Saturday, February 25, 2017

8. The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks

I'm a renaissance woman, what can I say?

My journey to read a book a week in 2017 took a left turn this week. Left, specifically, to my husband's side of the bed. Bruce Feldman's book has been on his nightstand for more than a year. I may have bought it for him, in fact. Either he knew I would like it or he just didn't want me to buy another book - regardless, he suggested it last Sunday and I cracked it open and got to it.

The basics: Bruce Feldman is a sports writer and analyst and one of the best follows on Twitter for football fans. His book looks at the massive business of private quarterback coaching, which in some cases, starts with kids in elementary school. It goes in-depth with Trent Dilfer's Elite 11 program, which looks beyond recruiting stars to find the factors of truly successful quarterbacks.

I like this read for a ton of reasons. It's fascinating to see all the nuances that go into finding and developing elite quarterbacks. It's more than arm speed and height and ability to scramble in the pocket. Dilfer goes deep on what he calls "dude qualities" - the things that make quarterbacks true leaders. I remember my husband talking about "DQs" when he read the book; it was cool to read more about how coaches spot it and how it really separates great athletes from great quarterbacks.

I read this book as a football fan first. But, I read it as a mom, too. You read about these families shelling out well over six figures just to get their sons this private coaching. It sounds crazy, but when you consider how much athletes can earn in scholarships and NFL money and it doesn't seem like such a horrible idea.

This book came out in 2014, which made it interesting. The book focuses quite a bit on a pre-draft Johnny Manziel. Coaches, scouts and Feldman seem to oscillate between whether or not "Johnny Football" will defy his physical odds and be an elite NFL quarterback or whether he'll let his personal issues stand in the way of his success. Reading it now, you have the benefit of knowing which way that went. The same goes for the high school (and middle school) age quarterbacks that meander through the pages. If you read it when the book came out, you'd wonder where all these kids end up. I found myself putting down the book and picking up my phone so I could Google where they all ended up.

It's a great read for football fans who like to know more than Xs and Os. It's a Moneyball-esque examination of the parts of the game casual fans don't typically pay attention to.

Of the eight books I've read so far this year, this is the one I worried most about finishing. Not because it's boring, but because it's dense with information. There are no wasted words, no wasted paragraphs. I attribute that to Feldman being a journalist (aren't journalists just better than regular people? I kid, people. I kid.)

I'm going back to fiction for books 9 and 10 of 2017. I bought one at the bookstore yesterday and ordered one from Amazon about a minute later. But, I have no doubt I'll go back to the hubby's side of the bed at least a couple of times before the year's over. I'm pretty sure I bought most of the books there anyway.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

7. Love is a Mix Tape

Have you ever had a night so good, you didn't want to describe it to anyone? Not because you did something illegal or immoral or embarrassing, but because your words could never accurately capture the magic of the real thing? I kind of feel that way about this book. As soon as I read the description, I knew I had to read it; I had no idea how much it would crawl inside my soul and make itself comfortable.

I'm going to jump around here, which is how I talk when I'm excited about something. First, the book: Rob Sheffield, who makes a living writing about music, uses the concept of a mix tape to share his very personal story. He meets the woman who becomes his wife, tells the story of their marriage through music and describes in detail the day she unexpectedly collapses and dies in their home. We meet Renee only through Rob's memories and her track lists and our hearts break along with him. Even if you have never been through a loss like this, it feels entirely relatable. That's because he uses the completely universal concept of music as memory to tell it.

My God, who can't relate to that? We all have those songs. The ones that break us apart or get us back on track. Nothing can transport us quite like the opening strains of a song we used to love. I can't hear the Simon & Garfunkel song "Cecelia" without remembering a ridiculous (and highly dangerous) drinking game my girlfriends and I made up in high school. The first few notes of Barenaked Ladies' "What a Good Boy" take me back to the last night of my freshman year of college when a good friend made me a mix tape for the drive home for summer break. Every Dave Matthews song reminds me of summer and the perfect buzz and the breeze off the Columbia River at the Gorge Ampitheater. There are many more songs that I can't even write about now; the connection between song and emotion and memory are so strong and somehow so fragile, I feel even mentioning them diminishes their meaning. Sheffield writes, "Tonight, I feel like my whole body is made of memories." I feel ya.

Do you have a box of tapes like this? I'm talking to those of you over the age of, say, 32. You young people can stop reading now. A Spotify playlist is NOT a mix tape. A mix CD isn't even a mix tape. Only a mix tape is a mix tape - permanent and full of audio buzz and, if you're really old like me, full of songs you waited to record off the radio so you sometimes hear the last few seconds of a DJ intro. Mix tapes are the whole damn thing.

Don't come at me, young people. I still make iTunes playlists for EVERYTHING, but it's not the same. They're too easy to make and too easy to delete. They're too... dispensable.

I have a box in my crawl space spanning DECADES, telling the stories of college parties and breakups and road trips. They don't play well anymore, they're all slowed down to about 3/4 speed. But, I won't let them go. The one above is from 1995. I was about to go on a choir trip to Europe and a boy who was a "friend but was more than a friend but was just a friend" made it for me for the trip. He's a smooth guy - was then, still is now. The playlist is full of suggestive R&B tracks that would still get regular rotation today. It has survived more than 21 years and countless moves and I will never get rid of it. Like any good mix tape, it's a moment of time and even seeing the handwriting (and, that people used to call me Missy) brings me back to my pink wallpapered room in my childhood home when he gave it to me. That's a mix tape. It's history, frozen.

That's why this book feels like so much more than just a memoir of loss. Sheffield begins each chapter with a mix tape track list. Somehow, reading the lists makes this already personal story feel even more intimate. He tells their story through the music that served as their soundtrack. I don't know many of the songs, but you feel the flow. I saw myself in the tape on page 180, with the daring mix of Bob Dylan and TLC.

Through the track lists and the chapters between, you watch the tone change from their life before to his life after.

Even if your taste in music isn't the same, you feel the connection. My cheeks hurt from smiling as he describes their wedding almost solely through the music. He describes what they danced to, what moved them, the cheesy reception numbers that got the grandparents out of their seats. I spent more time on the "must play" and "do not play" lists for my wedding reception than I did on the flowers, so this whole section was totally my jam (my "do not play" list was longer than the list of songs to play. Never play Celebration, people. It's beneath you.)

The guy's a music critic, so his taste is way cooler than mine. But, as he moves through the 90's, I was elated to see Kriss Kross, En Vogue and Tag Team, even if only referred to in an ironic way. He also references the long-forgotten Natural Selection one-hit wonder "Do Anything" which dramatically elevated my drive to work this week (it is still, after all these years, "smooth to the groove like sandwich bread.")

The best thing about music and songs and mix tapes is also the worst thing: they always remind you of a time you can't get back. I'll never get ready for a night out with my college friends to the Fugees "The Score." I'll never cruise the boring roads of my home town, singing - loudly - to "Ghetto Superstar." I'll never again bawl my eyes out to the Dixie Chicks' "Heartbreak Town" as I drive across the northwest to a town I've never seen, ready to start my life as a grown-up. The memories will make you smile, but they'll just as quickly break your heart.

That's the ride Sheffield takes you on. Imagine him trying to listen to the songs around which they built their life - after she's gone. Not only does hearing those old songs hurt, he hurts for the songs "she never got to meet." It's sad and beautiful. Grief is not universal; music, regardless of taste, certainly is.

Who should read this book? Anyone who has ever made or received a mix tape. Anyone who's been in love and felt the need to immediately make a tape to say all the things they're not ready to say out loud. Anyone who's had to say goodbye to someone they love with the hope the tape will stay with them and maybe the songs will always remind them of you.

The risk of giving someone a mix tape is that they won't understand it. Even worse, they may not like it. I'd feel less vulnerable writing someone a letter than I would making them a mix tape. That's how I feel about this book. I want you to feel it as deeply as I did. I want you to run to the basement and brush the dust off those boxes of Magnavox cassettes. I want you to hear Toni Braxton's Unbreak My Heart and cry over your college boyfriend. But, if you read it and don't love it, I never want to know.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Side One: All the feels

Have you ever read a book and felt like someone cracked your chest open with a mallet and let all your feeling spill out? That's how I feel about the book I'm reading right now. It reminds me of every sad breakup, every college party, every road trip to freedom I ever took.

Tonight, I'll finish book #7 of 2017, Rob Sheffield's Love is a Mix Tape. I was scared to crack it open, after reading what it's about (a man tells the story of courtship, marriage and the sudden death of his wife through mix tapes.) I've devoured it since page one and I don't want it to end.

I'll write the full review this weekend, but I'll leave you with one quote that, for me, sums up the whole damn thing. If I made a mix tape about it, this quote would be the final track.

Friday, February 10, 2017

#6. Today Will Be Different

Spoiler alert: go buy this book.

Yeah, I know. I shouldn't have told you that already. I should have made you read through the entire review, built some suspense, then saved the payoff for the end. But, as anyone who knew me in college would probably tell you, I tend to give it away a little early.

Sorry, mom.

But, really. This book was perfectly amazing in every way and that's exactly what I expected. I DEVOURED Maria Semple's Where'd You Go Bernadette and was anxiously awaiting her next book (what takes authors so long anyway, sheesh! Don't they know we're waiting?)

A bit about the author, if I may. Of course, I would love her. SHE USED TO WRITE FOR BEVERLY HILLS, 9010! The original, not that abomination they tried to roll out a few years ago. She wrote for Mad About You, too, so you know she's smart and witty and generally amazing (I don't know if she wrote the classic "Donna Martin Graduates" episode of 90210, but let's pretend she did. I mean, that script belongs in the Smithsonian.)

Why does that writing experience matter? She writes a novel like a script. It's quick, the dialogue is fantastic and it MOVES. That's probably why I ripped through this thing in 150-page chunks, despite having an exhausting week at work through which I would have preferred to sleepwalk.

So.. premise..

Eleanor is in crisis. Of the mid-life variety. She believes that the best of her life is behind her. And, hence the title, she's willing herself to strap on a smile as she faces another day in stay-at-home-mom Seattle.

The story begins through the eyes of a mom without purpose. Scratch that. She has purpose, but doesn't particularly like it. She's given up life and career in NYC for life and motherhood in Seattle. Surrounded by women who fill the days between school dropoff and pickup at coffee shops, Nordstrom and barre workouts, life should be pretty damn easy. But, you hear it in her voice; it's not for her.

A random phone call and the placement of a telescope send her on a spiral of suspicion and picks up our plot.

Eleanor is like me, in that I find it hard to enjoy happiness at the moment without always bracing for the collapse. I credit my Irish-Catholic DNA and a belief that worrying is hereditary (thanks, mom), but I always fear the worst. In Eleanor, that worry manifests itself in her marriage. When speaking of her husband, a renowned hand surgeon responsible for the health of the Seattle Seahawks), she speaks of his perfection as if it's somehow a flaw. A flaw of hers that she's not worthy of him, or of their son. She confesses that she'd been making a list of what she doesn't like about him, in the event he leaves her; then, maybe she won't be quite as sad. She started making the list the morning after they said I love you for the first time.

It's hard to enjoy the high when you're always looking over your shoulder for gravity to pull you back down.

Her reflections on life and motherhood and the pressure to be perfect hit you in waves. She remembers simple moments with her husband and her son as bringing joy. "That was happiness. Not the framed greatest hits, but the moments in between." Nailed it.

"I'm happy in retrospect," she says. And, we all nod. Emphatically.

The bulk of the plot takes place over a single day in Seattle. We watch her best intentions fall away with each inconvenience of daily life. We also see flashbacks to Eleanor's life to construct the edges of the puzzle. It's a grand, dramatic childhood; the woman as a grown-up fills in the picture.

Now that I write it, it sounds heavy. It really isn't. I mean, maybe the themes are, but the book feels light and whimsical. The writing is clean and crisp (like all that Kelly-Dylan-Brenda dialogue she must have written for intense third-act scenes at the Peach Pit.) Seattle itself is a character, complete with the drab Key Arena and a cameo by a gum-chewing Pete Carroll.

True to form, Eleanor imagines the worst - that she's been so inattentive to her husband that he's left her for the new car smell of another woman. But, when she finds where he's really gone, it is far more mysterious - and, upsetting to her - than a simple affair. She believes the best of her life has passed; she can't imagine the best of his is just beginning.

I love this book. It's a story of husbands and wives, mothers and sons and - at its heart - a story of sisters. I raced to finish, then didn't want it to end.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

5. 10% Happier

In the words of modern poet (and, all-around handsome fella) Usher... "These are my confessions..." 

I'm going to take you inside my brain for a sec and, while you won't find any useful things like math or any sort of internal compass, you will find this: lyrics to 80's TV sitcom themes, a memory of every mean thing a boy ever said to me and an internal voice that NEVER. SHUTS. UP.

Before I review this book, a little more about why I needed to read it. I covered this in another post, but it's worth revisiting now that I have a little better understanding of my totally out-of-whack brain.

Aforementioned brain does not turn off. When I'm doing one thing, I'm always thinking about another. I liken it to mosquitoes, swarming around in my skull. I find myself so anxious at times to move onto the next thing, the next thought, that I actually feel a rising in my chest. I carry all my tension in my shoulders and have to force myself to take deep exhales at least a couple of times a day, Even as I read this book about trying to tame the voice in my head, I was looking ahead, trying to picture myself putting these practices into action and stressing about all the reasons why it won't work. Honestly, the only time I really focus on a single thought is when I'm rowing - because, as soon as I focus on something else, I catch an oar to the ribcage or risk ending up in the cold water of the Spokane River.

So, I needed this book. And, I was also entirely skeptical. 

Some background: Dan Harris is a reporter and anchor at ABC News. He's likable, smart and seems totally at ease on the air. He also had a panic attack once on live TV on Good Morning America, which led him down a path that culminates with the writing of this book. Harris talks of how much the voice in his head has controlled his happiness. He talks of the deep insecurity TV journalists often face, as we put ourselves out to the world, often to get back nothing but snarky comments about how our hair looks on a particular day. He realizes, after this panic attack, that he needs to get control of the voice. And, like any good journalist, he dives deep into the research to find out what will work,

His quest leads him to meditation. Not "sitting in a robe and Birkenstocks" meditation, but science-based, reasonable meditation. He seeks out advisers, goes on retreats and struggles to fit the practice into his demanding, busy life. He largely succeeds, but doesn't pretend to find some plane of enlightenment and the inherent smugness that comes with it. His conclusion is not that it makes all the problems of his life go away, but that it makes him 10% happier. Who couldn't use 10% more happiness in their life? 

Overall, Harris makes it sound hard - but, attainable. So, the question is; can I make it work? 

The answer: I have no freaking idea

I'd like to make it work. Even if I don't do it "right" it can't hurt to force myself to sit down, phone off, quietly for at least a few minutes every day. In the time since I've read this book, I've found tons of apps and even a website based on the book that can help me get started. If you've done it and you have tips or ideas, PLEASE send them my way. I could use all the help I can get.