Call One Mrs. Badzin, and Don’t Call (or Text) the Other’s Kids After 10

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I’ve got some friends out there who are badass mothers. Good thing I’m a half- (OK, half- to full) generation removed from parenting kids concurrently with them, because they also happen to be excellent writers. Nuff said, right?

I knew I was going to like Nina Badzin’s recent (June 27, 2016) article in Motherwell, “Call me Mrs. Badzin,”  from the very first half of the very first sentence:

In one of our earliest parenting arguments…

So much, in seven words:
1. The assumption of parenting arguments;
2. The recognition that they came early;
3. The implication that they continue.

And we haven’t even gotten to the meat of her article yet! Which I also happen to like, which is that eventually Nina decided to agree with her husband and encourage (Nina’s general take) or demand (my understanding of her husband’s take) that the friends of their children address them as Mr. and Mrs. Badzin.

I believe the point at which I was called upon to make this decision was much like the one Nina describes:

The first time my opinion shifted was the day that Sam, four at the time, had a new friend over for a playdate who walked up to me and said, “Mrs. Badzin, may we please have a snack?” Call me Nina was on the tip of my tongue, but I realized that this little boy calling me Mrs. Badzin was not about me. It was about his parents’ wish for their child to demonstrate respect, and there was no question those parents had succeeded.

Unfortunately, most of my kids friends did call me Donna, so I think (hard to remember, now) I wasn’t moved sufficiently to act as Nina did. And I do think its unfortunate, if only because I feel there’s a trend toward societal infantilization of adults that is not doing our kids, or us, any good.

I’m not talking about parental authority run amok, but I am talking about the very tough parenting decision my friend Angela Johnson recently made regarding her teenaged boys and cell phone use into the wee hours of the morning. Regarding her June 14 “Words by Angela” blog entry, titled “Talking to Teens When Tragedy Happens. Oh, and Cell Phones…” , I think I cued in to the cell phone part because the rest I knew I would have handled the same way she did. The 10+ years’ difference between her two boys and my one wouldn’t really have changed the way I’d approach discussions about the Stanford rapist or the massacre in Orlando.

But I wasn’t as brave about restrictions on cell phone use. In my defense (and let’s just say right here it is always a sign of weakness, to use that phrase) Wikipedia says that in 1997, 0.4 text messages were sent per customer per month. My son was 10 in 1997; I think he got his first cell phone when he could drive, so maybe 2003. I don’t remember his taking his phone to bed at night with him (I suspect he will be happy to correct me on this), although I do remember my niece doing so just a few years later. “Sexting” became a dictionary entry in 2012.

All of which serves as preamble to these words by Angela:

Speaking of lights in the darkness. Let me finish with comments about those glowing blue screens. I should have done this before, when we first bestowed those tiny Pandora’s boxes into the palms of our children’s hands. I should have insisted they be phone free overnight.

And she did, Now she collects her two teenaged boys’ phones at 10pm, and returns them in the morning. They live somewhere east of St. Paul–I think I still hear them howling every night just as the summer sun sets. As Angela writes,

They are not pleased.

That’s where the badass part comes in, for Angela and Nina and, I hope, for me, in what few opportunities I continue to have to parent. What we do, say, how we conduct ourselves doesn’t always please our kids. Even when they’re young adults, out on their own, we can still make decisions that influence their behavior.

Let’s all try being grown-ups, for a change. It may, in the end, make our kids look more grown up, too.

 

 

If You Write Fiction, Pre-Order This: Ben Percy’s THRILL ME

61gdIUEfvaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_How many of us who write were avid readers as children? I know I was, and still am, but there’s a difference now: as a child, I had no predetermined notion of what made a good book. If I liked it, it was good! As a result, my reading took me from this remarkably old-fashioned-looking series of children’s biographies…

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…to more classic stories like Charlotte’s Web to the perhaps less well-know (but dearly loved) From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. One of my earliest all-time favorites was The Boxcar Children (every last sequel to which I found heartbreakingly awful). My parents weren’t huge readers or even particularly interested in the books that my sisters and I chose on our regular library visits. They just wanted us to read, and so we read what we liked.

I thought about my childhood reading often when reading Ben Percy’s first non-fiction book, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. Ben establishes the premise of the book early on: Don’t forget the most basic reason we read: to discover what happens next. Just like kids, most adults don’t set out to read something for its excellent character development, nor for its lovely “rhyming action” (described originally by Charles Baxter in Burning Down the House and referenced by Percy in Thrill Me), and certainly not for the “feckless pondering” Percy (pretty comically, especially for those of us who have been known to indulge) eschews. What readers want–kids and adults–is a good story.

Clearly, what they’ll enjoy more is a story that is made better by the many topics Percy covers in this fast-paced book of fiction-writing craft, including how to create urgency and suspense, how to “make the ordinary extraordinary” and how to “activate setting.” You’ll read about his “suspense-o-meter,” his use of screenplay pacing, his general distaste for backstory. There are no writing exercises, but there are scores of references to good books, compelling stories, can’t-look-away movies. If all you did was collect Percy’s literary/film references and set out to read/view each, you’d be a better writer for having read Thrill Me.

But that’s not all this writer is going to do. I’m starting something new, and for the first time I’m going to try Percy’s “reverse engineering:” figuring out what my main character wants, placing her in the “worst case scenario” for getting/losing it, and making that the end of the story. That’s right–Percy is an unapologetic proponent of knowing the end of the story before you start. I’ve written two novels that have had difficulty finding homes. Percy says he’s written four failed novels, which is satisfying both in fact (obviously he’s gone on to success) and in bluntness (obviously I’m presently having trouble with the word “failed.”) Too often I’ve found myself fishing around for or belatedly inserting plot. Not this time. This time I’m working backwards. This time I’m writing a page-turner.

I also love and desperately want to use a suggestion he makes regarding “the balance between whimsy and logic.” “Try changing one thing,” he writes, if that’s where you want to go. “Just one. This is our world except for______.” How exciting is that? Just one thing–what will it be? A person with some kind of ESP? A ghost? A piece of music that bubbles up randomly–or not? And then there’s all the rest of my favorite Percy-isms: I’ve always loved (and since first hearing it, have consistently employed–so to speak) his advice in the “Get a Job” chapter, which is to have characters do meaningful work. I love to have characters make decisions after which there is truly no going back. I’m counting on my main character being able to say, “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”

His essay on “Revision as Renovation” makes the traditional advice about revision–“Kill your darlings”–seem like sweetness and light. I’m feeling a little beaten up right now, so it’s actually (although somewhat contrarily so) good for me to let Ben “tell [me] something: if you’ve got the angel in one ear, whispering kind things, and the devil in the other, hissing about how badly you stink, listen to the devil. The devil drives revision.” In my case, the “revision” is truly that–a new vision for how to write a novel. End first. Reverse engineer. And I’m hoping that anything that happens to me afterwards, I’ll never feel the same about again.

(I got an advance reader’s copy but you weren’t that lucky. Pre-order Ben Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction at Indiebound or Amazon. Publication date is set for October 18, 2016.)

 

 

Celebrating a Lean

If the leaning tower of Pisa didn’t lean, would we like it nearly as much?

Make no mistake–this baby LEANS. When you stand on the stone floor of it’s interior base, you slide downhill unless you brake against the slope. At the top, where four bells sit, marble had to be carved out of one side of one bell’s housing because it still hangs straight, while the building does not. And yet, on a recent trip to Italy, I found out it’s certainly not the only tower to lean–Venice seems to have more leaning bell towers than upright. So what is it about the leaning tower of Pisa that captures our attention?

For one, if you look carefully, you’ll see it’s kind of banana-shaped. That’s because it was built in stages: early construction was halted at like the 2nd or 3rd floor when one half of the foundation began to sink. Something like 100 years later, somebody aded the next few floors and had the great idea of shortening the pillars on one side to give the tower the appearance of standing straighter. Or of curving like a boomerang–your choice. Later, a variety of schemes were hatched to pump water/sand/concrete in/out of the soil around the tower’s base. The lean has been halted at about 5 degrees–although a man using a cell phone at the top the day we visited declared he measured it at 8. That’s when I decided it was time to return to the bottom.

Part of what’s mesmerizing about it is its color–so white against the day’s clearing skies and unusually green grounds. Part, too, is the neighboring church and cemetery and baptistery, where I cried when the woman who sold us tickets to enter came in and sang some notes that echoed off all the walls with such perfection she sounded like four people at once. Part of it is its name–not the “tower of Pisa,” but the “leaning tower of Pisa.” It’s what we’ve always known. It’s not perfect.

Just like my husband and I weren’t perfect when we got off the train from Florence at the Pisa Centrale station instead of the next one, and found out “all we had to do” was take a bus to go meet our day’s tour guide, art historian Martina Manfredi, owner of the touring business Tuscany at Heart. (Martina was an exceptionally knowledgeable, kind and energetic guide and we loved our day with her. That’s Martina, in the picture above. She also does all sorts of other guided tours in Tuscany. You can contact her at the website or via info@tuscanyat heart.it.)

Back to my husband’s and my imperfection, pre-Martina: Catching a bus when your Italian kind of stinks is a little harder than it ought to be, although we must have looked like we knew what we were doing because soon an entire contingent of Asian tourists were following us onto a bus that was (surely!) to take us to the right spot. When the bus driver proved unable to assist, a lovely middle-aged Italian woman told us to just get off where she did, or so we thought. When we still stood behind her, mute and immobile, at the Square of Miracles, she turned around and practically shooed us off the bus. “Get off here!” she shouted–like–“Hoo-boy, how dumb can you get?” only much, much kinder. Like your mother, when as a child you’ve proven yourself only ignorant, and not culpable.

A few feet after we exited the bus, miracle of miracles, we found Martina. In the Square of Miracles.

I think we need a Square of Miracles in Minneapolis. Some place you can go when you’ve messed up, to light a candle or to pray or to imagine the perfection of a human voice sounding like four and knowing it is really only one.

I think the world needs a square of miracles, or maybe miracles squared, or maybe just a greater tolerance for how things lean.

 

 

 

Rejection Recovery, Thanks to Karen Craigo

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I’ve stolen (with permission) this graphic from the blog of a writer/Facebook friend of mine, Karen Craigo. Do yourself a favor and sign up for delivery of her entries to you, directly. They’re frequently ruminations on the writer’s life and they’re always good.

And sometimes they’re particularly timely. On May 23, Karen wrote this post about rejection: What Rejection Means: Go Write Something Better. Pretty soon I’ll be taking a two-week hiatus so I’m writing this post two weeks in advance. By the time you read it, I should have a pretty good idea if my novel manuscript has found an editor and publisher, at least in the first go-around of our submissions. Right now, we’re half-way in, or out, depending on your point of view. If you’ve been here you know that none of these was a yes, or I wouldn’t be writing this.

In the May 23rd blog post, Karen says she’s gotten a few “It’s not you, it’s me” rejections lately and she takes issue with that:

When my work is rejected, It’s-Not-You-It’s-Me doesn’t apply. Of course it’s me. And honestly, it’s OK that it’s me instead of an editor. The knowledge that it is me, writing work editors can live without, motivates me to do better. 

I’ve been wallowing a bit lately, sad for myself and my agent, who has worked with me tirelessly (and pay-less-ly) for–Good God, let’s just say it’s more than five years. As of this writing, it’s not over yet–it only takes one, right? But the idea looms that maybe all of our first pass choices will pass.

We all, at times, comfort ourselves with the “It’s not me it’s them” mantra. But the truth is more like Karen writes, fabulously, here:

Were I a better writer, my essay would hit the (virtual) submission pile, and when it rose to the top of an editor’s queue, she would read it with breathless attention. She would then rip her clothes and begin crying and keening, holding her laptop tightly against her body. The rest of the staff would come running. “What is it, Louise?” they’d ask, all concern, and at her wordlessness—her complete inability to articulate the beauty she had just witnessed—they would wrest the computer from her hands and read the essay together.

At that point, I’m pretty sure the entire staff would run out of its basement or attic or academic office and start dancing in a circle, crying and strewing flowers and making love. Crowds would form, and everyone would join in, not knowing the source of the beauty, but recognizing it as essential and pure.

Yes. Exactly.

Onward.

 

COUNTING THYME, by Melanie Conklin: A YA Book Review

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When I first began writing about a decade ago, I had a wonderful mentor, the great Sandy Benitez, who asked me an important question: What is your story about? Of course, I began rattling off plot points and character dilemmas but she stopped me, quickly. No, no, she said. What is your story about? Much later in my writing career, as I attended a few seminars on book reviewing, the issue of what the story’s about came up again, this time in reference to a way to write a review. What was the story about and how well did the writer get that across? 

Melanie Conklin’s excellent debut YA novel, COUNTING THYME, is, on one plane, a story about a middle-child girl named Thyme and the sacrifices she and her family make for Thyme’s younger brother Val. In the course of Val’s treatment for a particularly bad kind of brain cancer, the family moves from California to New York to enroll him in an experimental and moderately desperate drug trial (if the new drug doesn’t work, the boy is out of options). All extremely heavy material, but the book is written from the point of view of 11-year-old Thyme, which is the perfect antidote to the story’s sadness. Thyme is, in some ways, a pretty typical sixth-grader. The way she deals with a first crush, in spite of the ongoing and very real family drama, took me right back to my admittedly geeky youth.

On a plot and character level the book succeeds marvelously. There is plenty of page-turning tension: uncertainty about Val’s treatment outcomes, the question of when the family will return to California, the slow and unsteady building of Thyme’s confidence in her new environment. Questions remain until the very last pages of the book, and in the ultimate reading pleasure, characters remained with me even after I finished the final chapter.

On the Sandy Benitez plane, the But what’s the book about? plane, I think this book succeeds every bit as well. I think the book is about empathy, a commodity sorely lacking in today’s world, and perhaps especially in today’s youth. There is, of course, the empathy the family feels toward Val, and Conklin is very open to how that empathy fails, sometimes, in a family where all children are needy. Thyme is very realistically conflicted about resenting her brother’s illness and the time/attention dedicated to him vs worrying for his life. Each of these feelings is validated in Conklin’s capable hands. But I think it’s the traveling past simple empathy for a sick sibling that really adds depth to this book.

There’s a character named Mr. Lipinsky whose story Thyme pieces out. There’s a substory of a friendship going to ruin in which Thyme has some stake. There’s the train wreck of a mother who is acting exactly the way I would act in such a situation, and it isn’t pretty. There’s the crush, who’s weathered his own tragedies. All of these components of COUNTING THYME add up (couldn’t resist!) to a world in which the reader is challenged with choices based on understanding another person’s point of view. Think we could use more of that in the world today?

Of all of these conflicts, I like Conklin’s choices best in Thyme’s decisions about friendships, especially her friendships with other girls. Most of what I remember from my daughter’s 5th-6th grade experience is cruelty. It’s an option for Thyme. You’ll have to see what she (and Conklin) do about that.

This book brought me to tears, and not necessarily when I would have expected it. In a world filled with empathy, opportunities for tears–of surprise, of compassion, of sadness–abound.