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Saturday, October 22, 2016

On the Road: Traveling Wishes

My friend Mindy once told me she tried to be a traveler as opposed to a tourist when she left home for any period of time, and I always thought that was wise. Of course, you don't have to travel far to learn something about people, which is the point, I think, of going anywhere.

In Mark Helprin's book A Winter's Tale a young woman gets a job at the New York Times and is told to walk around the city all day, find interesting people and talk to them. I can't think of a better job for a writer-- or anyone else, for that matter.
And I don't think I'm the only one who feels that way.

In The Beat on Ruby's Street, Ruby is fascinated with Jack Kerouac and his book On the Road because I think she understands the most important thing about travel is getting inside the heads of people who live completely different lives. Ironically, Ruby has hardly been anywhere beyond her home turf of Greenwich Village.

In book two, I'm setting things up so Ruby will have to travel nearly as much as Kerouac did. I guess I need to travel vicariously through her, but I also want her to share what she learns about people outside of her Beat-Generation community.

My own traveling life hasn't been nearly as extensive as I'd like, but I promised myself to try and see all the places (or at least half) that interest me in the next decade. My son and I both want to see every country that starts with the letter "I.".

Besides travel in the U. S., Canada and Mexico, I visited Paris, Amsterdam and a little Swiss village on a college trip and have been to Ireland and Israel since then, but that isn't nearly enough to make me the traveler I want to be. I just think travel teaches us (and our kids) so much more about the world than we could ever learn in school.

My son has been to Italy and Israel though college trips: a summer studying opera in Italy and two school semesters in Jerusalem. When he talks to me about meeting Palestinians and Israelis, traveling to border areas or singing for Italian audiences, I can see how his experiences changed and and are still changing him. I tell him my biggest travel wish is to get to Prague, because any country that elected a playwright for its president is a country I need to see.

If there is a way for your son or daughter to travel, and/or for you to go with them, I hope you will. If you can do it while they're in elementary school, all the better. And it doesn't have to be some exotic destination either--even walking around your city talking to people you find interesting could be a great experience. Because isn't the best travel about how far our minds can take us, wherever we go?

Ideas on traveling with kids can be found here:

Travel with Kids: Why You Should Do It and Do It Now

15 Places Your Kid should See Before 15

Saturday, October 15, 2016

My Menagerie - Plus Tips for Yours

I lived in a petless household until I moved away from home - unless you count fish who died quickly and two miniature turtles who didn't last very long. My mother didn't like cats and only liked tiny little dogs -- though mainly I think she didn't want animals messing up the house.

Once I left home, I started collecting cats and letting roommates move in with dogs as much as I (reasonably) could. When I got married to a man who has a lot of allergies, I realized my son and I would need to be judicious, which meant finding weird pets that wouldn't make my husband sneeze.

Our first pet was a salamander because it had no fur and we thought it would be pretty easy. It was mainly my fault we got him, because I found a wonderful book at the library about a salamander who comes to live with a family and my son didn't want to let go of the idea. When we went to the reptile store (and yes, there is one in the neighborhood), we discovered the salamander would need to eat crickets, which we were supposed to buy weekly. 

"I have to get my mind around this, Josh," I told my son.

"No, mom, you don't," he said. "My mind is already around it."

A week later, we brought a salamander home and named him Scully. Occasionally we'd take him out and let him crawl on our arms, but he needed to stay wet, so we couldn't do too much of that. He loved eating crickets and was generally a sweet little guy, though I felt guilty about his life in a glass box, even though it was a large-ish one.

At first we thought he might only live for a month or two, but he lived with us about six or seven years and it mostly fell to me and my husband to clean his digs, so my advice to you is: DON'T get a salamander, but if you do, make your kid practice cleaning out a cage for a month before you get one. Then get a contract signed that he/she will do it for the rest of the salamander's life.

As it turned out, our salamander had a really neat trick. If something irritated his skin he simply SHED it. This happened only once, when my son put him into the sink during a cleaning and he accidentally got toothpaste on his body. The next thing we knew, the skin was lying in the corner of his environment and he'd grown a completely new one--making me wish all of us could do the same thing.

Alas, we are stuck with our skins for life. I do think it's a metaphor for something... maybe you can help me figure out for what?

Meanwhile, Josh brought Scully to science class for a few months one year, but when he brought him home for the summer, Scully died, and no one at our house was ready for another salamander. By this time Josh was 11, and when we visited friends in New Jersey he met a hamster and began agitating for one. After a bit of research, we found a lady named Martha who adopted and rehabilitated hamsters (and I'm still not sure where she found them).

Martha enticed us with a hamster named Dex who was exceedingly gentle and had a few fingers missing on one of his paws. Dex came to live with us and, to give him a life outside of his cage, we let him run around nightly in a wading pool in the living room. He once scared all of us to death by crawling under the porch door, but luckily did not make it outside.

Dex kept my son awake at night by running around in his wheel, but Josh said he didn't mind, and overall we had a lot of fun with him until he expired, nearly two years later, on the eve of my son's bar mitzvah. SO... if you get a hamster, prepare your kid for the fact that they don't usually live much longer than a couple of years.

Both Dex and Scully are buried in our back yard. This chore always fell to my husband, though it took a toll on him. On the other hand, neither Josh or I was up to it, so I'm very grateful for husbands (both conceptually and in reality).

At this point, I think we were all ready for less animal stress, and my husband said we could get a cat. I knew he was highly allergic, and reader, as you know, I married him, but was unable to turn down the prospect and we have had Sydney for about 11 years. She completely rules the house and has turned all of us into her servants, but somehow, no one minds this and we would like her to live forever.

My husband takes daily Allegras to keep her, but he does let her cuddle with him every night on the couch, and in spite of his allergies he has metamorphasized into a cat lover. What I learned from all this is you should probably start with the pet you want -- allergies or no, and give your cat a bath if you have to. Because animals make life more fun, ma, even if they're messy. 

Go on and tell me if I'm wrong?

Salamander: Aah Yeah
Hamster: Cliff
Cat: Jenna Zark

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Yes Virginia, it's Teen Read Week

Yes, it's always some kind of week, and yes, it should be every week, but THIS week is Teen Read Week, which makes it all official.

I say this because of all the mother's laments I heard and added to when my son Josh was growing up. As a small child he always wanted me to read to him and I did; but as he got older and more influenced by television and movies, the harder it was to get him to read at all.

I remember trying to get him to open The Sword in the Stone and him refusing unless I read it to him. Rightly or wrongly, I did, and was at least glad to see he liked the book. Friends told me they spent a lot of time nagging their kids to read books, too, and no one gender had anything over the other.

By the time Josh started going to school, the teachers were more insistent, and he brought home some interesting books. Because they felt he was having trouble with reading, my son was assigned a special reading teacher who gave him James and the Giant Peach. I think she must have been an amazing teacher because she picked up immediately on the kind of book my son would like.

Just another reason to love teachers, I guess.

As he got older, Josh started reading more about World War II and historical subjects. As a teen he didn't read much and I started thinking of him as a teenage Rocky, because most of what he liked to do involved boxing and sports. If it wasn't for his coaches insisting on good grades in school, I don't know that Josh would have been reading at all.

A few months into college, I went to visit my son and was shocked at the metamorphosis. He had gone from an inarticulate and socially awkward boy-man to a young man that was interested in the world and used real vocabulary. I don't really know what happened, but I'm glad it did.

I still think about the high school years though, and wish we'd been able to have more conversations about books. I know there are all kinds of arguments for reading, but the best one I can think of is it creates a way of thinking you can't get from TV or a film or even watching a play. You can't explain it to someone unless they do it, but reading allows the imagination a kind of free play that you, as the reader control. And that's very different from the way you're spoon fed with most other media.

So... I hope you'll figure out a way to celebrate Teen Read Week -- either at your local library or bookstore - or by giving your teen a gift certificate to buy books online. If you're a teen and want to learn more, try this website.

Better yet... try a book.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Introducing: The Beat on Ruby's Street Trailer

This week won't be a long post because I have a BRAND NEW book trailer for The Beat on Ruby's Street, and am excited to share it with you!

I never did one of these before, so for me, it was a very interesting process. First I had to find the right images that would give you an idea of Ruby's world, since she's growing up in 1958 in the heart of the Beat Generation. I scoured dozens of royalty-free sites to find most of them, and also used some images created just for my blog by the artist Jackson O'Brien Muenster. 

Of course, one of my husband's photos found its way in to the mix, plus my friend and book publicist Pam Labbe's wonderful graphic and the amazing book cover by Gwen Gades. The hardest part was finding the right music, but thanks to writer Kandi Wyatt I found just the right piece - thank you, Kandi!

So... without further mishmash, I hope you'll enjoy the trailer (and thanks, Jim Tittle of Nice Pictures and Twelve Plus Media for putting it together)!

See the trailer HERE.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Two Step Parents Forward, No Steps Back

Woody Allen's classic line from Manhattan about two mothers isn't kind or politically correct, but it does get the point across if you're a step parent: 

"Most people don't survive one mother, much less two."

When he says this line, Allen's character  is talking to his ex-wife, who moved in with another woman who became a step-parent to his child. 

If it sounds complicated to you, imagine how it is for your kid. Or maybe it isn't? Having been cast in the role of co-parent reluctantly, I came to realize small children want everyone in the room with them, always, as long as there is love. If mom or dad brings on another mate, and the mate is loving, young children are generally OK with that.

The older they get, the more complicated it gets for them. And sometimes, being young doesn't work for them either.

My first contact with step parenting came when my son was about five. Suddenly there was a new person in his life taking on the role of a parent. How would he see her -- and how would that affect the relationship between us? 

Meanwhile, a lot of garbage that was going on between me and my son's dad -- and as you might expect, that leaked into our parenting.  There were days we both acted more like children than any kid would do. Fortunately, there were also days we were able to rise above it.

When I got remarried, I encountered a whole new view of family and what it meant. I saw that step parenting was really, really hard, because you're kind of an "add-on" parent and,  if you have two other active parents in the mix, there's bound to be some friction. 

Fortunately, my son was good natured and loved people. He managed to forge wonderful relationships with both step parents, in spite of the  craziness that erupted around him at times. When his twin brother and sister were born in his father's family, my son insisted everyone say "brother and sister" and refused to use the words "step brother/sister" or "half." It was obvious he was really committed to both families, and that is always, always, always a good thing.

My own experience taught me parents and step parents don't need to be buddies (though if they are it probably helps their kids). But co-parents do need to try as hard as they can to respect each other--so children and step children will have an easier time respecting all of them.

How do you do that when you're in the middle of a web of hostile feelings? Sometimes it's about stumbling through. Sometimes it's about realizing there are going to be bad days when you make mistakes. And sometimes it's about realizing that no matter what you say or do, your child's co-parents are going to make decisions you won't like -- and you have to let go of that.

I found a few ideas for navigating some of this stuff, but the one thing I promise is there are days it will be tough. There will also be glorious days, I promise you. Just don't expect it to be easy or to happen over night. Don't think you can change anyone else, and don't keep score, because if you do that one thing's certain: you'll always lose

But whatever you do, don't give up, because your child needs you. What they want you to know is there's no such thing as too much love in a family -- and no matter what you think on any given day, there really is enough love to go around.


Parents and Step Parents: Where is the Boundary Line?
Do You Feel Like an Outsider with Your Stepchildren?
Blended Families and Ex-etiquette for Families

Family: Leonid Mamchenkov

Saturday, September 17, 2016

In a Nickname

Do you have a nickname? Do you want one?

I have a friend who calls me Mish, short for Miss Mishegoss, because when we met I was in the middle of a ton of psychic garbarge and mishegoss is the Yiddish word for craziness. My dad called me "Gravel Gertie" when I didn't comb out my curls or "Sarah Heartburn" when he thought I was being too dramatic. (That one's still my favorite). A lot of people who can't remember my name call me "Red," which is what they also called my father; since both of us have (or had, in his case) red hair.

Names give us identity in a paint-by-numbers world, and I guess that's why we fight so hard for them. (If you don't believe me, try misspelling someone's name at work and see how fast you get called on it). Nicknames provide something more; they tell us how others think about us, or even how we think about ourselves.

Growing up, I didn’t much like my first name OR middle name, and ended up changing the middle name, which is now what I go by. It made me think about people who feel they should have been born female or male when they aren’t; it’s similar, I think, to how you can feel about your name.

My husband’s legal name is Peter, but he won’t be called anything except Pete. (This rule, of course, exempts parents and other naming beings, because they obviously chose our names because they liked them).

I used to wonder about names I thought old fashioned or odd; did the kids I knew with those names want to change them? Somehow, this wasn’t something we ever discussed.

Some friends in college came up with “Lark” for me, because it sounded like my last name but added more of what they thought about my energy. I liked it sometimes and not other times. I have a colleague these days who just calls m e “Zark,” and I like that just fine.

But nicknames are still a wild card. A lot of times they’re anything but flattering, and make you wish the people using them would disappear. It seems we don’t really have much control over our own names, but we have even less control over nicknames, which are often based on appearances. Too often, bullies give us names we can't stand, and I guess that must be a requirement if you're a bully; giving someone an ugly name that makes them feel humiliated.

On the other hand, being a writer gives you the opportunity to name characters—and give THEM nicknames, and know they won’t complain. My family of Tabeatas in The Beat on Ruby Street are really named Tabita—but as the main character Ruby explains, they changed their name “for the Beat.” That tells me and hopefully you a little more about them, and the importance of the Beat Generation to their lives.

Right now I’m thinking of giving another character in the book a nickname for book two of the Beat Street Series. I think it may be her last name, but I’m giving myself a little time to decide.

Where I really go crazy is giving nicknames to my cat. I have no idea why this entertains me so much, but I don't seem to be able to stop, and it will probably get worse, not better. Luckily my cat just has to put up with it.

I did find a few other thoughts on kids and nicknames here, in case you’re interested:

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Kids. Money. Scream.

Just the word alone can make you nervous. Puts kids and money in the same sentence and you’re really in for a scare. Is there a way to teach your kids about money without going bonkers?

I have no idea. My approach was best described as "whatever works," if not completely haphazard.

We had chores, we had allowances, we had plenty of “no” responses to requests for things, and then we had too many presents on holidays, and I promise you:

I still have no clue about what I was doing or not doing--let alone if I was doing it right.

I have no idea if my son knows the real value of a dollar, five dollars or fifty, for that matter. He was really good at getting out of chores, but we nagged at him, and eventually he would do them, money or no.

On the other hand, we bribed him to do all kinds of things (homework, ironing, cleaning the salamander tank). Bribing is not recommended with kids, but in the real world, you do it, especially if you are desperate to get something done.

What about you? Do you get your kids to “earn” every dollar? What are your plans about helping them pay for college? (Ours got lucky because a grandparent died and left some money behind).

What about figuring out a consistent approach to money with co-parents after a divorce? (Cue incessant laughter from the audience).

What about grad school? (Don’t get me started). What about saving for your own retirement? Going through a recession and losing your job and wondering what you were going to do about all the expenses including college?

What about… putting your head under a pillow and screaming for the next 20 years?

The only thing that I think really worked well concerning teaching my son something about money was a job he took during high school at a masonry business. The owner was so mean and the work was so hard, he decided he really wanted to go to college because he didn’t ever want to work his life away in a place like that.

Of course, I had nothing to do with this decision or this lesson. So I can’t even take credit for it. But are artists really supposed to know how to be "smart" about money? What does that even mean? 

And no, I don't mean to use being an artist as an excuse, because it isn't. I just can't hold myself up as an example, and if you knew me, I'm sure you wouldn't want me to. As a complete failure at coming up with good tips on this topic, the only thing I can do is share some articles from people who, hopefully, know better: