Thursday, October 18, 2012

National Day on Writing, Oct. 20th! My Top 5 Reasons I Love Writing

Saturday, October 20th is America’s National Day on Writing, and I’d like to share with you a few things I love about it. 

Top 5 Things I Love About Writing

5. Ideas – Writers are dreamers, noticers, imagination junkies, and we’re sometimes accused of spying.  If you notice a stranger listening to your conversation, it might not be a creeper – it’s possible your conversation has snagged the attention of a writer, trolling for ideas. 
            I love getting a good idea.  Getting a good idea feels like the universe has given you a gift, a little ball of brilliance that, if you don’t write it down RIGHT NOW, will slip through the grasping fingers of your mind like so many grains of sand.  That’s why I carry my little red notebook with me everywhere.  I fill them up and keep them secreted away in my writing bag, like a library of golden ideas.
            A GREAT idea is like a little brother, won’t leave me alone, constantly follows me around, nagging me, wanting my attention, until I finally explore it, play with it, get it down on the floor and wrestle it into submission.  And those are usually the most rewarding pieces once I’m finished. 

4. Finishing a draft -            When you’ve finally sat down and done the work of writing, it can feel like you’ve run a grueling marathon, or the words can flow from your fingertips like a river of brilliance.  Whether you struggled through the actual writing of your draft or it was as easy as falling off a log, nothing beats the feeling of writing “THE END” (literally or metaphorically) when you’ve finished the first draft.  You know it’s rough, you can see the revision road ahead might be bumpy, but for now, it’s like the chocolate cake after finishing a satisfying meal.  You roll the taste of your victory around in your head and that moment is the stuff of happiness.

3. Revising – When I’m at the beginning of revision, it can feel like standing on the edge of the ocean, knowing that I have to swim across using only a pen and my imagination – a grueling feat of endurance.  But, in reality it’s  closer to how my mom always feels the day before Thanksgiving, with a kitchen full of groceries and all the work ahead of chopping, spicing, mixing, cooking, baking and cleaning still ahead of her. Even though it’s a lot of work, there’s plenty of joy to be found in the process and there’s always a feast at the end. It’s incredibly satisfying to take my draft apart, find the best pieces, add what is missing, mix it back up, try new things, and end up with something undoubtedly better and tastier than I started with.  There is art in cooking, and there is definitely an art to revising. 

2. Murdering my precious darlings.  Yes, you heard me right – murder.  Not the kind of murder that will have you calling 9-1-1, but instead, killing off the pieces of my writing that while I might love them and think they are brilliant, really don’t add anything to the overall piece of writing.  Fashion icon Coco Chanel famously advised that whenever you think you’re ready to go, look in the mirror and remove one thing.  It’s good advice. Do I really need that scene where the main character discovers the vampire alien squirrels nesting in her mother’s sock drawer, or have I left it in there only because it makes ME smile.  Slash.  Do I really need FOUR girls to be the minions of the main mean girl, or could I get the same effect with just two girls?  Slash.  Does the main character really need a sidekick AND a trusty canine friend? Or do I just keep the dog because I like how it looks in my own mind?  Slash.  It’s surprisingly freeing to cut the ties that are binding my writing and keeping it from being great.

1. Sharing it with others – This is both the worst and the best thing about writing.  As all writers know, as much as we say otherwise, you never really finish a piece of writing – you just orphan it, send it off into the world of other people.  Immediately after I hand my work over to someone else’s care, I think of the thousand and one ways that it’s not ready to go out into the cruel world on its own.  It’s just not ready yet.  And then…the waiting.  Oh, the endless waiting while they read – is it good enough?  Will they laugh where I want them to?  Will they like my characters?  Will they find my words pleasing and interesting or will they sound bland and unoriginal?  It makes me want to snatch it back out of their hands and run off to hide it away. 
But then…I get to hear what they think.  Good, bad, or otherwise, I will find out if my writing stands the test of other minds.  When it doesn’t, it drives me to be better, make changes, start over, write a best version that will please both me and the other minds.  But when someone else is moved by my writing, laughs about it, comes away thinking about it, finds something in it that makes them think, it feels like winning.  A victory of epic proportion, and that drives me too.

So, I leave you today with the following question – What do you love about your writing?

Don’t forget to celebrate your writing tomorrow at #WhatIWrite on Twitter

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

#ifbookswerereal and Honoring the Friends We Made in Books

I'm a Book Nerd.

I'm more than okay with that, it's a flag I fly high and with great pride.

But you can't get into the Society of Proud Book Nerds without some help from great people.  I was reminded of this when I read a poignantly written blog post by ONE FOR THE MURPHYS author, Lynda Mullaly Hunt on the Nerdy Book Club's blog.  She called it "The Year I Met Peter", and she describes how her sixth grade teacher, Mr. Christy, introduced her to Judy Blume's evergreen Peter and Fudge in TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING and changed her life.  She spoke about Peter as if he were a friend she'd been waiting her whole school life to meet, and I knew EXACTLY what she meant.

It prompted me to think about my own childhood book friends.  As I contemplated, I was messing about on Twitter (oh! the technology, how she tempts me!) and I started tweeting about the characters I wish I'd met in real life, because they made such a huge impact on my life.

I wished I had made the toothpaste mural that Ramona made in her bathroom sink in Beverly Cleary's RAMONA AND HER MOTHER. #ifbookswerereal

Looking back, my mother and Ramona's mom were much alike, and well, I was kind of like Ramona.  It makes a lot more sense through the lens of my life experience now.  That toothpaste decoration represented all the times I knew I was doing something I shouldn't, but the creative muse had stolen my reason and I was left holding a metaphorical empty toothpaste tube and wondering how to get all the toothpaste back in.

I always wished Betty MacDonald's MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE would invite me over for a tea party.  #ifbookswerereal  

She was round and squishy and kind and wonderful to strays - animals and children alike.  She reminded me of all of my grandmothers rolled into one + Magic. (Although I suspected that my grandmothers all had some magic squirreled away in their powder-scented hugs.)

At 14, I wanted to be Ponyboy, Sodapop, and Darry's little sister in S.E. Hinton's THE OUTSIDERS. #ifbookswerereal

I couldn't talk to real boys at that ALL. So, the dangerous and downtrodden gang of boys in THE OUTSIDERS made me feel like I could help them and they could accept me.  In my heart, I felt sure that if I'd been there, I could've saved Dally and Johnny.

I wanted to marry Adam Trask in John Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN. #ifbookswerereal

I discovered so much to love AND hate about the characters in Steinbeck's opus. Steinbeck gave me such insight into the truth about family and relationships. Here was Adam, the man who had the best intentions and seeks the perfect life with the perfect family, and I just wanted to show him that it didn't have to be perfect, it could

I wanted to have coffee and commiserate with Garp after the car accident in John Irving's masterpiece THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. #ifbookswerereal

Garp, like me, lived inside his head, noticed the absurdity around him, and was sometimes too intelligent for his own good. He also had the most human of failings, falling prey to lust, and life kept walloping him upside the head. My heart broke into a million pieces more than once reading this book. I just wanted Garp to know that he wasn't alone, that others felt just like him.

I wanted to help Offred escape from the Republic of Gilead and find her child in Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE. #ifbookswerereal

I was so angry for her. I wanted to learn how to steal cars and be daring just to push her off the edge to escape. This was only my second taste of dystopian fiction, (BRAVE NEW WORLD came first) and remains my favorite of the genre. Atwood made me want to be brave.

I wanted to befriend Arturo in Katherine Dunn's GEEK LOVE and help him see the good in people. #ifbookswerereal

This lovely, heartrending, twisted tale introduced me to the reality of the measures people will go to in order to feel a part of something or to stand out from the crowd...or both.  Arturo, devilish, cruel, and greedy, nonetheless was a little boy at heart who needed consoling.  Also, it convinced me I'm kind of a sucker for wounded geniuses.

I wanted to cry with Fern and tell Holden it would all be okay in Jo Knowles' SEE YOU AT HARRY'S. #ifbookswerereal

This is just one among the MANY MANY MANY great books I've read.  This blog doesn't have enough space to contain all of the things I would do #ifbookswerereal.  

What would you do #ifbookswerereal ? I'll be watching on Twitter to find out! 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Craft, Crafting, and Being Crafty

So, this week, I'm juggling using the word "craft".  As you can see, the word "craft" and its many forms can fill up a day.

For example:

I am working on my CRAFT.

By Zache (edited version, orig unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This, for me, means a couple of different things.  Immediately, I think of the WRITING craft, specifically REVISION.  I haven't made a whole lot of time to write new things, because this revision, like a pile of dirty laundry is looking at me accusingly every time I pass by.  As many writers can attest, this deadly revision time is when you have your best ideas for OTHER projects.  But, I hold steady and when writing time rolls around, I revise.  Only ten chapters to go, then off to the beta readers.  Also, I am enjoying reading and commenting on the work of my fellow writers in our online critique group, The Caffeine-Driven Page.

I am also working on my TEACHING craft.  I've been trying to get some professional reading done this summer.  I am currently enjoying "Readicide" by Kelly Gallagher, "Study Driven" by Katie Wood Ray, and "The Daily Five" by Gail Boushey.  I also just attended a planning session for teaching a new computer-based enhancement/intervention class.  

Lastly, I am working on my THEATRE craft.  It was a toss-up whether or not I was going to continue as the sponsor for our drama club at school.  The program continues to grow, but my adult help continued to shrink until finally it was just me and 65 kids at a time.  It was going to half-kill me to give it up, but I was prepared to do it, unless they could find someone to split it with me.  Sure enough, one of the new teachers to our school was interested to join as a sponsor, and Voila!  Now, I can start planning with him about what we'd like to do this fall and spring.  Whew!

I have also been CRAFTING things.

I have been meeting with the other sixth grade language arts teachers, and we are currently crafting CURRICULUM PLANS for the beginning of school. We're planning all sorts of activities and pre-assessments to help us get to know our students and their skills and gaps right at the beginning of the year.  We are planning for our entire first semester, which will be a meditation on kindness, starting with the fabulous book, WONDER by RJ Palacio and our CHOOSE KIND REVOLUTION guerilla campaign.  BTW, if any of my past students want to get in on this project, let me know. We might be doing some guerilla theatre events concerning this.

I have been crafting a USEABLE ART PROJECT.  Take one beautiful handmade bench (1 of 2, but the other is serving double-duty as a community reading bench in my classroom and prop for drama club plays), made for me by a wonderful and crafty carpentry friend, Mark Levine.  Add a layer of primer.  Add the pages of a few old, about to be thrown away books. Slap on multiple coats of the wondrous Modge Podge, and you have a new and improved READING BENCH and three happy kids who have a project.  Although, you have to be pretty CRAFTY to keep CRAFTY, CURIOUS KITTIES from walking through your wet modge-podginess. 


For those of you who have been following along at home, you know about the tree that some feckless little girl named Dorothy dropped on my house 10 days ago, leaving behind 2 broken cars, a trashed deck, and a whole lotta tree.  Well, it seems that my karmic spanking was not yet over, for I got to be the victim in a two-car accident in my rental car this last Saturday. Don't worry, all is well. Everyone is fine, and the car was driveable afterwards.  Knowing that my beloved Margaret the Malibu was driving off to that great big car wash in the sky, I CRAFTILY arranged for my husband to meet me at the rental car place to drop off my injured rental, and then off to the land of Ford dealerships to welcome my brand new car, Doug the Focus, to the family.  

I am also forced to be CRAFTY in my time management this week.  With a classes and meetings in addition to my duties as SuperAuntNanny of Awesomeness, and a slew (a SLEW) of phone calls and meetings to field, make, return, etc. to insurance agents, adjustors, repair folks, etc. -- well, let's just say my phone voice is certainly getting a work out.

So, in conclusion, the word CRAFT has been a very important part of my week.  I'm off to craft!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Dear Margaret; Elegy for A Mechanical Friend

Dear Margaret,
When we met,
nine years ago,
I knew the rightness
of you from
the first. 
You were
My First.
New and Shiny
Traveling Companion.

You smiled and hummed
your pleasure at me
engulfing me in the safety of 
your strong steel embrace.
As I fumbled at first
to shake your hand properly
you introduced yourself
Margaret: a dignified name
with a spark of the devil.

Like a friend who 
knows just when to help
you get into (and out of)
trouble, you'd laugh with
delight, when I hinted
I like speed, 
Then take off to
race the wind, 
heedless of what some
might call your "stodgy"

You were an outdoor girl -
enjoyed the wind and the rain
and the sun sparkling
in your eyes, and
you stayed looking so young.
At the last, you were
beaten and battered 
by circumstance

And as I take your image
one last time, I have to
sigh, more than a little
that I lose a loyal
friend and partner in 
the journey.
Travel on, Margaret.

Monday, July 2, 2012

What the-? How lucky am I?

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

You might have noticed that after a flurry of posts (nearly daily!), that I took a short break over the last few days.  This is because the following bits of Mother Nature got all up in my grill:
That's my gas grill. It's a pancake grill now.

Wouldn't this have been stellar in 3-D?

I call this piece "Orphaned Grill Wheel"

The foundation of the problem.
The Ents were very angry with me. I swear I haven't seen the Entwives!
So...That happened.  As you can imagine, I'm making and fielding quite a few phone calls.  The great news is: it's all just "things". No one was injured, it didn't leave us without power, we are insured on all fronts, the tree removal company was there and removed all the Ent-pieces in 24 hrs (like MAGIC), and the husband and I are currently driving some spanking new rental vehicles until they can determine the extent of the damage to our current rides.  We have great and kind friends and family who have been helping us out and offering wonderful support.  We're very lucky in our disaster.  

Back to why you haven't seen me here.  Also, there's a lot of THIS  going on:

I am a part of an online critique group right now called The Caffeine Fueled Page (woot!woot!), and I was reading and commenting on their work and reading their critiques of my first 25 pages. Side note, the three ladies who've hooked up in this crit group are AWESOME-TASTIC, and I'm really lucky to have them looking at my writing for me and sharing their mad skillz with me.

What you're seeing in the photo above is my manuscript for Secret Order of Extraordinary Outcastz.  I'm still working on the continuity revisions throughout the book for the plot changes I instituted (added more about the other Order members earlier, changed how Joey referred to some of the other characters, added higher stakes and a few events that explain some later payoff).  This is, of course, a long process, but WORTH it.  I'm coming out with a much better, tighter story.  The only revision problem I see at the end of this is that now my manuscript may be "too long" according to existing word count guidelines for Middle Grade literature (although, this MG leans toward tweens, rather than youngers - so it may be fine).  I'll burn that bridge when I get to it.  I've set myself a deadline of next weekend to get done with this set of revisions.  Which means I'll be strapped to a chair in front of my laptop as much as humanly possible this next week.  I'm lucky it's turning out so well, and that this manuscript is still so exciting to me.

Okay, I've got to hit the library with Captain Obvious, Major Destruction, and General Sarcasm (my two nephews and my niece!) and then a quick trip to school to pick up some reading material and games. Then, back to the Grind.  

I have to get back to being lucky now. 



Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Reviving Revision and Swiping from David Lubar

I think revision is the single most important part of writing, while most kids think it it the single most unnecessary part. ~David Lubar, Author of the Weenies series, Hidden Talents & so much more!
     Go visit David Lubar's website. The man knows what he's talking about and he's mega-talented.
     So, Wednesday is TeachersWrite! Q & A with an author day, and along with lots of other extremely talented authors like Kate Messner herself, David Lubar has been kindly taking time to answer every question a writer, teacher, or teacher/writer would want to ask them.  He offers terrific, helpful, and insightful advice from a professional writer's standpoint.
     I admit, I was already a fan after the Weenie books (who couldn't love a book about Ninja Weenies?), but Hidden Talents really cemented my love of his writing.  It was recommended by another teacher friend who suggested that my book reminded her of it.  She reads Hidden Talents to her special education students every year, and uses it to start discussions about their talents and strengths.  But, I digress.
     What really put the last nail in the coffin of my respect for David Lubar is the statement above.  In fact, you can see where he wrote it first on this post I was reading.  One of the things that I really want to focus on this year is the idea of "Revision is to Writing, as Oxygen is to Breathing".
      A few of the things that I've noticed about my sixth graders as they begin writing in my class:

  • They see writing as a "one and done" exercise.  "See?! I finished writing it, so it must be done!"
  • They see revision as an evil practice that teachers make them do to be cruel. "What do you mean it's not perfect?  I have to do it all over AGAIN?" 
  • They see revision as an obstacle to be gotten through, rather than a natural progression toward the the finished product.
  • They don't understand that a second or third (or eleventh or twelfth!) version of something isn't just a neatly copied rewrite of EXACTLY THE SAME THING they wrote before, minus a few spelling errors
  • They don't know how to look for what must be improved - not in others' writing and especially not in their own
  • They expect all suggestions and changes to come from the teacher, and are reluctant to become first responders to their own work
  • Revision DOES NOT equal editing.

     I've been reading Kate Messner's "Real Revision" and trying to grasp how I want to make revision as natural and as normal as breathing to my student-writers.  Lubar, in his post today, admits he is not a teacher, but suggested something that I think is a good first step.  Have students write something the first day of school, put it away and revise it much, much later in the year so they can witness the improvements they are capable of making themselves.
      Maybe it's because I'm stuck in the Revision Cave (See! I'm guilty of it myself! Bad Jessica!) myself these last few weeks (and probably for the next two weeks).  Why "stuck"?  Because that's sometimes what it feels like.  You want to move on, you've inhabited these same characters, these same events over and over and over again. The best inspiration I have for new projects almost always comes while I'm working on revisions for a different project.  So, I need to understand that about my students and help them find the vitality that revision can create in their work.  I know I'm finding it in mine.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Anita Preston Grunt Garza

Today's TeachersWrite Quickwrite challenge is from Julie True Kingsley.  She asks us to generate a character's story by starting with a physical picture of the person you have in mind, then choosing a song that defines the internal character and one that defines the external character.  Then, generate some backstory for the person based on what you've learned from the picture and music.

I chose to use my main character, Marlon Grunt's mom, Anita.  I already know some things about her, but I haven't got a clear picture of her in my head, and for all the trouble she causes Marlon in my story, she's doesn't have the depth and complexity of character that she should have yet.  So, this exercise is timely.

Name:  Anita Preston (Grunt) (Garza)

By Sir Mildred Pierce (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Age: 40

Favorite Song:  Chantilly Lace by The Big Bopper.  Her daddy, a big, booming man with a ready laugh used to sing this song to her when they were in the car.  She remembers sitting next to him in their Ford Pinto Station wagon, his hand hanging out the window with a lit cigarette, and his sunglasses hiding his eyes, and she'd feel safe and cherished.  He'd sing the whole song, word-for-word, and when he'd sing "and a ponyTAIL hangin' down", he'd tweak her pony tail to make her giggle.

Internal Song: Long, Cool Woman in A Black Dress by The Hollies.  This is how she sees herself.  Anita has lived most her life believing that her most valuable assets are her feminine wiles and physical appearance.  It's a song she associates with feeling her most powerful, putting on her make-up, slipping into her high heels, sitting at the bar, flirting with a man, lighting a cigarette.  She knows she looks good to the truckers and punters she finds at the bar, and after a few drinks, she feels like the woman in the song and the men will all fall at her feet if she commands it.  When she's nervous or anxious, this is the song that helps her regain control

External Song:  She's Not There by The Zombies. The world sees Anita for who she is, not who she wants them to see (much like all of us), but only after she snows them for a while.  Well no one told me about her - the way she lies.  She's fairly good looking, damaged more by the smoking and the drinking and the late nights than anything else.  The middle class community that sees her mostly in relation to Marlon (Charlie's parents, Marlon's teachers, etc.) consider her a white trash dilettante.  She can't hold down a job for more than a few months at a time.  She's been married twice - widowed once, divorced once, but has stopped short of having live-in boyfriends because she worries about Marlon and Phoebe getting along with these men from her other life.  She is constantly going out to seek the attention of drinking buddies and beaus alike.  She loves Marlon, but he stopped treating her like a princess many years ago, so she doesn't know how to talk to him.  She doesn't feel a connection with him, and whenever he's around she feels small, stupid, and like she never lived up to her potential in his eyes.  So, she avoids him.  Well, it's too late to say I'm sorry.  How would I know? Why should I care? Please don't bother trying to find her. She's not there.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


I started to write this blog about my progress as a writer this week, but I made the mistake of watching/listening to Mad Men, Season One, and it started me thinking about the word, "progress".  You should know that I started watching Mad Men at the very end of season two, and so my understanding of the show has been limited to after Kennedy was shot.  Since the beginning of the summer, I've gone back to the beginning of the first season to get some background perspective on Matthew Weiner's fascinating characters.  I was struck with the progress that the female characters mark in the business world in the dawn of the 1960's juxtaposed with the lingering...hyper-femininity of the ideal 1950's woman.

Weiner could've so easily minimalized the female characters in this show, and instead, he gives them dynamic, interesting, tortured lives in and outside the office/home.  He illustrates the changing views about the roles women should play in the workplace and forces them into conflict with the old guard.  He does this masterfully, in many ways, through ALL his female characters, but I'm fascinated with Season One, Episode Six: "Babylon".  This episode was actually written by Andre & Maria Jacquemetton.

In it, Don's wife, Betty describes her long day at home waiting for Don so she can share intimacy with him.  Don, in turn, seeks out the counsel of Rachel, the owner of a chic department store, because both her beauty, business acumen, and Jewish-ness make her exotic to him - that, and she refuses to fall into bed with him.  Midge, Don's free-loving, hipster dish on the side, however, never waits for Don at all, she just takes pleasure from him and demands nothing, so long as he demands nothing from her. All the men in the office, and most particularly Roger, lust after the sharp-tongued, quick-witted, and worldly office manager, Joan.  She wears her femininity like a tight, red dress, using it to intimidate and seduce.  Finally, fresh-faced young Peggy is the one to take the biggest step forward in this episode, actually using her observations and ideas to help a client testing new lipstick colors when the other members of the secretarial pool flitted, flirted, and squealed over the free lipstick.  And yes, she and Rachel are considered the outsiders on the storyline.  Peggy offering up her honest opinion and suggesting a different approach to how sell lip color to women made the men in the office take notice, specifically Freddy, who commented, "It was like watching a dog play the piano."  We see the lipstick make a final appearance as Betty introduces their young daughter, Sally, to painted lips during a session of dress-up. 

Masterful writing.

Then, of course, Pixar's "Brave" came out this weekend.  It's attraction for a lot of people is that the heroine is not a helpless princess. In fact, the script makes a point of highlighting how independent and NOT in need of rescue the main character, Merida, is.  (grammatically, that's a terrible sentence, I apologize)  Lots and lots of my friends and acquaintances have been going to see it and taking their daughters, and everything I've heard says that this was the right movie and the right time to mark the kind of progress we want our daughters to make.

I look forward to seeing it next week with my niece.


A quick update on my writing life:

Did I meet my goal this week:  Yes, my goal was to continue to write for TeachersWrite! And I wrote 4 out of the 5 possible days for that.  My big goal was to continue working on my personal works in progress, and I've done pretty well with that, too.  I wrote a scene for "Marlon Grunt", and revised 3.5 chapters for "Secret Order". 

What's my goal next week:  My goal next week is to concentrate my time during TeachersWrite to finding the lesson aspect of the writing prompts to take back to my students next year.  I also would like to get 4-6 chapters of "Secret Order" revised.  I would like to finish my reading/commentary for Caffeine-Fueled Pages (my new online crit group, wotwot!) on Monday.

What was my pit this week:  Feeling like my writing was "selfish" - I've been getting feedback on my own writing, for my own purposes, when I felt like I should be looking for stronger ways to attach this to lesson planning for next year. I'm going to try to fix that this week, and if it doesn't work that well for me after this week, I'll stop feeling guilty for focusing on my writing. Also, I didn't participate in Thursday's quickwrite. I wasn't feeling the prompt.  I think it was just me.  I loved the idea of flipping the characters and the story, but I couldn't make myself do it.  I was too invested in my WIP's characters as they are now.  They offered a choice to use a fairytale, but I was in a revising groove and didn't want to break it.  So, I missed out, but I think I might go back and practice that as a brainstorming technique with my students for narrative ideas.  Also, I am jealous of all people who went to writing/reading things this weekend:  AllWrite 2012 in Indiana, ALA in California, and Words in the Woods in Springfield.

What was my victory:  Geoff Herbach, author of Stupid Fast, responded to my writing. I'm such a fangirl! It's not enough that I have Kate Messner and Gae Polisner and all my colleague teacher-writers commenting, I get all giddified and giggly when I get a pat on the back from an author that I've said, "I wish I'd written that," about. Also, kicked a hard chapter of SOEO in the butt this week, jump-started my revision-mobile, and blogged like a madwoman.  Go me.  Here is a picture of my revision-mobile:

Photographed by Simon GP Geoghegan, April 2007

Choose Kind.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Lack of Honey, A Lapse in Civility

Half a million dollars.

That's how much the public believes ten minutes (probably months, really) of bullying is worth. 

You've all heard the story of Mrs. Klein by now.  You know, the 68 year-old, grandmotherly woman who endured the laughter, jeering, and generally disgusting behavior of some middle school kids who were looking to see how far they could push her before she bounced them all like basketballs.  You've read about the public's outrage at the students, the parents, the school, and even at Klein herself for allowing this to happen.

What is shocking to me is that it was at all shocking to any of you.  In a way, it makes me glad that you are still able to be shocked by the ever more ridiculous behavior bullies feel entitled to vomit on unsuspecting or worse, expectant, victims. Why are we even shocked that this is happening? It happens all the time. 

What is the purpose of it?  What does he, the kid, gain from it?  Notoriety among his friends?  A fleeting youtube infamy? (BTW, those kids are going to have to change their names...there's no way they can stay in their communities and try to live this down, they're already receiving death threats. Yeah, THAT'S going to solve the problem.)  A brief feeling of superiority? A sense of entitlement -  like HE is the star of his own movie, and we are all the objects of his derisive comic genius?

What they created is now...entertainment.  We, as a nation, were...entertained by this story. (Sorry, I just threw up in my mouth a little.)  It gave us a stoic hero, a group of dastardly villains, and a cause celebre that we could point at and claim, "I WOULD NEVERNEVERNEVER DO THAT/ALLOW THAT/SUPPORT THAT!! Harumph, harumph, harumph. Why, I'll share that awful video with all of my friends to warn them that this kind of shocking thing is going on!  I'll send ten bucks to that poor woman to send her on a nice vacation. See, I'm doing MY part!"

What environment have we given a child that he believes that this destruction of another human, regardless of her stoicism, age, gender, or general grandmotherliness, is entertainment?  I see ten thousand fingers pointing at ten thousand causes, but what have I, WE, YOU done to solve the problem?

Our politicians curse at each other, interrupt each others' public discourse, and generally play the media like Eddie VanHalen plays the guitar.  And the media? Oh, she weeps...with joy, with outrage, with disgust, with SHOCK.  How dare...harumph, harumph, harumph.  To quote Don Henley's most excellent song, Dirty Laundry, 
I make my living off the Evening News Just give me something-something I can use People love it when you lose, They love dirty laundry 

We could point at government, at war, at schools, at home environment and parents, at movies, at video games, at a absence of real human contact coupled with the faux contact technology gives us, the increasingly dangerous antics and one-upsmanship our online communication methods encourage. We keep pointing at all these causes, but you know the cause.

It's us. Me. You. WE DID THIS.

Every time you laughed at someone's goofy pain, every time I stood by and let someone get picked on, every time we passed the video along to our friends, we caused ourselves to stop BEING shocked and began ACTING shocked. WE MADE A MESS and now we're all pointing at it and yelling, "HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MESS?!? WHOSE MESS IS THIS???  IT'S SHOCKING! Harumph, harumph, harumph."

Do we really have to agree on a cause before we agree on a solution?  I don't think so.

See, it's all about choices.

What's the real function of behavior?  ANY behavior?  It's a means to an end.  We learn first by seeing, then by doing what we believe will get us the desired result - whether that's calling someone fat, having someone make you a sandwich, or saving a kitten from a burning building.  We act in ways we believe will achieve the ends we WANT. We're all animals, just ask the mice (they're in control of this whole experiment anyway - just ask Douglas Adams).  We all just want to get our cheese on.


Now, we could debate all day about which ends we all SHOULD want, but let's not fight that war.  It's long and pointless and ends with people dying. Instead, let's concentrate on the choice of HOW to get what we want.

We could choose civility instead.

There was one bit of that ten-minute long parade of vomitously poor choice-making  that made me raise an eyebrow and hope for a moment that the stoic Mrs. Klein would make a worthy comeback. Admittedly, she kept her grace and held her tongue more than I might have been able to, but what really caught my ear was when she chose her words carefully and reminded the students with more dignity than I could've mustered, "If you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything."

Graceful ammunition, that, but too little, too late. FOLKSY HOMILY ALERT: When my Grandma Thompson caught me mouthing off or being a bully or feeling a little too entitled as a child, she always told me, "You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar."

I was kind of a snot, (but only in my head), and I used to think (loudly), "Why would you want to catch flies anyway? Ewww." Yeah, I missed the boat on that one as a kid.  But once I figured out that you could achieve the same ends without hurt feelings, fisticuffs, or all out war, I had the world on a string.  A smile and a kind word could make the stubbornest doors open. Dimples help, but that's not the point. Whatever your flies are, you just need to figure out the right kind and amount of honey to spread.  And them flies stay caught, brothers and sisters.  They stay caught good and long.

What I really would've liked to have seen was, at the first tentative can-I-really-get-away-with-this insult, Mrs. Klein spreading the honey of kindness on thick. Really thick. Like with a shovel.  I would have liked to see her coat those kids with kindness so thick that they the next snide remark was choked back for fear of a diabetic coma. I know some masters of the honey-shovel, and trust me, they can make it happen.  You don't work as a teacher for long before you figure out who has the skillz to tell someone to go to hell and make them look forward to the trip.  Take heed, brothers and sisters. Take heed when you see a master at work.

I could argue that we all need to be kinder, more sympathetic, altruistic, action-oriented people.  Yes, I could.  Baby steps.

How about, for now, we just make the choice to stop letting people's ignorant vinegar be our entertainment.  Let the world see us making that choice.  Mahatma Ghandi said it pretty well.

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

BE THE CHANGE. Make good choices.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Secret Order, Chapter 15 Egg-pocalypse Now

This is what I wrote on Tuesday.  It's an added chapter to connect a previously existing hole in my overall storyline, and to introduce the reach of The Order and Gordo's Organization (I'm SO thinking he's going to have to have his own book soon.)  I'm still revising, but this is it's raw form.

Chapter Fifteen
In Which Our Hero Witnesses The Egg-pocalypse

            Batman, Ninja-Girl, The Godfather, and the Grim Reaper are going door-to-door demanding candy.  Sounds like the start of a really epic joke, doesn’t it?
            Nope. No joke, just regular old trick-or-treating.  There are actually six of us total, and I know who Batman and the gypsy fortune-teller are, but I don’t know the lumberjack kid or Grim Reaper.  Lumberjack Kid seems younger than Gordo’s crowd, and Gordo introduces him just as “Davy”, and states that he, like the others, is one of his “captains.”  I have no idea what he’s talking about, but whatever.  Let’s get our candy on.
Grim Reaper kid is apparently Davy’s older brother, but hasn’t spoken a word or removed his mask for even a moment, so I have no idea how old he is or if I even know the kid.  He may not know me either with my ninja mask on, especially since Gordo introduced me as his “older friend, Ninja-Girl”.
            Whoever he was, he seemed perfectly content to walk up and down the night-darkened streets of Bloomington, Illinois on Halloween night with a bunch of other kids and not say a word, despite my best efforts to have a conversation with the kid.
            We’d been up and down our street, Whitetail Drive, and were now making our way onto Fawn Court.  We were making out like bandits with the candy.  My grocery bag was almost a quarter full already.  The four younger kids are deep in quiet conversation about something, when from across the street, a mini Spiderman scurries up to Gordo and his pals.
            Rico Gridley (Batman), holds the kid from getting too close, but Gordo puts his hand on Rico’s arm to let him know it’s alright for the kid to come closer.
            “Sir!” the breathless kid gasps in a piping voice. “Sir, they’re egging!”
            Sir? Gordo nods sagely.
            “We expected this. Who are they?  Where?” asks my brother, who is apparently “Sir” to some little kid now.
            “Teenagers, Sir. Over on Bedford Street.  Down by the playground.  They’re getting cars, houses, kids, too! Anyone under four feet is in danger, Sir! It’s an awful mess! A real massa-massa- mascara, Sir!”
            “Anybody hurt, Spidey?” questions Rico.
            “Not that I can tell, but there’s a whole lot of eggs and cryin’ going on, so I can’t be sure. Looks like they’re headed this way.”  Wee Spidey, message delivered, catches his breath and waits for instructions.
            What is going on here? Why has this kid come to Gordo? Why is he calling him “sir”? And what does he expect us to do about high-schoolers who are egging?
            “Okay, here’s what we’ll do.” Gordo lays out the plan for us.
            “Spidey, grab the fourth-grade group that should be on Weber Court. You know where that is?”  Spidey nods.
            “Good. Tell them to take their emergency stash of eggs and see if they can draw the eggers into the teacher’s parking lot at the elementary school.  We’ll have some people waiting there with cameras to catch the action. Tell them to make sure they wear full masks, okay?”
            Spidey salutes sharply and is off like a shot, darting in and out of bushes and through backyards towards Weber Court.  Meanwhile, Gabby Anderson has taken out a cell phone and is speaking quietly into it.  She covers the mouthpiece with her hand and reports to Gordo.
            “I just heard from the fifth-grade girls that there are eight high-schoolers and a few middle-schoolers involved with the eggs.  They’re split between three cars. That’s too many for just Spidey’s group. What do you want me to tell her?”
            Gordo shoots a look at mini lumberjack Davy and Davy’s older brother, Grim.
            “Do you think this is something the Order would want to get involved in?” He is addressing the Grim Reaper directly now, who is standing right next to me.  The Grim Reaper nods, and my brother’s face takes on a satisfied glow.
            “Terrific! We’ll give these bullies a night they’ll never forget! Tell them to get on their bikes and meet us at the elementary school parking lot, give us a few minutes to set up the sting,  and then bring the cops.  Make it a dogfight, and get them corralled for us, okay?”  Gordo’s eyes shine with excitement; he’s in his element.
Grim holds his right hand out, cupped in that “O” gesture that has begun appearing in my life the last few days, and runs off with Davy in tow. 
Wait! What?  Was “O” for the Order? What Order?  I don’t even have a chance to ask because Gordo is already issuing instructions to the others in his best captain of the ship imitation.

Gabby puts her hand kindly on Rico’s shoulder and tells him quietly, “Rico, sounds like your sister Madison is with one of the groups.”
Rico frowns grimly and turns back to Gordo.
“I need to be a part of the bait team, Gordo.”
“We’ve got enough sixth grade boys to cover it, Rico, you don’t have to-“
“I need to, man.  She needs a wake-up call.”  Gordo considers for just a moment, then claps Rico on the shoulder and nods once. 
Bait team? It sounds like they’re going off to war!
“Gabby, you tell the girls to run straight to the parking lot on the North side, just around the corner from where Spidey’s group will be coming in.  Tell them to have the camera-phones ready and wait in the shadows until they see The Order bug out.  Tell them that I said, “No heroes!” Just get the photos and hide or run.  We’ll have Rico take a group of sixth graders and bait the trap. Everybody report in when you’re out safe.  Got it?” 
Everyone nods their heads and darts in all directions to get to work as I stand there like a doofus, my mouth agape in shock. 
My little brother, the boy who not that long ago would climb into my bed during thunderstorms, just master-minded a precision, practically military ambush on a bunch of high-schoolers with nothing more than a cell-phone and a bunch of little kids!  What? How? Does Mom know about this? Who is this Order? Is he a part of it?
Now, as he chomps down on a Snickers, he peers curiously at my candy bag and inquires, “Do you have any Whoppers?  I know you hate them, and I can get at least three Jolly Ranchers for each package in trade.”
“GORDO! What was THAT?!?”
“That, my dear sister, is called organization.”
“No, that’s called a freakin’ SWAT Team action!!!”
“A SWAT Team, huh?  I’ll have to tell my people you said that.”
“What is the Order?”
“I can’t tell you about that.” 
“Why the heck not?  I just watched you put together an ambush worthy of an army general, and you can’t even tell me what the Order is?”
“Look, Joey.  I’m sorry, but it’s not my secret to tell. I made a promise that I wouldn’t peep a word of what I know.”
“But I’m your sister!!”
“Yes, but how are they gonna trust me and work with my organization if I can’t even keep a secret?” He holds out his hands in appeal, pleading with me to understand.
“Okay, then, explain to me about YOUR organization.  I thought you were just running casino games at school?  What’s all this cloak and dagger, Mission Impossible stuff?” I cross my arms across my chest and tap my foot in frustration.  He is SO going to get it if Mom ever finds about any of this.
“I’ll do you one better.  Want to see my people in action?  Maybe you’ll get to see the Order there, too.”  He waggles his eyebrows and grins at me.
Sigh.  Well, if I hope to get anything out General Gord-father here, short of a crowbar, I’d better go take a look.  Plus, I can’t miss this opportunity to maybe figure out who or what the heck The Order is.  I uncross my arms and wave the way for him to lead on.  Immediately, he takes off at a jog towards the elementary school. 
We’re about a block away when a silver clunker of a car squeals up alongside us, and Gordo and I have to duck when an older kid with a skeleton mask on leans out the passenger side window and wings two eggs at us in quick succession.  His aim is bad, but as I come out of my crouch and began running towards the school, I spot two wide-eyed faces I recognize, staring back at me through the rear window of the speeding clunker. 
Both Madison and Kristen have an “ohmigod!” look on their faces.  Kristen winces when she sees my face, but Madison ducks her head like a true culprit would when caught. 
“C’mon, Joey! We’ve got them and the fireworks are about to start! Hurry up!”  Gordo takes off again, following the silver car as it coughs towards the yelling and egg-bombing coming from the school parking lot.  But it isn’t just a one-sided fight anymore.  Nope, it looks more like a covered wagon train being attacked by a tribe of really angry Native Americans.
Gordo and I arrive at the edge of the parking lot just in time to watch as the silver car joins the pandemonium.  There are two other cars, one a convertible black sedan and the other a skeezy-looking, rusted-out old blue minivan.  They’re looping the parking lot slowly, windows and, in the van’s case, doors open to fling massive amounts of chicken embryos at the three kids on bicycles whizzing in between the cars with what look like…yes, somehow they have obtained…egg guns.
This must be The Order!
They are all wearing the same grim reaper costume that Davy’s older brother had been wearing, circling and dodging like a band of angry hawks.  I see a massive grim-reaper who must be a high-schooler whiz between the increasingly egg-covered cars, pump his neon green plastic shotgun, take two eggs out of the basket on the front of his bike and load his gun.  With deadly accuracy, he sends the two quickly fragmenting egg-grenades into the back window of the silver car, splattering Madison and Kristen who scream like they are being murdered. 
Not even a second later, someone roughly the size, shape, and sneaker identity of Davy’s older brother sends another two eggs ripping through the opposite window, and now both girls are sputtering, yellow, and slimy. 
I see Kristen scream at the driver of the car to stop, and he yells back at her to shut up.  The grim reapers scatter on their bicycles, taking all the evidence of their passing with them…except the eggy mess.  They zip off through the playground and disappear into the darkness of the neighborhood beyond.
Before any of the cars can start to head out on the chase, I see four kids who must be part of my brother’s group dart to the center of the circling cars, including Rico Gridley.  Three of them have camera phones, and one is carrying a hand-held video camera.  They form a square, back to back, in the center and hold up their cameras at the ready.  What are they doing?  They’re sitting ducks!  The Order had them on the run and now these kids were about to get creamed!
“Look out you guys!” I yell!  Gordo places a hand on my arm and holds me back from going to them.
“Just watch, Joey. They’ve got this. This is all part of the plan.” Gordo says quietly.  The teenagers in the cars beep their horns and begin to circle tightly, laughing now that they sense the coming slaughter. 
“Start shooting!” pipes Rico’s high-pitched voice. 
“Start throwing!” guffaws the pug-faced red-haired teenager driving the minivan.
It’s awful.  The four kids in the middle point their cameras, close their eyes and lean back against each other as they are pegged from every direction with dozens of eggs.  I gasp at the horror.  Egg after egg.  Volley after volley.  You can barely see their features and costumes under the slimy mess.  
            “Maddie! No!” I hear Rico yell, just as his older sister pegs him in the face with a three-egged pitch that would have made any major-leaguer proud.  The Evil Glamour Queen took out her own brother.  Fratricide. That’s cold.  Even she puts her hand over her mouth, shocked at the results of her own throw.
Outside the tight circle of cars, from the shadows surrounding the well-lit parking lot, creep small bands of little girls holding cell phones out in front of themselves. They don’t get too close, but there are at least twenty of them, and they begin to take massive amounts of pictures of the teenagers shooting fish in a barrel.
All of a sudden, a much smaller grim reaper on a pink, sparkly mountain bike about twice her (?) size zips into the drive behind us and yells in a sweet, piping voice.
“GO! GO! GO!”
She wasn’t with the original three Grim Bikers, and as soon as they hear her all the bunches of girls melt back into the shadows or take off running, leaving just the teenagers, the victims of Egg-pocalypse, and me and Gordo.  She follows the path of the rest of the Grim Bikers, escaping through the playground. Gordo grabs my arm and tugs me behind some shadowy bushes next to the corner of the school building. 
In just a moment, it’s clear why.  A mere five seconds after the last Grim Biker from the Order took off, the cops arrive and catch three vehicles full of teenagers, plus two very sorry middle-school girls red-handed egging little kids.  It was beautiful. 
We don’t stay to see what happens next, but what happens to those kids isn’t as important to me as figuring out the mystery of Gordo’s Organization and The Order.
All the way home, I begged him to tell me who, what, and why?
“Can’t tell you,” he’d apologize. “It’s better if you don’t know.”
And that’s all he would say. 
I pleaded. He shrugged.
I threatened.  He smiled and shook his head.
I told him I’d tell Mom and Dad about his gambling operation at school, and he just rolled his eyes and reminded me that he had me over a barrel with the homework note thing.  We have a deal, and my silence is part of the price I now owe him.
I gave him the silent treatment. He just hugged me and herded us in the direction of home.  So, The phone calls came in from the other groups that the deed was done.  Four arrested, and all eight others had their picture taken for blackmail purposes later. 
I have to face it. My little brother really is the head of some sort of kid-based organized crime syndicate. 
When did the world go so crazy?