August 31, 2009

Drink the Kool-Aid

Filed under: Kids and Life — jenny @ 7:01 am

Did you ever notice how children’s Tylenol tastes like grape Kool-Aid these days? Or bubble gum, or cherry candy, or something else I would’ve saved my dimes to buy as a kid.

This is more than just when-I-was-a-kid-I-walked-uphill-both-ways grumbling, so bear with me.

I am struggling with how child-focused our culture–at least a segment of our culture–has become.  Child indulgent might be the better term.

I am wondering if this is good for the children so focused upon.

When we were in Presque Isle some of the people we met told how twenty years ago when they were in high school, the term was aborted shortly after school started so the kids could pick potatoes ten hours a day. A successful harvest depended on the kids doing work that I would probably find difficult at this age.

Life didn’t revolve around kids and their needs. The kids’ lives revolved around the necessities of the adult world.

It’s tempting to see the pendulum as having swung. I’m not sure that’s the reality, but let me go with it for a while.

When an adult wants a meal out in 2009, she can eat chicken nuggets or a burger because, darn, it’s nice for the kids to have a play yard to amuse themselves in while she gulps down her fries. Or she may even go out to a place like Full Moon if she’s lucky enough for one to exist in her neck of the woods, and order tagine while her kid eats chicken fingers and plays with the toys scattered in lieu of a multi-color pit of slimy plastic balls.

Still, the kids’ needs–or demands–are driving this night.

Kids don’t pick the potato crop. They don’t even have to take bitter tasting medicine anymore. It all tastes like Kool-Aid, and we know how easily that goes down.

When my daughter had a pre-UTI and we gave her straight cranberry juice (I’m not talking Ocean Spray, but the Knudsons Nothing But variety) you would’ve thought we were requiring her to drink ground glass. And it hit me, this kid hasn’t tasted anything–anything–bad in her life.

First the sweetish breast milk we are all encouraged to administer for months or years–and mind, I loved nursing, stopped with an ache in my heart, but the fact remains…what if I had not loved it so? What if I was working out of the home, and my child and her optimal state of nutrition couldn’t come absolutely first? Wouldn’t the troupes come out to tell me I am not doing What My Child Needs?

Then there are the dumplings and eel sushi and Thai green curry, which my kids–weird, I know–actually like, and which does save me from having to eat Whoppers at every meal out. But I didn’t taste these things until I was a big kid, and then maybe once a year or less. Now we go out to eat semi-regularly–and we take our kids. I try to make them behave nicely so the adults less encumbered around us can have a peaceful meal. Don’t always succeed, but I do try.

Not everyone does. Kids need to stand up on the benches. Kids’ voices are naturally loud. Once upon a time, kids were supposed to be seen and not heard. Or at least given a smart swat on the butt when they stood up on chairs. Am I romanticizing that state of things?

Then of course there are the ubiquitous nuggets and tenders and boxed macaroni until we parents (me anyway) don’t know whether we should make a second meal–at least offer toasted cheese–if one night we cook homemade and the kids happen not to like our explorative stew.

What happens if our kids have to eat a meal they hate? Or go to bed hungry?

Are we lucky to have reached a level of plenty–one that largely isn’t even dependent on income; nuggets are cheap, how many kids don’t have plasma or playstations–so that kids don’t have to suffer even puny harms ?

Or do those puny harms achieve something ?

Will our children grow up lacking precisely because they lack so little?

Don’t get me wrong. I adore my kids. I believe my primary job as parent–after caring for and nurturing them–is to help them find their passions so that their days can be fueled with joy. Help them discover who they are.

And I like administering the frills of a lucky childhood, too. We’re far from rich, but my kids do have, for instance, a firetruck and princess bed to assist in their imaginary games of wailing sirens and being trapped in a tower.

I know that worrying is supposed to be the plight of parenthood and I get the nightmare visions, too. But one key area of worry for me is this very subject. Have kids’ lives become too easy, or too…important at a young age?

Or are these the years we parents have to teach them their worth and importance?

I’d love to hear what you think.

August 27, 2009

Made It Moment: Terry Odell

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 8:03 pm

Terry Odell -- When Danger Calls
Although I am new to Terry Odell‘s fiction, I have been a loyal reader of her blog for some time now. Terry’s thoughts on writing and life inspire me in these very pages, and always keep me coming back for more. In this new Moment, Terry explains why not making it may be the real goal in the end.

When Jenny asked me to contribute my “Making It” story to her blog, I thought I’d already covered most of it when I responded in the comment section to another post.
However, agreeing to be ‘up on top’ meant I had to put things together with a modicum of coherence. Maybe even a … theme? Not hardly.

But I do think one’s ‘When Have I Made It?’ answer will vary. And should never be static. To me, it relates to the volunteer work I do with the Adult Literacy League in Orlando.

I can’t imagine not reading any more than I can imagine not breathing – and the consequences would be the same, I fear. As someone whose parents will say we moved when I was 12 because I’d finished the library, I’ve always been a reader. Cereal boxes on up. So when I had the time to volunteer, it seemed a given that it would be for literacy. And this article might sum it up.

After working with two students, I became a trainer rather than a one-on-one tutor. This way, my time would put a few dozen new tutors out there, and that meant reaching a few dozen new students. One of the things we discuss at length is taking a student’s goals into consideration. Christina Dodd does a fantastic presentation on the Sidewalk of Success. We all get on the sidewalk. How long we stay is up to us.

When you meet with an adult student who’s finally admitted he or she has a reading problem, you’re all excited and envision them marching across the stage, picking up that diploma, or GED, or discoursing with their coworkers about the impact of a recently read tome.

The reality is, a student shows up with goals. And it’s the student’s goal that matters, not the tutor’s goal. So, the tutor should NOT be surprised if the student comes in wanting to get a driver’s license, learns enough to pass the test, says ‘thanks’ and you don’t see him again.

Or maybe your student wants to be able to read to her children, or grandchildren. When she masters a children’s book, she, too may say, ‘thanks’ and you don’t see her again. You didn’t fail them. They got exactly what they wanted.

Sometimes, their goals change as their horizons expand. They can read Dr. Seuss, but they want to be able to read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Or something for themselves, maybe for the first time. So they move that goal farther down the sidewalk.

Likewise with being an author. Perhaps my goal is to get a mass market book published so I can walk into the grocery store and see it. Along my sidewalk, I’ve passed some preliminary milestones – finishing the manuscript, getting it published by an electronic publisher. Then having two more manuscripts accepted. Seeing the books issued in print, and holding them for the first time. Getting an agent. Having a book come out in print in hard cover. Winning awards. Being asked to give presentations.

Sure, there are cracks in the sidewalk. Not having widespread distribution. Having people say, “Oh, you’re a writer? Have I heard of you?” Deciding that your agent isn’t the best match, and having to start from the beginning.

Will I ever reach the end of the sidewalk and say “I’ve Made It?” I sure hope not. Because there’s always a bend in the road, and more sidewalks lie ahead.

Just like I can’t imagine not reading, I can’t imagine not writing.

August 26, 2009

Filed under: Great Reads — jenny @ 9:35 am

I’ve written a lot here about traditional summer pleasures–ice cream, vacations–(and I haven’t even gotten to The Best Beach Ever yet, or swim lessons), but today I want to focus on one thing that really makes summer fun for me.

A great book.

You could call them beach reads, I suppose, although I’m just as content to devour them in a shadowy nook as on the sand. I’ve discovered three I want to share.

You have seen James Siegel’s work if you watched a movie with Clive Owens and Jennifer Aniston a few years back called Derailed. I read Mr. Siegel’s paperback DETOUR a few weeks ago and was immediately hurled into a world of international adoption, guerilla warfare, and the love between a couple and their child. Something about the prose reminds me of early Stephen King, and I am always looking for books that live up to the King’s level. Mr. Siegel isn’t derivative at all, but he gets that blend of tiny detail that brings a character to life, combined with plot intensity, which in my experience few authors achieve.

I read Gillian Flynn’s first novel of literary suspense last year, and now I am reading DARK PLACES. I think it’s even better. It retains Ms. Flynn’s characteristic (can something be characteristic by a writer’s second book?) sense of brooding, smoky atmosphere but widens the scope to a family through the generations. This is an especial feat because most of that family is dead. And now I won’t say anything more–just read it!

Finally, I have to give a shout out to Lee Child. I am still catching up with Mr. Child’s series, which saves me buying hardcovers for a little while longer. This summer I read THE HARD WAY and BAD LUCK AND TROUBLE. I’ve said this in other places: I have no idea why I adore this hard, techno, macho series.

But I do. Every book rings absolutely true, and even though Mr. Child’s characters are in some ways as stripped down as the late, great Michael Crichton’s, they have more humanity. Despite the techno/macho stuff, I feel something when I read a Reacher thriller.

I think what I primarily feel is that now I could go out there and kick some serious butt. I mean, really. Jack Reacher can protect anyone against anything. I borrow some of that strength for the time I’m in Reacher’s world.

So what are your summertime pleasures? Any great books to share?

Or maybe we should all just get out there and read–summertime only lasts so long.

But who am I kidding? I read just as much in fall, winter, and spring too.

August 25, 2009

Envy: the writer’s curse

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 8:19 am

Last night I read about a suspense novel whose premise is so chilling, I wanted to run out and buy it right away, with no thought for the fact that we really can’t afford very many twenty-five dollar hardcovers right now.

It hadn’t been published, or even made available for pre-order yet, which stopped me.

It wasn’t available yet because the offer had just been made. The author got a two book deal from a publisher that recently passed on my own manuscript. They publish several of my favorite authors, so that one was an especial blow.

As best I can tell, this offer came just a few months after the author was querying agents. Only a few months of the purgatory (it’s more like hell) of submission!

And I had a fullblown case of writer’s envy. Woke up with woozy, green pain and everything.

As writers, I think we are especially prone to this, making comparisons and putting ourselves in another’s place. It’s what we do when we make up stories, after all.

And publishing is such a difficult prospect that it’s impossible not to picture ourselves several jumps down the road, then wonder why we’re not there yet.

On the plus side, writers are some of the nicest and most forthcoming people I’ve met in any profession, so the envy is often paired with an I’m-glad-for-them streak. And books being bought is good for all writers, published and unpublished, because it kicks up demand and shows there is an outlet.

I’m so happy for this writer’s success, and can’t wait for her book, already on my To Buy list, a year before it’s published.

But man, am I jealous.

August 22, 2009

Home again, home again, jiggity jig

Filed under: Kids and Life — jenny @ 8:19 am

Sorry for the silence. For the past two and a half weeks, we were traveling in the wilds of Maine.

Well, maybe not the wilds. Not the stumbling-through-the-woods-and-ending-up-in-Canada (or dead) wilds. But we did spend two weeks in the lovely and desolate town of Presque Isle, before slowly wending our way south again.

We’ve been going to this town for about six and a half years now, ever since I was pregnant with my first child. My husband’s company has an office there, and we try not to split up for business trips, so I used to tag along and we stayed at a B&B instead of the convention center near his office. Now having little kids attached to our traveling troupe, we’ve switched our sights to a beautiful campground with a rental house that suits us just fine.

It’s funny how a place can change, even one that seems in some (delightful) ways to be stuck in time.

Back when we were first going up there, if you wanted a meal out there was a staggering array of fast food to choose from, and the darkest lettuce you could get was iceberg.

I don’t know if it’s things moving in a certain direction–pretty much everywhere puts mesclun greens on the salad these days–or us getting to be the teensiest bit more like locals–minus the five month, negative forty degree winters, of course–and discovering hidden spots, or a combination of the two, but we found our way to some really special things this trip.

The Dairy makes its own ice cream and when we arrived during berry season, this included raspberry with actual pieces of fruit, and a delectable, tart taste. They make homemade sundae toppings like peanut butter hot fudge, and put toasted nuts on every one. They whip their own cream, man!

If you stay at the campground, you can take a kayaking trip down the river right out front, and watch bald eagles circling for minutes at a time. The cost is absurdly low compared to trips further south, and the excellently kept two person kayaks are perfect for a child’s first paddling trip.

The nested array of ATV trails are fun if you’re into off roading, but also perfect for long walks amongst vast fields bordered by woods. It’s not the same as hiking up a mountain. There’s no press to get somewhere, to summit or achieve a view. The view is all around you, all the time. You can simply wander, and that’s something that people in places like Presque Isle seem to be better at than, say, New York.

Cafe Sorpreso has come to PI and brought with it homemade soups, sandwiches, and dinner entrees like steak with a sauce of roquefort, cabernet, and shallots.

Whoopie Pie

The Sandwich Shoppe makes everything fresh, Italians and tuna subs, but also whoopie pies and addictive butterscotch rice krispie treats slathered with melted chocolate.

Is there a tension between roquefort sauce and rice krispie treats? We like eating pizza as much as steak and so were happy to find Rosella’s, which also serves a regional specialty, deep fried pickles. But I wonder what will happen to this town, carving out its existence in a valley near New Brunswick, Canada, if restaurants with heavy cutlery and unusually shaped dishes keep migrating to it.

I hope one thing won’t change, and that’s the people of PI. Not only are they friendly and wonderful to us out-of-towners, but they seem to have a startling propensity to stay, generation to generation, in this admittedly tough place to live. (The winters really do hover at forty below for spells.) And that produces something that I thought was becoming lost in this rapidly changing, mesclun green eating world.


August 10, 2009

ICE TRAP by Kitty Sewell

Filed under: Great Reads — jenny @ 8:18 am

If my novel is (ever) bought, readers will see that I love books about snow and cold. There’s something inherently suspenseful about these elements. It’s lucky I never thought I had the market cornered in this respect, because Kitty Sewell’s brilliant thriller would’ve had me eating humble pie.

I discovered this book while on my voyage to Powell’s in Portland and reading it became a voyage in itself.

Amidst the struggles of their workaday life, a couple is trying unsuccessfully to have a baby, and this is taking its usual toll. As tensions mount, the husband receives a letter. It’s from a gawky teenager, claiming to be his daughter.

A lifetime ago Dayffd did a stint as a young doctor in the Canadian wilderness. The world he left behind hardly beckons anymore, although it contained longing, lust, and even love. It also contained a confused and toxic charge nurse, who worked side by side with Dayfdd, and just happens to be the mother of the teenager writing him now.

Dafydd knows he can’t be this child’s father–nor the father of her twin–and he travels back to a far snowy land to prove it. What he finds there is a mystery more twisted than anything he could’ve imagined. And disentangling himself from it may cost him even more than the child he will never have.

Kitty Sewell is a skillful writer whose prose brings to life a totally alien atmosphere. The redemption ICE TRAP holds out in the end is a plus–a thriller that ends thrillingly. And her characters are as real as you or I, but more than that they’re far from any stock or type you might recognize. Reading her novel is a trip to foreign climes in more ways than one, and I am eagerly waiting Kitty’s next.

August 2, 2009

Made It Moment: Charles Salzberg

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 10:28 pm

Charles Salzberg -- Swann's Last Song

Charles Salzberg writes this new Moment, and it is a great tale in of itself: of struggle and art and commercial success. Charles is as gifted a teacher as he is a writer and in these few words he makes us all students, not of writing but of life. Read on and then please weigh in with how you feel about Charles’ path to publication of his sharp, wry detective novel, SWANN’S LAST SONG.

Well, I’m not sure I think of myself as making it yet—perhaps no one ever does—but my start came in the mailroom of New York magazine, where I lasted a grand total of three months, before hitting the bricks in an attempt to be a freelance magazine writer. All the while, though, I was writing fiction. Not selling it, but writing it. One of the novels I wrote was Swann’s Last Song, almost 30 years ago. It was an experiment, really. As a “literary” writer, I wasn’t really interested in genres, but I’d been reading a lot of very good detective fiction—Hammett, MacDonald, Chandler, Cain—and I started wondering about the ordered world these detectives lived in. Follow the clues, solve the crime. But what, I wondered, if life wasn’t so neat? What if a detective followed all the clues and didn’t solve the crime? What if the crime was simply a random act, with little rhyme or reason?

And so, I began to write a book that seemed well within the detective/mystery genre. Only in my fictional world the detective, in this case a New York City skip tracer named Henry Swann who, as a finder of lost things, has a view of a world that is logical and reasonable, does not solve the crime.

But what seemed like a good idea turned into a nightmare, when agents and editors alike balked at the ending. “Love the book, but not the ending,” they said. And so I tucked the manuscript in a drawer, only to return to it 25 years later, older and wiser, when I caved in and rewrote the ending. My agent was happy. The editors were happy. As for me, well, I still kind of like that original ending, which presented a very different view of the world we live in.

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