The REAL way to be a bad parent

There’s a list out there of “Ten Ways to be the Worst Mother in the World” (I can’t find it, but trust me, it’s out there) but it’s a total lie, because I read it to my kids, and they said, “You do all those things and they make you a great mother.” They’re not hard, and you probably do them too—it’s things like “Teach your kids to say they’re sorry” and “Don’t always buy the newest things” and “Make them eat things they don’t like, like vegetables.” OK, this isn’t terrible parenting, this is Parenting 101.

Here’s the real list of things that make you a terrible mother. I did them all. In one weekend.

1. Take your kid to the beach without his flip-flops. Make him wear the cheap-o sandals they gave out at “Cave of the Winds” at Niagara Falls instead, because these are the only waterproof shoes he owns. (But, total point for not buying all the newest things, right??)

2. Then, when he runs and trips on concrete (because the sandals are a death trap waiting to happen—BUT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO WEAR THEM AS YOU WALK UNDER A WATER FALL) make him go in the ocean, even though the salt water makes him cry as soon as it hits his scrapes.

3. Cover your kids in sunscreen and leave them out all day in the sun. But forget that THIS sunscreen is not the same as the LAST sunscreen (with the SAME LABEL) that actually worked. They changed the ingredients. And now your kid is so sunburned, she can’t eat. Or sleep. Or do anything but cry.

4. After leaving your kids all day to play in the sun and the water, eating nothing but Doritos and chocolate, drive home without feeding them dinner (because you want to get them home for BED). When they complain they are hungry, feed them sandwiches and granola bars. When they are STILL HUNGRY, feed them leftover tortilla chips. That you salvaged from the ants.

5. When they are STILL HUNGRY when you get home, make them scrambled eggs, the first healthy food they have seen in ten hours. But for some reason, their stomachs hurt. Maybe this is because you fed them too much junk food in the car. But wasn’t it better than stopping at Taco Bell? Really?

6. Wake up for school, look at kid’s homework folder and realize—he was supposed to finish his writing assignment. Oops. You were supposed to check this before leaving for the beach on Friday. Write a note to the teacher and hope for the best.

7. Take your kid to school the next day after not enough sleep. Her stomach hurts. She still can’t do anything but cry. Maybe this is not just sunburn? Maybe you should have thought of trying Tylenol 12 hours ago, Mom.

8. On the bright side, we got to the library Friday afternoon. They each read four books this weekend. So I’m not a completely horrible mother after all. On the other hand, our detour to the library made us about three hours late getting to the beach because we got stuck in rush hour traffic, soooo . . .

9. Fight in front of the kids. Yeah, that’s always a good one.

10. On the way home from school with sick child, stop by the grocery store because you are completely out of bread, milk, and other necessities . . . like granola bars. Lord knows that child can’t go a day without granola bars.

We all do our best. That’s all I got.

Does Timber Howligan pass the Bechdel test?

I believe in equal opportunity reading. Having both a boy and a girl, I’ve seen some differences in their preferences for certain kinds of stories…they’re gender differences, but is that a bad thing? When my daughter wants to fill her shelves with Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious, I don’t make a big deal out of it. I know she equally enjoys Captain Underpants. My son will read anything, including The Princess in Black and Zita the Spacegirl, but he really enjoys Diary of a Wimpy Kid, an all boy story if there ever was one.

It’s all good…as long as they’re reading. Right?

Then, along came the Bechdel Test. According to Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test (/ˈbɛkdəl/ bek-dəl) is a short test that is used as a way “to call attention to gender inequality”, and to assert that women are under-represented in films due to sexism. It was introduced in Alison Bechdel‘s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule”, an unnamed female character says that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Okay, so it turns out the Bechdel test is not new. It’s been around for thirty years. Named after graphic artist Alison Bechdel, the “test” originally appeared in her graphic comic Dykes to Watch Out For. But I’ve heard of it a lot more lately, probably because the only comic I read when I was twelve-years old was Garfield, when I still thought a “dyke” was a large wall in Holland:

Bechdel

As a woman, and as a writer, I get it. I get why the test is important, why we should pay attention to it. The test sounds so simple, yet only about half of Hollywood’s movies pass it, and half of those because the women talk about marriage or babies (source: Wikipedia quoting writer Charles Stross, unverified). I totally agree that we want to give our daughters better models of what it means to be woman.

Then I went and wrote a story where the first female character of note doesn’t show up until half way through the book. Granted, when she does, she’s awesome. She’s a bit haughty, but that has more to do with being a cat than any inherent character flaw. But I’m sad to say that Timber Howligan absolutely flunks the Bechedel test. There are more than two female characters, and they’re all named. But they don’t talk to each other, unless you count a brief interaction between a dog owner and her slobbery companion. (This conversation, for what it’s worth, is not about a man.)

Of course there’s an opposite imbalance in children’s literature: More middle-grade books tend to be aimed at girls, more girls read than boys, especially as they enter their teenage years. There are whole websites devoted just to getting guys reading. Did this influence my decision to write a humorous middle grade action adventure that boys might like? No, I just like writing about secret agent cats. At the same time, the story wouldn’t have felt right without a few girls to balance things.

So it comes back to this: Is a good story a good story, no matter what? I say a cat who fights to save the day, surrounded by his friends—male or female—is totally someone to rally behind. Let’s not pick him apart because he’s got too many guys in his life, or because he’s not an equal opportunity hero. Especially, let’s not assume that girls only like reading “girl” stories or boys like reading “boy” stories.

I like the Bechdel test and the fact that it raises awareness to gender inequality in movies and books. But it’s not the only way, or even the most important way, to judge a book.

(The other way would be by its cover. Don’t you like this cover?)

 Front-Cover-(smaller)

The Latest Fight Against the Machines

Me versus device time...

Me versus device time… (All image rights to the current holder)

No, this has nothing to do with Terminator Genisys. But yes, it is a rehash of a familiar plot—not sending robots back in time, but my perpetual battle against my children and their “device time.”

Why do I have to be the bad guy? Yeah, I’ve got something in common with Arnold, and I’m proud of it. Did you know he wanted to play the hero in the original movie, and James Cameron talked him out of it? (Saving his career, and the world, from a worse fate: OJ Simpson as the Terminator. I kid you not.)

It’s summer. PLAY OUTSIDE. I don’t care if there are ticks. I don’t care if it’s 100 degrees out. I don’t care if you get poison ivy, sun burned, or eaten alive by mosquitoes—they won’t kill you. Well, okay, I forgot about West Nile Virus. Here’s some bug spray.

No, I’m not having “device time.” I’m WORKING. Okay, technically it’s not “work.” No one pays me for this. But it’s NOT EASY. Now go outside.

It’s raining?

Play in your room. Build a fort. Draw a cat. Throw pillows at each other. Something. Anything. Just let me have five minutes to myself, or this household is going to fall apart because I haven’t paid bills since school ended. Plus, I haven’t had my coffee yet.

I am such a good mother at the beginning of the summer. I have a calendar. I have a chart. I have a checklist of “Things You Have to do Before You Can Look at a Screen.” There’s a stack of library books in a ridiculously hopeful plastic bucket, next to their beds.

At the beginning of the summer, this was probably alphabetized.

At the beginning of the summer, this was probably alphabetized.

Six weeks later, I’m standing at the kitchen sink screaming “When I say go upstairs I mean it! Turn off the iPads now!” (For the record: I was looking at my children as I threw this tantrum, not randomly hurling my vitriol at a helpless wall. Not that I haven’t done that too.)

I hate using the big voice, but it worked. Two little heads popped up. Four little eyes, wide open, stared at me. Then drifted back to their screens. . .

Oh no. I’m going to win this fight, whatever it takes. This fight is for the future of humanity.

“I am having a conversation with you. Right now. Who is more important—me, or that iPad?”

“Um . . . you?” my son says, though his eyes are still darting downward, and his fingers are twitching.

“You,” my daughter parrots. She does a better job of faking paying attention—she snaps the device off. But her eyes go upstairs. She doesn’t want to be here either.

“Why?”

They weren’t expecting that. They look at each other. They look at the iPads. Finally they look at me.

“Because you’re a parent?” my son guesses.

“No. Because I’m a person. And. . .”

They should know the answer. They totally don’t. They shrug, unconcerned.

“Real people are more important than . . .” I prompt.

“Devices!” They remember the mantra. I’m wondering if it’s accomplished what I hoped it would.

Relieved that they got the answer right, they run upstairs—finally!  I should feel great. I won this battle.

Instead, I start preparing for the next one. Should I hide the iPads? Accidentally run them through the dishwasher? At the very least, I’ll just implement a device-free weekend. My work isn’t over—those little vulnerable minds have a lot to learn, and the machines are relentless. They are everywhere. And compared to playing outside when it’s 100 degrees out, they are way too much fun.

I’ll be back.

Timber Howligan First Month Update: Success!

Self-publishing is a business, so here’s the accounting: I promised to donate any proceeds to charity, the animal rescue organization Alley Cat Allies.

Here’s what Timber earned in his first month out in the world:

$4.07 from CreateSpace (11 copies)

$11.87 from Draft2Digital (5 copies)

$85.70 from paperbacks I sold directly (28 copies, including 12 to my mother, who made an extra $20 donation. This might have been out of the goodness of her heart or a math error and knowing her, could have been either…I’ll assume the best. Thanks, Mom!)

That makes just over $100 to donate! Not bad for a cat who only recently learned how to use an iPad.

Screenshot 2015-07-03 15.07.11

They are not kidding about the “wealth of information” part…beware becoming part of their email list. Good thing I REALLY like cats.

I’m not going to get much into the nitty-gritty business details, except to say that you might notice I made less royalties on CreateSpace (paperback sales, mostly) than Draft2Digital. However, if I’d raised the paperback price to $12 or $13, the royalties might be more—it’s all about how you price your books in the self-publishing world. So I still think CreateSpace is a pretty good deal, I just didn’t take full advantage of it by raising my price. Not that I don’t think authors deserve to make every cent they manage to earn on their hard won literary sweat and tears, and not that I don’t think my book is awesome, but I’m not bold enough to put my first offering out there at the same price as something by someone who’s been doing this professionally for thirty years.

Some might not call a first month’s tally of less than 50 books sold a “success,” but I’m actually very happy. First, I’m DONE. Getting this book ready for publication happened to coincide with my children’s last few weeks of school—what the eff was I thinking? So while I was pulling together class projects, class gifts, and generally overdoing things in my usual style, I was trying to figure out how to put together an ebook with illustrations (Note To Self: do NOT leave this until the last minute), maniacally fix every last typo, and still put dinner on the table every night.

Some things slipped through the cracks. I did not win a lot of “warm fuzzy spouse” points during those last hectic days. My husband did not put it so gently.

But he DID read the book, and he laughed his…butt off. So that is the SECOND reason I call this release a success: I have fans! Not all of them are related to me. At least two friends have texted me to let me know their kids were engrossed in the book, and one was already asking for a sequel. That’s kind of cool.

The most important reason Timber Howligan is a success is that feeling you get when you know you’ve finished something big, something that will last. This is a book that will be on my children’s shelves for years. You can drive your kids to school every day, feed them dinner every night, and they will forget it by morning. But write them a book, and they will remember it forever—forever! Ha! Parenting subterfuge at its finest!

America’s shame? Yes, but Britain’s hands aren’t clean.

The racially motivated terrorist attack/hate crime against the peaceful bible study participants at a Charleston church this week by one very sick individual has outraged our country and the world, opening us, yet again, to attacks by other countries–safe in their holier-than-thou gun control laws, convinced that these types of things wouldn’t happen elsewhere. They do. Mental illness is universal. Random acts of violence, by their very nature, are impossible to prevent except by excessively strict police states that we as a nation have not embraced–yet.

But America has a very real problem that this attack has turned the national spotlight on again. Good. As Jon Stewart said in one of the opening paragraphs of his scathing monologue, “I’m confident . . . that by acknowledging it, by staring into that [abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist] and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack shit. Yeah. That’s us.”

I wish Bill Nye, right as he is, were the voice we all listened to: “The color of our ancestors’ skin and ultimately my skin and your skin is a consequence of ultraviolet light, of latitude and climate. Despite our recent sad conflicts here in the U.S., there really is no such thing as race. We are one species — each of us much, much more alike than different.”

Tribes exist, even in the animal kingdom. Cultural differences? Oh yeah, we’ve got those. White people are historically terrible at talking about race, but pretending that a “gaping racial wound” doesn’t exist because underneath our different skin colors, we’re really all the same? I’m a scientist at heart, and Lord know I’m an idealist, but even I know that’s not the answer.

We bleed racial differences. In our diverse schools, our gospel churches, our black pride parades…we are different. This is beautiful. This is terrifying. Black culture is different than white culture in America, is different from Muslim culture is different from Jewish culture is different from the many other wonderful ethnic cultures that are part of our not quite melted melting pot, and it is okay to recognize that. Violence associated with it is not. Tribal differences are part and parcel of being a hairless ape. Stereotypes are wired into our brain, probably somewhere deeper than the frontal cortex. To open our eyes and see the person underneath the skin adapted, more or less, to ultraviolet radiation–this is being human.

We have a long way to go. But we have to get there.

After the Charleston murders, Britain called us a nation of “too many guns” and “racially divided.” “America’s Shame,” their headlines said. But America is not alone. We did not, alone, cause this gaping black and white racial wound. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, eleven million women, men, and children were stolen from their African homes and taken, against their wills, to the Americas. Though the destination was almost always somewhere in the Americas, often the American South, the predominant slave traders were European, including the British. According to the National Museums Liverpool, “The London-based Royal African Company was the most important [slave trading company] and from 1672 had a monopoly of the British trade.” The main European nations involved in slaving were Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. That’s a lot.

Abolition was also not exclusive to the Americas–in 1808, slave trading was banned in Britain, and elsewhere. It continued illegally until shortly after the Civil War put an end to legal slavery in America.

But the scars remain. Scars caused by a slave trade driven by the European Imperialists, on one end, and the American market, on the other. No one’s hands are clean. Britain shares a part of that “gaping racial wound,” even if it’s not bleeding on their soil.

So don’t blame our gun laws, Britain. The weapon is not the killer. This was an act of terrorism, an act of hate, a horrible, horrible, crime. It was committed by one individual with hate in his heart, fear oozing from his pores, and illness in his mind. It highlights the shame we all feel for the terror that was committed against the African people many years ago, the consequences of which we are still trying to figure out how to make amends for. Our racial division is our shame, but if we look deeper, into the roots of history, we will see that it is not ours alone.

It might have begun when one white man walked onto a continent of people who looked not like him. He felt fear in his heart…and chose hate as the response. Echoes of Charleston this week?

For the record, except for some accidents of history, it could have happened the other way around.

But it didn’t.

It didn’t.

Day before publication

Yesterday my husband came up with a really good idea for marketing Timber Howligan. “You should partner with Animal Rescue Societies, and get them to sell the book to raise money.”

What I should have said was, “That’s a great idea, honey. Thanks for thinking of ways to help out. In a few months, once the book has had some time to gather reviews, maybe I’ll investigate how to make that happen.”

Instead, I went, “BLAAAAAGH!” Which was better than what I was screaming on the inside: “I don’t know how to do that! Does that involve actual phone calls? Isn’t sending all the money to Alley Cat Allies good enough? I want to hide under a rock.”

All in all, I don’t think I’m doing too bad, considering I’m less than twenty-four hours before my stated publication goal. The ebook is ready to go—it will be available on iBooks and Nook. I don’t think Amazon will have Timber Howligan by tomorrow, but that’s my own fault—I fixed another typo, and didn’t realize there would be a several day delay between when I approved the proof and when the book became available. Oops.

I keep having to remind myself: I’m doing this because I like making things, and now I know how to make a book. (Though I STILL don’t know how to get it available for pre-order on Amazon. That befuddles me.) This week I’ve gotten a crash course in self-publishing: like how to edit an epub in Sigil and how to create a GoodReads author account. I even set up PayPal so I could sell signed copies—I already have one request! This week would have been a lot less stressful if I’d done all this ahead of time, but I’m kind of making this up as I go along. Until the book was finished, it was hard to see everything else that needed to be done.

On the bright side, getting Timber Howligan Secret Agent Cat ready for publication has already accomplished my main goal: I’ve gotten out Book Two from its dusty shelf in my office. I wrote it two years ago, a crazy first draft with a wild cast of characters. It’s going to be really fun once I figure out how to pull it all together. I can’t wait!

In the meantime, I should probably be figuring out how to get Book One up on Amazon…but at least tomorrow, you can get it on iBook and Nook. Maybe I will throw a “post-release” party in a few weeks 🙂

Screenshot 2015-06-11 11.04.43

Summer reading fun, device-free

We work hard around here to protect our reading time. It isn’t easy–those long summer days are great for swimming, bouncing on the trampoline, and once school ends, there’s the biggest temptation of all:

Device time.

When my son turned eight, he earned himself the right to an iPad mini by being a voracious reader of ebooks. He mastered the on-line dictionary. He installed OverDrive and figured out how to browse for appropriate library books. “This,” I thought, “is a parenting success.”

Two years later, our daughter turned eight and waited eagerly for her birthday, knowing what was coming. We didn’t disappoint…although we too knew what was coming. Sure enough, the next day she woke up early and snuck her iPad into her room to binge watch Shaun the Sheep on Amazon Prime. “This is the reason people say kids shouldn’t own iPads,” I thought.

Now we regulate device time a little more carefully. Inspired by this post from Hands Free Mama on saving summer from the screens, and this linked post from Narrow Back Slacker on how she limited her kids’ screen time by offering unlimited screen time, I immediately posted a list of “No Glowing Screens Until.” Knowing that if I included an unlimited screen time option, my daughter would see that and ONLY that, I retained the right to limit usage to the American Pediatric Society’s recommended two hours a day (which seems reasonable to me). I also told them there would be optional “device free days,” to be instituted at Mama’s Whim. We tried this list for a weekend, with success: Once the kids got started doing something creative, they tended to stick with it. Narrow Back Slacker’s momentum theory worked.

My daughter's "edited" (but unapproved) version of my checklist

My daughter’s “edited” (but unapproved) version of my checklist

I like devices. But I also love the time I spend doing other things…and like so many parents, I want my kids to grow up having real memories, especially of summer vacation. Remembering the smell of fresh cut grass, of sticky sap on their fingers and sweet tangy lemonade on their tongues, of hot sun and cold water and tired, tired bodies after a day outside. When they finally sit down at the end of that day, I want them to reach for a book.

Yesterday, we had a device-free day. We all needed it–the day before, my son had been home sick, and his entertainment of choice is “Smarter Every Day” or “King of Random” videos on YouTube. They’re great, though my parental opinion is they are best in small doses. That is largely based on their not-inconsiderable-potential to turn my son into an evil genius mad scientist. He watched them for four hours straight. That same day I spent converting “Timber Howligan Secret Agent Cat” to ebook–I’d seen plenty of glowing screens. And my daughter, though she spent the day at camp running around in the woods and swimming in the river, still managed to level up on Hay Day.

So yesterday while my daughter was at camp, I took my son–still home recovering from his illness–to the library. We stocked up on books. He came home, plopped on the couch, and finished “Timber Howligan,” laughing out loud in all the right places. I even stuck to the “no screens” rule while my husband and I dragged my son to the lawyer’s office to refinance our mortgage. He played solitaire–with a real deck of cards–in the corner for an hour. And last night, we got out a card game we’ve had since Christmas but never played: “Zombie Run.” It’s ridiculously easy to learn and fun to play. All in all, a great day. I didn’t miss my iPad…much.

This morning, my daughter woke up and immediately asked if she could check on Hay Day. But we will take our successes where we can get them. And have another device-free day SOON.