On Give-aways, Festivals, Jedi-Mom-Tricks, Princesses, and More!

School has begun, with its requisite unloading of parental responsibilities, and driving time, and soul-crushing scheduling, and guilt, and guilt, and more guilt. It’s worse than a church-basement potluck for ex-Catholic-School-Girls. Or Catholic ex-School-Girls. Or whatever. The point is, that, despite my culture’s supposed market-cornering in the guilt department, no one does guilt like grade school teachers. No one.

So, I’m currently signed up for All The Things. Because I powerless against the insistence of shame.

And it’s funny, for all my whining about my limited work time during the summer, I did get a number of things done. I revised a novel, and have nearly finished another. (Assuming I do not erase it.) (This is a big assumption.) I also wrote two short stories – one of which I feel is pretty good. I’m withholding judgement on the other.

And now that the kids are gone for a good chunk of the day, I realize that all the craziness of a typical summer day, with its debris and discussion, its arguments and its awesomeness, is now concentrated in the two hours between getting the kids up and out the door, and the four hours between getting the kids home and homeworked and fed and exercised and read to and loved up and snuggled and put to bed. And of course, that’s not even counting the carpool. Carpooling is a nightmare, folks. An absolute nightmare. I love it, of course, and I desperately love the four extra kids who cram into the minivan with my kids once a day. But hoo boy. It’s a lot of boys in my car. And they are loud. And often stinky. And no amount of yoga can unhook the knots in my neck, because believe you me, I have tried.

In the meantime, I’ve discovered the secret of successful carpooling: Star Wars. Our ancient minivan has a rickety VHS player lodged between the driver’s and passenger seats, and a screen the size of a postage stamp. You’d think that – what with kids today being black-holes with legs in the technology department – that these children would be universally unimpressed with the grainy smudges pretending to be Star Wars, but you would be wrong. After gritting my teeth through a few days of screeching and horseplay and fart jokes and penis jokes and more fart jokes and then some yelling. And then actual farting. So, finally, I’d had it.

I never thought I’d be the mom who puts on a movie in the car. Especially if I’m just driving the twelve minutes between school and home. But oh! The children are silent. And oh! They are rapt! Now, granted, it means that I am forced to suffer through the uniformly wooden dialogue of Episode One and the Crime Against Humanity that is the insufferably Jar Jar Binks, but I do not care. I have told the children that they have to be silent for a full minute before I turn it on, and then they are silent the rest of the way. It’s like I have put them under some kind of Jedi-huju spell. I’m a Jedi-Mom. And it’s awesome.

So. The whole back-to-school transition has some getting used to. And soon I hope to make better use of my time at home. Because I have books to finish. And new books to write. And that’s kind of exciting.

Speaking of books, I have a new one coming out. Really soon! And I’m starting to panic. In the meantime, I organized a give-away on Goodreads a while back, and I get to announce the winners! Jillian Unger, from California and Jenna Pizzi from Massachusetts (is it just me, or does that State’s name always look like it’s spelled wrong). Weird state names aside, CONGRATULATIONS, LADIES! And I hope you enjoy the book. And, even more, I hope the kid you hand it off to when you’re done enjoys the book. No matter what your opinion, I really hope that you drop me a line on the contact button and tell me what you think. Hate it? Love it? Upsettingly ambivalent? Whatever.

And speaking of the new book, I will be reading both from THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK and IRON HEARTED VIOLET this coming Saturday in beautiful Red WIng, Minnesota. It’s called the Celebration of Minnesota’s Children’s Authors and Illustrators and it’s here at the Anderson Center. Isn’t it pretty?

And here:

Lovely, yes?

Anyway, I’ll be there with all kinds of awesomy-awesome-types like Cathy Clark and Sheila O’Connor and William Alexander and Stephen Shaskan and a bunch of other amazing people. So you should come.

And lastly: PRINCESSES! I want you to watch this space, because over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be talking princesses in Barnhill-land. As many of you know, my new book, IRON HEARTED VIOLET features a rather unconventional princess. She’s plain, crafty, flawed, reckless and brave. One of the hardest things about finishing the arduous process of writing a book is that you have to give your characters up to the world. I miss Violet. I miss her desperately. So, in her absence in my life, I am going to dedicate some blog space to …… wait for it…………..

Butt-Kicking Princesses in History!

Tomorrow’s princess: The She-Wolf of France, the lovely Isabella. And she rules. So stay tuned.

So here’s my question for y’all: What’s new? What are your projects? And how are you surviving the Crazy ™ of Back To School Madness?

The Tale of the Young Man With a Golden Screw In His Belly Button (spoiler alert: his butt falls off)

Surely you’ve heard this one. It was a favorite of ours growing up. Here’s the short version:

A couple has a baby with a strange birth defect – a golden screw stuck in his belly button. Doctors assure them there’s nothing to be done about it. So the couple takes him home and raises him right and proper. The boy, alas, grows up ashamed of his difference and blames it on the fact that he has no friends, can’t get a date, has a crummy job, etc. (In truth, his problems are not due to the golden screw, but to the fact that he is, in fact, a total asshole. But perhaps I am editorializing.) Anyway, he goes to experts around the world to remove the screw, and gets nowhere. He’s told to just live with it. He sees scientists and surgeons and witch doctors and gurus and philosophers and sorcerers of all kinds and descriptions. Finally, he goes to a holy man who lives in a tower in the desert somewhere, who says, “I’ll tell you how to get rid of this thing, but you won’t like it. Maybe you should just accept yourself as you are.” But the guy insists, so the holy man gives him a set of instructions to follow during the next full moon. He follows the instructions to the letter, then lays down on a lawn chair under the moon – naked, of course – and waits for something to happen. Finally, a golden dot on the moon gets bigger and bigger and bigger – and closer and closer and closer. After a time, he realizes that a golden screwdriver is flying through the air, directly toward the guy, and he is powerless to escape. The giant golden screwdriver lands delicately on the golden screw, makes a few quick turns, and flies away, bringing the screw with it. The young man lays there for a long time (did I mention he was nude?) and marvels at what he has seen. Finally he yawns, stretches and stands up.

And his butt falls off.

I think my siblings and I have told different versions of this story to each other like nine million times. My dad – a former Boy Scout and camp counselor – had dozens of stories like this that he poisoned our young brains with during our impressionable childhoods, but this one was by far the most popular.

Because his butt falls off. C’mon, it’s funny!

Anyway, the other day, I went for a hike with three of my four siblings, my mom and dad, various sibling-in-laws and children, up to the top of Eagle Mountain, the highest peak in Minnesota. (Sidebar: at a whopping 2,301 feet, can Eagle Mountain really be called a mountain? Isn’t it more of a gentle hump? Does anyone know the rules of these things?)

I’m side-tracking.

It was a beautiful hike, the kids were mad gnarly and made it up and down without complaining, mostly, and a lovely time was had by all. As we went down, the group started to separate – my brother and his new bride out-pacing the lot of us, my eldest daughter and my husband striding behind, and I ended up with two seven year old boys – my son and his cousin, Charlie – and my ten year old daughter. Their pace started to lag, so they asked for stories.

I told them a scary one – about four kids and a haunted cabin (that was secretly a trap) and a pack of wolves that seemed sinister, but were actually only trying to help them (they were too late) and a very crabby and very old dragon who couldn’t decide if he should help the children or gobble them up (“I’ll decide after you unchain me,” the dragon said. Anyway, the story was so scary (the cabin was more like a spiderweb – it was designed to entice and entrap and entangle) that I kinda scared myself, so I asked the kids to tell the next story.

Charlie led the way.

“Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a boy with a golden screw in his belly button.”

Oh! thought I. That story! Three generations telling that same dumb tale. A marvel!

“You’re telling it wrong,” Leo said.

“No, I’m not,” Charlie said.

“Yes you are. It goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a married couple who desperately wanted a child.”

“It’s the same story!” Charlie protested.

“It’s better with desperately,” Leo said.

“Fine,” Charlie said. “Once upon a time, there was a couple that wanted a baby.”

Desperately, Leo said.

“People don’t have to desperately want things,” Charlie said.

“They do in stories,” Leo said. “That’s why they’re stories. Once upon a time there was a couple who desperately wanted a child. You see? It’s better.”

“FINE.”

“FINE.”

A clapped hand on a forehead.

A great, heaved sigh.

“Once upon a time,” Charlie said slowly. “There was a couple.”

“Yes?”

“Who….”

“Yes?”

“Wanted……”

“Desperately?”

“Who desperately wanted a child.” Charlie closed his eyes and clutched his hands to his heart. He not only said desperately he was desperately. He embodied the mother and father of the ill-fated boy desperately and desperately and desperately wanting him.

Because that is how stories work.

We make an agreement with the listener and an agreement with the story itself. The story is a living, self-replicating thing. It is ever so much like a virus: it inserts itself into our brains and our hearts and our cells and uses us to reproduce it, again and again and again. Even the dumb ones. Like the one about the golden screw in a guy’s belly button and his butt falling off.

“Say it again!” Leo crowed.

“They desperately wanted a child!” Charlie called out to the rocks and the trees and the darkening sky. He threw his arms as wide as the world and leaped onto a fallen log.

“I love this story,” Leo said.

“Me too,” said Charlie.

Cordelia, standing next to me, rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“Am I the only one,” she asked, “in this entire family who isn’t completely weird?”

“Pretty much, babe,” I said. “Pretty much.”

Sometimes, we realize that every teenager-type movie from the Eighties is totally spot-on

Full disclosure: This story contains me ruining things for other people. Because I am a kill-joy. Also, a ruiner.

Second full disclosure: There are some f-words in this piece. Three of them. FYI.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been taking my kids to the west-side beach at Lake Nokomis for swimming lessons. (Side-note: the swimming program at the Minneapolis lakes through the Park system is a fantastic idea: it’s every day; it’s cheap; it’s crazy fun; and the kids stick around for an hour or two afterwards, practicing everything that they learned in lessons, thereby increasing their skills and strength in the water. Side benefit: my wild-child son, at seven, has started napping again. A miracle!)

My kids have done swimming lessons at the Southwest High School pool through community ed for the last few years, which is all fine and good, but there is something completely awesome about the sand and the mobs of kids and the fish swimming by and the regular appearances of visiting waterfowl, that is just spectacularly summery and wildly fun. A magnificent time has been had by all.

Each day, we arrive about an hour early, swim and play, then they are packed off to their teachers for an hour, and then remain in the water for another hour or two. Or, to clarify, they are in the water for an hour or two. I am sitting under an umbrella, chatting with my brother-in-law and some of the other parents, and watching the beach. Specifically, tuning my ears to the kids on the beach – teenager-type kids, specifically – and trying to hook the cadence of their voices into my brain.

The other day, I had this experience, watching these kids, that was so ludicrously cliche, I don’t think I would have believed it if I read it in a book. I would have assumed that the writer had lifted it out of some gloriously cheesy John-Hughes-knockoff movie (of which there are…..many.) But I swear it’s the truth.

Here’s what happened:

On my way down to the edge of the water, where I was staking my claim on the beach territory, I passed a ridiculously pretty girl who was propped up on her elbows on her beach blanket and holding a phone. She was a young thing – fifteen at the very oldest – with long hair and overly large pink sunglasses, like the sort that Jackie Kennedy would have worn, had she ever gone to the municipal beaches in South Minneapolis.

Just as I was sitting down, I heard a voice calling from the other side of the beach. “Julie,” the voice called, a tiny creak in the edge of the voice, like the squeal of a gear as it sticks in its teeth, and then breaks free. “W. T. F.?” He said this deliberately, a noticeable pause in the gaps between the letters, as if he was thinking each period before going on.

Two boys approached, their bodies recoiling each time their bare feet made contact with the hot sand. They winced and persevered. One had a mop of brown hair that flopped over a moon-round face, still squishy with baby fat. He grinned, open-mouthed, like a muppet, and held his hands open at his side (the universal gesture to show that one means no harm). He moved his hands back and forth – jauntily or jazzily? I couldn’t really tell what he was going for. His feet and head were too large for his body and his hands were too broad for his wrists. He was short and thick, his body the color and texture of bread dough. And he was so happy to see this girl, he could hardly believe his luck. His friend, also in possession of the same wide-open muppet-grin, stood a good foot and a half taller. He was brown and reedy – so thin that when he passed the trunks of trees he seemed to vanish. I could tell, just by the way he walked, that he was either midway, or just finishing, a massive growth spurt. His skin stretched over his joints like tissue paper over barbed wire. He swayed this way and that and tripped over his own feet – not once, but four different times on the short walk from one end of the beach to the other.

The girl looked over, slid her hand under her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes. She sighed audibly, tilted her face to the sky, and then returned to her phone. She gave a brief wave at the boys. She said hey without looking. She turned toward her phone, and started thumbing the buttons and swiping the screen, over and over and over again.

“It’s us!” the short boy said. “Nate and Hugo. From Health class.”

She gave a small nod without looking up.

“Front row,” the tall boy added helpfully.

They made it across and planted themselves – at great personal risk, I might add – on the hot sand next to her beach blanket. They gritted their teeth as the plopped their bottoms onto the searing heat.

(I wanted to tell them that they just had to brush away the top half inch of sand, and it was cool underneath, but that would have outed me as an eavesdropper. And eavesdropping is fun.)

The muppet-grins returned. The girl didn’t notice.

“So?” the short boy said. “Wassup?” he waggled his head when he talked. He was having the best day.

The girl raised one finger and thumbed a few more lines into her phone.

“Isn’t it weird,”  the tall boy said. “That we’d just be here? On this beach? At the same time as you? Don’t you think that’s weird?”

“Yup,” the girl said. She scanned the beach; she scanned the sky; she scanned her fingers and toes. She didn’t look at the boys.

“So,” the short boy said. “Whatcha been doing? All summer? Did you see I put my phone number in your yearbook? Maybe you didn’t see.”

“Nope,” the girl said. “And I’ve been doing pretty much nothing. Texting.” She held up her phone. She didn’t look at the boys.

“Oh,” the short boy grunted. “I know how that goes. Me too.”

The tall boy rounded on his friend. “You don’t have a cell phone.”

“Well….” the short boy said.

“Your mom won’t let you have one.”

“I know, but….” the short boy said.

“So how can you be texting?” the tall boy said. The girl lifted herself a little higher, pulling herself off of her elbows and onto her hands. She looked at the boys and grinned. She really was – honest to god – astonishingly pretty.

“Good question,” she said.

“Well,” the short boy said. “Not texting, like in the flesh. Mostly it’s, you know, the theory of the thing.”

“There’s a theory of texting?” the girl said.

“Well, yeah,” the short boy said, his doughy face starting to grow an adorable shade of pink. “Well no. Well sorta. It’s yes and no. It’s just, you know, texting, vis a vis doing nothing. If I had the capability of texting while I was doing nothing, then I’d be texting as part of my doing nothing. As it stands, I am doing nothing without texting  - sans texting  – if you will, but it’s still doing nothing.” He spoke fast, as if he had to yank all of his words out at once, like a bandaid that was stuck to his arm hair.

(I wanted to get up right then, walk over, and put my arm around his shoulders. I wanted to explain, in the kindest way that I knew how, that boys who said things like vis a vis and sans, typically don’t date in high school. And often not in college either.)

The girl pressed her lips into a thin line.

“I’m not ‘doing nothing’ when I’m texting.”

“Oh!” the short boy said. “I don’t mean -”

“I’m doing the opposite of nothing. I’m talking to people. Other people. Other than you, I mean.”

“It’s just -”

“That’s not nothing. That’s something.”

“Of course,” he said. “You’re right.” And he shot the tall boy a poisonous look.

“I have a cell phone,” the tall boy said.

“I know,” the girl said, returning to her phone. “You’ve texted me. Frequently.”

“I told my mom about that,” the short boy said. “I mean, if you have a phone and you haven’t turned into a drug addicted zombie, then surely I won’t either.”

“That’s what she thinks?” the girl said.

“She’s crazy,” the boy said, moving his open hands back and forth so fast they looked like a blur. “And she’s – fuckin – I mean, I’m like, ‘fuck, mom. I mean fuck.”

This boy - this boy! Clearly is unaccustomed to swearing. He said each f-word as though he was spitting a tack into his hand and hoping it would stick into his skin. Each one was foreign. His friend stared at him, open mouthed.

And then I stepped in.

I stood out of my chair, looked straight at him, and said, “Young man!”

The boy froze. His friend elbowed him in the gut. All three of them stared at me in shock.

Language!” I said. “This beach is crawling with kids. Watch your words.”

(side-note: I do this a lot. I’m the person who tells the guy to watch his mouth on the bus because we’re sitting right there and he’s shouting obscenities into his cellphone, oblivious to the wide eyed children on my lap.)

(second side-note: I have a big, broad, booming voice. I’m pretty sure that people across the lake stopped swearing too.)

The girl turned. “Oooooooooo!” she said. “Look what you did. You made the nice mom mad. Nice work.” She looked thrilled.

The short boy hung his head. His face paled to the color of spoiled milk. “Sorry ma’am,” he mumbled. “I’m really, really sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t,” I said. And I returned to watching my kids follow their swimming instructors around like little baby ducks.

Shortly after, the boys went back to their towels on the other side of the beach. They kept looking back over at the pretty girl, trying to catch her eye, but she kept her gaze on her phone, her thumb continuing to press and press and press.

And then, just before she left, she looked over at me, and smiled. She held up her phone. “It’s not even on,” she said. “It ran out of battery power like an hour ago. Do you think they noticed?”

“No, honey,” I said. “I don’t believe they did.”

She slipped on her flip-flops and trekked up the hot sands, toward home.

Nerd Mom Is Nerdy

I was a total fraud the other day. A baldfaced, unabashed, dirty, rotten liar.

My daughter, DeeDee – my rockin and rollin little intellectual, type-A punkster, really wanted to dye her hair pink for the summer. Since I am equipped to deny this child exactly nothing, I acquiesced. I figured, the poor child spends most of the year in a school uniform, where brazen earring-wearing and glittery nail-painting and eye-shadow sporting are forbidden. In the summer, I thought, let the child go nuts.

So I went to the beauty supply store, looking for the long-term temporary dyes – the ones that slowly come out over twenty washes or so – and we talked about which ones were least likely to cause irritation or harm.

“Is this for you?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “It’s for my nine-almost-ten-year-old. She’s super rad.”

“Oh!” she said, clutching her hands to her heart. “You’re Cool Mom! I love Cool Mom! I want to be Cool Mom someday!”

And I smiled and basked. God help me! I basked! It felt so good!

“Um,” said my son. “No she isn-”

“Shh!” I said.

“What?” the girl asked.

“Nothing!” I said, my voice overly bright and brittle as broken glass. “We’d better be off.”

“But mom-”

“Off we go!”

I slapped my hand over his mouth and continued to bask (just keep saying it! I wanted to shout. Say it and say it a million times and then it will be true!) as we hustled out the door. I needed to keep the kid quiet. Because Leo knew – he knew!

“Hush, boy!” I hissed as we scuttled into the blazing heat of the sun-baked parking lot.

“But mom!” Leo said.

“Can it.”

But he was right. I am not Cool Mom.  I wish I was Cool Mom. But I am not, and I never will be. I am Nerd Mom.

Or maybe I’m Dork Mom. The semantics of Nerd vs. Dork always confuse me, and the fact that I have spent any time at all trying to parse out the nuances of meaning between nerd and dork confine me forever to both.

Anyway.

Today, while Ella was volunteering at the local library and DeeDee (pink hair and all) was at two different camps, and Leo, after doing his little golf camp at the municipal golf course, was on his own for the rest of the day. So he and I went to Fort Snelling, and did what all history nerds do when visiting historical sites:

Folks, it was some hard core nerding.

My seven year old son had several in-depth chats with historically cosplayed volunteers in the wheelwright shop and the blacksmith shop and doctor’s office and the kitchens.

“Hmm,” he said, eyeing a nail that was out on a display at the blacksmith’s shop, “I thought the nails were supposed to be square in those days. Why is this one round?”

“Oh,” the smithy said, somewhat embarrassed.

“Your display isn’t right,” Leo chided.

“That’s not supposed to be there.” He pocketed the nail and grinned at the other adults in the room. “Cute kid,” he said.

“I’m not cute,” Leo said. “I’m right.”

Later at the bake shop, Leo and I had Serious Questions about yeast. “People think yeast is bugs,” Leo told the lady, “but it is not bugs.” 

We went into the soldier’s barracks and an actor was showing another child the mechanisms comprising his firearm. Leo put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t touch the hammer. It’s made of flint and it will cut your finger right to the bone.”

The actor was taken aback. “How did you know that, son?”

“Ummm,” I said, not wanting to get into the story of how Leo, at four, had snatched one of those guns (which are heavy, by the way) and ran outside with it, laughing all the while. A guy dressed as the general chewed him out and explained in graphic detail the many things that could injure him forever and ever. I don’t know if it was the graphic nature of the descriptions or the fact that he was in a general’s outfit that did the trick, but the lecture made an impression on Leo.

I looked at the ground and not at the pretend soldier’s eye. “I think we read it in a book somewhere.”

We then went to the general store and Leo explained to an old man all about the manufacture of tobacco.

It was in this moment that I realized that I have permanently ruined my children. My weird obsessions with odd details and obscure facts, my insistence on looking up every dang thing that ever crosses my mind? These things are part of my kids’ psyches. They remember the weird things I’ve told them about ship building and agriculture and government. They remember odd facts about astronomy and transpiration and the role of blue-green algae in the ocean’s ecosystem.

After leaving the Fort, we stopped at the library to return some books and grab some new ones, and also to share a story before we headed across town to pick up DeeDee. Ella was in there somewhere, setting things up, but we hadn’t seen her yet. Leo and I sat down on the floor, with a gorgeously illustrated copy of Melville’s Moby Dick spread out in front of us, as well as one of my favorite books of all time - The Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. We also found a book on the history of ship building. Leo was terribly interested in the boats that had been retrofitted to be able to navigate through ice. He leaned into the pages.

“So,” he said. “It’s oak planks, then tar, then iron. But doesn’t the water get through the iron?” We looked at the descriptions of seam sealing and we imagined the terrible fear that sailors must have had on those whaling ships, surrounded by an enraged, icy ocean with no help possible. We imagined being unleashed into the world on a desperate, futile, and morally questionable task.

Then we heard a gasp.

“MOM?” Ella said, her face positively green.

“Hi, honey!” I said, waving.

She stalked over. “Don’t hi me,” she hissed. “There are people that I know here.”

“Well-” I said.

“And here you are.”

“I-”

Nerding in public! UGH!”

And she stalked away.

Leo looked at me and patted my back. “Secretly,” he said. “She likes her nerd mom.” He grinned. “And so do I.”

I am large, I contain multitudes.

My daughter, at 2:45 today will become Walt Whitman. She has the hat. She has the rakish stance. She’s got the magnetic stare. Indeed, she’s had them all her whole life. I think, in the end, I can blame myself – I was reading “Leaves of Grass” obsessively when I was pregnant with her. Over and over again I laid down on the grass. Over and over I was the grass. And now she is Walt Whitman. So it goes.

In any case, at 2:45, she and the rest of her fourth grade class will don their outfits and become the Famous Americans that they have spent the last month researching, and explain to the hordes of adoring parents that will be crowding into the room why their person was famous and important, and it will be ridiculously cute. Also, there will be cookies.

This morning, as we were getting ready for school and Cordelia was going over her note cards one last time, she decided to quiz her brother. This is a time-honored tradition of big sisters (I confess to doing it myself, way back when) of quizzing their younger siblings on topics that they know absolutely nothing about so that they can feel deeply informed and awesome. Here’s how the conversation went:

CORDELIA: Leo. Quick. Who was Walt Whitman?

LEO: Ummmm. A garbage man.

CORDELIA: No.

LEO: A farmer.

CORDELIA: No.

LEO: A teacher.

CORDELIA: No. Well, yes. But only for a little while. And he hated teaching.

(That was true. Points to Cordelia. This is what he said about his time living in Long Island teaching school: “Never before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man’s nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here. Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and dulness are the reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair.” Ouch. Even I didn’t have such rough talk for the profession that kicked my butt, long ago. Though, in retrospect, I think I may have used the “sink of despair” line once or twice.)

CORDELIA: (after some consideration) Well, he had lots of jobs. But what job made him famous? Like for forever. What did he do?

LEO: He was a baker.

CORDELIA: No.

LEO: Building canoes?

CORDELIA: No.

LEO: Sewing?

CORDELIA: NO! He was a poet.

LEO: What’s a poet?

ME: A poet is someone who writes poems for their job. Just like a novelist is someone who writes novels for their job.

LEO: Is a bookie someone who writes books for their jobs?

ME: No, that’s something else.

LEO: (thinking) Walt Whitman writes poems?

ME: Well, he did. He’s dead now.

LEO: OH! I KNOW THAT GUY!

CORDELIA: You don’t know that guy. None of us do. Because he’s dead.

LEO: No. I know his poem.

CORDELIA: No you don’t.

LEO: Yes I do. O Captain, my Captain.

ME: (jaw drop)

LEO: (thinking) O Captain, my Captain our fearful trip is done! And….(eyes rolling to the ceiling) then something about bells.

CORDELIA: Nice work Leo. I see you’ve been paying attention.

LEO: I know all about poems. I am a poemer.

I’m Not Gonna Be Your FRIEND Anymore.

This morning, the little redhaired boy who rides in our car every morning showed up at my house early. Or I was running late. In any case, I was madly trying to shove some peanut butter sandwiches into the lunch bags, and find Leo’s shoes, and sign Cordelia’s agenda, and locate some non-slush-soaked mittens, and feed the dog (who always responds to any increase of activity in the room by launching into a jag of panicked, high-pitched barking. Really really loud. Yanno. To be helpful) and turn out the lights, and oh! god! the laundry! and then out the door.

To keep Leo and the redhaired boy occupied, I said to them, “Whatever you boys do, DO NOT sit on that couch and plot out your plans for world domination.”

“What are you talking about?” the boys asked.

“World domination. Don’t do it. For reals.”

“What’s world domination?” the redhaired boy asked.

“It’s when you take over the world. Like Dr. Horrible.”

At which point Leo launched into a pitch perfect rendition of “My Freeze Ray” from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which is his favorite song ever.

And so the plotting began, and they were content until we got into the car.

But then the boys had a conversation in the back seat that made me cold. Leo, after experiencing a Dr. Horrible-inspired reprieve from an astonishingly cranky morning, had sunk back into the depths of his crankiness and didn’t feel like talking. The little redhaired boy (god bless that child forever) did his best to draw Leo out.

“Leo, why won’t you talk to me?” the redhaired boy said.

“I don’t want to go to school,” Leo said.

“But we’re not at school. We’re in the car.”

“Nobody’s my friend anymore at school,” Leo said.

“But I’m your friend,” the redhaired boy said.

“Yeah,” Leo said. “But,” and then he named a bunch of kids who I don’t even think he’s all that close with, “all said they wouldn’t be my friend anymore FOR NO REASON. And I was so sad yesterday, and then I got home and I wasn’t sad anymore. And now I’m going back to school and I’m sad again, so can everyone JUST STOP TALKING.” And he hunched up his shoulders so that his coat swallowed his head like a turtle shell.

“That wasn’t very nice, was it,” I said.

“No,” the little redhaired boy said. “It wasn’t.” He turned to Leo. “Leo, you are my only friend who hasn’t told me that you didn’t want to be my friend anymore.”

I stopped the car and turned around.

Really?” I said. “The only one?”

“Well,” the redhaired boy said. “I think so. I think three friends have said that. Or maybe it was more than three. Or maybe it was less than three. But it was definitely all of them.”

I love this kid.

Leo poked his head out of his jacket. “My friend said that last year. And he never turned into my friend again. Not ever.”

“It’s a mean thing to say, isn’t it?” I said. “SUPER MEAN.”

The boys nodded.

“I hate super mean stuff,” the redhaired boy said.

“Doctor Horrible would never be super mean,” Leo assured us. Only to Captain Hammer. Because Captain Hammer’s a -”

“DON’T SAY IT.”

I sighed.

“Look boys,” I said. “I think sometimes kids say mean stuff like that just because they’re in a cranky mood and they aren’t thinking about other people. When people are cranky, they’re usually just thinking about themselves. And sometimes kids say it because they feel bad inside, and they think that if they make someone else feel bad, it will make them feel better about themselves. And sometimes, kids are mean just because they like it. I don’t understand it, I don’t know why anyone would be mean for fun, but I know it’s true. There are people like that. But you two aren’t like that, and neither am I. And that’s a pretty good thing.”

The redhaired boy turned to Leo. “Leo,” he said, “I will never tell you I don’t want to be your friend. Never.”

“Me neither,” Leo said. And then they hugged and I swear to god I had projectile tears, and then Leo was all “I GET TO GET OUT FIRST!”

“NO I DO!” the redhaired boy hollered.

And then they wrestled eachother for a minute before tumbling out of the open door. They picked themselves up, I kissed each of them on the tops of their heads, and they traipsed into school.

But it got me thinking.

About politics.

For those of you who are blissfully unaware of the nasty little hotbed of dysfunction that is the Minnesota Statehouse, well, I envy you. The last year and a half has been a frickin’ nightmare. It’s like Asshole Performance Art. It’s as though each one of those jokers has been vying to win Jerk of the Year, and they ALL WON. From last year’s GOP refusal to do a single thing about the lousy budget deficit until they had sent no less than nine abortion-related (and non-budget-fixing) bills to the governor’s desk that they knew he’d veto, to the insufferable sanctimoniousness of a bunch of known adulterers whining about  defending marriage by writing bigotry into the Constitution instead of fixing their own damn families.

I could go on.

But yesterday, it was like we were all trapped in a scene from “Mean Girls”. This scene to be exact:

Yesterday, the Senate Republicans rejected a perfectly good public servant, Ellen Anderson, FOR NO REASON. They could not point to a single decision that she’s made since becoming the Chair of the Public Utilities Commission. They coud not point to a single item of public policy. They could not point to a single item in her agenda, nor in any of the decisions that she’s authored. Not one.

Instead, Julie Rosen (the good Senator from Fairmount, and a nasty piece of work if there ever was one) pulled something akin to calling your former BFF a bitch on Facebook. She said Anderson “demonized traditional energy sources”, yet could not point to this supposed demonization in her work as Chair.

Essentially, the GOP told Anderson that they weren’t gonna be her friend anymore.

They did it for no real reason. Certainly not for anything that she had done in her job.

They did it to make themselves feel better.

And, in the case of Rosen, she did it because she liked it.

I’m so embarrassed for my State right now, but I’m happy for my governor’s response, and I’m even happier about the response from those two little boys in the car today.

Because it is mean to say that you’re not gonna be someone’s friend anymore.

And it is mean to do it for no reason.

And it is better to decide to be kind, and to decide to be honorable and to decide to be good and decent and stalwart and brave. I know two little boys who have made that decision today. I hope the little children in the Legislature decide the same.

How I Accidentally Let My Son Watch The Most Anti-Feminist Movie EVER

Headline: The Homicidal Feminist Enjoys A Quiet Moment Of Thought, Plotting.

Hey, did you know that all feminists are man-hating, homicidal witches who are ceaselessly plotting to destroy motherhood?

Good ole Hollywood. Keeping us up-to-date. Whatever would we do without them?

Last weekend, my oldest had a basketball practice and my middle child had a sleepover and I promised Leo he could watch a movie. So we go through the Netflix list (by the way: Dear Netflix, GET SOME BETTER KID MOVIES! Honestly.) and he says MARS NEEDS MOMS MARS NEEDS MOMS, and I was like, “Sure kid, knock yourself out. I have to clean the kitchen and mop the floor and vacuum the rug and fold the laundry, but I’ll watch the end of it with you.”

And so it was agreed.

And thus did he and I blithely skip down the Primrose Path of Ignorance into the Slimy Ooze of…..whatever the hell that movie was. And good god. Let me tell you. It was a stinker.

And there was my son, watching a wrinkly old prune of an in-charge lady-alien (because power and authority are, apparently, murder on the skin, and feminism will ultimately make us ugly. Hollywood has spoken. WHY WOULD THEY LIE?) gazing down at an unsuspecting mother, all the while plotting to download her brain into her baby-raising robots, and then incinerate her body into ashes, leaving her broccoli-hating son bereft and alone. Observe:

SPOILER: The pretty one turns good in the end!

There they gaze from their Marsy heights, plotting. Oh, look, they say. A mother who makes her son take out the trash and bosses him around. SHE’S PERFECT.

The kid, seeing his mother taken into a scary spaceship, does what any self-respecting kid does: He hops on and prepares himself for interstellar hijinks and a little alien ass-kicking. Because, of course.

What he discovers when he gets there is that Mars has been TYRANNIZED BY LADIES for some time now, and as a result, it is a cold, heartless, joyless place. There is no color. The babies are raised by robots. And everything is harped on endlessly by the prune-faced bossylady dictator alien.

Because that’s what feminists are, right? Prune-faced bossyladies. Thanks for clarifying, Hollywood.

During the kid’s (I guess his name is Milo, and he was originally going to be voiced by Seth Green, until some studio exec realized that having a grown man play the voice of a nine year old boy is 1. Super Creepy, and 2. the final atom in a supernova that turns the whole thing into a universe-sucking black hole) various adventures adventures in soul-less Mars, evading the aliens that want to kill him -

-oh, because, in addition to hating men and wanting to destroy motherhood, feminists also enjoy killing children. Are you keeping up? Good, because Hollywood is really covering a lot of ground here. -

Milo (god, I hate using that name, because I’ve never met a Milo that I didn’t like, and it pains me that their name is now associated with this god-awful movie) escapes into an endless tunnel that’s actually the trash chute (because sci-fi ALWAYS has kick-ass trash chutes) and discovers where all the Martian men are.

In the trash heap. (Get it? SYMBOLISM! Thanks, Hollywood!)

CHECK OUT THE RASTA DADS!

And it’s all RASTA DADS TO THE RESCUE!

And along the way, Milo discovers that he really loves his mom and stuff, and she wasn’t so bad for making him eat his broccoli and take out the trash, and all the sexless, joyless Martian ladies are all AWWWWWWWW.

And then he discovers that the bossylady has been lying to the populace this whole time, telling them that Martians have always been raised by robots programmed with the downloaded brains of Earthling mothers (Really?) and that long ago Martians had real families too

(and by “real” we mean “nuclear families.” Mom plus dad. None of that new-agey business.)

(Also: GENDER BINARY, PEOPLE. Because Hollywood knows – it KNOWS!)

GENDER BINARY TO THE RESCUE!

And then the Martian ladies are all giving googly eyes to the trash-heap-living Rasta Dads that they’ve imprisoned all these years, and they shun the prune-faced dictator lady calling her “The Evil One” (I swear to god, I am not making this up) and then Milo saves his mom and this other dude who has been living secretly on Mars ever since he was ten and his mom had been taken by the Martians and incinerated right in front of him (My god people! This is a CHILDREN’S MOVIE!) decides he’s in love with one of his Martian lady tormentors, and he decides to stay, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Needless to say, when I went back upstairs after all of my stereotypically mom-ish chores, poor Leo was weeping uncontrollably, then makes a flying leap across the room into my arms and clutches my shoulder and drenches my shirt with his tears, and says, “Mom, I will never let that ugly lady burn you up, never never never never never.”

So, of course, I am the worst mother alive.

Now, most of you have probably already heard about how horrible this movie is and have steered clear, but on the off-chance that any of you, like me, have been living under a damn rock, then for the LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND PURE AND HOLY stay away from this awful, awful movie.

And, while you’re at it, donate some money to NOW or the Girl Scouts or whatever.

Also: GO FEMINISM

(and screw Hollywood)

P.S. Mars Needs Moms originally was a picture book by Berkeley Breathed, and it is fantastic. Totally worth a purchase. And here is his visual indicator of what he thought of the turkey of a movie they made of his completely charming and whimsical book:

My Apparent Hyperbole Addiction

My twelve year old child has had just about enough.

Given that we had about, oh, I don’t know, an inch of snow today, and given that it engendered at TOTAL SNOW APOCALYPSE (cars spinning out in the road, smashed-in fenders and bumpers and front-ends, not to mention the scores of people who were scared to go out because, thanks to the mild winter, Minnesotans have, en masse, simply forgotten how to cope with a couple snow flakes), I figured I should shovel the walk. Because I didn’t want anyone alerting the authorities. And because I didn’t want anyone to break their leg on my front walk. Because we’ve forgotten how to maneuver in sub-freezing weather.

Anyway.

I asked my child to help me.

“My back’s been hurting,” I said. “And you need to get some fresh air.”

I had already started. There wasn’t a lot to do. She wrinkled her nose. “Can’t we wait for Leo? He loves shoveling. Plus he’s free.”

“You,” I pointed out, “are similarly free.”

“Hmph,” she said. And she started looking for her gloves. Slowly.

By the time she came out, I was nearly finished. To her credit, she shoveled, she really did. Approximately four shovelfuls. And then we were done.

“That was hard,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said. “That was a big help. Even if you could only do four shovels, every little bit helps, and I appreciate it.”

Mom,” she said. “I did more than four.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Five. Those five really helped.”

Mom,” she said. “That’s not very nice.”

“You’re right, honey. And I do appreciate it. I did notice, however, that it took a suspiciously long time to find your gloves. One might think that you were dragging your feet.” She squeaked something incoherent. “I mean, I don’t think that. But one might. If one was inclined to think such things.”

Mom!”

“Like a conspiracy theorist, for example. Or a libertarian.”

“Mom,” she said, “I have had it up to here with your hyperbole addiction.”

“My what?” I said, yanking off my boots and putting them in the bin.

“Hyperbole hyperbole all day long. You can’t say anything else. It’s the only language you know.”

“Now that’s not true,” I said. “I also speak Spanish. And Klingon.”

(that last bit isn’t true at all. But it is true that my husband’s best man did our wedding toast in Klingon. Or maybe it was Vulcan. I can never remember.)

MOM!” she roared. “YOU’RE CHANGING THE SUBJECT AGAIN.”

“I have never changed the subject a single time in my entire life,” I said. “I’m like the Trans Siberian Railway – only one track.”

What?”

“The Trans Siberian Railway. I think we should go. As a family. Wouldn’t it be fun?”

She squished up her face. “Raising you is a lot of work,” she said.

“I don’t doubt it,” I said fervently. “Now will you please clean your room? I’m pretty sure I saw some Hittite artifacts under a pile of your old underwear.”

Mom,” she said, her voice a low hiss, “if you speak in hyperbole one more time to me, my face will catch on fire and my brain will turn into a supernova and the world will end in a flash of fire and energy and it will be all your fault.”

She stomped upstairs.

“Have fun excavating civilizations!” I called after her.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!”

********

(Author’s note: some of this story might have been exaggerated. Mea culpa.)