were throwing jobs at us and offering things like signing bonuses, casual dress and free lunches, millenials have had to fight tooth and nail for every bit of job experience they’ve received. Fewer opportunities have led to less job experience (and the proverbial egg vs. chicken conundrum…how to get a job when you don’t have experience…). This has led to a fantastic determination in the work place, I think.

(4.) Higher heels (for the women). Better clothes, in general. A LOT of the millenials I work with still live with their parents, a necessary by-product of a shitty economy and a difficult job search. This option was never on the table for Ian and me – I don’t think it ever crossed our minds to return to our parents’ homes. But again – dot.com bubble! Vegan cafeterias and cars as signing bonuses!

(5.) One thing I’ve particularly noticed is a certain fearlessness millenials have that I never cultivated. I was mentored in the work force by some truly fabulous women, and they impressed upon me ideas like following the chain of command, and “earning” the right to speak at the table. Since I’m rather impressionable, I took these lessons to heart and really didn’t offer a lot of my ideas or opinions for a long time. The millenials we’ve hired in recent years are absolutely fearless about sharing their thoughts and opinions in meetings large and small. Occasionally I find myself annoyed by this overconfidence but mostly I envy it – I think it’s generally a better approach to foster creativity and openness than it is to follow the “old” way of working. Also, a lot of people my age are overseeing this generation and I think we are still smarting from the lectures about “earning our place at the table.”

(6.) Two words: Harry Potter. I think this generation used up all of its patience waiting for this series of books to conclude and once it wrapped up they had nothing left to give, say, the IT department when the internet is running too slow for them.

So. Yes. Working with millenials. Often a joy, sometimes confounding, but absolutely no different than the war babies and baby boomers thought about us when we came along, with our not-so-elegant emergence from grunge fashion, fasciantion with graphic design and our already adopted caffeine habit. Like all generations before mine, I happen to think mine is the best, and I miss the simpler time before smart phones, when reality television was The Real World on MTV, and not the Real World as it is now but as it was when it was GOOD – when Julie had a crush on Eric (or he had a crush on her, I can’t remember!) and everyone was experiencing New York for what seemed like the very first time.

Hump Day Bullet Post!

I’ve had trouble settling on a blogging topic for today – we are having some significant home improvements done around the house and during the process we’ve encountered some particular-to-Pittsburgh zoning issues that are causing some angst. Coupled with resistance from our grouchy next door neighbors whenever we try and improve the house and there is a lot of negative energy floating around my noggin right now. But, I’ve been pleased with the progress of my new blog, as well as the fact that I’ve been committed to it, and it’s been a while since I’ve done any sort of bullet post, so this seems like the perfect time!

* I completed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and thoroughly enjoyed it! I’m surprised, actually, by how much I liked it – enough to be sad it had to come to an end. I want to know what happens now, with Berger and Mikhael and Salander! There were a few moments in each book where I felt like throwing in the towel but I’m so glad I didn’t – it’s odd to say but I really feel like the trilogy was a satisfying reading experience.

* Thanks to a well-timed trip to the library, I am diving right into my next read: Traveler, by Ron McLarty. If you haven’t read McLarty yet, I can’t recommend him highly enough – his Memory of Running is the first book since Beach Music that my mom, dad and I all read with relish. McLarty brings tremendous heart and compassion to otherwise broken characters, placing them in extreme circumstances and forcing their quest for survival, and he does so with such humor. I also just requested The Fault in Our Starsbecause I’ve seen it mentioned on several blogs and on facebook – I know absolutely nothing about this book but so many of my friends can’t be wrong!

* Around the house we are awash with Grace’s imaginary friends. Her imaginary world began with Amy – Amy often rides in the car with us or joins us for dinner, but primarily she spends her time “going to work.” It could get depressing if I analyzed it too much, but Grace doesn’t really talk about her too often. She regularly lists her as a member of her family if asked, and if we are playing a game like “what color is mommy’s shirt? what color is daddy’s shirt?” she will volunteer without being asked that Amy is wearing a blue shirt. Amy, though, is far less creepy than Fishy, who often bathes and sleeps with Grace among a plethora of other, real, toys. Sometimes she’ll wake up in the morning and I can hear her through our door talking quietly to herself and when I go in to get her and ask who she’s talking to, she always answers with pure delight “Fishy!” Rounding out the bunch is a group she refers to solely as “The Kinks” – they appear mostly in the bathtub. As far as I can tell they live in the faucet. Grace spends a lot of timing peering up the faucet and introducing herself excitedly to them. “Hi, kinks!” she likes to yell. “I’m Grace and this is my mommy! We live with daddy and our dog, Skylar.”

* When she isn’t interacting with her very real toys or her imaginary friends, Grace gets all project runway on us, taking blankets of various sizes and turning them into dresses or skirts and showing us her creations. She isn’t terribly interested in books beyond bedtime stories – not like she once was, at any rate. Thus far her interests seem to run very much toward art and physical activity, which is just fine with me.

*Ian and I will be spending most of our summer vacation on the road visiting our family. Every year we swear to take a family vacation that isn’t centered around visiting family but we never succeed – and now that our parents are officially elderly it is quite apparent frequent visits to Pittsburgh are prohibitive for them. I love our families and don’t mind spending vacation time with them but since we are the nearest siblings BY FAR (my brother lives in Colorado, his sisters in Texas and England ((I mean come on, ENGLAND??)) we end up serving as family ambassadors for everything from doctors’ appointments to camping weekends and it can feel rather frustrating sometimes, especially when we live eight hours from both sets as well.

* But then again, oh well. I had a wonderful relationship with my grandparents adn want to give Grace the same opportunity. Let’s face it, I will schlep across the Ohio countryside as often as it takes for that to happen, so I might as well stop moaning about it.

*But then AGAIN, it would be so much less stressful if the first thing post-grandchild my mom HADN’t done was carpet her entire house in white carpeting save one small sunroom where the majority activity, from wine-drinking to coloring, needs to take place.

*But she did.

*And, that’s what’s happening around here right now! Work, reading, child-rearing, home repairs and travel to see family. It’s not necessarily a glamorous life right now, but it is, like the Stieg Larsson trilogy, oddly satisfying.

Currently Watching…TV Roundup

For my more bookish readers, who have the strength and determination to rid your homes of television (but hey! it does not count if you just “watch tv only on your computer!”), this post is probably not for you.

Actually, I feel ever-so-slightly sorry for folks who don’t watch television. Last Saturday some girlfriends and I got together for celebratory margaritas in honor of a friend who had recently weaned her first child, and a small part of our conversation focused on just how much better television has grown since we were kids. Arrested Development! Homeland! Mad Men! We all agreed there is too much great television happening but we weren’t going to let it ruin our reading habit (did I mention we all attended the same M.F.A. program for creative writing?). So, basically, we spent a few minutes mourning the television we didn’t have time to watch while discussing the shows we do actually manage to catch, and then I pitched them my idea for “The Real Housewives of Pittsburgh” wherein there would be fights over things like whether to co-sleep or not, or whether Jonathen Franzen is as great a writer as he is celebrated to be. Our housewives would often be seen wearing tall rainboots and carrying umbrellas, and vacationing in the Outer Banks. Anyway.

Anymore, I record television with the DVR and watch it as I can, which truthfully isn’t that frequently, but I think I am finally at a point where I can write about some of the television I watched this year – other reviews will no doubt be coming later.

Hart of Dixie
I’m not entirely sure what the correct classification for this CW show is – maybe it’s a dramedy? At any rate, it’s an hour-long program somewhat in the vein of Gilmore Girls, Bunheads or Dawson’s Creek, where the setting proves to be as much a character as the actors. The plot is classic “a stranger comes to town” – and the action centers around Dr. Zoe Hart, a young doctor from New York who inherets 1/2 of a physician’s practice from her (previously unknown) father in Bluebell, Alabama. Much of the show focuses on Zoe’s love life (naturally) but it’s a credit to the writers and actors that while her love triangle moves the show forward, the sub-plots are equally, and sometimes more, interesting. From southern belles trying to strike out on their own, to May-December romances, from rebellious teenagers (both in music and in love), this show has more than enough intrigue to keep me watching while falling into a category I lately have begun categorizing, probably to the chagrin of actual television people were they to find out, as nice television. By nice television, I mean there are no grown, wealthy women warring with one another, no brutal, sexualized murders, no endless gray landscape or evident self-destruction. All of which probably makes it sound unexciting, but it’s not! Real and wonderful love stories are happening in this show, and the deep south provides a great setting. I particularly like the emphasis on inter-generational relationships, something I experienced a lot of growing up. Dr. Hart is befriended by a couple of the teenagers in town, the elderly intermingle with the young twenty-somethings at the local bar…I think this is more true to life than we realize.

Parenthood
Kristina Braverman’s battle with breast cancer this season was one of the most true-to-life breast cancer storylines I have ever seen – and I talk to and work with breast cancer patients almost every day. While she might have remained a smidge too pretty (what about an allergic reaction to Taxol? Or bloating from steroid treatments?) the way she and her family dealt with her cancer rang true to life -enough so that I found myself claiming to a couple of co-workers “The Parenthood breast cancer story line is making me cry as much or more than the stories of people I actually know!” They agreed. Also, I’ll watch ANYTHING Lauren Graham and Dax Shepard are in. I found last season’s conclusion a little too tidy for my taste – apparently that is because NBC never knows whether or not to renew Parenthood until the last minute (but hundreds of hours of weight loss contests, we get) but I’m really hoping they are able to relocate Ray Romano’s character back to California.

The New Normal
I recently learned that NBC canceled The New Normal – no doubt to make room for more singing and weight loss competitions (I actually love The Voice but am completely unable to make the time commitment to it). It’s a shame, because this television show more than any other I watched set its characters up for an exciting second season, full of possibilities. The premise, (the lead female character, Goldie, serves as a surrogate for two gay men, Brian and David), at first didn’t feel like it could survive a season two but the writers did such a great job setting up Brian and David as parents, and really giving Goldie the gift of determining her own future after her surrogacy, that I am saddened the show won’t continue. I think the show would have grown more realistic and tackled important issues, including how to co-parent when both parents have full-time jobs. Apparently, though, Americans likes to hear weight loss coaches yell at the obese more than thoughtful shows about identity, parenting, race and homophobia. Who would have guessed?

The Mindy Project
I think The Mindy Project is the best new television show out right now. I’ve been following Mindy Kaling’s career for a while now, ever since she started writing for and acting on the American version of “The Office.” She’s been interesting to follow, from the creation of shallow, boy-and- clothes crazy Kelly Kapoor to the substantial articles she’s written for “The New Yorker,” hers is the career I sort of wish I had (but writing about cancer and preeclampsia is fun, too…)
With “The Mindy Project,” she has managed to weave together a tight-knit, hilarious cast of comediens. The show centers around a small gynecology practice in New York City. Mindy Kaling plays, obviously, Mindy in the show, a single gynecologic oncologst in her mid-thirties who was hopelessly influenced by romantic comedies when she was younger and maintains a steadfast faith that her happy ending is around the corner. I have a feeling I’m going to be writing a lot more about this program and Mindy Kaling’s work in the coming weeks (I have one post I’m thinking through that discusses my favorite female comedians, and another that reviews Kaling’s latest book) and since it is incredibly difficult to tell why something is funny, I’ll just ask that you watch this show and see for yourself. I maintain there is no funnier episode of t.v. out there than when the practice volunteers at a woman’s prison.

Duck Dynasty
When my long-time friend from college told me about this “reality” show while I was visiting her prior to the birth of her twin girls, I hadn’t heard anything about it. I quickly found out that I was basically the only person in America who hadn’t at the very least heard about the show because even Ian, who watches nothing but sports, knew about it. We decided to check it out together because, hey, we love the south and hunting and the outdoors and antics! Well, first of all, let me say this: This show is much, much easier to swallow as soon as you accept you are watching a scripted comedy, NOT a reality show, and that you are in the hands of some incredibly gifted businessmen who understand what sells, from duck calls to reality television to pre-packaged breading mix. This show loosely follows the Robertson brothers of Duck Call Commander, the family-owned company whose patriarch, Phil Robertson, created one of the best-selling duck calls of all time. His son, Willie, turned the small company into a multi-million dollar organization. Okay, so. The show follows the Robertson family (3 of the 4 sons, their wives, their children, and the family patriarch and matriarch) as they embrace their self-admitted red neck lifestyle, which includes hunting, fishing, frog-catching, animal-skinning and the blowing up of things. And it is FUNNY. I recently heard a reviewer on NPR trash the show and basically claiming the era of good television is OVER if Duck Dynasty is the most-watched television show in the country, but I think he missed the mark. I think the commitment of family, God and land is something a lot of Americans identify with, and it’s nice every so often to watch a family that loves one another, instead of plotting to kill each other, and it’s refreshing to see a family at prayer instead of at war. Ian and I will probably keep watching this show as long as it runs because, for every silly donut eating contest the brothers have there is a sweet, kind moment to counter it.