The Many Stories Of Olive (excerpt from Introduction to ‘Raising Ollie’)

The following is excerpted from Raising Ollie: How My Nonbinary Art-Nerd Kid Changed (Nearly) Everything I Know. Forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press, October 2021

THE MANY STORIES OF OLIVE

We are a family of story hoarders. The things we hang on our walls and display on our shelves are pieces of stories, things we couldn’t sell if we wanted to and yet would be the first things grabbed if there were a fire.

There’s the small business-card–sized sign that says Cigar and Smoking in the Cognac Room Only Please from the restaurant Becca and I went to on our first big dating anniversary, still both in our teenage years. It was a place full of young people doing something fancy, and older people out for the kind of dinner you go to with a jacket on, maybe, get a steak and a few drinks. We stole the sign as our own little rebellion against the idea of going to a place like this and doing things like anniversary dinners. We were especially quirky hypocrites like that, the kind who did all the normal things ironically and still managed to do all the normal things.

There’s the bright-green painting with purple and blue lines in geometric shapes, not the kind of thing we’d be into, except that this one thing is from a road trip to New York, one where our car broke in Pennsylvania and exhaust poured in through the air vents, and we got to a hotel off the highway and I promptly passed out, nearly green from breathing it in, and where Becca took a walk and got lost, but also somewhere in there found someone to come get the car, and the next day we went and talked to him, understand- ing very little of his thick rural Pennsylvania accent, except that there was a cheap option to just weld a thing that was, you know, not totally legal and wouldn’t hold forever, or we could wait a few days for a part and pay four times as much, and seeing as we were crossing the state line that day, off we went in less than an hour.

None of that is even the story.

We got the painting because we got to New York and Becca tracked down a guy who once knew her uncle before he died and he had that painting in his back room, having hung on to it after her uncle’s death just in case he ever met just the right person who should have it. That’s the story.

There are mini shrines to my dad hidden all over the house. A set of beer glasses over here, this one book on the shelf, the watch on the nightstand, a little engraved pocket knife in the desk drawer.

There are all the typewriters, all with stories. My grandpa’s shiny black Remington with the extra-long register because he was an engineer who needed to fit blueprints; my great-aunt’s portable, a light gray Royal that clips firmly inside its own small case, that went with her to Korea and Vietnam where she was stationed as a nurse; my Great-Grandma Marie’s, an olive green L. C. Smith Secretarial, the typewriter of the first writer I know of in the family, who got married in secret so Great-Grandpa Paul could go fight in World War I and she could stay and keep teaching, because mar- ried women weren’t allowed to, and who wrote poems and fiery letters to the editor and little stories that the paper wouldn’t publish until she started writing as P. V. Canthook, a local lumberjack. A binder of all her writing is downstairs, her own hoard of stories about Paul Bunyan that are half fables of the North Woods and half love letters to her husband. I’ve inherited those love letters from her, and maybe also an instinct to write them. My first book was a love letter, and this book even more so.

There’s pictures, of course. Nothing professional though. No matching denim whatever and a painted sign that says Love.

Instead, we have poorly taken selfies from before cameras had screens: half my face cut off on a water taxi in Sweden, everything from the nose down on both of us in Alaska, dirty and miserable and pretending to be happy that one time we went to Burning Man in the deserts of Nevada. And at our wedding, holding plastic umbrellas because the outdoor ceremony was rained out and we did the whole damn thing in a place that looked like a gymnatorium but let us bring in our own beer.

Our house was full, we thought, of all these little stories that together hold a life of stories together. It was, I mean, it was full, the life and the house.

And then we had Ollie, and everything got somehow more full.

I want to tell you stories, I want to tell you all the stories. But all the stories aren’t mine, and all the stories aren’t for you. There’s a bunch of stories, though, many focused on this one, pretty big year for my family that I can share, that I’m excited to share. Like most real stories, there aren’t perfect beginnings or middles or, most especially, endings. There is no clear thesis statement for any year of my life, or for any chapter of this book, but there are stories. Stories do seem to say something when they are told all together.

If I’ve ever taken you on a tour of my house, I’m sorry. You know that I can’t tell you just one of the stories, just part of the stories. I can’t tell you about the typewriters without bringing out the story binder, but those don’t make real sense without the pictures of Paul’s regiment, which are hung by Becca’s uncle’s painting and that portrait of Becca our high school art teacher painted of her as the stepmother in Cinderella as a set piece the summer of her junior year that we hung above our fireplace as a joke and then realized it was perfect. Piece by piece, these stories build our home.

I can’t tell you about raising Olive without telling you about my dad, can’t tell you about him without explaining how his illness was gasoline poured on the fire of my college-aged anxiety. I can’t talk about how funny Olive is without showing you how much fun Ollie and Becca and I all have together, how, second to stories, we are a family of inside jokes and shared laughter. To tell you the story of raising Olive, I have to tell you so many stories.

These stories are satellites, orbiting each other, taking their turns in the center because the physics of stories is like that. There are the stories that started this, the bits of my childhood that have clumped together, large enough to create some kind of gravity. Stories are added from the first lurching attempts at adulthood and lost as the whole mess keeps floating wherever it’s going through the cold chaos of space.

They are, all these stories now, orbiting and pushing and pushed by the mass in the middle, this thing whose speed and the weight of its importance make it shine, burning with brilliant white light. It’s this most important thing I’ve ever done, the most important thing I’ll ever do, so much that its light is changing, slightly but permanently, every other story that surrounds it. These are the stories, piece by piece, that make this book.

Piece by piece, these are the stories of raising Ollie.

And also, not to be dramatic or anything, but writing often feels like I have cut a piece of myself out from just under my ribs and nailed it to a wall, then sat back and listened to people react to it while I bleed out slowly onto the floor.

Not to be dramatic.

Writing this book has been a lot different and a lot more challenging than the teaching stuff I usually write because I’ve been cutting that piece out of my family, not just myself. It’s tricky work, and has at times made every member of my family less than super comfortable or happy. There have been long conversations about what stories to include, and how, and how to protect everyone.

What I mean to say is, I share a lot about my family in this book, but you don’t get everything, because they are more important to me than you are. I did my best to tell the stories that are mine, or from my point of view. That goes for family stories, but also personal and teaching stories. You don’t get everything.

I’m a writer. I’d rather tell you everything. My wife is a therapist, which means that she, in a lot of ways, is a professional secret keeper. Her work is rooted in the protection of privacy. She’d much rather I was a writer about dragons and stuff.

We aren’t a perfect family, and I think you’ll see that here, but I haven’t, just to make us more human and relatable, included any stories that would be deeply embarrassing or damaging, especially to Olive as they grow up.

So some stories got cut because I needed more time away from them before I could see their shape, or because I couldn’t tell them without revealing stuff we didn’t want to put in a book forever and ever. Sometimes I changed names or other details to protect identities, or melded a few people into one person or something like that. I didn’t make up anything from scratch, though.

The essential bits are essentially true. You just don’t get everything.

Excerpted from Raising Ollie: How My Nonbinary Art-Nerd Kid Changed (Nearly) Everything I Know. Forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press, October 2021

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Author of ‘It Won’t Be Easy.’ 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. @mrtomrad on everything. www.mrtomrad.com