When the past finds you

This past week a friend of mine posted on Facebook one of those horrible school dance pictures where two young people are posed together and pretend to be thrilled to be together. This picture was no exception. It was my senior year and a junior friend asked me to go to the dance with him.  While we were good friends and had been in the school orchestra together for the past three years, we were definitely not in love with each other.

So, when it came time for the obligatory picture and he was asked to drape his arms around me, he did and I let him, for traditions sake. While the resulting picture isn’t bad there’s no denying the lack of chemistry going on between us. 10298919_10152418402308781_6745686781271152060_n

It didn’t help that my date got food poisoning earlier that evening and spent most of his time being miserable, so in addition to being awkwardly posed, he has the added greenish hue of a bad reaction to cheap pizza.

That was sixteen long years ago. It’s been years since I’ve even thought about that night. Seeing this picture brought back all the awkwardness of high school, the uncertainty, and the desire to do things the “right way.” It’s amazing how insecure I was as a teenager.

On Facebook people commented on how little I had changed over the years.  And on the outside it’s true, minus the few extra wrinkles, the few extra pounds, and shorter hair, I haven’t changed much at all.  On the inside it’s a different story.  I’m a completely different person now than I was then, and the change is for the better. All those trivial insecurities are gone and replaced with problems that actually matter. While don’t like my current trials, I wouldn’t go back to being my teenage me for anything.

Sometimes More is Better

Technology surrounds today’s kids. There are TV’s and computers at home and iPods for everywhere else.  It’s too easy for parents to stick their kids in front of a screen to entertain them.  When playing video games kids are quiet, they are not running around, and they are not making messes. Some of the games are even educational. It seems like the perfect toy.

However, kids need to move their bodies.  Their brains are wired to need motion and active play to make important connections.  Playing video games doesn’t help with any of this.  Plus, kids need to play with other kids to learn social skills.  Video games don’t get angry and punch you if you do something to get on their nerves, other kids will.

At our house we’ve had a chronic epidemic of the game Minecraft. Every dinner time conversation, every free minute, and every playtime activity has revolved around the game. My kids were on the computer, MY computer, every minute they could to create and manipulate their miniature worlds.

Don’t get me wrong, Minecraft is a great game, it encourages creative thinking, spacial reasoning, and problem solving skills.  No one gets blown to bits in bloody combat and the goal isn’t violence.  It also, thankfully, doesn’t have really annoying background music that so many other games have.

But too much of anything is bad. Just ask my daughter who managed to eat over a pound of Easter candy yesterday.  Some years I ration the candy, this year I decided to let them discover exactly why eating too much candy isn’t a good thing.  Evil mom tactic? Heck yeah.

We definitely had too much Minecraft and screen time in general around the house.  The kids were getting increasingly crabby as the tentacles of addiction began to take hold. They physically craved their iPods and you could see the discomfort it caused when they had to be parted with them.  Before school iPod and TV had to stop because it caused too much drama and anger when I had to make them turn off and get ready to go.

Taking things away makes me the bad guy and I hate being the bad guy. So I came up with a brilliant strategy. I gave them lists of things that needed to be done before they would be allowed to play iPod.  Now, instead of saying that they can’t do something, I now can say, “Of course you can do it, when you finish your _____________.”

These lists are simple and have things on them that they already need to do.  They don’t take long and make it so I don’t have to nag. The morning list has things like brush teeth, do one chore, and make bed.  The after school list has things like do homework, and reading time.

My kids have already found one loophole.  Since they know I won’t force them to do their lists by a certain time on days where we don’t have things scheduled, they will engage in creative play with each other.  Eventually they’ll want to play their iPods and the list gets done but until then they go off and play on their own. This morning they’ve spent almost two hours playing mega blocks because they’re not ready to do their work.  There hasn’t been a word said about iPods and everyone is happy.

Which means I’m happy as well. I’ve been able to spend time on the things that I want to do, including writing this post. I don’t mind that my family room looks like a bomb hit, they are playing creatively and with each other and I didn’t have to ask for any of it!

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The wake of destruction left by happy kids. The bigger blocks are thankfully easier to clean up than Legos, and they don’t make you cry when you step on one.

Potential, Check.

Yesterday, my family had a discussion about potential.  Strike that, yesterday I attempted to teach my kids about potential. Instead, I learned a lesson that I won’t soon forget. Never underestimate kids, they see things in different and unexpected ways.  They have the unique perspective of innocence and open-mindedness that an adult can’t match.

This isn’t saying that everything that flows from their mouths in that constant river of sound consists of rubies and emeralds.  It’s more like panning for gold.  Most of the dirt and sand is just dirt and sand, but every once in a while there will be a nugget of truth and enlightenment.

You see, I’ve created a new responsibility chart that will hopefully help my little ones take a more active role in caring for themselves and their surroundings.  There is a lot of work to do in this house and although I can do all of it, I don’t see why I shouldn’t share the load. They need to learn about the importance of work and the joy of having helped.   I also reason that if they help more with the clean up they will possibly think before leaving little messes everywhere.

IMG_2382I introduced the chart by talking about the word potential and asking if they knew what it meant. My eight year old son replied with the definition for potential energy (he’s the family physicist) and talked about how things at the tops of hills and those with more mass had greater potential or they could do more.

I asked him if he knew what it meant for a person to have potential and it confused him. Why would we be rolling people down hills?  He imagined that larger people would have greater potential energy than smaller ones.  By this reasoning Grandpa has more potential than anyone in the family.

My daughter added that Jesus has more potential than anyone, even Grandpa.  I’m still not sure how to reply to that one.  Yes, He has done great things and will continue to do great things and for that he has extraordinary potential. I admire her for thinking of it. Now I’m hoping she didn’t think of Him because we were talking about things being higher having greater potential than things that were lower. He is in heaven, that would be considered really high up.

I did my best to teach them about how when people have potential they have within them the ability to do great things.  By being better helpers and being more responsible with their time it would increase their potential and help them be even more awesome kids than they already are. While they aren’t thrilled about having daily chores, they aren’t putting up as big of a fight as they could have either.

As for you dear reader – remember that you too have great potential, especially if you are higher up, like at the top of a flight of stairs.  Oh, and you have it in you to do great things as well!

 

Counting Pennies

For over a decade I’ve carried a heavy shoe box full of tubs of pennies from house to house. These were not my pennies, but my grandfathers that he had collected year after year.  In his top dresser drawer he kept an empty margarine tub, Fleishman’s soft, and at the end of every day he would empty his pockets.  I have no idea how long he collected these pennies and I’m not sure why either. I seem to remember it had something to do with us grand kids, maybe for a starter college fund, maybe just for fun.

The day finally came where I knew I needed to do something about the pennies. After living on backs of shelves and under beds and in other forgotten corners for years it was time for them to go. Just turning them in to the bank seemed wrong, these pennies represented years of collecting. They deserved more than that. To me they represent far more than material worth, there are memories locked in there.

Part of me wants to keep the pennies because they hold many of those memories of spending time with my grandfather.  Memories like the process of making popcorn with his air popper, using the heat to melt a huge chunk of butter on top, then pouring it all into a 5 gallon ice cream tub and putting the lid on and shaking it until the seeds all bounced toward the lip so they could be removed. I love buttered popcorn to this day.

Grandpa was a solid man, tall and proud.  If there was a project he wanted to finish or a skill he wanted to learn, he went out and invested his time and money to learn about it.  He was a photographer, a horse man, a book binder, a wood-carver, and probably much more beyond what I ever saw. I wasn’t around when he was pursuing many of his hobbies, in fact I don’t remember much about his hobbies than what my brother and I found in his basement when we came over for Sunday dinners and the adults wanted to talk.

There were the trophies for his horses and other animals, there were the books, he had a dark room – which for me and my brother was the coolest thing ever.  Deep in the unfinished part of the basement were the wood working tools and carefully labeled boxes of supplies. And then there were the pennies which he kept on the upper shelf of a closet.  Each time he would fill a margarine tub he’d tape it shut and put it with the rest.

Every day for the past few weeks I’ve spent time sorting through the pennies and separating the wheat pennies from those with the Lincoln memorial. The heavy shoe box is gone now, and so are the brittle and cracked tubs of Fleishman’s. Of the pennies only a small box remains of all the special ones, the wheat pennies, the all nickel ones, the ones that he had set aside in a yellowed envelope.  Those I will keep, if anything to relive the memories that I have.

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An Argument for Fantasy Fiction

MV5BMTA1NDQ3NTcyOTNeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU3MDA0MzA4MzE@._V1_SX640_SY720_ twilight poster_9I’ve run across several articles that argue that fantasy fiction does not have the same merit as the classics and therefore children should be discouraged from reading them.  They use examples such as the Hunger Games and the Twilight Series, comparing their worth against what they consider to be the true classics, like Jane Austen.

Their reasoning? Since fantasies are generally set in a parallel world and not the real world children will not be able to see the similarities in their own lives and therefore not be able to learn anything from reading them.  In their minds children need guidance and reading 19th century authors like Austen and George Eliot will give it to them.

The books that are going to do children the most good are the ones they are willing and hungry to read.  If a kid won’t read a book, any book, for whatever reason, perhaps the vocabulary is too antiquated, or they can’t identify with the characters or their problems; they won’t learn anything.  Even if they do struggle through a classic, and kudos to those who choose to, there is no promise that they will find any more solutions or guidance than they would have found reading any other book.

I’ve read my fair share of both 19th century classics, fantasy novels, and contemporary literature.  The books that influence me most are the ones where I can identify and find resonance with the story or the characters.

Let’s face it, today’s youth aren’t being raised in polite society.  The days of cotillion, formal dinners, and chaperoned activities are essentially gone.  The problems that today’s children face have changed as well.  Sure, there will always be the quest for popularity and the unending uncertainty of who likes who; but now there are lots of other, more sinister problems that our kids face.   The books that they prefer reading reflect this change.

This is where fantasy fiction can triumph.  By setting a story in a parallel world, the author is free to explore their character’s problems in a different and new way.  They are not limited by the confines of reality or society and therefore have more liberty to reach into the depths of a problem in a way that’s not feasible in standard literature.  Readers are then free to make parallels to their personal situations in the way that suits them best.

Will our children have to deal with sparkly vampires? No, but they might have to figure out how to handle a relationship with someone who is considered different.  

Will our children be forced to fight to the death in gladiatorial combat? We hope not, but they might be being forced into doing something that they know is wrong and need the courage to speak out.

Will our children have to go to space to fight an intergalactic war? Probably not, but they might have to fight against a bully and need to know that there are ways of winning.

Saying that today’s children cannot learn anything from reading fantasy books is absurd and narrow minded. If you ask me, they can learn just as much, or even more from fantasy because there are more possibilities for abstract connections between characters and problems that would be hard to find in literal fiction.  The nature of fantasy is to allow readers to question reality and view their own world in a new light.

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Here’s one of the articles that sparked this post:

Children need classics not Fantasy

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Let’s discuss!  Do you agree or disagree that children should be reading more of the classics for guidance?  What is your opinion on fantasy/speculative/contemporary novels?

Talk about it in the comments!

Death of the Wedding Toaster

Mondays are supposed to have their share of challenges, there are little people to dress, breakfast to make and eat, kids to get to school, and schedules and deadlines to meet. This morning was no exception.  Today it started about four hours earlier than usual, 3:30 to be exact, when my oldest appeared at my bedside and calmly informed me that he had vomited on the floor of his bedroom and needed help cleaning it up.  He then proceeded to tell me in lengthy description how he sat up in bunk bed leaned over the rail and then proceeded to empty his stomach on the carpet below.  In my sleep addled confusion I had to ask him to repeat himself twice before I could make sense of what he was saying.

At this point I can only be grateful that he had the presence of mind to not vomit all over himself in the bed.  We’ve had plenty of nights in years past where this was not the case. There’s nothing quite like waking to the sounds of a child crying and finding them and everything around them covered in partially digested dinner. Cleaning up the carpet, although a pain, is at least much more straight forward than stripping a sleepy child, giving them a bath, stripping the bed, starting the laundry, remaking the bed, and then getting everyone back to sleep.  Small blessings. While I wish he would have gone to the bathroom right outside his door, I can’t complain too much. There was no drama and no tears.

Fast forward to breakfast, late and lazy today just like a sick morning deserves.  My kids love toast.  I love that my kids love toast. It’s fast and easy to make, fast to eat, and easy to clean up. This morning however, the toaster had different ideas.  I loaded it, started it, and began pouring the milk when I heard a soft zap and caught a whiff of ozone.

The toaster that had accompanied us for the last ten years, had seen six different houses, two states, and the arrival of three children was dead.

While it seems silly to get sentimental over the last moments of a cheap kitchen appliance, I can’t help but think that there is something significant in the loss of something that has served our family for so long.  Most of our other cheap appliances have either been upgraded or broken long before, but we could always rely on the toaster.

In many ways a toaster is more than just an appliance.  It’s a promise of warm and lightly crunchy baked goods smothered in butter and jam and served with a cup of cocoa. It’s lazy mornings where we stay in our jammies and watch TV. It’s breakfast in bed and late night snacking.  It’s comfort.

And now it must be replaced.  While a new toaster holds the promise of wider slots and more accurate controls it will never going to be quite the same as the old.  There will be that period of learning and adjusting and finding the setting that produces the perfect shade of toast, browned on top and plenty soft inside.  So many things in my life are unpredictable that I’m loathe to add yet another one.  In time we will come to accept and love the new toaster, but until then I will miss the old one.

A farewell to you, wedding toaster, you have served us well.  Please understand that we cannot mourn your loss for too long, there are still lazy mornings and breakfasts to be made.photo (4)

Cleanliness Actually Can Make You Happier

Being the creative type means I sometimes often get distracted from taking care of the basics in my home.  When I go on a writing binge, or reading, or whatever I’m obsessing over at the moment and stop picking up my fairly clean house converts itself into chaos central.  Any unattended flat surface becomes a breeding ground for papers, toys, dust, books, and lost cups and forks.  When the house gets messy, I get crabby.

At first it’s hard to pin down why I’m starting to get more irritated.  It starts as a growing unease, an information overload.  There is too much to take in, too many little items calling for my attention.  Each item represents a choice; put away, throw away, file, deal with. Even though clutter has sapped my mood dozens of times before, it often takes days before I catch on to what’s happening.

Then there is the actual cleaning as well, the vacuuming, mopping, scrubbing, dishes, laundry, bathrooms, dusting, windows, and whatnot that eventually have to be addressed. Again, at first the slow accumulation of grime is hardly noticeable. But it is noticeable. And just like clutter and junk it, plays mind games with me.  Each spot is another entry on an unending list of things to do.

Now, if I lived alone I wouldn’t have anyone else to blame but myself. The house would still morph into clutter central, it would just take longer. In my case I have help, plenty of help. Three young kids have the magical ability to create mess just by breathing.  

As mommy it is my responsibility to teach these little ones to clean up after themselves, which can turn into a task much more exhausting and obnoxious than doing the cleaning myself.  They must learn that it’s more fun to play when there is a nice clear area to do it. When their rooms are clean they are happier.  So why is it like pulling teeth to get them to pick up anything?!?  It’s one of the great mysteries of life.

When I get off of a creative binge and start picking up and clearing off surfaces, it’s as refreshing as breathing fresh air after being stuck in a poorly ventilated subway car. While stuck in the car you don’t realize just how icky it is until you leave and get outside once again.  When things are clean, my mood lifts and so does the mood of my family.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t enjoy cleaning – there are dozens, if not hundreds, of things I’d rather be spending my time doing.  I’m not a psycho perfectionist either, I’ll only scrub baseboards and deep clean when things get bad enough to bother me. Often it takes the promise of listening to a good podcast while I work to get me moving.

In the end, although it can be a royal pain, if keeping things clean makes everyone happier it’s worth doing.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, just kept under control.

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Ahhh, look at those lovely clean surfaces!
Image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why I Watch Kid’s Movies

I have a confession to make, I really like kid’s movies.  Well, not all of them, but there are those few that manage to capture the imagination and make that barrier between reality and fantasy thin for a while so that anything is possible.  These movies have one or more of the three crucial elements of a great movie, fascinating stories,  intriguing art, and/or moving music.

One of the movies I watched last summer continues to haunt me as I work on my book. That movie is Epic, produced by promising new kid on the block (well, newer) Blue Sky Studios who also made Ice Age and Rio.

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Meet Ronan, General of the Leafmen army

This movie had all three of the important elements of what makes a great film.  The story was new and unique, the music stirring and powerful, but what really captured my imagination of these three was the art.  We are allowed a sneak peek into the secret world of the leafmen, the guardians of the forest, and the society that surrounds them.  The secret world within the forest is beautifully created with stunning vistas and excellent attention to unexpected details.

Strangely this movie wasn’t as well received as everyone had hoped.  It did have all the promise of a terrific film, but in the end the main characters didn’t grab the attention of the audience.  For me, the secondary characters were far more interesting.  I fell in love with the character of Ronin and his relationship with Queen Tara.

Ronin is stern and disciplined and at first he comes across as hard.  This is soon shown not to be true when he interacts with Queen Tara.  As with most who seem hard on the outside, Ronin has an incredibly soft heart and cares deeply for the Queen.  He carries with him a sense of one who must endure a great pain.  In the beginning this pain is the inability to express his true feelings toward the Queen. This emotional turmoil deepens further as the story unfolds. Throughout the film he shows this intense depth of character through his facial expressions and well-chosen words.

In this regard, he is very similar to my main character Jarand who is also a bit hard on the outside but very soft on the inside. Jarand is also emotionally wounded and suffers from memories of his past.  As the story unfolds things happen that intensify his suffering and he must perform his sworn duty to remedy the situation.

With luck I hope to create my character as well as the artists at Blue Sky made Ronin.

What are some of your favorite kids movies? What made them special?  Let me know in the comments section, I’d love to hear about it!

Cirque du Soleil: Ka

For the fantasy writer, there’s nothing more inspiring than experiencing something new. I’ve been a long time fan of the style and music of the Cirque du Soliel theatrical company and this last week I got to experience Kà at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Cirque Du Soleil is best described as an odd mix of fantasy makeup, intense acrobatics, and bizarre spectacle. Its strangeness is its appeal.  As a spectator, you cannot look away.  Every aspect is intriguing.  It’s no use to try to make sense of what you see, in most shows there isn’t any story to follow.

wallpaper_ka_1280x1024 is different because it tells the story of two imperial twins coming of age and the tests they must endure.  Its elements are both whimsical and intense as we witness the resolve of the evil power trying to destroy the twins against their will to survive against all odds. The different acts are beautiful and strange with a large dose of the unexpected sprinkled throughout.  

For me, it boosted my creative energy and made me even more eager to return to my manuscript in November. Ten more days until I start the edit of the next draft.

 

Funny Sign – Watch Out!

Look closely at this sign, see if you notice anything strange or out of the ordinary.
IMG_1629There, you see it? Yes, that’s a T-rex on the sign, which is apparently yet another traffic hazard here in the Western US along with traffic cones and rattlesnakes.  I have yet to spot one in my travels, I hear they are shy, and tend to only come out to feed. Some say they are more afraid of us than we are of them, although with the size difference it’s hard to say. I’d personally avoid them, too many teeth and man eating tendencies for me.

I found this sign outside of the new Natural History Museum of Utah, nestled up in the foothills of the Wasatch range of the Rocky Mountains.  The museum is located right next to the Bonneville Shoreline trail, which contrary to its name doesn’t actually run along a body of water, but refers to the ancient and long gone Lake Bonneville which used to cover a good part of the state of Utah.  Instead, the trail offers terrific views of the valley floor and is a favorite among trail walkers and bikers alike.

The museum itself is a must see with huge dynamic exhibits that cover the full spectrum of life on earth from the dinosaurs all the way up to modern biology.  My kids love the hands on exhibits and the onsite paleontology lab where they can watch real scientists work on real dinosaur bones.  I love the ease and accessibility of the different exhibits and how they flow from one to the next, bringing the visitor from the darkest recesses of prehistory all the way to the present day.  That, and the dinosaur exhibit is pretty awesome.

If you plan on coming, prepare to spend several hours – there’s plenty to see and do for everyone.  Just watch out for those pesky T- Rexes, they tend to take a bite out of your day!