Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The post in which I make excuses and name drop a bunch of authors

Helloooooo, dear readers!

I've had a busy couple of weeks and have been neglecting you.  But it's good for you.  Toughens you up. 

Here's the skinny: I went to Ashland, Ohio, just south of Cleveland, to the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference where I met and learned from and admired such writers as Hope Edelman, Scott Russell Sanders, Rebecca McClanahan, and River Teeth Journal editor Joe Mackall, among many others.  The conference only lasted 3 days, but it was jam packed with readings and lectures and panels.  We really didn't have much time to rest and mull over our notes.  I did meet some lovely writers, fellow participants, coming from New Jersey, California, and Iowa, and feel like my community of writers grew a lot.  I didn't have time to process any of the intense weekend of nonfiction advice before I threw myself immediately into crashing spring residency at my graduate program.  Let me clarify - I was not attending workshops because my residency doesn't begin until July.  What I was doing was driving 5 hours from Ashland back home in order to attend my friends' Cindy and Omar's graduate lectures by 1:00 PM, which I accomplished with b.o. and frizzy hair (from 5 hours in the car).  The week continued at this frenzied pace, at least 1 or 2 lectures or graduate readings every day.  Kate (from Nested) joined me for most of the celebrating and learning, so it was great fun.  We mingled with our professors, fellow students (so many lunches!) and alums all week.  Thursday night we attended a strange but fascinating lecture by author Tim O'Brien (if you haven't read The Things They Carried, drop everything and get you to the library!).  I didn't stop crashing residency until graduation, Saturday night.  I'm so very proud and impressed with my friends, so many of whom took my breath away with gorgeous readings of their screenplays, poetry, short fiction, and writing for children.  In short, it was an inspiring week.

It was also a ridiculously distracting week.

Running on little sleep and enough coffee to stun a Stieg Larsson character surprisingly makes me a little twitchy.  So, even though it was heart-warming to spend so much time with the good people I call friends, I am relieved to have a calm (sort of) week, catching up on the mundane tasks around the house, listening to my dogs snore while I click away on the keyboard.

It won't last.  My kids finish school next week so we have a full agenda until then, including Field Day, class picnic, Kindergarten Graduation, and the spring festival.  Saturday is a crazy quilt of birthday parties and sleepovers. 

And then summer stretches out its lazy arms and welcomes us.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


My son is a talker.  He wakes up talking.  This morning, after I realized he had crawled into our bed, he woke up half and hour early, saying, "I can't wait for tomorrow!!"  He goes to sleep talking, sometimes in mid-sentence.  He even talks in his sleep.  He talks during his soccer games, regaling his teammates (who are actually trying to kick the ball) with funny observations or trying to get them to answer the proverbial question, "Guess what?" just so he can answer, "Chicken butt!"  He talks in the bathtub, throughout dinner, and while he's peeing.  We've suspected he's got the ADD since he was two, but since it isn't interfering with his academic success and doesn't seem to drive his teachers crazy enough to write notes home, we've decided to ride this out until we absolutely have to have him tested.

Given my own ADD and that of my husband's (which is significantly worse than mine, although he can tolerate the medication and I can't), we forget that our son might talk a lot in public, that he might talk too loud, or interrupt a lot, or impulsively shout a non sequitur in the middle of a conversation.  "Bananas!"  Usually, it's hilarious or endearing and our son can laugh with us.  Usually, we only take the kids to loud restaurants where their antics and voices won't detract from the ambience or other patrons' dining experience.  We eat a LOT of pizza.

Sometimes we go to the movies.  Not often, but sometimes.  Usually, we stay home and re-watch all of the Star Wars movies, but two weeks ago Iron Man 3 came out.  The kids wanted to go on Friday and because we rarely have the pleasure of going to the movie theater, we enthusiastically said yes! Mind you, this was Friday night, the early (7:00) show, not a matinee.  We probably should only see matinees, kind of like only going to loud pizza parlors.  I'm aware that my son talks a lot during movies, both at home and in the theater.  Usually we warn the people around us.  We forgot on Friday.  Have you seen Iron Man 3?  No matter.  Like a crowded pizza restaurant, well really like 1,000 exploding California Pizza Kitchens, it's LOUD!  This particular enterprise has explosions in almost every scene.  Lots and lots of blowing things up.  My son was seated on the end of the aisle next to my husband, three seats down from me.  My charge was to shield my daughter's eyes during the violent scenes (although she did witness one awful one that came unexpected), so I wasn't focused on my son's incessant chatting.  I figured my husband had that under control.  Of course, I didn't hear him at all (what with the explosions on screen), so it didn't occur to me that he was talking.

When the movie ended, we excitedly waited in our seats because we know that after every Marvel Comic movie, there's an Easter Egg after the credits.  (An Easter Egg is a surprise scene hidden after the credits.)  Sometimes it's a hint at the next sequel and sometimes it's just silliness.  For instance, the Easter Egg in The Avengers (seriously, I'm not giving anything away if you haven't seen it) is a scene of the heroes silently devouring shawarma at a bombed out restaurant, fully dressed in their superhero costumes.  So there we were, flushed with the thrill of the movie, asking a bunch of questions about Pepper Potts, excited to see the Easter Egg when the bespectacled man in front of my husband, who was there with his middle-school-aged son, turned around and told Rick that a.) he didn't appreciate my son talking through the entire movie and that b.) it was totally inconsiderate and c.) it ruined the movie for him.  I took my cue from my husband who quietly took the criticism and said he was sorry.  Once the man turned back around, Rick said he was breathing through it.  My blood was surging and I wanted to say something, but I didn't want to escalate the situation, especially in front of the kids.  I looked over at my son to see if he understood what had just happened and he looked like I've never seen him before: slightly scared, a little embarrassed, trying not to cry, being brave.

With some distance I've been able to think about this situation a bit and decided that yes, my son should not have been talking through the entire movie, that yes, my husband should have tried harder to get him to quiet down, but I know he did try and I know my son just can't help it.  He has no idea how to not talk.  So this is what I think:  I think the guy should have noticed that a little kid was sitting behind him and considered the consequences of that choice of seat; I think the guy could have asked us to be quiet during the film rather than being passive aggressive after we couldn't do anything about it; I think he and his son could have picked up and moved - there were plenty of empty seats in the theater; I think he could have taken my husband aside and not said what he did in front of my six-year-old son.  I'll take the blame for my son's talky talkiness any day, but when enduring it is not the only answer, I'll defend the living crap out of him.  He didn't mean to ruin this stranger's night.  He's a little kid.

I guess we're back to matinees and warning the people around us in the movie theater that my son talks a lot.  But I'm not ready to tell my son there's something wrong with him.  We'll keep working on being considerate (And he is!  He worries over his friends and helps them when they are hurt or sad, giving hugs and sitting with them.  He's walking empathy!), but I refuse to crush his enthusiasm.  The world will take care of that in due time, I'm afraid.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Guest Postin' Again

Just a lil' announcement for y'all:  Today, I am guest posting at The Silent Isle, the blog of writer extraordinaire, Anna Urquhart.  Give a read.  Leave a message after the beep.  Merci beaucoup.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Faster than you

My husband and I decided to do away with cable television a few years ago.  We reasoned that we didn't watch more than 3 shows and were tired of paying the increasingly exorbitant bill.  Since we have young children who didn't agree to this decision, we bought an Apple TV that streams online shows that are either free (Hulu), free with a subscription fee (Netflix), or charge a la carte (iTunes).  This has worked for our entire family with little guff.  The only problem I have with Hulu (upon which we depend for network shows such as "Community" and "Bob's Burgers" and basic cable shows like "The Daily Show") is the commercials.  I realize that Hulu is free because they use paid advertising, however my husband and I moan at every one of those cash cows that interrupt our regularly scheduled programming.

This post is not about the evils of marketing, however.  No, I have a bone to pick with one in particular.  You've seen it, don't lie to me.  AT&T has this ad campaign, "It's Not Complicated," in which they send a guy in a suit to a school to ask elementary school kids at a round table stupid questions, such as "Is it better to be big or little?"  Really?  It all comes down to a dichotomy?  Hey kids, is it better to be evil or kind, because we all know that bigger is better and little is weak and evil and something to be mocked in gym class.

The particular commercial that gets my goat every time I see it is this one:

Yes, that little girl and her lisp are darling.  Yes, the little boy next to her making subtle faces at her imaginative ramble is also adorbs.  But why is AT&T pushing this message at kids?  Faster is better than slow.  Didn't Aesop prove this wrong centuries ago?

I take umbrage with this idea, with the entire dichotomous ad campaign - even if it is meant to be somewhat coy - because of what I witness with my kids and kids who I have taught over the years.  The message that faster is better is not just coming from the jackass in the AT&T suit, it's coming directly from the school systems.  It's coming directly from the Department of Education and from the Princeton Review.  It's coming from the Olympics and every sports team that rejected me as a kid.

Case in point: my six-year-old son is funny and sweet and smart, but he's not a talented athlete, at least not yet.  After dinner one night, he and his athletic older sister and a seven-year-old neighbor were racing down the sidewalk.  My son came in the house, head hanging.  He wasn't crying, just sad.  When I asked what was wrong he said, "I'm not good at anything."  How did he reach this conclusion?  Because he wasn't fast enough to ever win the race between two older girls with longer legs.

Second case in point: my daughter has been stuck on the same math facts test all year.  Math facts tests are 100 problems - usually one type of problem, like multiplication of single digits - timed over 5 minutes (I think, maybe less).  She knows the math and only misses one or two problems, but she cannot complete the test.  Ever.  She has taken the same test the ENTIRE year!  Why?  Because she works slowly.  She may be doing long division, geometry, and fraction homework, but she's still on that bleedin' multiplication math facts test.  I worry about what will happen with the standardized test she's required to take next week.

I asked around for information about test accommodations and learned that a.) I will have to pay for a full IQ battery to have my daughter's processing speed tested; b.) these are the only tests (administered by a licensed psychologist and if not covered by insurance ranging between $400-$800) that are accepted in the public schools; and c.) she has to have a 20 point discrepancy between her speed and her IQ to receive accommodations.  That's a huge discrepancy, one I doubt she has.  What does this mean?  She may not finish the test or any of the tests she has to take on her journey through elementary, middle and high school, which eventually will effect her ability to receive college scholarships.

Why is faster better, tell me?  If a child is able to exercise, does it freakin' matter that he doesn't come in first?  If a child is able to understand math concepts, does it matter that she isn't able to pump out equations in two minutes or five minutes flat?  Why are we emphasizing speed over conceptual mastery?

In this age of high speed data, are we missing the point?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Dear Important Person: How To Overcome Your Painful ADD Email Habit

If you do not have ADD or do not love someone, or even know someone really well with ADD, then this may come as a surprise to you: we like to start everything in the middle.  Sometimes I write these posts and turn off the ol' editor button in my brain so that I can just get it out ("it" being whatever blather is bursting out of my fingers to revel in the light of day).  Once "it" is out, I can mess with it, rearrange it, make it pretty. 
"it" before

"it" after
This is how many writers who don't have ADD work, so that's not to say that my method is indicative of a disorder.  But here's my caveat: I start EVERYTHING in the middle.  I hate reading instructions, so I glance over the first part, focus on the middle part, gloss over the end and then get frustrated when the parts that I'm trying to piece together - whether it's an IKEA couch, my old stereo from college, or my daughter's homework directions - don't, well, fit together.  Knowing this about myself, you'd think I'd learn from my mistakes.  Nope.  I don't do that either.  Here's something I do instead: I go back and edit.  For whatever reason, I have to - HAVE TO - fumble through the first time so that I can make it pretty on the second go.  That's just my crazy method.  Stop with your judgey eyes.  It works for me even if it takes twice as long.

Case in point: emails.  Emails to my friends are one thing.  I can start in the middle, at the end, in mid-sentence, write gibberish or all annoying Twitter abbreviations (WTF! OMG!), and my friends both understand me and forgive me.  Right, friends?  But for more formal emails, emails to my kids' teachers or the principal of the school, emails to people I hope to interview for my column, email queries and pitches, I gotta start at the beginning.  That's some hard writing, people.  If you can relate to this problem, here's what you need to do: start in the middle.  Yeah, screw a bunch of grammar lessons and etiquette rules, you've got a backspace button, you own the right to cut and paste.  Use those resources!  I do.  I start those emails at the most frantic part, for instance I might write something like this:

Dear Important Person,

My son/daughter/rat/dog, Charles The Terror/hosta is in dire need of your assistance and it can't wait another minute.  He/she/it just had a complete meltdown/hissy fit/chew-fest/photosynthesis and I don't know how to contain the mess.  I need your help.  I can't go on without your help.  Please, won't you help?



This is a dramatization.  I am normally only 1/8 this crazy.

When I finish vomiting out this blather, I stop and take a swig of coffee, breathe, roll my head around in a relaxing circle, then start again.

Dear Important Person,

How are you today? (See how I made it about them and not me?  This helps people feel respected.)  I hope spring has found you happy and healthy.  (Don't lay it on too too thick.  Do be sincere.)

I am writing to you today (I like to frame any requests I have or concerns with this phrase because it prepares the reader a little.  Now he/she realizes I'm about to ask for something they may or may not want to give.) to ask for your help (Do phrase this so that the important person knows you look to them as an expert!) with my son/daughter/rat/dog, Charles The Terror/hosta.  Since you are an expert with sons/daughters/rats/dogs named Charles The Terror/hostas, I immediately thought you might be of assistance.  (Then explain the problem or why this person could help you.)

Thank you for your consideration.  I appreciate any feedback you are willing to share.  (Don't be afraid to grovel a little.  It's flattering.  Important people eat that sh*t up!)


So, you see you, too, can overcome the ADD email that starts in the middle of a panic attack and cultivate a lovely, rational communication with all manner of important people. 

Let me know how it goes for you.  Send me your before and afters for critique (only if you allow me to repost them, of course).  I'll use pseudonyms for the shy.