When is a bowl not a bowl?

I love helping kids make thing, but do kids need as much help as I think? I’m not going to be doing Maker Team this year, but I look back on the years I spent helping kids learn how to make, and I wonder how much of what we made was their vision, and how much was mine? It’s so hard to get out of the way and let kids be kids. It’s so hard to teach someone by letting them make mistakes you know how to avoid. The best teachers know how to do it. The best parents get there before their kids grow up. I’m not there yet.

I’ve got a sculpture that came home from school with my daughter years ago. I’ve treasured it and used it as a candle holder. This year she rediscovered it as we were moving things around to make room for Christmas decorations, and she surprised me with a passionate outburst.

“I hate that—throw it away.”

“But I love it! It’s so pretty!”

“It’s not what I meant it to be at all.”

“Honey, don’t be so hard on yourself. You were like, 7 years old.”

“No, I mean it’s really not what I meant it to be. It was supposed to be a bowl. And it came out of the kiln like that—my teacher changed it.” Vitriol dripping from her voice like blood from a vampire’s fangs.

Not a bowl

Not a bowl

I don’t know what this looked like before it went into the kiln. You can kind of see the hints of a curved rim—maybe it got squished by another kid, or dropped, or maybe the teacher (and she was a great teacher) thought she was trying to help. Who knows. The one thing she didn’t do was ask my daughter what she wanted before she fixed it.

So now I keep this proudly displayed, but not because it is a beautiful candle holder, and not just to spite my daughter, who still hates it and wants me to throw it away. I keep it to remind me that to some kids, it’s more important to have a lumpy bowl than a beautiful candle holder.


DIY Leaf Blower Hovercraft (#Making)

So my daughter wanted a hovercraft. A lot of bad stories start that way, but this one has a happy ending.

DIY Hovercraft are easy to build–we made ours in a couple hours from materials lying around our garage, repurposed from gathering wood dust, cobwebs, cat pee, etc.

Many sites provide instructions; we followed some from Make Magazine. Here’s a more detailed set of instructions, which we should have followed instead.

What you need is:

  • A working leaf blower or shop vac
  • A piece of plywood (at least 4 x 4 ft.)
  • A tarp or shower curtain
  • A plastic disc (bucket lid, coffee can lid, etc.)

Tools required, or at least really nice to have:

  • Jig saw
  • Staple gun
  • Box cutter or scissors
  • Lots of duct tape

We had an old leaf blower that had been dead for years, which my husband had failed to fix. My daughter’s solution was to buy a new one–unfortunately, my husband had already replaced the broken one with a much larger model that seemed overly heavy for this project. Plus, you know, he was still using it to blow leaves and stuff.

“Why don’t you fix the old one?” suggested my husband.

“Why not?” I asked my daughter. I’ve never taken apart anything with an engine before, and she’s nine, but we had two things going for us: naivety and the Internet. We downloaded the instruction manual and watched one video on YouTube. With a lot of virtual hand holding, my daughter and I took everything apart, cleaned the air filter, checked the carburetor (after finding out what a carburetor was), checked the spark plug (this one I didn’t have to look up), and removed the spark arrestor (I still don’t really know how this works, but it’s apparently very important). It looked like this:


Spark Arrestor Before

On the YouTube video, the guy took a wire brush, plugged it into his drill press, and used that to clean the spark arrestor. I didn’t have a wire brush attachment, so I took the spark arrestor, plugged that into the drill press, and held up a wire brush. This is what it looked like after:


Spark Arrestor After

So we put everything back together…

And it didn’t work.

Until I read the instruction manual, and found an algorithm for
How to Start Your Leaf Blower When It Doesn’t Start, or something to that effect. It involved flipping the choke to the other position. I wish I could say it was more complicated, but it wasn’t, and I’ll never know what would have happened if I’d tried that first.

I do know that when that thing started up for the first time in five years, my husband literally danced for joy.

After that, the rest of the hovercraft was easy:

  1. Cut the plywood into a 4×4 ft circle (we only had a large enough piece for a 4×3 ellipse)
  2. Halfway between the center and the edge, cut a hole just big enough for the leaf blower nozzle. (We used some extra flexible tubing here, which allowed us to keep the leaf blower as close to the center as possible.)
  3. Cut the tarp about four inches bigger than the board.
  4. Nail a “bucket lid” to the center. You can use a coffee can lid or other plastic circle. We used a square lid out of necessity. It probably screwed up the air flow, but not more than our other mistakes.
  5. Staple the tarp in place, leaving it “loose enough.” It turns out it probably doesn’t need to be as loose as we made it–you need just enough to create a thin cushion of air.
  6. Cut six slots around the bucket lid, for air to escape. These should be about 2 in. holes fairly close to the bucket lid, because you want the air to come out not on the bottom of the tarp (like we did), but towards the center.
  7. Tape down the tarp really well, tape the nozzle in place, and turn it on!

As you can tell by these instructions, our first attempt was not perfect. We did some more research and filled in the gaps after the fact. But this is what we got!



“Some Trump supporters demand #Repealthe19th”

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is a real thing.


I’m not the only one horrified by #Repealthe19th. It is not something that offends only Democrats, only Hillary supporters, or only women. I recognize that it is not a serious political trend, it’s just in the news precisely because we love to be horrified.

But it’s not something Democrats (“Hillbots”) made up. #Repealthe19th existed before Nate Silver’s maps showed how the election would turn out if only women versus only men voted (these tweets go back much farther than a month):


So I wish I could say this was a plot by Hillary supporters to make Trump supporters look bad, but sadly, a few Trump supporters are doing that all on their own. But whatever, it’s Twitter, and thanks to the 1st amendment, they can say whatever they want.

In less than a month, we will have a historic election, one in which the previous unspoken rules of our country are being shattered by both sides. A woman is running for president. So is a billionaire TV personality with no political experience. What the hell will we have next, a transvestite rabbit? So yeah, this election is shaking things up a bit. That’s generally a good thing. We can take it. Secretly, we love it.

Things always get crazy during presidential campaigns. You thought you loved your aunt, until she started tweeting about that racist narcissist. How could your brother not see that Hillary’s crimes against humanity are so egregious that she deserves imprisonment without trial? But when the ballots are cast and the ceaseless reality TV show that is our news coverage dies down, let’s please all go back to remembering that we’re on the same side here.

No matter who wins, we’re not going backwards. We’re not repealing any amendments (except the 18th [prohibition], that’s a done deal). Not even the 19th [gives women the right to vote], sorry, guys. Nor the 15th [gives all people regardless of race the right to vote–except women, because in the 19th century women weren’t people], nor the 2nd [the right to keep and bear arms, because as much as she might want to regulate it, even Hillary should admit this one isn’t going away]. I strongly suspect one of the candidates might see it in his best interests to repeal the 22nd [which limits the number of times that a person can be elected president; but if women aren’t people, would that apply to Hillary?]. However, for that to be relevant, Trump would have to win more than one presidential election, and we might lose our heads once but surely not a second time?

I get it. He’s charismatic (crazy people often are). He blusters, he gets people riled up, and he sounds great doing it. Until you transcribe his words and see what’s actually going on:

When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically.

The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.


Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people.

He sputters and interrupts. He frowns a lot. He plays to the cameras, manages to get himself on the news for doing things that would get other people sued, lynched, or put in jail. He gropes women in elevators? More news! He’s not someone I’d leave any of my children alone with for any period of time, ever. The only good thing about #HB2 is that Donald Trump can’t dress in drag and lurk in women’s stalls. But he’s a showman in the business of selling his name. You can say anything you want about him, because he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

He can call her “Crooked Hillary” in every tweet, in every speech (and people will listen!), but this is what I see: She’s a grandmother. She’s the same age as my mom. When my mother grew up, it was normal for women to go to college, but kind of expected they’d work until they met a man, at most until they got pregnant. There’s nothing wrong with that, because if my mother hadn’t done it, I kind of wouldn’t be here. But at the same time, Hillary Rodham went to law school and graduated with honors. She met a man, and she married him, and then when he went on to be the President of the United States, she did not sit back and resign herself to decorating the White House Christmas tree. The nerve!

I really don’t need to know anything else. But I’d really like to see Trump try to grope Hillary’s ass.

So don’t tell me about the controversies and the lies and the times she said something to defend her cheating husband. If a woman slept with my husband, I’d probably call her a lot worse than a “bimbo.” She’s a politician who has conducted her entire adult life and marriage under scrutiny. The best way to tear a rival down is to make her look bad, and Democrats do this pretty much the same as Republicans, and none of us should take it too seriously.

Oh, it’s not that you don’t like her? Then don’t tell me about Supreme Court justices or #abortionismurder. You really think Trump of all people is going to toe the party line if he’s elected? Seriously?

We have a choice on November 8th, and despite the news focus, it’s not just about one election. The President is not even the most important or most powerful job in this country; if it were, we’d have a 9th Supreme Court justice by now. I don’t care who you’re voting for—please, just whatever you do, go out and vote. People gave up their lives to get you that right. Don’t waste it.

How to Tell if You are Really a Cat Person

Kittens on lap

My new writing helpers for Timber Howligan Book 2, junior secret agents Roddy and Sasha

Timber Howligan Secret Agent Cat is a book about saving animals, and I have celebrated that in many ways. When I finished my first draft, I went to the local animal shelter and adopted two cats. They were on sale, real cheap-$1 each! Since then I’ve paid thousands of dollars in vet bills for them, so the lesson here might be “you get what you pay for.” One came with the equivalent of “cat herpes virus,” which he spread to the other in the form of corneal ulcerations—now they get medicine every day in their wet food. They other has bladder stones and low-motility, so he has a special diet and is an all-around special needs kitties. But, you know, they’re great cats—very cuddly!

When I published Timber Howligan, I dedicated all the proceeds to the animal rescue organization Alley Cat Allies, and have been able to donate over $100 this year. Then, possibly because I needed motivation on Timber Howligan Book 2, possibly because I really am a Crazy Cat Lady, or possibly because my daughter asked me to, I decided we could foster kittens.

What better way to save lots of animals, I thought?

We’ve got a great home for it. We have an extra bedroom where we can quarantine new kittens. We have kids and cats and dogs so we can attest that the animals get along with EVERYONE. And we understand that foster cats are only here temporarily, until they find their forever homes.

Right? Right?

The first pair of foster cats came and went. I staged a photo shoot. I wrote GREAT copy. Man, can I sell kittens. They were in and out within two weeks. Barely time to notice that Binx had a rash—no problem, he came with it, his owner said it was getting better, right?

Then another pair came into our lives, and everything fell apart. Because these were the BEST kittens in the world. They like to play. They like to snuggle. They like people, cats, and dogs. They almost had a home…and then the guy found out he had to pay for them. So we came back from Christmas break, and joy joy, the kittens are still here, still as cute as can be, and my husband says, “Wow, if I’d met these kittens first, I’d be a cat person.” And I swear he starts to think… “We’re inevitably going to end up adopting some of these cats, and these sure are better than the cats we already have.”

And I’m thinking, that’s not how fostering works.

But I got over-ruled, because these are the best kittens in the world.

So we adopt the kittens, and I’m thinking we can just foster the next pair and I can sell THOSE. Because I really like selling kittens. It’s kind of fun.

Then I find out I have ringworm. Remember Binx’s rash?

Fact: Ringworm is not fun. Fact: Ringworm is very contagious.

So my quarantine bedroom is now taken over by my special needs kitty, because he got ringworm, probably from me. And if you read about how to disinfect a house after a ringworm infestation, the take-home message is, you might as well use Napalm. Either that or bathe your cats twice a week, bleach every surface, vacuum, and then throw out your vacuum cleaner.

I like the website that say “this is a minor skin infection, here’s this cream” better, but which one do you believe?

Fact: I will most often pick the option that does not involve bathing cats.

In the mean time, the rest of us are healthy (so far), and I’m getting lots of inspiration from my new writing routine, which involves letting the junior secret agent cats sit in my lap while I work on the sequel. We have five cats. Six litter boxes. And an entire room quarantined due to fungal infection.

I may….MAY….have carried this cat thing a bit too far.

But when I finish the sequel, I’ll just have to start volunteering AT the shelter. That’s the solution….

How to have a happy December

In the spirit of having a low-key December (I know that’s not really a thing), I set modest goals before we packed up to go to my mom’s last week. 1. Finish all the laundry–that’s essential, because coming home to a stinky pile of clothes is not relaxing. 2. Pack–the kids packed their own clothes for the first time, which was more relaxing than I anticipated, once I realized it didn’t matter, they’d spend the whole week in pajamas. And 3. Vacuum–who was I kidding? That didn’t happen.

This was the second Christmas without my dad, and his presence still fills the house. For me–and I know it’s different for everyone–it hasn’t faded, which is mostly a testament to the power of his personality. Dad was almost a caricature of himself in many ways. Not one to do things by halves. Even if, as was true so much in the last few years of his life, that meant sitting in his favorite chair and watching golf or Fox News with his favorite drink at hand. By God, he did that in such a way and so often that to this day I can’t look at that chair without picturing him in it.

I think he would have really enjoyed this Christmas. Many Manhattans were drunk in his honor. There are new ornaments on the tree–a golf ball and a miniature bottle of Jim Beam–to hang next to the mementos he and Mom collected over the years. And between the quiet moments when we were overwhelmed by missing him, the laughter was back. Sometimes so hard it brought tears to our eyes.

Laughing as a family–it doesn’t get any better than that. It was worth the 700 miles of driving. The who-was-I-kidding-frantic hours of preparation. The headaches and the messes and the dishes, oh my god the dishes, but at the end a meal we all ate together. There is no such thing as low-key this time of year, not when your family is half a country away in the heart of the Great White North, not even if it’s a god-awful sixty degrees, which is almost worse, because then what do I do with the kids when I can’t throw them out in the snow?

But there are surprises, wonderful surprises. Cousins putting down their iPads and opening a Season Workshop, working all day to make (and sell!) construction paper crafts. Beautiful art, carefully colored. Beloved aunts and favorite uncles. Cherished gifts.

I put these gifts in my heart–there’s room, because that last load of laundry? I didn’t actually do it–and know that my dad will keep them safe.


How to have a happy road trip: Bring the dog!

The Bad Habits of Good Readers by Carol Jago

Does your child take his time picking out a book, and then even more time getting through it? Is she more than happy to read nothing, rather than a book she doesn’t like? This article on Nerdy Book Club made me appreciate the Slow Readers in my family, and made me wonder if my Fast Reading habits were akin to Fast Food.

I read this list of “bad habits of good readers,” and saw myself. I pride myself on my healthy eating habits, then treat books like junk food. I’m never without one, even at most meals. I even read BETWEEN meals. I was that kid with the book in the back of the classroom–whether I understood half the words or not, it didn’t matter as long as I was reading. I read Gone With the Wind three times before I knew how Scarlett got pregnant.

Thoughtful readers take the time to digest. They value quality over quantity. They can remember the plot of a novel days, even weeks after closing its pages–as opposed to the avid reader who stays up all night to finish a book in a mad, crazed, rush… much like eating an entire bag of Doritos. By morning, the experience leaves you wiped out and dyspeptic.

My husband, I have to admit, can be just as bad. He’s sneakier about it, preferring the stealth of an e-reader so I can’t track his progress. But many a morning he’s groggy and out of sorts, in that way that can only mean “What am I going to read next?”

Now even my Slow Readers are adopting our bad habits. They might take their time picking out their next book, but both kids read at breakfast and in the car. They complain at night when it’s time to turn the light off. “Just one more chapter!” is our bedtime rallying cry. So we read. Just a few more minutes, just one more page, and before we know it, we’ve left bedtime far behind.

We’d all be better off if we got more sleep. Slow Reading should probably be the next big movement, next to Slow Food and Plank. But at least when we binge on books, there’s no corn chip crumbs in the bed.

Source: The Bad Habits of Good Readers by Carol Jago


You can’t tell by book sales. I’m not on the best-seller lists. I’m still able to safely walk through airports without being flagged for autographs.

But the other day I walked into my eight-year old daughter’s class (I was there to volunteer as a writing coach), and I had to wait. I was happy to wait, because Read-Aloud had gone late, and no one wants to interrupt Read-Aloud. Especially WHEN THEY ARE READING YOUR BOOK.

Can Stephen King say that? Has he ever walked into an elementary classroom and watched a whole room of children laugh at his words? Has he waited breathlessly while they try to guess whether Cleo is helping Timber or leading him into a trap, as one child so astutely summarized? (Wise students of literature, these third graders are.) I think not.

I have arrived.

"Fortunately, she was the kind of lady who liked to go first. She hopped in and nipped at a string attached to a single bulb. The pathetic incandescence did little to reassure Timber, especially when he could now see spiders crawling the walls. And . . ."

“Fortunately, she was the kind of lady who liked to go first. She hopped in and nipped at a string attached to a single bulb. The pathetic incandescence did little to reassure Timber, especially when he could now see spiders crawling the walls. And . . .”