nonreaders

Gender Inequality in Children’s Literature

I was recently on a plane, chatting with the man sitting next to me.  He told me he had a little girl who loved to read, and mentioned several books she had devoured lately.  He said he said was always looking for new books for her, and asked me for recommendations.  I gave him several, and then asked about his son, who he had also mentioned to me earlier.  “Oh, he’s not so into books,” was the reply.  “The occasional comic book, but there aren’t many books he actually likes, much less finishes.”  I went to recommend a few books that might help his son enjoy reading a little more, and realized I had very few ideas for him.  I mentioned the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, the Boxcar Children series, and Choose-Your-Own Adventure books.  He was surprised I had any recommendations at all, and made notes of them in his phone.

For many years, there has been an overwhelmingly positive push for books for young girls.  It’s become a tremendous, commendable mass effort on the part of writers and publishers alike, and I love that when I walk into a bookstore, I see great titles and characters like Madeline, Amelia Bedelia, Olivia, Judy Moody, Imogene, etc.  And of course there are classics like Matilda, Little House on the Prairie, The American Girl books, Harriet the Spy, and so many others.  I remember reading so many books as a little girl and learning about social interaction, history and culture, vocabulary and creative language usage (Black Beauty is written from the 1st person perspective of a horse.  Nine-year-old me was BESIDE HERSELF.).  Books contain not only stories that drive imagination and wonder, but also developmental content that’s so important.  While we’ve achieved our goal of crafting uplifting and encouraging content for our young girls, we’ve created a problem.

When you Google, “Best Children’s Books for Girls,” this is the result:

googlegirlsbooks

When you Google, “Best Children’s Books for Boys,” this is the result:

googleboysbooks

This brings to light an interesting problem: in our focus on encouraging, educating, and uplifting girls, we’ve developed some tunnel vision and have forgotten about the boys.  I’m talking about books and stories specifically tailored for boys, not gender neutral books that can be enjoyed by all kids, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which, I might add, is about a boy protagonist who is not only “wimpy,” but generally a screw-up).  If we’re going to give girls the Disney Princess books, why don’t the Disney Princes get books?  There’s an absolute cavern of possibilities for “Disney Prince” books, because they don’t have backstories already established.  Why can’t we have a book series called “Wood Shop Wilson,” about a kid who solves problems through building awesome stuff, or “Undercover Andy,” a boy detective who solves neighborhood mysteries a la The Hardy Boys?  I believe the root of this problem is two-fold.

First, the fact of the matter is, writing for girls is cake.  It’s easy to write meaningful stories for girls, because girls have more interests to be creative with.  You can put a girl protagonist into almost any environment, and girls will think it’s really cool so long as the storyline is interesting enough.  You can make her royalty, or an astronaut, or a mermaid, or a schoolgirl in another time period, a cowgirl, a sharp-shooting Annie Oakley, or a high-flying Amelia Earhart.   You can essentially just spin the wheel, because there’s an infinite number of plot/protagonist/environment combinations that will capture and keep the interest of little girls.  Boys, however, require a different kind of interest and encouragement.  Frankly, it’s harder to keep them entertained, so it requires a different method of storytelling.  It requires a new, and more intentional way of story-crafting that no one seems willing to bother with.  Bob the Builder only cuts it for so long.  As they grow and develop, our boys need literature that will grow with them, and provide them with the same kind of lessons that we’ve poured so much heart and effort into for our girls.

The second factor will be a largely unpopular opinion, I imagine: the lack of decent literature for boys falls at least partially to the fault of the cultural emasculation of young boys.  While we never want young boys to embrace fighting, violence, or needless destruction, I find it a grave mistake to assume we can reprogram those tendencies out of our young men.  There is a significant difference between encouraging boys to develop good habits to control those tendencies, and encouraging boys to be more like girls in demeanor.  Boys need male role models that teach them it’s OK to be a boy, and to like dirt, explosions, speed, risks, etc.  But those same role models need to be the ones to show them the consequences of liking those things, and how to enjoy them in a moderated and safe manner.  I’d like to see a boy’s book where a young man dares his younger brother to jump off the roof, and the younger brother breaks his arm.  That book can still have a happy ending, and can wrap up with a lot of hugging, apologies, and forgiveness.  But it’s a valuable lesson in considering the safety of others, and the price of some kinds of fun.  These are the kinds of lessons boys need, and they’re the kind of stories that will hook boys from beginning to end.  Give a boy a book about survival on a long-term sea voyage – teach them about the importance of preparedness, and how adventures sometimes don’t go how you planned them.  Give a boy a book about asking someone to the school dance – teach them about polite and fun social interaction.  Give a boy about a book about trying out for the football team – teach them about rejection, and how to handle it gracefully.  Give a boy a book about how sometimes it’s OK to break the rules if it’s to take care of another person – teach them good judgment and independent thought.  Give boys books that cater to them, and the way they’re wired.

nonreaders

I’ve heard it said too often that if a young boy doesn’t like reading, it’s just because he’s lazy, or thinks books are boring, or doesn’t want to try.  It is my opinion that child has just not been given the right book.  As the parents, writers, and publishers of the world, why have we given up on them so quickly?  Why do we consider it their fault, when it is firmly our responsibility to guide and encourage?  Why are we not crafting literature they will love, and that will kick-start their literacy in the same way we’ve done for girls?  Why do we treat them as hopeless cases when we’ve only been giving them books that were likely written to entice and encourage girls?  Even when they get older, they’re faced with popular YA series like Hunger Games, Twilight, etc.  “Oh, but there’s politics in The Hunger Games! That’s interesting,” you say.  Sure, but the male characters in many of these books are essentially just romantic options for the female protagonists.  That sucks.  I wouldn’t want to read that either.  Emotions are being manipulated in very specific ways in many YA series, and boys a) are already uncomfortable with their emotions and don’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole, and b) aren’t as heavily affected by the emotional drama that’s being manufactured (often poorly, in my opinion).  Don’t even get me started on The Fault in Our Stars.  If you break it down: those books are written in a style that is more interesting and effective for girls.

While there are some great books out there for boys, they are few and far between, and don’t get even half of the publicity and praise that girls’ books do.  I also believe many of them are classics, and it’s hard to get kids to read classics when they hate reading in the first place.  Not to mention, the younger boys, maybe ages 5-9, often aren’t developmentally at an appropriate level to read Narnia or Sherlock Holmes yet.  There needs to be a concentrated effort for our little guys.  They need books that work with their brains, and their interests, and their difficulties.  Writers and publishers, we have a new challenge.

 

 

New Age Twaddle and a Swift Kick in the Pants

Coping mechanisms are strange, often costly things.  They serve a good purpose, but at times they can slip out of our control and mutate into things that we think we’re using to better and protect ourselves, when really they’re contributing to the damage.   I know a few people who are hurting, confused, unhappy, feeling entirely lost, and are coping by attempting to find the easy, unlocked door out of pain.  I get it – more than you might think I do. We all want concrete reasons for things.  These people are smart, and important to people, and loved, and supported regardless of any questionable decisions they’ve made.  But they are weak-minded.  Now, being weak-minded is a temporary illness, one which can be cured through an individual’s hard work and acceptance of reality.  And because we care, sometimes for people to regain sight of reality, they require a much-needed swift kick in the pants.

New Age systems and mindsets are a bubbling crock of plasticky nacho cheese dip.  You really think you want cheese dip, and it tastes sort of like cheese dip so you’ll probably keep eating it for a while.  But it will never be real cheese, it’s not good for you, and will never give you the fulfillment you’re looking for.  New Age methods and ideas make up theories about imaginary energy and power, and then convince people that they have control over things they do not.  One of my favorite examples is crystals.  Crystals don’t do shit. It doesn’t matter how much you power them up by the light of the blood moon. They are rocks. They sit there. They do nothing, and have no mysticism or power. They are affected only by a strong enough force which can change their location or composition: things like a strong wind, or erosion. They’re pretty, yes. But they’re still just stupid rocks.

This rock looks like the Earth! That means it will decrease the pollutants I breathe as long as it's in my pocket!

This rock looks like the Earth! That means it will decrease the pollutants I breathe as long as it’s in my pocket!

Someone has convinced these people that forcing life’s weirdness into neat little imaginary boxes will help you feel better, or that objects or fake energy manipulation will give you a leg up in solving life’s problems. That person is a misguided or mal-intentioned asshole. They are either delusional, or they want your money. Probably the latter. Oh? You already paid $2000 for a course in Finding Your Inner Goddess? Shit, well it looks like you’re out $2000, and gained nothing but a whole lot of made-up crap that manipulates your emotions to make you feel better about losing $2000.

There is a difference between spirituality and commercialized spirituality, and it’s time to learn the difference. Spirituality is when you find methods and ways of thinking that help you to be or become whoever you want. It can help you through difficult times, and help you maintain a positive attitude. Commercialized spirituality is when you find methods and ways of thinking from a self-help book, or an internet article, or some lady at a Renaissance Faire, or anyone who claims they’ve discovered something new about things you can’t see, or figured something out about life. They want attention, money, praise, and devotion. If their methods temporarily help you, then they will absorb your glowing reviews and continue to spew forth bullshit and unsubstantiated claims. If their methods do not help you, then you’re clearly not doing it correctly. You have a lot to learn. How about you purchase these weekly reiki sessions? That will surely clear the invisible wisps of bad energy they see floating around your head. Oh, you don’t see any wisps? That’s because you must not have the gift. Only they do, so you’ll just have to take their word for it.  I hope you’re seeing the issue here.  Hint: it’s not your wisps.

Say the money doesn’t matter at all though.  For the sake of argument, let’s say all the self-help books, blessed crystals, Inner Balance Retreats, Chakra readings, and tarot cards are all free of charge for life. There’s something I want to say about all of them: I get why people think they’re cool. I understand the appeal. The idea that this gorgeous, shiny, multi-faceted crystal could hold unrealized powers is an AWESOME concept.  The idea that there’s another realm, or plane, that’s full of unknown energy that we could discover and harness for ourselves is COOL.  It’s a combination of beauty, an unexpected object, and an impossible benefit to the possessor, which is fascinating.  This recipe has done insanely well in literature and movies of the last 100 years for a good reason. The Philosopher’s Stone, Draconite, The Necklace of Harmonia, The Flying Dutchman, Pandora’s Box, The Book of Thoth, Lembas bread, Mead of Poetry, the list is endless. It’s a concept that’s been used since storytelling first began, since the first myths were spoken, and since humans first wanted to try and rationalize things that happened to them. They are beautiful descriptions and fantastic stories. But they are not real. Objects do not have inexplicable power. Magic does not exist, no matter if you call it astrology, reiki, meditation, healing stones, or raindances. I wish it did, because the world would be far more interesting, but it doesn’t.

So what’s the problem?  If people like those ideas, then why not just let them have it?  Are they hurting anyone?  The answer is yes, they actually are – they’re hurting themselves, and by proxy, their relationships.  They have taken these mythical concepts and twisted them together with their own unhappiness and pain as a coping mechanism. And they’ve convinced themselves that it was a good idea. Somewhere deep down they know it was an awful idea, and it’s all just a waste of time.  They’re stuck in a cycle of trying one new trend or system or ritual after another, and it’s all a bunch of lunchmeat that distracts from the real problem: themselves.  They are ignoring the causes of their pain and the root of their problems, and are trying to smear a magical salve over it by rearranging their furniture or carrying the right stone around their neck.  They are avoiding putting in the work to process how they’re feeling, fix relationships, acknowledge their own mistakes, and talk about the things that hurt in order to truly start healing.  It’s not that their energy flow isn’t right, it’s that they are complacent.   It’s time to come back to the reality of being a human, which is that you’re going to get hurt sometimes (sometimes by ourselves), and it’s awful, but you process and you grieve and you get over it – that is the way to “inner peace” and “balance” and mental and emotional health. You will not achieve those things by burying yourself in empty promises and mystical cards.

An important study was done recently, by some very intelligent and astute people. They realized there’s a problem in our society today: the quickly expanding production and acceptance of bullshit. The entire paper can be found here, and I encourage you to read it. But the concentrated point is that people are startlingly gullible, and easily convince themselves that there is higher meaning to be found in meaningless things. An example from analysis of literature:

“As noted by philosophers studying the topic, the bullshitter oft has the intention of implying greater meaning than is literally contained in the message, though the nature of the intent can vary. For example, the literary critic Empson (1947) describes the use of ambiguity in literature, including a type of intentional ambiguity used by poets in which a passage ‘says nothing, by tautology, by contradiction, or by irrelevant statements; so that the reader is forced to invent statements of his own . . . ‘”

If you are highly susceptible to bullshit, my friend, it does not mean that you are stupid.  It just means that you fell into a hole, and you need someone to turn on the light and help you throw away the plasticky cheese dip.  People who have not thrown it away sooner have held onto their newfound beliefs and rituals because they are scared – understandably so. But the hatred and judgment they believe they are feeling, or will feel from those who love them, is manufactured by their own fear. They are afraid of being wrong, and being ridiculed for admitting it.  Perhaps most nerve-wracking of all: they are afraid of being loved and accepted, because that opens the door for them to soften, become vulnerable, and reciprocate.

Cheese Dip Friends, we will not shun you, we will not insult you, we will not berate you.  But we see that you’re clearly struggling.  Everyone does except you.  It is your job to take a sledgehammer to your own walls.  Those walls are not for us to try and climb over, because you will make them increasingly higher the closer we get to reaching you.  It is your job to self-regulate, accept yourself as a fallible human, and accept our support of you in the dark times that you’re in.

It is terrifying to announce to people that you no longer believe in the thing you preached so hard about.

It is terrifying to embrace the idea that the only thing that can better your life is you alone, with no magic, no prophetical cards, no crystals, and no books to tell you how you should course-correct.

It is terrifying to release the death-grip you have on your pride, because your pride is the shield you use to keep people at a distance that’s comfortable.

It’s terrifying to let go of all the reasons and meaning that you’ve created and believed, and to realize that there aren’t any reasons for things sometimes.

But all of those things aren’t nearly as scary as the possibility of living in a dark, disquieted state just because you believed a bunch of new age lies.  Throw away the self-help books, bury the crystals in the dirt, and throw the tarot cards into the fire.  They will never help you, but the people who care about you will.

 

The Evitable Holiday Stressageddon

I love the holiday season. I love putting my Christmas tree up immediately after Thanksgiving is over, I love when the temperatures plummet and I can build a fire, I love the food, and I love how stupid my cats look when they chomp on the branches of my fake tree. This time of year is all about an assortment of cozy, intangible things: giving, togetherness, charity, etc. Everyone talks the talk – but Christ on a cracker, people get intensely stressed out. It amazes me how common it is to squeeze past the point of The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

There will always be those people (you know them – don’t lie) who just can’t pull their heads out of the snow and appreciate this time of year. They have to complain and be bitter. Their lives depend on it, I think, otherwise they may deflate. There are others of us who want to savor the season, and we make an effort to every year. We try to make the sugar cookies look perfect, the lights over the garage taut and straight, our kids happy and entertained, and have the perfect, stylish centerpieces for Christmas dinner. None of those are bad things to want, or to have. But when the pressure becomes all-consuming, not only does the purpose of the holidays get crushed, but so does your sanity.

Below, you will find a list of things that will lighten your load this holiday season. These are not life hacks. They are not 3-ingredient recipes that will still wow your guests, nor never-before-seen ways of curling a ribbon. They are changes that are hard, and at times unpleasant to start. But they are long-term, and if you are serious about implementing them, they will drastically lower your stress level during this most joyous time of year.

  

Be Helpful

Yes, you’re overwhelmed. Yes, the possibility of assisting others seems insurmountable right now. But it’s important to make a concerted effort to remember others.  The concept of “the village” is valuable, although it’s been largely tossed aside these days. We were meant to help each other – and not only when it’s convenient for us. If you know someone who is overwhelmed, offer a spare afternoon to help them clean before their out-of-town guests arrive. If you know someone who is strapped for cash, offer to help them with some small gifts for their kids, or even offer to give them some of your childrens’ lightly used things. Offer to bake a pie or a casserole for someone you know isn’t the best cook. Offer to take someone’s kids for a drive through the neighborhoods with the prettiest Christmas lights to give them time. Offer to pick up someone’s family members from the airport. There are endless possibilities here, but the most important element of all of them is the offer itself. Do not wait to be asked. If someone turns down your offer, that’s ok. They probably have their reasons. But offer, extend the kindness first, and be glad to do it.

The village mentality dictates that these people will do the same for you when they’re in the more comfortable position. That’s how it works. It’s not a system of “you owe me,” but rather of “I’d like to return the kindness you gave when I was in need.” This is a practice that has been lost for too long, even though it’s foundational to our communities. The old-timey idea of neighbors running over a cup of flour because you were short for a recipe, or children helping older neighbors shovel snow from the driveway is not a pipe dream, nor a marketing scheme. It used to be reality, and can become so again as long as enough people participate. 

Be Helpful to Yourself

You cannot be Santa Claus. Nor can you be Super Parents, nor The Best Husband/Wife Ever, nor The Most Thoughtful Child, nor any other interpretation of perfection. You can’t be those things because they don’t exist (except Santa, obviously). Doing it all, being it all, achieving it all, affording it all – you can’t do it. Not because you aren’t an exceptional human being, but because chasing all those things will make you a lesser human being. 

I’m about to say something unpleasant. Maybe sit down first. Ready? You have to ask for help. You have to. You. Have. To. You are imperfect, and that is ok, and that is the way it will always be, so you might as well learn to be accepting of yourself. It is wholly, and entirely acceptable to ask for help from your family and dear friends. Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that you are not flawless and omnipotent, follow these two steps: Prep, and Delegate. 

-Prep your kids by explaining to them that December is going to be a lot of fun, but it’s also very busy, and you’re going to need their help more than ever. This gives them a concrete reason to be more participatory. Prep your spouse by discussing the things you’re most anxious about, and be sure you’re on the same page about holiday plans, budgets, parenting choices, and anything else that’s important to you. Prep your friends who get upset if you don’t attend every holiday party, and explain to them that you have other time commitments.

-Delegate age-appropriate, helpful tasks to your kids. Not tasks to keep them busy – tasks that help. Invoke the words of the prep when they whine, and use consequences when necessary. Your kids are capable beings that can take care of the piddly stuff that muddles up your day and ends up in the Latent Stress Pile. Delegating to your spouse is very different than delegating to your kids. Coming up with a game plan of who is responsible for what is an equitable system. You also must trust your spouse to do the things they have agreed to be responsible for (Stop hyperventilating. Seriously, you’re going to pass out). Do not micromanage. You will perish under the weight of your own nitpicking. Delegating to your family can include things across a vast spectrum, from “Aunt Genevieve, please bring the turducken,” or “Grandpa Joe, please make sure Grandma Ethel does not get blitzed from putting Frangelico in her coffee.”

Save Time for Traditions

Traditions are not only a great way to bond and make memories with your family, but they’re a great reason to slow down and pace yourself. A few breathers during the holiday season are very helpful to put things back into scope. If you find yourself wanting to cancel or skip traditions, you’re too busy. Cut some of your expectations, or delegate to other people. Spending time with your family or friends is far more important than vacuuming Goldfish crackers from under the couch cushions or knitting brand new stockings for each family member. 

If you don’t have any, or it’s not really your thing, I would recommend asking around or researching things out there. Not all of them are kitschy like the Elf on the Shelf, or involve too much time/money like going ice skating every year. You can go as a family to decide on one new ornament for the tree, or new candles for the Menorah. You could have a traditional “Christmas-time” food or meal. For example, my Dad used to make ice cream out of snow for us when we were little, and I still make it to this day. You can take an afternoon to put up decorations together, or celebrate St. Nicholas Day on the 6th (a mostly-German tradition that involves little gifts found in your shoes, or a big boot). There are thousands of options, or you can make one up that would be fun for your family. Regardless of what it is, it’s worth carving out the time to purposefully be together.

Don’t Pretend to Be Happy

It’s so tempting.  But do not prescribe to the ill-guided belief that people should be happy 98% of the time, and that all life’s challenges should be like water off a duck’s back. That’s falsified contentment, and it’s a steaming pile of road apples. It will turn you into an unhappy, stiff-grinned exoskeleton of the person you used to be. It is not important to be happy all the time. It is important to acknowledge your feelings, whatever they may be, and react appropriately. You are allowed to be tired. You are allowed to be stressed. You are allowed to be overwhelmed. No one thinks you are weak, or lazy, or in any way lesser. I swear.

Get Out of My Country

Get out.  I am not talking to immigrants or gays, any certain political party or people with Confederate flags hung between the columns of their Antebellum homes.  I’m not talking to any particular race or religious group, nor ignorant college students, nor elderly cane-shakers.  I am talking to you: the person who is unable and unwilling to see the dream of the United States, and the immeasurable good that it has done, and continues to do.

If you, fellow American, plan to use this upcoming celebration, the 239th commemoration of the Declaration of Independence, to do nothing but cry and whine about what the United States of America owes you, or what it’s doing wrong, or how much you hate it, then get out.  No one is forcing you to stay.  Expatriate.  Secede.  Renounce your citizenship.  Put your money where your mouth is.  Do not hide behind the steel veil of the Internet; do not simply spew empty words of hatred and dislike — act!  I encourage  you to ride your steed of arrogance and bitterness off into a foreign sunset, never to return or again set eyes upon these hideous sights:

9218745897_8a230c6861_b fig1florida-coast-sunny-isles-flgrand-canyon-horseshoe-bend-1500x938

fall-the-leaves-falling

The United States is not perfect.  But neither are you, American.  I’d venture to say that much of your hatred stems from sitting at home, reading biased news sources, doing little to improve your corner of this massive, sovereign land.  If you are so set in your distaste for your home country that you will do nothing to actively improve its condition, then at least see it.  Travel.  For God’s sake, travel — see what is being offered in our 3.8 million square miles.  If you’re confused about the size of our country, then please enjoy this approximate scale experiment.

American innovation gave you the car, the airplane, electricity, the cell phone, and contributed to the thing you’re using now, called the Internet.  We put people on the Moon.  We gave you blue jeans.  We gave you toilet paper.

Your bitterness does nothing but confirm that you are a bitter person, and that you are drowning in issues that politicians have told you to be angry about.  You, as a weak-minded person, are unable to control your emotions or critical thinking skills.  Therefore your spittle and rage will be thrown against a country and an idea solely because you’re angry, although you’re probably not terribly certain of why.  You must hurt other people who love their country, because you’ve been told to be angry about fake injustices and catastrophes that were created to get you into a voting booth.  Your political preferences have nothing to do with the birth of our country.  Nothing.  N-o-t-h-i-n-g.  If you insist that they do, and insist on continuing to belittle the United States because it’s an easy target (most inanimate objects are), then I say again: get out.  No one is forcing you to stay.  In fact, I’m asking that you leave.  You are welcome to hate the United States.  However if you do, you are not required to stay in such a miserable state, and I encourage you to better your situation by finding a new place to call “home.”  I will personally fund each and every one of your permanent relocations by purchasing and inflating an inner tube, handing you a box of granola bars, and pushing you out to sea with fond best wishes.

Before you use our celebration as a means to stoke your rage, consider these things.

This man who has saved people from jumping to their deaths through nothing but conversation and kindness for years.

These people who found compassion and understanding for each other through unimaginable pain.

These women who love their father unconditionally, regardless of his illness.

This school shooter who has survived, and accepted the help of others to better himself.

This man who kept Santa Clause alive in the beginning of the Cold War.

This man who is proud of his harrowing career.

This woman who loved those abandoned by their families.

These men who aren’t blinded by nationality.

This unconventional, loving family.

I know, I know.  You’re thinking, “This can’t be true!  America is full of bigots and haters and hypocrites and fools!  America is a country of terrible people!”  Those people do live here.  You’re one of them.  But there are choices in the United States.  You have the choice to be a kind person.  And to understand that others have different opinions than you, and that’s acceptable, no matter how much you think they’re wrong.  You have the choice to help others, and to listen, and to respect those traditions and values that are important to millions of people in this country, even if you don’t share them.  You have the choice to learn about this country and its history, and work to improve it in an intelligent, productive manner so that its beauty and design can break through the clouds again.

Or you can leave.

The Childless Choice

“Your biological clock is ticking…”

Yes, thanks.  I’m nearing 30, and there’s no possible way I could have ever been told that before.  The choice to have children is a discussion that I believe is far more complicated than simply, “she doesn’t want children” or “she can’t have children,” which seem to be the only two avenues society can conceive for the milestone of procreation.  I can only speak about the former, because I don’t pretend to have any expertise or view for the kind of emotional wracking that wanting children, but not being able to conceive your own, must bring.  Have you ever considered, perhaps, that it is permissible for a woman to not know if she wants children?  No one seems to be willing to consider the major factors and consequences into that choice, instead condensing the argument into a variety of blister-packed judgments.  The inevitable: “Oh, you’ll change your mind some day.”  The threat: “You’ll regret it.”  The pushiness-disguised-as-encouragement: “But you’d be such a great Mom!”

Here’s the thing: I am not the only thing standing in my way.  Men have to — not “should,” not “it would be nice if,” not “as long as they pay child support” — have to have equal stock in the parenting game.  The largest concern that many single women have these days is not whether or not they will have children, but whether or not they will be able to find a man who will support them in that endeavor.  So before you ask me again if I’m ever going to have children, or why I don’t want them, or what makes me hate them so much, or suggest that I’m just scared of the pain of childbirth — consider these factors first.

 

The Example

I need a man who is supportive and committed to me, first, in order to prove that he will be a good father.  It would not be difficult for me to find a man who has the proper equipment required to make a child.  But it requires a much more particular process to find someone who would cherish me first, and then our children.  In the dating world, I have come across absolute hordes of men who say they’re excited to have children one day, and that they like kids, and will teach them to fish, and camp, and scrutinize the game of football.  And yet, these men are unable to make plans farther than 6 hours out from the present moment.  Some of them make a habit of showing up to dinner 45 minutes late, just as I’m gathering my things to leave.  Some of them are fine with being punctual, but have such drastic emotional insecurity that they’re unable to have a conversation about anything that’s not video games, or the shelves of Star Wars memorabilia that adorn their bachelor pads.  Some of that emotional insecurity throws them into a pit of people-pleasing behavior, or into child-like tantrums, or sometimes they just shut down entirely.  Some of them are perfectly confident, and funny, and wonderful — but require any plans to be at the mercy of their work schedule, causing 4 out of 6 dates to be “rain checked.”  I just recently went on a few dates with a man who is very kind and intelligent, but extremely aloof in conversation, causing me to have to “manufacture” any fun that was had for the both of us.  He would laugh at my jokes and stories, and then the table would go silent until I either came up with another funny something to say, or a conversation topic he was comfortable with.  If we can’t even have a normal conversation in a quiet restaurant, how could we have a normal conversation with a child shouting Barney songs at the dinner table?

Quite frankly, the relationship/marriage comes first, both chronologically and in priority.  If a man is not able to communicate with me, respect me, have fun with me, and maintain a healthy emotional state for himself, what kind of message is he going to send impressionable children?  I don’t want my children growing up with constant disappointment because “Daddy can’t make it to your dance recital/baseball game…again.”  Or, “Daddy doesn’t really mean to yell and call people names — why don’t you go play in your room for a while?”  Or, “Daddy isn’t ignoring everyone else, he’s just a little shy.”  The other kicker about having children with a man who isn’t stable is that I am automatically everyone’s Mom/therapist.  I am forced to “have conversations” or “nag” or any other tactic to try and get the father of my children to set a good example.  That, on top of trying to explain my husband’s behavior to my children in a tactful way that doesn’t include the actual truth.  No thanks.  “Having children” isn’t the real question for many women who are getting older and haven’t taken the plunge yet.  It’s “mutual parenting” that becomes the larger worry.  I will not agree to have children unless I marry a man who I trust to fully respect and care for me first, who is able to care for our children when I’m not around, and will fill in the holes in their development that I can’t.  I’ve been told by many to just “give him a chance,” or assured that he’ll grow up or change, as though the Menopause Train is bearing down on me and I should really just get on with it, lest I be run over.  Really?  Is that a gamble you would make with your children?

 Kids Kind of Suck

My best friend has two kids.  They’re awesome, loving, funny little people.  But they’re gross, and needy, and socially tactless, too.  All children kind of suck in a lot of ways, and I require a partner who is going to jump into the fray, and tired-laugh with me as we clean poop off the walls.  I have not yet found a man who I believe would be willing to launder vomit-covered bedsheets so I could take a shower and get the barf out of my hair after caring for a sick child.  I have not yet found a man who I believe would walk up and down the hallway with a screaming infant for 4 hours, without being prompted or begged, so that his wife could have a break or a nap.  I also find that many men begrudge having to spend time alone with their children, and go so far as to consider it “babysitting.”

You want to have kids?  Great.  Then you are signing up for the ride of a lifetime, and your contract states that you do not get to hide in your mancave when Little Timmy has the runs.  Too bad.

 The Ultimate Label of “Mom”

Next time you see a Mom, ask her when was the last time she got to do something for herself.  Her response will probably be something like, “Oh, I got to have a cup of tea last Wednesday — it was lovely.”  It will be said playfully, but for many women, there’s a deep amount of pain attached to those jokes.  I fully realize that having children is a massive sacrifice, but many women find themselves in a situation where it becomes a sacrifice of who they are as a person, an individual.  Many women go years without a break, without a weekend, without even an afternoon to themselves to do whatever they want.  They feel they no longer have that kind of intangible “permission” to have hobbies, and to want to see new things.  Women are not good at saying, “I would like to go do this for myself.”  We need a partner who is going to recognize when we need a break, and offer it to us willingly, without making us wait until we’re at the breaking point of our sanity.  Many women carry an intense, crippling level of guilt when it comes to asking for things they know are necessary for their own health.  I don’t know why, but we do.  And without a husband who will pay a little attention to our state of mind, and remember who we were before the kids came into play, it’s a slippery slope that will lead many women directly into a bog of depression and complete depletion of self-worth.  We become consumed by the label of “Mom.”  We’re no longer “Laura, ” or “Charlotte,” or “the woman who double majored in biochem and engineering,” or “the woman who loved to go to Sunday brunch once a month,” or “the woman who really hates restaurants that allow you to throw peanut shells on the floor,” or “the woman who’s actually an incredible dancer,” or “the woman who hopped 5 countries in two weeks, ” or “the woman who fell in love with you.”  We are the mother of our children, and are seen as nothing else, and we allow it because we feel guilty.

Some of us are terrified of the idea of having children, yes — but not because we don’t think we’d be good mothers or because we’re scared the pain and nausea.  We’re scared of not having a support system, having to beg our husbands for help because we haven’t slept in two days, being looked at differently by our husbands because our bodies are no longer as attractive as they once were.  We are terrified of becoming just another frumpy Mom who gave her soul for the sake of her children, whose past accomplishments now mean nothing, and whose future accomplishments will be saving enough money to send the kids to college.  And we know that without support from our husbands, that’s exactly what we will become as we slowly forget who we once were.

 He Doesn’t Want Kids…

…but I love him.  It’s fully possible that I might find a man who is my perfect match in every way, but who does not want children.  As mentioned before, the relationship and the marriage come first.  If we’re happy and it’s a conversation that we’ve had, I see no reason to kick him to the curb.  I realize that some women want children badly, and that’s great — that can be a very specific criterion in her dating life.  But I do not believe in hoping my prince will someday change his mind, and am open to the possibility of a very happy life that does not involve children.  It’s possible, I promise.  Oh, but you’ll regret not having children! they say.  Fine, maybe we will.  But do you regret not seeing the world’s wonders, lunching under the Eiffel Tower, walking through the tulip fields of Holland, seeing the Pyramids, or SCUBA diving in the Mediterranean with your husband?  Maybe you do.  Do you regret not joining a book club, or learning a new language or how to ski, having quiet nights next to a fireplace, or going on road trips with your husband?  Maybe you do.

 

So when a woman answers your questions about children with some trepidation or uncertainty — cool your jets.  We are not dumb.  We are not ignorant.  More than likely, the woman you’re interrogating is far smarter and more mature than you realize, and she is considering whether or not her world is a good one to bring children into.  We’re ok biding our time until the right situation presents itself to make a decision.  And until that happens, we’re not going to have an answer for you.

Pop Quiz

I consider myself a seasoned veteran in the realm of online dating.  I have tried all of the major sites, written and re-written my “self-summary,” and waded through years of doubt and guilt, constantly questioning my own standards and the motives of others.  It’s a complicated task, dating — and like most people, I’ve tried to streamline the process as much as possible, weeding out those who I will not be compatible with before I invest much time into them.  Some people make calm, well-considered additions to their profiles, such as, “I DONT DO DRAMA SO IF UR A HO WHO DO DRAMA DONT GET NEAR ME.”  Others might add preferences to the multiple choice questions asked, such as only marking “Athletic,” “Hot,” and “Slim” as their preferred body types for a partner.  But I, never one to follow the general traffic pattern, have taken a separate approach.  It is inflammatory and offensive to some — but it is precisely those people whom I wish to avoid.  In practice, it has worked flawlessly for my purposes.  If I find someone on the Internet that I think I would like to have a date with, my method comes in two parts:

1) I must speak with the person on the phone before meeting.

2) They must take my 3-question quiz.

The Phone Conversation

Why do many people choose online dating?  Because they’re not stellar with social interaction or live conversation.  The kicker is that (in theory) you’ll eventually have to participate.  These are skills that are difficult, yes, but unavoidable if you’re looking for someone to spend time with.  It is frequent that someone is quite eloquent while typing or texting, but have absolutely nothing to say when speech is required.  You can try and make your case for “people who are just shy” and “well what’s wrong with that,” and my answer to all of your arguments will be that that’s not what I want.  That’s not what most people want.  If I’m going to spend a significant amount of time with someone, I need them to be on a similar level of communication skill.  You can be shy and a little reserved at first — but you’re not allowed to be silent and continue to hide behind the Internet’s skirt.  The phone conversation ensures that they are capable of relaying thoughts and opinions via vibration of the vocal chords, which, in my book, is required.

In addition, people these days don’t seem to understand that dating is not really about common interests.  I don’t care if you love football, or build and paint miniatures.  What I care about are the facts and potential implications behind those interests.  I need information about you as an individual, and what you need from me, as an individual.  Since the idea of dating (for most) is to find someone with whom you would like to spend the rest of your life with, living in the same general space, and talking to each other every single day, I need deeper, more concrete information.

If you really like football, it might mean that you used to play and really enjoy a physical challenge, and respect the athletes who play professionally.  Or, it could mean that you’re extremely competitive, and you get a buzz from Your Team winning over Their Team 4,006 points to 12.  Or, it could mean that you’re really concerned with maintaining an image or a status in a group of people, and you participate in watching and talking about sports with them because you’re nervous that they won’t like you if you don’t.   All of these, and combinations thereof, are options.

If you really like to build and paint miniatures, it could mean that you might be a person who needs a lot of alone time to feel balanced.  It could also mean that you’re really artistic, and need someone who can really appreciate the creations you put time into.  It could also mean that you’re rather antisocial, and prefer the company of yourself to others, and only want a woman around when you’re bored.  All of these, and combinations thereof, are options.

As an adult, you need to be able to recognize these things in your own personality and then articulate them to people you want to date.  If you cannot do that, it will show in grand and terrifying ways during our phone call when I ask you, “so, what do you enjoy so much about Korean horror movies?”

The Quiz

Is quizzing people unconventional?  Yes.  Is it potentially scary or frustrating for the quizzee?  Sure.  Does it give me a wealth of information about that person’s personality, attitude, and abilities?  Absolutely.  I am not going to divulge the three questions that I ask here.  But I will tell you that they are general intelligence questions, set to a fair benchmark of life experience and knowledge.  They are not obscure questions about 1940’s noir films, nor are they calculus equations.  Also, potential suitors are told well in advance of even speaking to me for the first time that there are questions involved before the first date, so there is no surprise.  If you agree to the phone call, you have also already agreed to the quiz, which serves two different purposes.

-It weeds out the insecure ones.  This is by far the most helpful benefit of the quiz.  The quiz, in the grand scheme of things, is nearly meaningless.  It’s a silly little thing, and one of the questions doesn’t even have a right/wrong answer.  Really, none of them do if you’re creative enough.  But the pressure to perform and impress can be overwhelming for some guys, and the risk of failure too great.  One gentleman who took the quiz became angry after I asked the second question (he had answered the first with no problem), and began berating me for being a man-hating bitch, and accused me of solely wanting to make him look foolish.  Another gentleman answered the first two questions and told me that the quiz was pretty fun.  I then asked him the third, and after over-thinking it for a few minutes, he became highly emotional, and explained to me for 10 minutes about how he had been bullied in 4th grade by a kid named Lance.

Only one gentleman has ever said, “you know what, that’s a little too peculiar for me.  No thanks.”  I greatly respected him for making his choice based on his own comfort level, and I wished him luck in his future dating endeavors.  Less than ten minutes later, he wrote me online again and said, “due to the fact we’ve written this off, I’m curious what the questions are anyway?”  I explained to him that unfortunately, the questions were for potential dates only.  He then proceeded to condescend me, saying, “Just as a heads up, for us level headed and confident people, it comes off as a red flag. … You may be doing it to avoid bad dates, but may lose out on other great dates because of it.”  Among a few other things he said, the oh-so-subtle implication of “what you’re doing is stupid, all the smart people think so,” was enough for me to bid him a permanent adieu.  Although I was tempted to ask, “if you’re so level-headed and confident, why dodge the quiz?”

Insecurities are a part of life; everyone has them.  But I believe adults should be able to prioritize which threats are real, and which are constructed in our own minds.  Answering three normal questions from some girl you’ve never met, and who you have no obligation to meet anyway, should not be a threat large enough to induce a temper tantrum, tears, or passive-aggression.

-It weeds out the less intelligent ones.  “How dare you assume some people are less intelligent than others!  For shame!  I’m never reading your blog again!”  Ok.  Now that that’s addressed, let’s move on.

If you’ve ever worked with the general public, you know that some people either don’t pay as much attention as others, or seem to exist in a constant haze of ignorance.  If you haven’t worked with the general public, just go peruse any hashtag on Twitter.  Some of these people are good at concealing their true mentality online.  There are plenty of services that will write your online dating profile for you, so that you make a better impression.  If someone chooses to use one of those services, that’s no problem — but this is why I have a quiz.  I have wasted too much time explaining ridiculous things on first dates to people who just don’t bother to look around, or who are incapable of absorbing outside information.  I have explained that coffee comes from a plant.  I have explained what the little tab is for on your rear-view mirror.  I have explained that a different city hosts the Olympics every round.  I have explained that you have to hold a compass parallel to the ground in order for it to function.

annoyeddog

I fully understand and appreciate that these are not qualities that everyone looks for in a partner — but they are important to me, and I find it highly unlikely that I’m the only one.  My methods may be overly formulaic and rigid, and many consider my standards to be “too high.”  But after a hundred dates with the wrong guys, what do I really have to lose now by using an out-of-the-box method?  A date with the guy who promises me that I’ll regret not dating him?  Thanks, I’ll make a note of that.

Straddling the Fence

I just recently told someone that dating him wasn’t going to work out, and that he wasn’t able to give me what I needed.  Then I hung up the phone and swore profusely in anger and blocked him from all social media.  Why?  Because he was incapable of conversing and answering questions in a clear, non-passive-aggressive way.  When I informed him of what he was doing and he looked it up online, he told me that yes, he does have those problems…”but it’s possible that lots of people do that.  Well, maybe I don’t really have those problems even though I already said I did, and well, ok, MAYBE I do that, but maybe I don’t.  Maybe only sometimes.  I’ll try harder to do better, but you need to monitor how I’m speaking to you and tell me when I’m doing things wrong — even though I might maybe possibly perhaps sometimes deny that I’m doing anything.  And then it’s possible that I will change my mind again and admit to things just to get you to be quiet.” *throws self into the lashing sea* So, in light of this inspiration, I would like to talk about non-answers.  Akin to “non-apologies,” non-answers often are composed of an impressive amount of words, all of which are not really related to the situation or question at hand, or which give no actual information and often make no sense in context.  It’s like gibberish that still adheres to the rules of grammar and syntax.  It’s a method of purposeful, although likely subconscious obfuscation, so that the passive aggressor can “respond,” without actually giving an answer.  If you ask them to explain their answer, they can’t, and will continue to ride their delusional carousel around and around, whooping in faux delight, driving you closer and closer to a prescription for diazepam.  They’re presented in a number of different fashions, but my personal bane is the “middle of the road” response, which aims to cover any and all sides of an argument in one fell swoop.

barbieambiguity

Why This Sucks:

Because you’re manipulating the other person.  You’re not trusting the other person to respond in a way that’s comfortable for you.  You might be worried that they will be offended or upset by your real opinion of something, or it might be a topic that you feel very strongly about, so you’re not prepared to handle any strong opposition to your stance.  Therefore, you’re trying to control their emotions and response by only giving perfectly neutral answers.  If you don’t give a definitive answer, they can’t take the opposing side.  Additionally, they can’t be angry with you, because you didn’t actually say anything.  This is a direct attempt to control the entire conversation, including anything the other person might want to say. “Do you think that there should be stricter regulation on unicorn hunting?” “Maybe.  I mean, we should try to preserve the unicorns, but they’re also a really important magical commodity.” …AND?  You just stated two sides of the argument.  You did not take one, nor did you explain any alternate opinion you might have.  You did not answer the question — you squeezed through the sliver of space in the middle to avoid confrontation. Because you are lying.  There’s a reason that lying by omission is considered a crime.  Not that you’ll be arrested for being passive aggressive, but that should give you a hint that it really is an issue, and it really is, in fact, lying, contrary to many defenses.  By not giving an answer, you’re not giving truthful information.  Yes, yes, I know: you’re not giving untruthful information either, but I can’t even describe to you how weak of an argument that is. You are hiding the truth behind a musty, heavy velvet curtain of insecurity and distrust, while expecting the other person to be completely honest about everything they say.  If you’re not secure enough in the situation to talk about your own thoughts and handle the situation well if someone disagrees…then what’s the point?  What are you even trying to do?  Are you just trying to gather information about that person, while concealing everything about yourself from them?  What a terrible way to build a solid relationship.

Calvin_And_Hobbes-Report

Because you’re already blaming and judging the other person in your head — and we know it.  You’re fully prepared for someone to unleash a torrent of brimstone and rage at you for your opinion, when there’s likely no evidence that they’re going to do so.  By defending yourself from something that hasn’t happened yet, you’re indirectly, but by default, blaming the other person for what you think they might do.  People are not stupid, and can pick up on these cues very well.  You’re confused about why your partner is so upset when you’re “just having a conversation?”  It’s likely because you’re deploying an unspoken line of defense which stands ready to attack at any flinch or wiggle in the other person’s story.  You’re ready to be attacked and have drawn your sword, and in doing so, the other person feels they must follow suit, although they have no idea why they’re being threatened. Even if you have good reason to believe that the other person will attack you for your opinion or belief, it does not excuse being a passive aggressive coward.  You need to either speak up and tell them how you’re feeling, or leave.  If you’re interested in a more in-depth explanation of this confusing defense-against-the-offense-that-doesn’t-exist business, you can read about a related issue here. If you’re not going to give people the courtesy of honest conversation, then you’re probably not ready to date.  If you’ve been hurt in the past by someone who belittled you, or if you’ve had a relationship which left you feeling smaller than you should, it’s understandable to take some time to build yourself back up.  What is not understandable or acceptable, is allowing yourself to stay small, and pretending as though other people are going to kick you for it.  It’s also important to note that passive aggression is considered to be emotional abuse — it’s not something to take lightly, as it can have crippling effects.  Learn to communicate respectfully, and honestly.  It’s not that hard.

Blog Tour – Writing Processes

A giant thanks to Josh Bennett, who invited me to take part in such a great blogging project!  Josh is not only one of the most creative and inspirational people I know and a splendid writer, but also my cousin and essentially the big brother I never had.  He has a fascinating futuristic novel in the works, and I’m absolutely giddy to read it in its finished form.  If you’d care to read his addition to the blog tour on writing processes, click here!

What are you working on now?

What am I not working on?  I write this blog, and try to write interesting articles for LinkedIn.  I’m also currently working on two short stories for grad school, and a fantasy novel, as well as any other little literary doodlings that pop into my head, such as this.

My novel-in-progress, tentatively titled “Namesake,” follows the tale of two humans with opposing purposes in a supernatural battle between Destiny and Freewill.  The book follows their thoughts and choices regarding which is the more ethical and humane system, and whether or not they will attempt to defy their own destinies.  Destiny gives humans a purpose and direction, even though they’re not aware of it.  Their very lives are woven into the fabric of destiny, which their failures or successes will either tear or mend.  Freewill, however, gives humans power over their own life paths and choices, with no outside “pull” towards any expectation of the gods.  Alternatively, is Destiny nothing more than supernatural slavery and oppression of human nature?  Or with no purpose, is Freewill sure to break down into anarchy, with chaos and confusion reigning over the human race?  Given the choice, which would you defend?  Eh?  EH?

How does your work differ from others of the genre?

I often find myself drawn to giant ideas and concepts.  I like to explore the massive what-ifs of the world, and create characters really to carry out possible scenarios in entertaining ways, somewhat how Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series was really just a vessel for his constructed languages.  In a recent story I wrote, I took the concept of dissatisfaction with one’s workplace, and created a character to embody that.  So many people sit in a 9 to 5 torture every day, and so many believe that they have no way out.  I wanted to make a story for those people, so I created a girl who I hoped would relate to those in a depressing work environment on an extraordinary level.  One of my short stories that is currently in progress encompasses the idea of childlike imagination, and the other story explores the idea of subconscious mental processing of stress.  Having said that, I’m not typically one for metaphors and indulgent abstractions.  I like writing in a more grounded fashion — clear, easy to follow stories that are still interesting and very human.  None of this, “and then the butterflies in the woods danced a tango, much like the back and forth wrestling of her own thoughts.”  Blech.

In the fantasy genre specifically, I find I tend to focus more on relationships between characters than I have normally seen in popular novels.  While the relationships are there, the emphasis is generally more on the oddity or mysticism of the constructed world, the purpose of the main character, and whether or not he succeeds in doing the thing he needs to do.  While those are all vital elements, I often find myself wondering what the characters really think about each other.  If two characters have been perfectly cordial throughout an entire book, regardless of hardships and obstacles, I think, “but does she hate the way he chews?”  Barring the common and expected dissension between protagonist and antagonist, I often find relationships between characters to be lukewarm at best, which seems to suck the human experience out of things for the reader, whilst the author just points to the distance and shouts, “but look!  There’s a DRAGON!  Because it’s a fantasy book!  See?!”  If I’m not led to be concerned about how the characters consider each other, in addition to the ultimate outcome of the plot, it feels a lot like drinking flat Sprite.  Interpersonal carbonation, I say!  That’s always something that has been an important focus for me.

Why do you write what you do?

Because I’m not very good at writing other things, I suppose.  I believe that writers write in their particular genres and styles because those are the ones that best fit their individual writing voice.  I write things that seem natural for me to say, and since I’m an imaginative and emotional person, I tend to come up with fantastical things, and try to create characters that are very “real.”  Not in the sense that they’re always honest and genuine, but in that the character could remind you of “that guy” that you work with, or “that kid” that kicked the back of your seat for 6 hours while flying over the Atlantic.  But if I tried to write a story about technological advancement, or a courtroom suspense novel, it would be absolutely wretched.

I also just happen to have a lot of thoughts, and an overwhelming desire for other people to hear them.  So I suppose I also write what I do because I believe in those thoughts, and it’s likely that I may violently combust if I don’t.

How does your writing process work?

Wait until one week before deadline, then panic.

No, not really (but kind of).  I have an Idea Journal that I keep with me at all times, and I record concepts and story ideas whenever they pop into my head.  It’s been a really great method for me because I only write down the ideas if I’m terribly, irrationally excited about them.  Then when I need new material, I open my journal and can choose from several story ideas that I was already thrilled about.  I rarely find myself at a loss for story ideas thanks to this method.

After choosing a story idea, I take a notepad and do a lot of brainstorming/scribbling.  For larger story ideas, I might continue to scribble pathways and options for the story for several days, until I have a stock of possible outcomes, characters, ways the characters could affect the story, plot twists, scenes, etc.  It often looks a lot like this:

image (1) scribble

Believe it or not, the information is highly organized in my head.  I have tried so many different kinds of outlines, grids, checklists, forms, etc. for molding a story into something coherent, but they just confuse me and I get very frustrated with more formulaic methods of story planning.  There is something important about letting my mind wander wherever it would like to for a while, where there are no boxes to fill in and no threat that I will run out of space.  That’s very distressing, the fear of running out of space.  From this seemingly aimless method, I can construct a general outline and main points that I want to make sure are included in the story.  And then I begin to write.

I am a pantser, through and through.  My characters create themselves within the story as I’m writing, and I go back and revise if need be, and the same goes for action and events within the story — I need to be sitting at my computer, fingers drumming (but not pressing) on the keyboard, my head tilted upward and slightly to the right.  Only then will I devise what happens next, to whom it happens, and what that character’s reaction will be.  I do have a giant 4′ x 8′ whiteboard in my living room which I use when I get stuck, as a more expanded version of the above brainstorming method.  So I continue writing, and pansting, and drumming, and gazing, and scribbling until there’s a story.

Oh, and there’s usually lots of coffee involved.

Blog Tour’s Next Victim: Paul Elwork

Besides writing fiction, Paul Elwork edits archaeology/historic architecture research reports and teaches creative writing in the Arcadia University MFA program. He’s also a dad and a fair hand at scrambling eggs. His fiction has appeared in various literary journals, including SmokeLong Quarterly, Philadelphia Stories, Short Story America, Word Riot, and Johnny America. His novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead was released in hardcover by Amy Einhorn Books in March 2011 and in paperback by Berkley Books in 2012. He lives in New Jersey, not far from his hometown of Philadelphia.

As he is one of my graduate school professors, I’m very excited to see Paul’s addition to the blog tour, which will be posted on July 14th.

Check out his blog here:  http://paulelwork.typepad.com/blog/#tp

 

 

The Emerald Isle: Part 5

My vacation was coming to a close, and I had some hefty decisions to make as I pointed Seamus to the East in preparation for the drive back to Dublin.  Should I swing south and visit Cork?  Do I try to make it all the way to Waterford in one day?  Or do I go inland to see Kilkenny Castle?  There were several other options at my disposal; hundreds, actually, because Ireland is absolutely teeming with things to see and experience.  It was at this moment in my trip that I realized how much I still had yet to see in Ireland, and that I would most certainly need a return trip in the future.  Considering the Waterford Crystal factory no longer functions in Ireland, it seemed silly to make the longer drive to Waterford just to shop and read a few placards about the crystal making process I wouldn’t get to see.  As for Cork, I was advised not to go unless I had a lot of time to spend there, and I only had an afternoon.  Also, I was a little wary of running into my ex-boyfriend’s family, considering they are from, and still currently reside in Cork…haha…  Kilkenny it was!

I would have moved to Kilkenny in a heartbeat.  It is an adorable gem of a city that has just a touch of modern flair, and boasts history, culture, comedy, art, and great food.  I was deeply torn that I couldn’t spend more time there to see all the other attractions that were nearby, but ended up taking a lovely stroll to Kilkenny Castle and touring it in its entirety.  I’ve seen a few luxurious castles in my time, one of which was the Palace of Versailles, which is grand and ornate — bordering on ridiculous, really.  But Kilkenny Castle has a lovely, more down-to-earth vibe, nearly devoid of extreme narcissism.  I would dare even to call it “homey.”  It is grand, absolutely, and of course dripping in finery, but still holds onto the traditional Irish charm, and makes you feel as though the nobles would still have invited you to place your peasant ass on their gilded couch and share in a shot of whiskey.  Its architecture is more modest than some, given that its original purpose was to serve as more of a control fortress than a fancy noble dwelling.  There is a section of the castle in which the floor is see-through, through which you can view the original stonework for the moat, which ups the level of badassery considerably.  If you ever have the opportunity to tour Kilkenny Castle, I will warn you not to stare through the floor for too long, particularly when about to exit into the next section of the tour.  Directly at the end of the see-through-floor hallway, there is a menacing 7-foot tall suit of armor that seems to be strategically placed to scare the pants off of unsuspecting visitors who are too involved in what’s below them (I was one of them).  Aside from the real live history beneath your feet, Kilkenny Castle also boasts an impressive exhibit of one of the sections of Morpeth’s Roll, essentially a GIANT “farewell” letter to Lord Viscount Morpeth (a.k.a. George Howard) in 1841 after he left his position of Chief Secretary of Ireland.  Somewhere around 300,000 people hand signed the document, which has been digitized thanks to modern technology.  The history and circumstances surrounding this event are fascinating all in themselves, but particularly so if you believe you may have familial roots in Ireland.  After roaming the great halls and cozy rooms of Kilkenny Castle, I strolled through the masterful rose garden.  The drizzly, grey-clouded day seemed only to serve as a perfectly neutral background to some of the most amazing roses I’ve ever seen.

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I departed from Kilkenny begrudgingly and headed for my last B&B of the trip, located in Rathcoole.  In the morning, I would depart begrudgingly from Ireland, land of good beer, good people, and gorgeous landscapes, and hop back across the Pond to Florida, land of rednecks who swear they’re not Southerners, suffocating humidity, and dirty diapers on beaches plagued with sand gnats.  Rather than mope for the last day of my trip, however, I decided to simply breathe as deeply as possible and really enjoy my last 18 hours in such a lovely country.  Having arrived in Rathcoole and checked into my B&B, I asked my hostess if she had a recommendation for where I could have dinner.  She informed me that aside from fast food, there was really only one pub within reasonable driving distance, and that it was quite good.  She said it was called Anposhunil.  What?  I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.  What’s it called?  Aumprashientail.  Aoanprasteentel.  Einpreshinshtil.  I asked her to say it probably twelve times, and each time it was as though she either said it faster or changed the pronunciation for her own amusement.  I am a linguist.  I have a 4-year degree in linguistics, with a focus in phonetics, and I had no idea what this woman was saying.  She finally wrote it down for me, and I said, “oh! Of course!  How silly of me,” although I still had no idea how to pronounce An Poitin Stil (and frankly, still don’t).

Regardless of my feeble American pronunciation of such robust Gaelic words, I found Aiprawshenteel with no trouble, and was engaged by a waiter who was terribly friendly.  *ahem*  Extraordinarily friendly.  It was truly some of the smoothest flirting I’ve ever experienced, and I thought to myself, “ah, this must be that ‘Irish charm’ everyone warned me about.”  His brazen overconfidence aside, he was very nice and quite pleasant to talk to, and happened to introduce me to what is still the best whiskey I’ve had to date.  Friends, if you are whiskey lovers, I beg of you to try Midleton Very Rare.  You won’t regret it.  A big thanks to the amiable bloke in the pub who allowed me to taste it, although I suspect he’s still disappointed that I didn’t join him for a nightcap.

The next morning I arrived at the airport and bid adieu to Seamus, my trusty steed.  Having slogged through two security checkpoints and customs, I settled aboard my flight to watch the patches of hunter green, fern green, and shamrock green fade away through the mist.  It was an exquisite trip, more than I could have hoped for, and I will absolutely return to Ireland one day.  But until the day that I can again experience the overt friendliness, the rugged green hills, the sheep, the thin places, the meat pies, the hurling, and the whiskey, I will simply encourage whoever reads this to go in my stead, where I’m sure you will receive céad míle fáilte.

 

 

The Emerald Isle: Part 4

Perhaps a tiny bit hungover and loath to leave my gaggle of new puppy friends, leaving Killarney was challenging.  After a few fits and starts getting out of bed and putting my feet firmly on the floor, I persevered and managed to get on the road after a most-reviving breakfast provided by the Muckross B&B.  Headed for the westernmost point of all Europe, I came across a fellow driver who taught me a valuable lesson in humility.

I stopped for gas before I reached Dingle, and was engaged in garbled conversation by the station attendant, who was, as many people seem to be, enthusiastically supportive of a young woman traveling the world, and also of my choice of road snacks.  From what I gathered, my Irish country friend enjoys Jaffa Cakes as much as I do, and has a cousin that I look similar to.  Or perhaps it was that there was “a mutton that I should look into”…I’m uncertain.

The town of Dingle not only has a name that makes me chuckle, but is as charming a tourist town as you’ll ever find.  While there’s a definite element of “shabbiness” to Dingle, it is absolutely homey and its inhabitants are impressively patient with the constant stream of tourist folly. Having no idea what I was doing (as usual), I drove in erratic zig-zags around Dingle until I saw a sign reading “Slea Head Drive.”  I reasoned that no matter which route I chose I would find something beautiful, so I followed its direction and ended up in precisely the place I was looking for, easily one of the most invigorating places on earth.

sleaheaddrive

slea

The one thing I was not expecting about Slea Head Drive was the steep drop-offs that would plunge any overly confident driver directly into the Atlantic Ocean.  Guard rails?  Nah, no need for those here.  Apparently the Irish believe that the best way to keep drivers from careening off the road and piercing themselves on a jagged shoal is to foster pure, uninhibited terror.  Don’t want to die?  Don’t go over the edge.  Having experienced and analyzed this concept first-hand, I can attest to its effectiveness.  Really, that mindset seems far more rational than to try and protect the world’s population of imbeciles from their own ignorance, but I digress.

I eventually got the hang of driving a foot away from a cliff edge and started to feel more like a Bond Girl in a daring Maserati car chase than a freaked out tourist in a Fiat.  But then…then came the sheep.  A gentleman came along with his flock of adorable little spray-painted sheep and was herding them with his car, which I thought was both lazy and brilliant.  However, this farmer was herding his sheep in the opposite direction of traffic, which I had assumed only flowed in one direction up until this point.  I was fortunate enough to have a small gravel median to my left, but I can’t imagine what I would have done if I hadn’t.  I edged Seamus over to about 4 inches from the side of the cliff, and prayed that it would give the flock and the herdsman’s car enough clearance.  It did, and the farmer gave me a nonchalant wave of thanks, while the sheep glanced at me with something akin to suffocating British politeness and normal sheep panic.  As they slid past Seamus, I held my breath, certain that any exhalation would cause the precipice on which my car was parked to crumble and I would become a glorious sacrifice to Poseidon.  But I survived my encounter with the fleecy road plow and continued onward, finding a few places along the road later on that did have a guard rail of sorts.

slearoad

To say I enjoyed my time on Dingle Peninsula would be inaccurate.  Slea Head has a certain kind of flavor to it, one that is both Irish and distinct in its own right.  It’s as though the land is really just a sleeping dragon which holds countless ancient secrets that it is unwilling to share with the silly, mortal passers-by that traipse over its hills and roads each day.  As a visitor, I was painfully aware that I was precisely that: a visitor.  The land seems to own itself, and isn’t exactly a “destination” or a “place” so much as it is a perception-altering experience — one which I would recommend a thousand times over.

I left Dingle Peninsula and was so lost in my thoughts  and memories of it that I suddenly found myself very near Cork, and didn’t really remember much of the drive.  I arrived to my next scheduled B&B and opened my car door to be greeted by yet another new bestest friend, Lily.

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I had already been aware of Lily from the many mentions of her sweetness in the online reviews of the Bridgeview Farmhouse B&B.  As I stepped out of my car, I exclaimed, “Oh, you must be Lily!”  A surprised voice behind me said, “you know my dog?”  And that is how I met the incredible Marion of Kilbrittain.

Marion is one of the kindest and most exuberant people I have met in my time traveling the world.  She exudes a traditional Irish charm, infused with a natural curiosity and love for people.  After settling in my room, Marion, a wonderful couple from Seattle (I think), and I sat in the parlor and shared tea and stories before parting ways for dinner.  Marion recommended two excellent restaurants and I foolishly ignored her advice for the sake of not having to drive for too long again.  I drove into the tiny village of Ballinspittle and opted for a simple pub-style dinner.  If you’ve ever been to Ballinspittle, you know exactly which pub I went to…because I’m pretty sure it’s the only one.

While eating, I was approached by a man named Gerard, who seemed to have some sort of cognitive disability, and he asked if I was happy.  I informed him that yes, I was very happy.  He nodded and left.  1.5 minutes later, he came around again to ensure that I was still happy, and informed me that he too was quite happy.  I ended up speaking to Gerard at length and we had a splendid conversation about America, traveling, how Gerard was born and raised in Ballinspittle, how Willie Nelson is from Texas, and how Texas is larger than the whole of Ireland.  Gerard was excellent company, but just as I was about to pay my bill, a family member of his showed up in the bar with a baby.  The baby turned out to be his niece, and Gerard insisted that I hold her.

Anyone who knows me at all likely knows that children are not my forte.  I have been chastised in the past for referring to babies as an “it,” so I would like to point out to a certain person (you know who you are) that here I was careful to include the appropriate gendered pronoun for the child.  In general, I don’t mind or dislike children, I just don’t know what to do with them.  I am neither skilled nor comfortable in dealing with a human that can neither communicate effectively nor walk a straight line without falling on his/her ass and crying about it.  To be clear, I am not discriminatory: I do not tolerate such behavior in adults either.  But honestly, if your child hands me a toy telephone, my first instinct is not to pick it up and say, “hello?”  My first instinct is to dump a truckload of complex information about telephones on the child and run away.  “Yeah, that’s a phone.  You see, there are buttons here, and each telephone has a series of numbers, seven digits long, that directs a call to that particular unit.  But those numbers are divided by geographic region, as well as country, which in all will add another four digits to the routing sequence.  K, bye!”

 It was clear that Gerard was simply very proud of his niece and wanted to share his joy with me.  That, combined with my confusion and reluctance, led to a small standoff in the pub. Gerard held his niece out to me to receive, and like the terrible person I am, I just sort of let her float there for a second before crushing guilt and social obligation broke me and I took her from him.  So I’m in a foreign country, in a bar, holding someone’s child that I don’t know, who was given to me by her mentally handicapped uncle, and she’s staring at me, and I’m staring at her, and everyone involved is weirded out except for Gerard, who’s thrilled.  The child’s mother had left her with Gerard and was no where to be seen, and I started to worry that she might think I was trying to steal her or something.  In America, you can’t even tell someone else’s kid to stop climbing on a grocery store display without getting rounded on by the mother, and I’m unfamiliar with the proper protocol for passing a baby around a room.  I understand that it’s a somewhat common practice, but…in a bar?  With strangers?  Does everyone get a turn?  Is there a special order for passing her?  Who’s supposed to get her next?   How long do I have to hold her before someone really believes “my arms are just tired?”

To add to the situation, the child in my arms just…stared.  She didn’t do any of the things normal babies do.  No flailing arms, no grabbing for my jewelry, no looking around the room, no babbling.  She and I were supernaturally connected through intense, unwavering, awkward-as-hell eye contact, and neither of us was going to break first.  She then started to lean forward, slowly, and got closer and closer to my face, as I withdrew at an equal rate.  Creepy Baby only broke eye contact when her mother appeared at my side and said cheerfully, “Hello!  Oh, be careful, she’ll bite you.”

What?!  Does she even have teeth?  I would almost rather be bitten than gummed, but that’s beside the point.  I forced a (hopefully) believable chuckle at the apparent flesh-eating hobby of the baby that was clearly making its move.  Oh, how silly the wee ones can be!  Haha...here’s your kid.

While I’m no good with children, I can say confidently that I’m a great actress.  I gracefully rid myself of the Zombie Baby, paid my bill, and said farewell to my friend Gerard, who insisted on giving me a bear hug.  With a sparkling American smile on my face, I thanked Gerard’s sister (I assume) for letting me hold her adorable offspring, picked up my bag and ran the hell away.

Back at Bridgeview B&B, the weirdness of the evening’s events melted away.  Marion served up glasses of some kind of fabulous liquor, and I stayed up with Marion and the other guests until well past 1:00am chatting, laughing hysterically, and sharing our best travel stories.  That evening was one of the most affecting moments I’ve experienced in all my travels.  It was a few perfect hours of genuine camaraderie, respect of differences, and intelligent, fascinating conversation between strangers.  If it somehow comes to pass that anyone who was in that parlor reads this, you should know it was a pleasure to meet you.

Stay tuned for the last installment of this series, in which I tour a castle and am introduced to how whiskey is supposed to taste.