I HAVE MADE IT AS AN AUTHOR

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 . . .”

Do Reading Logs Make Reading Horrible? Here’s a Handy Short-cut!

I don’t know about your school, but my kids’ school is pretty cool. If my kid wants to take his shoes off and run around in his socks, he can. If my daughter needs to chew gum because it keeps her from chewing her hair, no problem. I walk into the lobby, and I’m surrounded by children’s art, friendly faces, and good vibes. For the first four years, the only homework is “read to your child thirty minutes at night.” School rocks.

Except for reading logs.

Now, just to be fair, I know that teachers are just trying to hold kids accountable. And some kids embrace these with vigor, charting their hours read with enthusiasm. I admit, I might have been one of those children—I keep lists for everything. Food shopping? I’ve got a separate list for each grocery store. I’ve charted our kilowatt hours and carbon footprint for five years running. Packing for trips? Don’t get me started—there’s a whole spreadsheet. OK, so a five line reading log would not have been a hurdle.

But reading logs totally suck the life out of reading for my kids.

My son loves reading. I can’t get him to STOP reading at night. “Just one more chapter” is the most common phrase heard in our household after dark. But next to trying to get him to WAKE UP in the morning, getting him to fill out his reading log is the thing I nag him most about.

So if your child is like mine, I’ve prepared a handy PRE-FILLED READING LOG! As an example, I’ve used TIMBER HOWLIGAN, SECRET AGENT CAT! (Don’t have the book? No problem! I would never advocate using a homework crutch for a book your child has never read. The book is available HERE!) This won’t solve all your problems. But it might get you through one week, and if you’re like me, you’ll take that!

reading-log

Use this handy, pre-filled reading log to get you through a difficult week!

You might notice certain key phrases that may be of use to your child on future reading logs, such as “I wonder if . . .” and “My favorite part . . . ” and “A lot of things go wrong, but (main character) saves the day.” Feel free to re-use these as often as needed. And if your child grows up to be a double-agent, don’t blame me.

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.

Why I Write

I’m bad at taking vitamins, keeping track of my glasses, and returning library books on time. My cats probably wish I would change the litter box more often. If it weren’t for my husband waking up thirty minutes early each morning and doing all the hard work—making the kids’ lunches, being my alarm clock, turning on the coffee maker—I’d be a deadbeat mom. A morning person I am not, especially since chronic headaches invaded my life three years ago.

But I’m pretty good at writing. Sometimes. I try to do it every day, although I’ve reached the stage where I now think everything I wrote two years ago is crap. I believe this is progress.

What I’m really not good at? Putting myself out there.

Whether it’s posting regular blog entries (Me? have anything to say that people would want to read?), or submitting my short stories (Is it good enough? Is it worth sending if they’ll just reject it anyway?), I fall short of the last essential stage required to BE A WRITER:

Letting my work be read.

I mean, I’m really not writing just for me. I say that, to justify the hundred thousand words I’ve written in the past year. I say that to my disability company, because truthfully, I’m not fit for gainful employment (and certainly not capable of performing the duties of a pediatric anesthesiologist sixty hours a week—yikes). Staring at a screen for more than a couple hours quite predictably gives me a headache, which I wake up with every day to begin with. So why do I write?

Writing is its own kind of therapy. It keeps me from going crazy. It is a substitute for the intense mental hoops I used to jump through, juggling the anesthetic management of up to fourteen children a day, supervising residents, conducting trials, taking classes, and writing research papers. I never wanted to leave my career at the age of 38. I dearly miss my job. Writing gives me something to do each day. So would yoga.

Don’t get me wrong—I like yoga. But even in the middle of the one class I’ve found that’s mellow enough for me to get through, I’ll find myself zoning out, revising my latest story in my head. (Especially during the ten minutes of sitting and breathing. I know it’s meditative. It’s probably great for my headaches. But it’s boring.)

But secretly, I love an audience. Even as an anesthesiologist, once I had that patient in my clutches, helpless, vulnerable, strapped to the bed, I used those precious minutes before the drugs kicked in to tell jokes. Yes, yes, it established rapport, alleviated anxiety, and put my patient in a beneficial state—beneficial for me. People tend to wake up in the same mood in which they fall asleep. It also was my only chance to perform, since I had neither the time, nerve, nor repertoire for stand-up comedy. In my heart, I want to make people laugh and cry and scream out loud. Maybe even in the same story—I aim high.

Without that outlet, I write. Today, I want to be a better writer than I was yesterday. Tomorrow, I admit it, I want that story to be read.

The only way to do that is to write as if no one is watching, knowing the whole time you’re performing on stage. I did it at the beginning of every case, in front of impatient surgeons, skeptical scrub nurses, and parents who didn’t appreciate my sense of humor. (A sample: “What do you call cheese that’s not yours? Nacho cheese!” It’s all in the delivery.) But if I could make that kid smile as the anesthetic took hold, it was all worth it–even if I had thirty seconds to get the airway in as soon as the little tyke stopped breathing. If I could tell jokes under that kind of pressure, you and I can submit our work. When that story gets out there, it won’t matter how many rejections it gathered along the way. In fact, the more you have, the more you can brag.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t think about what your mother or your English teacher would think. They probably won’t read it, unless you send them a copy. And God forbid, do not even consider the fact that your children have Internet access and know how to perform a Google search.