Monday, October 26, 2015

Everything I Never Told You (book)

Brief, solitary air travel lends me the opportunity to consume books with great speed, which can be greatly disorienting as one novel can color an entire journey. As I was preparing to travel to St. Paul for the Twin Cities Marathon, I noticed to my surprise a copy of Celeste Ng's debut novel, Everything I Never Told You sitting on my wife's bookshelf.

I was surprised because I had just been thinking of that book. I was thinking of that book because I had recently heard Celeste interviewed by Dee Perry on Sound of Applause. When I heard her interview on Sound of Applause I wondered why her name was so familiar.

It didn't take long before I remembered she had written an award-winning play for Marilyn Bianchi's Kids' Playwriting Festival, and that I had directed that play.

This is why I wanted to read her book, and between flights and trying to calm my mind before the race at bedtime, completed the entire work over the weekend. It left me shaken and sad, but also gave me a great deal of clarity and focus.

"Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet."

The first two sentences of the book filled me with a morbid, horrible curiosity. I have a niece named Lydia, but I have to be honest and state that didn't have anything to do with it. While I was in St. Paul, I told my wife about the book and that it was worming through my thoughts in advance of the race and that I was even afraid to continue and she suggested I put the book down for a while but I insisted I needed to know how it ends.

This is the thing. Perhaps you have noticed that I do not actually post private information on either this or my running blog. There is personal, and there is private. Arguments happen in my house with great shouting, and if you are standing outside you may hear them, but I won't share the details here.

It is enough to state that I have a daughter - have while she is mine - age twelve going on thirteen and while I cannot impart any intention on mine or my wife's part to impress upon our daughter the need to succeed, speaking only for myself I have presented a model for anxiety and concern for my own efforts in the public arena which may in part explain (other than impending adolescence) an overwhelming preoccupation with achievement coupled with almost absolute inability to enjoy what success she achieves. This last is certainly a fault she has acquired from both of us.

Celeste's book includes layers of difficulty for its family of protagonists with which I and my family do not need to cope, external pressures to succeed in matters personal as well as professional, many of which arise from issues of race ... but also gender, and that does affect us very much.

Details in the family dynamic, between father and son and also between mother and daughter, do not (necessarily) parallel ours, though I can see clearly the judgment between the males and the yearning between the females and that is not unfamiliar. Celeste's parental characters rise above the portrayal of many parents in YA novels, for example, in that we receive a complete back story in which we root for their success before receiving them as the parents who so entirely misunderstand their teenage children. Even in this, we understand them.

My wife and I do not shape our children to be what we wish them to be. We follow their lead, as best we can, with support and encouragement, and try very hard not to judge. And that is hard.

But how much of my daughter's perfection anxiety is based on her understanding that in order to move forward, to go to the places she yearns to go, to be the person she most wants to be, she must accomplish more than we have done.

+ + +

For three years I managed Dobama's Night Kitchen and my final production (as artistic director) was what we called Marilyn's Festival: In The Night Kitchen.

This annual performance of award-winning, children-written plays did not include all of the winning plays, only about half of them to create a two-hour, two-act event. Most of those chosen for performance were the fanciful elementary or middle school plays. with one high school play (often fifteen minutes long) plunked into the middle of the second act, like a brooding, unhappy teenager at a six year old's bouncy house birthday party.

In honor of the 20th festival in 1998, we would produced an hour's worth of high school written plays as a separate production.

In my notes from the selection process I called Shaker High senior Celeste Ng's short play The Fishbowl "very funny and insightful" with a strong message, and gave it my highest rating.

The premise of The Fishbowl is of a man in a psychiatric hospital who insists on using certain familiar words in place of other familiar words. For example, he consistently refers to his room as a fishbowl. Two doctors debate whether he requires either medication or understanding.

In its basic debate between two doctors who have two very different ideas over treatment of a patient who may or may not be delusional it reminds me of the play Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall, only that play debuted in 2000. Celeste wrote The Fishbowl two years earlier.

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