Friday, April 25, 2014

Toddlerhood: The Second Coming

The other day, my husband and I were recalling the diaper days, those messy, smelly, never ending years of baby- and toddlerhood. I guess I had blocked out the memory, just as I've blocked out most of the joyless aspects of parenthood: things like sleepless nights, food jags and tantrums.

Someone once told me the reason all babies are so cute is so their parents will keep, care for and not harm them, despite the tremendous amount of work and sacrifice they demand. It made perfect sense. My kids' cuteness certainly saved their young lives more than once.

So why don't we turn them out of the house when they are teenagers? If you think about it, the teen years are a lot like the infant and toddler years combined. The children become noisy, smelly, disagreeable, back-talking eating machines that can't be reasoned with. They're emotional, throw tantrums, make you want to tear your hair out and cause you to lose sleep. To top it all off, they don't appreciate a single thing you do for them.

Despite being a teenager, my son Jacob is one of the sweetest kids I know. He frees insects that get caught inside the house. He doesn't go fishing because he hates that the worms have to die. He's kind to everyone. But when he was in middle school, he was bullied. He was small, had glasses and braces and was very chatty. Some kids decided these were good reasons to push him around.

The fact is that too many kids in too many schools get bullied for multiple reasons, and sometimes for no reason at all. It tore my heart out to see my sweet boy hurting, especially because I knew he would never fight back--it's just not in his nature to fight.

Fast forward three years. Yes, he still has glasses and braces, but he's grown. He's found his "tribe" in high school and feels accepted and respected among his fellow drama club members and artists. He's no longer bullied. Some kids would put the negative experience of those days behind them, maybe chalk it up to one of those things that "all kids go through," or just block it out of their memory. But he didn't.

This week, Jacob participated in the GLSEN Day of Silence. The DOS is a national youth movement aimed at bringing attention to the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies. It's intended to echo the silence caused by anti-LGBT bullying, name-calling and harassment. This was no small feat. Jacob is still very chatty. I knew that going a whole day without speaking would probably be one of the most difficult things he ever tried to do, and it was. But he did it.

Though Jacob isn't bullied anymore, I realized that he carried that experience with him. He hasn't forgotten what it felt like to have no voice, to be unable to speak up or fight back when he was being picked on just because he was different in some way.

Teenagers have a bad reputation. As they approach these volatile years, parents tend to brace themselves for "the worst". We're warned that they will start experimenting with drugs, alcohol and sex. They're going to fight the rules, push back and make life difficult for everyone in the household. They're going to start acting like big babies all over again.

But what's really happening is, they're growing up, and figuring out who they're going to be. And just like when they were little, they're learning how to  make choices. These choices have higher stakes though, and consequences much more serious than the time-out sessions of their younger years. So as parents, our job of guiding and teaching them is even more important. No wonder we worry and cringe.

I have yet to walk on eggshells with my teenager, and I know I'm lucky to be able to say that. I'm sure there will be tough days ahead. But seeing my child making selfless choices, based on his priorities and convictions, is an amazing experience for me as a mom. So if the bad days are tempered by moments when he's thoughtful and respectful of others (even if it's not me), then no matter how bad those days get, I'll take them. Because in those good moments, I see a young man that I'm proud to call my son.

And I can just block out the bad days from my memory later.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Just The Facts, Ma'am

I'm writing a novel, and one of the things I've been struggling with most is point of view. I'm one of those crazy, scientifically-minded people who tries to see every situation from every angle and then approach with objectivity.

The problem with doing that in fiction is, it's boring. I didn't realize this before. I figured knowledge is power, so the more the reader knows, the better. Makes sense in life, makes sense for fiction, right?

This week I was handed a situation that exemplified why knowing every angle of a story makes it boring.

I live in a small, close-knit neighborhood. I know everyone who lives on my street, as well as what their cars look like. We all have driveways, and there are no sidewalks or curbs. Visitors park in the driveway of whoever they are coming to see. A car on the street is unusual unless there is a party going on.

Yesterday, there was a car parked on the street outside my house, and I didn't recognize it. It was empty, but on my way back from walking my dog, I saw a young man get in the car and drive away. I didn't know where he came from, so I dismissed it. Today, after putting my son on the bus, I started walking my dog again, and the same car pulled down the street past me. It went to the end of the block, turned around and sat facing me, waiting for me to pass my house. It became a game of 'chicken'. I picked up my newspaper, looked at the headline. The car didn't move. I put the newspaper delivery bag into the recycling bin. The car didn't move. I began walking down the block, in the direction of the car. Once I passed the next driveway, the car drove past me and parked outside my house again. The young man in the large-brimmed baseball hat sat in the car, engine off, sipping a large drink from a straw. I couldn't see his face.

I kept walking, calling a friend and my husband for consult. Is this guy casing the neighborhood? Watching for kids getting on and off school buses? Taking notes of who's in what house and which houses are empty? Waiting to make a drug deal? The possibilities were endless. My tension was high.

When I got back from my walk, the car and driver were still there. I memorized the license plate, went into my house and double-locked the door. Upstairs, I began searching for the non-emergency police number which, apparently, is no longer listed in the phone book. (If you have to ask "what's a phone book?" you are too young to appreciate my tension.) Five minutes had passed. The car was still there. After giving up on the phone books and Googling the number, I called police. They took my name, address and the details of the situation. They said they'd send a car. I waited.

The minutes ticked by. I knew another school bus was coming soon and the kids getting on it were young, and often came out alone to go to the bus stop. What if the police didn't come before the kids came out? Should I call the parents and let them know about this strange car? Should I go out myself? Now the stakes were rising.

The kids came out. I watched through the window. A dad drove with one of them to the bus stop and stayed until they got on the bus. The strange car stayed put. Now I was alone in the house, and most of my neighbors had gone to work.

See how intriguing all of this is from just my perspective? I had no details, no police backup yet and no idea what was going to happen next.

If I was reading this story, I'd keep turning the pages.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in story arc, language, voice and plot that we forget our characters need to make the reader feel something as they join them on their journey. That's why readers keep reading: they care about what happens. And the best way to make them care is to keep some of the details from them, raise the tension and make them wonder where they're headed. My goal today will be to keep this fear, tension and excitement in mind as I sit down to work on my writing.

Ultimately, the police showed up. The driver was the relative of my neighbors, and had been living at their house. Why, then, didn't he park in their driveway? He'd been avoiding them. The reasons for that haven't yet become clear, but I'd met this young man once and felt bad that I'd called police on him. Once I had all the information, though, I realized he was not a rapist, drug dealer or pedophile. Just a young man who needs to work out some family issues.

But having all that information up front makes for much less interesting fiction, don't you think?

Friday, April 4, 2014



A secret place within

deep forests, waiting

to be discovered.

Paper airplanes, yearning

to be flown. Gliding every

which way in a mass of paper.

Birds dodging quick-flying

airplanes in a flurry of wings.

Doing something on a day

when nothing has to be done

is much better than doing


--Jacob Adler, 2007
Age 8
Honorable Mention in Sarah Mook Poetry Prize competition