Monday, September 30, 2013

The Uglies

I've been a real peach the past few days.

It started Thursday when the district rerouted our kids. No longer on the local, 1-mile radius "neighborhood" route, they've moved us (as apartment dwellers) to a 9-mile long route that ONLY picks up at apartment buildings all across the school's boundary. No other routes take nearly that long and no other routes pick up at apartments.

Classism, anyone?

Our last route was a 13 minute ride---the school is two whole miles from our front door. The new route, coupled with the nastiest human being who had two kids (one of them mine) crying on her first shift, takes 25 minutes (up to 45 in the afternoons) and drives nine miles down an I-10 frontage road and into neighborhoods that are miles past the school. This bus criscrosses the three most dangerous intersections in the city.

Some fellow parents and I are knee-deep in bureaucracy right now trying to get things righted, but you're dealing with people who really, really at-the-end-of-the-day don't care. They don't. My children are two tiny drops in a sea of bus riders.

So in the meantime, I refuse to let them ride this bus. It's an accident waiting to happen.

I drove them to school this morning and walked them up to the building, hoping to drop Boo off in his new classroom (overcrowding forced a new class to be made...he's in the new group) and get a feel for the teacher and the students.

Three steps in, I was stopped by a small group of staff.

Turns out, parents aren't allowed to walk their children into school anymore. They aren't even allowed to walk through the double doors that separates the school from the world outside now. Too many adults wandering around would be too difficult to manage. People are crazy. They do crazy things.

I guess I get that. I was horrified as anyone else at Newtown. My heart broke at the Spring stabbing. I get sick to my stomach when another arrest is made because some creep makes threats against elementary school kids, promising to storm in and take out as many as possible.

But I also remember the days I could walk my son to his classroom and wait right outside when his bell rang. When I knew the teachers and the assistants and the classmates. When I wasn't presumed a threat to the children until proven otherwise.

And on the ride home, I wondered, when am I a bigger threat to my children than the dangerous route they've put them on during morning and afternoon rush hour? Why is this horrible woman driving the bus and yelling at our children trusted with them and I'm not?

When did the school become a physical barrier between my child and I?

I can't explain how I feel about it right now, but more and more, I start understanding why so many friends of ours have gone "off the grid" and educate their children themselves.

It's ugly, this feeling.

Thinking the district I place my children's fate in really has it all wrong.

That, really, it's all about test scores and attendance funding and less about smaller things like safe, efficient bus routes that aren't manned by cretins, and even less about making parents feel like they're any part of the process at all.

I have a case of the uglies. A great big dose of the uglies and it's so much worse because it's my children they're putting in danger and keeping me from.

Would you understand if I reach my breaking point? Would we still be friends if we drop off the grid and grow our own tomatoes and educate our own kids?

I'd save some canned green beans for you, I swear.

 photo signature_zps3807abdd.jpg

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Weekly Writing Prompts: Introspection

Ready for this week's writing prompts? Again, the focus is on personal writing--think journaling or blogging and allowing a reader into your space.

Happy writing!

 photo signature_zps3807abdd.jpg

Day One: Write one truth and one untruth about yourself. Make them equally believable and see if any of your readers can discern between them.

Day Two:  Introduce readers to someone who has touched your life. Does it have to always be warm and fuzzy and grandma's apple pies? Not necessarily...especially if you've never had that sort of relationship. Show a nontraditional relationship, perhaps, and how that has touched your life. Or write about Nana, if you like. We always love Nanas around here.

Day Three:  It's been said that without wild animals trying to eat us and with life in the 'burbs so easy, that we create our own challenges to remind ourselves that we're alive. Extreme sports. Tattoos. Adrenaline seeking activities. What do you do with your life to remind yourself that you're alive?

Day Four:  Ctrl-Z. For most of us savvy with computers, that key combinations means we're able to undo whatever we've just messed up. Is there any instance in your life that you wish you could Ctrl-Z?

Day Five:  "It's not one thing in life that gets us, it's a million little things." What are some of your teeny, tiny little things that add up to big things in life?

Day Six: Write about your normal grocery store. Is it close? Do you know where everything is? What is your normal route?

Day Seven: What's that inner dialogue and chatter in your head like? Are you lost in your own head when you walk around or do you have a voice in there commenting on what's going on around you? The crazy looking woman with the McDonald's bag on her head...does your inner voice talk about it?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Week of Writing Prompts: Blogging

I've been hard at work lately with a new group of incredible writers and bloggers. Big ol' things are on the horizon for me as a writer and a blogger and I can't help but feel the buzz of excitement in the air. Either that or the fact that we had ONE day below 90 degrees this week has me all aglow...

In the coming months, I'll be working on all sorts of new things. Collaborations, vlogging (oh my!), and creating a community of writers of all sorts. (More to follow on some of that excitement...)

Part of what we're building is excitement in telling your story. Any story. Just write. So here are some blogging prompts I'll try to get up each Sunday. I can't promise that I'll do these everyday myself, but I'll try. And they're here just to help spark the desire to write. Some might resonate with you. Some might fall flat. Either way, here's hoping your taking the time to write this week.

With love,
 photo signature_zps3807abdd.jpg

Day One:  Is there something you do every Sunday? Most Mondays? What about the occasional Tuesday afternoon? Do rituals have a place in your life? Why or why not? Write about your own rituals or maybe even your lack of.

Day Two: Write about and post a photo of your favorite coffee mug or tea cup. Does it make you feel a certain way? Does it sit with you when you write? Where does it come from?

Day Three: What's your go-to strategy when dealing with the ups and the downs of your life? Do you shop? Read? Cry? Seek help? Write about it.

Day Four: Write about your own writing. Are you pulled to a certain genre? How often do you write? Who is your audience? When did you start?

Day Five: Write about your reading. Are you pulled to a certain genre? How often do you read? Who is your go-to author?

Day Six: Do connections come easily to you? How do you most connect to others? In person? Through a mutual friend? Online? Are you comfortable knowing lots of people or do you keep your circle small?

Day Seven: I love kitchens. Is there a room in your house (or in your memories) that's special to you? Bring us there with plenty of sensory details and storytelling.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Rules of Storytelling from Pixar

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#2: You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
#8: Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.
#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.
#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.
#17: No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on - it'll come back around to be useful later.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?
#22: What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

 photo signature_zps3807abdd.jpg

Words On Paper. Year Two.

I have a fantastic job.

I have two, actually.

One I talk about all the time. I post funny photos of my coworkers and the furry dog that is constantly stealing pizza crusts out of the trash. Job duties include clean clothing processing, mediating disputes over fire trucks, and grocery procurement.

The other? I don't talk about it too much. I think I've mentioned it once or twice here, maybe mostly when I was worn out after a long day and even then I mostly gushed about how much strength public school teachers must possess. It's also a privacy and safety issue for the kids and their teachers. They don't need their names or schools out there.

A couple of my friends have asked what I did with my time when I left the house once a week for six hours, and after my first six-hour training of the year, I figured I 'd update and catch my folks up to speed.

I'm lucky enough to work for an organization called Writers in the Schools (WITS) Houston. I was screened, selected, and trained for a 26-week residency in a local Houston elementary school and ended up teaching five classes of fourth graders last year. I spend the week prior figuring out what I wanted them to learn (anaphoric poetry? personification? myths? narrative writing? fractured fairy tales? Did 'em.) Experiments with alliteration and water color, too.

We even modeled a Muhammad Ali press conference speech and worked on our exaggeration, boasting, and rhythm (favorite lesson plan I ever came up with). The whole year was amazing. And it was exhausting. And then it was over.

This summer WITS, allowed me to teach freshly graduated second graders (third graders!) for five hours a day, over two weeks. I was exhausted after that, but so thrilled to be doing what I'm doing. Had I a normal Monday through Friday, 9-5 I wouldn't be able to dedicate one day a week to teaching young minds to create and write their hearts out.

My kids so far have been open and receptive. I'm just as random and uninhibited with them as I am with my own kids. We've danced the gangnam style to loose up our brains and shake the sillies out. We've mooed like roosters and quacked like cows when we decided it was time to shake the world up a bit.

Today was our annual training and we heard stories from some of the other 100+ writers out in the field. One of my favorites talked about an assignment she'd been working hard to get that happened to be at the juvenile detention center. She talked about these young kids with chips on their shoulders and grit in their eyes. And one who had an episode and after she'd torn apart the classroom and thrown books at the window and torn off all of her clothing, she sat in the middle of the room and sobbed. Crying "I want my mama" over and over.

As a mama, this tore my heart out. I have no idea what she did or didn't do to get in there. I only knew that in that moment in time, she was hurting and her mama wasn't there for her.

The point of that story was the good work that programs like WITS does. It gives kids, all kids, everywhere, a voice.

Another writer shared the creed she has her class recite each week after they finished.

"I have a voice.

My voice is powerful.

My voice can change the world."

Every week. Every time. These kids know the words by heart and they believe them.

I am so damned lucky to be part of this organization. I'm still waiting for my call to see what school I'm headed to this year and it's a little like I get my own first day of school jitters. What kids will I get? Will they like me? Will they like Jack Prelutsky as much as I do? Will any of them know who Richard Peck is? How many will have at least one Shel Silverstein poem memorized?

I hope the kids are ready. I know I am.

 photo signature_zps3807abdd.jpg

Friday, September 20, 2013

Stuff of Life: What's Your 'Thing'?

The first I remember were the watermelons. Then the sunflowers and all things Tuscany, and now it's monks. But not just any monks, musician monks. But for me, my mom's "thing" started with watermelons.

My Aunt Dee? I think of crows. Aunt Pam? It used to be piglets. I'm sure she outgrew it eventually, but I can't see a cute pig figurine and not think of Pam. My grandmother? Owls. My Aunt Cheryl? Cardinals. I saw my first cardinal in person this spring when I was walking the kids and I swore it was Chery's way of saying hello to me.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with wolves. Forever. I used to love elephants. Then I moved on to ravens because I lived in Alaska and they were awesome and everywhere and had the greatest legends attached to them. I loved owls for a while. I had a bluebird phase that I'm still dabbling in (I have bluebirds everywhere). There was the St. Jude bug that had me soon after Boy Wonder was born. How many green beaded chaplets can one person own? Well, the answer is seven. In my case, anyway.

I think it's funny how our collections bend, change, and shift over time. Is it a decoration thing? Suddenly we don't like bright colors and we're on the lookout for more subdued shades and more subdued animals who fit the decor scheme. Maybe. A connection to the quality in the animal you connect with? Possibly.

Maybe you woke up and found them painfully adorable? Most likely.

I've shifted as a writer over the past couple years where I went from poet to romance writer to squarely focused on the middle grade age range. And part of that great age group includes novels and stories about animals. Wind in the Willows? One of my favorites. Rats of NIMH? I was a late arrival to it, but now I'm hooked.

This summer I fell in love with an author named Richard Peck and his mousey book "Secrets at Sea." Suddenly, mice are everywhere in literature and I find myself picking up little knick knack mice here and there when I can.

I love mice. Figurine mice, mind you. Real mice make me scream like car alarm and jump from one foot to the other.

They're sweet. They're wise. Unassuming. Easy to care for. And adventurous, if the books I've been reading are to be believed.

Etsy is my addiction and the salve of my procrastinating soul all at the same time. I find mice on Etsy and favorite them in the hopes that some month I'll have hundreds of extra dollars to spend on needle felted mice, porcelain mice, a couple resin mice, but under no circumstances, brass mice. That's just eww.

Here are some vintage (and one new!) mouses from Etsy.

P.S. I think 'mouses' is a much better word than mice. It's true. I said before...what's your 'thing'?

 photo signature_zps3807abdd.jpg

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Me Versus the Kitchen Sink

There's nothing really to this post, I'm sorry to say. We've been busy with colds, back problems, viruses, homework stumbles, and tons of laundry that won't disappear.

I'm not a domestic goddess. I'm pretty sure I've never tried to be, but I do give this place the ol' college try every day, many times a day. Most areas of the house can be beaten into submission.

But not my kitchen. Never my kitchen.

I can clean this blasted area of our house fourteen times a day, and fifteen times it will turn up looking like this. I'm convinced we have house trolls (no, I'm not talking about my beautiful children!) whose job it is to stymie my effort to keep peanut butter smears off the counter tops and fingerprints off the refrigerator door.

Need proof?

Sunday, 3 p.m.

 Monday, 10 p.m.

 Tuesday, 5:45 a.m.

 Wednesday, 9 a.m.

In my weaker moments, I blame Roo for all the kitchen troubles. See? She has the spoon. She has the motive.

And she obviously cares diddly-squat for my theory. STINK FACE!

 photo signature_zps3807abdd.jpg

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Where'd You Go, Mr. Barry?

I fell asleep on the school bus when I was six and snored right past my stop. About 45 minutes later, after the last kid had gotten off the bus, I woke up and realized I wasn't where I was supposed to be. The bus driver drove me back to my waiting mother, but the image of being a lost child on a bus has been burned into my psyche forever. Fast forward a few years and I'm a 13 year old riding bus 8 to and from Morehead Junior High in El Paso. Very best of times, worst of times on that bus. Small societies were built and destroyed amidst those vinyl seats. Friendships were forged and scorched. Fights were planned and scheduled. Anarchy reigned.

School buses are not neutral subject matter to me. I hate them. Hate them hate them hate them to the point that I'm certain Dante would have created a very special circle of hell just for school bus riding.

Boy Wonder started riding the bus last year and was driven to and from school by a great old man named Mr. Barry. He was a slight, gray man with a smoker's voice and wrinkles. He learned the kids' names and had no problem telling them all about themselves if they stepped out of line. They rarely did.

Mr. Barry had been hunting in Alaska and loved to chat the boy up about moose and bears and pecan pies. We made Mr. Barry mini pecan pie bars and homemade cards. We'd see Mr. Barry driving the bus back to the bus barn occasionally and pulling up next to his school bus and waving at the bus driver was the highlight of the boy's day.

Fast forward to this year. Boo is a brand-new preschooler who, like Caillou, has a sick obsession with school buses and has been waiting nine months to board one for the first time with his brother.

Instead of Mr. Barry, in the venerable driver's chair sat a Jabba the Hut of a woman with missing teeth, stringy bleached hair, and a little too much grit in her eye. Boy Wonder looked back at me with a start and a hint of sadness that his very own Mr. Barry wasn't there anymore.

One stiff upper lip later, the boy and his brother boarded the bus,anonymous and faceless to this new driver who had a peculiar affection for yelling at the kids in the back over the PA system. Mr. Barry never used the PA system to yell at kids.

The first week of school moved into the second week and it's here in the story that the wheels on the bus are about to fall off.

We picked up Boo from school yesterday and he told us how the bus driver didn't let him sit with his brother. Boy Wonder came home later in the day and confirmed that, despite his protests that under penalty of death, he'd sworn to sit next to his brother every day and deliver him to his Pre-K class, the driver told him "she didn't care" and he had to move.

This morning I took the boys to the bus stop and as all the other kids filed on, I stepped on the first step and cringed. I still hated buses.

"Hi," I chirped, a little too fake for my own good. "He's four and needs to sit with his brother, okay? Thanks!"

I'd pissed her off, that much was clear. She offered up some grumble about there being too many kids on the school bus in the afternoon and siblings can't sit together...

I cut her off.

"He only rides in the mornings," I said. "Yesterday his brother told you they needed to sit together and you said you didn't care...well, I'm here to tell you that I CARE."

She mumbled something under her breath and yanked the doors shut.

In a desperate act to regain some sense of power, Jabba the Bus Driver yanked her PA microphone off it's rack and began yelling at the kids in the back to sit down and hush up before pulling away from the curb.

I'd gotten under her skin, that much was clear. I'd won the battle, but the war is just beginning.

We'll meet again, Jabba....we'll meet again.

 photo signature_zps3807abdd.jpg