Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Well, here we are, a little late for cards, but we all managed to get in the same spot in the house at the same time. Philip told me, "Mom, please don't show that picture to anyone. We all look like we just got out of the institute." I'm not sure which institute in particular he's referring to, but I don't entirely disagree with him. In case you're wondering, Philip is the one clutching at his collar in a mute gesture of escape. His brother almost managed to hide, but the camera still caught a glimpse of his face. Emma is, like always, happy because she's not a teenager yet.

Anyway, we want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas from our little corner of the world. Hope it's a great one!

Friday, December 19, 2008

The T Word and Stuff

I want to thank everyone who emailed me their thoughts on writing groups, and here is my collective response: writers' groups are great if they work for you. Maybe they support you in some way that is necessary for you to go on writing. They are just not for me, and I need to spend what little time I have actually writing. So while I appreciate offers to join online critique groups, I like figuring out how to revise on my own. Just the way I work. And I think I'm more ruthless on myself than nice people would be.

Besides, I have to spend my online time looking up obscure facts about polar bears and peacocks so I can look at the clock and think, "OMG, it's 1:45 and the boys will be home in 17 minutes, and I haven't started revising yet!" It makes me really use those 17 minutes constructively. Unfortunately, another way I work: the Internet is my endless encyclopedia of trivia.

And while I'm sort of on the subject of writing and writing groups, I had no idea so many folks out there are aspiring to be writers, and YA writers in particular. It seems to have exploded, and I feel like Rip VanWinkle. Where did all these people come from and what were they doing before?

In reading some of these emails, I found out a lot that I didn't know, so I started snooping around the Internet to see what they were referencing. Now, admittedly, I am not a writer involved in many literary social loops - okay, no literary social loops - but I discovered a huge business has sprung up to cater to the aspiration of being a writer. There are workshops run by editors and former editors who charge mightily to critique your manuscript and make it publishable. (Can/do they guarantee that? What if that manuscript is still lingering in your hard drive three years later? Do you get a refund?)

There are conferences and weekend retreats and retreats combined with spa treatments to relax you so you can write better. So a sea kelp facial and then a little plot tweaking? Oh, sure, I get that. And none of these are cheap.

Then there is a strange fellow termed "collaborative publishing" - which seems like an advanced form of Xeroxing. You pay someone to publish your book. That's putting it a little baldly, but that's what I gathered from reading their spiel. You get to say you're published even if you're out a couple of grand.

Through none of this does anyone mention talent. There is a conspicuous absence of the T-word in most publishing come ons, and there is this weird atmosphere around writing that if you work a manuscript to death, send it out enough, throw some cash at it, you'll eventually hit it right, quit your day job and start lunching with JK Rowling. Or something along those lines. The odds are never mentioned.

We live right near Atlantic City, sort of a subdued LasVegas with tons of casinos and gamblers. One of the things Gamblers Anonymous does is explain the incredibly low odds of making it big at a casino. It's logical, and mathematical, and inarguable. You would think all the examples would keep the gamblers away from the glittery lure of Harrah's. But it doesn't, and the casinos continue to thrive. They keep coming back and spending money despite the almost impossible odds.

The gamblers know there are so many gamblers and so few jackpots. And the casinos know exactly how few gamblers will accept that as fact.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Slightly Less Random Stuff About Writing This Time

Between getting over a horrible cold and finishing up finals at the college, I have been away from the computer for a few days. When I sat down to open my email, I found six messages about an article I wrote that just came out in the January Writer magazine.

The jist of the article is that I don't or wouldn't function well with a writers' group. For me, writing is an act best done alone, and in silence -- two conditions that are pretty rare in my day-to-day life. Still, I obviously find time to write since I publish on a regular basis. But I hardly ever watch tv, and I don't go out.
Seriously. I'm not sure how people who work, even part time, and have kids and write go out to parties or have other couples over for dinner. When someone says they are "dropping by" fear strikes my heart because I have to get the laundry baskets off the couch, put the baby gate up for the dog, find a spot to hide the vacuum, and try to act as if we don't live like gypsies with pillows on the floor and books all over the place. I just shut the boys' bedroom door because in there, it's just hopeless. And a little scary.

Anyway, that tangent is done. The point is this: I'm allowed to say that I don't like writers' groups, or critique groups, and that I don't think editors are always right. I guess that's arrogant. At least according to the email I received (so far 4 "against" the ideas expressed in the article; 2 stating they feel exactly as I do about writers' groups). The arrogance is because I don't take criticism of my work to heart. I stuff it away in the desk for a few days, or weeks, then look at it later and decide if the editor was right or not. After all, it is MY writing, and I may have a different vision of it than that editor does. And that probably explains why there are so many editors in the world. It's a little like dating...

I probably should have stopped writing there, but I went on to say how writers' groups are something I just can't stand. "I wouldn't be able to go on without my writers group," one email said. That's good. I wouldn't be able to go on without a fairly steady supply of chocolate, but who cares? Really. I can't imagine showing people my work when it's in the drafting stages because it seems too much like revealing myself too early in the game, or letting people "drop by" before you fix the place up a little.

My reluctance about writing groups can be explained simply. Writing is the only thing I do alone these days. It's the only physical and psychic "space" I have - and I find other people's comments on my writing, before it's in the final stages, to be distracting and, in my crabbier moments, kind of a nuisance. Comments on early writing is like an intrusion into a dream - and I mean the shrill alarm clock kind, not the someone-has-brought-you-coffee-and-bagels-in-bed kind.

But apparently, I am in the minority. Right now, my dog is the only one who is around when I am working (the cats hunker down for naps when the kids aren't home and the house is quiet). I think the only real arrogance here is thinking there is one way to write, and it's yours.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Random Stuff

This is just a collection of entirely random stuff since I have a low fever today and I am stuck in the house and really tired. I am almost never sick; I think it's been two years since I even had a cold.

I figured I would put our dog, Mazy Blue, on the blog because she has nothing to do with this blog and that's kind of the point of randomness.

First random thought: I like pie. I mean, I really like pie. I think when I am in the home, wild with dementia and not wanting to go to the doctor, the attendants will tell me, "But Anne, anyone who gets their check up gets a slice of pecan pie."
I'll knock the attendants over to get on board that cardio van.

I feel really bad that I have gotten so many emails from people who practice cutting. I did blog about it twice, but I don't know that much about it. In fact, I had never heard of it until right before I blogged about it. I know I emailed some of you and said I had no plans about writing a YA about cutting when you asked. I think I might write my next YA with a character who cuts, but it wouldn't "be about cutting" the way some other books are. This is only in the planning stages, sort of being thought about. So maybe yes to that question.

I listened to an interview with the Pregnant Man who weirds me out beyond belief. Am I the only one who thinks of Horton Hatches the Egg when s/he talks? Or have I read one too many children's books?

Right now, I am reading Feed by M.T. Anderson -- it's amazingly good. Not an easy read for teens, but he reminds me of what Ray Bradbury was to the 60's.

I can't stand Tyra Banks. I hardly ever watch tv, but this morning my eyes hurt too much to read, so I put the tv on. Does anyone like her as much as she likes herself?

My daughter tried to create a curved ruler last night to measure round things.

I have 37 papers to grade by Monday and I haven't started Christmas shopping.

There is probably something very wrong with the lives of people who send me holiday cards that arrive the day after Thanksgiving.

Speaking of holiday cards, do any of their kids ever mess up? Why don't those letters ever say, "Little Mikey got suspended for smoking in the bathroom, and it wasn't a cigarette..." Is it me or are those letters one long brag?

I can't decide whether I like or don't like blogging. Sometimes it reminds me of decorating my locker in the eighth grade so kids who were "like me" would talk to me, and the ones who weren't would stay away. Is there any actual point to blogging?
I guess it's a good way to waste time like I am doing now.

I've sneezed six times while writing this.

I think I'm going to lie down now. I'll come back tomorrow to see if this made any sense. And my dog keeps looking at the computer. I don't think she recognizes herself; I think she's hoping it's a machine, like the micro, that will produce food at some point.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Over Thanksgiving, we went on a long car ride where I found out my daughter believes the ghost of a little girl is living in our house, that my middle son knows an endless number of jokes involving butt lint, and that my oldest guy absolutely can never again eat five Fiber One bars before getting into a car on a cold day when the windows cannot be opened. Absolutely never.

The night before, we had watched the Duggar family, all seven thousand of them, going on a car trip. (They're that family somewhere in a place like Arkansas or Omaha who have seventeen kids and one on the way) The older girls took care of the younger kids. They sang songs about Jesus. No one shouted or swore or fought over not sitting in the middle or whether or not doughnuts are as toxic as Mom claims they are. I really like the Duggar family, even if they wear prairie clothes and have scary hair. They're sort of our family in the anti matter world.

There are only five of us, and five animals, and we listened to Pink Floyd in the car, then Bing Crosby Christmas carols for Emma. Bing didn't last too long with this crowd. My daughter, who is the only ten year old on the planet (and possibly on other planets) who dislikes Hannah Montana, finally decided on Evanescence.

When that ended, we argued for a few miles. Philip kept snapping pictures of us in the car (we took none at the holiday table) with his phone. Our memory stick on the camera is full, and we forgot to buy a new one. So here we are, candid and ragged.

Sixteen Year Old in Thirty Mile Electronic Trance:

Philip and Emma After Agreeing on Music:

Sneak Shot of Mom:

And an image I found on my phone today that I'll bet you Mrs. Duggar would never find on hers:

That image is from Pink Floyd, a band I listened to at least twenty years ago, and that my two boys now really like. I think it's kind of a teen's way of saying hi, or maybe something along the lines of thanks for telling me the stories behind songs like Shine On You Crazy Diamond (and not making it sound like English class, though I did sneak in a bit of symbolism once I had their attention)

I'll bet Mrs. Duggar's kids give her things like this too, only they probably use words. That's fine by me; symbols work just fine here with our little anti matter family.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Writing for Kids

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about my kids and not about writing. I remember a college psych teacher once said, "Ask people what they are in one word, and see what they say." It was one of those moments where you think, Right, I already sort of knew this. I would answer that question by saying, "Mom" -- though I have plenty of friends with kids who say they don't think that way. They would answer, "writer" even though they have never published anything. It's strange the way that works -- I think of myself as a mom, then probably a writer even though I've been pretty well published.

I think I should probably talk more about writing since I've been getting increasingly frequent emails from people asking me questions about writing. I try to answer everyone, but here's why I don't talk so much about writing: I don't really know anything. I don't fully understand how the process works or what helps writing or what hinders it or why one novel falls flat and another hums along. I think writing may be a process that works when we are not totally aware of it, if that makes sense. I do know I don't spend a tremendous amount of time planning what I write, okay, fine, I don't spend ANY time planning; I just sort of keep the story in the back of my mind, then when the house is quiet, I write it all down. I spend a lot of time revising. Easily as much time as writing, and sometimes more. I think revision and rewrites are the heart of publishable work.

And that's it. I don't have any tricks and I think that's why people are emailing me: they think there is some shortcut, some magical method that will guarantee publication.

There isn't. Trust me.

I like the quote on this blog from Maugham: it matches how I feel exactly.

Right now I have a really tough editor. I'm revising a middle grade, geared for the 8 - 10 year old set. It's harder than I thought it would be (mostly because I took advice from people who read a lot of middle grade literature and I didn't just sit down and write it out like usual)She is a huge consumer of fairy literature, has no patience for long description, and can't stand boys in any of the major roles. It makes me slightly nervous when she picks up the legal pad to see my ideas. This is the look I get when I don't reach her standards:

Should be an interesting weekend.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Community Service Meets the Teen

Report cards came Friday afternoon. So after spending most of Friday evening "discussing" the importance of doing school work and not spending so much time with video/myspace involvement with my two boys, we decided (meaning I came up with the idea and they silently disagreed) they needed to do more community service. Christopher is still trying to come up with what he wants to do; Philip opted to be a volunteer waiter at a veterans' pre holiday luncheon. He thought it would be a quick and easy way to salvage his weekend plans.

Of course first I had to explain to him the importance of veterans, how his grandfathers and uncles and cousins had all served in various wars. He gave me the "OMG, will she ever stop look," then went off to what he thought, I think, would be a pizza party.

I should say here that Philip is a really sensory kid: he has trouble looking at the "subnormal" folk who frequent certain Walmarts, and any shows involving childbirth or poxes or deformity cause him to lurch from the television. He was the kind of baby who couldn't stand seams in his socks or the touch of wool. Very little has changed in that department over the years.

Ten minutes into the holiday luncheon, I get this text:


I had his brother calmly text back:


The next SOS came:


I didn't anwer; I figured I'd tell him the veterans had to stick it out once, too.

When I picked him up, he was flushed and exhausted.

"They're like old pirates," he said, "Oh my God. You have no idea. No idea."

"What happened?" I asked.

"First of all, most of them were missing something. Like an arm or something."

"Right. They were in a war."

Sigh. "And every time I asked them what they wanted to drink, they said, 'how 'bout a Scotch and soda?' Like every one of them and they laughed each time. And they only had soda or water or coffee."


"Then this guy says to me, 'Son, straighten that flag."

"What did you do?"

"I straightened the flag. Then he says, 'Now set me up with those sausages just like you would your best girlfriend.' So I go, What does THAT mean?"

"I think he wanted something extra, right?"

"He winked at me. God. And he had this scooter thing."

"Your sister loves her scooter. What's wrong with that?"

"No, Mom, he had this scooter thing INSTEAD OF LEGS."

He didn't say much after that. I pretty much left him alone and let him spend a few hours cruising myspace.

I think serving that lunch allowed him to learn a whole lot more a whole lot faster than anything he does in school.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Those Without Teens

On Sunday, a friend of mine, or a woman I used to know, stopped by my house. We are around the same age, and we briefly attended the same college. She found me on the Internet, and said she would be in the area. I felt obligated to invite her - I'm not sure why I felt obligated since I never

a) really knew her well and

b) never really liked her all that much.

Anyway, let's call her Agatha since that name suits her. Agatha is unmarried, child-free (this is my understanding of the new politically correct term for the sane), and has become something of a self help group junky. I sort of knew this from her holiday cards, but when she was there, in the flesh, it occurred to me that Agatha and I had about as much in common as Iceland and Somalia. She sat on my couch while three cats dozed in chairs and our gassy German shepherd wagged her tail. She was gassy because there is a bog near our house with these wonderfully graceful geese and Mazy had dined on goose poop during her previous night's walk. You can imagine the fragrance. (I did put the dog in the laundry room. Hey, I've got some manners left).

Agatha wanted to talk.


My husband works all day Sunday and we had two kids in the basement who were there because of serious trouble at home, plus my own three kids, and a month long houseguest from Malaysia. I put coffee on and tried to listen to Agatha's long, dusty stories about restaurants she had gone to in Italy, Germany and France. It seemed all the art and attractions in Europe had been replaced by restaurants.

"It's difficult to talk in this house," she said with sort of an edge.

I nodded. "There are kind of a lot of us here today."

"I could never do this," she said, "it's crazy with the phone and all these kids. Have you thought about why your life has gotten this way?"

I could feel the presence of invisible self help people gathering around Agatha, ready to assess my life.

"I guess choices," I said, pointedly glancing at the microwave clock. "Would you like any more coffee?"


"Love some," she said.

So I braced myself and put more coffee on.

Agatha was sitting in the living room when Philip walked past. "Hey, dude," he said to Agatha. The look on her face made her visit bearable.

"That's your son?"

"One of them."

"You heard him call me dude?"

"That's how they say hello."

"When I was a teenager, I never would have addressed ANY of my parents' friends that way. Never."

"Huh." But I said this particular "huh" in such a way that it could easily have been confused with a swear word.

Agatha looked at his snake bites, at his sagging pants, at the casual way he came over and put his arm around me. "Canya set me up with some juice, Mom?"

She watched him in the same manner I imagine Margaret Mead once watched the Samoans.

"Well," she said finally.

We said a stiff goodbye at the door without any promise of seeing one another again. I think Agatha had had enough of me for a life time.

"God, who was that angry lady?" my oldest guy asked. (He hadn't even give her a "hey dude").

"I went to school with her once. We used to be a little friendly. Kind of friends."

"With her? And you say we make bad choices in our friends."

"I don't think she'll be back too soon," I assured him. "This is all too messy for her."

"I thought the house looked pretty good," he said.

"I don't mean that..." then I saw the look on his face, and I knew he had understood what I meant. He had understood exactly. How could he not? He was part of our shared mess.

But I mean, really, what's not to love when you see this at the breakfast table? (Even if breakfast is at 11:30?)---

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Justice Mom

My son, pictured above in a moment of Halloween happiness, (and the only kid who doesn't care if his picture is here), nicknamed me the Justice Mom about three years ago when he was 11.

"It's like as soon as I tell you something happened in school, you have to fix it and tell people about it. All the other moms just let it go." He grumbled this, but he still told me stuff. (Okay, maybe there was a little prying).

But I knew what he meant. I did call the principal about busy work built into curricula and teachers who read newspapers during instructional time; I talked to bus drivers about fighting and asked a group of cafeteria aides why they sat chatting at a table while a boy was clearly being bullied. I did all those things. And I wasn't nice and relaxed and happy when I did them.

So, with all three of my kids, we had conversations like this more than once:

Child: Ok, Mom, I'm going to tell you something but only if you promise not to be the Justice Mom after you hear it.

Me: I can't promise that. But why don't you tell me anyway?

Child: Well, if you're the Justice Mom about this, I'll get into big trouble...

Me: Go ahead and try me. Look, am I holding the phone? Do I have keys to go anywhere?

Child: I better not. You'll go up to the school tomorrow when I'm not home.

Me: I have pizza rolls. Why don't you sit and talk to me while you have pizza rolls?

Child: All right, I'll have some pizza rolls. But I'm only telling you the beginning...

The Justice Mom has been quiet for quite some time. But on Halloween night, she rode again, with her kids (well, two of them) watching. She couldn't help it.

A man came down the street wearing a sheet. He looked over at a two or three year old Cinderella and ran toward her. She screamed.

Now, I don't get what's funny about that at all, but he was being egged on by a bunch of beer-fueled adults who thought it was really, really funny that the little girl was running down the street, clearly terrified.

But the "ghost" wouldn't stop chasing the little girl - who was by now sobbing.

So I walked over to the "ghost" and said, "Look, why don't you just stop now? She's scared enough."

The adults made fake booing noises at me.

"And why don't you folks go back inside and let the kids have the fun tonight?"

They did; my daughter kept trick-or-treating with her friend, and a little later we caught up with Philip.

"As soon as I saw that guy do that to that kid," he said to his sister, "I figured Mom would say something. God, he was a jerk!"

Emma laughed. "I know,right, Philip? I was thinking how it's taking Mom a long time to be the Justice Mom tonight."

Then they talked about some great costumes they had seen and the rumor that there was a house on the next street where they gave out full size candy bars.

I don't know if they've accepted the Justice Mom as a Mom characteristic they can't change, or if they've internalized something about how the world should work. I like to think the later, but I guess I have to wait a few more years.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Last night, I had to grade two folders of college essays (translation, people are paying for my judgment, so I had to be focused), catch up on the never ending stories of laundry and food shopping after teaching a nearly three hour class. I went to bed around 2 or so, and at 5:30 this morning, my fourteen year old woke me up with this sentence:

"Mom, is it possible to give yourself a tattoo with a Bic pen and a lighter?"

Now, if you recall, he is the same fourteen year old who recently pierced his lip with a needle and a match; he currently sports "snake bites" -- double lip piercings-- after the proclamation by a bevy of eighth and ninth grade girls that he looked, indeed, "way hot" with the one piercing, he decided to go for it. We now have a pact that if any other punctures appear on his body, the computer will be brought from his room to the basement - for the rest of his mortal life.

So that's what's new here. And we finished our costumes. His younger sister has been obsessed with fairies for most of her very young life, and has trick-or-treated as a fairy every year. This year, she fell in love with a half angel/half devil costume, and for the first time, I thought, a little wistfully, we won't have a Halloween fairy.

But fear not in the life of raising teens: my son, the six foot one inch basketball center who is currently tugging on size 12 1/2 sneakers, decided it would be really funny if he went as a fairy. Borrowing one of his sister's creations (and adding several new layers for length) this is the result:

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Piercing and Karma

When I was ten, all I wanted was pierced ears. My parents told me that was a habit of people who were more from "the tropics" than we were, (still not sure what that means) but I begged them. Okay, maybe I was around nine when I decided to get my ears pierced, and it actually occurred when I turned eleven. Yup, I begged on and off for two years. Then one day, my mother relented.

It hurt. I got a terrible infection. When everything finally healed, I realized I had made a mistake. I didn't even like having pierced ears. But I couldn't tell them that. Ever. I told my friends, but not my parents.

So when my son came to me and asked if he could get his lip pierced two years ago, I shuddered. I explained how you shouldn't interrupt a mucous membrane like the lip, how it reminded me of Goths and scary, dark undercurrents like Satanic worship. So I guess that was my "tropics" - we, a nice family, don't have children with lip rings.

Then I remembered how my friends and I used straightened out paper clips to try and pierce our ears. We slept with "progressive rings" in our ears that were supposed to painlessly and progressively pierce our ears. I was so glad that my son was not like I had been, that he had taken my response so reasonably.

So when I went into his room the other day and found him with a match, a bottle of alcohol and the sewing box, I knew exactly what had happened. He had a new lip ring, made with a sterilized pin from the sewing box we keep right in the living room. He looked at me and said, "I know. I'm probably grounded. Just tell me for how long but don't ask me to take the lip ring out because it has to heal."

I was speechless. At least he had used heat to sterilize the pin, he had smeared Neosporin on the puncture and inserted a surgical steel ring. He explained how kids in his school were piercing a lot of body parts and he had been watching them for...well, two years. He knew I would never say yes.

I didn't ground him. I explained to him, sort of inanely at that moment, how most beauty is based on mutilation.

"I know, Mom, you told me that two years ago. Am I grounded?"

I looked at him. He makes the honor roll, he plays basketball, he's in band, he volunteers at the library. Things could be worse than a lip ring. I wondered what I should do.

"I've been asking you for like two years," he pointed out, "and you..."

Two years. Then he did it himself.

"You might decide you don't like having a lip ring," I suggested.

He shrugged. "Then I'll let it heal." He laughed. "I thought you were going to go crazy," he said, "I can't believe you're just standing there."

"It's sort of a done deal at this point."

"So I'm not grounded?"

"Just don't pierce anything else. Anywhere. No matter what your friends do. And tell me next time. So I can take you to a place...like the doctor's or something."

"Mom, people do this like on the bus. Or in the lunch room. No one goes to the doctor's for this."


I got him more Neosporin and some hydrogen peroxide. We talked about how to avoid an infection. The whole time I was wondering if I should be doing something more punitive.

"Thanks, Mom," he said, "I can't believe you're being so cool about this. This isn't like you. I thought you would like take me to the ER or something."

"Actually, I know what it feels like to want to do something like this."

"No," and he really laughed, "you couldn't possibly know."

And here he is, from his cell phone to mine:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Revisiting the Zone of Non Presence

Every once in a while, when the phone, the texting, the computer and the non stop hectic pace of our lives gets to me, I have to leave for a few days and not be found. Sort of.

It's pretty difficult not to be found in 2008, but a friend of mine has a house in a mountainy spot of Pennsylvania and she is generous enough to invite us for weekends. There's no cell phone reception there, a couple of religious stations on the tv (the kind that ask for a prayer and a check), a lot of fog, deer, and silence. There is usually general protest on the way there about not being able to contact their friends or get any of the good tv shows, and as they complain, I just keep driving. I think it's good for them to be forced to spend time with only their parents, or maybe it's just good for me, but either way, it's gonna happen.

We found a festival they could stand since it had some old trains (steam powered that still ran)a haunted jail with a dungeon, and this church with architecture that made them stop for a few seconds:

Thinking (hoping) it might be haunted, two out of three of my kids stepped inside and actually went into the chapel and sat down voluntarily. I had to take their picture:

What was the point of all that time in the car and all that quiet? I was able to figure out how I need to change my last manuscript so it's a bit less wobbly, and the kids spent the way home talking to each other and to me and their Dad. They did text, but only a few times, and mostly they talked about kid stuff like ghosts and Halloween and how much they still really, really like candy - all three of them, even my 16 year old. I like just talking to them.

They are so wired all the time to their electronics it's almost as if we exist in parallel universes. I know my two boys are learning independence while spending all that time with friends. And that's really important, but so is learning about their little sister's trouble with a boy on the playground or how their parents once dressed up as his and her mummies.

It sounds so weird to say I take my kids on trips to remote places because I miss them, and I live with them every day, but it's true.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Collingswood Book Festival

On Saturday, my daughter, husband and I went to the Collingswood Book Festival. Now, my husband reads primarily bicycle and computer magazines, and after reading the first five pages of my novel said,"It's all I need to read to know it's good." My daughter just turned ten, so she can't even read YA - she tried, but went right back to Diary of A Wimpy Kid. Amazingly, they both found things to do there. My husband became fascinated with a "Tiki Bike" (there probably is a proper name for this, but I don't know what it is - it had a tiki bar roof and it rolled), and he got to talk to all the recumbent bike building people who stood on the fringes of the festival -- he was so happy to find those kindred souls. Anyway, here's a cell phone shot of the Tiki Bike. I think five people can fit on it:

And my daughter found a make your own Wimpy Kid diary workshop, tons of homemade cookies, and this:


There were lots of authors, books, and street fair type anomalies (bubbles, gigantic, walking sharks, Cliffords, Dr. Seuss and retirement age men wearing wizard hats). Mostly teenagers stopped to talk to me, and several people thought I was a conservationist writing about the "shape" water was in (like something connected to the melting of the polar ice caps).

I had one man dressed entirely in black slither up to me. "I'm a demonologist," he said, "would I like your book?" I told him he probably wouldn't, then tried to act busy, which is not easy when all you have is a table, copies of your novel and some business cards. He asked if there was a sucubus in the book, and when I told him no, he moved along.

The funny thing was how many adults came up to me and told me they liked to read YA. I acted so surprised until my daughter looked up from her American Girl magazine and said, "So you like it so much you write it, and you're an adult."


She's right, of course. I have always read YA and MG books, but I never admitted that until I published one.

The other weird moment was right after a couple of teenagers told me how much they wanted to be authors, and I talked to them for a few minutes about writing. They were really enthusiatic about my novel, and after I signed their copies, and they left, I turned to Emma and said, "Wow, it's almost like I have fans."

She was still reading her magazine, and this time, without looking up, she said, "Not really you don't. You're just Mom."

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Still Trying To Be Cool

So the other day, I got a good review from my students in a course evaluation, my article got accepted in The Writer Magazine, I sent my second YA in to Flux,the always lovely Marcia Hoehne mentioned me in an I Love Your Blog Award, and my best friend won $1000.00 in a lottery scratch off. It was one of those afternoons when you think how everyone who told you not to:

- have a third child

- leave a good teaching job

- move out of state


- write (ever)

was wrong. Really wrong.

I was feeling like I was pretty cool, and I don't feel that way too often since I am solidly middle aged and have been known to wear old maternity pants backwards to run to the store. (When I do this, my kids slink down in the seats as we drive).

Then my kids came home and I was quickly deflated.

First, the boys came home, and asked me why I didn't text them back about a question they had about an afterschool game.

"I never figured out how to text," I confessed.

This caused disbelief, guffaws, and glances of sympathy.

"So, like, how do you talk to anybody?"

"On the phone. Email. In person."

(Poor old thing glances)

"Mom, you don't call a car a horseless carriage, do you?" my oldest boy asked.

"She doesn't have an AIM account either," my middle guy offered (meaning -- she is
as hopeless as they get)

So fine. Leave that stuff to high school kids. Then my daughter's elementary school bus came. I knew I would be redeemed. She gave me the wonderful news that she had a book report due.

Now I, along with six other people on the planet, loved book reports as a child. (This gene is rare; none of my kids inherited it).

"Oh, that's great! Do you want to do a diorama? I have shoe boxes in the basement. Or did she say you could do a timeline? Those are such..."

"Um, Mom," Emma says (patiently, slowly)

"I also have poster board and new acrylic paint...what?" She is trying not to laugh.

"We don't do those now. I have to do a web page for my book, okay?"

"A web page! But you're ten! And you weren't even ten last month!"

"It's okay; I already know how to do it. But you can check my spelling, all right?"

"Oh. Right. Sure."


I always thought it was me who would have to be patient with them.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Are Pharm Parties Real?

Because I worry as a part time job, I have been reading about a new pastime among teenagers. It's called a pharm party. The basic idea behind it is to swipe a bunch of leftover prescription pills from the medicine cabinet, get a group of kids (usually eighth grade and above) who also bring swiped prescription meds, then open the capsules, smash the tablets, and mix everything into a big hodgepodge that is sniffed, snorted or swallowed. The psychoactive swap can be anything from antibiotics to blood pressure meds. The drugs of choice, or so it's rumored, are pain killers.

Now, I am still stumped by the thought of cutting parties. So when I read about these parties, I marched straight into my boys' room with the paper. They were sprawled on the sofa, texting while blank homework worksheets littered the floor. This is how it went:

Son 1: "Hey Mom, why do you look so worried? And do we have any ham left?"

Son 2: "The rest of the pizza rolls are mine. Don't touch them."

Mom explains about pharm parties. The boys laugh.

Son 2: "That's ridiculous. No one does that. You would get so messed up."

Son 1: "You should stop reading so much. So can you make me a sandwich?"

So, in my usual relentless manner, I asked the kids I worked with, both first year college students and high school students, if they had heard of pharm parties. They shrugged. None of them knew anyone who had ever participated in one, yet this is all over the media. And everyone knew what I meant immediately(except my two sons). When all else failed, I turned to that mecca of youth culture communication: I asked Son No. 2 to do a pharm party search on myspace.

Now, I do know that the kids there will post just about anything, and very little showed up about pharm parties. It seems this idea was first reported by the (National)Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). Then it was on a few of the daytime talk shows, but apparently, and thankfully, the pharm party is largely a mythical creation of the media. Sure, kids probably get together and barter some of the drugs in the medicine cabinet, but the implication out there is that this is an organized, widespread ritual of drug abuse that is happening inside the lovely homes on your street.

Why would they want us to believe such a thing?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Movies About Teens and Teenspeak Stuff

A lot of people think I'm weird because I never liked going to the movies. "It's like unAmerican to think that way," a friend of mine told me in high school. I did understand what she meant, but to me, sitting in a movie theater in New York City with the sticky floors, and all weirdos (not me, the really, really weird ones who wore overcoats in July to hide whatever weirdness they were into) was just not fun.

I still don't really like movies, and managed to avoid all film courses even while pursuing a Masters in English. But the other night, my kids begged me to watch Juno with them, and I suffered through it. Not that it was that bad -- I just always suffer when I'm sitting there watching a story I'd rather be reading. But my boys abandoned Juno after just half an hour. "It's for girls," they said, "I just don't care what happens to her because she talks like an adult. What is she, like 25?" (An ancient ruin to them)

But it was true; she did speak like an adult. In fact, all the female characters seemed to speak with the same snarky voice, as if it was the "teen girl" voice. In fact, even the stepmother had that voice. And teen girls, from what I've seen, behave more like Ophelia in Shakespeare (remember she tried to drown herself in like just a few inches of water). A zit can cause trauma; imagine what an unplanned pregnancy might do. She was so tranquil throughout, and I just don't buy that. She made calm, rational decisions, did her homework, and attended all her prenatal visits. She demonstrated more maturity than the adoptive father. When she calls the abortion clinic and says, "I would like to procure a hasty abortion," I inwardly groaned. And when Juno says, "Silencio, old man," when she is taking the pregnancy test, I thought, "Nope, never would they say that if they were worried about the possibility of pregnancy."

Why do so many books and films miss how teens speak? Is it regional? A lot of those lines probably looked just fine on script pages, but not from the mouths of teens.

When I asked the kids and a few of their friends over the weekend if they thought writers got the dialog right for teens, they told me that was the biggest problem they had with YA books -- they just never sound the way teens talk. I think it's hard to pin down their particular kind of speech without being around them. But if you don't, they can tell immediately, and they will walk. They are experts on each other, and if you want to lure them into any kind of story, you better be, too.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


I usually never want to participate in the "chain" kind of blog questions, but I do really like reading them. And you are probably thinking, "Well, yeah, we all like reading questions about our friends." That's right, but because I am slightly off center, I also read the answers to people I'll never meet in Australia or Singapore. So when I got tagged by Marcia Hoehne, I thought maybe people will want to read mine.

Also, you are supposed to tag eight other folks, and I'll start by tagging the romance writer Terri Rainier, the YA writers Brian Mandabach and A.S. King, and I'll add five others later on (because I'm not sure of their last names). Ok, so here are the questions:

What are your nicknames? My daughter occasionally calls me Wordgirl (after a show she watches on PBS) and my sons sometimes call me HER as in, Who said we can't hang out tonight? The answer: HER

What do you do before bedtime?

Feed the cats, put laundry on, set the coffeepot up for the morning

What was the first movie you bought in VHS or DVD?

I don't like movies. I've never bought any. My college roommate did give me a really neat copy of Gone With the Wind with George Cukor interviews which I've watched when I had the flu. I was obsessed with Gone With the Wind (the novel) for most of my adolescence.

What is your favorite scent?

Tie between leaves burning in the fall and ocean water, even when it's fishy.

What one place have you visited that you can't forget and want to go back to?

Bermuda. I went on a snorkeling honeymoon, and everything sappy they say about Bermuda is true. I was in the water the entire time. Well, you know, maybe not the entire time...

Do you trust easily?

Sorry, no. My kids have never slept over anyone else's house and they've never had a babysitter. (I know, I know). They've had lots of kids sleep here, and I've watched lots of other people's kids, and I have to say that I trusted people more easily before having kids. With my kids, I trust no one.

Do you generally think before you act, or act before you think?

I'm impulsive, and I am really impulsive when I write. I start writing novels at the drop of a hat, and I do things on whims. My husband takes six to seven minutes to decide which pair of socks to wear for the day, so we're an interesting pair.

Is there anything that has made you unhappy these days? I am living in a fool's paradise, I guess, since I am usually pretty happy despite having tons of stuff to do on any given day. Unhappy? Let's see - the possibility of going to war with another country makes me unhappy, but not really anything in my day to day life.

Do you have a good body image? Uh, yeah. I mean, have you seen me or what? It's just that when I moved closer to the water, the salt air shrunk the rear region of my pants, so that can't be helped.

What is your favorite fruit? I would have to say Elton John.

What websites do you visit daily? That's tough because I have Internet induced ADHD. It's more like, "Huh, I didn't know koala bears did that..." type of meandering. I can't say surfing because even then, there's a shoreline. I'm more like drifting around, think leaf caught in a windstorm. I look at freelance writing jobs sometimes; other times I read the NY Times online because I miss NYC.

What have you been seriously addicted to lately? I have been battling an addiction to really good, European chocolate for most of my adult life, and lately, the addiction is winning. I am curbing a minor addiction to footwear.

What kind of person do you think the person who tagged you is?
Introspective, a big reader, Christian values, reliable, kind, really literate.

What's the last song that got stuck in your head? Pink Floyd's, "We're just two lost souls living in a fishbowl year after year -- How I wish, How I wish you were here..."

What's your favorite item of clothing?
I like clothing without seams of any kind: old maternity pants, washed out flannel shirts, real soft material that my kids keep telling me I should use only to dust.

Do you think Rice Krispies are yummy?

If they were dipped in chocolate, but otherwise, no thanks.

What would you do if you saw $100 lying on the ground?

Assuming I am alone, meaning there are no other people around who I could ask, I would probably buy books, read them, then donate the books to an inner city teen center. (I actually did find 20.00 at the beach and that's exactly what I did so this was a trick question).

What items could you not go without during the day? Pens and paper, number one. I still use old fashioned pen and paper to get down my writing ideas in the morning, before the kids and the dog and the husband are around (that was in no particular order btw, or maybe it was in the order that they need assistance from most to least)
So definitely writing utensils.

What should you be doing right now?

Proofreading my new YA manuscript before sending it to Andrew Karre at Flux, checking on my sons who are being suspiciously quiet in the next room, and making sure my daughter isn't watching the movie,Juno, in the living room with her little friend. Oh, and cleaning the house, but after all, that is one of the beauties of blogging --

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The First Day of School

My mom has pictures of me and my brothers on every first day of school until high school, each of us dressed in stiff clothing standing by the flagpole in our front yard directly beneath the flying flag. It used to be a ritual, and like all terrified people, my brothers and I endured anything we were told to do on those days.

It's different now. I can't imagine taking pictures of the two rumpled saggy-pants boys at my breakfast table. My boys began school last week, rolled out of bed bleary eyed, and asked why I didn't homeschool them. They ask this on a fairly regular basis,and once I remind them that I would also make them read and write at home, they stop asking. There was no terror, just annoyance that they were up at 6 a.m.

My daughter began school yesterday. Emma is a lot like her brothers (eccentric), but she is also a lot more expressive. She has no fears of adults or of expressing herself so she spends a lot of time talking and writing (wonder who that's like...) So yesterday, when all the buses drove up in the afternoon, and all the moms had wonderful first day stories (She talked about her iguana/trip to Maine/first prize in the camp talent show), Emma's bus driver had a slightly different account.

Mr.G, a really patient, kindly man, was her driver last year, and since she's one of the smallest kids on the bus, he keeps her right up by his seat. When he turned right on the homebound route after a year of turning left, Emma protested by saying: "Oh, boy, where are we going?" When he explained they had a few new kids on the bus and the route was slightly longer now, she responded by saying, "Oh, that's good. I thought maybe you were going to kidnap me, take me into the woods and eat my organs."

I think it's going to be a long year.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Non Issues

They say Sarah Palin is causing the Mommy Wars to boil over into soccer fields and grocery store aisles. I can't imagine what people are getting so worked up over. Yeah, she's got five kids and she works, but does anyone really believe that she gets up and throws a load of wash on, cleans up the cat vomit, and empties the dishwasher? I don't.

I took all the feminist lit classes in college. In fact, though it's worth nearly nothing, I had a double major in Women's Studies. During my first pregnancy, I put in for a two week leave, figuring I would just find the kid a babysitter. I had someone in mind midway between Dr. Seuss and Mary Poppins. The kid would be just fine.

Of course, I had zero experience with infants; I had never babysat as a teenager (I edited papers instead), and I liked my job. He was going on formula, to daycare, and I was returning to full time work. After Christopher was born, I did none of those things. The entire world dropped away, and Christopher was the new center. I found becoming a mom the most life-altering experience possible.

But that's just me. I have friends who really DID return to work at the six week mark and they never looked back.

But here's the catch: Sarah Palin has help. Lots of it. I made my own baby food, scrubbed my own floors, and never once hired a babysitter. There just isn't time to tend to five kids and be a mayor if you don't have lots of help. There just isn't time to shower if you are taking care of five kids by yourself.

So what are people arguing about? I don't get it. The media is portraying this power mom as if she works around the clock, baking muffins and screaming at hockey matches,then coming home to grind wheat for her kids' muffins before passing a law about polar bears. Nobody in public office does what stay at home moms do because stay at home moms don't usually have a staff.

I won't even get into how much her political philosophy scares me. But I wanted to know what the kids thought, or if they had anything to say about her gender. They had never seen her before, and when I showed them her picture, my two boys commented that she looked "...like a regular mom" while my youngest looked at it and said, "She looks like the lady who sells the Lenscrafter glasses." None of them thought about whether or not she was raising kids or was male or female. Wouldn't it be great if everyone thought that way - then listened to the issues? Right now, it seems the biggest issue is gender and lifestyle choice, and that should have nothing to do with policy.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Of Ogres and New Beginnings

Ok, after all this talk of self mutilation and my (and every other mom's) worries about what, exactly, teenagers are going to find out there, my daughter unintentionally lightened the mood. She's not returning to school until mid-September due to construction on her building, so she has had plenty of time to think about what fifth grade might have in store.

"Are you scared?" Christopher asked her at dinner. "'Cause fifth grade stinks. It's when I first starting really hating school."

"I'm only scared of one thing," Emma, who is quite used to the drama of teen speak, said.

"Boys," Philip offered, "the ones who push."

"Nope. Worse."

We all looked up. Emma has had issues with boys in general, and the ones who push specifically. This has been her number one pet peeve since kindergarten.

"So what are you afraid of?" I asked, trying not to sound worried (you can imagine what was going through my head at that exact moment).

"Ogres," she responded matter-of-factly. "I am really, really scared of them."

"New Jersey doesn't have a whole lot of ogres," I reassured her. "At least, I've never seen one. I think they hate beaches."

Emma sighed. "Mom, it's not like you know who they are. They hide it. Remember that story we read, about the women who were witches but only in secret?"

(We had read the Roald Dahl story over the summer aptly titled, "The Witches")

"I remember."

"They can look just like you and me. Well," (and this really cracked her up), "not like ME, but maybe like you. That's the scary part. You just don't know who they are."

Ogres. I had almost forgotten about them.

When her brothers began smiling, Emma admonished them, "If you laugh at an ogre,or if you don't believe in them, they get mad, then they come after you first. I'm just going to walk right by them and not think anything. Nothing at all. I'm just going to go blank so they don't think anything when they see me. Then they can't get me."

At least she's got a plan.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Cutting Revisited

Blogs remind me of snapsnots, of short little conversations that I might hear on an elevator or in a waiting room. A lot of them are funny. I tend not to take blog reading or writing too seriously. But there are exceptions. My exception is the blog I wrote on cutting. It generated a few anonymous comments, and a lot of email from kids who cut and from kids who were trying not to cut.

Over the weekend, a teen told me there was to be a cutting party at a friend's house. One of my sons had been invited (he couldn't go because I did not know the parents and no one seemed to know if they would be home). She went on to say this wasn't the first cutting party she knew about.

Apparently, at a cutting party, you make a choice whether or not you want to participate. As I stood in the kitchen making snacks for the kids, I had to will myself to listen with an open mind. Here I was with multi grain organic chips and soda from the health food store trying not to notice the irony of my desire to keep them healthy and safe, and their desire to "experiment" -- I also know that not listening to teens, no matter how upsetting the story, only makes matters worse.

So you don't have to cut at a party like this. She said there's no pressure like that. The upsetting part is how accepted a behavior it is becoming: have something to eat, talk, cut, listen to music. I asked her if I had it right. She said I did. She also told me how a lot of girls had watched a BBC production of Princess Diana admitting to cutting her arms and legs. (But this behavior is also common in boys) I don't know whether that BBC taping normalized the behavior or not, but it's now making the myspace rounds.

I learned a lot from the teens who wrote to me about their experiences with cutting:
cutting is real, and cutting is spreading. And the behavior, even if it begins as an experiment, can quickly become a compulsion. The scariest aspect? The average age to begin cutting is currently between 9 and 10.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Quick! Happy Birthday!

On Monday, August 25, Emma turned ten. It's not a vast age, but while I was all excited about a trip to Toys R Us, she looked at me with her (then) nine year old patience, and announced, "Mom, I want a new computer, not toys. It's not like I'm five."

Right. She's not five, but she is only ten, and already her friends have laptops, cell phones and separate phones to text. One of her closest friends has a Blackberry.
She's ten and a half. I can't imagine what she enters on it: "Suite Life of Zach and Cody Saturday morn" or maybe just the week's spelling words.

In fairness, these are the kids who grew up with the Internet. None of them can remember a time when there weren't computers in the house, or when pictures took up to a week to get back from the developers. A few parents we know assist their children with blogs (remember diaries?) Their homework is online, they take keyboarding in second grade, and they are computer savvy by about the third grade.
Each year, along with nutritional guidelines, bus rules and field trip permissions, the Internet safety code comes home. Emma learned how to use a mouse and how to click on icons in kindergarten. She has only seen her teachers take attendance on computers that are now built in to teachers' desks.

So she got her laptop. She didn't want a party, just a family trip. For Christmas, she wants a cell phone, but she does think her friend's Blackberry is silly.

I can't imagine her opening a copy of Little Women or Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights and understanding that time. I look at most tween books, and I wonder if she will understand how life used to so much less immediate, so much less global.

Today, I answered my own question. Since she can only go on the Internet with someone present in the room (someone = older than 13), I have been watching her navigation. So far she has watched:

-a man claiming he can count to infinity

- a fashion show for dogs

- kittens (and more kittens, and yet more kittens)

- several episodes of a show involving a castle,a princess, and a witch

- music videos of bands she likes

When I asked her this morning what she liked best about her birthday, she replied,
"Two things: the wipeout (which is a water park slide) and the cake."

I don't think kids change; just their toys do. When I asked her about the laptop, she replied, "Oh, that's really just for homework so I don't have to borrow one of the boys."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Some of the Writing Questions

I am away at the Land of Make Believe (I kid you not -- my daughter's tenth birthday is this Monday, and she gets to pick the weekend trip), so I am sharing my Amazon blog here so I can go down water slides and disregard the laws of physics.

In June, I agreed to answer the questions of a junior/senior creative writing class, and I decided to do it as a blog. Be back Monday.

Ok, because the Summer Reading Project is due on September 3, I have taken a group of submitted questions related to writing and I will answer them in two mock interviews. This is the first one.
If you have a question you don't see here, I will answer it before the end of August (at the latest). I still have about six more questions on this.
And thanks for these -- some of the questions actually made me think more deeply about the whole process of writing.

Where do you get your ideas?

The idea for a novel usually germinates from a small scrap of information: it could be a scent in a coffee shop that reminds me of when I first started college, or of a friend's house, and a weird kind of association begins. A few days later, I'll remember that scent, or the particular way a tree looked in the yard, or a few words someone said to me, and a character kind of "appears" - I don't know anything about the character. Yet. I don't force anything. Little by little I begin to see the character more fully. So, to answer another question, it's not from thinking of one specific problem or conflict. It's much more from a character.

Do you have a writing schedule?

God no. I have three kids, five animals, a part time job, and a big house that's not fully unpacked from last year. It's more like I grab a few minutes here and there to work on a scene. Most of my writing time is granted through insomnia.

Do you write from drafts and revise?

Sort of. When I have down time, like waiting at my daughter's dance class or when everyone is still asleep, I write notes about the story I'm working on. Remember when your English teacher freaked about sentence fragments? That's what I use. The notes will say -- "S. goes nuts b/c no friends call." Of course, sometimes I look at these notes a day or two later and say, "What on earth did I mean by this? And who's S?"

Do you consider yourself a serious writer?

Yup. Absolutely. I kid around a lot, but in spite of a really busy life, I always manage to write because it's really important.

Why did you pick YA as your genre?

Because I, like thousands of adults, am still secretly in recovery from all the damage middle school inflicts. I can revisit that time in life and change everything.

Are you working on a new book? Is it YA also?

Yes and yes.

Do you want to write a book that is not YA?

I am also working on a middle grade/tween novel.

Some writers say that dialog is the hardest thing to write. Do you agree?

For me, dialog is pretty easy. I live with and work with teenagers so I hear my characters' dialog all the time. What is hard for me is to keep track of the scenes because I sometimes write them out of order. I have to make sure everything goes together seamlessly so it's not snowing in the beginning of chapter six and they end up at the beach two days later. That would probably be noticed by readers.

What is the most memorable thing anyone ever said to you about The Shape of Water?

It seems that I am getting more and more email about this book each day, so this might change, but it had to be from a lady who called herself "A Mom" -- she wrote that she had purchased the book due to its "pretty name and lovely cover" and she did not realize the book was about an arsonist.
Now, Magda is attracted to fire, and yes, she does set a few, but an arsonist has a sinister implication that I think is too weighty for a fifteen year old girl. Anyway, this lady went on and on about how awful it was that I wrote about an arsonist and made her my main character. She went on to say what a terrible example I was setting for teenagers.
And here's the thing: my dad really was a New York City fireman, and I heard about teenage arsonists all the time. It's not like me writing about teen arson CREATES arson. It's been around forever, and it probably will be around forever. Books have to reflect what we do as human beings.
That was a pretty weird rant, but I must say, most people write lovely things.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Few Minutes With The Boys or Why I Like Talking to Teens So Much

Last night, a warm Saturday, I told my boys that they had a choice: they could work on their summer reading projects or they could go for a ride to the harbor with me. I hate to admit this, but it was a toss up.

But since my boys were read to prenatally, grew up in a book-stuffed house with almost no television interaction, had a mom who read to them as often as she fed them, they ditched the reading. (Have I mentioned before how upset I am that they don't read? Do I already know that is the perfect way to rebel against me -- like my strict vegan friend whose son now works at and dines at Burger King?) All right, I'll stop. Not for good, but for this one blog.

The catch was they had to go for the ride and not text or answer their phones. They had to actually sit in the car like it was... "1990 or something..." (as they put it). They didn't really talk to me. I asked a few questions and got responses like, "Huh?" - "Ya" - "Duuude" - what they did do was talk to each other, and then I remembered why I like talking to (or rather, listening to) teenagers so much. I asked them if they were going to join Pep band again this year. In case you don't know, (and I, who was gifted with the athletic ability of say, Woody Allen, never knew) Pep band is their school's band that plays the National Anthem and other songs to induce tribal unity at football games and the like.

"You know, Mom, they don't let us sit during the games," Philip said, "and I play the sousaphone which is just so cool."

"It is sort of cool," I said.

"Right, because it's one of the few instruments you can actually wear."

Christopher commented, "You can see the bell of Philip's sousaphone from across the field. And Pep band is like being a musical cheerleader."

Then they launched into a mini-tirade on all the stupid things they had noticed lately.

Christopher: "Who is that woman on t.v. who sells the sleep number beds? All it says under her name is that she is a bed owner. Who isn't a bed owner?"

Philip: "Why do they swab the prisoner's arm with alcohol before giving him the lethal injection? Why does it matter at that point?"

Christopher: "Why do they put prices on the dollar menu? If it's the dollar menu..."

They did have to take their phones out at the harbor, just to check their messages. But because they tolerate me, Christopher took one phone camera shot of me and Philip (yes, he's over six feet). I pretended that was the reason they had their phones out.

Still, I had them to myself for just a short time.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Summer Reading and Karma

Years ago, when I was first given high school students as victims, I took summer reading very, very seriously. I made a comprehensive list by researching books that would help kids either on the SAT's or in September's English class, I wrote up thoughtful discussion questions, typed them out and stapled them into packets that I mailed home. I saw nothing wrong with asking 14 year olds to read five books and answer questions on them during their ten weeks off. After all, isn't that what summer was for -- reading?

Well, no. It had been for me, but I'm only now realizing exactly how weird a kid I must have been.

My summer packets rarely came back and the more experienced teachers smiled when I complained. They told me I would be lucky if some of the kids read one book. This was shocking news to me: what was wrong with the kids in that school district? Maybe something in the town's water supply was making them lazy.

But they weren't lazy; they were teenagers. (Though it could be argued that lazy/teen
are synonymous).

So fast forward. While I am diving for socks under my son's bed this morning, I find Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

"Why is this here?" I ask my 16 year old.

He yawns, shrugs, and turns away.

"This is required reading. Did you finish it?"

"Nah, it's just about this Jewish guy in Princeton who tells lies. And it's racist."

"Oh, right. That's a thorough analysis. Did you read it?"

"Ma, I told you. They let the writer talk about how he's stubborn because he's Jewish. You can't say stuff like that."

"You understand it's about the disillusionment of the time period after World War I, that..."

"How many books do I have to read for English this year?"


"Dude, that's not gonna happen." He yawns again. "Not when they assign books with racist writers."

"Don't you have to write an essay on this? And on the other one?"

"Last year so few kids read that the teacher just let us do it on a short story she gave out in class. Actually, she read the story to us."

(He's in college prep level English)

"You know what's going to happen to you if you don't read, don't you, Christopher?"

"Yup. I'm going to end up homeless. You've been telling me that since I was 9."

"What about if we read it together and talk about the chapters?"

Christopher smiles very patiently at me. "Mom, it takes way, way too long that way. You like go over every little thing. Just tell me what happens."

"No, that would ruin it."

"You know what would be cool?"

"Not Spark Notes...please, anything but Spark Notes..."

"No, no, but why don't they just make video games out of these books and take out all the slow parts? Then we would do them. And it wouldn't take so long."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

MG Moments and Mirrors

I usually take on too much in my life. When I had two kids under the age of five, a husband who was away most of the time in corportate America, no help from family, and a part time job, I decided to do the only logical thing: I decided to have another baby.

It's sort of like an ADHD of the soul.

So now I am trying to leave a numbing teaching job that looms in the fall by becoming a freelance writer (the research is so interesting that I don't get any writing done), write a middle grade and a young adult novel simultaneously while my kids bicker and complain they are bored.

Then there are the dishes and wet towels and the cat hairballs that um..."reappear" on the carpet complete with feline stomach bile. (I just picked three random items that are completely and entirely invisible to the rest of my family).

I'm not complaining, just observing.

So when my friend came for a visit this weekend, she asked me, "How do you keep the tone of the middle grade novel and the young adult novel separate? Don't you mix them up?"

Here's how:

In our hallway, there is a mirror. Before my sons leave, they have to check that their hair is straighter than a ruler, that their pants are properly sagged, that their cell phones are properly aligned in their pockets so they won't mix a single text message.

This morning my daughter (a fourth grader) was ducking down in front of the mirror. After she did this about five times, I asked her what she was doing.

"Checking," she whispered, "but I'll tell you later, Mom."

She did: Emma believed the mirror had "captured" her face and was holding it there. All she had to do was pull away fast enough and she would be able to still see her face caught inside the mirror.

That's the difference.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Yesterday, my son went to a girl's birthday party and somehow, like always, they ended up back in our house. I'll call the birthday girl Casey. I had noticed marks on her arms and legs, strangely symmetrical lines that never seemed to heal. And as usual, when I asked my son about those marks later, he told me he was busy. (He was making a frozen pizza and texting the kids who had just left our house - when I pointed out to him that didn't qualify him as busy, he got the desperate look of a trapped animal).

So yes, he said, she's a cutter, only she's a real cutter and not a fake emo cutter.
Ahh, I said, that's...what on earth?

I know teenagers cut themselves. There's at least one YA book on it and it's being mentioned more and more in YA lit. I've heard the teenagers in my living room say sentences such as, "Oh, Josh, the kid who cuts?" Followed by, "Nah, he only cut when he was going out with so and so...he doesn't anymore." Cutting is mentioned in a lot of metal song lyrics. It's a strangely accepted habit.

Kids who cut say they do it because it makes them feel better, and this is true. Doctors say cutting releases endorphins which actually DOES make the kids feel better. It's a form of release.

But the problem I see, aside from the bizarreness of self mutilation, is that there are "fake" cutters (emo cutting for attention) and the more Goth type of cutting which the kids view as authentic and a little brave. How does anyone tell when the attention-getting cutting crosses the line? And why do parents not know more about this?

When I casually mentioned this once before, in front of Casey's step mom, she thought I was referring to cutting class. She said she had never heard of it and changed the subject.

That exchange explained a lot about Casey and probably about most teens who engage in this habit.

Just a note: If you want to leave a comment, it won't be seen unless you go to http://teenswhocut.blogspot.com/ This blog is dedicated to teen issues now since a few of these posts elicited such a strong response : )

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Line Where MG and YA Divide

Girls have begun coming over to our house. Now there are new rules about keeping doors open and keeping the conversation wholesome since there is a little sister playing around the house with innocent toys like fairies and mermaids.

Along with the new rules, I have developed new and not entirely wonderful habits. I eavesdrop. I casually snoop. I ask prying questions. When I don't hear talking or laughing, I holler things into rooms like "Yoo hoo, everything all right in there or do you need some company?" and sometimes I've been known to show up at doorways holding popcorn or other excuses. Of course, I'm spying. I freely admit this. I told the kids I have become a hall monitor in my own house. They immediately informed me that the hall monitor in their school is much more understanding (and her nickname is Troll).

So the other day, Emma, the nine year old little sister, gave some sage advice to her older brothers. She explained, very matter of factly, that a boy on the bus told her the facts of life. I froze. Emma went on: "If you hold hands with a girl, and kiss her at the same time...well," she said, blushing, "you could get a baby." The moment passed. Her brothers, who luckily pretty much adore her, thanked her for the advice - and bless their adolescent hearts, they both kept straight faces. "No problem," she told them, and went back to her American Girl magazine.

Two days later, I overheard (honestly, they were sitting right on the deck while I made dinner with Emma) a conversation between my eighth grader and a girl regarding the early signs of pregnancy. So did Emma. It drifted right in through the window.
Emma looked at me and said, "Mom, don't worry."
"I am worried," I said, racking my brain for any time this could have happened.
Emma laughed. "Mom," she said patiently, "Philip is only in the eighth grade. He can't be pregnant."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Just YA Writing Stuff

Recently, a friend of mine who is sort of related to me as well (in one of those inlawish kind of ways) read my novel, and asked why, since I seemed to be able to write, did I "waste" my ability on YA.
It's not the first time that's happened. I don't walk around meeting people, saying,
HI, I WRITE YA.In fact, I rarely tell people I write. But when I do, I see them look away into the distance, and say, "What is YA? Like the Hardy Boys?" This is said with thinly disguised contempt. Okay, maybe it's not so thinly disguised. Maybe it's painfully obvious.
So I can't wait to tell these same folks that I'm almost done with an MG...
But in today's New York Times today, there is an essay that lets me know I'm not alone:


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Few Commandments of MultiCultural Writing

Over the past weekend, I tried begging off from reading YA novel first drafts for a friend of mine, a garden variety English teacher, who decided to teach a YA writing class over the summer.
"But you don't write YA," I reminded her, "in fact, you don't write."

I think when you write for teens, people get the idea that it's somehow easier than writing for adults. She seemed really lost, so sap that I am, I agreed to make comments in a separate notebook so the students could see them only if they chose.

Now, somewhere along the line, some editor must have mentioned that multicultural YA is the next hot thing. Maybe it is, but I really think folks should write what they know about. There were 14 multicultural first chapters out of 19. I learned one thing for sure: I could never be an editor. Ever. I'm horrible at it, and bad writing makes me angry which is most likely an abnormal response. I never, ever felt this way when grading students' papers, but these are adults, and they should know better. Here is my small rant:

Do not have characters named Doug and Kyle and Heather use words like "...in the hood" or borrow any gangstaspeak. I grew up in NYC, and if they went into the barrio and started throwing these words around, they would last about 14 seconds. Maybe not that long. In fact, if Doug and Kyle and Heather went into certain neighborhoods at all, and didn't speak, they would only last 15 seconds tops.

Also, do not have Doug and Kyle and Heather suddenly call their grandma "abuela" -- it's jarring and just plain weird. And it doesn't make your story multicultural.

Hispanic people do not refer to their children as "mi quesadilla." Ever. Trust me. I teach Spanish and ESL, I know lots of Spanish people, and they do not refer to their children with endearments taken from the Taco Bell menu. It's the same as if Heather's mom crooned, "Ah, there she is, my little pot roast." Stop.

Speaking of Latin people, please, please, please, do not use the adjective fiery. It's like something out of a TV Guide listing, and it was bad then. Save it to describe the food. On second thought, don't. Just don't use that word. And don't disguise fiery as "spicy" or "caliente" or even hot.

For some reason, the word "piquant" kept showing up. Horrible word, and teens would feel like they were using an SAT vocabulary builder. Stop that, too.

Native American teens do not speak like Tonto. They speak like teens in California, or New Jersey, or Florida. They do not give directions to their friend's house by saying, "...west, over the creek where the wolves water." (cringe) And while I'm at it, I might add that I once spent a year researching Native American culture to write an MG book, and I concluded that without visiting and speaking to Native American people, the book wouldn't be convincing. I think that advice is still valid.

Now, this class is in a tony suburb of Philadelphia, with lots of ambitious writers. I know how crabby I sound, so I want to say that writing a novel is always a hopeful,
wonderful event, but you really have to write about what you know. You really do; it's not one of the many writing cliches: this one is spot on.

Doug and Kyle and Heather have their problems, too. They might leave their clarinet at the mall, or develop a crush on their mom's life coach, or they might cut themselves out of grief over the divorce. These could all be made into YA books. Not books I would want to read, but with talent and revision, they could work.

And I am thankful that I read these. A few times, I have thought of applying for editing jobs. It seemed so easy. Now I know.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Say What?

After teaching online classes to homebound teens all winter, I got really good at the lol, omg, brb since we frequently used text chat. But now, I have to TALK to them again since they are home all day. So for those of you who don't have handy access to teens, I offer, in no particular order, part one of words and phrases I am learning:

A bromance = close relationship between two males, especially close if they engage in manscaping, or the shaving of any part of the male skin, and I'll leave it at that

Way = yes or I'll be there in a minute

Biters = people who copy from homework or tests

Flash, as in, "OMG, that was soo flash" = a really dumb or insensitive remark

Flashes are usually said by tools, or idiots. A wingnut would not necessarily say something flash as they are just flighty, sort of not all there. Rents, the quick way to say parents,
are very prone to flash comments.

When food is sick, it's delicious, but this is not usually said by a hater, or a pessimist. An "H" (abbreviation for hardcore)or an intense person (experiences, like watching a movie, can be H as well) is usually adept at asking the rents requestions, which is a new compound word meaning request and question at the same time. "Can you give me five dollars so I can hang out with Mike?" is an example of a requestion.

I still don't have clarity on the essential difference between emos and goths. I did get an email from a 14 year old girl asking if I meant to make my book "...you know, so emo?" I do know that Goths and Emos require three to five pounds of black eyeliner per day, and that includes the boys.

My fav might be the short form for guilt/apology, "Oh, dude, My B" which means, My Bad or Me Bad, which translates to I blew it -- sorry

I think that's it for today; in the words of the 14 year old who finally just got off my computer, "Got to bounce."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

So...Where Have You Been?

Most blogs I read are happy, funny, pretty light on seriousness. I usually don't like to be serious when I write blogs either, but I didn't answer email or the phone or even the door for about a week a while back. So why was I in the zone of non-presence?
Because my brother was missing. He just left the house one day with a car and an ATM card. It's not something 54 year old real estate lawyers do very often. But he is bipolar and he went off his meds. When something like that is going on, you just don't care about much else. And it's not exactly a secret since the Staten Island Advance published this:

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Thomas Spollen is soft-spoken, friendly, introspective and brilliant -- the engineering visionary in the plucky duo of brothers whose homemade, eco-friendly bicycle is the centerpiece of the current exhibit at the Staten Island Museum.

The 54-year-old real estate attorney turned up yesterday afternoon after disappearing Thursday from the Dongan Hills home he shares with his brother, Chris Spollen.
Spollen apparently had been wandering around Staten Island, staying in motels, camping in parks and sleeping in his Toyota Matrix.

"When you have somebody missing close to you, it's awful," said the elder Spollen. "We were all traumatized."

Spollen has bipolar disorder and had been prescribed medication that made him chronically drowsy. So, several months ago, he decided to stop taking it entirely, his brother said.

As is characteristic of the upswing side of bipolar disorder -- a mental illness sometimes referred to as manic depression and characterized by periods of intense highs and intense lows -- Spollen's energy started to escalate.

But along with his increased stamina and activity, Spollen also became agitated and delusional -- behavior characteristic of the mental illness often associated with Spollen's brand of uncanny genius, and said to have also plagued such intellectual luminaries as Mark Twain, Ludwig van Beethoven and Winston Churchill.

"He's very, very bright, but with the brightness came the other," said Chris Spollen, adding that his brother needs better medical supervision to live more comfortably with the very treatable condition. "I want to get the bright back."

Whenever people tell me not to worry because, omg, Jane Pauley has bipolar, and Dick Cavett, and...I want to tell them that they also have medical insurance whether they work or not.

In any event, when Tom returned, he said, "I was never missing. They were missing me."

It's a line I wish I had written, and the simple truth of it haunts me.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Summer Vacation

Yup, it's here. Today is Monday, the first full day of summer vacation. The kids slept late, got up, ate enough to feed a small village, then looked at me.

"I'm bored."

Three times. Each one of them. Separately. All within an hour of waking up.

It's the first day...

Brings certain images of yesteryear to mind...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Selective Communication

Last month, my son sent over 15,000 text messages. He's in the eighth grade, and when I saw his usage, I knew, instantly, what had to be done: a psych consult. What had I done wrong that my son would send 500 text messages a day?
That's nothing, his friends assured me. Then I heard tales of over 30,000 messages, they reminded me that you have to count messages received, and all the while they were talking, they were texting, and receiving texts. In my day, it was the phone - a constant war waged between me and my parents about my extensive phone usage. They kept asking me why I had to speak to kids I had just left at the bus stop, and they reminded me, over and over, that a phone call is meant to last no longer than 3 minutes. Probably, I would be a 2008 textaholic as well. All teens want to do is talk to each other. So, he 's communicative, I told myself last Friday,a communicative male. Not so bad. What I forgot is they communicate WITH EACH OTHER and not, necessarily, with adults.
Here's the conversation between Philip and I on Friday evening:
Me: I'm taking your sister to her dance recital rehearsal. I'll be back around nine.
Philip: I'm going out. To church.
Me: Tell the truth.
Philip: Youth group meeting.
Me: Stunned silence. Brief image of my long haired son celebrating the Eucharist in ten years.
Philip: Texting.
Me: You are doing this voluntarily?
Philip: This girl asked me.
Me: Silent. ('Cause I get it).
I know and like the folks who run the church youth group, and when he assures me he has a ride there and back (with the girl), I am secretly delighted that he is involved with a group known for their diligent community service.

Fast forward. Ten at night. After going to our church at 9:00, I am told there was no youth group meeting. I go on AIM, send a myspace bulletin, text his friends, drive by our church again, peer at every group of adolescents I see. Philip is not answering his phone or texts I am sending him. I am frantic. If he's not answering his texts, it only means one thing...
The kids get back to me, and give me the phone number (imagine starting a conversation with "the girl who asked him" as the only identifying factor - then imagine the kids knowing who this was).
Turns out, he had gone to the youth group meeting. The youth group went to see a concert in a rented bus and they were not allowed to use their cell phones during the bus ride or the concert.
"Jeez, Mom, why are you so upset?"
"You have to TALK to me more. You went to a Baptist youth group, and we're not Baptists. That was an important piece of information."
"Man," he says, opening his phone to read his new text, "I'm sorry, Mom, but it's like you want to know every single thing about me."