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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Kitty Blues

Worried as I'm writing this; my cat is getting older and arthritis is setting in. Our vet has given us these options:

Chiropractic care (who knew there were chiropracters for animals?!?)
Spinal surgery

My husband and I are trying to figure out what to do.

There are people who say, "It's just a cat, why bother?"


I can't talk to those people, or make them understand. Sydney is a cat, but what cat is "just a cat?" Can you honestly live with an animal in your home many years and not consider him or her to be part of your family?

Our Sydney is magically able to know your moods and manifest them. She is a lovely nurse when you need one, and can always be relied on to lift your spirits and comfort you when you're down. Until her recent illness she routinely slept on my hair. This is a trait I adapted into The Beat on Ruby's Street with Ruby's cat Solange.

This week she has stayed with me on the couch in the evening, but won't sleep near me and mostly hides in the closet. And I can't help feeling sad and helpless while I'm trying to sort through the options we have (and how much we can afford).

A friend told me last week that while cats can live 15 to 20 years, dogs live more like 10 years. I cannot imagine losing a dog after 10 years - I think it would be horrible. I would hate it even more if I had a young child or if our cat had died when our son was small.

I know things like this can be "opportunities" to talk to kids about loss; but what Sydney is bringing home to me is how unutterably hard grief is, how much loss really affects us, and how much animal companions bring to our lives.

I think whatever kids learn about these issues, they will have to learn this. As do we all.






Saturday, February 11, 2017

Just Three Bites

When my son Josh was young, and by young I mean between when he started walking and age nine, he didn't much like eating, especially dinner. I think kids just want to move or run or sparkle or play and you can't do very much of that when you're tableside.

At first, I believed he'd starve to death if he didn't have a real dinner or at least get some kind of disease from malnutrition. Someone told me children would never starve if there was food on the table but being a first-time mom, I wasn't sure if I could believe that.

I tried all kinds of kid-friendly meals (which mostly comes down to pasta, strawberries and yogurt) but also hoped slipping some veggies in here and there where I could would help. Josh was a grazer, and luckily liked cucumber, which he ate while we were shopping. Berries and summer fruits seemed attractive to him too, so I slipped those into lunch boxes daily.

Still, we never did make much headway with dinnertime. After a while I made a deal. I'd try to get him to eat as much as he could (maybe 10 percent of his meal, if I was lucky), and then when he said he was done, I said he needed three more bites of something before he could leave the table. He took those bites, and that was how we left it.

Later, if he got hungry, I wasn't one of those moms who said, "You didn't finish dinner. Deal with it." Instead, I let him have fruits or veggies or even a little toast and butter. Milk or hot chocolate were OK at bedtime. And somehow, as children do, my son grew up and got big enough to play football in seventh grade.

By the time Josh was eight or nine, I decided I was done obsessing about nutrition. That didn't mean I wasn't obsessing about other stuff, though. My son was very active, and probably too active for a lot of his teachers' tastes. Several asked me to get him tested for ADD or ADHD. Health food store employees told me to cut out sugary juice drinks and never allow sodas.

I suppose I could have, maybe even should have, done some of this stuff. But the last thing I wanted was to give my son pills of any kind just because he was antsy. I worked with him a lot at home on homework and he knew we expected good grades and he had to pay attention in school, even if he didn't like it. I tried to minimize sugary drinks at night but I stopped obsessing about what he was eating and when.

I don't know if this was the "right" thing to do, but I can say junior high seemed easier for him than elementary school and high school seemed better still and he started to shine in college. In looking back, I feel lucky that all my coparents (husband, Josh's dad and his wife) were great parents too. I have a feeling my son's stepmother was responsible for Josh learning to try and eventually like a lot of new foods.

Seeing where my son is now (and wondering what he'll be like as a parent) makes me realize that most of the time, we parents are too hard on ourselves. Yes, we mess up (and I did a lot) but even with those messes, I still think our ledger falls closer to the "OK" side of things than not. And as for dinner time, well... I'm here to tell you (promise) -- those three bites really can be enough.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Out of the Basement

Years of recurring dreams have taught me to try and remember them, because if they’re recurring, there’s something important I’m trying to get myself to know. One dream that keeps coming back takes place in the house where I grew up.

That house had a large finished basement with two super-large closets that spanned the length of each side. Inside one were the items my parents no longer wanted but didn’t want to give up; old furniture, plates, a toy chest. The other side held an extra freezer, washer and dryer and a cedar closet full of clothes.

In my dream, though, the closet also contains a room—and not just any room. When I open the door in my dream, I find a light-filled room furnished with a high brass bed, books, a white-curtained window and sometimes even a friend or two, though they are not really friends I know.

What’s happening? I have no clue. Why would I place an airy, bright room in a basement closet? Why would that room be in a house I haven’t lived in for years?

Opening the door to that room always makes me happy in my dream. It feels like I’ve found the key to some sort of freedom, and a very special place where I am safe and surrounded by beauty. I always get a great sense of peace and well being there.

Is this my mind telling me I want a safe place to write, or a whole new environment? If so, why I am I setting it in the old one?

I’m looking (very hard) for something. The room in my dream sometimes has a single bed, sometimes a double one, but it always seems like it’s a room for me, and no one else. Am I looking for space, a refuge?

I read somewhere that when you dream about a basement it’s because there are emotions you are neglecting—or are burying because you don’t have time or money to address them. That would be me, I guess.

My husband often tells me how amazed he is that I remember my dreams. I can’t imagine not remembering them, because I’ve always thought they give me clues about my deepest fears and desires and about how I process life in general.

I keep opening this door, but only in dreams. Maybe I will have to find what I’m looking for—peace, success, a sanctuary of sacred space where I get to write only what I choose, not what is chosen for me—before the door will open in reality.

For some fun articles on dreams, try these:

Dream Moods – Dream Dictionary




Saturday, January 28, 2017

Historical Novels Show Where We Are Now

I was talking to another author a few weeks back and she said she thought historical novels were a hard sell. I guess they may be, though it seems to me every book has its challenges in this age of videos, movies and TV shows on demand.

It can be tougher, though, to convince readers of middle school and young adult fiction that history has anything to tell them. Another friend once said she was told historical dramas and books were really trying to show us something about our own times. I'd have to agree with that.

Sometimes using a historical period for a story makes it easier to see the prejudices or mistakes people made in earlier times. We can see how sick the world was when we watch a show like Underground and see what African Americans went through, just trying to be free. Or we can look at someone growing up in the 1950s and see the world through her eyes.

What I'm hoping people will see in The Beat on Ruby's Street (and other books in this series) is that Ruby's struggles may be rooted in a certain time and place, but a lot of what she deals with involves the same dilemmas many tweens face now. These include parents breaking up, authority figures not listening and how no matter what you're going through, art in all its forms (poetry, books, plays, etc.) can help us heal.

We tend to think of long-ago times the way we think of pictures on the wall--people dressed up in costumes (crinolines, poodle skirts, bustles or whatever) talking or dancing in ways that make us laugh. But there's always a darker side to those pictures, just like there is in our own lives. (Of course there's also the fun stuff, too--and a lot of that is similar to what makes us happy now).

The fifties were supposed to be about idyllic days in the suburbs that surrounded our cities. But they were about a lot more than that. The Civil Rights movement and protesting the atomic bomb were pat of the era. So were leaders like Cesar Chavez, fighting for the rights of migrant workers and the Blacklist that put artists out of work because of fear of Communism.

It may have looked calm in the sitcoms and movies, but there was really a lot of turmoil. That's why Beat Generation poets in New York City, San Francisco and elsewhere had so much to write about.

Our own times look pretty rocky too, with people fighting about politics and civil rights and wars  and... oh, yeah. Lot of turmoil going on here, too.

My hope is that Ruby's story will resonate with you because of the times we live in--not because you want to "learn about the 1950s." Though hopefully there's enough in these books that is true to the era that will be fun to read about.

I guess I mean to talk about one book, though, because the second one is still being written. But if you want to read chapter one, sign up to receive a newsletter on my website and you can read the start of the new book! Sign up by scrolling down on the home page at jennazark.com.

1950s girl photo: tiffany terry
Lady Liberty photo: Alex m. Hayward


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Surprise, Surprise: the Underside of the Story

I'm writing this on Inauguration Day, which is as surreal as anything gets in America, especially this year. If anyone had told me Donald J. Trump would be President at this time last year, I'd have said they were crazy. 

I didn't vote for Trump and would have preferred a different outcome, but what his election brings home in every possible way is how unpredictable human beings (and elections) are--for better or worse. 


When I was writing part one of the Beat Street Series, The Beat on Ruby's Street, I began the book with Ruby idolizing Jack Kerouac, who is known as the father of the Beat Generation--along with hipsters and other famous poets and writers.


In fact, Jack has been quoted as saying "I am not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic." Of attending a mass in his hometown of Lowell, Kerouac writes:

I had a vision of what I must have really meant with ‘beat’ anyhow when I heard the holy silence in the church (I was the only one in there, it was five P.M., dogs were barking outside, children yelling, the fall leaves, the candles were flickering alone just for me), the vision of the word Beat as being to mean beatific.
...as in  blissful... or saintly. Not "beat" as in hip or cool.

These days, I'm working on book two of the Beat Street Series about what happens to Ruby's best friend Sophie when her mother gets on the notorious Blacklist. The list put scores of people in entertainment out of work because they were accused of being Communists.


Digging into the research revealed that besides being a Catholic, extraordinary writer and poet, Jack Kerouac cheered while watching Senator Joe McCarthy, father of the Blacklist, on TV. He also scorned the hippie movement and approved of the Viet Nam war.


I also discovered though a friend (ironically named Carolyn Kennedy, no relation) that Bobby Kennedy, iconic senator, presidential candidate killed by an assassin and blazing liberal crusader, had been an aide to Senator McCarthy. Sources say he left this position after six months, but it shocked me to learn he had been on McCarthy's committee at all.


When I learned this, the first thing I thought was, what do I do with it? I'm writing about a young girl in a time and place that is focused on rebelling against the establishment. But the more I thought about it, the more interesting I thought it would be if my young heroine finds out the world is a bit more complex that she thought it was--politically as well as personally.


I'm thinking about all this on Inauguration Day because it's yet another example of life's endless capacity to ricochet off into something I never expected. I guess no matter how much we think we know someone, the only guarantee is that human beings are infinite in their ability to surprise us. 


Maybe that's why writers are here--and need to pay attention.







Black list graphic: La Notizia
Bearded Lady: York Berlin

Saturday, January 14, 2017

In the Driver's Seat: Kids on the Road

FIRST - if you are participating in my Ripley's giveaway, you can view the trailer for The Beat on Ruby's Street here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gblB_EIqUao

The THIRD person to comment here at the end of this blog about the trailer will receive a free e-book!

In the Driver's Seat: Kids on the Road

I’m driving on a moderately busy road, but today hardly anyone is on it. The day before a huge snowstorm happened, and I am out today for a trial run before I go to a job interview. 

I do this because I don’t like driving and like getting lost even less. So it seems reasonable to go out in the middle of the morning the day after a monster snowstorm to minimize my stress on the following day.

Unfortunately for me I live in a city where snow is commonplace and most people are less afraid than I am to drive around in it. I grew up on the East Coast and had little occasion to drive because I was mostly in Boston and New York. 

Today I am going about 20 miles an hour and can tell the driver behind me is impatient. He is tailgating  and honking, so I speed up to get him to stop. Of course, he passes me anyway. And right then, my car hits a patch of snow that didn’t get plowed and goes into a spinout. 

The word sounds far prettier than it actually feels. What I do feel is my little Nissan Sentra spinning out of control and swerving all over the road like a mad bull in a rodeo. Luckily, no other cars are around, but it’s still a completely terrifying moment, soon made even more terrifying by the car swerving toward a steel pole on the side of the street.

I am airborne, and have no idea of where I will land.

I think this will probably end badly but cannot manage to do anything other than sit there, my heart pounding frantically. The next thing I know the car shoots up off the curb, but instead of hitting the pole it goes between that pole and another one and spins around once more until it lands, finally, in a nearly empty parking lot.

I have no idea if it missed the poles because I was able to steer it correctly, but that seems unlikely. Instead, it seems as though I survived this horrible adventure through nothing but dumb luck.

I stayed in that car for at least 20 minutes, waiting for my heart and spirit to calm down before driving on again. And I was way too scared to laugh.

I’m telling you this because incidents like this (and I had at least one other, plus a couple of highway accidents) have left me pretty much only able to drive the city streets, unless I’m on a very short stretch of highway for a few minutes.

Then, last year, my son and his friend were in a terrible car accident on an icy highway, with some careless truck drivers. Fortunately my son escaped with little injury while his friend broke her ankle in two places and spent months enduring a slow, arduous recovery.

None of this helps me feel better when either my son or his friends are on the road.

I am wondering how other people feel about their kids’ driving. Do they ever worry when their kids are late coming home from a party or do they just shrug and go to bed? Do you? What happens when you have more than one kid and they’re both learning to drive?

And HOW do you teach kids to drive safely in a snowstorm?

I don't have many answers, but one thing occurs to me as I think about this: kids are not the problem. The problem is people like the impatient driver who was tailgating me so persistently I thought I had to speed up--and ended by endangering my life (and possibly someone else's).

I think it's worth pointing out the tailgating driver was NOT a teen. He was an adult (or was supposed to be). And I don't see how we can teach our teens to drive well until people like him start taking responsibility for how they're driving.

In other words, it's the grownups who need watching. Always is.

***********

If you still want driving tips for teens, though, check out these articles:






Saturday, January 7, 2017

When Grandparents Need Help: What Your Kids Should Know

When my son was nine, his grandparents started needing more help, and our family started thinking about what it would look like if the grandparents moved out here and lived nearby. I remember telling Josh he might have to watch over them sometimes and was promptly greeted by a blank stare and the words, "What do you MEAN?"

"Well, Grandma might forget something and you could remind her," I said. "Or Grandpa might need you to walk with him if he wants to take a walk."

My son seemed to be OK with that, but I was having a harder time. Watching my parents grow older and frailer was painful, because no matter what our ages were, they were always my parents and somehow "in charge." My mother's difficulties with memory kept increasing, the older she got. I had become used to that, but when my father started having memory issues around age 85, I wished I could have put all of us into a time machine and flown us backwards.

As it turned out, my mother died before my parents could move anywhere, and my father moved to Fort Lee, NJ to be closer to my sister. When she left town a few years later, my dad was having even more memory problems and moved to a small, intimate assisted living-memory care house about 30 miles from our place.

Josh was in college by then, and visited his grandfather whenever he was home. But he had seen both grandparents struggling as they grew older. At first I worried about how this was affecting him, and then I figured something out: the journey my parents were on was relevant for all of us.

We might experience physical deterioration or we might deteriorate mentally, but we're bound to experience one or the other, the older we get. (Some, who are lucky, will barely deteriorate at all, but that's rare enough so I wouldn't want to count on it.) In other decades, we became familiar with illness and death at an early age. Why do we want to over-protect our kids from what life has in store for us?

Years before my father's difficulties became apparent, when Josh was ten, I brought him with me on what would become his last visit to his grandmother, who was close to the end of her life. Instead of being scared or upset, he surprised me by staying with my mother all day, talking to her and listening to her talk. They laughed and enjoyed each other's company in ways I couldn't possibly anticipate. And I couldn't have been prouder of my kid.

So if your parents are experiencing health problems or even crises, I would encourage you not to keep your kids away from them. Involving your kids in caring for grandparents can give them experiences they will always cherish - and never be able to get any other way.